Advent Stories: O Little Town of Bethlehem

Phillips Brooks

Boston, Massachusetts, 1892

How does one write a funeral address for President Abraham Lincoln? Defender of the Union, the leader who stood at the end of indescribable violence and promised restoration and reconciliation—until his own life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet.

That was the task I was charged with as a young, rising preacher who had been relentless in opposition to slavery. I labored over that sermon, going without sleep, knowing it would be kept in an ecclesial vault for the ages, and knowing too that this eulogy must somehow find itself equal to the task of remembering the greatest man of our age. I drafted and redrafted until it was beautiful, finding the perfect balance of eloquence and truth and delivered it perfectly.

These, I knew, were the most important words I would ever speak.

I was wrong.

Then, shortly afterward, weary of war and violence and longing for rest, I took a sabbatical to the Holy Land. I journeyed from grand Jerusalem to insignificant Bethlehem, there to celebrate the birth of Christ in an hours-long service. Looking at the dark horizon, so little changed over nearly two thousand years, the beginning of a poem began to form, and the poem became a song: “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, a silent star goes by.”

The children’s choir sang my song that next Christmas, their innocent voices warbling in the candlelight, and the response was incredible. Hymnals began including my humble verse, with churches throughout the country playing it each year in December.

These, I thought, surely were the most important words I would ever pen.

I was wrong about that too. (more…)

Advent Stories: Silent Night

Elisabeth Vincken

Hurtgen Forest, Germany, December 1944

Battle of the Bulge, a few miles from Elisabeth’s cabin

Each Christmas Eve, my father would tell us again of Christmas truce of the Great War. It was one of the only parts of the war he spoke of at all, a story kind enough for small ears and for his own battle-scarred heart.

Those nights around the fire, he would make us feel the first terrifying steps into No Man’s Land, testing the truce…and then of shaking hands and playing soccer with the young men who you knew would try to kill you again the next day. He spoke of the drinks, the cheer, and most of all, the singing. Each country sang in their own language, and after some of the French launched into a boisterous “Noel,” my Papa began his favorite carol, with the rest of the men of his regiment joining in once they recognized the beloved tune.

Stille Nacht! Heil’ge Nacht!
Alles schläft; einsam wacht.
Nur das traute hoch heilige Paar.
Holder Knab’ im lockigen Haar,
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!

A song from a simpler time, first performed at a midnight mass on Christmas Eve in a small village church, sung now over the bloodied, disease-ridden trenches, in hopes that there would be another silent night again. Soon.

“It was beautiful,” Papa always said, “and it was brave.”

All of this, of course, makes for very good stories and very bad war policy, which is why such truces were banned from then on. The ban continues in this new war, I’m sure, though I am not on the front lines to know. My husband might be, tonight. He is a baker—or was before our bakery was bombed to pieces three months ago. Fritz and I moved to the hunting cabin in the woods, while my husband stayed in town to rebuild. He was supposed to be here for Christmas, but it seems something has kept him from us. I pray it’s the weather or an emergency shipment of bread to the troops, rather than being caught in the battle rumbling these past few days.

When he comes, I’ll tell him about the celebration he missed last night, Christmas Eve. It started, as it must have the first Christmas long ago, with a knock at the door.

(more…)

Advent Stories: Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

William Hayman Cummings

Essex, England, 1855

William Cummings fifty years after this narrative.

Good day. My name is William Cummings. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?

No? Well, I’m not altogether surprised. At twenty-five years of age, I haven’t yet made my mark on the musical world. It’s rather a shame. All those classical pianists who began composing when they were still toddling in the nursery created an absurd standard for the rest of us. By the time you’re old enough to have ambitions of being a prodigy, you’re too old to actually be one.

But perhaps you know the men whose work I have here altered and combined for our upcoming Christmas service.

First, Charles Wesley, the Methodist preacher inscribed in every beloved hymnal, wrote the carol. Second, George Whitefield, he of the Great Awakening, adapted it, changing some of the words. (Losing one of my personal favorites, “welkin,” an underappreciated bit of frippery.)

