O Love beyond Compare,
Thou art good when thou givest,
when thou takest away,
when the sun shines upon me,
when night gathers over me.
Thou hast loved me before the foundation of the world,
and in love didst redeem my soul;
Thou dost love me still,
in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust.
Thy goodness has been with me another year,
leading me through a twisting wilderness,
in retreat helping me to advance,
when beaten back making sure headway.
Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead;
I hoist sail and draw up anchor,
With thee as the blessed pilot of my future as of my past.
I bless thee that thou hast veiled my eyes to the waters ahead.
If thou hast appointed storms of tribulation,
thou wilt be with me in them;
If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
I shall not drown;
If I am to die,
I shall see thy face the sooner;
If a painful end is to be my lot,
grant me grace that my faith fail not;
If I am to be cast aside from the service I love,
I can make no stipulation;
Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial,
as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.
O Love beyond Compare,
If you, like me, find yourself watching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life this time of year, you are not alone by a long shot. The 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed is a movie classic, a study in the choices we face in life, whether to follow dreams, to do as we want, when confronted by responsibility and duty. More than that, it’s a movie that reveals the mystery of God’s providence (without saying so) for, in the case of George Bailey, the veil is pulled back for a time to show him what life would have been like had he not been born and, conversely, the great good that occurred, largely unbeknownst to him, because of his life of virtuous choices.
In an essay in Touchstone, entitled “Potterville Nation,” Anthony Esolen takes a decidedly bleak look at the world and decides it is just that --- a place, like Potterville, not Bedford Falls, full of greed and avarice, of people chasing the vain imaginations of their hearts, of churches that encourage rather than stand in judgment over such vanities. According to Esolen, the message of It’s a Wonderful Life “ is not simply that every life is important, but that what makes my life important, in the long view, in the providential view, is almost always what the world considers silly, small-town, no-account, trivial --- a waste.” And for Christians, those similarly trivial, daily, choices are the stuff of true spiritual pilgrimage, of a life where even our poor choices are redeemed by a God who “works all things together for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).
We may live in a place, in a world full of greed, avarice, and evil, yet if we look for them we will find plenty of George Baileys who are faithfully doing what is necessary --- going to work, spending time with children, teaching school, cleaning houses and offices, fixing streets, and so on --- and not leaving to chase vain imaginings. When I visit New York City or Los Angeles, for example, I’m keenly aware of the vanities of life, of crime, of urban blight, and yet at the same time I’m amazed that things work reasonably well most of the time. People get up and go to work. Teachers teach. The garbage is picked up. Water flows 35 stories up to my hotel room. Streets are passable. People often do what is required --- never, perhaps, from entirely pure motives, but still they do it. By God’s grace, there is civilization, not anarchy. Look for good and you will find it. It’s not all Potterville but if you look again it’s Bedford Falls. Look at what sin has twisted and see the potentiality of good or, at least, believe in God’s providential reordering of evil to good, of His undoing of the curse.
At the end of my our Christmas Eve viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, it occurred to me that it was unlikely that anyone who acted in the film was still living. One is. Karolyn Grimes, who played young Zuzu, George Baily’s daughter, six at the time and now 68, has had a life filled with tragedy --- her mother died when she was 14, she lost her father in a car crash a year later, was sent to live with an aunt in what she referred to as a “bad home,” never made it in acting, lost her first husband in a hunting accident, lost her second husband to cancer, lost her 18-year old son to suicide, and lost all the money she had in the recession of the early 2000s. Can you imagine? And yet she can still say this: "There have been adverse things happen in my own life, but there are balances out there. And the movie itself has affected my life so much because I have George Bailey's philosophy … that friendships and caring and loving will carry you through anything. I really feel like Zuzu is kind of a mission maybe, I don't know. I think that there is a higher power at work and that I had to go through a lot of adverse situations in my life to understand other people's pain.”
Thank God there is a “higher power” at work, a hand of providence. Thank God we don’t have our way all the time. Thank God for the trivial, small-town, and seemingly insignificant lives we live. We may never know all the good that’s come of it, and all the evil left undone. If you believe God is on the move, it’s a wonderful life after all.
