Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Category: 2016 (Page 2 of 85)

December 19, 2016 — Faith holds wide the door

Today’s Bible reading

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace. — Micah 5:2-5

More thoughts for meditation

Many hymns that were written originally for children have captured the imagination of everyone. Such is the case with “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) wrote the lyrics for the Sunday school children of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. He was inspired by his pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1865. Louis H. Redner (1831-1908), a wealthy real estate broker who served as a church organist for his avocation (who increased Sunday school attendance from thirty-six to over one thousand during his nineteen years as superintendent) wrote the tune.

According to the story, Brooks traveled on horseback between Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. He wrote, “Before dark we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it, in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. . . . Somewhere in those fields we rode through, the shepherds must have been. As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ or leading them home to fold.” He later participated in an observance in the Church of the nativity which lasted from 10 P.M. to 3 A.M.

The now omitted original fourth stanza seems directed to children, and certainly applies to children now locked in the ongoing violence and oppression of Palestine (see them above):

Where children pure and happy
Pray to the blessed Child,
Where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the undefiled;
Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
And Christmas comes once more.

The song beautifully describes the little town asleep in the December night; it also modulates from a description of the facts into an examination of the meaning of Christmas: first in its encouragement of charity and faith, and then into the coming of Christ into the human heart.

Suggestions for action

Isn’t that modulation where our meditations are designed to lead? As you listen to the song, appreciate the scene, the facts, and, mostly, the meaning of what is happening in Bethlehem, then and now — what happened for you then and what is happening in you and us, now.

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

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 men on earth

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.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel






December 18, 2016 — Stay by my cradle

Today’s Bible reading

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a child, whom he put among them,  and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. — Matthew 18:1-5

More thoughts for meditation

In 1887 an American hymn writer, James R. Murray, wrote the tune for the children’s hymn “Away in a Manger.” At that time he titled the song, “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” and published the story that it was written by Martin Luther and that Luther sang the song to his children each night before bed.  The idea of Luther and hundreds of German parents singing this song to their children really spread; however, it wasn’t true.  The song is purely American, written by an anonymous author (some say a man named, J.E. Clark) sometime in the mid-1800s.  Charles Hutchinson Gabriel has been named as the author of the third verse.  But because of Murray’s strong reputation as an accomplished hymnist, the story of Luther’s authorship stuck. By 1945 when the U.S. was battling Germany again in WWII, more research was done about the origins of the song. Richard Hill claimed that Murray himself wrote the song, but that’s been disputed since Murray usually claimed credit for songs he wrote. It’s unlike he would have deferred credit to Luther.  More guessing has suggested that Murray probably got the story about Luther from whoever gave him the song. Murray adapted the German-influenced tune into four part harmony and published it.

Regardless of origin, this song is a wonderful reminder of Jesus, the impoverished baby who comes to us as our Infant King. Jesus turns the world upside-down and changes how we think about power and achieving greatness. It’s a favorite of children all around the world and even if Luther never sang it to his children, many of us have sung it to our own.

Suggestions for action

Away in a Manger, perhaps more than any other Christmas carol, is for children and for the child in all of us.  Listen again to this version with young voices and remember that Jesus calls us to a child-like trust in God alone. Tell him you trust him and love him.  Tell him of your longing for him to watch over you. Ask him to stay.

December 17, 2016 — Poor Jesus

Today’s Bible reading

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted. – Isaiah 53:2-4

More thoughts for meditation

Alfonso Liguori (1696-1787) was well into his career as a lawyer when he finally lost his first case. His disillusionment with the law propelled him into a spiritual search. On a retreat on a beautiful coastline in Italy, he met poor shepherds who seemed lost and forgotten by society. He was especially moved by their lack of spiritual input. He decided to do something about that personally. Eventually he founded a new order of Catholic priests called the Redemptorists who were devoted to helping the poor and forgotten make a personal connection with God. He was an opponent of law-bound religion and helped free people to experience reconciliation with God.

When he was 36 years old he wrote “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (“You Come Down from the Stars”). It is now one of the most popular Christmas carols in Italy and is associated with the zampogna, or large-format Italian bagpipe.

Ligouri subtitled the song: a “Little song to Child Jesus.” The tenderness expressed for the baby Jesus, born into the world cold and impoverished, reflects his own compassion for everyone, since we are all poor in one way or another and the world can be cold.

Suggestions for action

We often are moved by the baby Jesus because we see him as our own, much-loved baby. But that is not how Isaiah imagined him, nor was he likely to be so well-cared-for. Many of us would need to make a shift to see him as so many babies in the world who are loved but who have no means of care, or like those who are not loved and begin their lives alone and cold. God entered into that isolation and discomfort. Let your heart be moved with compassion. You will probably have to concentrate for a few minutes before your get there, either because you don’t want to go there, can’t go there, or are just running around and can’t stop long enough to care.

Pausing to appreciate Ligouri’s example and his song might help.

December 16, 2016 — slaughter

Today’s Bible Reading

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men[a] from the East came to Jerusalem,  asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born.  They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”  When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” — Matthew 2:1-18

More thoughts for meditation

It happened in Bethlehem soon after the birth of Jesus. Slaughter. It happened in Aleppo this week. Slaughter. Terror. The innocents suffer.  Our idealized renditions of the Christmas story ignore this part of the birth story of Jesus. We struggle to reconcile our feelings about such utter, senseless brutality.  But in the service of power, humans have practiced slaughtering one another, including children, all through our history.  Jesus is a refugee child, an immigrant, a stranger in a world of violence justified by governments desiring to hold on to power. He and his family have to flee for their lives.  That’s the Christmas story.

Why doesn’t God address this horror? Make it stop! Our thoughts run in these circles regularly.  Haven’t you heard someone just this week wonder how God could exist in the face of such realities. If God were God would he not stop this slaughter?

God’s yearning sent Jesus to save us.  God’s longing for the slaughter to stop is made visible in the small hands and vulnerable flesh of the infant Christ.  We need a Savior.  The world has not yet accepted him.  The slaughter goes on, but now  for followers of Jesus the change is in the knowledge and experience of God-with-us, Emmanuel.  We still need saving as our violence still goes on.  Now, for those who believe, the answer has come. Jesus saves.

I don’t mean to be simplistic. I certainly don’t want to diminish the suffering of children and families through the centuries.  I do want to remind myself in the desperation of our world in our time that the Christmas story includes the slaughter and addresses it only by the reality of Christ coming into the world.

The 16th century English Coventry Carol is all about this slaughter.  Christians of another era seemed more able to include the brutal reality in their remembrance of Christ’s birth. The Renaissance carol takes its name from the city of Coventry, but it is also know as “Lullay Lully” from the line in its refrain which means “I see, I see.”

Bearing witness to the slaughter and the plight of Jesus and his family is what this song is all about. No solution is offered to this brutality other than bearing witness, I see!  This carol is also one of the earliest polyphonic carols, meaning that it has several vocal lines mixing throughout the song so there are multiple voices at play. That seems to capture what was important to these early authors and their audience.  I see, I see rings out into the night of suffering and in the midst, the Christ is born and lives through it all. A lullaby in the midst of slaughter.  

Suggestions for action

Listen to this version of the carol by Pentatonix and consider  the need we all have for a Savior, the need  our world demonstrates so vividly. See it.  Sing lully, lullay.

The Coventry Carol (Lullay Lully)

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day.
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor Child for Thee!
And ever morn and day,
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

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