I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day


I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
*When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.

Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season.  Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal.  Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht

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The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War.  When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one.  (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.)
As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas.  As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here:   https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm

Photo of C. A. Longfellow

Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching.  “My life is a mess.  I have suffered greatly.  There is no Peace On Earth!”  Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.

How can this be?

Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space.  They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy  and healing in their midst.  “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good.  “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled.  God is Faithful.  God’s word endures.  God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”

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Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child,  to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound.  Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens. 

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My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.

Unwholesome Talk

My husband and I visited the local Fair in the neighboring county last week.  We love to visit local fairs and festivals (see Pass It On).  We love the pageantry, tradition, history, celebration, food, and general enjoyment.  We also love to see the exhibits– crafts, home arts, commercial exhibits, artwork, produce, and animals.

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Our visit last week began as the fair was “waking up.”  It was after dawn, but still early in the day.  The animals were being fed and/or groomed– some were getting ready to be shown; others were happily munching away as ribbons earned earlier in the week fluttered above their pens.  There were turkeys and rabbits, draft and work horses, ducks, pigs, shaggy highland cattle, newly-shorn sheep, calves, pigeons, roosters, racing horses, jersey cows, goats, geese, and baby chicks.  And there were noises–crowing, lowing, neighing, and squawking, quacking, cooing, oinking and snuffling.  Lastly, the noises of people– classroom groups of children exclaiming over the various animals; their teachers and chaperones reminding them of the rules (“Don’t touch!”, “Stay together”, “Don’t run!”); older couples reminiscing; owners and volunteers and caretakers discussing the tasks of the day.

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As the day wore on, the noises changed.  On the midway, announcements blared.  Game booths and vendors hawked their wares and prizes.  Even the animals were noisier– more restless as the crowds grew larger and the heat of the day became oppressive.  The roosters were drowned out by the cackling of hens.  The quiet “good morning” on the lips of strangers passing by turned into harried questions; “Where did you get that corn dog?”  “How much did you pay for it?”  “Do you know where we can get some ice cream?”  “Don’t they have any restrooms around here?”  “Who’s giving out the canvas bags/yard sticks/free popcorn?”

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This wasn’t universal–the announcer for the harness races was amazing.  Between races, he gave information about the racing program– how to read it, what the various terms meant, and how to use the guides to understand more about the horses, their training, their pedigree, the drivers, their records, and much more.  What a wealth of knowledge, and what a great opportunity to listen and learn!  And near the dairy barn, a young teen dressed in a cow costume (who had to be roasting from the heat) danced around, mooing and ringing a bell calling people to visit the dairy booth, where other teens cheerfully gave away recipe books, magnets, pens, and information.

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What a contrast to some of the comments from fair-goers and workers.  Some were sullen, some were rude, and some irreverent.  Some of the language was not just unwholesome, it was discouraging, disparaging, and mean.  Again, this was not universal; nor was it unique to this venue.  Go almost anywhere in public, and eventually, you will hear crowing, cackling, snuffling, and quacking by bitter, impatient, and self-involved people.

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Unwholesome talk– rude remarks, snide mumbles, bellowing guffaws, complaints, sarcasm–it starts out small, dripping out of our mouths before we even notice.  But each drip flows into a stream, and then a river, until our words pour out in anger and malice and one-up-man-ship.

Ephesians 4:29 New International Version (NIV)

29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Psalm 19:14 New Living Translation (NLT)

14 May the words of my mouth
    and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing to you,
    Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

 

 

Praying for the Enemy

Everybody has enemies.  And when I use the term “enemies”, I’m really referring to two types of people.  There are the people who are your enemies– they hate you.  They are scheming to hurt or destroy you; people who defame or slander you; people who betray you; people who cheat and lie to and steal from and abuse you or those closest to you.  Then there are the people for whom you are an enemy– you don’t like them, you don’t trust them, you don’t respect them; you probably defame or gossip about them, and you hurt them, even if it is unintentional.  Some enemies fall into both categories, but not all.

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I would love to say that I have no enemies–of either type.  But, alas, they exist– both types.   God calls on us to love our enemies, to pray for them, to show them kindness, and to bless them!  In our own power, we can’t do this.  We can make the attempt to forgive the unforgivable, to love the unlovable, and reconcile the impossible, but we fall short in our attempts:  the betrayal is too deep; the hurt is too overwhelming; the damage is irreversible, and the impossible is just…well…impossible.