I enjoyed all of my Christmas gifts, but it was a real joy to receive a new Christmas song from Bob Bennett today. I have known Bob longer than any other musician. Somewhere around 1989, nearly twenty years ago, my friend Craig and I had a thought: why not have a musician perform at our church. Novel, huh? Only problem was we didn’t have a clue how to do that. I was holding Bob’s great CD, Songs from Bright Avenue, and I noticed a number for a booking agent on the liner notes. I called the number. The people were nice. Bob came. And since then I have probably hosted 50-75 concerts. I have lost track.
But I won’t forget the first concert. Bob proved himself then and afterwards as a gifted songwriter, good guitarist, great vocalist, and funny entertainer that always delights audiences. He was doing Christian music before there was much Contemporary Christian Music industry to speak of. His songs have always moved me, and it’s been a delight to see him every few years or so.
But, according to Bob, he’s been in a musical dry season of sorts for going on 18 months, unable to write one of those trademark songs he’s known for. That’s why it was a pleasure to get word of his new song, Carol of the Moon and Stars, today. It’s everything he’s known for --- profound lyrics, honey-smooth vocals, and a great melody. Pure and simple, it’s a gift.
I encourage you to download this very nice demo of the song here. (You’ll need to click on the Song of the month link). While you’re at it, buy a CD. Support a fine artist and very, very decent human being, Welcome back, Bob.
Next Christmas we’ll run away ‑‑‑at least, that’s what my wife and I sometimes half jokingly, half seriously say to each other each December. December has to be the heaviest month of the year. It has to endure the weight of religious tradition and commercial hysteria and socializing to the point that I sometimes wonder if it may burst from the demands placed upon it.
I don’t know if this month brings you the Christmas of Christians, Hannakuh, Ramadan, Kwannza, Winter Soltice, or just buying, selling, and a gnawing empty that says there must be more. Like any writer, I can only write from where I am ‑‑‑Bethlehem’s baby. For Christians, life is rooted in the centrality of the Incarnation. So too is writing.
The Incarnation affirms that human, earthy reality is worthy of study and love and retelling. It’s a favoring of the concrete, particular, earthy stuff of life ‑‑‑the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet at the same time it reverberates with something Other ‑‑‑something that transcends those particulars and points to a greater truth. Whatever we make of this Incarnation, writers know this from experience, from craft, from our own attempts to incarnate reality in words. We know that the better story or poem is one that connects with people where they are ‑‑‑in the rattle and rub of everyday life. At the same time, and often serendipitously, we know that a greater truth emerges from the details. It rears up, sometimes befuddling, sometimes amusing, sometimes filling us with wonder and even more questions. In the story or poem, the writer says “I am with you reader” while, at the same time, he reveals some truth that transcends both the writer’s and the reader’s particular circumstances.
Even artists who attempt to create art from randomness ‑‑‑such as musician John Cage ‑‑‑cannot escape the tug of the transcendant. Even out of the randomness, pattern emerges, meaning surfaces, like some natural law.
Dorothy Sayers once wrote an essay where she explained that Christians see this world as a novel, which has a whole universe of action within its pages but no independent reality. Its reality depends on God, who alone is real in his own right. But people are made able to enter this true reality, which is called heaven, so that when they die, “It is not as though the characters and action of the book were continued in our next like a serial; it is though they came out of the book to partake of the real existence of their author.” God with us, God apart from us; immanent, transcendant; earthy and out of this world.
I am pro‑creation because I believe, like many others before me, that our creating is an inevitable and wonderful aspect of our created nature. We, the characters in this tale spun by God, are telling our own tales, living out our lives in ways that sometimes surprise, sadden, or amuse our Maker. You know how it feels, don’t you? We’ve all carefully sketched out our characters’ lives, only to find that they possess a freedom that inevitably asserts itself. We ourselves are little incarnations that continue to incarnate reality, in what we create.
A Hebrew baby. A dutiful, albeit surprised young father. A young girl with an illegitimate child. The smell of wet hay, manure, and unwashed bodies. A surreal visitation. Dumbstruck sheep‑tenders. A cow, a donkey, a cat, and a dog look on.
