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.

The Just and the Unjust

“God isn’t Fair!”  I hear this often from angry and bitter people who have suffered losses or disappointments in life.  Some of their losses are heavy and come with great pain– loss of a child, loss of a home, loss of health…these are legitimate losses, and there are no conclusive, comprehensive or comforting answers.  In fact, in many ways, God is NOT “fair”– as we usually define “fair.”  God sends life, health, happiness, sunshine and rain to both the “just” and the “unjust”; to both rich and poor, tall and short, ugly and good looking, gracious and annoying, kind and cruel…  Tragedy strikes at random, some are touched by it, others seem to be plagued by it, and still others skate through life unscathed.

God may not seem “fair”, but let’s look at it from another angle.  God sends rain and sunshine on the just and the unjust.  He sends gifts, and we use, abuse, accept, or reject them.  Circumstances and outcomes are not always pleasant, but does this mean they are “bad?”  And when they are easy, and comfortable, does this always make them “good?” Good people have to endure tragedy– this is usually what we focus on when we talk about God being “unfair.”  And we generally put ourselves in the “good” category.  Why should we have hardship and pain, while “bad” people seem to get a “pass?”    Shouldn’t bad things only happen to bad people, while good people enjoy only good things?  Sounds “fair”, doesn’t it?

But what happens when the world operates on that principle?  If “bad” people are the only ones who get sick, then they deserve to be sick– not healed.  If “bad” people are the only ones to experience poverty, then we don’t need to help the poor or the needy.  Good people should be rich and healthy.  But what if we are sometimes good, and sometimes selfish?  Do we deserve to keep all that’s good if we misuse it, or lose all that’s good if we go astray and then repent?  Is that fair?!  Where is the motivation to cure diseases, share resources, or enforce laws?  Who decides whether your “good” idea is “good” for everyone around you?  Who can ascend to heaven and tell God what is “fair?”

God created us in His image, and that means that we have a spirit that longs for justice and fairness.  It’s how we recognize evil and injustice.  But sin clouds our eyes, and poisons our world–pollution doesn’t just hurt the people who pollute; arson doesn’t just burn the arsonist; drunk drivers don’t just hurt themselves; and so on.  We don’t look at the evil or thoughtless or “unfair” things we have done or said that went unpunished or unnoticed.  And we discount all the unmerited blessings that have come our way– God is often “unfair” in our favor!  We don’t complain about that.

God is not the author of “unfairness”, though He allows it.  And, while I can’t explain away pain and suffering when they occur, I know two things:

God is Gracious– If God’s justice were not tempered by mercy, every mistake, every sin, would be unforgivable and eternally ours to bear.  Every random thoughtless action, and all its consequences, would weigh us down forever.

God is Just–Jesus’s death was about redemption and restoration– He didn’t just die to “save” you from hell– He died to restore you to the person and position for which you were created– whole, pure, unstained and uncorrupted.  This wasn’t “Plan B”– this was His eternal plan, and it includes perfect justice and perfect restoration.

cross jesus summit cross
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Knowing these things does not take away the pain of the present.  It does not make suffering easy; it does not erase the loss.  But it can allow us to take the next step, and the next, on our journey.  Rain or shine.

 

 

…Cry With the Saints

Several years ago, singer and songwriter Billy Joel created some controversy with a song he wrote, called “Only the Good Die Young.”  The song was about a young man trying to convince a young catholic girl to give up her virginity.  Many were offended by some of the lyrics, and by the general tone of the song, which was sacrilegious; sneering at the notion of sexual purity and waiting for marriage.  One of the lines in the song says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints..The sinners are much more fun.”

Full lyrics here

It may seem that way to many– Christians (along with many Jews, Muslims, and others who are sincere and spiritually-minded) seem stern and sober in comparison to free-living, fun-loving heathens.  Why should this be so?  Shouldn’t those who are closer to God experience more Joy and happiness than those who do not know Him?  Why are saints and prophets so often shown crying, wailing, and weeping bitter tears?

man wearing gray sweater in selective focus photography
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The author of Ecclesiastes (assumed to be King Solomon) writes:

Ecclesiastes 7:1-6 (Revised Standard Version)

A good name is better than precious ointment;
    and the day of death, than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting;
for this is the end of all men,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
    so is the laughter of the fools;
    this also is vanity.

This doesn’t mean that God wants His people to be depressed, hopeless, and constantly weeping.  But God DOES want us to be aware and to see the world as it really is– fallen, chaotic, filled with needless suffering and injustice.  Why?  Because He calls us to think about the consequences of our actions, and also to have compassion for those who are hurting.  It may be more “fun” to ignore the consequences of sin and to “live it up” if you are young and healthy, but it is not at all true that “only the good die young.”  Death comes unexpectedly and randomly– taking both good and evil, both wise and foolish.  The difference is that fools get cut off and caught off-guard.  The consequences of their actions find them unprepared and filled with regret or bitterness and pain– all of which might have been prevented if they had not ignored reality.

silhouette of graves
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I think the song DOES have a message to Christians–while we shouldn’t be fools chasing after fleeting pleasures that leave a large wake of pain and regret and filling our lives with empty laughter, we should not “die young” in the way of the Pharisees of old.  Jesus called them “white-washed tombs” for good reason.  Their “goodness” came from self-righteousness and piety.  They shunned sinners, and chased others away with their long lists of rules and disdain for anyone who didn’t keep up appearances.  Such “saints” never cry– they are more likely to crow about their own “goodness” with dry eyes and closed fists.  Jesus attended feasts and parties with the sinners– but his heart was not for the “fun”  they were having.  It was for them– for their lost souls.  Jesus wept!  Jesus wept for the loss of his friend Lazarus; he wept over Jerusalem; he even wept tears of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane!

ancient art black and white close up
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The “Good” have many reasons to cry– millions of innocents suffer needlessly every day–abuse, slavery, genocide, abortion, bigotry, war, starvation, murder, theft, addiction, homelessness, disease, natural disasters, man-made disasters, and more fill our world.  People waste time angrily shaking their fists at Heaven or at governments, but so much of the suffering is a direct result of sinful actions on the parts of individuals.  In my own country, in my own lifetime, over 50,000,000 babies have been aborted–without legal consequence, but with a terrible consequence on the soul of our nation.  If we could shed one tear for each life lost it would equal over 660 gallons of water (here’s how I got that number  )– just one tear for each life, and those are only the abortions that have been recorded in the past 45 years in the U.S.  If we were to shed a tear for every broken marriage, every rape, every life lost to addiction, suicide, murder, or war, every violent assault, every broken promise, every lie, or every corrupt deed in our world over the past 50 years, we could fill an ocean!  The power of tears, or of any running/falling water is so great, it could generate electricity to light the nations! ( Here’s an interesting article on the power of a drop of water!)

waterfalls near gray paved road surrounded by green leaf trees during daytime
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I would far rather “cry with the saints.”  But more than that, I would rather pray with the saints, and arise from both to work with the saints–the power of tears pales in comparison with the power of God’s mercy and grace!

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