I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I wrote this piece as a dramatic monologue and performed it at my church during the 2008 Christmas season. This morning at Vaughn Forest Church, my brother performed the Casting Crowns version of the song.

My original purpose was to define for the audience the tragic background behind the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with lyrics written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow wrote these lines after suffering two huge personal tragedies, and the poem tells of his grief, his despair, and yet his return to faith that there is indeed peace on earth and goodwill to men. I am posting a link to a video of the band Casting Crowns performing their version of the song.

Longfellow: Life seems to be full of defining moments, doesn’t it? I mean, each day is full of moments… but there are some that are such life altering events that we define the rest of ours lives by them.

For example, there is marriage. In this one sacred act, this entering of a covenant between man and woman…. life forever changes. I remember my wedding day. My beautiful Frances entered the church… and I stood at the front, halfway expecting her to turn and run. Instead, she walked down that aisle with her face shining like an angel.

Then there is parenthood. A friend of mine once told me, “You know, Henry, becoming a parent is like having your heart walk around outside of your chest for the rest of your life.” He was right. Frances and I were blessed with five children… I never knew my heart’s capacity for love. With each child, I thought, “How can I have more to give?” Then I realized my love was multiplied, not divided.

But some of life’s defining moments… well they aren’t quite so bright are they? You know what I am talking about… you have been there. You have experienced not only the joys of life, but the sorrows.

Christmas has been hard for me the last couple of years. You see, three years ago, I went through one of the darkest days of my life. My beautiful Frances had just trimmed some of Edith’s… she was only seven then… anyway, she had trimmed some of Edith’s curls. She couldn’t bear to part with them, and was going to save some in some sealing wax. She was melting the bar of wax with a candle when a breeze blew in through an open window and blew some of the wax onto Frances’ dress…. which immediately burst into flames.

She tried to protect the children… and went running from that room into my study. I looked up and saw her… I had nothing to put out the flames… I grabbed the rug off the floor… but it was too small. I didn’t know what to do…. so I wrapped my arms around her and tried to smother the flames…. but it wasn’t enough.

My Frances… my beautiful Frances… my wife… my soulmate… died the next day. I told people it was my injuries… my burnt hands… arms… and face… that kept me from the funeral. But I couldn’t deal with the reality… my Frances was gone.

Every day since then has been hard, but the holidays are the hardest.

As time passed, my heart hurt less. My children need me… the first year was the toughest. The second year wasn’t as bad…

But then, last year, right before Christmas, I got word that Charles, our oldest son had been shot. He enlisted when he was just seventeen to fight in the Civil War… he felt like it was his duty…

And, as if Christmas wasn’t already hard enough… Charles has to go and get himself shot. The bullet went right under his shoulder blade and actually clipped one of his vertebrae. For a while, we didn’t know if he would live…. then we weren’t sure how his injuries would affect him… He is doing much better now, but needless to say, last Christmas was rough.

So, last week… I heard the church bells beginning to ring. They began to play out Christmas carols…. “Peace on Earth…. Good will to men.” I just about lost it… I couldn’t contain myself….

Peace on earth? Good will to men? How? All I could think of is all of the darkness… the hatred…. the pain….

I found myself shaking my fist up at the sky… like an angry little boy in grown ups’ clothes…. questioning God, questioning my Maker…..

And the bells kept ringing… louder and louder…. and God spoke to me through those bells.

I could almost hear His voice… “Peace on Earth… Henry, I have promised you peace… but peace is more than a fleeting emotion, my son. Peace is knowing that I, the Creator of the Universe… know your name and feel your pain.

Henry, don’t you know that I love Frances more than you do? Henry…. you were willing to die for her… I DID die for her….

I know it hurts when you see your son hurting… but Henry, don’t you think I know what that is like?

Do you think I am dead? Do you think I am asleep?”

He reminded me that day that He has shown goodwill to men… and that those things that I see that sadden my heart, it is not God’s inhumanity to man… it is our own inhumanity to one another.

