Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

#ChristmasinAleppo

image of Nativity Story movie poster
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8241723

I wanted to write this post last Sunday, December 11, third Sunday of Advent. During this season, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” is practically my mantra. Last Sunday, I came out of church and checked the time on my cell phone. There were three headlines from my newsfeed about bombs around the world: One was certainly in Aleppo, another in Egypt, and another I think was in Turkey but I don’t remember for sure. I felt like shouting to all of them, “Don’t you know this is Advent? Don’t we all want peace and goodwill?”

There is so much going on in the world now that makes you wonder about Advent, which is supposed to be a time of hope and preparation for Christmas. Christmas is supposed to be when we remember the birth of the Christ child, whose birth was announced with angels declaring “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.” And I don’t care what religion you are, you cannot tell me that is not the desire of every human heart.

Syria has been on my mind for a while. The situation there has been called the worst humanitarian crisis in history. And now what is happening in Aleppo is appalling. You see one report on 60 Minutes, and the enormity of suffering is overwhelming. They have been living like this for months, even years. A city thousands of years old, part of the Assyrian, Babylonian, Seleucid, and Roman empires, so very much a part of Biblical history, that in 2011 had a population of two million, now seeing destruction of Biblical proportions. Constant bombardment and temporary cease fires just so they can draw people out of hiding and shoot them down.

What got to me most was seeing mothers desperate to find a safe place for their children, and there is none to be found. In the choir, we were practicing “Breath of Heaven.” Most people call it a Christmas song, but it’s really an Advent song. The music and words together really capture what I can only imagine Mary must have felt in the first days of her pregnancy as she is running away from her hometown to stay with her kinswoman, Elizabeth (Luke 1:36-45). And as I read, heard, and sang the words, I kept thinking of these mothers in Aleppo. Where is peace on earth and goodwill for them? Do I even have a right to enjoy Christmas when there is so much suffering over there?

Religion In a Time of Despair

I know it’s not the only place of suffering in the world. They aren’t the only mothers as desperate as a girl of about twelve or thirteen, pregnant before marriage, who knows no one is going to believe her when she says God is the father of the baby, and wondering how she will care for him in a world that welcomes neither her nor her baby and might stone her to death for impurity and/or blasphemy. But this situation was fresh in my mind. I saw the connection. I felt it. I’m not going to say I understand what they are going through, because there is no way you can know something that horrific if you haven’t actually lived through it.

This is what I think religion can do for us if our hearts are open for it: To see and feel the connection each of us has with all of humanity, even those who are ten thousand miles or whatever away. If I say I want to honor Christ in all I do, what does that mean for them? It means seeing that the story of every mother crying out for the health and safety of her children is Mary’s story. It means seeing the baby Jesus in every baby whose home, family, and life are threatened by powers that view them as a means to an end.

The True Meaning of Christmas

There are two songs specific to the season that drive this home for me. One I’ve already talked about is Amy Grant’s Breath of Heaven. The other is an older, traditional song but with a new twist: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Casting Crowns. The words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow already told well the struggle between wanting to believe in “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Christmas promises and living in a world that seems so bent on violence and hate. The music, however, was boring. Casting Crowns redid the music and adjusted the words just a little so that the mood of both match perfectly. The combination is arguably the most beautifully heartbreaking and hopeful song of the season.

Spiritual Exercise: If you really want to experience the meaning of Christmas,

  1. Stop getting bent out of shape when someone says “Happy Holidays.” With all that’s going on in the world, do you really think Jesus wants you wasting your outrage on that?
  2. Read the scripture in Luke 1:26-40; 2:8-14
  3. Let the words “peace on earth, goodwill to men” sink in
  4. Watch a news story on the plight of the civilians in Aleppo
  5. Then either watch the videos or listen to these two songs.

Amy Grant, “Breath of Heaven,”

Casting Crowns, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, with lyrics

Below: the original artist, no lyrics

WARNING: BE SURE YOU HAVE TISSUES NEARBY.

But What Can I Do?

Hopefully now you feel some of the compassion Jesus felt when he saw the people were like sheep without a shepherd. What can you do? You can pray, of course. I would recommend making that a part of whatever you do. But if you want to back up your prayer with more substantive action, click here for a link to an excellent article. Here’s a summary.

  1. Educate yourself and stay informed. Add Syria and Aleppo reports to your news feed.
  2. Donate to charities doing the work we can’t. Charity Navigator offers a list of vetted charities actually doing what they say, so you can avoid the scammers.
  3. Show your support and outrage. Write letters to the editor. Attend or organize protests at the embassies of Syria and Russia. Write directly to the governments of Syria, Russia, and Iran through Amnesty International.
  4. Tell your Senators you want them to support the Caesar Bill. It has already passed the House.
  5. Talk and/or post about it
  6. If you have special skills, for example, translator, doctor, lawyer, volunteer with agencies that need those skills
  7. If you’re feeling really bold, welcome a refugee into your home

Grace and Peace to you this Christmas season.

DAA

P.S. If you like this, you might also like…

Previous posts about Syria

Previous posts about Christmas

 

 

Stand with the Nine

This weekend I finally got to sing with the choir – or actually choirs, 20 of them – at the Festival by the Sea in Charleston. I have a few friends at Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church, so I joined with the choir for the Sunday service as well. I did not know about this going in, but they were participating in Stand-Up Sunday. I was glad to be there with them as they joined 1300 congregations in South Carolina who agreed to stand for:

  • The 9 killed at Emanuel AME in Charleston.
  • The 9 in our state who are killed by guns every five days.
  • The 9 out of every ten South Carolinians who want background checks on all gun purchases, according to the most recent statewide poll.

Gun Sense South Carolina organized the event. It’s not about trying to outlaw guns. Pastor Spike said they affirm Second Amendment rights for lawful citizens to own guns. And they want mandatory background checks for all gun sales in South Carolina. The one does not have to exclude the other.

What stood out most for me was when he said 90% of South Carolinians want mandatory background checks. In such a conservative state, where most people probably own at least one gun of some kind, 90% of people favor background checks, including 85% of gun owners. That cuts across Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, and liberals. Not many proposals you can say that about these days.

Now I imagine some people would have some questions, like:

Is it appropriate to talk about a political issue in church? Sometimes. In this case, Pastor Spike said he was grateful to belong to a reasonable congregation. He was probably nervous about presenting this idea to the church, knowing that some of the members owned and loved guns. He had to present the idea to the worship committee, Session, and then to the whole congregation for approval, and every step of the way they were on board. The sentiment most commonly expressed was this is about loving your neighbor, and that is absolutely appropriate for a worship service.

Is this some anti-2nd Amendment stunt? Well, this pastor said he supports 2nd Amendment rights to gun ownership for lawful citizens, and 85% of gun owners support this move—people who would be the first to object if they thought any proposal would infringe on their rights—so I’m gonna say no.

Will one more law really make any difference? In this case, yes. Mandatory background checks that include closing the gun show and online loopholes have worked.

  • From 1984 to 1993, gun murders increased by 55% in the U.S. After background checks were required on the federal level, gun murders decreased by 32% from 1993 to 2006 (Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, 2008).

But we still have to deal with a loophole where in many states, background checks are not required for sales at gun shows or over the Internet. I call this the gun show/online loophole. One estimate places the number of these sales at 40% (U.S. DOJ, National Institute of Justice Research, 1997).

  • California closed this loophole in 1990, requiring background checks for all gun purchases. By 2013, California experienced a 57% decrease in its firearm mortality rate (Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Griffin Dix, 2015).
  • Missouri, on the other hand, repealed a state requirement for background checks for gun purchases in 2007, and subsequently experienced a 23% increase in its gun murder rate
    (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy & Research, 2014).

As one of my friends who proudly says she owns guns told me, this isn’t about creating another law. This is about enforcing the laws on the books, which is what gun rights advocates keep saying we need to do. Why? Because by closing the gun show/online loophole, we will force all gun dealers to follow the same laws. Because if you are a gun seller, how are you supposed to know if your customer is a convicted felon or deemed mentally ill and a threat to others if you don’t run a background check? “I have no problem going through a background check if it keeps guns out of the hands of the wrong people,” she said.

Mandatory background checks for all gun sellers. Closing the gun show/online loophole. It’s supported by the vast majority of people, even gun owners. It’s statistically shown to reduce the number of gun deaths. It’s necessary to enforce the laws on the books. It does not infringe on the right of citizens to bear arms. Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

Perfect love casts out fear (1John 4:18)

David Anderson

In an earlier post, I talked about being careful about forwarding emails. Many forwarded emails I find objectionable have to do with false and/or misleading “facts” and hate-filled rhetoric. Then there is also fear-mongering.

Is Christmas a time to think about fear? This year, I see a connection more clearly than I ever have.

In the past few months, some things have happened that have us all a little more fearful. Just the mention of ISIS is enough to make me look around and make sure I’m aware of my surroundings. Fear is good for survival if it makes you a little more alert, a little more watchful, a little more sensitive to immediate danger. But when fear runs out of control, it turns to panic.

Any good soldier knows you never want to panic, especially when danger is right around the corner. Panic makes you make bad decisions. Panic sees threat where there is none. Panic magnifies a minor threat to the point that it is all you see. Imagine someone who was so afraid of fire they wouldn’t even drive a car. Drive a car? Are you crazy? That engine runs on fire!

Just like wild dogs, politicians smell fear.

They know to exploit it. If they get us scared enough, they can say and do anything, and we will go along. When we are already afraid, all they have to do is magnify it through propaganda. We cannot, we must not, go along with them. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and a sound mind (2 Tim 1.7).

About 1900 years ago, a group of churches in what is now Turkey were under intense persecution because of what they believed. They were bribed to give names. If that didn’t work, they were tortured. If that didn’t work, they were killed by crucifixion, by fire, by wild animals, or any other method a depraved Emperor or governor might imagine. There was reason to live in fear.

In the midst of that, God said to them,

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love
because he first loved us
(1Jo 4:18-19 NRS).

Jesus Christ was born because God first loved us. Throughout the Bible, God keeps saying, Fear not, because God is love.

Christmas day is over, but the Christmas season continues now through January 6, the Day of the Kings. Keep listening to the angels singing, Peace on earth! Goodwill to men and women!

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Go deeper

33 verses about fear

References

Casting Crowns. I heard the bells on Christmas day.

http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/debbie-mcdaniel/33-verses-to-remind-us–we-do-not-have-to-fear.html

O Little Town of Bethlehem.