Christmas Songbook Day 2: “O Holy Night”

When I was either a junior or senior in high school (at a very small Christian school, fewer than 100 in the whole HS), we had a Christmas assembly in the gym for our normal Wednesday chapel. There was a program of special music and readings by the teachers, the choir, and the kids in the music class.

At one point, I felt…compelled–I don’t know how else to describe it–to get up and approach the microphone. If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you the Holy Spirit prompted me to do it. (Obviously, this was before I became reformed and would shudder at sounding anything like a charismatic.) But I walked up to the microphone in between performances, and started to sing.

I sang “O Holy Night” acapella. In front of my class, teachers, administrators, everyone. And believe it or not, I actually did okay. I mean, I’m no Groban, but I made it through the first verse, chorus, and repeated refrain successfully with no forgotten words or voice cracks. I even went for and miraculously hit the high note on the last chorus.

As soon as I finished, I quick-walked back to my seat on the bleachers, eyes on the floor, as I felt the flush of embarrassment start to creep up my cheeks and ears. A buddy sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “I can’t believe you just did that. …Why did you do that?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I was worried you were going to miss that last note, but you hit it, man. Nice!”

“Thanks.”

To this day, I had no idea why I did that. It wasn’t ego, I don’t think. It wasn’t a desire to be up-front or on-stage; that was probably the year or two of my life when I had the most opportunity for being in the spotlight (like I said, really small school). If pressed, I would have told you at the moment that I just felt like it needed to be done, by me, right then.

Looking back? I think it was simply my small act of worship. Like the little drummer boy, I had one gift to bring, and I decided that was my moment to bring it.

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This is still one of my favorite versions of the song, and really because of the context. This was from the emotional “Christmas episode” of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a failed Aaron Sorkin dramedy series that I really quite liked, which lasted only 1 season in 2006. So, all of the character stuff will probably not mean much to you without that background. Nevertheless, the instrumental version of the song, played by a group of musicians from New Orleans, just a little over a year after surviving Katrina? Gorgeous, no context needed.

“…you should go ahead and chew that sandwich.”

#ChristmasSongbook Day 1: “Silent Night”

From now until Christmas Day, I’ll be posting with a Christmas/Advent-themed song every day and some comments either about the song itself, or some memories associated with the song. If you have a favorite Christmas song that you’d like to request for the series, post that in the comments!

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“Silent Night” is a staple at bedtime for my kids. For the last several months, they will ask for my wife and I to sing this with/over them before they go to bed. Sometimes this feels like a cruel joke, since literally nothing will be “calm” for the next rambunctious hour or so. But they love it, so I do too.

This song is also associated with two distinct memories/ideas in my head.

The first is the Silent Night Chapel in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth is home to the legendary Christmas store Bronner’s, the world’s largest Christmas decoration store (the total footprint of the store, parking lots, related buildings, and grounds covers 27 acres!). One of the notable features of Bronner’s is the Silent Night Chapel, a recreation of the original chapel in Salzburg, Austria, where the carol was first penned and sung. The Bronner’s version tells the story of the carol and is a delightful and reverent monument to this beautiful Christmas tradition.

The other recollection linked to this song in my mind is one of the most amazing war stories I’ve ever heard: the 1914 Christmas truce. On Christmas Eve 1914, in a bitter battlefield when there was a temporary pause in the hostilities, the British soldiers could hear their German counterparts singing “Silent Night,” and the difference in language could not mask the familiar tune. The Brits joined the song in English, and the two sides miraculously enacted a momentary ceasefire. Cautiously, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, soldiers from each side came out of their trenches and met on No-Man’s-Land, shook hands, exchanged food and gifts, even played soccer together. This brief recognition of each other’s humanity wouldn’t last beyond the blessed day, but for that moment, there seemed truly to be peace on earth.

I read Stanley Weintraub’s short book on this amazing event, and would definitely recommend it if you are interested in hearing more details of that unexpectedly silent night.

This advertisement from the UK company Sainsbury’s seems to capture this event really well and is worth a look.

So there you go. “Silent Night.” May you seek the Lord Jesus, trust in Him for salvation today, and go to sleep tonight in heavenly peace.

See you tomorrow!

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 30: My kids.

I can’t tell you how much I love being a dad. My girls are a delight and blessing to me each and every day. Seeing one of those girls light up when they see me and run at me to give me a hug is just the best part of my mornings. Working from home is a challenge with three kids 5 and under in the house, but I wouldn’t go back to a cubicle for anything.

My hope and my plan is that I will stay a remote worker through the end of my career so I can be an active part of my kids’ daily life, education, and formative years.

