The Jesus we needed to hear about in 2020

I don’t often confess this to my musical friends, but one of my all-time favourite songwriters was neither a producer of commercial hits nor a writer of traditional folk songs. He was a former slave-trader who later became a Christian minister and one of the most prolific hymn writers of the 18th century. His name was John Newton.

Most people encounter Newton today without realising it, as he is the principal author of the popular hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ But ‘Amazing Grace’ was far from the only hymn he wrote. In fact, when he was the pastor of the church in Olney in Buckinghamshire, he and the poet William Cowper committed themselves to writing a hymn a week, to be taught and sung at their weekly Tuesday night prayer meeting. Many of those who attended would have been illiterate, so Newton and Cowper taught them the lyrics verse by verse. And some of those hymns had a whole lot of verses!

Today is the Feast of the Naming of Jesus. As a Jewish boy, eight days after birth Jesus would have been circumcised as a sign of entering into God’s covenant people, and on this day he would also have been given his name.

Accordingly, the Gospel of Luke tells us that on the eighth day after his birth Mary’s son was circumcised and given the name ‘Jesus’, the name the angel had specified for him. ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshua’, as it would almost certainly have been pronounced by Jewish people at the time) means ‘Yahweh Saves’ (or ‘God to the rescue,’ as I once heard it translated!). Before the time of Jesus, the most famous Israelite with that name would have been Joshua (it’s the same name in Hebrew), who led the Israelite military campaigns when they were occupying the promised land. Indeed, the words ‘save’, ‘salvation’ and ‘saviour’ are most often used in the Old Testament in a military sense.

But I’ve been thinking, on this feast on the Naming of Yeshua, about what his name means for Christians. And in this respect, I find myself thinking of the words of one of John Newton’s hymns. I give them as Newton originally wrote them; today we most often sing a slightly amended version.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

These verses are a wonderful statement of Newton’s faith in Jesus. Newton was an 18th century evangelical, which meant among other things that he had a strong belief in the utter lostness of humanity apart from God, and of the need for atonement for human sin to be made on the Cross of Jesus. One of the sayings of Newton’s old age was ‘I have forgotten many things, but two things I have not forgotten: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.’

So the Jesus in whom Newton put his faith was not so much the wise teacher, the disciple maker who led his followers into a new way of life. This was not a strong emphasis of the 18th century evangelicals, who tended to get their ethical teaching from the epistles rather than the gospels. No—Newton’s Jesus was the Saviour, the one who died for his sins, the one who brought him forgiveness and strength and comfort and peace, the one who soothed his sorrows, healed his wounds, and drove away his fear.

In recent years I’ve often thought that this 18th century evangelical Christ is a severely truncated version of the New Testament original. He tells people to come to him when they are burdened, so that he can give them rest, but he doesn’t very often tell them to sell their possessions and give to the poor, or to love their enemies, or to avoid storing up for themselves treasures on earth. Evangelical Christianity talks about accepting Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but to be honest, in most cases, the emphasis is on the ‘Saviour’ part.

This may be a weakness, but on the other hand, as we turn the page on 2020 , I find myself thinking that it may be exactly what we needed to hear in this year of pestilence and plague. Most of us went through our days in a constant state of fear. Most of us were carrying much heavier burdens than we were used to. Most of us, when we stopped and took internal stock, discovered a low-level sense of sadness and grief that had become our constant companion, even when we weren’t dominated by it. Many of us were familiar with sorrow, many were tired, and the thought of death was hard to ignore.

So maybe this could have been the evangelical movement’s big moment. Sadly, of course, much of the evangelical movement in North America was paralyzed by several decades of culture wars, leading up to the presidency of Donald Trump. They were obsessed with the appointment of right-wing judges, more restrictions on abortion, restoring school prayer, and the preservation of America’s so-called ‘Christian heritage’ in the face of ever-increasing immigration. There wasn’t much bandwidth left for Jesus the lifter of burdens, the provider of rest for the weary, the healer of wounds and the driver away of fear.

But there’s still time. Vaccines are trickling in, but it will take many months for them to reach enough people to begin to provide herd immunity. There are many months of fear and loneliness and Covid protocols still ahead. So maybe, as we go into this year of our Lord 2021, my evangelical sisters and brothers might consider giving the culture wars a rest, and spending some time with the Gospel message that has historically been the heart of our tradition: that Jesus is the Saviour who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fear, and that the music of his name has the power even to refresh our souls in death.

So let’s sing with John Newton (see below for the very slightly amended words).

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
And drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

Books I’ve read, or re-read, in 2020

In the back of my daily journal I keep a list of books I read. I share it each year, not in a competitive spirit, but more as a tool for reflection.

This year I’m almost embarrassed by the length of this list. But then, as I reflect, I realize that it’s not surprising how highly reading figured in my list of relaxations. Covid-19 caused many things to grind to a halt, including substantial holiday trips, attending open stages, holding musical evenings in our home, and any real motivation for songwriting (I hate to admit it, but when I can’t share songs live and see people’s reaction to them, I find songwriting a little pointless).

One thing that stands out on this list for me was how much fiction I read this year. I would further define the parameters and say, how much easy reading fiction, including re-reads. I re-read a lot of Ursula LeGuin, Suzanne Collins, Catherine Fox, C.J. Sansom, and Jane Austen. I also read a lot of Bernard Cornwell (historical fiction with a lot of violence in it), and Ann Cleeves (murder mysteries). Conclusion? I wasn’t interested in working too hard at my reading. Daily life already required enough effort.

Some of the really good books I’ve read this year have been ones Marci and I read together. The best one was her choice: Camilla Townsend’s Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs. We also enjoyed Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail, a re-read for me, but first time through for her. I also note that on December 22nd Marci and I, and our four kids, got together on Zoom for two hours and did a family read of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant play The Importance of Being Earnest, which was more fun than anything we’ve done together for a long time!

I’ve been using the little Bible commentaries in the ‘For Everyone’ series (Old Testament by John Goldingay, New Testament by N.T. Wright) in my devotional reading and as resource material for Bible study groups this year. I don’t always read them all the way through, but the ones I’ve finished, I’ve listed here.

Best reads? For fiction, I would probably list the two Richard Wagamese books I read this year: Medicine Walk and Starlight. If you haven’t yet read anything by the late Richard Wagamese, you’re in for a treat; in my opinion he was one of Canada’s finest authors of recent years, and also a great introduction to indigenous writing if you haven’t dipped into it yet. For non-fiction, my favourites were probably the two David Runcorn books: Love Means Love (on same-sex marriage and related issues) and The Language of Tears. On a side note, David and I have become friends this year, which adds a whole new dimension to reading an author’s work.

Also, I re-read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina this year and I still think it’s the finest novel I’ve ever read.

Least enjoyable read? Probably Shane O’Mara’s In Praise of Walking, which was full of information but ultimately rather boring!

Interestingly (to me), fully 38 of these 75 books were read on my Kindle. Sometimes this is because books are so easy to get in the Kindle store, and are usually cheaper. But also, as I get older, I find my wrists get tired faster from holding a big book (I especially noticed this with Sansom’s Sovereign), and a Kindle is just lighter and easier to hold.

So, here’s the list, in the order in which they were read.

  1. Ann Cleeves: The Long Call
  2. Ann Cleeves: Raven Black
  3. Thomas Cahill: How the Irish Saved Civilization
  4. Ann Cleeves: White Nights
  5. Brené Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection
  6. Richard Wagamese: Medicine Walk
  7. Ann Cleeves: Red Bones
  8. Ursula K. LeGuin: The Tombs of Atuan
  9. Ursula K. LeGuin: The Farthest Shore
  10. Ursula K. LeGuin: Tehannu
  11. Ursula K. LeGuin: Tales of Earthsea
  12. N.T. Wright: John for Everyone: Part 1
  13. Ursula K. LeGuin: The Other Wind
  14. Rowan Williams: Tokens of Trust
  15. Ann Cleeves: Blue Lightning
  16. Philip Gulley: Home to Harmony
  17. Ann Cleeves: Dead Water
  18. Philip Gulley: Just Shy of Harmony
  19. John Goldingay: 1 & 2 Chronicles for Everyone
  20. Philip Gulley: Signs and Wonders
  21. Michael Frost: Keep Christianity Weird
  22. Shane O’Mara: In Praise of Walking
  23. Richard Wagamese: Starlight
  24. Eugene Peterson: Run with the Horses
  25. Pam Smith: Online Mission and Ministry
  26. Ann Cleeves: Thin Air
  27. Catherine Fox: Acts and Omissions
  28. Catherine Fox: Unseen Things Above
  29. Catherine Fox: Realms of Glory
  30. Catherine Fox: Angels and Men
  31. Ann Cleeves: Cold Earth
  32. Catherine Fox: Benefits of Passion
  33. Ann Cleeves: Wild Fire
  34. Marcus Green: The Possibility of Difference
  35. Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games
  36. Suzanne Collins: Catching Fire
  37. Suzanne Collins: Mockingjay
  38. Camilla Townsend: Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs
  39. Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
  40. Natalie Jenner: The Jane Austen Society
  41. N.T. Wright: Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 2
  42. David Runcorn: Love Means Love
  43. Nicholas Sparks: The Lucky One
  44. C.J. Sansom: Dissolution
  45. Pierre Berton: The Arctic Grail
  46. C.J. Sansom: Dark Fire
  47. N.T. Wright: Acts for Everyone, Part 1
  48. Bernard Cornwell: The Last Kingdom
  49. James D.G. Dunn: Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels
  50. Bernard Cornwell: The Pale Horseman
  51. Bernard Cornwell: The Lords of the North
  52. Vicky Beeching: Undivided
  53. Bernard Cornwell: Sword Song
  54. Bernard Cornwell: The Burning Land
  55. Bernard Cornwell: The Pagan Lord
  56. Bernard Cornwell: The Death of Kings
  57. Bernard Cornwell: The Empty Throne
  58. L.C. Tyler: A Cruel Necessity
  59. N.T. Wright: Acts for Everyone, Part 2
  60. Bernard Cornwell: Warriors in the Storm
  61. Joanna Trollope: Sense and Sensibility
  62. Alexander McCall Smith: Emma: a Modern Retelling
  63. Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
  64. Jane Austen: Persuasion
  65. David Runcorn: The Language of Tears
  66. John Grisham: A Time for Mercy
  67. K.M. Elizabeth Murray: Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary
  68. N.T. Wright: Matthew for Everyone, Part 1
  69. Stephen R. Lawhead: Hood
  70. Julia Zarankin: Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder
  71. N.T. Wright: Revelation for Everyone
  72. Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest
  73. Richelle Thompson, Ed.: Watching and Waiting: Advent Word Reflections
  74. C.J. Sansom: Sovereign
  75. Jonathan Evenson: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

The Meaning of Christmas

I believe with all my heart that at a certain point in history, the Word of God became a human being and lived among us as one of us. I believe he showed us by his life and teaching what God is like. I believe he infected the human race with the love of God in a new and unique way, and this good infection has been spreading ever since. And because I believe this, I love Advent and Christmas with a passion! It is my favourite time of the year!