Almost a year ago, I took my 2 year old son (he’s 3 now), out one night to walk through the neighborhood and look at the Christmas lights. We made our way around a horseshoe street – a round trip – and found some great houses. My son loved it, and does even more this year; he actually has to point out year round any lights he sees that resemble Christmas ones. It might be needless to say that his excitement is extremely contagious.
Looking at the lights that night on our walk through the neighborhood, something hit me about what Christmas does to the world. Two thousand years ago, the Son of God came into the world to save God’s people, an event that impacted the earth and mankind in such a way that sent reverberations, ripples, tremors forward through history. Though Christ ascended, his presence amongst us, Emmanuel, lit up a dark and dreadful world. And a funny thing about it is that we’ve come to string lights on our homes, bring lighted trees into our living rooms and put light everywhere on display. It might sound strange, but the light of Christ affects even those who don’t know him, but who string their homes and trees with lights in commemoration of him still. All of us Christmas-merrymakers proclaim the incarnation of the Word, in whom was light and life, Light of lights descending. The One in Whom all things hold together became flesh and dwelt among us, so that “the race of Adam’s children, doomed by law and endless woe may not henceforth die and perish in the dreadful gulf below.”
The Morning Star that dawned on the groaning creation at the first advent affected us all, though we’re often unaware of it. Our Maker, our Life, our Light, the “Word of the Father now in flesh appearing” left his created sons proclaiming that profound and intimate moment in history when He dwelt among us to bear our sin. We proclaim it with lights. Christmas, in a sense, proves itself true if you think about it. What are we doing still finding new ways each year to proclaim the advent of the Light of the world? Jesus our Emmanuel, is the Light that has shone in the darkness, “and the darkness has not overcome it.” We see his victorious life even in our Christmas lights.
We can’t help but tell of Christ’s advent with the lights we put up. And if we have the eyes to see it, they can help us wait with joy for Christ’s second advent. Our King is coming again; and though we wait in the dark, we light our lights of hope and expectation. Let’s hope with the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies, and proclaim the grace of our King to those who haven’t come to know him, so they also might have light and hope and salvation.
Thank you Father, for giving us your Son. Come thou long-expected Jesus.
*The following is the main part of a post I wrote for our church blog, to help folks prepare for Sunday morning worship through December and the Christmas season.
“Each of us know that the Christmas season should be filled with gratitude and expectancy, yet what most of us feel is dread and anxiety. As our hearts race around trying to find the right gifts, we forget the True Gift that we have already been given.”
Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica L. Thompson
You might’ve noticed this coming Sunday is the first time we’ll gather as a church for worship in December. Which you hopefully know means Christmas worship. The Christmas, or Advent, season is one of the richest of the year for the church, and we want to make sure we don’t take it for granted or miss out on the opportunity to make the most of this season of celebration. So here are a few things to think through, and that we’ll talk through on Sunday mornings in the coming weeks, to help us all enjoy God and the Gospel more deeply during Christmastime.
Read the Gospels
God has given us his Word, and when we read it we hear him speaking to us. The Word of God is living and active (Heb. 4:12), and is always sufficient to encourage, train and teach, and correct us (2 Tim. 3:16). And the crazy thing we often miss is this – God is a storyteller, and he’s told us the story of his Son coming into the world to save his people. God has given us 4 accounts of Christ’s coming as a means of grace for us to know our Savior, and know God’s saving plan that was revealed in Christ. So if we don’t take the opportunity in the Christmas season to read and re-fresh our experience of Jesus in the Gospels, we’re missing out. Let’s know the story, and know our Savior.
Long for Christ’s Return
One of the great things about the historic church’s celebration of Advent, was a cultivation of longing for the Lord’s return. Extending the Christmas celebration to the 4 Sundays leading up to Christmas, with the lighting of candles, etc., helped form a deeper sense of our pilgrim status as God’s people, in this world the way it is now. The church would recognize that we live now between 2 advents, or comings, of the Lord. He has come to pay for sin, and has promised to come back for his people; and we wait now in a broken world, for our King to come back a 2nd time to put the world right.
Now I’m not advocating that we start up a high church liturgy for Advent that spans those 4 weeks, but I do really believe the more we can get into the Christmas story in the Gospels, and grapple with the great, glorious meaning of Christ’s incarnation, and extend that out beyond just a Christmas Eve service with our churches, the Christmas season will be very rich for us.
Let’s really feel the longing we should have for Christ’s return, and for the goodness of his kingdom that he’ll bring.
“I’m learning so much, not only from your letters, about domestic tyrannies in the States, that I wonder how you have the face to keep a statue of Liberty staring out over New York harbor. Or is the point that she looks seaward and turns her back on America?”
From a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, 6 June 1955.
Please forgive the long review, but I’d been looking forward to getting ahold of a copy The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts since I heard about the book about a month ago; I jumped in right away, and devoured it pretty quickly. It turned out to really be a 50/50 mix between a book that’s very necessary for our times, and a book that could’ve been, and (maybe) should’ve been more. But what I kept coming back to was this: Bond sets out to do something very specific with this volume, which is part of the larger “Long Line of Godly Men Profiles” (Steve Lawson, editor). It’s a book that has to be appreciated on its own terms, and for the purposes for which it was written. Ultimately, it’s a very good introduction to Isaac Watts’s life and work, and even more significantly, has much to say to both worshipers and worship leaders in the Western church.