All details: concrete, particular, the stuff of stories. Yet something greater emerges. It’s the mystery of every incarnation ‑‑‑every story, every poem, every God become man.
But the Incarnation is more than an affimation of the worthiness of what is created and what we create. It also confirms that the most powerful and meaningful things ‑‑‑ including good writing ‑‑‑ are those which so often appear powerless, subtle, indirect, and deceptively modest. Frankly, I am tired of hearing art validated as “bold” or “shocking.” And I’m frustrated by the prostituting of art by its politicization. The Writer of the Gospel tale told it simply, with understatement, and with an indirection and subtlety that has frustrated many a theologian. When you end the story, you can’t quite put your finger on God. Seems appropriate, doesn’t it? Rather, the Author says “I love these characters, so much that I will become one of them so that I can liberate them from the reality of my making. At the same time, I leave them free to unmake themselves, to ignore me and to ultimately write themselves out of existence, because they have no existence apart from me.” The Incarnation says that the most powerful things come in apparent weakness ‑‑‑Word become flesh. It says that good writing is that which is sutle and indirect, yet so full of meaning that its full expression is often beyond its author.
Finally, the Incarnation tells us that our creations, our writing, our truthtelling, is set in the context of love. This goes against the flow of art culture because, for many artists today, free expression is sometimes viewed as the sine qua non of human existence. Any kind of self‑censure is demeaned as cowardice ‑‑‑a failure to speak the truth, to say what must be said. It’s almost as if what can be written must be written. Yet as important as self‑expression is ‑‑‑as telling the truth is ‑‑‑we don’t believe that it is the highest value. That place belongs to love.
The Incarnation wasn’t about some political or moral agenda, much as some would have made it that way then or utilize it for their own political program now. No, the Author of Life wrote Love into the Universe in the most unexpected and personal way ‑‑‑a tiny baby, born of wide‑eyed poor folk with barely a roof over their heads in a tiny, insignificant country half‑way around the world. And yet, it’s a story that continues to speak because its both chock‑full of the particular ‑‑‑baby, unwed mother, common folk, angels, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other unsavory folk ‑‑‑and yet, at bottom, it’s about something we all want to understand ‑‑‑Love. It’s a tale told in Love and for Love.
So writing is more than expression, more than just telling the truth, more than message or agenda. Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love. Not enough that should be said, is said, for Love. Love both provides a boundary in our writing and the challenge, the challenge to say what should be said; the restraint not to say what would wound or hurt.
Frederick Buechner, who has written painfully personal memoirs of his life, has explained that he never wrote about his mother until after she died. Why? Because he was concerned that she would read it and that it would damage his relationship with her. Not all that can be said, should be said, for Love.
You may regard the Incarnation as, at best, myth, and at worst, as a lot of rubbish. So be it. I’m not here to convince you otherwise, even if I could. I haven’t even said all that could be said about the connection between the Word enfleshed and our words enfleshed.
But do this, will you? ‑‑‑Next time you do anything creative --- from writing a story to planning and cooking a meal --- watch order and meaning assert themselves, note the power in the sutlety of a little poem or story or beautiful meal, marvel when love enters the equation of creation. Then ask yourself: Why?
[Originally published February 6, 2006]
Here's some good news: Amy Lowe, Senior Editor of Ruminate Magazine, notified me yesterday that they would publish my short story, "Under the Cheerwine Moon," in their Spring 2009 issue. As Amy said, though it did not win the contest (judged by author Bret Lott), "the RUMINATE staff loved your piece so much that we would like to publish it in our upcoming Spring '09 Issue!" That's encouraging. It's the first short story I have ever submitted for publication, as most of what I have published is poetry. I'm glad the world gets to meet Henry and find out about my favorite soft drink.
You know, it may seem silly, but when you've thought about a character for a long time, you begin to wonder about the rest of their life. You ask yourself what they'd be doing right now. Here's Henry, a mentally retarded man who has lost the central figure in his life, his mother, whose ordered and structured life is slowly unraveling, and it's Christmas. What would Henry do?
