Christmas Carols That Get to Me

Last week, I had the opportunity to see the play, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. In the course of the play, Ebenezer Scrooge is forced to come to terms with his life through visits from the spirits of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet-to-Come. Themes of compassion, generosity, transformation, and redemption are found throughout the short novel. Dickens called his work A Christmas Carol because he wanted the story to be shared, just as singing Christmas carols deepens our faith and brings people together.

As I long for the coming of the Christ child during Advent, I don’t shop, bake, or party. I sing. I sing of waiting, peace, grace, humility, forgiveness, and faith. And, in singing, I hear the voice of the One who says, “Pay attention, Laurie. I am still at work. I am coming. You will see me in the poor, the lonely, the outcasts, the throw-aways, the newborn babies, the immigrants, the aged, and the victims of human trafficking. Listen to my voice and keep on singing.”

With each passing year, the Christmas carols become more meaningful. These are just some of the songs of Christmas that get to me, the carols that cause me to weep in contrition, anticipation, anguish, and joy, and inspire me to make a difference in the world.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”

This hymn marks the beginning of Advent for me. I did not grow up in a liturgical church, but when I studied at a Lutheran college, I learned to love liturgy. I have so many memories of processing into the sanctuary singing this hauntingly beautiful hymn. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, 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.

“Away in a Manger”

It’s hard for me not to weep as my grandchildren sit next to me in church on Christmas Eve and we sing together.

Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care. And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”

Four years ago, bone-weary from an intense fall season in the local church, I just about lost it on Christmas Eve while singing this stanza. May each one of you pause beside the weary road during Advent to hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, 
who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours, come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing! 

“I Wonder as I Wander”

I spend my life wandering around the United Methodist connection and wondering at the amazing love of Jesus that inspires millions of Christ-followers to make a difference in every corner of our world.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor orn’ry people like you and like I, I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

 

 “What Child is This”

The tune for which this text was probably written, Greensleeves, is one of the most beloved melodies of the Christmas season.

What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping.
This, this is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste, to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.

“Silent Night”

Jesus, love’s pure light, is the dawn of redeeming grace and the hope of the world.

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.

“In the Bleak Midwinter”

Jesus doesn’t care how much we spend on Christmas presents. What is most important is offering our very self to the Christ child.

What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give him: give my heart. 

“Star Child”

How can we ensure that Christmas comes for everyone? Whom are you missing?

Star Child, earth child, go between of God,
Love Child, Christ child, heaven’s lightning rod.
This year, this year, let the day arrive
When Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive.

“Joseph, Dearest, Joseph Mine”

I yearn for the day when every child is cradled safely in their parents’ arms.

Joseph dearest, Joseph mine, help me cradle the child divine;
God reward thee and all that’s thine in paradise, so prays the mother Mary.
He came among us at Christmastime, at Christmastime, in Bethlehem;
let us bring him from far and wide, Love’s diadem:

Jesus, Jesus, lo, he comes, and loves, and saves, and frees us!

 “O Holy Night”

When will we truly learn how to love one another?

Truly he taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
With all our hearts we praise his holy name.

“Joy to the World”

Is there any more joyful and inspiring Christmas carol than this?

He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love, And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love.

What are the Christmas carols that get to you? What are the Christmas songs that bring tears to your eyes and cause you to stop in your tracks and thank God for the gift of the baby Jesus, our Lord and Savior? May you wonder as you wander out under the sky. Merry Christmas and God bless us every one!

The next Leading from the Heart will be on Monday, January 7.

The Points of Light Shine On!

Along with millions of people in the U.S. and around the world, I paused last week to honor President George Herbert Walker Bush, or as he was affectionately referred to, 41. As our nation honored him in two memorial services, one at the Washington Cathedral and the other at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, I remembered Bush’s inaugural speech in January,1989. He asked you and me to do our part in creating a kinder, gentler nation. As citizens of the United States, our responsibility is to make this world a better place.

By Unknown – U.S. Navy photo H069-13, Public Domain

George H.W. Bush was not seduced by power. Shaped by his experience of having been shot down as a Navy pilot in World War II, Bush understood his role in embodying integrity in leadership. He grew up in a family where service to others was always more important than being served. Bush did not need to be the center of attention. Rather, he engaged all sorts of people, insisted on treating everyone with respect, and relied on his Christian upbringing and faith in his decision-making.

President Bush also made it a priority to connect with people across the political spectrum. Last Tuesday, Bush received a moving tribute from onetime political rival, former Senator Bob Dole, who faced off two times against Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. Dole, age 95, frail and sitting in a wheelchair in front of Bush’s casket, indicated his desire to stand. With eyes fixed on the casket and the help of an aide, Dole struggled to stand and saluted his one-time rival and fellow World War II veteran.

