O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem


1. O little town of Bethlehem, 
how still we see thee lie; 
above thy deep and dreamless sleep 
the silent stars go by. 
Yet in thy dark streets shineth 
the everlasting light; 
the hopes and fears of all the years 
are met in thee tonight. 

2. For Christ is born of Mary, 
and gathered all above, 
while mortals sleep, the angels keep 
their watch of wondering love. 
O morning stars together, 
proclaim the holy birth, 
and praises sing to God the king, 
and peace to all on earth! 

3. How silently, how silently, 
the wondrous gift is given; 
so God imparts to human hearts 
the blessings of his heaven. 
No ear may hear his coming, 
but in this world of sin, 
where meek souls will receive him, still 
the dear Christ enters in. 

4. O holy Child of Bethlehem, 
descend to us, we pray; 
cast out our sin, and enter in, 
be born in us today. 
We hear the Christmas angels 
the great glad tidings tell; 
o come to us, abide with us, 
our Lord Emmanuel! 

Words by Phillips Brooks




Micah 5:2 English Standard Version (ESV)
2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.

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God’s ways are not our ways.
I grew up in a tiny village in Michigan, and when we used to sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I always imagined a similarly tiny town, draped in silence in the dead of night, sleeping right through the most glorious and stunning event in history.  It wasn’t difficult to imagine the same thing happening in my sleepy village– Christ could have come to any of a dozen sway-backed sheds or garages around town without fanfare as hundreds of strangers crammed into local houses and public buildings, eager to be done with a bizarre census that led them back to where their ancestors once lived.  There is nothing special about my hometown to anyone but those of us who grew up there.

Bethlehem was just such a small town.  Prophecy that a king would arise from such a backwater village was mostly ignored.  Four hundred years had passed since the last mention of Bethlehem by God or any of His prophets.  No one expected a miracle there, just as no one would expect a miracle in our little town today.

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We expect big things to happen in big cities– bustling, surging, modern, energy-filled cities.  This is where grand events are held– political rallies, sold-out concerts, championship sporting events, groundbreaking new developments in business and medicine, coronations and ceremonies.  But God often works in the quiet spaces and unexpected places of our world and in our lives.  He comes softly and silently into the dark corners and forgotten nooks filling them with His glory.

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And He gives us the privilege of sharing in this miracle– wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever our circumstances.  Christ did not spend most of His life on earth in the halls of power or the centers of commerce.  He didn’t “tour” the university circuit giving lectures, or fill great auditoriums while His image was splashed across a Jumbo-tron.  He walked humbly from small village to small town, spreading truth and love and drawing people to Himself, that they might believe and find true life.  He modeled how we can extend His grace– starting with those in our own small towns or neighborhoods–with simple acts and earnest prayers like the ones in this song:
“Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.”
“Oh, come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

Do You Hear What I Hear?

George: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Billy: Uh-huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served, dinner…
George: No, no, no, no! Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles.

James Stewart (as George Bailey) in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

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I’ve mentioned before that I love the old movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  In it, the protagonist, George Bailey, is in despair and considers taking his life.  As his family and friends pray, God responds by sending “an angel, second class” named Clarence, who shows George what life would be like if he had never been born (and how much impact his life has had on those around him).

One of the key events in George’s life happens when he is 12 years old.  He dives into a freezing river to save his brother from drowning, but in the process, he loses the hearing in his left ear.  This hearing loss weaves its way through the rest of the movie.  As a young man, George designs an indoor swimming pool under the gym floor for his high school (the movie makes no direct link to the earlier event, but it might be presumed that his experience caused him to think of ways to keep active kids indoors during winter months…)  His bad ear (and his need to help his dad at the Bailey Building and Loan) keeps him from playing football in high school.  It later keeps him from fighting in the war, but leaves him stuck at home coordinating scrap drives and air-raid drills–“safe” but less-than-honorable positions for a young man of his day.