I know what he'd do. He'd do his best to engage in all the holiday routines given him by his mother. He'd put candles in the windows. He'd hang the Moravian star on the porch. He'd put Tony Bennett's Christmas album on the aging Zenith record player his Mom bought with green stamps, back when there were green stamps. And on Christmas Eve he'd read aloud the Christmas story, the illustrated one from his Children's Bible, his voice taking on the cadence of his mother's. He'd sit in his raggedy brown recliner with his cat Sam, and remember her.
But that is another story. I hope you get to read "Under the Cheerwine Moon." I highly recommend Ruminate which, like all arts journals, is a labor of love.
A couple years ago I was in Cambridge, England visiting with Ranald Macaulay, son-in-law of Francis Schaeffer. I asked him about the first time he met the late L’Abri founder, and he gave me an image I have not forgotten. He was a college student then, and Schaeffer was meeting with several students, holding forth on some topic in an apartment or dorm room. Ranald said Dr. Schaeffer took his hand and placed it beside his face, as close as possible and yet not touching, and said “God is this close to us.” It’s a simple image, but it’s one way of visibly expressing a truth we take for granted and yet often fail to really believe in the moment-to-moment reality.
I often lament the fact that I cannot actually see God, that He never really shows up in the flesh for me. I envy the early disciples who could see, touch, and hear Jesus, who witnessed his miracles, and who were visibly and audibly comforted by His presence. And so when God seems distant, when prayer seems like a one-sided conversation, when I feel alone --- I hold my hand up to the side of my face, sense its closeness, and remember what Schaeffer said: God is there. He has not left us alone. He’s that close.
There are very few moments when I’ve really grasped what it means to say Emmanuel: God with us. Sometimes I get a glimpse of it, the fact that God was embodied --- baby, boy, and man --- and endured the whole of human existence. Dorothy Sayers summed it up well:
For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is --- limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death --- he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace, and thought it was worthwhile.
Yes, he suffered and died. But that “he suffered the trivial irritations of family life” somehow makes His incarnation real for me, as it is less dramatic and more like my everyday experience. That enfleshes what sometimes becomes abstract doctrine. He was (and somewhere still is) a man, capable of being touched, of eating and drinking and laughing and weeping.
In no other religion do you have a God who becomes weak, who sanctifies the physical world by entering into it to suffer with and for us. God walked on the earth. He ate and drank. He suffered the toil of work and conversations petty and the profound, the interesting people as well as the bores, the mundane and spiritual. He knew what it was like to be me. He is real, and He is as near to me as the hand beside my face.
It would be presumptuous to call this a “best of” list, because I’ve only listened to a fraction of the music out there, but these are some of the albums that I enjoyed the most or found the most interesting, in no particular order:
That Lucky Old Sun, by Brian Wilson I’m amazed at the energy and staying power of this former Beach Boy creative genius. After producing the Sixties classic Pet Sounds, he literally descended into personal and creative lethargy for nearly three decades, only to emerge in the Nineties with health, stable family life, and new creativity. This album is a superb suite of songs, literally a sonic landscape of Southern California and Brian Wilson, who are in some ways indistinguishable. If you told me I could only have one record from last year to listen to, I would take this one.
Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, by The Welcome Wagon It may sound like an unlikely recipe for mainstream success. A Presbyterian pastor and wife, Vito and Monique, sing simple songs of faith, in what one critic described as CCM meets nerdfolk. With Sufjan Stevens producing, it works. It’s a fun and even worshipful blessing of a record.
Live: Hope at the Hideout, by Mavis Staples An energetic live album, this former civil rights era singer belts out blues and gospel with a stripped down, swampy three piece band and backup singers. I love the guitar. I love the voice. I love the songs. And I’m encouraged. It’s like listening to history come to life.
Captured in Still Life, by Kensington Prairie This folk-pop album is really the solo project of Vancouver indie-pop singer Rebecca Rowan (of the band, Maplewood Lane). Having grown up in British boarding schools in Africa and India (a daughter of missionaries), she has a lot of influences, but I simply love the sunny pop and wistful melodies you’ll find here. I keep coming back to it.