Having more kids than adults in the house is a bit of managed chaos at all times, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Honestly, I’m still open to having more at some point in the future. My wife is on board, though some days she’s more open to the idea than others, depending on how stinky the girls are being.

Kids are a blessing. They force you to confront your selfishness and your need for control. They also help you understand the love and compassion God has for us.

As some rowdy Presbyterians would say: if you’re single, get married, and if you’re married, have some babies. And if you have babies, baptize them—as soon as they make a credible profession of faith.

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That’s the end of #ThirtyThankfuls for 2022. Can I post for another 31 days (mostly) in a row? I’m sure gonna try.

In the meantime, I have a question for you, reader: what’s your favorite Christmas Carol/hymn? Let me know in the comments!

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 29: My parents.

I know of at least 4 families connected to our church community who have lost a father/grandfather just this month. Over the last 14 months, my wife and I have lost 3 grandparents and 2 aunts, between the two of us. I know other friends with family members who are currently in poor health, fighting cancer, dealing with lingering illness.

It’s just another reminder that we’re reaching the age where our parents and grandparents aren’t going to be with us for too much longer. We’re really becoming “the adults in the room.”

I wrote a few weeks ago about the blessing of hope. I’m also personally blessed that by the grace of God my parents are still alive. (It helps that they’re younger than the parents of most of my peers, having had me when they were teenagers.) We’ve had a few scares over the years, but my parents are doing well–facing some physical challenges, but still fighting.

This realization that we don’t know what may happen around the next bend in the road makes me desire all the more to maintain a good, healthy relationship with my parents. We’ve had bumps along the way as I’ve learned how to engage them as an adult child and the head of my own household, but we’re doing well right now. I’m very grateful for that.

I had a conversation with a friend two days ago who is still feeling pretty raw about the recent loss of her father. I tried to encourage her as best I could, but there was an invisible barrier I couldn’t quite break through. I didn’t know her father. I couldn’t give a full assurance of Gospel hope for his sake or provide any context to help in her grief. All I could do was be present there with her and her husband, listen to her, nod, and remind her that the Lord Jesus is near to her in her sadness.

After all, we can rightly infer from the Gospels that Jesus’ earthly father Joseph was dead and gone by the time of the crucifixion, since Jesus entrusts his mother’s care to his disciple John. So, although we don’t see an explicit record of it, we know that Jesus our Savior understands what it’s like to stand at the graveside of a father, and to comfort his widowed mother in her grief. We also know that Jesus is sympathetic to us in our weakness and that He understands our pain.

Those encouragements, my presence, and my wife’s homemade soup were the best things I could bring in that moment. I have to trust that was enough.

My prayer is that I will cling to these truths one day in my own valley of the shadow, because unless Jesus comes back first, I will eventually be standing at a lonely graveside like that as well. My heart aches even to consider it.

For now, I will make the best of every day I have with my parents. I’m deeply thankful for them. They are blessings to me.

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 28: An enjoyable movie.

On Sunday night, my wife and I rented Mr. Malcolm’s List, and it was delightful.

The film can only be described as a Jane-Austen-like romantic comedy of manners, set in or near the time of regency England (when Austen’s stories are set). It may seem like a slight to say the film feels like a pastiche of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but when you’re pulling from the best works of the genre, that can hardly be a heavy critique.

The story involves an eligible young woman in high society named Julia Thistlewaite who has reached her fourth “season” of marriable age without finding a husband (gasp!). Worse yet, the most eligible bachelor around, Mr. Jeremy Malcolm (much fawned over by the entirety of polite society), seems uninterested in her advances because she fails to meet a list of qualities he’s looking for in a bride (double gasp!). So Julia enlists the reluctant help of her childhood friend (and perfect Austen heroine) Selina Dalton to try to turn the tables on Mr. Malcolm.

It all plays out just the way you’d expect, but let’s be honest: that’s why you’re watching this kind of movie.

The performances are charming, the writing is clever, and the costumes and set design are gorgeous. I found myself smiling contentedly through all of it. As far as content, the film is rated PG (just as it should be for this kind of story!) and the only objectional elements are a few rare misuses of God’s name and perhaps some concerns about modesty given the fashions of the period.

Probably the most unique element of the movie is one that is never explicitly acknowledged in the story: race-blind casting. I’ve noticed in modern adaptations of older works or in stories set in those periods that the narrative is always hyper-aware of the “race-blind” casting and comments on it in some way. In this movie, other than one moment when a character quotes an African proverb in the language of “the old country,” the issue is never brought up, which makes it so easy for the viewer to forget. This isn’t a story about people of Western-European and African and Indian and East-Asian descent; it’s just a story about people.

I would imagine some folks would complain this is a Very Serious Problem, “white-washing history,” perpetuating the “color-blind” myth, etc. I disagree; I see it as the first really good example of the “equal representation” ideal that modern storytellers pursue, and I commend the production team and filmmakers for it.

All in all, Mr. Malcolm’s List is a great movie and a lovely way to spend a few hours (especially if you’re doing so with your spouse by your side). I’m thankful that, once in a while, a new film is released that’s actually worth watching.

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 27: A good, full day.

I’m tired, friends. Been a good day. I preached this morning, made a pastoral visit this afternoon, and then came home to my family for the evening. Closed out the night watching a really sweet movie with my wife.

Tomorrow, I go back to work. Honestly, not super jazzed about that, but I’m thankful for the week off I just had.

Good night, gang.

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 26: Open windows.

It’s rained here pretty heavily over the last few days, but this afternoon the rain has cleared and the skies are blue. The temperature outside has climbed up into the 60’s, so every window in the house is open to let in the cool afternoon breeze. (Now there’s 3 words you don’t often put together around these parts.)

Elsewhere in the country, I know folks are dealing with much colder temps and inclement weather, and God bless ’em. Truth be told, if given a choice, I’d usually prefer colder temperatures–I’m a winter-loving person by nature. But here and now, I’m grateful to be soaking up such pleasantness. The sound of the breeze blowing through the leaves of my neighbor’s trees, like the steady swish of waves along the beach, is a pretty sweet soundtrack for sermon-writing.

Thank you, Lord, for pleasant days and mild temperatures. We don’t get many days like this. They are precious when they arrive.

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 25: Leftovers.

Thanksgiving Dagwood.

Somehow, the delicious Thanksgiving feast is even better the second and third time around.

The sandwich pictured above was from last night: turkey, Mac, cranberry sauce, sourdough focaccia. Today, lunch was a big pile of bacon-apple-cabbage, Mac and cheese, and more turkey. I may grab some more bread with cranberry sauce for a snack shortly.

Leftovers are a reminder of God’s abundance—not just blessing us with the needs of the moment, but with that PLUS an extra spoonful of delight and satisfaction. It’s another one of those easily overlooked blessings that we can take for granted.

This weekend, enjoy your leftover stuffing and pie with a happy heart, reminded that God is generous.

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 24: Flavor

My sister brought the charcuterie magic today!

Something you may take for granted is flavor. Have you ever taken time to consider that God design a world that is pleasing to our senses–including our senses of smell and taste? Food could have been a completely utilitarian creation, full of bland, unchanging flavors and textures.

Instead, we were given a world full of flavor and texture and spice by our loving creator. The juicy richness of a well-cooked turkey or brisket. The salty sting of olives. The sweetness and tartness of a Granny Smith apple. The chewy, fermented goodness of fresh sourdough. The bitterness and complexity of coffee. All of these things are gifts from God for us to enjoy.

For us here in the States, today is Thanksgiving: a celebration that started with religious refugees fleeing to this continent to escape persecution by an over-reaching government. (Make your own editorial comments here.) The pilgrim community–already reduced greatly by disease and hypothermia and starvation–celebrated surviving in this new land. We celebrate the kindness if God and the gift of each other on this good day by bringing a bounty of flavor and color and smells to the festive table.

For my fellow Americans, I pray your celebrations were delightful, and that even now as you think back on the day’s dishes, you reflect on God’s gifts of friends, family, and flavors.

Our bird turned out nicely!

#ThirtyThankfuls Day 23: A Working Vehicle.

The van wouldn’t start last night (Tuesday). I had noticed that it was hesitating a bit when I started it a few times Monday, but it just completely stopped working when I was about to head to the grocery store after the kids’ bedtime.

That could have been bad. It could have been when my wife was out with our kids, in inclement weather, in treacherous traffic or a less-safe environment. We were spared that. Everyone was home and secure, the van safely parked in the garage, when the battery gave out. Grace.

A friend came over to try to jumpstart it, and then he helped push it into a better position for the tow truck driver. When I finally got to the mechanic, they were able somehow to fit me in before the holiday and replace my battery. I drove the van home this evening, relieved that we have a vehicle available again in case of emergencies during the long weekend. (We’re a 1-vehicle family in a car-focused city.)

You can sometimes take for granted that when you get in the driver’s seat and turn the key, that all will function properly. When it doesn’t, you realize it’s a convenience and a blessing that you should appreciate more.

On top of all that, this past weekend, we received an unexpected monetary gift that more than covered our auto mechanic bill. God’s providence once again provides what we need before we even know to ask.

So tonight, I thank God for His gracious provision, and for a van that starts.

Sleep well, friends.