Singing for joy is so much of what this season is about, it’s difficult for most of us not to sing, in our heads if not with our voices. Even nature seems to pick up the chorus. “Joy to the world, the Savior reigns! / Let all their songs employ; / while fields and floods, rock, hills, and plains / repeat the sounding joy.”1
Sometimes, songs are all we need to tell of our faith. They can often speak of faith more gracefully and memorably and can touch our hearts more deeply than mere words can do. A good preacher or a good storyteller knows when to get out of the way and let songs do their work. In the northern hemisphere, when the days near their darkest, what better way to tell of our faith in a light that the darkness did not overcome than through song?
Sometimes, songs of faith arise not from light and joy but from darkness and fear, where faith can seem all but lost. The people on whom light has shined and whose story we tell are people who walked in darkness (Isa. 9:2), and plenty of people still walk in darkness. There’s the darkness of doubt, where the way ahead is murky; the great passages of life can be times like that. There’s the darkness of fear, where uncertainty can seem overwhelming; change, especially deep and sudden change, can lead to that kind of uncertainty. There’s the darkness of loss, where emptiness can seem all-consuming; the approach of death can be a confrontation with emptiness that we’re ill prepared to handle.
There are many kinds of darkness in which people walk, darkness that threatens the loss of faith. However, the more common darkness that I struggle with now is the shadow cast by the cloud of too much busyness. I know Christmas comes every year, and every Christmas I resolve to get an earlier start so I’m not so rushed as the day approaches. And every year the story is the same, and as the days grow short the time grows short. Maybe the problem is not that I get a late start with our preparations but that I try to do too much. Maybe the trick is to do less and keep what I do simpler.
This is when I’m most likely to lose my faith. It’s not that I quit having faith in God. It’s that the faith part of Advent and Christmas gets lost in all the other parts of the season and becomes one more detail among others clamoring for attention. Sometimes I’m tempted to think that if my faith were bigger, it would stand out from the rest of life’s busyness and I wouldn’t risk losing it.
That’s not the way it works, of course. The story of infant Jesus is the story of the smallness of God’s coming to us, a coming so small it might go unnoticed except that an occasional wise person points it out, someone whose eye is better trained or whose life is better equipped by habit to see it. Gerhard Frost wrote about that in a poem that has a lot to say about Christmas.
It isn’t my story,
but let me tell it:
In the Scottish highlands
a man of science knelt,
crouched in the morning dew,
the better to hold a microscope
over a heather bell.
Lost in blue traceries of exquisite design,
he saw a sun-drawn figure,
the shadow of a man.
Gazing up into a shepherd’s face,
he quickly bade him look.
One long moment
the old man stood, beholding,
pierced by microscopic patterns
in the flower.
Then he spoke: “I wish
you’d never shown me that!”
“But, why?” was the surprised response.
“Because,” the old man said,
gazing at two worn boots,
“these rude feet have crushed
so many of them.”
These rude feet,
and this God’s day,
this most resplendent hour!
Father of mercies,
give me eyes,
make me aware:
I walk in gift today.”2
When faith seems lost in the great troubles or transitions of life or simply gets misplaced in the too-much of the ordinary, I try to remember that God is always faithful, never gets lost, forever contains the fragments of my life – mistakes and missteps and all – in a healing wholeness. The gifts of that ever-faithful God are all around me, so small I hardly notice them until I stop and bend my knees and look.
notes — 1. Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,” The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), 246. ▪ 2. Gerhard E. Frost, “These Rude Feet,” Blessed Is the Ordinary (Minneapolis, Minn.: Winston Press, 1980), 2.