Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I heard the bells

It's officially Christmas season, time for Christmas carols. Ah.

My favorite Christmas carol is "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1864, when America was torn apart by civil war. The hymn version usually includes these stanzas of the poem:

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.

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.”

Those last two stanzas resonate with me. I am often a country divided, caught in a war between God's truth and Satan's lies. I bow my head and give up on peace far too often. 

Somebody sent me this bell today in an email. It was just what I needed to fight the war within today.

I am God's child ( John 1:12)
I am Christ 's friend ( John 15:15 )
I am united with the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17)
I am bought with a price (1 Cor 6:19-20)
I am a saint (set apart for God). (Eph. 1:1)
I am a personal witness of Christ . (Acts 1:8)
I am the salt & light of the earth (Matt 5:13-14)
I am a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27)
I am free forever from condemnation ( Rom. 8: 1-2)
I am a citizen of Heaven. I am significant ( Phil 3 :20)
I am free from any charge against me (Rom. 8:31 -34)
I am a minister of reconciliation for God (2 Cor 5:17-21)
I have access to God through the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18)
I am seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:6)
I cannot be separated from the love of God (Rom 8:35-39)
I am established, anointed, sealed by God (2 Cor 1:21-22 )
I am assured all things work together for good (Rom. 8:28 )
I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit ( John 15:16 )
I may approach God with freedom and confidence (Eph.. 3: 12 )
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13 )
I am the branch of the true vine, a channel of His life ( John 15: 1-5)
I am God's temple (1 Cor. 3: 16). I am complete in Christ (Col. 2: 10)
I am hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).. I have been justified (Romans 5:1)
I am God's co-worker (1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor 6:1). I am God's workmanship (Eph. 2:10)
I am confident that the good works God has begun in me will be perfected. (Phil. 1: 5)
I have been redeemed and forgiven ( Col 1:14). I have been adopted as God's child (Eph 1:5)
I belong to God
Do you know
Who you are?

 Just in case you needed to hear the ring of truth today, I thought I'd pass it along.  Peace on earth.  And in your heart. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Gratitude journal

I've made a breakthrough this week. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I find myself grateful for the color orange.

Orange: never liked it. It's the color of traffic cones. And, well, UT, whose fans are over-the-top All About Orange. I'm from Texas; there is only one UT, and its orange is not as obnoxious.

I like orange juice. But that's about all I can say for orange.

My hostile relationship with orange is born out of adolescent trauma. I blame it on my mother. (Isn't your mother responsible for all your deepest problems?) My mother made all my clothes when I was growing up. I viewed this as a serious social handicap. Everyone who has ever been 13 knows that the number one rule is to Blend In. Your jeans need to be exactly like everyone else's jeans. Your skirts need to have come from the same store and bear the same label. Mine didn't have labels. I was a tall gawky girl, and it didn't help me at all that my mother sewed rick-rack along the hems of my dresses to extend their wear as I grew.

When I was 12 or 13, my uncle got married. My aunt is only about 7 years older than me. My little brother and my cousins are 5 years younger than me. So who do you think I wanted to hang with? My 19-year-old aunt-to-be was the definition of cool to me.

For the wedding, my mother made me a very orange a-line dress with an orange bow for my hair and orange window-pane stockings. (It was the 60's.) Amid the fluff of pale pink chiffoned college girls that were the bridesmaids, I stuck out like a very inflamed sore thumb. I will never forget the excrutiating moment when my family pushed me out there into that pink cloud of Barbies to catch the bouquet. I nearly caught it. There's a terrible picture of me somewhere in a wedding album, all arms and legs, a startled orange ugly duckling among a sea of swans.

Since then, me and orange been on bad terms.

But this fall, how can you resist? Every day I walk through my neighborhood, ablaze with leaves and sunlight and mums and pumpkins. Yards that were verdant a month ago are now piled high with the flaming fiery offering of fall. It's like the trees are wildly happy and proud that God has dressed them so gloriously. So yesterday I lay on my patio and looked up into the trees and gave my heart back to orange.

Not that I'll be wearing it, mind you.

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. ...This will be for the LORD's renown. - Isaiah 55.12-13

Friday, November 4, 2011

Beautiful rain

It's raining outside as I am writing this. The weather has changed, and as I sit by my window writing, there is nothing but the sound of a beautiful rain.