Freedom Wind, by The Explorers Club They may look like Beach Boys copycats, right down tot he packaging that is made to look like a worn LP sleeve for something like All Summer Long, and yet these guys are more than that. I feel like I’m listening to original music by a modern day version of the Boys. And that’s not bad.
Electric Arguments, The Firemen This album had to be stickered just to let people know that it’s really a Paul McCartney album. Now in his mid-Sixties, McCartney teamed with the British producer Youth. All instruments were played by McCartney, and all recorded in the space of one day. From the classic rock opener to psychedelia to twangy folk, the record has a spontaneity and life missing in the man’s other solo work. In my opinion, he can stay “The Firemen.”
The Good Things, by Jill Phillips She’s one of my favorite CCM singers, because she can write great songs, play guitar, and sing. It’s not sappy or sentimental, and yet full of faith and struggles that we all have. Every Jill Phillips record is good, and this one is no exception.
Pacific Ocean Blue, by Dennis Wilson Most people have no idea how creative and talented the youngest Beach Boy, the drummer, actually was, as his life was tragically cut short by his drowning death in 1983, an unbelievable 25 years ago. In this reissue, his only solo release, Pacific Ocean Blue, is remastered with bonus tracks. But the gem is the inclusion of 17 tracks from the sessions for his never finished or released album, Bambu. Listening gives you some sense of the unique direction this artist would have taken, but for his death. Sadly, it’s unlikely that most people, other than Beach Boys fans and collectors, will ever hear this. Too bad!
Meet Glen Campbell, by Glen Campbell As I’m writing this, I’m thinking “I have become my father,” and in a way I have. I remember watching the Glen Campbell show in the Sixties with my Dad, and now, I’m buying a record? Yes! This is a very talented man, and there are some great songs here, both originals and covers. Drop your preconceptions. Give it a listen.
Promise of Summer, by Jackopierce When I heard the rockabilly opener to this record, “Everything I’m Not,” with the chorus “I’m an open book, she’s a mystery/ I’m black coffee and she’s sweet tea/ You probably wonder why she’s with me/ I’m grateful for everything I’ve got/ She is everything I’m not,” I knew I liked this band. It’s clever, straight ahead, heartland rock ‘n roll, with a country flavor. What’s not to like?
And that’s it for 2008. Next week, post-Christmas music, I think I’ll chuck all this music, set it aside for a few months, so I can return to it and realize how well it holds up (or not). Happy listening!
That Edith Schaeffer's 1992 book, The Life of Prayer, has long been out of print may be a sad commentary about the state of Christian publishing or, even, the state of evangelical spirituality. I hope it’s the prior, and not the latter, but whatever direction I point to I ultimately must take the blame as well. In a noisy culture where busyness is rewarded, prayer is easily marginalized. I know, because I’ve done it.
The Life of Prayer, written by a woman in her mid-Seventies, after the death of her husband, and after a life of self-sacrifice and service, is rich with wisdom, creativity, and practical advice. In other words, all that the writer says about prayer is rooted in her life experience. This is invaluable. At the moment I’m re-reading Chapter Two, “Affliction and Prayer – Suffering and Prayer,” where Edith says that “[i]t seems to me that there is a need to be aware of our suffering giving us a tiny measure of understanding of Christ’s suffering,” and I know that this is prose backed by the experience of her own sickness, that of her husband (who suffered and died of cancer), and her young son (who contracted polio). In other words, it’s real. She has lived it. I don’t think the truth of her statement (which echoes that of the Apostle Paul, who speaks not of the removal of suffering but of what it produces in us --- a patient endurance and means of sharing in the far greater sufferings of Christ) is learned without experience. That’s wisdom.
But there’s creativity too. Flipping over to Chapter Six, entitled “When Pray? Why Pray?,” she commends us to “examine the possibilities in our own days and nights. There are waiting times --- for buses, trains, trams, planes, red lights. . . times that can be used to pray in the words of a remembered Psalm, or a hymn, or in asking for mercy and forgiveness, or in thanking God for his blessings, or in praying for someone who is on our mind.” She speaks of being “alone” in the middle of a crowded city bus, and I remember reading that section many years ago as if it was a fresh insight. So simple, and yet so easy to forget. It makes me want to reclaim all of life’s margins for prayer.
Finally, there’s practical advice. “Helps in Being Real in Prayer” is especially useful, as when talking with God we can, as silly as it seems, hold back. One reading of the Psalms should illustrate how boldly (and even audaciously) we can approach the Father. “If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?",” leaves us in mystery, and yet with deeply satisfying wonder at that truth which is just beyond our reach. There’s even advice and wisdom about fasting and prayer.
Reading Edith Schaeffer you have the sense that you are sitting across the table from the woman, and though she does ramble on (a fact I can personally testify to), she does so with a generous love and with great wisdom. There’s a lot to learn from someone who has lived a life of prayer. Find the book, if you can. Read it. Then live it. It’s a lost gem.
"But I think about the events of that day again and again, and somehow I know that Winnie does too, whenever some blowhard starts talking about the anonymity of the suburbs or the mindlessness of the TV generation, because we know that inside each one of those identical boxes, with its Dodge parked out front and its white bread on the table and its TV set glowing blue in the falling dusk, there were people with stories, there were families bound together in the pain and struggle of love, there were moments that made us cry with laughter, and there were moments like that one of sorrow and wonder."
(Kevin Arnold, as an adult, in the Pilot for the TV series, The Wonder Years)
That final bit of narration by the adult Kevin Arnold forms a particularly poignant ending to the Pilot episode of the 1988 television series, The Wonder Years. Every time I watch this TV show I find myself in the story. It's really a filmed memoir, with an older Kevin as narrator reflecting back on his years growing up in late Sixties suburbia, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, racial tensions, and the Vietnam War --- all such events tangential to the life of an 11-year old and yet impinging at times with a sharpness. For example, in this episode Winnie's brother goes off to Vietnam and is killed, and it is the first time Kevin was aware that someone young, someone like him, could actually die. Sorrow and wonder. When he goes to talk to Winnie and finds her alone, he puts his coat around her, and unexpectedly she turns and kisses him. Wonder. And yet they don't know what to do after that, what to say, so as Kevin the narrator says "They just decide to put romance on hold and go back to being friends." They go swing. They are, after all, only 11.
I'm not sure my teenage kids would completely appreciate this show, as they haven't actually lived through all of childhood and had opportunity to reflect on it. But practically everything that happens in this ½ hour show and every emotion expressed resonates with me. All the wondering if a girl liked me or didn't, and if she did, what I should do about that. The fear of standing out, of being different. The moments when the larger world intrudes and scares or confuses. The home that is safe, and yet not able to keep out news of friends' parents divorcing, of the real effect of war, of violence. Our world was the home and the neighborhood, but as time went on it became increasingly clear that we couldn't stay there, that a larger world both beckoned and haunted us. Sorrow and wonder. I somehow have the sharpest and most intense memories of those years. Every time I hear the songs so carefully selected for that show --- songs by Joni Mitchell, Buffalo Springfield, or Neil Young, for example --- I'm hearing the soundtrack of my life, or at least a part of my life that seems to haunt everything I do and everything I am today.
Maybe the reason The Wonder Years so affects me is that have a longing within for a simpler time when life was bounded by my neighborhood, a place where I knew everyone and where nothing very bad ever happened, where my home was a respite against everything else that might be going on (even with a butthead of a brother named "Wayne), where Paulie, as nerdy as he might be, would always be my friend, no matter what. On the other hand, I'm well aware of the human tendency to idealize a past time, remembering the good and forgetting the bad. I'm not really interested in going back there, but I am interested in going through there on my way to a better destination.
