Saturday, December 24, 2016

'Silent Night'

Outside it is cold and windy, and darkness has blown over lawns, across walks and into deep drifts near buildings. The darkness is chilled by the heavy snows of an early winter, and is enough to make the weary soul ache for bed and a thick blanket. To anyone unfortunate enough to be outside by themselves, it's a lonely enough to burden the soul.

Inside the tiny church, it's a different story.

There the lights have been dimmed by choice, and the air is filled with the rustle of children like the wings of impatient angels. Above and below this susurrant murmur the organist plays an unending and nameless tune as the congregation and the minister grow silent and wait. In a moment, God will draw near and this unassuming neighborhood church will be transfigured.

It begins slowly. As the notes of the organ sort themselves into place a light the size of a single candle springs into life under the watchful eyes of the pulpit. In a moment it spreads to another candle, and then to another, and another. As the light spreads throughout the church and a hundred candles push back against the dark, the organ begins to play “Silent Night.” A holy Presence fills the room.

This is the first Christmas Eve service I can remember. It ran from 10:30 p.m. until just past midnight. I was 6 years old.

“Silent Night.” If there is a single Christmas carol that captures the wonder and the joy of Christmas, this is it. Composed in Austria in the 19th century with a simple guitar arrangement, it arrived in the world barely a month past the end of World War I. More than 17 million people had died in the war, including an estimated 7 million civilians, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

In the midst of that carnage – quite literally, since its lyricst, Father Joseph Mohr, had written the song at the height of the war two years earlier – “Silent Night” described a moment when peace as perfect and as restful as a lullaby had come to earth.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon virgin mother and child.
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love's pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent night, holy night,
Wondrous star, lend thy light;
With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia! to the king.
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

It's easy to crack wise about silence and the site of the Nativity. The manger Jesus was born in most likely was a cave and not the barn that serves as a staple of contemporary fancy and imagination, and silence seems unlikely for a family with a newborn in any setting, let alone one where livestock are likely to disturb them.

Nor was the peace of the era of a sort most would treasure. The Romans guaranteed order, not harmony; and kept that order by suppressing dissent. Herod the Great, king of Judea at the time Christ was born, was known for his own excess of brutality, to the point that the historian Josephus recounts an occasion where Herod had his own son strangled to death at dinner.

But the peace celebrated in “Silent Night” belongs to a higher order than the pax Romana or the stringent load set upon the vanquished by the Treaty of Versailles. In the Christmas story reported in the gospels we have the beginning of the marriage of heaven and earth, where glory is made known to the outcast, and the mighty stand still with wonder.

The peace that Christ offers is real peace: peace with one's self and peace with God, so that one may act with abandon and seek peace on earth as well.

In Christmas, as in “Silent Night,” we have a moment of respite, where something as mundane as listening to an old song played on an organ can be transformed into a holy moment where the Transcendent intrudes into the commonplace and creates an anchor point for a new life.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Angels We Have Heard on High

Surveying the collection of carols in American hymnody, one might be excused for thinking that Christmas was about angels.

The Christ child gets attention in carols like “O Holy Night” or “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and the magi of Matthew's gospel take center stage in “We Three Kings,” but we just can't get enough of those angels. Whether the heavenly host sings alleluia in “Silent Night,” or angels greet the newborn Christ with sweet anthems in “What Child Is This,” it's rare to find a Christmas carol that doesn't mention them. We just can't get enough of the angels proclaiming Christ's birth to a group of frightened shepherds.

The angels take center stage in the story of the first Christmas in “Angels We Have Heard on High.” In the structure of the song we are neither shepherds receiving the announcement of Christ's birth, nor are we angels declaring the news. We are instead a third party, wandering the countryside and arriving too late to witness the stunning tableau that transpired outside Bethlehem.

Imagine and take it in for a moment, what that spectacle would have been like. The gospel of Luke mentions a group of shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem tending their flocks of sheep, one presumes in connection with the sacrificial system at the Temple in nearby Jerusalem.

On the one hand is the landscape, barren except for the scrub, meadow muffins and a small flock of sheep that dot the area. Scattered through that flock are rough-spun shepherds, some sleeping, some possibly drunk and some watching the scene with whatever emotion sits in the hearts of a shepherd late at night. On the other hand is a heavenly visitor who has just appeared, illumined and illuminating with an unworldly light that burns with a wondrous terror.