The Drawbacks and Blessings of Brevity
Bond’s volume on Watts serves up equal parts biography, theological analysis, and overview of Watts’s major works and their significance. Bond does a decent job combining these three elements, which is no easy task in a fairly short, 163 page book (about the usual length of books in the “Long Line of Godly Men” series). But in spite of being brief, this book does a good job of giving us a good bit of everything. We learn the story of Watts’ early life and spiritual formation, how he came to develop his poetic gifts, and how God grew Watts’ convictions for church music and congregational song. I would’ve loved for the book to dive even more into Watts’ pastoral care of his congregation, and more of how we see that care employed in his songwriting. But again, that kind of detail might fit better in a longer book.
So, Why Isaac Watts?
In spite of the brevity, here’s why this book is important. In a culture where entertainment and the tyranny of the newest fad really fight to drive our preferences, Bond calls us to reexamine the influence Watts’ influence on congregational church music. Because our entertainment culture has affected the music churches choose to sing, and often not for the better, remembering a hymn writer like Watts and the good he has done for the English-speaking church is very valuable. Bond says,
“Our world clambers for the latest thing ,and as we wear ourselves out in the process, great poets such as Watts often get put in a box on the curb for the thrift store pickup. How could a gawky, male poet, living and writing three hundred years ago, be relevant today? Our postmodern, post-Christian, post-biblical culture has almost totally dismissed what was called poetry in Watts’ day. Few deny it: ours is a post-poetry culture” (xix).
In one of the most rich and valuable parts of the book, Bond goes on in the preface to compare Watts, who held to poetic form and structure, to Walt Whitman, the father of “vers libre” or free-verse poetry. The contrast is compelling because Bond points out that Whitman abandoned form, which was part and parcel of making himself his life’s object of worship; whereas Watts, writing poetry and hymns in rhythm and meter, sought to exalt Jesus Christ and make him look glorious. Underlying either the use of form, or the abandonment of it, is often a question of worship.
And yet, Watts avoided “‘excess baggage of intricate form as well as of poetic adornment.’ His was a gospel objective first and last” (xxiii). The pastoral purpose that often constrained Watts’ overuse of “poetic adornment” is what makes his hymns so good for church song leaders and song writers to learn from today. He faithfully employed his creative gifting and skill for his people, taking Scripture and a robust biblical theology and writing a hymn a week for his church, as a vehicle for them to connect heart and imagination to their theology.
Contemporary church culture has often valued hit records and radio play as the marks of worship music success, and we should remember men like Watts who wrote his hymns week-in and week-out with a pastoral purpose. He did this faithfully, without hope of reaching beyond the congregation he pastored. But his hymns did reach beyond that context, and we bless God for it.
The Hymns Themselves
One more benefit of the book for a worship leader in particular, is for the exposure to Watts’ poetry. Bond spends the last chapter giving an overview and explication of several of Watts’ best hymns, including a mix of both popular, and seldom sung choices. For instance, Bond takes us stanza-by-stanza through both “Joy to the World” which most readers know already, and “Jesus Shall Reign” which might be a little more obscure to many, depending. The poetry analysis is very helpful, but it does fall a little short in places. It errs on the side of very light analysis at times, risking summary of the poem rather than analysis of what makes it so great, which is more what I think Bond is going for in this section. But, in the best sections, the analysis is good and detailed, and does effectively present the quality of Watts’ imaginative expression, precision of structure, and richness of biblical content.
Douglas Bond has clearly done his research to get to know Watts’ life and work. He loves the poetry of this great hymn writer, and draws us into his own enjoyment of it. The book is a very good smaller biography and a hub of resources on Watts, especially good to put in the hands of church musicians, music leaders, and songwriters. I hope church music and worship folk do get their hands on it and that it edifies and inspires.
To close, here’s one more quote from Bond on Watts’ value for the church today:
“As we flounder about in the ‘liturgical fidget’ of the contemporary church, Watts can provide both the theological and liturgical ballast Christian worship so desperately needs. And he can give us an emotional rudder, a means of steering the passions in worship by objective propositional truth feelingly delivered. Without such a rudder, worship is shipwrecked on the shoals of cheap-trick emotionalism generated in much the same way it is at a concert or a football game. Tragically, in place of singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:16-17), raw feelings of having done so may be supplanting the real thing” (134).
Let’s not just return to singing the hymns of Watts or any other songwriters from church history. Let’s study and sing the best of their work, and also look to freshly do what they did, writing and choosing songs with pastoral care for our churches.
* Many thanks to Reformation Trust Publishing for providing a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review.
Here’s a nice little argument for not only singing hymns and songs in church that are rich in content, but also rich with good poetry:
“What is learned in verse is longer retained in memory, and sooner recollected, [and may prove to be] an effectual means to keep off some temptation, or to incline to some duty.”
Isaac Watts, from The Improvement of the Mind, quoted in The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts by Douglas Bond
Thanks to Tony Reinke for sharing this. Visit the link below.
“The future is futile for forces of evil;
And so they did scorn them in times Medieval.
For this is the nature of shadow and gloom;
In the gleaming of glory there can be no room.
What force is resourced by the echoing black?
When the brightness ignites can the shadow push back?
These ‘powers’ of darkness, if such can be called,
Are banished by brilliance, by blazing enthralled.”