O little town of Bethlehem

Some of the best-known hymns are Christmas carols. Familiar words express the wonder of the birth of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, and all that his coming brings to people still today. In 1868 Phillips Brooks, the rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, wrote “O little town of Bethlehem” after visiting the Holy Land and seeing Bethlehem from the hills of Palestine at night. He reflected that when Jesus was born in that little town many people were unaware of it. Yet Jesus had come to fulfil their greatest hopes and still their greatest fears. Our deepest needs are the same as theirs, and Jesus meets those needs.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. O morning stars, together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth; for Christ is born of Mary; and, gathered all above, while mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wondering love.”

In Jesus, God drew near to our needy world. He is the greatest gift that has ever been given. Just as he was born quietly in Bethlehem so, over the years, he has gently drawn near to countless people of all nations who have received him as Saviour and Lord. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”

Christmas is a busy time with so much to do. Some will rejoice with their families, others may be on their own and feel sad that those they loved are no longer with them. Whatever our situation we, like Phillips Brooks, can take time to reflect on the birth of Jesus so long ago in Bethlehem. The child who was born is an eternal person whom we can still encounter today when we pray that he will draw near to us and be with us. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in; be born to us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

When we lose everything

What do you do when you lose everything? Pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma on islands in the Caribbean, such as Barbuda and the British Virgin Islands, are heart-breaking. People have lost their homes and all their possessions. They were helpless in the face of the power of the hurricane. When reporters talked to them you could see the shock and bewilderment on their faces as they looked at the ruins of what was once their home. Re-establishing normal life again is a daunting task. Some, however, said that, although they have lost everything, they are thankful to God that they and their loved ones are alive.

In America people have been remembering the events of the 9th September 2001, when the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York killed 2,997 people and injured more than 6000 others. The total collapse of the towers stunned all who witnessed it and those around the world who saw the pictures. Hearing the stories of those who lost loved ones in the attacks brings home their sense of absolute helplessness as, in the minutes after the attacks, they spoke on the telephone to relatives who were trapped in the towers with no possibility of escape. All they could do was tell each other “I love you” and pray.

The Bible tells the story of a man called Job. He was a blameless and upright man who feared God. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys. He also had many servants. On the same day, all his animals were stolen or killed by lightning and all his sons and daughters died as the house in which they were enjoying a meal together was struck by a tornado and collapsed. He lost everything. When the news of these devastating events came to Job, he tore his robe and shaved his head and fell to the ground in worship saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Devastating loss is not a sign of God’s displeasure or an indication that those who experience it are worse people than others. We can pray for those who are seeking to rebuild their lives that God will give them the strength they need and also that he will make us truly thankful for all the blessings he has graciously given us.

The story of the little girl in the picture

Many people, who do not recognise the name Phan Thi Kim Phuc, remember the photograph of her taken in 1972 when, as a 9-year-old little girl, she ran from her village in Vietnam after a napalm attack. Kim Phuc is now 52 years old and lives in Toronto. She is a wife and mother of 2 boys and a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. Phuc has established a charity that helps children suffering from war. She says that the terrified little girl in the picture is “not running any more, she’s flying!”

In 1972 Phuc was living in the village of Trang Bang, north of Saigon. She and family were sheltering in a temple when they heard planes overhead. They ran outside to find safety, just as bombs detonated containing napalm, a flammable liquid that clings to skin, causing horrific burns. Phuc remembers the intense heat and excruciating pain. She pulled burning clothes from her body. Then she ran and, as she ran, Nick Ut, a 21-year-old photographer, took a photograph that became a symbol of the horrors of that war.

Phuc spent more than a year in hospital. Her family were afraid she wouldn’t survive. After many skin grafts, and other operations, she recovered from her physical injuries. Yet she could not find peace. She wanted to disappear, and even to die. She thought if she died she wouldn’t have to suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. She began seeking answers and, when she was 19 years old, she a trusted Jesus Christ as her Saviour and found new life and peace. She says, “When I became Christian, I had a wonderful connection – the relationship between me, and Jesus, and God.” Phuc asked God for help to move on and says, “From that point I learned to forgive.”

Today Phuc radiates an unmistakeable poise and peace when she tells her story. She sees that famous picture as just one of many blessings. She says, “I really want to thank God that he spared my life when I was a little girl. Whatever happened to me, I have another opportunity to be alive, to be healthy, to be a blessing and to help honour other people. I still have the pain, I still have the scars, and I still have the memories, but my heart is healed. My message to people when they see that picture today is try not to see her as crying out in pain and fear, try not to see her as a symbol of war, but try to see her as a symbol of peace.”

Always giving thanks

Being thankful is a great blessing. At this time of year many churches hold Harvest Thanksgiving services. We have enjoyed a wonderful summer and so the harvest has been really good. The farmers have done well and we have enough food to eat for another year. There is good reason for us all to rejoice and give thanks?

One of the problems, however, of living in a secular society is, “To whom do we give thanks when things go well?” The politicians would like us to thank them, but few of us find that an attractive option! In an atheistic society like North Korea the people are commanded to give thanks for everything to their tyrannical President, Kim Jong-un. If they are not enthusiastic enough in giving thanks they are in serious trouble. Thankfully, we are under no such pressure.

The Bible gives us many exhortations to be thankful. The Psalmist says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” The Apostle Paul says, “Sing and make melody from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

A modern hymn by Bishop Michael Baughen expresses thanks for simple daily blessings and for God’s amazing love in Jesus. “Thank you for every new good morning, Thank you for every fresh new day, Thank you that I may cast my burdens, wholly on to you. Thank you for every friend I have Lord, Thank you for everyone I know, Thank you when I can feel forgiveness, to my greatest foe. Thank you for leisure and employment, Thank you for every heartfelt joy, Thank you for all that makes me happy, and for melody. Thank you for free and full salvation, Thank you for grace to hold it fast, Thank you, O Lord I want to thank you, that I’m free to thank.”

It makes a great difference to our lives when we realise that there really is a God who is good and the Giver of every good and perfect gift. When things go well we can gladly thank him and when hard times come we can trust him to be with us and to help us. In one of his hymns Joseph Hart expressed his delight in his God and Father, “How good is the God we adore, our faithful unchangeable friend, we’ll praise him for all that is past and trust him for all that’s to come.”