Caesar and other rulers concern themselves with halls of power and faraway kingdoms. Whenever they have an important proclamation to share, like the birth of an heir, they send messengers throughout the realm to declare it to the mighty. The angelic messenger is here to declare that God has restored the royal line of David, Israel's golden king.

Fifteen hundred years earlier, Moses went to Pharaoh and declared that God had sent him to save Israel from slavery and genocide, and to deliver his people to their own land. Now the angel is declaring that God is sending a new Moses to free Israel again, but the announcement isn't going to Caesar or even to Herod. It's going to the beneficiaries of that news, a group of social outcasts who can't even give testimony in court.

It's hard to tell which is a bigger shock to the shepherds: that the messiah has been born, or that they're the ones who are receiving the birth announcement.

This is the scene of wild, uncontainable wonder expressed in the opening lines of “Angels We Have Heard on High.” That first verse comes from the shepherds themselves, struck senseless with wonder. They have seen a host of angels and heard those angels, lost in worship, as a heavenly song rolled over the plains and came echoing back from distant mountains.

This is their witness account of what they heard and what they saw, and frankly it is incredible.

By the time we arrive on the scene, it is 2,020 years later. The angels are gone. Their music, however glorious it once sounded, has faded into silence. There is no one left living whose great-grandfather might have been stirred by that song. All that remains is what purports to be a written record of their encounter, and whatever questions we have.

The first verse is the account of the shepherds; the second verse is ours, and it is addressed to the shepherds. Why this celebration? Why this singing? What could you possibly have heard to set you to such celebration?

These are all reasonable questions, whether they are asked as the shepherds rush toward Bethlehem, or two millennia later as we wonder at the story we have heard. Either way, the shepherds' response in the third verse is the only one suitable. They don't argue theology with us. (As for how they feel about it, that should be obvious from the major key and upbeat tempo to the carol.)

Nor do the shepherds even talk about what they think the birth of Jesus will mean for them personally, for their nation, or for the world. Their initial response is simply “Come to Bethlehem and see.”

What do we find there? A baby, certainly; some would say, no more. The remainder of the third verse, and the fourth verse as well, state what the shepherds themselves believed they would find: Christ the Lord, the newborn king, Lord of heaven and earth, laid in a manger.

And woven throughout the song at the end of every verse is the song of the angels itself, rendered in a rolling chorus that rises and falls in rapid tempo, the Latin Gloria in Excelsis Deo, “Glory to God in the highest.”

This, then, is our cue, as visitors to this pageantry. We have missed the angels, and are witness only to the record of what Luke tells us the shepherds found.

Follow the shepherds. Come to Bethlehem. What do you see there?

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing" "O Come O Come, Immanuel"

"Angels We Have Heard On High"

1. Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plain
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

2. Shepherds, why this jubilee?

Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be?
Which inspire your heavenly songs?
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
3. Come to Bethlehem and see
Christ, whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ, the Lord, the newborn King.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

4. See Him in a manger laid,

Jesus, Lord of heaven and earth;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
With us sing our Savior's birth.
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Friday, December 16, 2016

'O Come, O Come, Immanuel'

This Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Advent, something I suspect has escaped the notice of many Christians in America.

What we popularly consider the Christmas season technically is the Advent season. Advent is a part of the traditional Christian calendar, beginning four Sundays before Christmas, and ending on Christmas itself. The four Sundays of Advent are marked by lighting candles on a wreath, each with a different theme. The fifth candle, the Christ candle, is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas. In a liturgical sense the Christmas season does not begin until Christmas itself, and lasts for 12 days before ending on Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.

Fortunately, this doesn't make a difference to any but the stodgiest and most annoying people. Luckily for the rest of us, they have their own churches where they can fret over these things and wait until Christmas before they start singing Christmas carols, without ruining the fun of the season for the rest of us. (You know who you are.)

Advent technically has its own set of carols, such as “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” written by Charles Wesley; but for whatever reason these have not received the elevated status of Christmas carols. With some exceptions.

Chief among these exceptions is “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

Like all other great songs, whether they are hymns, Christmas carols or something else, “O Come O Come Immanuel” is best learned not from a lyrics sheet but by immersion. You grow up hearing it sung as the last leaves fall from the trees and as the sky first grows leaden with winter. You first sing it yourself before you can read, and learn to lose yourself in its somber notes at an age when it still thrills you to watch your breath chill in the air around you.

