Peace and Goodwill Among Men

Football Truce
There’s something about the message of Christmas that encourages us to look beyond our denominational barriers and our national and ethnic boundaries.

‘O Come All ye Faithful’ was penned by John Francis Wade, an English Catholic who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion of the Eighteenth Century. At the Battle of Culloden, the last major land battle ever fought on British soil, the Jacobites were defeated, meaning that Britain remained under the Protestant Hanoverian monarchy. Catholics like Wade who had supported the rebellion were viewed as traitors and liable to be tortured and executed, so he fled to exile in France.

This was a time of great suspicion and bitterness. In Scotland the bloodshed had been such that the general commanding the English forces would forever be remembered as ‘Butcher Cumberland.’ In England there were periodic panics about Catholic plots led by exiles from France. And in France, men like John Francis Wade had to spend the rest of their lives in a foreign land, knowing that any attempt to return home would result in death and disgrace.

All of which makes it all the more remarkable that when Wade decided to write a Christmas Carol he didn’t concentrate on sectarian or divisive issues. Instead he concentrated on what draws together Christians of different denominations and traditions. He emphasized the shared beliefs of all Christians.

“Sing all ye citizens of heaven above,” encourages believers to join their voices with the angelic host in celebrating the birth of Christ. The New Testament, in Philippians 3:20, declares that our citizenship is in heaven. That truth would be a comfort indeed to an exile who would probably never see his home again, and today it still speaks powerfully to the millions of migrants who have emigrated to strange lands in order to flee conflict or to find employment.

Another verse, sadly often omitted when the Carol is sung today, concentrates on the great truth, held by all Christians and expressed in the Nicene Creed, that Jesus is God the Son (“begotten not created”).

God of God light of light
Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
Very God begotten not created:
O come let us adore Him Christ the Lord.

The final verse reminds us of the opening Chapter of John’s Gospel, where Jesus is the ‘Word’ that was in the beginning and was active in God’s creation of the universe.

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing:
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

Or, as John 1:14 puts it, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

And so this Carol, originally written in Latin at a time of great sectarian and nationalistic divisions, has become a unifying factor.

In December 1914 the First World War had already become a horrific slaughter. All along the Western Front, British and German forces were bogged down in trenches staring at each other across ‘No Man’s Land.’ Each side lost no opportunity in killing each other. Snipers were continually alert for signs of movement in the opposition trenches.

For example, an act as simple as lighting a cigarette could alert a sniper to an enemy’s position. They would see the tiny flash of flame as a man lit his cigarette, then a movement as the match was passed on to a second soldier. This would give the sniper time to get in position and anticipate the position of the next man. As the match was passed to a third man, a shot would ring out and the poor wretch would fall dead, with an unlit cigarette still between his lips and the match still burning between his fingers. This led to a lasting superstition that it was unlucky to be the third person to light a cigarette from the one match. Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland (from where tens of thousands of shipyard workers once enlisted and marched off to war), I can remember grown men refusing to light their cigarettes if two of their mates had already done so from the same match.

Yet, in this cauldron of hate and death, something remarkable happened exactly one hundred years ago. As the clock reached midnight and Christmas Day began, German soldiers began to sing ‘Stille Nacht’ (Silent Night) in German. The lads in the British trenches listened to the sounds of singing drifting across No Man’s Land. Then they took their turn, singing ‘The First Noel’ in English. This was not in itself remarkable – two different armies, speaking two different languages, were celebrating Christmas in the only way they could given the horrible conditions and circumstances.

But then someone began to sing the Latin version of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’

Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte, Regem angelorum:
Venite adoremus, Dominum

Sufficient soldiers on both sides knew the Lain version of this Carol to sing it together. And as the men on both sides of No Man’s Land sang out the words together something occurred that is so remarkable as to be almost miraculous. Soldiers began to get out of their trenches and hesitantly approach each other with outstretched hands. They embraced, wished one another Merry Christmas, exchanged gifts and even pooled their rations to create Christmas Meals.

There was even a famous football match between English soldiers and German soldiers (I’m not sure of the final score, but I suspect Germany probably beat England in a penalty shoot-out!).

And so it was that a Christmas Carol, penned by a man on the run and vilified for both his faith and his political allegiances, became the catalyst for a memorable act of reconciliation in the midst of darkness and hate. O come let us adore Him – Christ the Lord!

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Reptilian or Mammalian Church Planting

This is a re-post of something I blogged elsewhere in 2009. EAI recently reduced membership fees for church plants and small congregations . We aim to periodically post articles and other resources for church planters.

turtles

About five years ago I read “The American Church in Crisis” by David T. Olson. A lot of it touches on the need for American churches to learn how to do ministry in a postChristian society – something that we in Europe have already had to do.