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There are many things George cannot hear, but three things he listens for– Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles!  George spends much of the first part of his life longing to leave Bedford Falls (his home town), to travel the globe.  While his friends travel to exotic places and build successful careers in big cities, George gets tangled up in financing small houses for ordinary people in his small town.  All around him are bitter reminders of the life he dreamed of leading.  His brother becomes a pilot– a fate denied to him.  His best friend makes a fortune selling plastic parts for fighter planes, and takes cruises and fancy vacations that George cannot afford.

There is a dramatic change, however, when Clarence turns George’s life upside-down.  One of the first things George notices after Clarence declares that George has gotten his wish (and never been born) is that the hearing has “returned” to his left ear.  He marvels at this simple but profound change, but attributes it to his recent encounter with more freezing cold river water.  Soon other changes capture George’s attention–his brother is dead because George wasn’t there to save him; his mother is destitute and care-worn because George wasn’t there to save the Building and Loan after his father’s death; none of the houses he helped finance were ever built, and dozens of families are living in squalor and being over-charged for rent by the evil Mr. Potter.  And the peaceful town of Bedford Falls has been transformed into a noisy hotbed of crime and filth, anger and greed.

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After George has a change of heart and is “returned” to his wonderful life, the hearing loss is back– this time, George laughs in gratitude as his “disability” confirms that all is back to normal.  He no longer listens for plane motors or trains whistles– instead, he eagerly listens for the sound of his kids as he returns home, and the breathless call of his wife as she returns home with help and hope in the form of neighbors and friends.  The sirens and screaming of his earlier nightmare are replaced with joyous music and laughter.

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One of the last shots of the movie shows a tiny, tinkling bell on the Christmas Tree.  Zuzu says that her teacher has told the class that every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, and George, hearing the bell ring, simply says, “Atta boy, Clarence.”

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What are we listening for in life?  Are we consumed with the sounds of excitement and adventure?  Or are we listening for the important sounds of lonely people softly crying, children giggling, birds singing their morning worship song, or raindrops dancing on the sidewalk?  Are we listening for the Spirit’s whisper in the wind, or God’s voice in the thunder?  Exciting sounds can sometimes deafen us to important sounds.  God calls for us to “be still” and know that He is God (see Psalm 46:10)–what we hear in the stillness and silence is rest and peace for our souls.  And that is one of the best sounds of all!

Full Disclosure

I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts.  I want answers.  So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions.  Why is this person suffering?  When will their suffering end, and how?  Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?

God stays silent.

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I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust.  That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing.  It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that).  God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion.  Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming.  Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming.  Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold.  There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.

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The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.  This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons.  But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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God loves us with a perfect love.  Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning.  So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing.  Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.

God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.

Can You Hear Me Now?

We experienced some storms last week, and while we didn’t have a lot of damage from the winds and rain, my husband and I lost our internet connection over the weekend.  No wireless internet meant no Facebook, no WordPress, no e-mail, and no cash register at our little shop downstairs.  We had to do every transaction by hand until we could rig up something so our smart phone could accept cards; no new chip cards, no Apple Pay or PayPal.  And while our phone could begin to accept limited credit payments, it could not provide any printed receipts, nor could it do double duty– we either had a phone or a point-of-sale device, but not both!

It was an inconvenience, but not a disaster.  I thought about thousands of people who are stuck in the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and blizzards who have no electricity, no phone lines, no cell service, no roads, no water or sewer lines–cut off from common necessities and basic communication.  Suddenly, an emergency becomes even more tragic because of the isolation, and the inability to ask for help or to hear any message of hope.  (Of course, my husband would like me to put in a short plug here about the advantages of amateur radio– the radios can run on battery power and still connect over hundreds of miles!)

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Isolation is an earthly concept.  God is eternally Triune.  He created us for relationship; from the very beginning, he declared that it is not good for “man” to be alone (Genesis 2:18)  God instituted marriage, and families, and communities so that we would stay connected, and he himself came to walk and talk with mankind in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.  It is mankind who hid from God and broke off communication– one of the effects of Sin is the desire to run away, to separate, to isolate and cut off relationships and break off contact.