Some Christmas carols contain lessons on the meaning of Christmas, or they retell a familiar story around the Nativity. Some try to do both. None of that applies in this case. There is no progression of ideas in this carol, no breakthrough or “aha” that it tries to impart. Each verse begins the same way as its fellows, and each verse ends the same way: God, come rescue us. We are suffering here for want of you.

“O Come O Come Immanuel” was not written as much as it was grown — not from among the mountains, fields and forest rivers, nor from the bustle and jostle of our cities. It springs instead from the eternal longing in the human heart to transcend this sullied flesh and to connect with God. It is the prayer of a soul chained to the earth while it longs to dance in fields of glory.

“O Come O Come Immanuel” is not merely a hymn. It is Advent itself, given words and stretched over a frame of music that glides by as regularly as the chimes that call monks to prayer. It is a song that exudes the universal yearning for relief from the tedium of mortality. We are exiled here, we are under sentence of death, we are oppressed, we are weary. Come save us.

And always, in the same cadence that it gives voice to our longing, the carol returns to that same patient reminder: “Rejoice! Rejoice. Immanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.”

So we wait. Thousands of years ago God's people waited in faith for the coming of the promised deliverer, whose arrival we now celebrate from the vantage of a faith rewarded. We also wait for his promised return and the fulfillment of the deliverance that he began when he first arrived. And lastly we wait for him to come more fully into our hearts and change us.

You came into the darkness and you made a difference, Anglicans pray at this time of year. Come into the darkness again.

Even so. Come, Lord Jesus. We are waiting. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Hark the Herald Angels Sing"

O Come O Come Immanuel

1.O come, O come, Immanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

2. O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free

Thine own from Satan's tyranny ;
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

3. O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer,

Us mortals by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
4. O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heav'nly home ;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

5. O come, Adonai, Lord of might,

Who to thy tribes, on Sinai's height,
In ancient times did give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

George Whitefield's complicated legacy of race relations, Donald Trump and the evangelical church

George Whitefield, a well-known preacher in the 18th century, had a life-changing experience while at Oxford, Christ Church, while attending the so-called Holy Club prayer meetings run by John and Charles Wesley. While there he became convinced that mere identification with the church was insufficient, that one needed to have a personal experience with the risen Christ.

​Whitefield took this gospel of personal conversion to the Colonies, where he became a well-regarded preacher. He had a stunning oratory voice. During one in Philadelphia, Ben Franklin found that Whitefield's voice carried effortlessly for 500 feet. From this he estimated that at a single one of his open-air oratories, Whitefield could be heard by about 30,000 people at a time.

Whitefield carried the gospel of personal redemption and personal relationship with Christ up and down the Colonies, making him one of the leading architects of a movement that historians of religion refer to as the Great Awakening. His preaching, it has been said, engaged not just the head, but the heart as well. In many ways, he is one of the founders of the evangelical movement. His is an interesting and compelling story for what a man can do when he is committed to the cause of Christ.

For all that, Whitefield had an interesting track record when it came to blacks and race relations.

On the one hand, he was one of the first evangelists to preach to the enslaved. He also took to task slave owners in Maryland. Virginia and South Carolina for how they treated their slaves. In one letter addressed to such slave owners, he wrote, "Your dogs are caressed and fondled at your tables; but your slaves who are frequently styled dogs or beasts, have not an equal privilege."

Good so far, right?

How about this, then: Although Whitefield considered black people to be as deserving of the gospel and as fully human as white people like himself; he had no objection to slavery itself. In fact, from 1748 to 1750 he campaigned to see the Georgia colony re-establish slavery, which it had outlawed in 1735. Whitefield argued that the colony would never be economically successful without slavery, and he further lamented that an orphanage he had founded was struggling financially because it couldn't rely on unpaid slave labor. When Georgia finally reinstated slavery in 1751, Whitefield saw the legalization not only as a personal vindication of his efforts but also as a reflection of the divine will. When he died, he owned some 50 slaves. He didn't set them free, but left them to someone else.

Let's sum it up this way. Whitefield saw blacks as human, but he was willing to see them suffer the indignities of slavery, as long as they weren't treated too badly, because their suffering made it possible to accomplish other, good things.

Now it's a common defense of flawed heroes that they were a product of their times. That's really a poor excuse, though; we're called to transcend our times, and while Whitefield did this in some respects, he failed horribly at the crucial moral test of opposing slavery. This wasn't an impossible test. Groups like the Society of Friends (Quakers) had begun to oppose the enslavement of Africans in the latter half of the 17th century, not long after the practice had begun.