The thing that really struck me was where Olson talked about two different kinds of church planting. ‘Reptilian’ church plants are where a denomination starts as many congregations as possible in the knowledge that many of them will fail. But some, as the survival of the fittest, will take root and become new churches. Think of it as the ecclesiastical equivalent of all those baby turtles that hatch on the beach all on the same night. a lot of them get eaten by predators, but enough of them survive to ensure the sea stays stocked with future generations of turtles.

Mammalian church planting is where a denomination plants fewer congregations, but provides them with more nutrition, protection and support.

Baptist and Pentecostals tend to employ reptilian methods of church planting, but statistics show that this method is less fruitful in areas that are the most challenging to Christianity. It also leaves a trail of failed church plants and disillusioned pastors, and frequently produces small churches which display less long term numerical growth than congregations planted by the mammalian method.

Most of us probably feel uncomfortable with the label ‘reptilian’ because it reminds us of horror movies about lizards invading earth. But I have to admit that our church was a reptilian plant that survived the carnage of baby turtles on the beach! I also have to admit that my ‘encouragement’ (the inverted comma are deliberate) of other church planters has been largely reptilian. I’ve tended to point them in the right direction and then say, “God bless you, now go for it!”

Yet, in a postChristian environment, mammalian church planting may yet prove to be the most effective option. This may not just mean financial support – in fact, statistics suggest that bivocational church planters grow churches faster than those who are financially supported to work full time. But what can those of us that are already pastoring churches that have made it to adulthood do to provide more nourishment and support to struggling church planters?

I feel like I’m offering more questions than answers here, but I’d love others to suggest ways in which our church planting can become more mammalian.

Singing a Theology Lesson

Christmas is a time for miracles, and perhaps one of the greatest Christmas miracles is that each year millions of people enthusiastically sing a theology lesson set to music that commemorates a scientific invention!

John Wesley was the tireless evangelist who preached the Gospel to over 250,000 people and founded the Methodist Church. Much of Wesley’s ministry was to working-class people who felt alienated by the established Church of the day. His brother, Charles Wesley, was a gifted songwriter who realised that even illiterate peasants could grasp spiritual truths if they were set to music.

‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing,’ perhaps more than any song ever written, manages to cram the key doctrines of Christianity into three short verses.

God and sinners reconciled – Reconciliation is one of the key concepts of Soteriology – or the study of Salvation. We were, because of our sin, separated from God. But Jesus, being both fully God and fully man, bridged that gap and, by His death, reconciled us to God.

Join the triumph of the skies – It was common practice for Roman emperors and generals, after winning a military campaign, to stage a ‘Triumph’ where they marched through the streets of Rome with the captured enemy dignitaries wrapped in chains. Ephesians 4:8 says that at the Ascension Jesus “led captivity captive.” The idea of Wesley’s “triumph of the skies” is that death, hell and Satan himself are paraded in defeat because the baby of Bethlehem is now the conqueror over sin and death.
roman-triumph

Christ the everlasting Lord – In Christology, this is called the Pre-Existence of Christ. God the Son existed for all eternity before the foundation of the universe.

Late in time behold Him come – Galatians 4:4-5 declares, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Jesus was born in the fullness of time, that point in history when God had, in His perfect plan, prepared the world for His coming.

Offspring of a virgin’s womb – The virgin birth of Jesus – the only human being in history who was born of a woman, but not of a human man.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the Incarnate Deity – The reference here is to Colossians 2:9 “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form”.

Jesus our Emmanuel – And yet this fullness of the Triune Godhead is now dwelling with us in an intimate way. As John Calvin put it, “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that the sons of men might become the sons of God.”

Light and life to all He brings – Jesus enlightens us, opens our eyes and gives us life.

Risen with healing in His wings – Now we have some Eschatology, or study of the Last Things. This is a quote from Malachi 4:2. Jesus is coming back again in His Second Coming to judge evil and restore righteousness.

Mild He lays His glory by – This is strong doctrine indeed. The idea here is something called kenosis (Greek for ’emptying’) – that God the Son, although all-powerful and co-equal with God the Father, voluntarily took on the weakness and limitations of a human body in order to save us. This truth is best expressed in Phil 2:6-11

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Charles Wesley, in another of his great hymns, referred to this act of kenosis as “emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”

Born that man no more may die – The eternal Living God was born as a mortal man so that mortal men could enjoy eternal life.

Born to raise the sons of earth – More Eschatology here. This is the great truth that, because Jesus was raised from death as the firstfuit of the resurrection of the dead, so our fragile human bodies will also one day be raised from the dead.

Born to give us second birth – All of this comes to us when we receive Jesus by faith and are born again. Being born again by faith is the very centre of the Wesley brothers’ theology.

