"Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand." (Isaiah 41:10)
As the pandemic rolls on, seemingly without end, I wonder...what are we putting our trust in these days?
The main cultural narrative is unmistakable, and intentionally one of fear. It is loud, it is repeated, it is effective. Our attention is always directed to the worst case scenario...the modelling numbers reported to the general public are usually projecting outstanding numbers of cases and deaths due to COVID--not what is, but what could be--and the numbers are always jarring. Add variants into the equation, with all of the accompanying unknowns, and fears of impending doom intensify even more. The projections justify harsh protocols and extreme limitations on personal freedoms, all for the fear of what may come, but not necessarily what is occurring at present. We are told that if everyone follows the rules, the worst will not happen, and we will be “safe” and not die. Nor will we spread infection or cause others to die indirectly. We like to feel safe, we want others to be safe, we respect our governing authorities, and so we obey. The antidote to our fears is control, the elimination of any possible risk to make us physically safe--and make no mistake, physical safety has become the ultimate goal. This has been the narrative at large for months on end, and, while we have not ever experienced the worst case scenario, there have been record high reports of anxiety and depression, substance abuse, deaths by suicide, increased incidents of spousal abuse, job loss and poverty, undiagnosed and untreated cancer, and a myriad of other secondary and tertiary effects of Public Health orders in the general public. It is an absolutely tragic situation.
The worry of impending doom, the belief in the prophecy or prediction, no matter how exaggerated or unlikely, has led us to a place of unrelenting fear and anxiety. It has paralyzed every area of our community. It has divided family, friends, and those in the church. And this, dear friends, is why I write this.
I am concerned that as much as we proclaim Christ, we have been influenced so greatly by this narrative of fear, and our theology has taken a back seat. That we too, as Christians, have become paralyzed. As I mentioned earlier, the narrative is effective--it taps into an emotion we all have within us.
I am not accusing. It is a battle, for sure, and I am in it with you. As someone who is prone to anxiety, I have had to navigate this carefully. I have to resist the forecasting and predictions and remember to live life one day at a time, not being concerned about tomorrow. This is quite a challenge when the very basis of the way of life we are having to live is focused on what could happen in the future. This is the very definition of what leads to anxiety in the first place! What has to be possible for us as Christ followers is that although we are being ruled by fear, we do not have to be ruled by fear. Because it is such a strong temptation to follow the louder, oft repeated narrative of our worldly culture, I am asking that we take a moment and examine how we are thinking and conducting ourselves at this time, and that we would allow the Holy Spirit to speak to us clearly if this is what has happened in our minds and hearts.
Are we reminding ourselves that because we belong to Christ, that our lives are no longer our own? That the days we have lived thus far have not been because of anything that we ourselves have done, but that God, who numbers our days, has granted them to us (Job 14:5)?
Are we remembering the words of Christ when he tells us that “whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33)? This means denying ourselves control over our lives; we are not our own. Are you living sacrificially during these days of the pandemic, or does self-preservation rule? It is important that we remember that our Lord is sovereign over our lives, and always has been. We are only alive today because He has ordained our days (Job 14:5). As well, we can find comfort and confidence in 2 Timothy 1:7, which assures us that “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgement.” Are we exercising sound judgement as we interact with the world around us, or are we allowing emotions to lead the way?
Our all-wise and loving Father in Heaven has much for us to learn during our time in isolation, and He also has much for us to do. He tells us to have courage and not fear (Joshua 1:9) because He knows we will tend toward the opposite. He makes clear his requirement of us that is to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8). He wants us to show the faith that grows within us through the works we display towards others (James 2:15). We cannot turn inward, hide, and be silent at a time when there is so much need around us. Christ who is our advocate, also desires for us to advocate for the poor and the weak, both physically and spiritually, and who are being affected disproportionately during this time. We are called to look for them, and to have compassion on them, bearing their burdens with them (Galatians 6:2).