I'll put it blunty: Whitefield was wrong, horribly wrong. Much as all of us who engage in hagiography would lke to suggest it otherwise, there is no excuse for what he did. He sinned, and in his sin, he helped to persuade others to excuse the treatment of human beings as chattel, consigning hundreds of thousands of other humans to the chains of slavery until the Civil War, and beyond, through jim crow-era injustices like sharecropping and labor camps like Parchan Farm. If his legacy includes the spread of Christianity across the Colonies and even into the durability of the Union after the Revolution, then it also includes the brutal exploitation and oppression of black women, men and children for more than the next century. If his labors for the gospel brought glory to God, then his labors for slavery also added to the defamation of Christ.

Please hear me out on this.

What the church just did about a month ago in throwing its support behind Trump is the same thing that Whitefield did. More than four in five white evangelicals voted for Trump, despite the racist rhetoric he spewed about blacks and Hispanics. He described black neighborhoods in our cities as war zones, shared white supremacist lies about black-on-white crime, attacked the legitimacy of our first black president, got sued (twice!) by the Justice Department in the 1970s for refusing to rent to black people, condoned the day after the beating of a black protester at one of his rallies and called the protestor's First Amendent actions "disgusting," and on and on. I'm sure I don't need to detail the racism he has directed at Hispanics, or the horrible things he has said about women.

Since the election, in New York alone, bias incidents have spiked 400 percent since the election. Let me repeat that: Just in New York there have been four times *more* incidents aimed at ethnic or religious minorities since Trump was elected, over the number of incidents before. Many of these have included direct references to Trump as seeming justification for the incidents and the behavior. Look around the news and you'll see stories of bullying in kindergartens, in high school, in public by adults. A Muslim cop yesterday was called a terrorist and told to go back to Saudi Arabia. Children are being told by their classmates that they're going to be deported. Bigotry has been given license.

We need to own this, because it's ours. The support Trump enjoyed from white evangelicals more than put him over the top to win, not the popular vote, but the electoral vote. When the church voted for Trump, the church said it was OK with his attitudes and these actions. Why did evangelicals vote for him in such numbers? Among the reasons I've heard given: he's going to be a friend to Christianity, and he's going to appoint conservative (or) pro-life judges to the Supreme Court, while a President Clinton presumably would not have.

In other words, like George Whitefield 260 years ago, the evangelical church that he helped to found has continued to carry his legacy, both good and bad. We'll bear with and even justify the continued oppression of an entire group of people (or more) if it helps us to further other goals that we consider righteous.

Whitefield was wrong, horribly wrong, to support slavery. The evangelical church was wrong, horribly wrong to support Trump. It put its faith in a man who has broken his word in hundreds of business contracts, and to each of his wives. Trump is not going to do God's work. Already he has an attorney general nominee whose history suggests he would dismantle what is left of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts; a chief counsel who is known for white supremacy and anti-Semitism, a secretary of education nominee with no support for public education; and on and on. He has continued his shakedown style of "negotiations" with Boeing that he used to destroy small businesses all over New Jersey and New York. In supporting Trump, a man with no values, the evangelical church has supported a man who opposes everything Christ stands for. The church is often quick to point out its legacy of hospitals, famine relief and other such projects. Trump is also part of our legacy.

Today's theme for Advent is "repent." Repentance is not easy, but it is necessary. It involves turning around and changing direction from where we are going. In order for repentance to happen, it requires awakening. We need to awaken not only to what Trump represents, but what the church's support of him has done to the authority and respectability of the church.

If what I'm saying here resonates with you at all, please take a look around your church. If it's a church that is on board with a Trump presidency, and sees it as a good thing, do yourself a favor. Don't try to change it. Just leave. Find a black church, join it, and discover the gospel from a different point of view. Find a church that celebrates racial diversity and actually looks like what we see in the book of Revelation, a community drawn from every tribe, nation and language. Dr. King famously described Sunday morning as the most segregated hour in America. Not much has changed in the past 50 years.

If your church has its reservations about Trump, now is the time to talk with your church leaders and elders about how to respond. Can your church offer physical sanctuary to families fearful of being deported, as the Reformed Church of Highland Park did 16 years ago? Can your church begin buying debt with the express purpose of canceling it, and setting people free? Can your church adopt a local pocket of immigrants, or start partnering with a church of a different ethnicity? If you're in the middle of a pastoral search, can you make it a priority to hire a pastor who comes from an ethnic minority?