So, this morning… as I come to this place… I come to remind you that we are to be instruments of His goodwill…. we are to be instruments of His peace. As we spend our days with hurting people, we need to be instruments of His goodwill and His peace… As you go to school… as you spend time with your families…. as you go to work…. as you look for work… take His peace with you….

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When I was in sixth grade, Nicky Cruz came to town to preach a revival sponsored by several area churches. (I will never forget what grade I was in because several of the girls in my class that took turns being the objects of my unrequited crushes ended up falling in love with Nicky Cruz. After reading his autobiography Run Baby, Run, they decided he was the perfect man: he was exotic, he spoke with an accent, he had been a tough guy but now was telling people about Jesus. He was the bad boy that their mothers would approve of.)

First Baptist Church, where my family attended weekly, sponsored the event along with other churches that apparently worshipped a bit differently than we did. I remember seeing Ms. Gibson there. She was a kindergarten teacher at my elementary school, and she was mean. When we gathered in the auditorium before school and waited for the bell to ring, she always made us sit down and be quiet. She wouldn’t even let us get up to go to the bathroom, so there was no sense in even asking her if you could go sit next to a friend whose bus arrived later than yours. Her room was located next to the cafeteria, and I remember her yelling at classes on their way to lunch who made the near-fatal mistake of disturbing Ms. Gibson’s kindergartners. Ms. Gibson didn’t attend First Baptist… I realized quickly that she must attend one of those weird churches. Maybe not one with snakes, but definitely one different from First Baptist.

Before Nicky Cruz came out to preach, we sang several songs. Some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t. At my church, we sang with hymnals. If you were super-spiritual, you might close the hymnal on the last verse and sing it with your eyes shut. Apparently, this makes it look like you are praying the words, and that might impress God. Ms. Gibson must have gone to a different kind of church because there is no way you can sing with your hands up in the air like that. How can you see your hymnal if you are holding it above your head?

I remember staring at her, dumbfounded. I think I was surprised she was there, and I was definitely surprised by her behavior. The only emotion I had ever seen her display was anger… anger at a sixth grader who was too loud outside of her room, anger at a group of fifth grade boys who tried to get up and go sit near a group of fifth grade girls. Yet, here she was… the meanest kindergarten teacher I had ever encountered… lifting her hands and singing with reckless abandon. The look on her face as she sang was one of absolute joy.

For several years, I didn’t really understand what Ms. Gibson had experienced those nights before Nicky Cruz spoke. Then, in high school, I attended a student ministry that encouraged worship. The youth minister taught us that there was freedom in worship… freedom to sing out loud, to stand, to sit, to lift one’s hands, and a freedom not to. Under his leadership, I began to understand that worship doesn’t always look the same.

I began to understand that sometimes, one lifts one’s hand’s out of complete surrender. Other times, doing so may be a gesture of absolute praise. I remember being taught that when little children desire closeness with their father, they will often reach up with open arms, waiting to be held. Is it really so different with our Heavenly Father? Perhaps the most surprising idea was that raising my hands in worship blesses God. Psalm 134 reads, “Come, bless God, all you servants of God…. Lift your praising hands to the Holy Place, and bless God.”

This morning, my bride and I took our girls to my brother’s church. He has been leading worship regularly there since last spring, and he mentioned to us the other night that my sister-in-love would be singing lead on “Freedom Reigns,” a great song from Jesus Culture. This morning, as we sang praises, keeping my hands down would have required a straight jacket. On more than one occasion, I could not sing… all I could do was stand there, arms stretched towards heaven, letting the songs of others wash over me as I silently prayed. I stood, arms outstretched, praying and crying as Jaime sang the words, “Freedom reigns in this place, showers of mercy and grace. Falling on every face, there is freedom. My Jesus reigns in this place, showers of mercy and grace. Falling on every face, there is freedom.”