This is no fluffy feel-good song. It’s strong doctrine! In the Nineteenth Century Charles Wesley’s words were set to Mendelssohn’s familiar tune that we all sing it to today.

There is a strange symmetry in the choice of this music. It comes from Mendelssohn’s Gutenberg cantata (written, believe it or not, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press with movable type)! Gutenberg’s printing press made the Reformation possible as Bibles and Gospel tracts were copied by the hundreds of thousands and distributed across Europe. Charles Wesley’s songs had a similar impact as they facilitated the spread of Gospel truth even among the illiterate to whom a printing press meant little.

Charles Wesley’s great Carol has become an essential part of the festive season for most of us. Each year millions of people, who would imagine that nothing in the world could be as boring or as irrelevant as a theology lesson, sing these timeless theological truths at the tops of their voices. That’s the beauty of Christmas!

Strong Doctrine and Soul Searching – The Surprising Messages in Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols would seem to be the most user-friendly and inoffensive manifestations of Christianity in western society.  Even those who scream loudly against any symbol of Christianity in the public square will happily hum or sing along to Christmas Carols as they browse the shops to pick up that last minute Christmas present.  Richard Dawkins, author of ‘The God Delusion’ has admitted that he loves Christmas Carols – not stuff like ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ – but genuine Carols that sing about the birth of Jesus.

The idea that we might find strong doctrine and prophetic preaching in the words of Christmas Carols might, therefore, be surprising.  So read on ……

THE GIFT OF SEEING OURSELVES AS OTHERS SEE US

Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet, wrote, “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us.  To see oursels as others see us!”

Sometimes it can be valuable, if somewhat painful, to look at yourself through the eyes of others.  Indeed, a leader of an atheist student movement, Hemant Mehta, was once paid to visit churches and blog about his impressions as a visitor.  The resulting book, ‘I Sold My Soul on e-Bay’ is a useful resource for church leaders who want to know how to attract, and to avoid alienating, the unchurched.

One of the most beautiful of our Christmas Carols, ‘O Holy Night,’ is a result of a similar experiment in seeing ourselves from another’s perspective.

In the 1840’s, the parish priest at Roquemaure, a small French town on the banks of the Rhône, asked a local wine merchant to write a Christmas poem.  Placide Cappeau was a convinced atheist and a fierce critic of the Church.  His poem was set to music by a Jewish operatic composer, Adolphe Adam, who called his work ‘La Marseillaise Religieuse.’  It was first performed publicly in the Roquemare Church in 1847.

The poem, in its original version, reflects on how the Church of Cappeau’s day looked woefully different from how a Church should look if God really did come to earth in human flesh and empower His disciples to follow His teachings.  Such a Church would be marked by humility, not by pomp and ceremony, and would offer hope to the poor and oppressed rather than forming an alliance with the political powers of wealth and privilege.

For example:

The entire world thrills with hope
On this night that gives it a Saviour.
People kneel down, wait for your deliverance.
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, here is the Redeemer!
The King of Kings was born in a humble manger;
O mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness,
It is to your pride that God preaches.
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
Bow your heads before the Redeemer!
The Redeemer has broken every bond:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.
People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!

I feel an immense sadness when I read these words.  These are not the sentiments of someone who hated God.  These reflect the cry of one who was so inspired by Jesus that he looked to the Church with an expectation of seeing the Kingdom of God, and saw instead the empires of men.

The new song was popular at first, but the Church authorities in France stamped down on its use.  After all, they reasoned, how could a musical collaboration between an atheist wine merchant and a bankrupt Jew possibly have anything to say to respectable Christian people?

And that might have been the end of the story, except that a massive controversy was exploding in the United States over the issue of slavery.  The abolitionist movement, which included large numbers of Evangelical Christians, began to sing an English translation of the song as an abolitionist anthem, particularly the words:

Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.  Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.

slavery1

Every time I sing this Carol, or hear it performed, I thank God for the prophetic insight, granted to an atheist, that the Incarnation of Christ demands a Church that embodies the compassion and justice of the Lord.  And I thank God for the courage and passion of my brothers and sisters in Christ that battled against slavery in the Nineteenth Century.  Then I pray that the Church today might be similarly effective in combating the dreadful scourge of modern day slavery and people trafficking.

There’s a funny little postscript to this story.  On Christmas Eve of 1906, a Canadian inventor, Reginald Fessenden, experimented with a new radio transmitter.  Radio operators who had only ever heard the clicks of morse code through their headphones listened in astonishment to a live audio broadcast.  Fessenden, the son of an Anglican clergyman, read the story of the Nativity from Luke Chapter Two.  Then he picked up his violin and played ‘O Holy Night.’  And so the anti-slavery anthem, penned by an atheist to celebrate the birth of Christ, became the first song ever to be broadcast over the airwaves.