Whitefield screwed this up because he was content to be a product of his times. Let's do better.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, December 09, 2016

'Hark the Herald Angels Sing'

If you want a quietly solemn way to end the midnight service, sing “Silent Night.” If you want a song that will transport the congregation to heavenly realms, go with “O Holy Night.” But if you want to get people out of their seats, charged up and ready to move, the Christmas carol you want is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

The secret is in that tune. Written with an upbeat tempo and in a major key, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is the Christmas carol for a celebration. It's a versatile song, one that can sound heavenly when it's sung acapella or accompanied by a violin; but if you listen to the music, it's just as easy to imagine it played on trumpets like a quartet of heralds announcing a royal arrival. It's virtually impossible to get this song wrong. It can even be played on an organ and still come out inspiring.

We owe “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” to the prolific creativity of Charles Wesley, the credited author of more than 6,000 hymns. Wesley — who, like his brother John and their father, was an ordained minister of the Church of England — is also remembered as the founder of Methodism. The denomination takes its name from a prayer group the Charles Wesley founded while he was attending Christ Church, Oxford, that was known for its intensive, methodological approach to studying the Bible.

Wesley considered hymns, made easier to remember by virtue of being sung, a natural way to teach. He brought his meticulous approach to Bible study to bear so that the lyrics became not just recountings of stories in the Bible or passages of Scripture set to music, but miniature lessons in church doctrine. It would be as though contemporary theologian N.T. Wright put portions of “Surprised by Hope” to music, and then received airtime comparable to popular Christian singers like Chris Tomlin.

Originally published in 1739, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" underwent some minor changes under the revival preacher George Whitefield, who changed the opening lines of the first verse (from “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings”) and added the familiar couplet that closes each verse. The song originally had the same tune as "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," but in 1855 musician William H. Cummings adapted Mendelssohn's song to fit the lyrics. For all that, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is no exception to the depth of Wesley's writing.

The carol begins by placing the singers in the position of the shepherds of Luke's gospel as the angels appear and announce the birth of Jesus. To modern sensibilities, this a nice place to be. The shepherds are a quaint pastoral touch, and most of us are happy to identify with them in the gospel narrative as the first to hear that Christ has come.

We lose sight of how radical and subversive Luke's gospel is on this point, because the truth is that the shepherds embody the sort of people we usually go out of our way to avoid. People in the first century were discouraged from buying anything directly from shepherds because it was a given that anything a shepherd tried to sell was probably stolen. Even their testimony was inadmissible in the courts. This wasn't a quaint or pastoral group of people; it was an assemblage of crack addicts from under the bridge who aren't allowed to vote.

It's among this group of felons and illiterates that Wesley's hymn places us, as they receive the unexpected announcement from the angels, along with the news that the new king has removed any barriers that may have kept the from God:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

That's standard Bible stuff. In the second verse Wesley starts to teach about the Incarnation.

In Bible studies I've attended or read, I've encountered some pretty surprising attitudes toward Jesus. It seems we like Jesus to be something unreal or unnatural. We see the miracles in the gospels and assume that he had special God powers, and that this is why people followed him; or we catch the doctrine of his sinless nature and assume that life was easy for him, free of temptation, doubt or fear.

This is an old error. Christian orthodoxy teaches that Jesus was not a demigod like Herakles or some other hero of Greco-Roman myth, but as fully human as he was fully God. The Bible makes a point of it. He gets hungry. He gets angry. He gets tired. He cries, and even has full-blown panic attacks. He even cooks food and folds the laundry. Wesley addresses that point of doctrine in Verse 2.

Christ, by highest heav’n adored.
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

The proclamation of the angels and the mystery of Christ revealed, Wesley in the third verse turns to the shepherds' response, which is to worship. But here Wesley sneaks in a reference to Easter, as he proclaims that Christ is come to see the end of death:

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

There are two other verses Charles Wesley wrote for the carol that George Whitefield cut. To this day, they are rarely sung. But reading these, you can see firsthand the attention that Charles Wesley gave to Scripture as he wrote:

Come, desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving pow’r,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
Oh, to all thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

I hope your church incorporates this Christmas carol into worship at least once this Advent; and if it doesn't, I hope you can find time to enjoy it yourself, around the table with your family, or out caroling with your friends.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of the greatest Christmas carols ever written. It's scarcely possible to imagine Christmas without this song.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"O Little Town of Bethlehem"
"O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Rudolph the Red-Nose Savior"

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Not that anyone asked, but ...

I really don't like the term "racial reconciliation."

Reconciliation implies that there are two sides or more or less equal footing, like if a friend of mine and I got into an argument over something and had to patch things up. That just doesn't apply when it comes to the history of race relations in America, I draw a complete blank at anything African Americans have done, tolerated or turned a blind eye toward that comes anywhere close to a fraction of what they have endured from white society, starting in 1619 in the Jamestown colony.

Why don't we call for "racial justice" instead?

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

a nation of immigrants and slaves

Immigration has been on my mind a lot lately, given ongoing talk of Trump's wall and the recent rise in bias incidents aimed at immigrants around the country.

I live in a city with a large immigrant population. Many of my neighbors in the city are here without documentation. So last night, I shared a short essay on Facebook on the welcome my ancestor Benjamin Nye received when he arrived on these shores in 1620. It was standard fare for the argument: We are a nation of immigrants, and should welcome other immigrants as we were.

This morning an acquaintance of mine left a comment on my post. "We are not only a nation of immigrants," he reminded me. "We are also a nation of slaves. Not everyone shared the American dream, though we all share in the American experience."

As Fahim reminded me, his ancestors didn't come here looking for a new beginning and the promise of freedom. They arrived in the cargo holds of ships. America wasn't William Bradford's city on a hill for them; it was a place where they were beaten and even hanged, until as late as the 1950s. That we don't tell their stories in our schools and worse, that we actively try to suppress their stories, is to our shame as a nation.

It's true that Lincoln officially ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation and that the United States declared the practice unconstitutonal with the Fourteenth Amendment. It's also true that no proclamation or constitutional amendment can alter a practice as deeply entrenched in the culture and society as slavery was.

Thus the United States gave up on Reconstruction after 10 years, and pent-up resentment over the loss of white status led to all manner of repressive measures intended to return blacks in the South to the place they held prior to the Civil War, within the constraints of the new laws. Sharecropping was just another form of slavery, as were prisons like Parchman Farm. Voter suppression and poll taxes kept blacks from exercising their right to vote, and soon returned control of the Southern states and their congressional representation to whites, after a brief period of black representation.

And of course the Ku Klux Klan and its reign of terror drove those blacks north who could make the journey, to seek not better economic opportunities but basic survival. Up North, black laborers were viewed as unwanted competition by white laborers who within a generation or less after immigrating could assimilate because they looked a lot like their neighbors.

So yes, in the days of Jim Crow justice, blacks were free, but it wasn't much different from the days of slavery. Technically it was no longer illegal to teach blacks to read and write, but their schools were badly underfunded, dilapidated and worse. They were equal in the eyes of the law, but they still couldn't use the same bathrooms, drinking fountains or restaurants as whites, let alone other public facilities.

As recently as the 1950s black Americans could be and were executed without benefit of a trial in a public lynching. Then there's what happened in places like Greenwood, Tulsa, Okla., in 1921, when black neighborhoods became prosperous.

The 1960s saw some progress, but it was far more limited than we prefer to believe. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation laws to be unconstitutional, the South saw a wave of public pools closed and private swimming clubs being opened, and white parents withdrew their children from public schools and enrolled them in private schools that were based on church membership or required tuition that lower-income black families couldn't afford.

Pictures of lynchings embarrassed the Southern states, so greater efforts were made to give blacks a trial. The death penalty to this day remains much higher for blacks than it is for whites, as are the number of false convictions. So lynching is still a thing. We've just given it a civilized gloss.

Blacks also are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate to whites for the same offenses, and with much heavier penalties. Poll taxes were declared illegal, but now that the federal oversight afforded by the Voting Rights Act has been removed, Southern states have passing voter ID laws to fight nonexistent voter fraud in areas with higher concentrations of minorities.

And, lest we forget, one of the effects of our country's reliance on fines to punish misdemeanors is that we have created a revenue stream for municipalities and an incentive for municipal government to impose late fees on those who don't pay their fines promptly. I'm sure you remember the Justice Department's findings in Ferguson, Mo. Justice officials said the city had been treating the black community like an ATM.

On it goes. We've made progress in our nation in terms of racial equality and justice, but it's come against a strong current of white resistance.

