Why All The Bells?

With the growing disturbances in our world this Christmas, I thought of re-publishing the below from my December 2017 post.

“Silver bells.  Silver Bells.  It’s Christmas time in the city. Ring-a-ling. Hear them ring. Soon it will be Christmas Day.” – Composers: Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. (1950)

Not long ago I heard of a certain residential neighborhood that took a nearby church to court.  Their complaint surrounded the bells joyfully ringing from the church steeple on Sunday mornings.  I will assume these would be the same neighbors who clamored about Sunday morning traffic around the church, before and after services.  I didn’t attend the trial, but I just know that if I read the transcript of the proceedings, certainly someone said something like, “What’s with all the bells?”

Bells too

It’s a valid question.  So, what’s up with all the bells?

Imagine you’ve had a wonderful 18 year marriage with an incredibly loving and supportive spouse.  Whatever the world dishes out, you had shade and shelter at home with your understanding mate.  Growing a family together has been a true gift.  Now imagine, that the love of your life tragically perished in a devastating accident when her clothes caught fire.

Imagine, by way of this nightmare in life, you are left with children to raise on your own.  Your first born son is a stunning, strong 17 year old who is proud to carry on the family legacy.

Imagine war breaking out just down the road from where you buried your soulmate.  Your young son’s enthusiasm for the war’s cause, coupled with his school lads running off to take up arms to fight for their country, pulls your son’s interest to join up.  He fights with you about being a new recruit, as you sternly stand your parental ground.  You debate with him.  You state that he is too young to fight a man’s battle where the blood shed has no respecter of age.  Imagine he shows honor for your wishes, agrees to continue his high school education, along with sharing the household duties.  Imagine for the next two years, each time you looked into his eyes, you saw his smile, or the way he visited his mother’s grave, and how he soothed your grieving heart every day by just being there.

Now imagine, one morning your 19 year old son vanishes overnight without a word or a note.  Your heart is pierced.  Your fears serve up the worst scenarios to the point of being unable to function and unable to eat or sleep.  Suddenly, after several weeks, a letter appears in your mailbox.  The envelope is marked with your missing son’s handwriting.  You can’t help but notice how his phrasing, even his handwriting, reminds you of his mother.  As you read through your tears, he explains his disappearance.  He details how he had joined the military to fight on the front lines for his country.  He goes on to describe how he had resisted the temptation to join up, as long as he could, and is now in the army fighting alongside his schoolmates.  He acknowledges how it must hurt you by his abrupt decision, but also making it clear that he is where he needs to be.

Imagine the worry, the fear, the sadness you would go through for the next several months without word of his health or his location.  Imagine a few months later, you receive word that this first born son was gravely injured in a major battle and could no longer be of service.  Now imagine it’s nearing the Christmas season, with the familiar sound of bombs and the gunfire of war echoing dangerously through the county.  The terror of your first born son offering his life each and every day, facing the blasts of the enemy drowns out all Christmas cheer and celebrations.

You can imagine going through such grief, such turmoil and fear, while fighting the clanging sound of Christmas bells all around you, as if everything was truly right in the world with all of its pretend joy, jolly-hollies and Santa’s jinglings.

This is what happened to American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from 1861 to 1863 during the Civil War.  In his deep depression, coming out of a writer’s block, dating back to his wife’s violent death, he pens an honest reflection of where his hopes and dreams were last seen.  One of the verses written in his poem, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” reads like this:

“And in my despair I bowed my head.  There is no peace on earth, I said.  For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.

But the bells are ringing, like a choir singing.  Does anybody hear them?  Peace on earth good will to men….”

After the poem was published some years later, a songwriter put music to it in 1872.  Today we sing this song of Christmas blues with gusto.  I seem to sing it through tears each time. and even louder when I arrive at the next verse.

“Then rang the bells more loud and deep.  God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.  The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth good will to men.”

“So why all the bells?” one might ask.  It’s because ancient bells were an announcement, an attention-getter.  Heralds would ring their bells while shouting, “Here ye, hear ye!”  Bells were meant to be loud.  The bell’s vibration was to pierce the air with a message to be readied to be received.  The bell-ringer assigned to pull the bell-clapper rope had the fervor to bring attention to a message of news.  A newsflash of importance or urgency, so urgent it mustn’t be ignored.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, through his familiar immense pain, wrote of the interruption of the bells of GOOD NEWS.  The bells speak of evil destined to be crushed by a Savior, a Redeemer, a Rescuer being born to us who live in the bondage of a spiritual war.  The bells proved the validity and certainty of an Almighty God Whose death is all about pulling back the curtain on the original fake news of no hope, no future, no God in ultimate control.