As we look ahead towards gathering as God’s church once again, it is imperative that we consider these things deeply. There is no reason for the local church to be rendered ineffective or paralyzed during a crisis, no matter what that crisis might be. As we turn our thoughts towards Easter during the Lenten season, let the Holy Spirit reveal to us our sinfulness, and lead us to confession, remembering the forgiveness we have because of Christ’s sacrifice made for us on our behalf. It is in Christ’s power that we now walk, freeing us from all fear, enabling and empowering us to witness to others through word and deed, giving the certain hope needed in an uncertain world.
Will we do it?
A recent article written for The Atlantic, McKay Coppins describes his “surreal” experience of flying during a pandemic. One of the quotes in this article caught my attention. McKay writes:
“The things we miss most about our pre-pandemic lives--dine-in restaurants and recreational travel, karaoke nights and baseball games--require more than government permission to be enjoyed. These activities are predicated not only on close human contact but mutual affection and good-natured patience, on our ability to put up with one another. Governors can lift restrictions and companies can implement public-health protocols. But until we stop reflexively seeing people as viral threats, these old small pleasures we crave are likely to remain elusive.” (emphasis mine)
This resonates. And hurts deeply.
For those of us who have been out in the community lately, shopping and running errands, this feeling is very much a reality. Not for everyone, of course- there are always exceptions- but for the most part, it does not take very long to see that the weeks of lockdown have taken their toll on people in a myriad of ways. One only has to walk the wrong way down the aisle of a grocery store to know that McKay’s observation is quite accurate, and easily applies beyond flying. Anxiety, anger, and a new moral judgement for acceptable behaviour in a pandemic is rampant. Our view of people, as an entire culture, has been changed. And I am concerned that we, brothers and sisters in Christ, have been, or could be, swept up in this thinking as well if we don’t pay attention.
Tim Keller says that “we are more affected by our culture than we think.” This has always bothered me, because I know he’s right. I don’t want to be affected by our culture- especially by the negative things! But if I take a sober look at my life, I can see that it does. It is inevitable, I suppose. If I’m not paying attention, the values of this world subtly make their way in, almost unnoticeable. I begin tolerating things God specifically commands me to reject; I justify and defend desires and passions that God says to put to death; I begin to see my life and the lives of others through a world-centered lens, rather than a Christ-centered one. If we just live our lives passively and take our faith casually, we drift (Hebrews 2:1). We begin to take on the views of the louder voices that come at us incessantly. We don’t even realize that it’s happening until and unless the Lord intervenes and gets our attention.
I am saying these things because I think that we too, who follow Christ, are also in danger of thinking about people as “ viral threats”. We need to be aware of our thinking and perspectives, and if they are changing. God has set us apart, to think and act differently than our present culture. He has called us to be vigilant in guarding our hearts. This means that in this confusing time, we remember that the Lord has compassion on all He has made (Psalms 145:9); that all are created in His image (Genesis 1:27). We are to be merciful, and gracious, patient, kind and gentle, good and loving. We are able to respect, protect, and care for others, while we accept that risk and suffering are also intrinsic to the life of a Christian. The New City Catechism reminds us that our lives are not our own- we were bought at a price. It is keeping these things in mind that keeps our hearts tender, and keeps our reflexive behaviour from becoming fearful and defensive.
Colossians 4:2-6 instructs us well regarding our mindset, specifically verses 5 and 6: “Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person.”
Brothers and sisters, let us glorify God in our conduct by being wise in these disorienting days. He does not call us to be foolish or haphazard with our lives (nor do I), but He does call us to lay them down for his sake. Are we not reminded of this as we reflect on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? Are we not shown that Jesus is worthy of risk in the lives of missionaries and countless heroes of our faith that have gone before us?
It is really difficult to write about these things, to even begin to know how to rightly process all that has come our way in recent months. This pandemic has affected us in every area of our lives. Each day brings its own set of challenges emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, economically and physically. We are, each one of us, handling these things in different ways, as some of us find ourselves in a high risk category therefore needing to be more cautious, whereas some are not, and can be more liberal in our involvement in the community. As if these things were not enough, this virus has become a political tool and has the potential to cause further division, even within the church. How much more do we need to hold fast now to what unites us?
Eventually, in God’s perfect timing, this season will come to an end. Now, in the turmoil, is an opportune time to show others the love of Christ by living out the life of Christ. Let Him expose our idols of safety and physical health and help us to put them in their proper place. Let us keep our focus on Him and be lovers, seeing others through the lens of Scripture, and by this remind the individuals we come into contact with that they are human beings with great value, and not viral threats.
May we pray together that God, in His great mercy and grace, soon restore our sweet times together with one another, loved ones, friends and neighbours.
With love and anticipation,
There probably isn’t a more loved Christmas Carol than “Silent Night, Holy Night.” It is sung around the world and this year marks its 200th anniversary. The story behind the carol is shrouded in truth, mystery and folklore.
In 1818 this well known carol was sung for the first time in a small village church in Oberndorf, Austria. It was originally written in German by a young priest, Joseph Mohr, in 1816 while he was assigned to a pilgrimage church in Mariapfarr, Austria.
The song has outlasted the originator of the words. Historical records are reported that Father Joseph Mohr is buried in the tiny alpine ski resort in Wagrain, Austria. Born into a poor family he died penniless in Wagrain where he had been assigned as the pastor of the church. He was reported to be very generous, donating all of his earnings to be used for the care of the elderly and the education of the children in the area. He was described as “a reliable friend of mankind toward the poor, a gentle, helping father” in a report to the bishop.
On December 24, 1818 it is said that Mohr travelled to the home of musician and school teacher Franz Gruber, a friend and organist and choir director at the church. Mohr showed Gruber his poem from 1816 and asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment so that it could be performed at midnight mass that evening.
The folklore that has been assigned to this carol has been commonly accepted but is not accepted by all, especially sincere historians. It was Christmas Eve and the organist, accompanied by Father Mohr on his guitar and the choir were ready to sing this new carol as part of their worship service. Arriving at the church, it was discovered that the church mice had eaten the bellows of the organ and the organ was rendered inoperable. But the show must go on! So, alone with his guitar, Mohr, Gruber and the choir introduced this new song to the congregation. It was a hit! And the folklore has survived. In truth, all went well and the organ worked well. Maybe!
A master organ builder and repairman, Karl Mauracher, from the Ziller Valley worked on the St. Nicolas organ often and he discovered a copy of the carol and took it home with him. Its use spread to the point where it was referred to as a “Tyrolean Folk Song.”
Because of the carol’s folk-like composition it was adopted by two travelling folk singing families from the Ziller Valley, the Strassers and the Rainers . If you are familiar with the music of the Trapp Family, from the Sound of Music, you’ll have an idea of the sound. Its fame grew to the point where it was sung before Emperor Franz 1 and Tsar Alexander 1. It became a favourite of King Frederick William IV of Prussia who had it performed every year. The melody changed over the years until it finally arrived as the familiar tune we know today.
Over the course of time, after the death of Mohr, the melody had been assumed to be the work of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven, even though Franz Gruber wrote to the authorities in Berlin claiming to be the composer. The controversy was settled in 1994 when a long-lost arrangement of “Stille Nacht” in the hand of Joseph Mohr was authenticated. In the right hand corner of the arrangement Mohr had penned, “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.
Apparently, this carol was first sung in America, in 1839, at the Alexander Hamilton Monument outside Trinity Church in New York City. The performers were none other than the Rainer family, from Ziller Valley.
In 1914, during the First World War, historian Stanley Weintraub, writing about the Christmas Day truce that happened on the battlefield, attributes German Officer and sometime member of the Berlin Opera, Walter Kirchoff with singing the carol that encouraged the exchange of songs, greetings and gifts between opposing soldiers. A strange peace indeed!
Even though the history of the carol is clouded, wrapped in truth and folklore, it’s incredible to think that an obscure pastor of a small mountain congregation, and a musician-teacher wrote a poem and composition that in time became one of the most well-known and liked carols that we sing today. This song has turned hearts heavenward for 200 years and it’s likely to continue for many more ages to come. The hope and peace pronounced in the six verses are a message that have withstood the test of time, survived many rumours and myths and reveal to people all around the world the incredible gift of “God is with us – Immanuel.”
You’ll probably recognize the first 3 verses but verses 4-6 might not be familiar to you. Together they make for a great Christmas Eve devotional. MERRY CHRISTMAS!
1. 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!
2. Silent night! Holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight!
Glories stream from Heaven afar,
Heavenly Hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
Christ, the Saviour, is born!
3. 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!
4. Silent Night, Holy Night
Here at last, healing light
From the heavenly kingdom sent,
Abundant grace for our intent.
Jesus, salvation for all.
Jesus, salvation for all.
5. Silent Night! Holy Night"
Sleeps the world in peace tonight.
God sends his Son to earth below
A Child from whom all blessings flow
Jesus, embraces mankind.
Jesus, embraces mankind.
6. Silent Night, Holy Night
Mindful of mankind's plight
The Lord in Heav'n on high decreed
From earthly woes we would be freed
Jesus, God's promise for peace.
Jesus, God's promise for peace.
*** I am thankful for the research and writing of many who love this Carol. I claim no originality and offer this blog as a compilation of many resources. The stories associated with this carol abound and whether they are mere folklore or based on historical research do not change the wonderful message that has stood the test of two centuries.
The Origins of Christmas Carols … Hark the Herald Angels Sing
By Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788)
This familiar carol or Christmas hymn has a rich history.
In the 1700’s Britain was under a radical transformation. The Industrial revolution was underway and people were moving from the rural, country style of living to find work in the quickly growing cities. London was dirty, dangerous and the line drawn between the “haves and the have nots” was clearly defined. The small middle class, called “yeomen” pretty much disappeared by the end of the 18th century.
Rich people lived in large houses filled with opulent furniture and enjoyed their wealth. Slavery was still practiced, especially in the Colonies, and would not be banned by the Slavery Abolition Act until 1833. The new industrial advances and the practice of slavery made men rich increasing the difference between the rich and the poor.
In the early years of the 18th century gin was readily available and commonly overused resulting in many lives were ruined by overindulgence.
Food was expensive and potatoes were the main diet for most families. Education was the sign of wealth. Universities and Colleges were opening across the land and many of these colleges had religious denomination affiliation. But religion was under the strong control of the government, so much so that only the church of England (Anglican) had official recognition. Most of the religious leaders graduated from these recognized and credentialed schools.
Britain was expanding it’s colonial rule but life in the colonies was anything but peaceful. In what is modern day America, unrest was growing as the colonists took a strong dislike to this empirical rule. Canada was under British governance and that put the colonies in America and those in Canada at odds. The tension was growing.
It was into this quickly changing world that John and Charles Wesley were born. They were the sons of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. Charles was the eighteenth child of nineteen children, of which only ten reached maturity. He followed his father into service to the Anglican church after graduating from Westminster School and Christ Church at Oxford with a masters degree in classical language and literature. John went on to become a great orator and eventually, along with brother Charles established the Methodist movement.
Over time, Charles became the author and composer of many hymns, some of which are still sung in worship today. You might know some of these familiar hymns written by Charles: "Arise My Soul Arise," "And Can It Be That I Should Gain?," "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," "Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies," "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling," and "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today."
Charles was estimated to have written 10 poetic lines a day for 50 years. He composed the lyrics and sometimes the tunes for 9,989 hymns making him by far the greatest poetical hymn writer of all time.
And yet Charles has been referred to as ‘the forgotten Wesley.” He was a compatriot of George Whitefield, an Anglican evangelist and cleric who along with the Whitefield brothers was instrumental in the establishment of the Calvinistic Methodist church. Whitefield became the most popular preacher of the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain and the Great Awakening in America.
Even though George and Charles were friends, there was a time when Charles was greatly displeased with George. The original line of “Hark the Herald Angels sing” was, "Hark, how the welkin (heaven) rings, Glory to the King of kings" and George changed it to the words we sing today, “Hark! The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.” He argued that the term “welkin” referring to “heaven” was outdated and antiquated. Charles disagreed.
The original tune was slow and methodical, as Charles Wesley liked his music.
The current tune for this carol was composed by Mendelssohn, who himself was a Messianic Jew. It is from the second chorus of a cantata he wrote in 1840. The cantata was originally written to commemorate Johann Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. Mendelssohn strictly warned that his composition was to only be used in a purely secular manner. However, in 1856, long after both Wesley and Mendelssohn were dead, Dr. William Cummings ignored both of their wishes and joined the lyrics by Wesley with the music by Mendelssohn for the first time. As a result, the modern version of this beautiful, gospel-centered carol was born and generations have been singing it ever since.
We sing three verses to this Christmas hymn but there is a fourth verse that is seldom included in our modern hymnals. It goes like this:
Come, Desire of nations come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the Woman’s conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness now efface: Stamp Thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above, Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King.
All together this well-known anthem is a wonderful presentation of the Gospel message.
When you lift your voice this season and your heart is filled with gratitude and memories of Christmas past and the hope and the promise of Christmases to come, remember the rich heritage that connects us to Christ followers of years gone by.
“Glory to the newborn King”
I love my devotional time. I have always enjoyed writing diaries and notes, so for me, doing a devotional in the quiet of the morning is very natural for me.
I tend to jump around with different devotional resources on my phone, and yesterday I watched a short teaching video by John Piper on 2 Corinthians 1:3-6. I jumped on it, not only because I quite like John Piper, but for the longest time these verses have been very important to me. Here is the gist of what he taught:
“We are afflicted with a purpose; afflicted so that you may comfort others with the comfort from God that you have been comforted with”.
One of the questions that he asked following this teaching was,
“Has there ever been a season in which you were especially comforted by God? How did He bring through that season?”
I began trying to think of a particular time when this had been evident to me. I went back to when I had first called out to God, as a “twenty-something” young adult, crying - despairing, really - in my room in the dark because I couldn’t make a decision about University or work, and the pressure was tremendous. I remember saying, “God! If you’re really there, help me!” And I was calmed immediately. A deep peace came over me, and I knew my journey with God had begun.
Later, when financial problems struck our young family, we were comforted by close friends, and by people who loved us so much that they snuck money onto our front doorstep and ran away, never letting us know who it was. Comfort came from parents and friends who shared their stories of struggle, and bought us groceries, reminded us that God was with us and gave our kids extravagant gifts so that they wouldn’t know of our financial struggles.
Comfort came when years ago I was struggling with depression.
I remember clearly taking a walk on the trail, coming to cross Bernard Road and telling God that I didn’t want this Christian life anymore. It was too hard. But where else was I going to go? I thought, what other choices did I have? My husband comforted me, my close friends walked with us and felt sadness with us, and His Word would not let go of me.
A few years ago I also struggled with anxiety, acutely, “I can’t-get-off-the-couch-I-need to see-a-doctor-now” anxiety. Terrified of being terrified, I was comforted by doctors, by good friends in and outside my church, medicine, counsellors and Christian authors who reminded me that God would help me.
We have been comforted by Pastors at a recent wedding we attended, sharing stories of past experiences and how they handle insecurities and uncertainties. And most recently, we have been comforted by other parents of teenagers. And oh, how we needed that!
I share all of this because at the end of this devotional, something caught my attention; it was this:
“One of the biggest threats to perseverance to final salvation is that we despair in our sufferings. How many people have been afflicted and have given up on God and leave Him? I give up God...I’ve had enough!”
Even in our little church, there are so many of you on the cusp of giving up. And the thing is, as terrible as we’re suffering, with whatever it might be, we can refuse to welcome God’s comfort. We allow pride, embarrassment, and shame, and lies, to keep our suffering to ourselves, not wanting to burden others which is the opposite of what God wants for us. And others of us keep quiet because we think we have nothing to offer. But we do.
WE MUST STOP. THESE ARE CHAINS.
“God tells us that He has ordained that people undergo affliction, so that, speaking out of our affliction, we speak comfort into others who are being afflicted so to give them strength to persevere to the end and receive salvation.” Every time I was comforted, it gave me the strength to keep fighting, to go forward, to keep believing when it was so hard.
My friends, my brothers and sisters, my heart is full of a desire to see these chains broken. We are not meant to walk alone - we can’t. I plead with you, to take a deep breath and share your despair with someone. Someone that God can comfort you through. Let Him help you overcome the discomfort and give you the strength you need.
He wants us to win, and will give us every bit of strength and breath we need to do it. Allow yourself to be comforted in your affliction, and give away the comfort that you yourself have received.
With great love,