I didn’t lift my hands because I am super-spiritual. I am anything but that. (Those who know me best will tell you that I love Jesus, but I cuss a little.) I stood with arms outstretched because I understand Ms. Gibson a little better these days. I stood with hands lifted high, occasionally singing with abandon, because God is worthy. I have seen others get excited at football games and cheer with fervor, I have seen people on the front rows of concerts waving their arms as their favorite bands sang. Why do some find it comfortable in those settings but not in church?

The sixth grade version of me was puzzled by Ms. Gibson. The adult version of me wishes I could thank her. My sister this morning led us to worship with abandon. Years ago, Ms. Gibson showed me what that looked like.

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Too Much Like the World (With Apologies to John Fischer)

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a acquaintance of mine. Before I say anything else, let me say this: I like her. I genuinely do. She is an amazing person with an engaging personality. Those who know her like her.

Anyway, as we talked, she brought up a recent sermon she had heard. She told me how her pastor had challenged her the previous Sunday when he informed the congregation that the reason the church didn’t have any power was because the church was just too much like the world. As she talked, I began to get a clearer picture of what he meant… or at least, her interpretation of what he meant. In the course of the next twenty minutes or so, she outlined the evils of drinking alcohol, watching R rated movies, and other activities which were, according to her, making the church too much like the world.

I shared with her that almost twenty years ago, I read a book by John Fischer titled Real Christians Don’t Dance.  I told her how this book had challenged me when it confronted me with the fact that I had traded the truth of the Bible for a lie. Instead of accepting the truth of the gospel, I had traded the misconceptions of the Pharisees in Jesus’s time for a modern version of them… more man-made rules for living.

I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember saying something I recalled from the beginning of John’s book. “Think about how many ways you have heard this sentence finished, ‘Real Christians don’t _______.’ Fill in the blank… dance, drink, smoke, play cards…. I’ve heard it all. The problem is, most of these aren’t in the Bible. Rather than accept the instructions for righteous living that are in the Bible… and they are in there… we have exchanged the real instructions for some that are easier, that are self-attainable, and are quicker to get us noticed.”

I continued, “Think about it. Which is easier? ‘Real Christians don’t drink,’  or ‘Real Christians love their neighbor’? Which one is self-attainable… ‘Real Christians don’t go to R-rated movies,’ or ‘Real Christians don’t lust’?”

I agreed with her that as Christians, we are called to be radically different, but I told her I think she and I see that radical difference…. well, differently. I see a radical love for others, loving those we almost find unloveable… a radical grace for people, giving of ourselves when it isn’t convenient… a radical mercy, forgiving when we want to cry out for justice… and a radical justice, standing up for others when it is easier not to.

She agreed with me, and then told me that she struggles with some of those things. Not being unkind, I laughed and told her, “Me, too. I know what I believe… I just have a hard time fleshing it out. I can love those like me, I can be gracious to those who are gracious with me, and I am merciful… to those who need it least. I am getting better, though… some days.”

My pastor challenged me yesterday. He reminded me of John 13:34-35, which reads “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”

I don’t think the problem is that Christians are too much like the world.

The real problem is we aren’t enough like Jesus.

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*Cough cough*

Is this thing on?

I am ashamed of how much electronic dust this site has been gathering… especially since I have a web-hosting package i pay for quarterly.

I have a couple of posts brewing… actual thoughts from the mind of Blair will be here this week!

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My Grandfather

My grandfather has never been an affectionate man. I suppose this may be typical for men of his generation, but nevertheless, he has always been more of a handshaker than a hugger. I have typically shaken that hand and pulled him into a hug since I am just the opposite… more of a hugger than a handshaker.

Back in the summer of 1994, I worked for the Alabama Baptist State Convention. I traveled around the state with a guy named Mike; he was a worship leader, and I was the speaker for a series of revivals all over the state. We worked with several small and medium sized churches from one end of Alabama to another. One of those churches was Little River Baptist Church in Chrysler, Alabama. Chrysler is located due south of Uriah, Alabama, which means it is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. However, it is within driving distance of Atmore, where my grandfather lives.

That summer, my grandmother was still alive, though just barely. She was completely bedridden with Parkinson’s and dementia. Parkinson’s was destroying her body, and dementia was ravaging her mind. Frankly, I am not sure she even knew who she was during those eight years she spent in the back bedroom, much less who we were. God used that eight years to transform my grandfather. He went from being a particularly gruff man to an incredibly tender caregiver who refused to even consider a nursing home as long as he was able to care for her at home. He didn’t get out much during that time.

But he did make plans to come to Little River Baptist Church to hear me speak. In fact, he even drove over during the day before coming over that night: he wanted to make sure that he knew how to find the church. He came in right after the service began, so I didn’t get a chance to speak to him. I did acknowledge him before I spoke by introducing him to those in attendance that night.

After the service, the members of the church were very friendly as they welcomed my grandfather and told him how they had enjoyed having me there that week. In fact, I had to wait my turn to get to speak to him. As I approached him, I was mindful of his less than affectionate nature, and I just stuck out my hand to shake his.

He took my hand in his, and for the first time, he pulled me into a hug. He told me how much he had enjoyed the service and how proud he was of me. His face was beaming that night, and I will never forget the pride in his eyes or the way he hugged me.

Grandaddy is not doing well. We have been noticing his mental decline over the past months, and we know that he is now experiencing Alzheimer’s firsthand. Two weeks ago, he had surgery on his feet and was kept in the hospital in Atmore for observation and antibiotics by IV. While there, his lungs began to fill with fluid, and he experienced congestive heart failure. A doctor there was able to revive him, and he was airlifted down to Mobile. He was in ICU for a week and half, and only two days ago was placed into a regular room. He has been stabilized, and his lungs and heart seem to be functioning better. In fact, they are now looking at transferring him back to Atmore.

Unfortunately, many times when an Alzheimer’s patient experiences a physical problem like this, it speeds up the mental decline. Thus far, it seems like that might be the case. We are hoping that part of the confusion might be from the drug-induced coma he was in for over a week, but we just don’t know. Only time will tell.

If you pray, keep him in your prayers.

Categories: Family, Featured | 4 Comments

I’ve Been Tagged

A colleague of mine, Susanne Goodin, posted this on her blog tonight and decided that I should do so as well. Since I am always willing to propagate a good meme, I humbly offer the following.

Six Things About Me You May / May Not Know

  1. I drove an ice cream truck one summer. My parents had a friend who was always coming up with one scheme or another that was going to be his ticket to fame and fortune. One summer, he decided that an ice cream truck was what my small southern town needed. The truck was big enough that I could pick up friends and let them ride around with me. That was a great summer!
  2. I am an avid Apple guy. My first computer (which I got none-of-your-darn-business years ago) was an Apple IIe, and it lasted me for years. At some point, I bought into the lies of the evil empire (Microsoft) and started using Windows machines. I have seen the error of my ways. For the past year, I have been using a MacBook that I purchased through the school, and I will be buying my dream iMac later this week. I can’t imagine life without my iPod, and I can’t wait for my contract to expire with Alltel so that I can buy my iPhone.
  3. I am inked up. I have two tattoos, and I am already planning my next one. (Really, I have three, but two of them are combined into one.) My plan is to have a complete sleeve on one leg, that way I can cover it up and look all professional.
  4. I suffer with OCD about crap that really doesn’t matter. I can’t handle it if I notice that my fingernails are in need of trimming. It doesn’t matter if I am running late for work, I will stop at a gas station and buy fingernail clippers even though I am pretty sure that I have two pair in my top desk drawer. Also, if I am putting ice in glasses for a larger gathering (my extended family, for instance), I have to make certain that each glass has the same number of ice cubes. Crushed ice is a great thing because I don’t have to worry about the number of cubes.
  5. I am a voracious reader. I have hundreds upon hundreds of books in my classroom, and more at home. I read almost every night before going to sleep. I don’t care if I am already up too late… I must read to turn off my brain. If I am in a particularly busy season of life (for example, drowning in grad school), I still read, I just pick a book I have already read. This way, I have no problem putting it down to go to sleep. In other words, I not only read, I re-read.
  6. I am messy. Way messy. I am glancing over at my side of the bed as I write this, and I see the following:
    On my nightstand -
    three books
    one CD
    one DVD
    a bottle of generic Benadryl
    a package of Nutter Butter cookies
    an empty Diet Pepsi can
    a large Cherry slush from Sonic
    my cell phone
    a Leatherman tool
    a PedEgg
    two small boxes of CDs with Mac software
    On the floor-
    two three pairs of shoes
    five pillows
    two pairs of dirty socks, a t-shirt, a pair of shorts, and a pair of pajama pants
    three books
    last week’s Entertainment Weekly
    my backpack  

    For the record, I will totally step around and over all of this stuff until Miranda gets pissed enough that she makes me clean it. (She really wishes I was OCD about cleaning up some of it!) My desk at work looks just the way you imagine it.

So, now I have to decide who to tag. I think I will go with Miranda, Heather, David $, Mary, and Matt.
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A Different Perspective

This morning, I attended the church of one of my coworkers. I am taking my last two courses needed to complete my Educational Specialist degree, and one of them is Education in Culturally Diverse Environments. The first night of class, the professor explained that one of our assignments would be to attend a culturally diverse event. The goal of the assignment is to help each of us develop a little more perspective about the experiences minorities have in our classrooms and our schools. While the assignment certainly did that, it also provided me with much more.

One of my assistant principals is the pastor of a church in Montgomery, and he had previously invited me to visit his church. When the assignment was made, I immediately thought of him and his church. I asked him about it in passing, and his face lit up. He seemed as excited about the possibility of my visiting as I was.

So, this morning, I taught my class at my church, and then I jumped in the van and drove down to Montgomery to visit my coworker’s church. I will end up writing up the experience for the class, and when I do, I will focus on the experience as a whole. Tonight, I am focusing on one particular aspect – the fact that I was blessed with the opportunity to see a coworker, a man that I have known for the past year, in a whole new light. There are several images that I will never forget.

Anderson smiling as he visited with his church members before the service. At school, he has to wear his assistant principal hat. Whether he is dealing with students or with faculty members, he must constantly wear the hat of an administrator. The role of pastor is quite different, and I am glad I got to see him as he reached out to those he shepherds.

Anderson speaking with the children about light and darkness. Since several of the kids either lost power or had it blink off and on during the storms last night, the time was perfect to talk about living a forgiven life as walking in the light versus walking in darkness. My favorite part of this scene was watching Anderson as he hugged each of the children, smiling and laughing the entire time.

Anderson as he preached. Considering the communication skills I had already observed, I wasn’t surprised at all by his eloquence or passion. I was, however, blessed and challenged by it.

Anderson as he stood by a young man. There was a young man who responded to the invitation, coming forward and sitting in a chair as one of the elders of the church stood beside him. Anderson came around, knelt by the young man, and shared with him quietly. There is no way I can accurately describe the look on his face as he stood beside the young man with his arm around his shoulders and his head bowed, but I am glad I witnessed it.

Anderson as he stood with his arms outstretched, praying a benediction over the congregation. ‘Nuff said.

Prior to this morning, I knew that Anderson was a follower of Christ and a pastor, but that knowledge was theoretical. Today, I got to see it being fleshed out. Today, I was able to see a totally different side of a man whose office is just two doors down.

I was blessed by what I saw.

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Summer ’08

I really shouldn’t be writing this right now. I should be a responsible adult and get off the computer and go to bed. Instead, I am going to try to be a more responsible writer by posting for the first time in a couple of days. By golly, I hope you appreciate the commitment I am demonstrating.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, summer isn’t over yet. According to my school calendar, it technically ended last Tuesday, and it for real ends tomorrow. Even though I have been working in my classroom for weeks now, teachers officially reported back to work last Tuesday, and the students report tomorrow morning. After hours upon hours (I was in my classroom until 1:30 Saturday morning), I am ready. Well, as ready as I am going to get.