I really see one way forward, to make the past be as past as we want it to be, and that's to acknowledge it properly. When I was growing up we learned in school about some figures from African American history, like Harriet Tubman, Grandma Moses and George Washington Carver, and of course Martin Luther King Jr. That's pretty much it. Slavery got one paragraph in my fifth-grade history textbook and it was pretty much "Yeah, the Revolution didn't free the slaves, but we took care of that eventually, so it's all good."

Even then my education was limited. We memorized a few key phrases from "I Have a Dream," but never even looked at "Where do we go from here?" or "Letters from a Biringham Jail," much less learned about Malcolm X. We learned about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but never about the head injury her abusive owner gave her, or that liberty when it came after the Civil War did not allow her to ride in "white cars" on trains. I didn't know anything about Frederick Douglass until I was in my 30s beyond "He's the guy with the hair."

None of the Framers was black, but there were black people in the halls of power back then. They had names like Jupiter, Sally Hemings and Oney Judge. They too are America. So are the contrabands and the 54th Mass. Colored Infantry who fought in the Civil War, or Varnum's Continentals in the Revolution. That we don't tell their stories in our schools and worse, that we actively try to suppress their stories, is to our shame as a nation.

If we learn their stories, and the rest of black history, like we've been learning white history, and elevate these heroes like we've elevated others; if we acknowledge the horror of what our nation did to thousands of women like Harriet Jacobs as a matter of routine, then maybe -- maybe -- we one day can say these things are past.

It's going to be a long haul.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

'O Little Town of Bethlehem'

Christmas is coming, and if you want a deeper worship experience in church, that's good news. In addition to the latest worshiptainment song from the radio, chances are good that you're going to hear actual Christmas carols. And by “hear,” I actually mean “sing.”

Traditional Christmas carols have several advantages going for them that popular and trendy worship songs don't. For starters, because American society is largely influenced by Christianity, people usually are familiar with Christmas carols even if they grew up outside the church. They probably recognize with the tunes, and if they have the lyrics in front of them, they almost certainly can sing along with confidence from the start.

Secondly, unlike many contemporary songs which deal strictly with a reductionist gospel of loving God and receiving forgiveness of sins, most Christmas carols are heavy lifters when it comes to doctrine. They'll carry their own weight in every verse, if not on every line.

Carols like “The First Noël” retell the story of the first Christmas around the supporting cast of shepherds and magi, while “O Come All Ye Faithful” teaches good doctrine on the hypostatic union. “We Three Kings” explores the coming life of Christ down to his death and Resurrection, and “O Holy Night” reflects the gospel call for social justice.

And then there's “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a four-verse meditation on the Nativity itself.

Written in 1868 by Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal priest from the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia who had visited the Holy Land three years earlier, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a song people know of but don't know. Without the lyrics in front of them, most people can sing the first line with great enthusiasm before trailing off into “Da dee da dee dee dum” on Line 2.

If you sang “O Little Town” in church as a child, you probably sang it accompanied by a battered and tuneless organ. When you finished singing, you may even have looked at the carol itself with a measure of pity for all the trauma it had just suffered. Many songs suffer horribly during congregational worship in church, especially when they're sung without enthusiasm and played on an organ.

If your church still uses hymnals you're more likely to find “O Little Town of Bethlehem” than a carol like “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” but there are no guarantees you'll sing it during Advent, on Christmas or during the days leading to Epiphany. It's more of a bench-warmer than a Christmas titan like “Silent Night.”

That's a shame, because this song has what it takes to be a winner. The melody fits comfortably within a one-octave range, and proceeds at a steady, easily managed pace. The carol is lyrically unassuming as well, starting out like the opening montage of a Hollywood movie before delving into its deeper themes.

The first verse of “O Little Town” begins with the camera tracking slowly across a field of stars against the cold night sky before it drops down toward Bethlehem. It's a small town, scarcely more than a village. Many of the houses are hovels, owned by working-class families, although a few are bigger. Winding through the village are roads made of dirt and frozen mud, beaten paths made by the steady footsteps of people and their livestock over the years.

It's night, so as the camera pans through town we see the darkened windows of the houses. The only light comes from the stars and moon above, except for one mysterous source. As our field of vision steadily shifts leftward we perceive an unearthly light, small but steady, coming from the edge of town.

The second verse takes us to a closeup of the manger. Mary is lying on a pile of straw. Her face and her entire body are streaked with dust and dirt, and she is leaden with exhaustion. It's more than 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and if it weren't for that Roman census, she and her husband wouldn't have made the trip. It's too much to manage when you're nine months pregnant, but it did have one benefit. All that travel made labor a lot faster than it would have been otherwise.

The scene in the manger is perfectly idyllic, the proverbial calm after the storm. A moment ago Jesus was screaming fit to raise the dead, but he has finally settled down. Right now he's nestled in the crook of Mary's arm, latched onto her breast and lazily drinking colostrum as his eyes close and his tiny body unclenches.

In a moment Jesus will fall asleep and then Mary will too, but that won't last long. He's going to wake up a lot the next few nights, and aggravate his parents to no end. That's how it works when you have an infant.

Now the camera pulls back from the manger scene, and pans up toward the heavens again. It's quiet in town. Aside from Joseph, who is trying to decide if he puts too much stock in his dreams, pretty much everyone in Bethlehem is asleep right now.

That’s a shame because the people in the town are missing quite a show. The gates of heaven are open wide, and the angelic host is looking in amazement at the scene below them. While the stars themselves announce the birth of Jesus to anyone who is watching, the angels are lost in worship to the God who is at once too vast to comprehend and yet so tiny and vulnerable that it beggars description.

As rare as it is that we sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it's rarer still we sing the third and fourth verses. That's our loss. The third verse contemplates the unassuming gospel, which by its nature comes silently and without fanfare or acclaim to the meek; rather than with the might and bluster we ourselves often rely on to advance it.

The fourth verse moves to entreaty, asking for our own transformation. Two things I find compelling about this verse: Rather than focusing on the crucified Christ we focus on so much, it welcomes the infant Christ into our lives, and it does so with the title Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Why is this important? I can't speak for others, but too often I take the adult Man of Sorrows for granted. I pause, consider his death for my sins, breathe a quick prayer of contrition and ask for forgiveness, and then I move on, my life largely unchanged. You can't do that with a child.

I became a father 17 years ago. I can think of nothing that upended my life more than the arrival of my daughter on that October afternoon. My wife and I had altered our lives to accommodate one another, but either one of us could and often did manage just fine without the other around when it came to day-to-day living.

I went to work in the morning and came home in the evening, just as I had done before we got married. My wife did the same with her studies and teaching post at graduate school. The big change in our lifestyle after our wedding was that now, when we returned to the apartment for the evening, somebody else would be there. That was it.

Not so when Oldest Daughter arrived on the scene. She required our presence in her life constantly for food, for comfort, for cleaning and for education. If she was hungry, we had to drop everything and feed her. If she was upset, we did our best to comfort her immediately. As soon as she started babbling, we started babbling back to encourage her to speak. Even a trip to the supermarket or to a friend's house was altered fundamentally by her presence. She didn't run the house, but her well-being became our highest priority, even above our own. If she couldn't sleep because of an ear infection, we didn't either.

It's been 17 years now and Oldest Daughter has learned remarkably well to stand on her own two feet. She gets herself food, works her own job, and pursues her own learning at high school and at home. For all that, our lives remain ordered around her needs, her goals and her for her own sake, because we love her. The same is true for her sisters.

In that sacrificial and occasionally selfless devotion to her life and well-being, I see a shadow of the life-upending transformation that Christ can bring when the unassuming infant from the manger arrives in our midst and compels us to place someone else truly first.

That's not just singing a song. That's worship.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

You may also like:
"'O Holy Night: Christmas Remembered"
"Rudolph the Red-Nose Savior"

The lyrics:

O Little Town of Bethlehem

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

war on christmas: a retrospective

On Dec. 1 1993, Congress sent the War on Christmas Act to President Bill Clinton for his signature, allowing him to complete a major cornerstone of his legacy and accomplishing a major piece of the Democratic Party platform left unfinished since the days of President Franklin Roosevelt.

​Immediately upon his signing, it became a federal offense to refer to Christmas outside a place of worship. During the past 23 years, our government has stepped up its assault on religious freedom with other offensive measures, most recently the Red Starbucks Cup Act of 2015, which President and Kenyan immigrant Obama personally lobbied for.

Today it appears that President Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have decided to escalate the War on Christmas with round-the-clock bombing on Bethlehem, Pa. The governors of 18 states also have ordered SWAT teams deployed to houses where stockings are hung by the chimney with care.

h/t to Fox News for its courageous reporting on behalf of the resistance

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.