And I? I gave it a new tune, which I daresay it needed, no offense meant to either aforementioned man. As I read the verse and hummed the original melody line printed above it in all its plodding dreariness, I thought of Felix Mendelssohn, the renowned composer.

When I was a youth, I was able to meet Mendelssohn in person, as a tenor in the London premier of his opera, Elijah. One has perhaps not fully lived until he has shouted a call for Baal to bring down fire in guttural German. And to a hall packed with reserved Englishmen in evening dress, no less.

Mendelssohn, like Bach and Handel before him, desired to use his tremendous gift to honor his creator. Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. (more…)

On Being Thankful for Famines

Do you remember why the prodigal son came home?

I hadn’t. That story is fixed in my mind in the stained-glass image of the father embracing his son, the moment we all remember and hope for. And, because I relate to him, the dangling plotline of the older brother who wouldn’t go inside to celebrate, the one who was the farthest away even though he never left.

We all shift our roles in the story, over the years, in different relationships, passing the script around to play the part of the runaway outsider, the dutiful-but-secretly-resentful legalist, the longsuffering embodiment of home. We understand the people of the parable because we’ve been them, and that’s what stories do.

But this time, a different detail stood out to me—a silent, non-human antagonist in the story: “And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.”

See that? It wasn’t the sudden realization that his father still loved him, or even sorrow over his bad behavior, that drove the prodigal away from his old life. His stomach, not his heart, led him home. (more…)

What Matters More Than Your Problems

Right now, I’m surrounded by people who are going through every kind of hardship and heartache possible. You probably are too…and those are just the ones we know about. If we could somehow see a feed of the unspoken anxieties and hurts and doubts of people we interact with every day, it might be too much for us to handle.

That’s why I love the song “Is Anyone Worthy?” by Andrew Peterson. It’s got a congregational call-and-response format, and I’ll explain why that matters in a minute. But first, listen to the song. Seriously. It’s great.

Here’s what I love about liturgy and catechism and really good worship songs like this one: they allow us to affirm truth together.

Because there are days when we want to give the wrong answers to the questions in “Is He Worthy?” Sure, we know what we’re supposed to respond to “Does the Father truly love us?” Sometimes, though…it doesn’t feel like he does.

But when you’re repeating back God’s faithfulness with dozens of your brothers and sisters, from all different backgrounds, suffering in a hundred different ways and still singing…you start to be able to feel the things you know in your head. It gets you outside of your narrow focus on whatever trial is in front of you and helps you remember that you’re part of a community, that God has done amazing things in the past, that there are other believers who care about you, that it’s possible for something to be 100% true and still feel like a far-off hope. But the more you repeat those hopes and the past realities they’re based on, the closer they feel.

That’s why I love the seemingly content-less question in the song, “Is it good that we remind ourselves of this?”

It is.

It is, because it’s so easy to forget, to lose perspective and hope.

In the end, God will make all things new. He won’t utterly destroy the old things, but he will transform them, and all creation is waiting for that day. He can do it because he’s already accomplished the ultimate act of renewal and reconciliation in the cross.

If Jesus can fix the most deeply broken thing—our relationship with God, made up of millions of hard hearts and defiant rebellions stretching out over centuries—then he can restore all of the broken bits of our lives and give them purpose and meaning, sometimes here, sometimes not until the new heavens and new earth.

If he is worthy to die in our place, then he is worthy of it all. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12)

I remember thinking once, overwhelmed by some decision or difficulty now forgotten, that it’s easy to say that faith the size of a tiny mustard seed can move mountains…until you’re looking up at the mountain.

The answer to that was obvious: So don’t look at the mountain, Amy. Look at Jesus.

It’s good to process and to listen well to others who are struggling. Both self-reflection and sympathy have their place. But they often grow out of their place, at least for me. It’s easy to dwell on my problems—feeding them my time and attention, constantly returning to questions that refuse to be solved, cycling through self-pity or resentment or worry as if that helps anything at all—or to let someone else do the same. We justify and even praise those processes when honestly that’s what seems to make us feel most stuck and scared and paralyzed by the unrealized good that might have been or the possible bad that might still be. None of it is helpful.

But you know what is? Directing our thoughts back to what God did, is doing, and will ultimately do. “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). That’s a truth the Bible speaks louder than all of the groaning of creation and the groaning in our own hearts during the waiting in between.

It is good that we remind ourselves of this—of the mercy of God, the shortness of life, the beauty of faithfulness in hard times, and the ending of the story.

Why I Disliked the Ending of Infinity War

Here are three facts that should not all be possible at the same time: it took me six months from release to actually watch Avengers: Infinity War.

I volunteer at a youth group full of superhero-obsessed teenage boys who get great joy from getting a reaction out of me.

And I didn’t hear a single spoiler about this movie.

It’s a miracle.

That’s why I waited so long to write about the latest installment in the Marvel Universe, not because I needed to think deeply about it or was trying to give a spoiler gap for others. (Several not-highly-specific spoilers will follow, so be warned.)

So. That ending.

What?

Listen, I don’t require my stories to have happy endings. I appreciated the gray-area triumph of Dunkirk, with its flawed heroes and realistic grief. The bittersweet, open-ended conclusions of Home by Marilynne Robinson and The Long Road Home by Louise Penny were both fantastic, and I’ve read several of Shakespeare’s tragedies this year and greatly enjoyed them.

So, why didn’t I like this particular sad ending?

No offense, Marvel people, but you dragged us through two-and-a-half hours of introducing all fifty dozen superheroes and having them do things that were supposedly important to saving the world and such. (My rallying cry throughout? “Cut the side-quests. The people demand more witty banter!”) We at least expect to get some narrative satisfaction after the smoke clears.

But instead, we ended in the middle, in that moment where all hope seems lost. Not even the moment when our heroes decide to rally and make one last desperate stand or we see some glimpse of lessons learned or justice vowed. Nope. The moment before that.

Every now and then, I don’t mind a good cliffhanger that will be resolved later in a series, if the author has good enough payoff. (Brandon Sanderson, I’m looking at you.) But I don’t like being left in despair.

I was reading reviews of Infinity War to see if everyone else thought the ending was artistic and bold and I’m just crazy. One had this gem when explaining why the movie was hard to watch: “Plans fail. Character fails. Even sacrifices fail.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it. (more…)

Sherlock Holmes Charity Fundraiser

Welcome to the community of Sweetwaters in South Africa! In the video below, you’ll meet some of the amazing people involved with iThemba Ministries…and tour their partially-built community centre. Right now, it houses a preschool and a garden/nutrition program, but they have big dreams for what they can do when the rest of it is completed.

What does this have to do with the streets of Victorian London, you ask? (Wait for it…)

Elementary, my dear reader. Please, continue, and all will make sense.

I wanted to support this project, but anyone who knows me in real life recognizes that there is no way that I am going to run a marathon this side of heaven. (Possibly even on the other side of heaven, let’s be real.) So, instead of a fundraiser where you donate money to encourage me in some dramatic feat of athleticism, here’s the deal: you give any amount to the iThemba community centre (tax-deductible and all that), and I will email you a link to download seven complex puzzle PDFs, along with accompanying storyline, solutions, and a scone recipe.

There are codes and riddles, games for people who love numbers, maps, shapes, or spotting small objects, plus a dash of deductive Sherlockian silliness. They’re perfect for a date night, an evening of games with friends, a gift for someone who loves puzzles, or a long road trip (as long as you’re not the one driving). Our testers took about an hour to go through them all. Here’s the official description:

The Mysterious Occupant of 221 A Baker Street

When Mrs. Hudson decides to let out the flat next to the office of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes, a number of suspicious persons show interest. While Holmes himself is busy working on an incident of national security, he assigns Watson to screen each of the six applicants by gathering clues about each—also known as snooping. Which is a spy from Scotland Yard, eavesdropping to check in on the famous detective? Which has a grudge against Sherlock from a past investigation? And which might be an assassin sent by Moriarty himself? It’s up to you to help Watson solve the case.

To read more FAQs about the puzzles or to donate, click on the button below. (If I missed any questions you might have, put them in the comments.)

Be sure to share the fundraiser landing page on social media with anyone you think might be interested.

Thanks, everyone! We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled blogging next week (probably thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War, because I finally watched it).