What do I mean by going through there? It's really about the Godly use of memories. We are called not to live in the past, relishing nostalgia, but to remember the past as a present help and a future hope. The past teaches me lessons about how to live today, sure, but more and more it offers me glimpses into my future, to a time of a renewed heavens and earth that reminds me very clearly (and physically) of all that was good about my past. As Randy Alcorn teaches in his book, Heaven, Christians do not await the destruction of the earth and our ascension to a Heaven of disembodied souls but, rather, the renewal of this heaven and earth. On that earth, a rock will be more a rock than it ever was, the color green even more green, and Paulie more Kevin's friend than he ever was. A place where even bitter memories will be transformed by the good. Then, the people walking in darkness (that's us) will have seen not a twinkle of light, not a glimmer, but a great light. (Is. 9:2). Those will be the real wonder years.
"When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us... The hardest heart is softened. We recall our own childhood. We feel again how we then felt, especially if we were separated from a mother. A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart. But there is something more--a longing for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father. And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavily over the world." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
Seventeen years ago my wife and I went on a two-week mission trip to Prague, in the Czech Republic. Prague is a historic city, one of the few European cities not bombed during World War II, the pulpit of Reformer Jon Hus, and yet despite its historicity we found this new democracy still under the shadow of modernity, the historic center city ringed by dehumanizing Stalinist era apartment buildings, the newly free people still under the pall of the secular state, not sure yet what to do with their new freedom. The rankest pornography was openly sold on Wenceslas Square, and all sorts of bohemians, misfits, Goths, and shady underworld figures lurked on the streets. At times, evil was palpable. One night a group of us were standing on the Charles Bridge, a pedestrian concourse over the river lined by statutes of saints. We were singing folk songs while others of us were trying to converse with people in the crowd. At one point a strange man with puppets dangling on a string came right up to us and shook what looked like demon puppets in front of us, hissing things in some unknown tongue. Then, and at other times, I was possessed with a compulsion to run, to go home, to shake the dust off my feet and leave a God-forsaken place filled with people who, at their best, were melancholy, unsmiling, or at their worst, devils. Or so I thought.
We were profoundly and deeply homesick in a way I had never felt before. I didn't belong. As I walked to the street car stop each day, I looked into the sullen stares of people who neither looked like me, talked like me, or seemed to have any warmth at all toward me. We felt alone, alienated, and even oppressed, the weight of a foreign land bearing down on us. Menus and signs were indecipherable. Waiters in restaurants seemed to ignore us. Even the church we visited seemed distant. We were aliens and strangers, in a scriptural sense, and despite what we did each day --- mostly street evangelism --- we carried around in our consciousness a ticking clock that measured how long it would be until we could return home to all that was familiar, to a people we knew, to places where we were comfortable.
Although the sense of homelessness is most acute when we are in a strange land like The Czech Republic, the condition is chronic and, in a sense, blessed for any Christian. I feel it when I read the newspaper accounts of war, economic decline, and famine. Driving to work, stopped at a traffic light, I'm overcome by a sense of heaviness, of the weight of sin, and yet I remember the promise that "[b]lessed are those that mourn [for sin], for they shall be comforted." Facing some difficulty, I want to run home, home to my childhood home where I could be fed, housed, pampered, and comforted, and yet I can't really go home like that anymore. None of us can. I can drive the streets of my old neighborhood, stop in front of my now smallish looking brick homeplace, try to imagine it as it was. . . and yet I can't go there. It's gone, peopled by strangers. There is no comfort to be found in a past home, only nostalgia.
At Christmas, this sense of exile, like being in Babylon with only a memory of Jerusalem, is even more profound. I want to go to bed waiting for Santa to come, unable to sleep, willing myself awake, sure that I hear reindeer hooves on my roof. I want people who have died or moved to come back, to all be there in my childhood home again, around the fire. I want the world outside to be set right, the headlines to broadcast good news, everything to be undone, or remade, as the hymn says, "as far as the curse be found." I want back every single one of my childhood pets --- my dog (who died on Christmas Day 1965), my longsuffering cat, my poor cat-eaten hamster. Every single one of them. It's neither right nor good nor natural that they are gone. It wasn't meant to be that way.