Maybe this Christmas will not be your best Christmas.  Maybe this Christmas might even be your worst on record.  This Christmas is not the best our nation has known.  Allow it to come, says Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and let it pierce through the wall that seems so solid, so thick, and so unscalable.  Because death, sin and the grave has been defeated and utterly destroyed already.  Sure, we have the effects of them now, but with that baby from the manger, there is a victory party that has already started that will usher in a nuking of the father of lies in a very short while.

low angle photo of steeple
Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

COME ON, RING THOSE BELLS!  When you do, hear them proclaim, “There’s fuel for the race.”

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ The Lord.'” – Luke 2:10-11 (KJV)

In The Words Of David Cassidy…

“Sayin’ goodbye is not easy.  How will I ever explain?  Everyone looks just like cardboard pictures, falling apart in the rain…Running, yes I am, wave goodbye to all the trains.  If I’m looking for a river that goes on forever, then I guess I’ll have to go away.  Sayin’ goodbye is not easy.  How will I ever explain?…” – “I’ll Have To Go Away”, recorded by David Cassidy from, “Getting’ It In The Street” album, 2014.  Composers: Renee Armand & Kerry Chater

1970 was an impact year for the young David Cassidy.  The musical-sitcom, The Partridge Family, launched its first season on ABC.  The story is of a single mom with five kids heading up a pop-rock band made up of the entire family.  David Cassidy played the lead singer, Keith Partridge.  He was only 20 years old at the time.

Although Mr. Cassidy had millions of residual fans spinning off from the TV show, after the series’ end he struggled to be taken seriously as an authentic rock star.  Alcohol and substance abuse addictions plagued his journey throughout the next few decades.

Fast forward to the last couple of years, he began to experience dementia issues.  While on stage, he tussled with recalling the lyrics of his own songs, and the city and venue in which he was performing.  I personally was saddened when he passed away recently from organ failure.  The comet of this star burned out quickly.  David was only 67.

Family members of David Cassidy gathered around his bedside in ICU during his last days of life.  The reports from various family members said, when awake from a coma, he was in good spirits, considering the circumstances.   He lit up like a Christmas tree seeing many of his family walk through the door, albeit for a short time.  His daughter, actress, Katie Cassidy tweeted out a heart-wrenching statement after her father’s death.  She wrote that before his life ended, David’s final words were, “So much wasted time.”

Katie Cassidy states that she learned something from her father’s final words; may we, as well.

Singer/Songwriter, Jim Croce comes to mind from his “Time In A Bottle” classic.  “If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing that I’d like to do, is to save every day ‘til eternity passes away just to spend them with you.”

TIME!  It’s not just the title of a magazine.  It’s ruled by the orbits and rotations of the moon and planets, so precise that all humanity survives on it to the millisecond.  Time is overwhelming in its weightiness.  The poundage outweighs the earth’s oceans.  You can’t buy it, barrow it, cheat it, shape it or maneuver it.  You can’t retract it.  You can’t delete it, displace it, delay it or deny it.  Time is a raging creature, almost stealthy with a speed which cannot be reversed.  During the trek of time, it only shifts to one gear: forward drive.  If you believe you can do the above, in the end, time will rise up, chain you and place you in the town square while selling tickets to see the town fool.  Time.  It will overtake you like a steamroller.

If David Cassidy were able to communicate to us today, I believe he would speak through the filter of a time management consultant.   Maybe he would advise us with the following.  Find the time to fill in the blank.  We are at the midnight hour of 2017.  There is still time to hug more, kiss more, write more letters, Christmas cards and emails.  There is still time to get clean and sober.  Time says, “Make that apology while you can!”  There is still more time to pick up the phone and call just to say, “I love you.”  There is still time to give of your blessings to bless someone else.  There is still time to stand in the Santa line with your favorite munchkin.  There is still time to have lunch with that old friend who helped to change your direction in life.  David might shout, “TAKE THE TIME!”

Scripture calls out the urgency of wisely using the time allotted to us.  “But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’…”  “And it came to pass…”  “The time is at hand…”  In fact, if David Cassidy could be with us today, I firmly believe he would agree with St Paul.  “Therefore watch carefully how you walk, not as unwise, but as wise; redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Eph 5:15-16)

Take the time to add fuel for the race.

Oh, Thanks a Lot

“Yeah, but every little boy grows up, and he’s haunted by the heart that died.  Longing for the world that was before the fall.  Oh, but then forgiveness comes.  A grace that I cannot resist.  And I just want to thank someone.  I just want to thank someone for this.” – Andrew Peterson – 2012 from, “Light For The Lost Boy” CD

I slept in the guest bedroom of my grandparent’s house when visiting.  It’s in an old part of Greenville, Texas, built in 1852.  Creaky wooden slat floors, no insulation in the walls and high ceilings.  Unfortunately, the guest room was next to my grandmother’s kitchen.  It was a blessing and a curse.  My mom and I would arrive for Thanksgiving a day early, way before the uncles, aunts and cousins would pull up at the old house.  By that time, my grandmother had already been in prep for the family feast to come.  Needless to say, on Thanksgiving morning, around 4:00am, I would awake to the sound of egg beaters, along with a collage of holiday aromas, drifting and hovering over my bed like a web of tantalizing treats.  THAT was Thanksgiving morning for me.  Those particular family traditions are gone, fading into treasured memories.  I do thank God for the mental slideshows.

Look at the title of this article.  It’s a common phrase we say all the time.  We hear ourselves blurt it out when someone holds the elevator doors for us.  We speak it when shown to our theater seats.  It’s normal to say it at the drive-thru window, after paying for the sack of fast food.  Funny how you can make it sound sarcastic, or very warm.  Try it.  “Oh, thanks a LOT!” (Maybe ending it with the word, “Pal” or something I can’t type on this format.)  Even the word, “Oh…” can be hurtful to an ear.  “Oh” makes gratefulness appear to be an afterthought, as if the offering of it was almost forgotten.  I recommend dropping the “Oh” and go straight for the cherished words.  Why?  Read on, if you dare.

While listening online to CCM Classic.com, I heard, for the first time, an Andrew Peterson song from 2012, “Don’t You Want To Thank Someone” from his, “Light For The Lost Boy” CD.  Let me tell you, tears may come as you hear the song, or just read the lyric.  It will test you.  The melody is haunting.  His verses will pierce you, even reclaim some memories, but guaranteed to make you put down the phone, turn off the screen and ponder once again.  I highly recommend it for a rich Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving should be a way of heart, daily life, like prayer.  Secular society would discover it takes humility to do so.  When calling up a loved one to say, “Thanks a lot”, recall Who gave that person to you.  Recall Who paved the road that brought the intersections of your relationships.  Many will be grateful for the view on a midnight clear.  That’s terrific; however, many will not thank the Painter of the scene, the Engineer who spins the orbits in precised synchronization like the atomic clock of perfection.  Many will be thankful for their jobs.  That’s great.  But, many employees will neglect gratefulness to the One who inspired the business owner who founded the company who hired them.  Many will be appreciative for good health.  However, many will ignore the One who holds all things together.  Many will tell their child how thankful they are for their young lives mingled with theirs.  However, scads will forget to thank the Creator, the Life Giver and the Birth Giver.  Frankly, in the end, when we thank someone, or some object, we are thanking the “thing” or the “person” God created and graciously gave as a gift.

So, yes, do thanks a lot.

It takes a humble heart to give thanks, instead of using it as a throw-away line.  When we accept this truth, it always adds fuel for the race.

“’Cause I can hear the voice of one.  He’s crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready for the Kingdom Come’.  Don’t you want to thank someone for this?” – Andrew Peterson, 2012- “Light For The Lost Boy” CD. (Youtube this one)

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

“Teach your children well, their father’s hell did slowly go by.  And feed them in your dreams, the one they pick(s), the one you’ll know by…”  Recorded by: Crosby, Stills & Nash, released May 1970.  Composed by: Graham Nash

How are you?  I’m glad you dropped in on this west Texas adventure with me.  I’ve just slipped on my Mr. Rogers tennis-shoe loafers (No to Mr. Fred Rogers sweater, as it’s still too warm in a Texas October).  I have something I want to share with you.  Grip tightly.

Take another look at that incredible grapevine above.  I took that picture with my cell phone at Ft. Belknap in Young County Texas.  The old 1850’s fort is chock-full of local West Texas history of which the Wild West movies are made.  (For more on Ft Belknap see my post from July 21, 2017 entitled, “Don’t Let It Hit Ya.”)  Among the old ammo houses, bunkers, stables and school house is an enormous grapevine arbor providing a huge covering.  It measures around 9 feet in height and the main stalk, or trunk, is over 54 inches in circumference.  It spreads over a large picnic area with some 25-30 picnic tables.  It was planted long ago by Burl W. Cox, an early day Ft Belknap school teacher, who was also a talented gardener and naturalist.  The photo was taken during the off season for the Mustang Grapevine, but when fully in bloom, the grape clusters and thick vine leaves are a terrific canopy, well-deserving of a postcard.

I suppose, over many decades of nurturing and growth, it has filled young children with imaginings of a deep dark forest with grapevines ready for Tarzan to swing from one branch to the next.  I was one of those kids.  Meanwhile, multiple family reunions are held there under the arbor each year as the potluck dishes are spread from table to table.  If you close your eyes you can almost hear the laughter, greetings and children running circles around the old arbor.  One family’s reunion, which happens each year under the natural canopy, is my family on my adopted father’s side.  Have you been to one recently?  How do you feel about them?  Are you the first or last to leave the festivities?  If you escape early, ask yourself why.  Better yet, leave me a comment and tell me.

Recently, I attended another family reunion in East Texas.  It was an annual gathering of relatives from another branch of my birth-family tree, or maybe I should I say, “vine.”  It was a pleasant time renewing old friendships with cousins, uncles and aunts.  All had a good day together over some awesome homemade dishes that was to die for.

Here, allow me to disrupt that Norman Rockwell moment for some other realities concerning family.  How brave are you?  Can you pull back the layers of this onion with me?  Warning here:  It might bring some bad memories to you.  Here we go.

I love my family.  I do.  I respect my family members…as best as I can.  I say that only because, in my grapevine, there are some family members who can and will hurt you and others.  These, on this vine, appear from time to time along the stalk and produce bitter or even rotten grapes.  Much like the Mustang grapes from Ft Belknap’s arbor, where the raw skin of the grape can burn or irritate your lips, tongue and throat, some family can burn like acid to the heart.  OUCH!  Did that hurt?  How honest am I with you right now?  Are you thinking of a family member with acidic tendencies?  If you’re like most of us, you have a sour grape or two on your branch.  He, or she, could be a criminal, maybe a thief. Perhaps you share DNA with a drug dealer or child molester.  Maybe you have a domestic spousal abuser in your vine.  There very well could be an adulterer sharing your apple pie.  It could be you have a grape in the cluster who loves injustice, or applauds it.  How about one who, without deep thought or heart-searching, publicly displays harshness and venom against another race. (If you are one of those who adopts language that could be printed in a neo-Nazi newsletter, you won’t like this blog at all.  But if so, read on and consider why you do such things, if you’re not afraid of the touchstone of truth.)  I listed these things above because I have them all in my family vine across the various branches and limbs.  Should I just avoid family reunions all together?  Should I go and cocoon myself in the corner hoping nobody will speak to me?  Maybe I should snuggle up to each one, playing the denial actor for 2-6 hours at a time and eat cake.  I feel those options are way too easy to initiate.  Because my Christian faith teaches me differently, I must entertain another method.

The old saying, “No man is an island”, comes from a sermon by the 17th century English author and Anglican cleric, John Donne. (No doubt he adopted it from Paul in scripture, “No man lives or dies to himself.” – paraphrasing Romans 14:7)  It’s true.  The older one grows the clearer this view becomes.  We, whether we like it or not, affect one another.  We persuade one another to the right or to the left.  Some of us cause others around our vine and branch to lean in nefarious directions where the edge is sharp, overgrown and slippery.  Let us be sincerely honest with each other.  The Ft Belknap vine is bent purposefully toward the picnic area where the branches are trained to follow after the wire grid to create a natural roof over the area.  It took effort by Mr. Cox, and those who followed after him, to make this a successful covering.  It reminds me a bit of, “And the LORD God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.” – Jonah 4:6 (NLT)  (Interestingly enough, that was in Nineveh, modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq, where ISIS had ruled for some time until recently.

Ft Belknap under grapevine

Like the great vine being arranged, we too can help to train those on our branch.  It’s easy to excuse some in our family with statements like, “Oh, let him go on with all that nonsense.  Let’s have seconds on the fried chicken.” Or how about, “I see the teens are headed for a joint or two out back.  They’ll be back for some cookies later.  You know how kids can be.”  We might even reply passively to vile words spoken from a pillar of the branch with something like, “Ha-ha, there he goes again, rattling on about ‘those people’.  It’s just where his generation came from.  Let’s play checkers.”  This technique is all well and good, with one exception: We are all followers, whether we want to admit it or not.  Our little ones in our grape cluster are impressionable with rather large ears.  You may not consider they, too, will walk away from things said with a new ideology growing inside them.  Why?  Because no man is an island!       

 “…And you, of tender years, can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.  And so please help them with your youth.  They seek the truth before they can die…” – Crosby, Stills & Nash

What’s wrong with pulling aside a relative, influencing your section of the vine, and privately speaking the hard truth in love about their statements or actions?  I say, nothing is out of bounds.  If that family member laughs you off, or worse, so be it.  At least in the eternal view of your existence, you made the attempt to stand for righteousness that protects the family.  After all, Jesus said we are like sheep and there are wolves.

The next time I enter in under the great canopy of the Ft Belknap Mustang Grapevine Arbor, I will recall the way we train our own branches and what kind of fruit we leave behind when pruned off at the appointed time.

Being grafted into a Holy vine trains us and our next generation, ushering in fuel for the race.

“I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” – Jesus – John 15:5 (NIV)

The Incredible Shrinking Man

“I will remember you, will you remember me?  Don’t let your life pass you by.  Weep not for the memories.” – Compose by:  Sarah McLachlan, Seamus Egan & Dave Merenda. Recorded on Sarah’s project, “Rarities, B-Sides and Other Stuff”, released in 1996 on the Nettwerk label.

So will you?  Will you remember Sarah McLachlan in 100 years or more?  What about, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, John Lennon or Elvis maybe.  (Although, tourism has declined at Graceland in recent years.)  I love Sarah McLachlan, but only the iconic are remembered after a century or more.  Just ask Mozart, Beethoven or Caruso.                 ME:  Or, maybe George W. Johnson! See what I mean? (George was the first African-American vocalist to be recorded in 1890.)                                                                               YOU:  Oh, yeah, THAT George W. Johnson!                                                                                 ME:  Come on, don’t kid me.

Okay, so you’re not an icon….or are you?  Doesn’t it depend on who analyzes you today?  I dare say Barbra Streisand might be a global icon that may survive another ten decades, but you may not be a Streisand.  In the end, does it really matter?  Does it matter to you?

In 1957, Hollywood put out a slew of memorable movies.  One of which, “The Incredible Shrinking Man”.  Surely you remember catching it on a late night movie slot on television.  When I was a kid I recall the fright that went through my body watching the tiny Tom Thumb-of-a-man fight for his life as a normal sized spider wanted him for breakfast.  If memory serves me right, just before being gulped, he slew the spider with a sewing needle, or safety pin that, to him, was the size of a pole.  He kept shrinking into a speck of a man trying to survive the flood of a drop of water, a dinosaur-sized house cat, etc.  Great effects for 1957 cinema.  The smaller he got the more his shrinking voice couldn’t be heard screaming for help.  Before you knew it, his friends could no longer see him as he transformed more and more into the microscopic. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. I do remember dreaming my mom shrunk and fell into the sound hole of my toy guitar, unable to get out, no matter how hard I tried to rescue her.

We too will shrink.  You realize this, right?  Maybe you already have.  It’s not science fiction.  For some of us, it’s quite alright.  That’s what memorials and tombstones are for. At the cemetery, I am always surprised to have to reboot my memory of birth and death dates of family long since gone.  Sad, really.  The truth is, after you are put in the ground, or your ashes are spread, the memory of you immediately begins to shrink.  Not long after you’re gone, your Facebook friends will be too.  Generation after generation of descendants may not read of you, hear of you, or even know where your grave lies. The Who might ask, “So tell, who are you?  I really want to know.”                                         Allow me to ask again.  Does this matter to you?

“Each day of our lives we make deposits in the memory banks of our children” – Chuck Swindoll.  There’s something to be said about the overly used phrase, “We preach our funerals everyday.”

The old faded photo above I believe to be, Robert Samuel Martin.  He was born 12/14/1848, died 8/20/1917.  I say, “I believe to be…” because I am going by old records from a great aunt, I didn’t know well, who is also long since dead.  If I am accurate, Mr. Martin was my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side.  That’s it!  I know nothing else about the man.  He’s only been dead for 100 years this month and I am at a loss when it comes to just “WHO” he was.  I want to pick up my cell phone or hook him up on Skype for an interview.  Was he a singer?  Was he a farmer?  Could he read?  What did he like to read?  What were his habits?  What and who did he love most in life?  What stock did he put in the society and politics of his day?  Better question might be, did he care? Who told him to wear his Sunday-go-to-meetin’-clothes for this photo?  When told, did he laugh, balk or cuss?  Did he know he would have a great-great grandson who would have a similar beard?  Did he fight in the Civil War as a teen?  It’s all guess work.  I’m afraid the good, bad or ugly will stay a mystery concerning grandpa Martin.  Alas, I will never know.

What will they say about me in 100 years, if anything?  How interested today are my own children?  How many questions have they asked me about my thoughts, habits and life? That is a solid gauge to measure what my grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know of me.  Am I preaching my funeral everyday, or will I be another incredible shrinking man out in a cemetery somewhere?

Choices, choices.

“A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth.” – King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 7:1 (ESV)