Kum Ba Yah

Syria. Egypt. Afghanistan. Russia. The illegitimate so-called Islamic State. North Korea. European nationalism and neofascism. Resurgent American militarism. It’s a dangerous world out there, and full of violence and potential violence.

The song “Kum Ba Yah” has come down to us as the epitome of head-in-the-sand hippie flower power, a sort of desperate “give peace a chance” denial of reality while all around the bullets are flying. The modern equivalent of “‘Peace! Peace!’ when there is no peace”. A milquetoast refusal to confront evil combined with an unrealistic appraisal of the likelihood of everyone putting down their guns and just being nice to one another. Hello; this is the real world calling.

In our modern cynical age it’s fallen distinctly out of favour, but it actually started life as a Christian song.

“Kum ba yah”, as I was told in ye olden days when we occasionally sang it at school, is some kind of African dialect for “come by here”; the song is a prayer for God to show up and do something. Someone’s crying, Lord. We need You.

There’s injustice happening. People with needs unmet. Prayers apparently going unanswered. Danger, famine, nakedness, sword. We need You, God; You’re our only hope.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Things are good right now, but we still need You. But for Your grace it all falls apart.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah.

And really, it sounds hippie and unrealistic, but what’s actually wrong with people and nations being nice to one another for a change? Couldn’t we all do with a bit more niceness in the world?

People that don’t just try to get whatever they can for themselves. Institutions that don’t act like the problem you’ve gone to them about is a real pain in the arse? Nations that act based on justice, respecting their neighbours and trying for a win-win solution to international problems. People the same, with their interpersonal problems.

Niceness may be underrated as a rallying-cry, but we all appreciate it when we encounter it.

Kindness. Peace. Patience with our weaknesses and failures. Not bringing the hammer down for something we may not have been fully able to help. Love, in the broad sense, not necessarily sexual or romantic.

And now this is looking a little more like the fruit of the Spirit and less like a Sixties hippie commune. Maybe – no, probably – that’s why the hippie movement failed; trying to gain peace, love and understanding by human effort rather than the Spirit of God; but you can’t deny that the impulse is a good one. Give peace a chance. Put down the sword and the gun and the tendency towards violence and oppression. Let’s all just try to get along.

Oh Lord, kum ba yah. We can’t do it without Your help. What we’re longing for in our dealings is the evidence that You’ve been at work. We confess that we’ve been infected enough with the cynicism of the age that we don’t hold out much hope for peace and justice in international affairs, but we believe You are the King of kings. You overrule the nations. The movers and shakers aren’t actually in control of world events; You are. You’re the Prince of Peace; extend Your influence not just in our lives but among the nations.

Kum ba yah.

Palm Sunday has just come and gone; the annual celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the incongruous mount of a donkey. It was a fulfilment of Scriptural prophecy of the Messiah, but more than that: the donkey symbolically stood for humility and peace, counterpointing and opposing the martial pride of a stallion or chariot. Your King comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey. The world was pretty messed-up if you were a Jew back then, just as it seems to all of us now. Evil pagans oppressing God’s people. Where are the Godly leaders? Who can make our nation great again? It wasn’t for no reason that the people shouted out “Hosanna!”

But the King being lauded isn’t a proud warrior lord, a rebel who will overthrow the evil government oppressing us and return everything back to the way it was in the good old days; He’s a Prince of Peace, humble and gentle, who will give His life to save us from the evil within us and return us to how we were meant to be in the very beginning.

Hosanna. Save us. Kum ba yah. Come, Lord.

We need You. You’re our only hope.

Sanctuary

For once, I’m not going to whinge about Halloween this year.

Three years ago I don’t think I was even blogging, but I was moaning about it in the privacy of my offline life.

The year before last I grumbled about the inescapability of it and wanted better answers for my kids on why I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Last year we decided to counterattack by attempting a resuscitation of All Saints Day.

In the course of that discussion with the kids, we apparently managed to penetrate the sugar-induced pink haze around All Saints’ more well-known lead-in and communicate to our children that we weren’t trying to be killjoys who didn’t want them to have fun and get candy; there was and is a serious point to why we don’t do Halloween.

“You mean it’s about the devil? Why didn’t you say? No, I don’t want to do it if that’s what it’s about!”

Now, I know there are plenty of Christ-followers who do feel a freedom of conscience to joyfully engage with the rest of the world on this holiday, but I’m not one of them. I’m not going to tell you you can’t, or even that you shouldn’t. But for us, Halloween really is a celebration of the dark and disturbed. As for me and my house, we ain’t gonna do that.

These days, it seems like the popular Christian thing to do is increasingly to try to co-opt or join in with Halloween but to stand firm against Father Christmas to the extent of raising a generation of Santa-atheists.

Once again, I’m out of step with the up-and-coming in thing, but it looks to me as if the generation of which I was a part, that were refused permission to join in with Halloween as children by well-meaning Christian parents, are now all grown-up and fulfilling their childhood vows to themselves that “when I have kids, I’m going to let them do Halloween!”

However, it seems like our All Saints idea worked.

The family All Saints party was not a great party, as parties go, but the kids got to stay up a bit later than usual, dress up and get candy, so they were happy.

But in its larger aim of silencing the ubiquitous sucking sound of Halloween, it succeeded very well.

This year, our kids haven’t been pestering us about going Trick-or-Treating or celebrating Halloween. The Eve of All Hallows has been once again relegated to its proper place as a non-event.

And in this peace and freedom, a pumpkin can once again be just a pumpkin. Bats and spiders can be just (freaky-looking) creatures that God made. They aren’t symbols of acquiescence in the Grand Hallmark and Hershey’s Plot to let Halloween take over the world. All of the ghost and skeleton decorations are still there, of course, but they no longer feel like they’re taking over. I don’t feel quite so much like the Duke of Wellington’s army at the Battle of Waterloo: trying desperately to hold the thin red line against the enemy’s inexorable advance.

We have found, or built, a refuge. The treacherous Fifth Column elements that kept trying to open the gates have been brought back to the Side of Light.

As the Scripture puts it: “This is the victory that overcomes the world; even our faith.”

Happy All Saints’ Day, everyone!

Peace to You

Peace. Rest. Quietness and Trust.

We’re told in the Bible that peace will guard our hearts and minds. We’re instructed to let it rule in our hearts. We’re told to strive to enter His rest. Women in particular are encouraged to cultivate a “quiet and gentle spirit”.

But what actually is it? Peace as the absence of conflict we are somewhat familiar with, but the mere absence of declared wars is not the same as the absence of hostility. We despise Neville Chamberlain’s shortsightedness in making a deal with evil to purchase a brief moment of “Peace in our time”. In the modern world of Islamic State terrorists and threats to our very way of life, we wonder whether peace, if it is even possible, is all it’s cracked up to be.

Or we praise “peace and quiet”, while busying ourselves about our frenetic lives, desperately craving a few moments in which we don’t feel obligated to keep doing. Everybody’s working for the weekend.

The Hebrew idea of shalom is, of course, far broader in concept than even our widest modern conceptions. At base, the idea is one of wholeness, of completion. More than the absence of war, it’s the presence of healing. Justice for the nations. A soundness and healthiness in our dealings with ourselves and others.

This is no cowardly “peace in our time”, purchased with a squandered future. Real peace is built with mercy and equity on a foundation of justice. As one of my children’s videos puts it “the best way to destroy your enemy is to turn them into a friend”.

It takes more courage to do that than to shoot them. Attacking them seems sometimes like a response of fear rather than bravery. Sowing the seeds of justice and grace is the only way to produce a harvest of peace.

Wholeness is more than “peace and quiet”, too. Though much can be said in our hectic lives for the restorative power of just stopping for a while, how can peace be said to “guard our hearts and minds” if we lose it the moment we step back into busyness. We have to function in the world; though we are not machines, we are designed to to real things with real purpose. Even before the Fall, Adam and Eve had work to do in tending the Garden. What is this mysterious peace that comes with us into the busyness as a guardian for our heart and mind?

This kind of peace, this wholeness, this shalom, is perhaps best described as a sort of “centredness”. Like Christ washing the disciples’ feet, we know precisely who we are, because we know precisely Whose we are. We’re complete in Him, with no need to prove anything to anybody. No more fighting to prove ourselves to the world, no struggling for anyone’s approval. Shalom. At rest and complete in the One who died for us.

In this peace, we can dare any deed that we see the Father doing. We can challenge any wrong, bring justice where there is none, show mercy to the least. We aren’t doing it because we have something to prove, or as if the doing will somehow make us worthy of the grace already given to us, but simply, as Jesus, because it’s what we see Him doing. Here is a wrong, and He has put it into my heart to make it right.

Personally, I have a suspicion that it’s far more this sort of thing that the Scripture means by “a quiet and gentle spirit”, when the Apostle Peter gives that instruction to wives, than the meekly submissive surface-peace we sometimes try to make it.

I married a strong woman with a sometimes forceful personality. I refuse to believe that God somehow made her wrong when He formed her this way. I do not for a moment believe that she’s somehow defective because she doesn’t look like your awful submissive little yes-woman. Blecch! If I’d wanted a wife like that, I never would have fallen so gloriously in love with my wife.

She’s talked of numerous instances in her past of people looking askance at her, as if she’s somehow less Christian because she’s got both brains and guts, and doesn’t do well in the typically feminine “encouragement card” territory.

If you want someone to tell you saccharine platitudes while you continue to live out your life, my wife is not it. But if you want someone who will tell you the truth and be damned where the chips lie, she’s your woman. It’s wonderful! It’s exactly what I needed, and still need. Almost as if God somehow knew. Hmmm…

She’s been given more problems by well-meaning Christian teachers throwing this “quiet and gentle spirit” verse at her than is reasonable.

But what if this “quiet and gentle spirit” has more to do with the centredness of shalom and of not having to win the approval of man than it does with the easy-to-control submissiveness of outward demeanour?

It seems a lot more reasonable to me that it would. Peter is, after all, talking about an attribute of the spirit, not of the outward person.

Peace, wholeness, shalom. Guarding our heart and mind from the tendency to want to win approval or prove ourselves or work for what is freely given. For men or women, this is desperately needed if we are to be the people the Lord has made us to be.

This peace to you.

Their Unfamiliar Carols Play

The other week we sang that slightly odd Christmas carol written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“I heard the bells of Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play…”

It’s rather an ironic choice of lyrics in my case, because in many cases even Christmas carols are sung to different tunes here in America than they are in Britain.

Some of the American tunes are known, though less common: we’re aware, for example, of the American tune to Away In A Manger, though compared to the more usual British tune I always think the American one sounds like a drinking song.

The American tune to It Came Upon A Midnight Clear sounds like something out of a Broadway musical to me, but I’ve heard Americans say that our tune sounds like “a hymn tune”. This seemed like a weird characterisation; Christmas carols are hymns. Or the proper ones are, anyway; stuff like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aren’t carols, they’re just Christmas songs.

Some of the British tunes are sung with a completely different carol set to them: the British version of Angels From The Realms Of Glory has the same tune as the American Angels We Have Heard On High.

Which brings us to the other facet of carolling in America: the carols we simply don’t have, or which are vastly less prominent. Like Angels We Have Heard On High, O Holy Night and I Heard The Bells of Christmas Day. Some of these are great carols that we’re beginning to pick up on, like O Holy Night. Others I’m less enthralled with.

It’s not that we don’t have a few the other way around. I’ve yet to hear Americans sing Once In Royal David’s City, with its dubious verse about how “Christian children all must be/Mild, obedient, good as He”. And Come And Join The Celebration is similarly unknown.

I’d sung I Heard The Bells maybe twice before in my life, both times in America. Singing about “old familiar carols” as part of a basically unfamiliar Christmas song is kind of amusing.

It’s an ok song, I suppose. My wife likes it. But the part that most speaks to her is the part I find most weird and uncomfortable. All those follow-on verses about “there is no peace on earth, I said” and how the bells tolled back the answer that God is still at work and all hope is not lost.

It’s a true statement, and one I sometimes think we as followers of Jesus could do well with bearing in mind. Sometimes we seem to just love playing the martyred doomsayer prophet.

But the song as a whole just doesn’t sit well with me. Apart from this vague idea of God not being asleep, there’s little Gospel in it. “The wrong will fail, the right prevail/With peace on earth, goodwill to men” is true, but there’s no indication in this song of how or why.

The focus of the song is peace on earth. I suppose that’s fair enough; Jesus is the Prince of Peace. But Longfellow’s carol almost seems humanistic in its focus on peace while practically ignoring the One who makes it. It’s a song for the birth of the Saviour with no Nativity and no Saviour, which just seems unaccountably weird to me. Still, it’s better than Deck The Halls With Boughs Of Holly, which we sang at the Hanging of the Greens and which has even less Gospel in it. Why do we sing these things?

I may be taking things too far. I Heard The Bells does not, after all, totally leave God out of the picture. “God is not dead, nor does He sleep”, it says clearly. If you have a tendency towards pessimism, especially where society is concerned, it’s good to be reminded that God is still at work in the world, that there is still Righteousness and Justice and Goodness, in God if nowhere else.

But a Christmas carol without the Messiah? This is a Very Odd Thing.

It’s a very secular thing to focus in on the second half of the angels’ song, the bit about “peace on earth, goodwill toward men”, in the old King James version of the Bible. Other versions put it a bit less human-centredly: “on earth, peace to men on whom His favour rests”. But all versions definitely connect the idea of peace on earth with the missing first half of the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest”.

God’s glory comes first, in pre-eminent place. The great event of the Birth is first and foremost one that brings glory to God. It’s as a result of God being glorified, as a consequence of the things that bring Him glory, that it spills over into peace on the earth.

What kind of peace?

Peace as in “peace and quiet”, that treasure so lacking in this season of busyness, shopping and stress? Peace as in the absence of war?

The angels sing that it’s “peace to men on whom His favour rests”. This implies that it might be primarily about our upward relationship rather than our outward ones. Not that peace with God is not manifested in peace between us as human beings, but that without that peace with God, the tendency toward selfish pride leading to arrogance and conflict remains within.

Peace on earth comes together with glory to God, at the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Longfellow’s carol skips right over this and keeps on going. It shouldn’t really surprise us; I’m not sure he was anything more than just a churchgoer rather than a man who had trusted his life to Jesus the Messiah. Why should we expect people who don’t really believe to write poetry as if they do?

But it’s a weird song. Too religious for the secular Santa/mistletoe crowd, too disconnected from the real story for those of us who believe. At best, it implies the Christmas story. But I’d be more comfortable with it if it did a bit more than that.