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Below the story is a beautiful arrangement of the song originally made popular by Casting Crowns.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.

 

Tell Me About Your Jesus

I posted on social media recently a question to others who’ve professed their faith in Christ.

If someone said to you, “Tell me about your Jesus,” how would you respond?

There were some good online dialogue.

Then one friend commented, “Nick, how would you respond?”

Hopefully, the “nuts & bolts” below will help bring confidence to so many of us who are timid about sharing our faith.  It can be fairly terrifying.  (Satan will make certain of it.) But, nothing will more infuse your soul with supernatural adrenaline than telling someone about Jesus.

Below is my reply:

With a statement as powerful as “Tell me about your Jesus,” I, personally, would be careful to ask questions often to better understand if I am going in the right direction. The answers offered to my questions would help me understand the person’s present worldview (atheistic, agnostic, seeker, works-based religion, mysticism, etc.)

Understanding a person’s worldview helps tremendously.  Author and defender of the Christian faith, Gregory Koukl, in his book, The Story of Reality, proposes that every worldview attempts, at some point, to answer four basic questions: (1) Where did we come from? (2) What went wrong? i.e. why is the world a mess, (3) What is the solution to this mess?, and (4) How does it end for us?

By far, the Bible does the best job of answering all four of these questions.

1. I would most likely begin with making certain they understand that the Jesus of history truly existed and that the vast majority of historians (Christian & non-Christian) agree on four basic tenets about Christ: (1) Jesus certainly existed – even UNC New Testament professor, Bart Ehrman, who describes himself as “agnostic with atheistic leanings” states that Jesus “certainly existed”, (2) he was executed by crucifixion by the Romans, (3) he was buried in a borrowed grave, and (4) on Sunday the tomb was empty. Of course, it’s point No. 4 where the debate begins – “why was the tomb empty?”

2. Then, I would do my best to explain the simple gospel story (“gospel” means “good news”). I would let them know that God gifted us with not one – but four – perspectives of the life of Jesus: the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. Together, the four stories provide a rich and powerful story of love and hope through the man, Christ Jesus. I would then provide various scriptures from those stories about the love of God given to us in his Son.

3. It’s important to allow the person to stop us any time they desire and ask questions. Also, should the questions come across as dismissive about the Bible, try not to come across defensive. Jesus not only encountered the same responses, he seemed to welcomed them as it gave way to healthy dialogue.  Search the gospels and you will discover it is full of people who strongly questioned Jesus’ claims. Even Jesus’ own family, early on, thought he was a nut case. So, should your friend have objections simply reply with something like, “That’s actually a great point. And a lot of people feel that way. (Pilate looked at Jesus and asked, “What is truth?”) Could I try and bring some clarity to your question from the Bible?” Or, if you have no clue how to answer their question simply reply, “That’s a wonderful question. Would you mind if i do some research and get back to you on what i find?”  It is critical to always be kind and respectful. 

4. Most of all, our ability to share our faith depends on prayer and study of the scriptures as it defends on nothing else. One can have the New Testament memorized (Satan does), but if that person is not allowing the Holy Spirit to fill and control them they will be of little use to impact the kingdom. And the old saying is true: people don’t care how much we know until they know how much they care. Per that last statement, make certain they can tell you’re simply discussing the answer to their query and not attempting for force the Christian faith on them (Jesus never imposed himself or his message on a single person.)

5. Also, never worry about an initial conversation turning out to be “part one” of an ongoing conversation. I had a “part one” conversation just a couple of weeks ago with a person seeking truth. Only God can change a heart. We are merely the messenger.

Sometimes, people are more philosophical and have many great (and hard) questions. And, then there are times when the Holy Spirit will use the most simple of responses to the statement, “Tell me about your Jesus,” to convict a listener’s heart. Such an account is recorded in Acts 16 when the Philippian jailer asked Paul & Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” It appears that was enough for the jailer – as well as his entire family.

6. Finally, I like to inform people with whom I’m visiting that the Christian faith is nothing close to the “opium of the people” as Karl Marx once described religion. Nor is it an emotional crutch or a fairy tale, as some derisively call it. Quite the contrary, it is a rational, intelligent faith – a faith God actually encourages people to test and examine. The Bible is based on actual history – history that can be fact-checked. The gospels, according to historians, seem to fit best in the category of ancient Greco-Roman biography and, when scrutinized and weighed against the same criteria as other ancient literature, prove to be overwhelmingly reliable. The Homeric Epics come nowhere close to manuscript evidence of the New Testament, and no one questions their validity. Further, scholars, scientists and academics from the likes of Yale, MIT, Cornell, Harvard, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC-Irvine, Notre Dame, Cambridge and Oxford, just to name a few of the myriad of scholars, have placed their faith in the risen Christ.

The first verses I learned when being taught to share the gospel are commonly referred to as The Roman Road.  Simple and brief, I would encourage you to have them highlighted in your Bible and, even better, memorized. They are:

Romans 3:23 – If the Bible is indeed true, we have a serious, life-impacting problem: we are separated from God because of our sin.

Romans  6:23 – A bad news/good news verse.  There is a horrific consequence for this problem.  And there is also a solution: the “free” gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus. This “gift” had to be provided because of the first part of this verse: sin has a inviolable consequence: death.  Because of human sin, someone had to die.

Romans  5:8  –  The gift is free to us, but it was not truly “free” for it cost God the life of his Son.  Jesus died in our place, absorbing all the wrath of God on himself – for our sin. Why did Jesus do this?  Because of his boundless love for us.

Romans 10:9-10 – How do we accept this gift?  A gift can’t be earned by human effort; it is, by faith, accepted by a willing and believing heart.  So, when we agree with God that our sin has separated us from him and that he has provided for us a saving solution through the sacrifice and resurrection of his Son, the Bible says, “you will be saved.”  Saved from what?  The Bible calls it the second death (following physical death), or hell.  Further, those who profess faith in the risen Christ are made righteous in the sight of God – in right standing before God.  This means that a holy, terrifying Judge no longer sees us in our sin, but as he intended for us to be.  In short, he sees in us the righteousness, purity and holiness of his Son imputed to us through faith.

Hope this helps. Much love, Nick

The Prodigal Son: A Modern-Day Telling

The Return of the Prodigal Son; Rembrandt, 1669

My favorite chapter in all of scripture is Luke 15.

In a trilogy of parables, Jesus concludes with the story of the lost sons.

Philip Yancey, in his award-winning book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, tells the story of the younger lost son in modern context.  Yancey’s writing skills are extraordinary, and his re-telling of this story is powerful.  Enjoy.  nw

A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan.  Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts.  They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside.  “I hate you!”  She screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times.  She runs away.

She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play.  Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid details the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her.  California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.

Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen.  He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, and arranges a place for her to stay.  He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before.  She was right all along, she decides:  her parents were keeping her from all the fun.

The good life continues for a month, two months, a year.  The man with the big car – she calls him “Boss” – teaches her a few things that men like.  Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her.  She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants.  Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there.

She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on a flier with the headline, “Have you seen this child?”  But by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelry she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child.  Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.

After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean.  And before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name.  She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit.  When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores.  “Sleeping” is the wrong word – a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard.  Dark bands circle her eyes.  Her cough worsens.

One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different.  She no longer feels like a woman of the world.  She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city.  She begins to whimper.  Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry.  She needs a fix.  She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat.  Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind:  of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.

“God, why did I leave,” she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart.  “My dog back home eats better than I do now.”  She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.

Three straight phone calls – three straight connections to voicemail.  She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, Mom, it’s me.  I was wondering about maybe coming home.  I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow.  If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.”

It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan.  What if her parents are out of town and miss the message?  Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them?  And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago.  She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.

Her thoughts bounce back and forth between those worries and the speech she is preparing for her father:  “Dad, I’m sorry.  I know I was wrong.  It’s not your fault; it’s all mine.  Dad, can you forgive me?”  She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them.  She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.