Another indication of Bush’s character was a note that he wrote to President Bill Clinton after Bush was defeated in the 1992 Presidential election. The handwritten letter, left for Clinton in the Oval Office, read, in part,

“Dear Bill, When I walked into this office just now, I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too… You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good Luck. George.”

President George H.W. Bush was shaped by his upbringing in the Episcopal Church in New England and the influence of his mother, who read the Bible at breakfast every day. Although Bush did not “wear his religion on his sleeve,” the words of Jesus in Luke 12:48 were at the center of his life, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

I believe that Bush’s legacy will be carried on for years to come by the phrase “a thousand points of light,” which was first used by Bush in his speech accepting the nomination for president at the 1988 Republican National Convention. He compared our American volunteer organizations to “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” In his inaugural address on January 20, 1989, Bush again referred to all of the community volunteer organizations throughout the U.S. as a thousand points of light and said, “The old ideas are new again because they are not old, they are timeless: duty, sacrifice, commitment, and a patriotism that finds its expression in taking part and pitching in.”

During his presidency, Bush handed out “Point of Light Awards” six days a week to citizens working to aid their communities through volunteer work. Today Points of Light transcends borders by mobilizing millions of volunteers around the globe to address the world’s toughest problems. As in his life, President Bush has inspired me in his death to celebrate thousands of points of light that are transforming lives every year through the ministries of United Methodist churches in Iowa. This is just a sample.

  • Drakesville UMC gave a generous donation to “Shop with a Cop,” a program that provides a wonderful Christmas for underprivileged children.
  • Seminary student and pastor Fredrick Killian, of Calvary UMC in Stratford knocked on the door of every single household (population 650) this fall to introduce himself, welcome each one to worship, and offer to pray over their concerns. The result? Several small groups, including Bible studies and support groups for young adults and couples.
  • Iowa Falls, First UMC hosts a free meal on Wednesday night that serves up to 250 to 500 people. This includes home deliveries to 100 people.
  • The Center, a ministry of John’s United Methodist Church in Davenport, supports a food pantry and clothing closet, a homeless outreach, respectful human interaction for persons in need, and Skate Church, which reaches out to at-risk youth.
  • Vida Nueva UMC, led by Rev Ruben Mendoza, is training small group leaders to organize bible studies in four locations around Wright and Hancock counties.
  • Boone, First UMC delivers a large plate of holiday blessings and sweets to the employees of businesses open on Christmas Eve.
  • Grace UMC in Marcus experimented with a “late start” for worship after a snowy Sunday morning. They had a great turnout and no accidents on the way to worship!
  • After their Healthy Church Initiative consultation, Dike UMC refined their signage and outdoor welcome sign before the anticipated rush of guests for Christmas activities.
  • While Rev. Liz Tucker is in semi-retirement down south, she provides weekly sermons by video at Whitfield and Riverside UMC’s in Sioux City, while the laity lead the rest of the service.
  • Spirit Lake UMC partnered with the high school football team to launch the “Then Feed Just One” meal-packing ministry.
  • The youth of First UMC of Nevadaparticipated in the Polar Plunge, raising money and awareness for Special Olympics.
  • Bertram UMC funds and regularly hands out gift cards for gas and groceries to people in need. They also have a funeral assistance fund that is used to help out with funerals for anyone in the community.
  • Christ Community UMC in Marion hosted an annual 5k run/walk last month that raised $7,000.00 to support the Marion Senior Living Community. They also have a community garden that provides produce to those in need.
  • Altoona UMC had its annual Turkey Mission Dinner in November and raised $150,000. All of the proceeds will support local and global missions.
  • The Mabaan South Sudanese congregation in Des Moines raised up 13 lay servants last year, as they continue to grow into a beloved community and reach out to more diverse people in other regions.
  • Manchester UMC is raising funds to build a duplex that will be used to house people broken down by life and needing a second chance. The congregation will provide mentors to help them regain their lives spiritually, financially, and physically.
  • Manning UMC is in ministry with persons who struggle with addictions through a Friday evening recovery service and Bible study, with an average of forty in attendance.

The points of light in Iowa United Methodist churches shine on! They are a brilliant diversity, spread like stars that reach way beyond a thousand because we, too, are committed to a kinder, gentler church, nation, and world. In your death, as in your life, you continue to make a difference, President Bush. Thank you.

The Peaceable Kingdom

I was not sure what to expect. When our mission team from Iowa traveled to Zimbabwe in October, Gary and I had a chance to go on a safari ride early one morning. Because of my schedule, we arrived a day later than the rest of our group.

Having been on several other safaris during previous trips to Africa, I have always been fascinated by the opportunity to experience the beauty and wonder of wildlife. In Africa, the “Big Five” were originally the five animals that were the most difficult to hunt on foot. Today the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and cape buffalo are still the five animals that many tourists look for.

As we begin our early morning safari, I revel in the stark landscape of the African bush of the Stanley and Livingstone Private Game Preserve. The game park is home to the Big Five as well as sable antelope, eland, zebra, giraffe, kudu, waterbuck, impala, and hyenas.

Experiencing the wide variety of animals and birds in the African bush is pure delight, but we’re especially looking for rhinos. After a half hour, our guide points out several black rhinos on a plateau far in the distance. As we draw closer, we observe a mother rhino, a baby male who is suckling, and a four-year-old female. Various colorful birds are flying around, and zebra, deer, and a warthog are grazing on the plateau as well.

We stop at a safe distance to watch the scene, which reminds me of the Peaceable Kingdom that we read about in Isaiah 11. In this traditional Advent scripture, all creatures co-exist together in harmony and peace.

The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat;
the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together,
and a lion will eat straw like an ox.

A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole;
toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.
They won’t harm or destroy anywhere on my holy mountain.
The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord,
just as the water covers the sea.

 

 

I think about John August Swanson’s much-loved serigraph Peaceable Kingdom, which is a visual illustration of Isaiah 11 and a copy of which hangs in our living room. Created in 1994, Peaceable Kingdom embodies a central theme of Swanson’s art: the hope that people can live together in harmony based on the Christian values of kindness, love, and peace.

The scene on the plateau is both serene and surreal. Then, over to the right, a huge male rhino slowly makes his way through the bush right past us. Our guide tells us that the male is the father of the baby and the four-year-old girl. He also says that this particular male rhino killed a four-year-old son a few years ago because the son was a threat to the father’s territory. “There’s just not enough land in this preserve for the father and son to co-exist,” explains our guide.

The mother and daughter rhinos are on alert as the father continues to approach. All of a sudden, as the father moves closer to the mother and baby, the daughter attacks! She rushes toward her father and engages him in battle. Why? Our guide says that she fears the father will kill this baby boy, too. I’m watching all this with my mouth agape. Finally, the father backs off and slowly ambles back into the bush.

Our guide says that when the baby boy gets a bit older, they will have to remove him to another national park because, like before, the father will not tolerate another male to share his territory. Meanwhile the zebra, deer, and warthog continue to munch on leaves, unconcerned about the battle raging around them.

This is Mother Nature: God’s world. But is this plateau really the peaceable kingdom? Is this the circle of life where so many creatures are coexisting beautifully? I wonder. John August Swanson’s creative, visual re-telling of this biblical vision enables us to see the story through new eyes and rediscover the power and meaning of the story for our own lives. He challenges us to look at ourselves, re-examine our world-view, and see if we’re living as we should be.

The story of the rhinos reminds me of The United Methodist Church, less than three months before the special General Conference in February 2019. On the plateau in Zimbabwe, it seemed idyllic at first. Different animals living together, respecting each other, acknowledging that they share the land and the resources. When the father walked out of the bush onto the plateau, I assumed all was well. After all, they were family! A mother, father, girl, and baby boy. Then, out of the blue, the happy family fell apart.

In the same way, we United Methodists can live well in community with one another. I’ve experienced it over and over! We honor people of other Christian denominations and faith traditions and work together to make a difference in the world. Open hearts, open minds, open doors. There is more than enough for all. We are loving and gracious … except to our own brothers and sisters in The United Methodist Church. The differences that we are willing to accept in other groups we cannot tolerate among ourselves. Just like the black rhino, we are threatened by our very own.

We will have an opportunity to gather together in February as the Peaceable Kingdom. Will we continue to attack each other because of one area of theological/biblical interpretation where we do not all agree? Will we position ourselves on the plateau of General Conference so that we can face off against each other? Is this God’s desire for us as United Methodist disciples of Jesus?

Or can we meet in the middle of the plateau and join hands and heart? Can we humbly acknowledge that we hold much more in common than we think? Do we desire the synergy of living and serving together with one heart and mind, despite our differences? Do we become stronger when we can leverage our diversity to reach more people with the good news of Jesus Christ?

I’d like to think that the father rhino loved his son, but in this particular game preserve, there was not enough space for them to coexist. We United Methodists also want to love each other across all theological spectrums. There are so many life-giving ministries in which we engage as the body of Christ. So what if we found a way to offer even more space to each other so that we can stay together under a larger umbrella? What might that look like? What if we invite everyone to be a part of the peaceable kin-dom of God, where each person and all creatures are indispensable in the circle of life? And what if, as Isaiah prophesizes, a little child shall lead them? Will you follow? It’s not too late.