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Loving our enemies is one of the proofs of God’s existence, his goodness, his power, his own boundless love at work through our imperfect words and efforts.  Praying for our enemies, showing kindness and grace in the face of hatred and betrayal–these are miracles that defy explanation.  That is one good reason to keep praying for the enemies in our lives– God can work through us to effect reconciliation, healing, and peace.

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Another good reason is that prayer changes US.  Praying for our enemies is difficult.  It is humbling.  It breaks our pride and forces us to let go of the bitterness and recognize God’s rightful place as judge, avenger, and healer.  It reminds us that God’s love, being boundless and eternal, stretches to those people who don’t deserve it, whether that is the hurtful person you don’t want to forgive, or the hurtful YOU who needs to be forgiven.

But praying for our enemies isn’t just about bringing peace and harmony or transforming us into better versions of ourselves.  No amount of willpower, or good intention, or logic, or internal fortitude, or peaceful meditation, or persuasive rhetoric, or even powerful prayer are enough to eliminate our enemies or make us perfect in love.

 

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We pray for our enemies, but not all of our enemies.  There are two enemies we need to pray AGAINST– Sin and Satan.  They are the true enemies, trying to destroy both sinner and sinned-against.  They are not just our enemies, but enemies of God.  Both are defeated.  Their power is illusory, and their damage, while intensely painful, is temporary.  And when we refuse to pray for our human “enemies” we serve their destructive purposes.

 

Paltry Prayer

A couple of days ago, I wrote about “Little Prayers.”  I believe God hears our prayers about the so-called “little things.”  But I think there is a type of prayer that is not “little”, but “paltry.”  What’s the difference?  “Paltry” doesn’t just imply little or trivial, it connotes something meager and petty.  And I think we waste a lot of time on it.

Paltry prayer is generic and insubstantial.  It’s like the horrible small talk at a social event one doesn’t want to attend, but feels obligated to show up at, because it’s expected.  When we throw up a prayer, but we really don’t want to get “real” before God, we’re offering crumbs instead of a sacrifice; face-time, instead of intimate conversation.

There are times when we cry out in desperation; we have no words or fleshed-out thoughts, only groans.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the times when we want to reassure ourselves that we’re one of the good guys– that our plans and wishes have God’s stamp of approval–without actually risking God’s authoritative answer.  “God, help me to do your will today,” sounds like a great prayer, but do we really mean what we’re saying?   Or are we really asking God to approve of our own will  and plans as we go through the day?

I’m especially concerned that we are offering paltry prayers in regards to evangelism and revival.  We want it to come– we want God to send a fresh wave of revival to our communities, our country, and our world– but let it begin and end without making us too uncomfortable, too aware of our own need for confession, forgiveness, or change.  We want our neighbor to be saved– without the pain of witnessing and being laughed at or ostracized.  We want to be emboldened to witness, but we don’t want to be humbled into listening.  We want to be blessed; we don’t want to be tested.

 

I get very discouraged sometimes, when I realize that my own prayers have been paltry.  But there is good news– the same loving Father that wants deeper conversation with me is endlessly forgiving, encouraging, and loving.  And I am not alone in offering meager conversation or selfish complaints before His throne.

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Jonah (yes the “Big Fish” guy of the Bible) was a prophet– a very successful one, except for the episode with Nineveh.  Not only did Jonah run as far from Nineveh as a ship could take him; he basically committed suicide to avoid doing God’s bidding.  When his shipmates are in a panic, Jonah demands that they throw him in the sea.  This is not as a result of consulting with God, nor does the Bible suggest that it is at God’s command.  The sailors continue to panic at the thought of throwing Jonah overboard, and are astonished when the storm stops as Jonah sinks toward the ocean floor.  If not for the fish, Jonah would have drowned.  God sent the fish to save Jonah, but there is nothing to suggest that Jonah had any idea of being rescued. However, from the belly of the fish, Jonah lifts up a poetic prayer, in which he sings the praises of the God who spared his life.   He marvels at his rescue and restoration, and vows to go back to Nineveh and fulfill his destiny.  His prayer strikes all the “holy” notes one would wish to see, but I would contend that this is, at its heart, a paltry prayer– sincere in the moment, but not the prayer of a man fully transformed by his near-death experience.

Fast forward to the fourth chapter of the book of Jonah.  Nineveh has heard Jonah’s message about God’s wrath and impending judgment; the people have had a miraculous change of heart, and God has agreed to spare them from destruction (for a time– the Ninevites went back to their old habits and were eventually destroyed).  Imagine if the late Billy Graham had held a rally in Moscow or Tehran or Los Angeles and the ENTIRE CITY had repented?!  This is success beyond imagination.  But we don’t find Jonah grateful and poetic as he was at the end of chapter two– instead, he is hateful and bitter, and praying for death!  God causes a small vine to grow and provide some shade for Jonah as he sits and sulks, but then he sends a worm to chew up the vine so it withers.  Jonah is more heartbroken at the loss of the vine then he was over the possibility of the destruction of an entire city.  Jonah’s story doesn’t end in triumph, but in triviality.

Prayer is a great opportunity to pour out our hearts before God– but it also reveals the content and character of our hearts.  If our prayers are paltry and our hearts shallow, God will often humble us.  But he will also rescue us from our own sinfulness and sulking, and give us all that we need to finish victoriously.  The book of Jonah is a great cautionary tale– let’s learn from it, today.

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What can we do to make our prayers less “paltry” and more proactive?  Check out the suggestions on the attached pages of this blog, or look online for prayer groups and prayer sites that offer constructive ideas.

Pray For Me, Not About Me

Gossip and judgment are nasty habits– what happens when they creep into our prayer life?

I’ve sometimes struggled with the idea of praying for those who have hurt me or mistreated those I love.  We are commanded to do it, but often, I am tempted to pray about my enemies instead of praying for them.  As if God didn’t know what they had done; as if he needed me to alert him to their bad behavior, and remind him of how I was slighted, misunderstood, or powerless to bring justice to my friend or family member who was wronged.  I want to tell God how to treat them– how to punish them, or abase them, or bring them to feel remorse.  I want to hang on to the indignation and sense of victimhood–after all, God is going to make it right in the end, vindicating me and humiliating them, right?  Except that’s not how it works in God’s economy…My vindication does not come at their expense, but through the blood of the truly innocent Lamb of God.  Let that sink in.  God is not in the business of torturing others to make himself feel more righteous.  If I want to follow Christ, my actions, and my prayers, should be full of his Grace, not my bitterness.

I am not alone in this– and I’m sure I have been “prayed about” often enough.  Even saints and matriarchs of old have done it.  And King David was guilty of it as well–several of the Psalms include angry, even vicious rants against David’s enemies.  It’s understandable; it’s only natural for us to feel indignant, angry, and hurt in the face of injustice, unkindness, hatred, and abuse.  And it’s not inappropriate for us to cry out for justice, or pour out our hurt and frustration. But it is wrong to stand in judgment and unforgiveness when we come before the throne of Heaven.

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I believe that these are the difficult prayers that teach us to know God better– as well as ourselves.  To pray for those who have hurt us means that we must move beyond what they have done– not to deny it, or to excuse or forget about it, but to give it over to God –and deal with who they are.  They are lost exactly as we are lost, but for the grace of God.  They are redeemable, not because they can undo or atone for what has happened, but because God says that whosoever trusts in Him can be saved.  They are precious in God’s sight.  When we stop focusing on who hurt us, and how, we can instead focus on who heals us, and how he wants to heal others.

These prayers also serve to remind us that our true “enemies” are not the people who say or do unkind or even wicked things.  Our true enemies are not the ones who can hurt our feelings, or even our minds or bodies.  Our true enemies are the ones who would steal our souls– who tempt us to hold on to rage and despair, to hopelessness and doubt, to bitterness and shame.

It is so easy to write these words, and to “know” the right thing to do.  But it is a painful, heartbreaking, humbling, stumbling uphill climb to DO the right thing.  I still catch myself so often praying about certain people, instead of praying for them.  God knows my heart–he knows if my prayer is sincere.  And, as I struggle, I am reminded that the change I would wish to see in someone else mirrors the change I should wish to see in me  The same Grace that God sends to heal and comfort me is the same Grace he offers to everyone who will take it–even when they choose not to accept it.

So I hope I am learning to pray for those who sneer at me; those who lash out in their own pain, anger, or thoughtlessness.  To pray for their health and safety, their well-being, and their wholeness. For their sake–for the sake of the One who loves them eternally.  And in the hope that healing and restoration will triumph over what lies in the past.

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