The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City.  Tiny snow flakes hit the pavement rubbed worn by thousands of tires, and the asphalt steams.  She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here.  A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves.  Every so often, a billboard.  A sign posting the mileage to Traverse City.  “Oh God.”

When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, “Fifteen minutes, folks.  That’s all we have here.”  Fifteen minutes to decide her life.  She checks herself in a compact mirror and smoothes her hair. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice.  If they’re there.

She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect.  Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepares her for what she sees.  There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and even her grandmother.  And taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a banner that reads, “Welcome Home!”

Out of the crowd of cheers and well-wishers breaks her Dad.  She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know….”

He interrupts her.  “Hush child.  We’ve got no time for that.  No time for apologies.  You’ll be late for the party.  A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”

After this story, Yancey adds the following comment:

We are accustomed to finding a catch in every promise, but Jesus’ stories of extravagant grace include no catch, no loophole disqualifying us from God’s love.  [When we “come home”], to God it feels like the discovery of a lifetime.  As Dutch author, Henri Nouwen, points out, “God rejoices not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end,…No, God rejoices because one of His children who was lost has been found.”

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Stop Trying to be Good Enough

freedom

Good works are not required for salvation. Rather, they are evidence of our salvation.

Whether it’s being faithful to our spouse, honest in our business/academic dealings, keeping our thought-life pure, being patient behind a slow-as-Christmas driver, or even attending church…

These “good works,” albeit moral, don’t “get us into heaven.” Further, by God’s standards, there’s no one on planet earth who is “good.” (cf. Romans 3:10-12)

The “older brother” in Jesus’ story of the two sons in Luke 15:11-31 did everything “right” i.e. checked off all his “good works” boxes – and he still was just as lost as his prodigal bother had been.

The Bible is crystal clear: placing our faith in the death of Christ on the cross and in his resurrection “gets us into heaven.”  Paul wrote,

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9

If even the tiniest “good work” saved us, Christ died for nothing. But, not only did his death mean something, it meant everything. This is what Jesus meant when, from the cross, he cried, “It is finished.”

Paul wrote,

“It was for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

Free from what? Free from tirelessly trying to “check off a list of ‘good works’”, thinking our human effort will make us good enough for God to love us.

Stop trying to be “good enough” for God to love you. This is known as legalism And it is a crippling form of spiritual bondage.

In the words of author, Philip Yancey,

“There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more, and nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

God’s love for us is fixed, inexorably, because of Christ’s excruciating death and resurrection.

Again, “good works” are not required for salvation. But rather, they are evidence of our salvation.

This is precisely why Jesus said, “If you love me, you’ll do what I’ve told you to do.” (Jn. 14:15) It all begins with our love for, and devotion to, him.

Anyone can fake their love for someone by going through the motions of kindness and goodness using calculated pretense and deception.

We can fool some people some of the time.

But we can never fool God.

Place your faith in the risen Christ. Be free.

The “good works” will supernaturally follow. )

Love to you all, Nick

Good Friday – 20 Centuries Ago…

jesus-crucifixion

On Good Friday, while we go through our daily routines, use your imagination and travel back with me twenty centuries to the dusty roads of southern Palestine.

The son is appearing over the horizon. By this time, the rooster has crowed, alerting Simon Peter to the fact that, just as Jesus predicted, he would deny Jesus not once, but three times during the previous night. The other disciples have scattered in fear.

Jesus has spent the entire night facing an illegal, hostile, kangaroo court designed to railroad him into a verdict of execution.

The Jewish leaders have demanded an audience with Pontius Pilate, who, normally in Caesarea, is in Jerusalem because of the crowds associated with Passover. Pilate tolerates the Jewish leaders, hearing them out. But, seeing through their false accusations, Pilate agrees not (yet) to have Jesus executed, but to have him flogged. (death may be less cruel)

Jesus is about to have his back shredded and ripped from his body, producing voluminous blood-loss and hypovolemic shock. This was the type of torture from which prisoners often died. The Roman writer, Cicero, described it as “the cruelest and most hideous punishment possible.”

But, the crowds aren’t satisfied with the flogging.  They want death!  “Crucify him!”, they shout repeatedly.  So the verdict is handed down….the death penalty. For only Rome has the authority to execute a death sentence. And their favorite form of execution? Crucifixion.

Crucifixions are “events” intended to send a message of terror to the onlooking crowds: “Thinking about rebelling again Rome? Behold! This is your fate should you follow through.”

But, this is Good Friday, right? Given Jesus’ condition, how could anyone ever describe it as “good?”

Because, without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection.

I saw a sign once sitting outside a coffee shop on the Friday prior to Easter.  It read:

“Come on in – where every Friday is Good – and no one has to die.”

That’s a nice sentiment, I guess.  But it completely contradicts what God says:

“For all have sinned…. [and] the wages of sin is death.”

Translation:  The verdict is in.  We’re all guilty of sin.  Every last one of us.  And God’s payment to us – the wages we have earned for our sin – is death.  An eternal death sentence.

Today, consider Him who died, so that we wouldn’t have to.

This is the Gospel.

To put it in the words of contemporary culture:

karma

From John MacArthur’s brilliant “God With Us”:

“Think for a moment about how Jesus died. It was not an easy, gentle passing from this world. It was excruciating agony and torture of the worst kind, for it was on a cross. He suffered in His death. He drank the bitter cup at Calvary in its fullness – He drained it to the last drop. He experienced all the pain, all the loneliness, all the torments that have ever been associated with death…..The death He tasted was the penalty of our sin.

The prophet Isaiah, seven centuries before Christ was born, put it this way:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain,… Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,… He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (53:3-5; emphasis mine)

MacArthur adds,

Jesus Christ received the full force of all that the devil could throw at Him. More than that (far more), He received the full expression of God’s wrath over sin.”

Contrary to the sign outside the coffee shop, according to God – someone did have to die.

So Christ did. For us. Willingly.

Why? Because of his relentless love for us all.

It’s Friday,…but Sunday’s Comin’, Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Joel

Following a devastating locust invasion – unprecedented in its scope of damage – God instructed Joel to use the locusts as a living illustration of the judgment to come on Judah if they did not repent of their luke-warm, indifferent approach to God.

In Joel 2:25, God says to Judah,

“I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.”

This is an extraordinary statement because God doesn’t say he’ll restore “stuff”, but “years”.

Can God actually restore joy to our lives that pain and heartache have stolen from us over time?  What about the broken-hearted spouse who’s just ended a 20 year marriage?  Or, the guilt-ridden addict who, after spending most of their adult life in chemical bondage, has finally decided to get clean?  Or, the grieving family whose son took his own life after losing his battle with depression?

Can God “restore” the “life” we’ve lost.

God says, emphatically, “I not only can – I will.”

From the moment we put our trust and faith in Christ, the “restoration” is put into motion. 

Some of us see tangible evidence of “restoration” here on planet earth.  (Job’s livestock and wealth were restored to him twofold on earth.) Others of us won’t see restoration until we leave this planet. (Job’s children who were lost in 1:18-19 were restored to him in heaven.) But the promise of restoration remains – and is in effect.

Because of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, our redemption and restoration is now possible.  The risen Jesus Christ – restored to glory after being broken for us on the cross – was our preview of the restoration to come.

Hallelujah!  Nick

 

Minor Prophets with a Major Message: Hosea

Hosea beautifully – and frighteningly – describes God’s loyal/covenant love for a stubborn, rebellious people.

Like any parent who loves their child more than anything, God uses Hosea to warn Israel of punishment to come so as to protect them from horrible pain.

They refused to listen.

Below is a beautiful quote from the 5th century theologian, Theodoret of Cyrrhus.

Always keep in mind: even God’s judgment is driven by his love to get us to snap out of our prideful behavior and return to his love and protection.

In her powerful retelling of Hosea, Francine Rivers, in her book, Redeeming Love, beautifully illustrates the loyal, patient love of God for us.  Michael (who represents Hosea) tells Sarah (who represents rebellious Israel),

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick