Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The 19th Century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of America's best
known writers.  He is the author of such famous quotes as "into each life a
little rain must fall" and "in this world you are either an anvil or
hammer."  On Christmas Day 1864, Longfellow wrote a poem which became a
popular carol, and the story behind the poem is the story I want to tell you

That Christmas Longfellow was in the throes of a particularly difficult
period in his life.  His wife Fanny perished in a tragic fire three years
earlier while she was tending to family matters in their Cambridge,
Massachusetts home.  She had trimmed the hair of one of her daughters and
decided to preserve a few locks in sealing wax.  Her dress passed too close
to a nearby candle and ignited in flames fueled by wax that had dripped onto
the material.  Fanny Longfellow fled the room where her children where
gathered and ran to her husband's study.  He attempted to smother the fire,
first with a small rug and then with his own body, but he was not able to
save her life.  In the process Longfellow was so severely burned that he was
not able to attend the burial service.  

After that truly horrific event Longfellow was no longer able to produce
public writing.  His own personal journals give us insight into his state of
mind and spirit.  The first Christmas after Fanny's death, he wrote, "How
inexpressibly sad are all holidays."  On the first anniversary of her death,
he journaled, "I can make no record of these days.  Better leave them
wrapped in silence.  Perhaps someday God will give me peace."  Longfellow's
entry for December 25, 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children,
but that is no more for me."

Then, in March 1863, Longfellow learned that his oldest son, Charles
Appleton Longfellow, secretly enlisted in the Union Army without his
blessing.  In early December came word that Charles was severely wounded at
the Battle of New Hope Church here in Virginia.  He had been shot below the
shoulder blade and the bullet did damage to his spinal column.  Charles
returned to the Longfellow home in Cambridge for a lengthy, uncertain
recovery.  That Christmas Longfellow wrote nothing at all in his journal.  

A year later, on Christmas Day 1864, he ventured out for a stroll.  All
around Cambridge church bells were ringing with the message "Peace on earth,
goodwill toward men."  It struck Longfellow that peace and goodwill had been
neither his own experience nor that of the nation as a whole.  The Civil War
was in its third year.  Hundreds of thousands had been killed with many more
injured.  On that Christmas morning, families were separated from loved ones
precisely because the peace on earth proclaimed by the church bells did not
exist.  As he walked and as he listened, Longfellow reflected on his own
loss and on the losses of our nation.  His mood was sour, the antithesis of
the message ringing throughout the community.  

But something happened during that walk.  Something changed for Longfellow.
When he got home he sat down in his study and for the first time since
Fanny's death began to write.  He produced a poem called "Christmas Bells",
which twenty-some years later, was reconfigured into a carol we now know as
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day":

   I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
   Their old familiar carols play,
      And wild and sweet 
      the words repeat
   Of peace on earth, good will to men.

   I thought how, as the day had come,
   The belfries of all Christendom
      Had rolled along 
     the 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 doth he sleep;
      The wrong shall fail, 
      the right prevail,
   With peace on earth, good will to men."

   Till, ringing singing, on its way,
   The world revolved from night to day,
      A voice, a chime, 
      a chant sublime,
   Of peace on earth, good will to men!

At the heart of Christmas is the good news of Emmanuel - God with us.  The
'with us' part will change throughout our lives: where we will be, who will
and who will not be with us, what we are able and not able to do. all of
this can and will change.  What is constant is that God is with us no matter
what our circumstance.  God's presence endures all things.  It took
Longfellow nearly four years to be able to come back to it, but he did.  And
he found a moving way to speak about his myriad of emotions and recovery of
faith in the midst of national pain and personal loss.

I think tonight about families in Newtown, CT, in Webster, NY, and in so
many areas of our country directly affected by heinous, violent crime and
imagine that this is a difficult night.  Their world has changed in a
devastating way, much as Longfellow's had been.  Their loss mocks the
message of Christmas, but that does not silence our bells or what we
Christians proclaim: "God is with us, peace on earth and goodwill to all."

Two Sundays ago I said in my sermon that the tragedy in Connecticut had
connected me with the season of Advent as never before.  Its themes of light
in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sorrow, and hope in the midst
of despair are exactly what we need to hear right now.  Tonight I embrace
the Christmas message that God is with us; becoming present when it is
darkest, when we are most sad, when we are in deep despair.  God's Son was
not born under cushy circumstances to a life of sheltered privilege.  God
came to be with us in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.
Why?  Because that is when and where we most need God to be with us, when
life is tough.

I am struck by the parallels between Longfellow's sadness and where our
country finds itself this Christmas; the parallels of personal loss, of
communal tragedy, and national grief in the midst of war.  Longfellow
experienced a rebirth if you will because the churches around him proclaimed
the good news of Emmanuel - God with us and peace on earth.  Yes, I took
three mournful Christmases for the bells to break through Longfellow's
darkness, but eventually his night turned to day.  

This Christmas, perhaps more than any other I can recall, I am honored to be
a part of the church and feel so incredibly hopeful about the impact we have
simply by proclaiming the good news: "A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of
peace on earth, good will to men!"  Longfellow wasn't revived by a slick
sermon or stately prayer.  He was restored because, in multiple churches
around Cambridge, various people took the time on Christmas day to pull
ropes connected to church bells.  

Never underestimate the healing power in the hands of the church present
every time we gather to be the church.  We never know how and when our
simple proclamation of "God is with us, peace on earth and goodwill to all"
will give birth to light and joy and hope.  But we know that if we do not
say it, if the bells rest silent, if the message is not proclaimed, then God
has lost a powerful voice to remind people of God's loving presence.

My prayer is that you will experience the heart of Christmas in a renewing
and profound way.  If you walk in sadness, I pray that this may be a time
when ringing singing revolves your night to day.  If you find yourself in a
daytime moment of light and rejoicing, I pray that your very life will be a
witness to the heart of Christmas.  The message of God with us is one we all
we need to hear in every possible way it can be said.  How will you say it?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Seldom Seen

Listen to this actual newspaper account that appeared in print several years ago:

"Waylon Pendergast, 37, of Tampa, Florida, committed a spur-of-the-moment robbery while on his way home from a late-night drinking session.  A very inebriated Mr. Pendergast forced his way into the house through an open upstairs window, filling a suitcase with cash and valuables before setting the living room on fire to cover his tracks.  He then escaped through the back door and made his way home, chuckling all the way.  Only as he turned the corner into his own street, however, and discovered three fire engines outside his house, did he realize that in his drunkenness he had, in fact, burgled and ignited his own property.  His comment: "I had no idea I had so many valuable possessions."

I don't know if Waylon Pendergast attends a church, but I have my doubts.  They arise not because he drinks too much and not because he committed two felonies, but because he was clueless about his blessings.  We people of faith are attentive to the goodness we find in life.  Some of this goodness takes the tangible form of material possessions.  Some of it relates to those things that, as they say, money cannot buy.  We people of faith do not number our problems, we count our blessings.  And as we count, often we are overcome with amazement and joy.

This aspect of the faith is front and center in today's Gospel reading.  A teenage girl (young by our standards) and a woman in her early thirties (old by the standard of her day) meet to visit.  They are cousins and each is pregnant.  Notice what we do not hear in the narrative.  There is no mention of Elizabeth having morning sickness, back pain, or trouble sleeping, but I am confident she was struggling physically.  There is no mention that Mary had a care in the world, but you can be sure being an unwed, unemployed mother weighed heavily on her mind.  

What the narrative does detail is the warm greeting they offered to each other.  Elizabeth's words reverberate with blessing for her younger cousin.  Mary's words ring out with gratitude and praise for all that God has done.  Even the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaps for joy.  Joy holds a very significant place in Luke's Gospel where the word appears ten different times and often in response to something initiated by the Holy Spirit.  By contrast, Matthew uses the word joy only five times, John eight (primarily as a response to persecution), and Mark not at all.

Elizabeth is the person who most radiates amazement when she says, "Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me?"  The New International Bible makes it even clearer: "But why am I so favored?"  Mary echoes in response: "The Mighty One has done great things for me."

Have you ever had a moment like this - a moment of clarity - when suddenly and without notice you are overcome with an awareness of how blessed you are; a moment of sheer amazement that you have what you have - materially, relationally, personally, spiritually; a moment of joy even (and especially) in a time of hardship or need?  If we subscribe to Luke's theology, such insights as these are the fruit of the Holy Spirit's activity in our life.

In my experience the Holy Spirit helps us to see blessing in the midst of challenge.  I remember shopping a few years ago at (where else?) Wal-Mart and being slightly annoyed that the person pushing a cart in front of me was taking too long to get down the grocery aisle and in the process was blocking my way.  I watched her for a while I began to realize that each time she stopped to pick out an item she was doing mental math to figure out
if she could afford it or not: bigger cans verses smaller (and more affordable), name brands verses knockoffs, and more than once just looking at an item and putting it back on the shelf verses in the cart.  I pondered but could not remember the last time I had to worry about being able to pay my grocery bill. It helped me to realize how truly fortunate I am and with this newfound awareness of blessing, my annoyance was transformed into joy and amazement.  It may not seem like much of an epiphany, but it changed my outlook on life (and on shopping at Wal-Mart).   

After she passed away, Cecelia Williams' son found a poem she had written some years before.  It is another example of how the Holy Spirit transforms our perspective:

  Thank God for dirty dishes,
     They have a tale to tell.
  While other folks go hungry,
     We are eating very well.
  With home and health and happiness
     We should not want to fuss.
  For by this stack of evidence, 
     God is very good to us.

I'll think of this poem when I have to clean up from Christmas dinner and when I have to do laundry (a sure sign that I have clothes to wear) and when I have to clean house (a sign that I have a house to live in) - all blessings.  

Why am I so favored?  Why has God been so good to me?

Several years ago, lying in a bed in a dingy, old, log cabin, this is not the question I was asking.  I was at a clergy conference designed to help participants assess how we are doing spiritually, vocationally, personally, and financially.  "Why am I so favored?" is not the question that filled my thoughts when I first laid down, but it became the question which settled in my mind by the time I went to sleep.  I wrote a poem about the experience, which I have not shared with anyone until now.  I have given it the title "Seldom Seen."
I am a little resentful
That I must walk fifteen minutes
Down a dark road in the woods
To get to my cabin.
It is late, I am tired,
And I missed the bus
The others took.

I get to my cabin
And lay down on my bed.

When I checked into
The conference they laughed,
"Oh, you are staying in
Seldom Seen."  
It is the lodging farthest away 
And up a steep hill.
Others are in modern rooms
With porches looking out
Over the lake.  I am in 
A cold log cabin
Isolated from the rest
And alone.

As always, alone.

And I am a little bit resentful
As always.

I lay down on my bed
And look up at the ceiling
Taking in its structure
And texture and design.
The windows are open
To the cool mountain air
And I hear water cascading
Down a nearby stream.

I am aware of my
Mild resentment
The water
The isolation
The absence of a lake view
But another voice inside me says
  This night
   I am sheltered
  I am safe
  I am comfortable
  I am still full after a delicious dinner
  I am affirmed
In a vocation which
Satisfies and delights me
It pays me well and will provide
A comfortable retirement
I am in good health
With no limitations
Or restrictions
I possess a sound, sharp,
Inquisitive mind
  I have God's love in me
And know God's love for me.
  I am surrounded by God's love
In the people I serve.

How many people around the world
This night
Are praying desperately
For just one or two
Of these things I have?
How many people would gladly
Exchange their bitter, harsh reality
For even a small taste of my world?

The resentment I felt has evaporated
Because I have sensed my
Blessings seldom seen.

God is so good and I
Lack nothing that I need.

We chuckle at Waylon Pendergast for stealing what he already had and burning down what he already possessed, but in a sense we do the same kind of thing all the time.  We let the inconvenience of waiting rob us of the awareness of wealth.  We let a stack of dishes blind us to the treasure of family and food.  We let resentment overshadow the deep and abiding goodness in our lives.  

Elizabeth and Mary are wonderful figures for us to follow.  Their amazement and joy in the midst of challenge and struggle give us reason to invite God's Holy Spirit to speak to us, to move us, to transform us.  Why are you so favored?  Why has the Mighty One done great things for you?  The answer is simple. because God loves you.  Basque in the warmth of this love and live your life with a renewed sense of joy and amazement.