I was thinking of two other times that I heard a beautiful rain. I've been thinking of these two memories because of the rain and because in my Wednesday Bible study, we have been learning how to read the Psalms. The Psalms are the hymnbook of Israel, the common prayer book. So many of the psalms are meant to be sung, not read. It completely changes the experience when you sing a psalm.

Several years ago, I was in Myanmar to visit a friend.  Ash had made friends with a group of Burmese monks!  (There is a large university for monks in that city.)  There are so many reasons why that friendship was improbably and most definitely orchestrated by God. The monks were meeting with her to study the Bible and practice their English.  When she told them that her teacher was coming to visit, they insisted that they must meet me, so one afternoon we visited them at the university.  It was pouring down rain and we sat on the terrace of their dormitory.  They told me they had just been reading the Psalms.  They had memorized Psalm 42.  One monk proudly recited it to me.  I asked him if he knew that many of the psalms were songs, that they were intended to be sung.  He asked me to sing one, so I sang Psalm 42, to the early American hymn tune "The Water is Wide."  I will never forget how completely silent the entire building went.  All the monks stopped their activities and listened.  There was just the sound of the rain, and the notes of the psalm hanging in the air like droplets. And, I believe if longing could have a sound, we would have heard it.

Longing is what the psalms so beautifully express, especially the laments. We don't really have a lot of contemporary Christian laments in American church services these days, but I know where they can be found.

Our church has a partnership with Living Hope, a ministry in Cape Town, South Africa, led by John and Avril Thomas.  Most of the work they do is with AIDS education/treatment and with rehabilitation/job training for displaced black South Africans.  However, they told us a surprising discovery they'd made:  There are lots of musicians and songwriters in the area, and Living Hope runs a Christian radio station.  They want to support and develop the indigenous Christian music community, but they need help to teach these musicians and then record them.  I will never forget when Avril Thomas leaned across the lunch table and said to Dennis, "What we need is some professional singers, songwriters, producers and engineers. Do you know any?" Do we ever!  So every few years, we take a team of them to South Africa to lead a weekend music conference.  We have classes for singers, songwriters, instrumentalists, worship leaders, sound engineers—you name it.  

At one conference, I was teaching a three-part session for songwriters called Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.  In the first session, we studied the Psalms.  We talked about the different kinds of  psalms, including laments.  John and Avril had told us that one of the problems they felt the local musicians had was that they were trying to recreate American-style worship choruses, rather than write music more true to South Africa.  So I challenged them:  What could South African songwriters contribute to the body of worship for the church all over the world?  The Psalmists wrote and prayed out of their own experiences.  

"What are your experiences?" I asked.  "What do you deal with?"

A long list came:  poverty, injustice, oppression, discrimination, fear, powerlessness, hopelessness, hunger, sickness, war.  

I suggested that they might be uniquely qualified to write laments.  

The next afternoon, my fellow team member Joyce and I were conducting one-on-one critique sessions. It had been a long afternoon; Joyce and I were tired. It had just begun to pour down rain outside when a young man walked in with his guitar and sat down.  His name was Nelson Buhe.  He was a refugee from the Congo.  His entire village had been destroyed by rebel soldiers.  His father and brothers had been killed.  Nelson had escaped.  He was very soft spoken.  He said that he had been in my class and had written a lament.  I invited him to sing it for us.

Rain. Silence. And then, something I will never forget.

Nelson closed his eyes, began strumming his guitar and then threw back his head and poured out his heart. In Swahili, he mourned, "Where is God in Africa?"  "Jesus Christ, reign in Africa!"  

Joyce and I were speechless. 

Nelson sang his song in the closing concert of the conference, and his fellow Africans wept.  A floodgate was opened and the prayers for Africa poured out.  Oh, the power of lamenting, when your heart breaks for the the things that break the heart of God!  I believe there are believers around the world who could teach the church today how to lament. And in these day, we need to know how.

I am thinking of those brothers and sisters tonight as I listen to the rain.

Rain, rain, rain,
beautiful rain.
Oh, come. Never come.
Oh, come. Never come.
Oh, come to me,
beautiful rain.

- Ladysmith Black Mambazo