I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I often tell people that, within the context of Christian music, the words of most beloved hymns & carols boil down to this:  those lyrics are someone’s story put to music.

As with the heart-breaking story behind Horatio Spafford’s It is Well, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with the drama that gives life to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Below, you will find a concise telling of the story behind Wadsworth’s poem as he searches desperately for peace and hope during a time of great pain.

Below the story is a beautiful arrangement of the song originally made popular by Casting Crowns.  However, the one I’ve linked for you here is sung by a precious couple in my church, Zach & Melissa Walker.  I much prefer their version.  It’s absolutely beautiful.

Peace on earth, Nick

From the Gospel Coalition:

In March of 1863, 18-year-old Charles Appleton Longfellow walked out of his family’s house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and—unbeknownst to his family—boarded a train bound for Washington, D.C., traveling over 400 miles across the eastern seaboard in order to join President Lincoln’s Union army to fight in the Civil War.

Charles (b. June 9, 1844) was the oldest of six children born to Fannie Elizabeth Appleton and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the celebrated literary critic and poet. Charles had five younger siblings: a brother (aged 17) and three sisters (ages 13, 10, 8—another one had died as an infant).

Less than two years earlier, Charles’s mother Fannie had tragically died after her dress caught on fire. Her husband, awoken from a nap, tried to extinguish the flames as best he could, first with a rug and then his own body, but she had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning (July 10, 1861), and Henry Longfellow’s facial burns were severe enough that he was unable even to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would grow a beard to hide his burned face and at times feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief.

When Charley (as he was called) arrived in Washington D.C., he sought to enlist as a private with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. Captain W. H. McCartney, commander of Battery A, wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for written permission for Charley to become a soldier. HWL (as his son referred to him) granted the permission.

Longfellow later wrote to his friends Charles Sumner (senator from Massachusetts), John Andrew (governor of Massachusetts), and Edward Dalton (medical inspector of the Sixth Army Corps) to lobby for his son to become an officer. But Charley had already impressed his fellow soldiers and superiors with his skills, and on March 27, 1863, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, assigned to Company “G.”

After participating on the fringe of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia (April 30-May 6, 1863), Charley fell ill with typhoid fever and was sent home to recover. He rejoined his unit on August 15, 1863, having missed the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).

1868
1868

While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded four days earlier. On November 27, 1863, while involved in a skirmish during a battle of of the Mine Run Campaign, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charley avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch.

He was carried into New Hope Church (Orange County, Virginia) and then transported to the Rapidan River. Charley’s father and younger brother, Ernest, immediately set out for Washington, D.C., arriving on December 3. Charley arrived by train on December 5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was alarmed when informed by the army surgeon that his son’s wound “was very serious” and that “paralysis might ensue.” Three surgeons gave a more favorable report that evening, suggesting a recovery that would require him to be “long in healing,” at least six months.

On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.

 

The Old Rugged Cross

NOTE: I wrote this four months after finding my 19 year old son after he’d taken his own life…

The-Old-Rugged-Cross-By-MidoriEyes-On-DeviantArt

There have been moments these past months that I’ve wanted to give up on God.

I’m simply being honest.

As one who grew up in a violent, alcoholic home, I witnessed more violence as a child than I care to remember.

As a full-time pastor now for 30+ years, I’ve had, on occasion, the unfortunate opportunity to see the very ugly side of what some have otherwise called “Christianity.”

But those pale in comparison to the events of May 13th, 2013, when my world caved in around me.

In light of the pain we suffer on planet earth, what proof is there that there is a God? More than that, what proof is there that that God really loves me?

From their outstanding work, “Name Above All Names,” Alistair Begg & Sinclair Ferguson write,

It is the cross alone that ultimately proves the love of God to us – not the circumstances of our lives.

We must not allow ourselves to be tricked into thinking that if things are going well with us, Then we can be sure of God’s love. For life can often seem dark and painful. Things do not always go well for us.

Rather, we look to the sacrifice of the cross and the proof God gave there of His love. ‘God [demonstrated proof of] His love toward us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

This is the proof I need. This is the truth I need to hear. This dispels the lies of the enemy.”

This is the unstoppable, indefensible, indisputable love of God in Christ Jesus.

I love you, Nick

Doubting God (it’s ok to doubt)

John the Baptist was described by Jesus, himself, as the greatest prophet to have ever lived. (Luke 7:28)

Yet, it’s John, while suffering in prison and awaiting execution, that asks his friends to go find Jesus and ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3)

Author/professor, Andre Resner, rightly stated, “The struggle with God is not a lack of faith; it is faith.”

Does the painful stuff of life sometimes make you wonder about God? If it does – it means you’re perfectly normal. You’re in strong biblical company.

God has no problem shouldering our doubt. Give your doubt to him – every last ounce of it. Peter, an eye-witness and close friend of Jesus, put it this way: “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

For Those Who Have Ever Doubted Your Christian Faith

Have you ever, as a born-again Christian, secretly (or publicly) doubted God, or your faith? If so, it means one thing:

You’re normal. 🙂

I heard a wise preacher once say, “Doubt is a parasite of faith.”

British author/scholar, Os Guinness, rightly stated, “If [Christianity] is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. There is no believing without some doubting; and believing is all the stronger for understanding and resolving doubt.”

Need biblical evidence that doubting God is a normal part of your spiritual journey? Here you go:

John the Baptist is the man who baptized Jesus and, upon seeing Jesus that day, exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” “There is no greater prophet that John,” Jesus, himself, affirmed.

This same John, later on in prison for preaching repentance, would ask his closest friends to find Jesus and ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

John doubted.

In an extraordinary passage (and a strong argument for the historical reliability of the gospels), Matthew records the following: “When [his disciples] saw [the risen Christ] they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

Jesus’ own followers doubted.

There is a tender story in Mark’s gospel about a man desperate to see his son healed. When the father questioned Jesus’ ability to heal his son, the broken-hearted man pleaded with Jesus, “Help me overcome my unbelief.”

So, if you’ve ever – for whatever reason – doubted your faith, know you are normal. Then, like the father in Mark’s gospel, take that doubt to Jesus.

I love you all.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick