A Season of Listening

Christmas is the season of listening. We gather around the story of Luke 2, as it’s read aloud. We hang sleigh bells on our Christmas trees and on our door knobs and enjoy the nostalgia for days when holiday traffic was all “over the river and through the woods.” Carols ring out in the most unlikely places and carolers freeze their fingers and noses to spread the joy of music to their neighbors. Brass quartets suddenly play to packed halls, and Salvation Army bell ringers lighten our hearts with a reminder to share.

Even those who totally miss the point of Christmas listen ardently to a genre of music unique to the season and fine tune their ears to the glad tidings of dramatic price reductions and the great joy of “no interest ’til next year!”

But then, there’s the carol that, on the down beat, demands a listening ear:

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

 

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is deeply theological and yet joyfully singable, which is no surprise, coming as it does from a collaboration between theologian Charles Wesley and composer Felix Mendelssohn. (According to Wikipedia, George Whitefield even had a hand in it!)

The message of the carol offers a theological basis for a unique Christmas listening, particularly in reference to the carol itself, for how ironic is it for us to sing all four verses of a song beginning with “Hark!” and then to zone out on the words as they come effortlessly to mind?

When the familiarity of the words stands like a giant barrier between your heart and the truth, it’s time to slow down for a deeper pondering of Christmas. After all, this is no small event. Because of the newborn King, a giant rift in the universe has been healed.

Have You Noticed?

Wesley refers to Jesus using 11 different names in the four verses of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Each one is theologically dense and rich in promise:

  1. Newborn King,
  2. Christ,
  3. Everlasting Lord,
  4. Offspring of the Virgin’s Womb,
  5. Incarnate Deity,
  6. The Godhead Veiled in Flesh,
  7. Emmanuel,
  8. Prince of Peace,
  9. Sun of Righteousness,
  10. Desire of Nations, and
  11. Second Adam.

Any one of these names has enough embedded truth to warm a cold December heart.

We love to sing about “peace on earth and mercy mild” at Christmas time, and the angel’s message urges us to pay attention to the source of true peace and reconciliation. We are invited to “rise” and to “join the triumph of the skies” that teemed with worship on that dark hillside so long ago. The carol borrows words from Hebrews 1 to remind us that we are in “the last days” ushered in by Jesus’ arrival “late in time.”

The incarnation is a durable truth that yields richness even on a rainy Thursday in August, but at Christmas time, we’re invited to dwell in its enormity, and I’m thankful that when God revealed Himself to humanity, He did not say, “Here I am! Find a way to come to Me!” Instead, he “lay His glory by” and “raise[d] the sons of earth.” He said, “I’ll come to you, and I will raise you. I will take you with Me”

The season of listening is also a season for new beginnings, not because of ritual New Year’s resolutions that follow on its heels, but because of “the woman’s conquering seed.” The safe delivery of a warm and swaddled newborn triggered a chain reaction of spiritual warfare. It began in the slaughter of infants with Herod’s bloody and paranoid sword, which was parried by an angelic warning and a flight to Egypt. Later, a test of wits in the wilderness was countered by Words of Truth that exalted Living Bread. Then, at “an opportune time,” a wooden cross and a grisly death ushered in the crushing power of resurrection to “bruise in us the serpent’s head.”

Listening for Christmas truth sheds glory everywhere. When my son’s jazz band plays Feliz Navidad, I pray for our post-Babel world. As I tap my foot to its non-traditional rhythms on the floor of a drafty New England church, I remember that the Yin of my cold and snowy Christmas has a Yang of 90-degrees-and-Christmas-at-the-beach for those who live south of the equator. The effects of the angel’s message are world-wide; the invitation is to “all nations.”

It is my hope that you are among the listeners this Christmas, that your ears are tuned to the whisper of truth amidst the noise of holiday hoopla, and that Jesus is making His “humble home” in your heart. Because of His coming, you can know God personally.

Blessings to you as you rejoice in the “light and life” He brings.

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Thank you to my friend Abby from Little Birdie Blessings for the uniquely crafted image, complete with musical angels.

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Jayber Crow: Welcome to the Discussion!

The house where I grew up is gone, and I haven’t returned to pay homage to the empty space.  For me, home — the place of belonging and permanence — is this country hill which has created in me a deep appreciation and understanding of the importance of place.  Expecting to live solitary and transient, I have been amazed to find that I’m content in a long-term zip code, but, as usual, I’m just catching up with what God has been doing all along.  He has always worked within a context of place, choosing a backwater Palestinian setting as ground zero for His arrival and as the backdrop for His earthly ministry. The incarnation brought dignity to the mortal body and to the notion of occupying a particular time and a beloved space.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry is a book about a man, but it is also a book about a place. Chapter 1 introduces Jayber as the barber in Port William, and then goes on to introduce the reader to the town he called home, employing six vignettes which feature various members of the Port William Membership.

Somehow, throughout the book, Jayber manages to sidestep the spotlight and to relate his tale through the observations of others.  However, he describes Port William as a place that “repaid watching,” (5) and clearly, Jayber saw plenty through his barbershop window.  It’s interesting that Berry makes his introductions in this order:  (1) Port William culminating in the first mention of Mattie Keith; (2) Jayber’s early years; (3) the Kentucky River which, we will see later, is so active in the plot that it nearly becomes a character in the story.

This is as good a place as any to address Wendell Berry’s curmudgeonly preface to Jayber Crow:

“NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a “text” in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a “subtext” in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise “understand” it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR”

This makes me smile, but you will recall (if you participated in the book discussion group around Till We Have Faces) how we acknowledged that Orual and her associates provided a wealth of material to deepen our understanding of God and His ways.  However, C.S. Lewis was primarily a story teller, and the story superseded all the themes and character analysis we discussed.  So . . . . lest we all find ourselves banished together to a desert island, let’s acknowledge once again that Jayber Crow is first and foremost a story about the barber of the Port William Membership.

If there is really such a thing as a “fictional memoir,” William Berry has mastered the craft.  Through Jayber’s musings, we will explore themes such as vocation and calling; the blessings and bane of change; the idea of belonging; and the unfolding of time in a particular place.  Writing from the perspective of 72 years of life, Jayber ponders the lay of the land:

“Back there at the beginning, as I see now, my life was all time and almost no memory.  Though I knew early of death, it still seemed to be something that happened only to other people, and I stood in an unending river of time that would go on making the same changes and the same returns forever.  And now, nearing the end, I see that my life is almost entirely memory and very little time.”

What Are Your Thoughts?

I hope that you are already beginning to fall in love with the people of Port William.  Have you noticed how Jayber describes in elaborate detail the characters’ background, temperament, and manner of living?  Some of these individuals will appear later in the story (or in other books that Berry has written about the Port William Membership), but some of them never appear again.  Even so, Berry has given gratuitous attention to them, like that of a painter to one tree in a landscape of forest.

I’d also love to hear your thoughts on Jayber himself.  I’ve never had a brother, but I think I love Jayber the way one would love an odd, errant brother who never quite lived up to his potential, BUT could explain every turn in the road to his own satisfaction, so was just fine in his own skin, thank you very much.

I hesitate to mention this at the outset, but I want to discuss it when it comes up, so I’ll front-load an observation from this read-through of Jayber.  Wendell Berry, in addition to being a poet and stunning author of fiction, is a farmer, an environmental activist, and a cultural critic.  I noticed several incidents in which Jayber’s monologues sounded as if maybe Wendell had jumped in front of the microphone for few paragraphs.  Not yet.  But bear this in mind as you read on.  I’m wondering . . . is it just my imagination, or do you notice it as well?

One of the reasons I have called Jayber my favorite fictional theologian is his ability to make observations about the faith which sound like an outsider and yet to be profoundly orthodox on so many points.  I’m hoping for some lively discussion on the state of Jayber’s eternal soul, but listen to this insight on God as Father from later on in the book:

“I imagined that the right name might be Father, and I imagined all that that name would imply:  the love, the compassion, the taking of offense, the disappointment, the anger, the bearing of wounds, the weeping of tears, the forgiveness, the suffering unto death . . . Divine omnipotence might by the force of its love be swayed down into the world.  Could I not see how it might, because it could know its creatures only by compassion, put on mortal flesh, become a man, and walk among us, assume our nature and our fate, suffer our faults and our death.”

And so . . . back to incarnation once again.

What are your thoughts on barber chair theology?
Is there a place in your history and memory that anchors you in the way Port William anchored Jayber?

Let’s Get Started

I would love to hear your thoughts as we read. If you do not blog, just share your insights directly to the comments, but if you have a blog, I hope that you will write a piece or two (or a post about each section!) and then share them here by copying the URL of the post into the comments section below.  It will be fun — and enlightening — to learn from each other’s insights.

Don’t feel as if you need to share earth-shattering observations.  Just write about what impressed you in the section we are reading. If something puzzled you, pose your questions to the group.  Let’s commit to reading the book and learning from it in community!

I’ll be here next Thursday (September 14) having read Chapters 4-6.  I’ll share a summary to get us started, mention some of my insights, and then throw the door wide open for your input.
How do you participate?
Simply get a copy of the book and read along.  You don’t need to register or commit to anything other than just reading the book!

In the meantime, are you planning to read with us?
Will this be your first time through one of Wendell Berry’s books or are you a repeat reader?
What else have you read by Berry?  Do you have a favorite?
Where are you, who are you, and what do you love?
Do you plan to blog about your impressions?
Let’s begin to get acquainted in the comments below!
And just in case you missed the schedule I posted last week, here it is again:

Date…………………………………Topic of Discussion
SEPTEMBER 7………………..CHAPTERS 1-3
SEPTEMBER 14………………CHAPTERS 4-6
SEPTEMBER 21………………CHAPTERS 7-8
SEPTEMBER 28………………CHAPTERS 9-11
OCTOBER 5……………………CHAPTERS 12-14
OCTOBER 12………………….CHAPTERS 15-17
OCTOBER 19………………….CHAPTERS 18-20
OCTOBER 26………………….CHAPTERS 21-23
NOVEMBER 2…………………CHAPTERS 24-26
NOVEMBER 9…………………CHAPTERS 27-29
NOVEMBER 16……………….CHAPTERS 30-32

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If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.