Tag Archives: faith

A Christmas Story

With Christmas fast approaching on the calendar, I got to thinking today about Christmas stories. As I understand it, the cable channel ABC Family is known for their 25 Days of Christmas programming block, which includes a plethora of Christmas movies, specials and supposedly, family-friendly fare for the whole family to enjoy. I’m told the Hallmark Channel also sponsors a Countdown to Christmas with holiday movies, specials and other original programs.schedule_landing

I can’t say whether or not these channels bring in lots of viewers with this seasonal programming. The other day, I heard someone describe the programs offered on the Hallmark Channel as:  girl-meets-boy, girl-meets-another-boy, first-boy-dispenses-with-second-and-gets-the-girl. I haven’t watched enough Hallmark to know. We’ve always enjoyed the Hallmark Hall of Fame productions like Sarah, Plain and Tall, Breathing Lessons, Promise. (Notice my fancy for James Garner?)

These Hall of Fame productions portray moving and entertaining characters. The stories touch your heart without seeming contrived.

Nowadays, I’ve found it difficult to find a Christmas-related story that isn’t contrived or thematic in a way that has been done so many times as to be worn-out cliché. Producers are, of course, always on the hunt for a good (hardly ever great) Christmas story because there’s a market for it to be read/adapted/ filmed/viewed/sung/marketed with peripheral products, etc. on an annual basis! (In other words, there’s gold in them thar hills!)

I delved into my memory bank to consider the stories that I’ve enjoyed through the years. (As someone born on Christmas, naturally, my own story has always fascinated me!) What I really wanted to think about, however, were the short stories of Christmases Past. A couple special ones came to mind. I’ll highlight one here.

FieldHouseBecause we were both born in the same town, I’ve always felt something of a kinship with Eugene Field. He was an American writer with imagination and tenderness for the children for whom he wrote lullabies and poetry. (I have mentioned him before, here.)

Field lived in many places but the picture to the left shows his boyhood home (built in 1829 and now a toy museum). Once a row-house, this building stands (almost by itself) close by St. Louis’s Gateway ArchBusch Stadium and the muddy Mississippi River (less than half a mile behind this building). I’ve visited Field’s home several times and am so glad they’ve saved it (thus far) from being demolished. I’m afraid, however, that few people today are even slightly familiar with an American writer named Eugene Field.

If you count yourself in that group, here’s a chance to expand your education. In my view, one of Field’s most delightful and tender stories (that I remember from childhood) is titled The First Christmas Tree. (The story runs over 1600 words, so I won’t reproduce it in this space. Please read it by clicking the web-link above.)

Field’s short story isn’t the predictable Christmas fare. It reads like a fairy tale (one of the reasons I love it so much!) It also has a Tolkien flavor to it; think about Treebeard from Middle Earth.

Unlike many of today’s short stories, there’s definitely a spiritual dimension to Field’s story. Whether the story of the Babe born in a stable resonates with you or not, I think you’ll find The First Christmas Tree avoids the trite, sugary-sweet sentimentality of many tales told today. I hope it becomes a favorite for you, just as it is one of mine.

Christmas Is For Children

“It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas,
when its Mighty Founder was a child Himself.” — Charles Dickens

Christmas is such a special time for me. (I acknowledge I’m not alone in loving this time of year, but you might say I’m inextricably attached to the Day … it’s when I was born.) No matter how old I am, Christmas always brings me back to childhood.

When the calendar turns to December, I’m often reminded of two writers. The first is Charles Dickens, whose novella A Christmas Carol is a perennial favorite that brought the author monetary success and literary kudos. A reading of this classic Christmas tale demonstrates the warm affection Dickens had for one of his characters, the child named Tim, crippled son of Bob Cratchit.51aLjlWEvZL

The second writer who stirs my thoughts during the Christmas season is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his time, Longfellow was an immensely popular literary and highly-regarded figure. Unfortunately, the Romantic era during which he wrote began to wane as themes of nature and beauty were deemed unfashionable as the so-called Realism era gained ascendance. I have a coffee-table book from 1965 that says:  “… no American poet is known in as many American homes as Longfellow.” That may have been true in 1965; I have my doubts it is still true today.

Longfellow’s lyrical style enabled his poetry to be easily set to music, and of course, music is a significant component of many Christmas celebrations. Generally lumped into the category Christmas Carols, these seasonal pieces certainly bring to mind the “Mighty Founder” of Christmas to whom Dickens referred, but Christmas recollections do not exclusively evoke the Holy Child.

As a poet who lived from 1807 to 1882, Longfellow experienced a different world from ours today, yet there were also striking parallels to 21st Century America. One of Longfellow’s most memorable poems (for me) rose out of tragic circumstances and the grief he endured.

Originally titled “Christmas Bells,” I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day may not be considered among Longfellow’s best works, but the 1864 poem keenly expresses Longfellow’s deep personal despair (having yet to recover from his wife’s death in 1861 and concern for a son badly wounded in war). He also echoes the sense of universal despair that still gripped the Country in Civil War.

This is a poem of contrasts:  there’s a brazen denunciation of evil, but the final stanza turns the work into an anthem of hope. The poet summons a chorus of Christmas bells, then mocks the “wild and sweet” with a refrain that daringly repeats “peace on earth, good will to men.”

It’s tempting to give in to despair. Following his wife’s death, Longfellow spent several years paralyzed with sorrow and lacking any incentive to write. Whether he managed to find the inner strength to view Christmas again through the eyes of childhood, who can say for sure? However, in his poem The Poet’s Calendar, written in 1882, he repeats an earlier theme in the last two lines:  “My songs are carols sung at every shrine, Proclaiming ‘Peace on earth, good will to men.'”

Here’s a musical rendition of I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day performed by Casting Crowns. I think it’s outstanding. I’ve included the lyrics below for your reading enjoyment as well.

“Christmas Bells” (1863)

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Coming Home At Last

eng_LB_1st_amerFifty years ago today (November 22, 1963) C. S. Lewis died. In the week leading up to this anniversary, I’ve written a series of posts related to what I consider (if I may be permitted to characterize seven volumes as a single work) his magnum opus, the inimitable Chronicles of NarniaIn these seven posts, I have commemorated his life and work.

The final volume in Lewis’s stories for children, The Last Battle, begins in the land of Narnia with two characters. The first one Lewis introduces is Shift, an ape who disavows his species, insisting instead:  “I’m a Man.”

Shift’s “friend” (who was “more like Shift’s servant”) is a dull but well-meaning donkey named Puzzle. The author’s choice in naming these two characters portends the ominous shift occurring in Narnia itself, a shift that confounds (puzzles) true Narnians. Continue Reading →

Looking Along the Sunbeams

eng_VDT_1st_amerAn adventure! Such a romp of the first order! C. S. Lewis’s third book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treaderushers readers into an exciting (and sometimes perilous) sea voyage. Pevensie siblings Peter and Susan aren’t present in this volume, having been told in Prince Caspian they will not return to Narnia. Lucy and Edmund are joined in this adventure by their insufferable cousin, Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

The adventure commences almost immediately as Lucy, Edmund and Eustace gaze at a picture hung on the wall of the bedroom, while Eustace insists “it’s a rotten picture.” Suddenly the wind picks up, blowing objects around the room, and quickly, the sea spray has drenched them from head to toe, sweeping them off their feet and down into the sea!

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This Narnia installment brings the return of an older, more seasoned Caspian (from the previous volume Prince Caspian). Within a few paragraphs, we’re also introduced to “the most valiant of all the Talking Beasts of Narnia,” the Chief Mouse Reepicheep. Of course, finicky Eustace thinks this “performing animal” is disgusting (“silly and vulgar” he says). He wants nothing to do with the mouse. Ever the valiant beast (and loyal knight), Reepicheep will somehow tolerate − for the sake of this “glorious venture” − the far more beastly, though human, Eustace.

Throughout Dawn Treader, Lewis uses delightful images of ever-increasing light, both in the world of Narnia and in the character enlightenment that takes place. The ship is sailing east on a quest to find seven Lords, friends of Caspian’s deceased father. (The seven men were sent out beyond the Eastern Seas by the usurper Miraz.) Caspian seeks to determine if they’re still alive or dead. Continue Reading →

The Proverbs 31 Model

Today in Arky-Barky land, the second day of a two-day event occupies my younger daughter’s attention. (The grandchildren and her sweet husband have slipped away on a day-trip visit to see the other grandparents.) My daughter is occupied with the NWA Boutique Show, an annual event where local merchants (and some from surrounding states) bring their best products hoping to appeal (i.e. sell) to early Christmas shoppers.

image337Yesterday, I took a quick spin through the convention center to see all the goodies on display. The parking lot (as always) was full! Inside the lobby entrance, my eyes lit upon beautifully decorated Christmas trees, artistic signage and enthusiastic young women gorgeously dressed and coifed. Transitioning to the convention hall, I had the sense of stepping into a glossy magazine with page after page exhibiting trends and elegant designs in fashion, home decor and dining fare.

I saw my younger daughter’s booth soon after entering. Cottage Colony products are a eclectic mix of large and small creations personally designed by my uber-talented daughter! The merchant booth itself (pictured below) reflects her flair for pulling together disparate objects in artful display such as I’d never be able to reproduce.7711_10151705006222096_458001789_n

Among her signature products, the red Collegiate Destination Blind shown at right (officially licensed for sale from the University of Arkansas) is a favorite for local communities and alumni seeking a unique way to express their school affiliations.

As with my daughter, the entrepreneurs at this boutique event embody what I consider to be a model of the Proverbs 31 woman. (I won’t reproduce the entire chapter in this post, but you can read it here for yourself.) Though I can’t speak for all the merchants in that convention center, I know several of these ladies and their entrepreneurial acumen is amazing.

It’s a daunting risk to mass-produce an item (or items) you like and your friends have admired or (in some cases) plunked down their cash to purchase. Feedback from friends usually indicates others might also like your product(s) enough to buy, but it’s a totally different undertaking to produce enough items to display at a show, not knowing whether the items will be sold or you’ll be piling much of it back into your car for the long trip home! (Of course, the “ideal” would be to sell everything you’ve brought and return home with a handful of custom orders! How often does that happen?)

Nevertheless, these boutique merchants open their two-day booths amid great expectations! (Will I garner enough sales to cover my expenses?) Some of them hope to earn enough during one two-day gathering so that they can depend on mail-order, online sales for the rest of the season (or year). Others know they’ll need to attend additional boutique events for the sales volume they’re hoping to achieve.

The Easy-to-Read (ERV) Version of Proverbs 31 calls this model woman the “perfect wife” or “noble woman” whose value is “far more than jewels.” The women in this boutique event work to create and innovate. They exemplify the Proverbs 31 model; she “… makes her own thread and weaves her own cloth …” (vs. 19), she “makes clothes and belts and sells them to the merchants …” (vs 24). Women like her (from all over the world) labor for their families and their communities, making the world and their lives better places to live, work and play.

Verse 31 of this chapter says, “praise her in public for what she has done.” I do.

Afternote:  I also am a Proverbs 31 woman! Verse 14b says “… she brings home food from everywhere.” My husband can confirm I’ve sufficiently mastered that quality!

Powers: “It’s true. It’s completely true.”

This isn’t the post I’d planned for today! I was all geared up for a rant, something caustic, something certain to heat up the broadband cable at least as far as the wall and possibly, stretching all the way to the phone pole from whence my cable cometh!

powers

… But things changed when I sorted through my email and this article immediately caught my attention. A first-person feature relates the faith journey of Kirsten Powers, girl-reporter phenom, political pundit, contributor at USAToday and FoxNews, columnist at The Daily Beast, and now, writing for … Christianity Today!

Powers tells a simple but profound story of detaching herself from boilerplate doubt (about the existence of God) into what she terms an “aggressively secular” mindset, and eventually, much to her consternation, into “indescribable joy” (again, her words) as a confirmed though “reluctant Jesus follower.”

With delightful candor, Powers recounts her contempt for Christians, mentally dismissing them as “anti-intellectual bigots … too weak to face the reality that there is no rhyme or reason to the world.” Based on this CT article, it appears she didn’t actually reject Christ, though she soundly rejected his followers. (Given my own lifelong experiences within religious circles, I sympathize.)

Remarkably, in Powers’ case, her crisis of faith (a subject about which I’ve previously posted) came soon after she acknowledged the presence and power of God in her life. Why? Because she had accepted a secular orthodoxy (yes, I believe the word applies) holding that many … mostall Christians are intellectual dullards and their vapidity results from a nonsensical, robotic belief system.

Not surprisingly, I suggest the opposite is true:  honest intellectual pursuit of all aspects of one’s life (not just one’s religious faith) requires rigorous inquiry. Contrary to Richard Dawkins (who criticizes faith as a “process of active non-thinking”), I consider my Christian faith expands my clear-thinking view of the world. Christian faith offers a view of the Creation that withstands critical examination. But don’t take my word for it.

Consider this account of Paul’s travels in Acts 17. He was in the ancient Macedonian city of Berea, sharing with the people of that city the Good News of Jesus Christ. Yes, they “received the message with great eagerness,” but they also “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Do the actions of these Berean Jews resemble Dawkins’ notion of active non-thinking?

Later in this same chapter of Acts, Paul debates a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. In turn, these philosophers respect Paul’s view enough to bring him to a meeting of the Areopagus. Recognizing the people of Athens were highly religious, Paul challenged them to weigh the claims of Jesus Christ, asserting Christ was the “unknown God” for whom they already had an altar in place.

Granted, the above references to Acts 17 come from the Bible. You may not like the Bible (have you read it?) or consider it an authoritative source. Nevertheless, the message Paul presented to both the Bereans and the Athenians stands up to scrutiny in every age, including today.

The Good News message is so irrational, yes − why would anyone willingly, knowingly choose to die in another’s place? But the Good News is also utterly rational − the Creator stepped out of eternity to invade Time (as a man) for the express purpose of reclaiming his Creation!

The Powers account reminds me of another one-time atheist, C. S. Lewis. His journey to faith is recounted in a memoir, Surprised by Joy:  The Shape of My Early Life. Instead of robotic religious creed, Powers and Lewis travelled parallel paths and both discovered a robust relationship with Christ that changed everything! Is it any surprise both would describe their journeys with the word Joy? I think not.

Tomorrow, the rant.

My Father’s World

As I get older, I find taking time off on what some folks refer to as “The Lord’s Day” brings me back to the week ahead with renewed vigor. Taking time off doesn’t mean I lie abed all day, but the ordinary tasks that keep my hands and mind far too occupied during a normal week are generally set aside on Sundays. (I know with surety they will be waiting for me on Monday morning!)

In keeping with that practice, today’s post is a brief one. But I hope its substance will offer a moment of quiet worship and/or reflection for you.

I think there’s something about a cappella music that soothes the soul. It’s a challenge for a group of singers to perform without the advantage of instrumental (keyboards, rhythm, etc.) accompaniment. A cappella music focuses on one’s voice as the “instrument.” This kind of performance is exacting but beautiful.

In an earlier post, I offered a video of an a cappella presentation where all nine parts were recorded (audio and video) by one talented musician. Here’s another one, a rendition of the old hymn, This is My Father’s World, recorded in six-part harmony by musician James Rose.

According to the information provided about the hymn at Wikipedia, atheist Penn Jillette says the hymn was his favorite growing up and he uses the song as intro music on his podcasts.

If I had to choose between the Jillette podcast intro or James Rose’s a cappella performance, I’d choose the latter. Just my opinion. Others may differ.

A Crisis of Faith

In last Thursday’s post, Ever Been to Nando’s, I talked about the refreshingly honest portrayal of Rev. Adam Smallbone’s crisis of faith. A Google search for the term crisis of faith results in a predictably large number of hits, including articles that explore Mother Teresa and John F. Kennedy, both of whom experienced this phenomenon.

In its brief article, Wikipedia explains:  Crisis of faith is a term commonly applied, especially in Western culture, to periods of intense doubt and internal conflict about one’s preconceived beliefs or life decisions.

The most striking phrase in this description − at least for me − is especially in Western culture.” Really? As with the concept of happiness probed in my earlier series of posts, is the concept of a crisis of faith just another cultural creation?

In matters of faith, it seems to me that whatever the culture, doubt inevitably arises. Whether Westerner or not, the one who hasn’t experienced doubt hasn’t actually comprehended faith. A quote attributed to Salman Rushdie says:  “… faith without doubt is addiction.”

Indeed. The beautiful woman doubts her beauty. The truly wise man must occasionally doubt the trustworthiness of some aspect of his knowledge. The athlete confronts doubt (am I good enough to win today?) before every competition. Why should it be any different for a believer to question or doubt the foundations for his/her faith?

Granted, a crisis of faith distinguishes a deeper, more serious affliction from simple, garden-variety doubt. David, King of Israel, wrote many of the Psalms. Some of his Psalms seek help or comfort in times of trouble but others reflect David’s shuddering despair in the midst of serious crisis.

To me, the first half of Psalm 28 reads as a straightforward plea to God for help, and the second half praises the Lord for heeding David’s entreaty. Still, verse one (with a universality that could make it anyone’s prayer) contains a sense of desperation in it:  God, don’t be deaf to me! Don’t be silent!

As I was writing last week about Adam Smallbone’s struggles, I was reminded of the following sonnet written long ago. The poem speaks of a crisis of faith moment in my life, a time when it seemed God was deaf.

Down-To-The-Pit, Psalm 28:1, despair, longing, where is god, crippling pain, silence, knowing god, sonnet, poem

Sonnet: Down To The Pit

For one whose faith is more than addiction, Isaiah 48:10 (ESV) describes being tried/tested “in the furnace of affliction.” On the other side of that affliction, David the psalmist reminds us in the final verses of Psalm 28 (verses 7a, 8b, NIV) that God is “my strength,” “my shield,” “a fortress of salvation for His anointed one.”

Such promises don’t avert a crisis of faith, but they do provide welcome comfort as we stumble through the furnace.

Dignity / Humanity

grim_reaper.600Death isn’t a subject most people are eager to discuss, but death by one’s own hand fits the template of today’s “pro-choice” culture. Several states have adopted measures whereby terminally-ill individuals have the “right” to lawfully end their lives. One website says “death with dignity” offers “options for the dying to control their own end-of-life care.

I’ve asked myself whether “dying with dignity” is even possible. If one means to control the way one dies or the setting in which it happens or seeks to promote the conceit that embracing death somehow makes it more palatable, these nuanced “dignity” claims are laughable!

We first need a definition of dignity. In my view, indignity is easier to define, but I’m not persuaded it’s the inverse of dignity. Attempting to avoid or bypass life’s indignities (by self-administering a lethal dose of drugs) suggests cowardice, inconsistent with dignity.

Death is indignity! It is the ultimate and final insult humanity delivers, a constant reminder of life’s temporality. No fountain of youth provides an antidote. Whatever our age or station, none of us is immune. Continue Reading →

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