For a Christian, the blessedness of being chronically homesick is that we have a final Home for which we can hope, a familiar and yet newly rich place in which everything that should not have happened will unhappen, where what was wrongly done will be undone, where even remembrance is turned to good in some mysterious way. "We long for a city whose builder and architect is God," says the Apostle Paul (Heb. 11:10), and I do. I want a place where we'll wake each day expectant at what gifts will be left for us, for what old friends we'll be reunited with, for singing and magic and laughter. Where the footfalls we hear will be the sound of Jesus at our door, to sit with us for as long as we want. Where even the melancholy Czech will let loose and smile. And where I get my cat back, with a full and dignified tail this time.
Everywhere we turn it'll look like Home --- "the safe lodging of the everlasting Father."
This year I'm updating my list of Christmas music suggestions, adding a few new ones. Christmastime poses some difficulty for me musically, in that I find so few Christmas albums that I like. Most records are uninspiring rehashes of the same carols, hymns, and other Christmas songs. Some artists have managed to take the familiar carols and add a depressing note to them, and I'm not in favor of that. I may find one or two songs I like, but on the whole albums tend to be inconsistent affairs. Instrumental albums fare about the same. If I hear one more Windham Hill Celtic Christmas record. . . well, I've had enough of those for a while. Really, what I cherish is music that is Christocentric, authentic, and original (meaning fresh and timeless arrangement of familiar songs or new songs).
I've tried to consider what my ten favorite Christmas albums are, the criteria being whether I listen to them every year. In fact, one mark of a good Christmas album is that you want to listen to it all year, not just at Christmas. Here's my ten:
- The Animals Christmas -- Art Garfunkel, Amy Grant, and Jimmy Webb -- The voices of Amy Grant and Art Garfunkel, the writing, arranging, and production of Jimmy Webb, and the background vocals of the Kings College Choir bring alive a beautiful legend focused on the animal's perspective surrounding the birth of Christ. This is out of print, but new and used copies can be found on ebay or amazon. It's consistently good, and not like anything else I have ever heard.
- One Wintry Night -- Jerry and Lisa Smith -- Instrumental versions of classic Christmas carols and three original compositions inspired by Ruth Bell Graham's Christmas story of the same name. Jerry plays hammered dulcimer, Lisa flute. It was produced by Jeff Johnson, who also adds keyboards and various Celtic instruments. The title cut is one of those songs that I never get tired of.
- Winterfall -- Lee Spears and Donna Michaels -- Once again, instrumental, hammered dulcimer and piano, but this is, like One Wintry Night, not standard fare for such records.
- Come Rejoice -- Judy Collins -- Mostly traditional songs sung in a traditional way, but she pulls it off with a great voice. The addition of "Song for Sarajevo," though it adds a blue note, is a plus. It's a beautiful song.
- Songs for Christmas -- Sufjan Stevens -- This is a new favorite released last year, and one that grows on me in its lo-fi authenticity and campfire like singalong style. It's moving. And it's Christ-centered. And I think I'll listen to it every year.
- Christmas -- Bruce Cockburn -- Canadian singer-songwriter Cockburn brings some original arrangements to Christmas carols, some little sung jewels, and one original. My favorite: "Mary Had a Baby."
- December -- The Moody Blues -- Call them prog-rock or orchestral rock, but these guys have been around. They bring classic vocals and harmonies to classic songs, and a couple originals. It's playable beyond Christmas.
- Sara Groves -- O Holy Night -- New this year, Grove's gives original carols some new twists and pens a number of great original Christmas songs. She's a refreshing alternative to the usual CCM fare.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter -- Christmas -- This country-folk staple sings mostly original songs, so if you're looking for recognizable Christmas favorites, this is not it. But I like the new songs and tire of the same carols at times.
- Alathea -- Christmas -- Folks that I know rave about the new CD from this female duo, with its Appalachian-infused melodies. I'm a big fan, so as soon as I set hands on it, I know I will like it too.
Well, I'm not saying these are the best, but they are what I'm finding myself listening to. . . this Christmas, and for many of the past Christmases. My kids like Trans-Siberian Orchestra. All I can think of when I hear them is big guitars and big hair. It's over the top, with no subtlety. I'll stick to the quieter things for the season and save the big guitars for the New Year. Happy listening!