That is one reason that prayer is so basic; so essential.  It is a lifeline to the one who loves us best, who knows what we need, and has the power to hear us, to help us, to lift us up wherever we may be, whatever our circumstances.

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But sometimes, even when we want to talk to God, it seems impossible to speak or feel like he hears us.  Sometimes, we are the ones who can’t come up with words, or can’t settle our minds to seek his face.  Sometimes, we pour out our hearts and wait in silence for an answer.   Why should it be that just when we need it most, prayer seems the hardest?

I wish I had a pithy, perfect answer.  I don’t know.  I have a few incomplete thoughts, though:

  • what comes easily has less value to us.  Cheap and pointless conversation doesn’t make us work hard, but it also leaves us empty and unsatisfied.  Crying out to God is hard–it humbles us, it strips us bare and uncovers all our pretenses and subterfuge.  The true depth of our need is ripped out of us like a tumor, and it hurts, but it is a healing hurt.  Waiting in silence can cause us to become restless and to doubt, but it also can cause us to listen more attentively– we strain to hear the answer; we stop the white noise of busyness and half-hearted hand-wringing, and listen with our whole being.  And the smallest whisper– that still, small voice– has the power of the first rain after a long drought.  We are revitalized and our strength renewed as never before.

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  • sometimes, though not always, we find prayer difficult because we have not really prayed for a long time (if ever)– we have developed a habit of saying words to the empty air and thinking that the words themselves hold some power of hope or magic or self-fulfilling prophecy.  When life’s realities cannot be wished away with simple words, we search for distractions, for other types of words, for other “realities”, when we should be searching for our maker and the lover of our souls.
  • sometimes, it is a matter of unacknowledged or unconfessed sin that keeps us from breaking through in prayer.  However, there are many people who will use this as a default position, and that, too, is wrong.  Jesus had such difficulty in praying at Gethsemane that he sweat drops of blood— NOT because of unconfessed sin, but because his heart was that overwhelmed.  Still, we should examine ourselves to see if we have started to move away from God– better to turn back than to go father afield.
  • sometimes, as with Christ in the Garden, our hearts are just overwhelmed in the moment– it’s hard to breathe!  It’s hard to go on; it’s hard to ask for help; it’s hard to keep the faith.  Just because it’s difficult, don’t give up– even if all you can do is groan or whimper–even if it feels like God has closed up the heavens and left you alone–don’t give up.  God DOES hear, he DOES care.  Sometimes, we are inches from victory– don’t give up!

And what can we do during those times?  Again, I wish I had better answers, but what I have, I want to share– some from my own experience, some wisdom from others, some of both:

  • Learn to “pray outside the box”–
    • Sing–sing the blues, sing an old hymn, sing along with the radio, sing like nobody else is listening
    • Write it out– write a letter, write an angry letter if you have to– write a rant, write a poem, write out all your questions
    • Move– dance, pace, run, punch a pillow, do some sit-ups, mop the floor, scrub the sink– as you get a rhythm going, add your thoughts or questions to your movements
    • Cry it out– it’s ok to cry, moan, sob, weep, or just stare into space and rock yourself to sleep after all the tears have dried up.  Jesus wept (John 11:35)– what makes us think that we can’t?

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  • Count your blessings
    • Make a list of what you have; what you have to be grateful for; what you have experienced and enjoyed now or in the past
    • Make a list of your questions, concerns, needs, wants, wishes–Now think back ten years and make a list of what you wanted then, and how many of those concerns have been answered, altered, or forgotten.
    • Put yourself in another time or place– what do you have here and now that others lack?  How do your present troubles compare to what others have had to deal with?
  • Ramp up your pursuit of God in other areas–
    • Search for answers in His word
    • Seek the companionship of someone you trust who will help you keep on going
    • Seek out counselors, web sites, and/or a church group or family who can keep you from becoming isolated

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The single most important thing is to continue the pursuit– seek God with all your heart–and you will find him sufficient through the silent times, as well as through the roaring of the fiercest storms.

 

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