As I reflect back on the summer of ’08, several things stand out. I am not sure if they are worthy of sharing, but they are all I have. If you get bored, go check out Los, Heather, or David. They are sure to entertain.  So, as the Summer of ’08 goes out with a whimper, I realize that this has been the following:

The Summer of Ninja Warrior Miranda and I got hooked on this show after we ate at Texas Roadhouse Grill one night. They were playing the show on the TV behind the bar, and I finally had to look to see what was making the masses around the bar groan and cheer in unison. I caught my first glimpses of this Japanese show featuring 100 participants and a grueling four level obstacle course. We are now hooked, and the show takes up a large portion of the memory on my Tivo.

The Summer of Dresden Files I watched this show when it was on SciFi, but only this summer did I get hooked on the novels upon which the show is based. I didn’t have a lot of time for leisure reading, but what time I had was spent reading the first nine novels that Jim Butcher has knocked out for this series. The series features a mystery solving detective / wizard, and I find Butcher’s treatment of the supernatural interesting. What I have found of particular interest is his treatment of the Christian faith. Christianity and the traditional view of spiritual warfare are not to be found within these pages, but Butcher seems to possess a grudging respect for the faith. When I find time, I hope to email him to learn more about his own worldview. I’ll let you know if he answers.

The Summer of Twitter Okay, I am hooked. Twitter.com is a site that offers 140 character status updates, nothing more and nothing less. There are several intriguing features of the site. One is that you can tie it to your Facebook account and update that status when you update your Twitter status. Another is the ability to update your status using text messaging as well as receive updates on selected friends by text as well. I love me some Twitter!

The Summer of Service For the first time in a while, I am teaching in church again on a consistent basis. I have done the occasional preaching thing and the occasional fill-in teaching gig, but this is the first time I have taught on a consistent basis. I have enjoyed it, and I am excited about the series that I will be starting next month. Plus, Miranda and I will be hosting a small group in our home. Good stuff, good stuff.

What about you? What have you enjoyed this summer? 

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Breakfast Club – Simple Minds

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Lessons from an Unlikely Source

Dear Mr. Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain… and a criminal… and a basket case… a princess… and an athlete. Does that answer your question?

Sincerely yours,

the Breakfast Club


This weekend, my bride and I decided to watch a couple of older movies. We started with an absolute classic -Breakfast Club. Sure, it might not rank up there with Ben Hur or Casblanca, but for any child of the eighties, this movie ranks right up there with Sixteen Candles or Ghostbusters.

As we watched it, I began to realize that there were some deep reasons why I truly love this movie.

This unlikely group experiences true community. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t having Bible study over coffee at St. Arbuck’s or anything, but they still experienced deep community. They sat together and honestly shared their hurts, their fears, and their frustrations. They opened up to one another and ran the risk of being mocked, ridiculed, or rejected. But for that one Saturday morning, they took off their masks and got real with one another.

They said tough things to one another. On more than one occasion when one of the characters stepped out of line, one of the others would step up and speak truth. Sometimes the truth was spoken lovingly, other times it was spoken harshly, but sometimes the truth needs to be spoken boldly. This group didn’t sit around and blow sunshine up one another’s skirts – they challenged each other.

They saw the potential in one another. One of my favorite scenes is toward the end of the movie. Claire (the preppy little princess) sees the potential for beauty in Allison (the basket case). She takes her aside, brushes her hair out of her face, helps her put on a little make-up… and voila, the beauty of Ally Sheedy is revealed.

Who would have thought that John Hughes film from 1985 would inspire me in such a manner? Who would have thought that it had the potential to remind me of what we have been created for?

See, I believe we have been created to live in community. We have been created to live life without the masks we so carefully construct instead of being being brutally transparent and open with one another. Sometimes that openness requires brutal honesty in return. We must be willing to call one another out on the lies that we sometimes choose to conveniently accept as truths. And we must be willing to look beyond the surface to see the potential in others and then do all that we can to bring that potential to the surface.

Who would have thought that John Hughes would remind me of the kingdom of God as it is supposed to be?

Categories: Epiphanies, Featured | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments