Today I learned that I shouldn’t be singing carols as long as suffering persists in the world.
At least that’s the charge of John Pavlovitz, a Christian progressivist blogger whose post I stumbled across today, quite unintentionally, in the course of my internet wanderings (I will not link it). He says our holiday joy should take a sober and subdued form as long as poverty, disease, injustice, and war persist.
I’m still trying to decide how literal he’s being. At first, this seems like a rigid and unfair stance. Suffering will always be around. The poor will always be with us. If you’re holding out for utopia on earth, you’re in for a long wait.
Should we never again sing at Christmas, then?
Pavlovitz’ rejoinder: Christians should have their singing permits revoked if they are directly and personally causing suffering through our disobedience to God’s commands to care about and help the poor and disenfranchised – that we ought to be duly chastened, turn down our complacent and indulgent celebrations, and focus on others.
Of course, if you read far enough, you will find the elephantine assumption upon which this all rests – that Christians commit these evils of omission simply by disagreeing with Pavlovitz’ social and political convictions. He paints a bleak picture, but like both sides’ rhetoric, it’s still filtered through a political lens. I’ll let that lie there. My interest here is not politics. (Pavlovitz does seem to limit his criticism to those who partake in angry rants on social media, but I frankly have my doubts as to whether he would grant permits to his political opponents who don’t, either.)
Yet I found I could not entirely dismiss Pavlovitz’ point. Like a splinter, it stuck in my mind.
For regardless of which side of the political aisle on which we fall, there are Christian duties we can all agree are being neglected. The church is hardly perfect. Nobody can prove otherwise. Our failure to travel the world sharing the Gospel with the unreached, for example, provides good pastors with the lion’s share of their ammunition on Sunday mornings. We must always be reminded.
And our actions do have a negative impact on the world, for God has committed in this age to working largely through his church and his people – a charge that is equal parts privilege, responsibility, and sanctification – and seemingly only rarely does otherwise (Romans 10:15).
So then, we must face the million dollar question: Is it the height of complacency to celebrate a faith we are not fully executing? How can we sing in the midst of such global darkness?
Perhaps the pain in your own life has you asking this question already. The holidays have a way of reminding us of everything we’ve lost, or never had in the first place. “From now onnnn, our troubles will be out of sight” my skinny butt, Hugh Martin. This is hard. (Did you know Martin’s original line was “Next year we may all be living in the past”?) The long, dark hours combine with the constant fear of how you’ll eat next month, whether that lingering and costly illness will ever go away, whether you’ll ever get family back. Christmas morning feels less like a triumph over struggle and more like one day’s respite from hell.
So, how do we sing?
…speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music from your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Eph. 5:19-20)
These verses were written by an Apostle Paul who was no stranger to the sins of the church. They came after a chapter’s worth of admonishing his readers to better follow Christ. “No immoral, impure, or greedy person (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ” had come only 14 verses prior. He knew trial – arguably better than his readers did.
Yet he encouraged us to sing anyway.
For Paul knew that what we have received is greater than what we have neglected. Though we stumble and fall, we are given grace and strength to rise again. Though trial comes, it is countered hard in Christ, who has the power both to rescue us from hard times, to sustain us in their midst, and, ultimately, to end them for good (Rev. 21:4-5).
And Christmas songs are the herald of that very rescuer, the babe Jesus.
This is not excuse to keep failing. It is a calling to keep trying. Paul’s words suggest that song and praise are not complacency and blindness to our failings, but our very fuel to overcome them. Praise must be accompanied by Scriptural truth be effective, of course, so singing while hating does nothing. But take away the songs and I am likelier to become more like the thing Pavlovitz calls out, not less likely.
Now, sure, I personally could dispense with more sugary Christmas songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Those seem a little tone-deaf.
But carols based in the faith, like “O Holy Night”? No, I’m not giving those up to spare someone else’s sensitivities. I need those songs. I need them to clean up my character, care for the poor, and obey everything else God tells me to do. I will sing those songs as long as I live.
For because of what they announce, I know I will live again.
I’m glad you tuned in today. If you’ve found this post to be of worth, feel free to share it on social media.