My wife and I were deeply moved by the new film, I Can Only Imagine. I was so emotional that I had to compose myself before I could drive home– it was that powerful.
You may know the song, but do you know the story behind the song? “I Can Only Imagine” by Bart Millard of the Christian band Mercy Me is the best-selling, most-played Christian single of all time. The new film by the same title tells the moving true story of the songwriter and how he wrote the song.
The film tells how Bart Millard’s father abused him and his mother, and constantly told Bart he was not good enough. [Spoiler alert—skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to know the basic plot.] Thanks to a football injury and a music teacher’s insistence, Bart discovered he had a gift to sing. When his father told him to forget his dreams, he left home, turned his back on the girlfriend who loved him, and tried to escape his troubles by singing with a traveling band.
I won’t give away the ending, because the circumstances of how he recorded the song have surprising twists and turns along the way, but suffice to say that Bart had to face his fears to reach his dreams. And yes, the film dramatically presents the full song near the end of the film.
Dennis Quaid is amazing as the actor playing Bart’s abusive father. People who have endured abuse will feel the pain Bart feels from his father, but many people with sins in their own past, like myself, will identify with the pain of the father himself.
This is a Christian film, but it is not “preachy.” The story is raw, real and unapologetically soaked with the hope of the gospel. Go see this film if you like music, if you like romance, if your dreams have been crushed, if you have been abused, if you have abused someone, if you have a broken home, if you are grieving the death of a loved one, if you need forgiveness, if you need to forgive, and if you need hope.
Copyright 2015 by Bob Rogers
Imagine if legendary blues singer B.B. King died and went to heaven, and met King David, singer of the psalms. What would their conversation be like? Here’s how I imagine it:
B.B.: Are you David? Nice to meet you, sir. My name is Riley B. King, but my friends call me B.B.
David: Why do they call you B.B.?
B.B.: It stands for Blues Boy. You know, David, we have a lot in common!
David: What’s that?
B.B.: Both born in small towns, you in Bethlehem, and me in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Both played stringed instruments, you the harp and me the guitar. This is my guitar, Lucille. And we both sang the blues.
David: I’m glad you recognize that. When people think of my psalms, they may think of praises to God. But if you really read the psalms, you will find that many of them express disappointment with God. I wrote many of them in hard times.
B.B.: Yeah, growing up a black man in the Mississippi delta, I can relate to a lot of your psalms. One of my big hits was “Every Day I Have the Blues.”
David: You had the blues every day, and I had them all night long. Psalm 6 is about that. I was so depressed that I felt I was going to die, and I tried to convince God not to let me die by saying I could not praise the Lord from the grave. I did not mean that I didn’t believe in the afterlife– in fact, in Psalm 16, I said God would not abandon me in the graven, nor let his “Holy One” see decay. Hey, B.B., did you know that “Holy One” is Hasid in Hebrew, a play on words on my own name, David. You see, we Hebrews knew how to have fun with a pun, too. But it was still the blues. As I said in Psalm 6, verse 6, “I am worn out from weeping all night.”
B.B.: I like that one. It reminds me of a song by Slim Harpo. He sang, “You can cry, cry, baby, cry, cry all night long. But when you wake up in the morning, You’re gonna find your good man gone.”
David: Yeah, but the beautiful thing is that although I cried all night, God finally answered my prayer. I put that in near the end of Psalm 6: “The Lord has heard my plea for help; the Lord accepts my prayer.” B.B., let me ask you a question. Are black folks the only ones who sang the blues in your time? I mean, I’m a Hebrew, and like you said, many of my psalms were sad.
B.B.: I like to say that playing the blues and being black is like being black twice. But truth is, black folk ain’t the only ones singin’ the blues. In fact, lots of folk call country music the white man’s blues. In fact, one of your psalms reminds me of a country song.
David: Which one was that?
B.B.: Psalm 10.
David: The sequel to Psalm 9. Yes, I remember that one. It opens, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
B.B.: Yeah, there was a country song that said, “Where, O where, are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone?” Like I said, the white man’s blues.
David: But again the difference is that I ended my song with faith. Listen to verse 17: “You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted.” It reminds me of something I heard one of your American presidents say after he got shot and came up here. Abraham Lincoln said, “Often I am driven to my knees because there is nowhere else to go.”
B.B.: That’s cool. I like ole Abe. Hey, didn’t you say this Psalm 10 was the sequel to Psalm 9? How’s that?
David: Psalm 9 and 10 form an acrostic in Hebrew, with each stanza beginning with each of the successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet, so Psalm 10 finishes the acrostic that starts in Psalm 9. Psalm 9 praises the Lord with enthusiasm and even says, “For you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.” So remember when you read Psalm 10, not only that it moves from doubt to faith, but that it is part of another psalm of faith.
B.B.: Man, I didn’t know that! It’s like you didn’t cut a single, you was putting out a theme album, dude! So when I think the thrill is gone, I just need to hang on to God, cause it ain’t gone after all.
David: That’s right, B.B.
B.B.: But sometimes folks don’t see that. They just drown in their tears.
David: I wrote a psalm about that, too. I begin Psalm 13 by crying to God for times, “How long, O Lord?”
B.B.: Yeah, makes me think of some blues dudes named K-Ci & Jojo. They had a song that said, “How long just I cry, how long must I try, to make happiness my friend?”
David: I had the answer to that in my Psalm. I said, “But I trust in Your unfailing love.” Again, the mood changes to confidence in God.
B.B.: How can you have so much trust in God? I mean, with King Saul chasin’ you all over the hills, trying to slit your throat?
David: Yeah, Saul had the army of Israel and I had a rough band of 600 men. In fact, one time I felt like God had completely forsaken me. That’s when I wrote the bluest of my blues– Psalm 22. I sang, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
B.B.: Hey, wait a minute, man! I know those words. Jesus said that on the cross! Dude, you wrote that?
David: Yeah, check it out. When Jesus said that on the cross, Jesus was singing the blues, B.B. — literally! The words Jesus quoted from the cross, and not only those words, but other parts of Psalm 22 remind us of the cross. Listen to these lyrics from that psalm:
“He trust in the Lord, let the Lord rescue Him…”
“They have pierced my hands and feet.”
“They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.”
All of those lines are quoted in the gospels when they talk about Jesus’ crucifixion. So you see, no matter how bad life seems, Jesus knows how it feels. He’s been there. He suffered for our sins on the cross, and experienced the very absence of God, because God cannot look upon sin, and Jesus became sin for us.
B.B.: That’s one of the reasons Jesus is my Main Man. I mean, if anybody had a reason to sing the blues, He did after what they did to Him on the cross.
David: But remember that Jesus didn’t stay on the cross. He arose from the grave! Jesus knew this when he sang Psalm 22. Even this psalm moves to hope, because near the end it says, “He has not hidden His face, but has listened to my cry for help.” B.B., remember how I explained to you that Psalm 10, a psalm that expresses a feeling of forsakenness, was preceded by Psalm 9, a psalm expressing God’s presence. In a similar way, Psalm 22 begins with “Why have you forsaken me?” but it is followed by my # 1 hit, Psalm 23, which talks about how God never forsakes us, even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death!
B.B.: Cool, man! You know, folks down in my home state of Mississippi have been singing the blues ever since Hurricane Katrina came down there and wiped things out. There’s this blues rock singer named Marc Broussard; he was trying to raise money for victims of the hurricane, and he used your Psalm 22. Here, I got the thing on my iPod. Listen to a little of it: (David puts on the headphones, and listens to a few bars of Bootleg to Benefit the Victims of Hurricane Katrina.)
David: Wow, brother, it sounds different on my harp.
B.B.: Same broken heart, though, isn’t it? In Broussard’s song, “My God,” he concludes with these words:
“My God, my God, heal this sin-stained soul. I give my life to you, take me and make me whole. Oh, You are the way, the truth and the life. Burn over me, Lord, send me Your might. Oh, I can do nothing without You. With Your strength this dark night I’ll get through.”
David: Yes, it is. Same broken heart. Same faith at the end. Speaking of a broken heart, I have to confess that I often sang the blues because of trouble I brought on myself.
B.B.: Yeah, I heard about you and your woman, Bathsheba. But I read Psalm 51 when you confessed it. Dude, you really laid your soul bare. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
David: B.B., that wasn’t the only psalm I wrote after that. I also wrote Psalm 32 and Psalm 38. I was sick. Sick in my body. My bones felt brittle. I was so sick and disgusted with my own sin.
B.B.: Dude, there’s an indie rock band in Seattle, Washington, called Sorry the Band. They’re white boys, but they know how to sing the blues. I think they bootlegged Psalm 32 and Psalm 38, man.
David: Really? What do they call the song?
B.B. I think they just call the song “Shame.”
David: B.B., that’s the thing I wish people on earth could understand– that they can overcome their shame.They can beat the blues. Each of my psalms were soul therapy. They started with doubt, but ended with faith.
B.B.: I know it, man. That’s what Ray Charles and I were singing about on his last album before he died. We sang, “Lord, have mercy, please have mercy on me. Well, if I’ve done somebody wrong, Lord, please have mercy, if you please.”
David: That’s what the Lord did for me and did for you! When I did somebody wrong, I pleaded for mercy, and He gave it when I least deserved it. He told me that the Messiah would come through my descendants and He did! God sent Jesus the Messiah, and He died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins and yours. Now by faith in Jesus, the Lord has mercy on all who sing the blues.
B.B.: Amen, brother!
What is the most popular Christmas song in America? Billboard magazine’s list of the top ten Christmas songs of 2012 is probably our best source. This is not based on opinion, but is based on airplay on the radio, sales, and online streaming. Here is the list (Source: http://wgna.com/the-most-popular-christmas-songs-of-2012/):
10. Last Christmas- Wham!
9. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)- Trans-Siberian Orchestra
8. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year- Andy Williams
7. White Christmas- Bing Crosby
6. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms
5. A Holly Jolly Christmas- Burl Ives
4. Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano
3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)- Nat King Cole
2. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee
1. All I Want For Christmas Is You- Mariah Carey
Did you notice who is completely missing from the top ten? Jesus! Christ is not only not in the top 10 songs, he’s not even mentioned in the rest of the top 20.
In a world that sings about Christmas without Christ, God is calling the church of Jesus Christ back to the tradition of Christmas carols.
I. The history of Christmas carols
While many Americans sing about Santa, chestnuts and a white Christmas, Christians all over the world have sung about the birth of Jesus Christ for centuries. As early as the fourth century, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, wrote a hymn for Christmas to teach that God truly became a man, in response to heretics who denied Jesus’ incarnation.
Singing Christmas carols was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi during the Middle Ages in Europe, and was also encouraged by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther. As early as the 15th century, groups of singers would go from house to house in England and sing Christmas carols. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, chaplain from Shropshire, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who went from house to house and enjoyed “wassail,” ale, or apple cider, and other desserts given to them at each home. Thus we get the line, “here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green,” and since the homes often fed the carolers, we also get the line, “bring out the figgy pudding, we won’t go until we get some.” It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.
Two of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today are “O Come, all ye faithful,” which was originally written in the 13th century, and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which was first composed in the 14th century.
Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria.
“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. It is based on Psalm 98, and its tune comes from one of the songs in Handel’s Messiah. Originally this song was intended to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming, but it has come to be associated mostly with His first coming at Christmas.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the great Methodist founder Charles Wesley in 1739, and the words were revised by the great evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. A hundred years later, the classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the tune that is popular today when people sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“Silent Night” was originally written in German and first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. The organist, Franz Gruber, discovered that the organ wasn’t working at the church. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words in German to “Silent Night” two years before. So he shared it with Gruber, who composed the tune to be sung by guitar. When Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story of how the song was composed in an emergency and sung without the organ, and Mauracher spread the song everywhere that he went. The song came to America by German-speaking congregations. Originally the words were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English words we sing today were translated by John Freeman Young. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. (Sources: Wikipedia and Companion to Baptist Hymnal by William Reynolds.)
I wish we had time to talk about many other popular Christmas carols like “O Holy Night,” including some newer songs like “Mary Did You Know?” Many families bake a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus on Christmas morning, which is a wonderful way to teach the true meaning of Christmas to children. Which brings us back to the original story itself, because the first Christmas carols are found in the Bible itself.
II. The songs of the first Christmas
Really, singing Christmas carols goes all the way back to the first Christmas, because Luke’s Gospel records four different songs as he gives the Christmas story. Let’s look at the lessons we get from these original Christmas carols.
A Mary’s song says that Christ came to love the forgotten (Luke 1:46-55)
When Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she broke out into a song of praise, found in Luke 1:46-55. It is often called “The Magnificat” because she began, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
The song emphasizes how God has remembered the forgotten and lifts up the lowly. In verse 48-49 she sings with amazement that God chose her, a simple girl from Nazareth: “He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And notice what she sings in verse 52: “He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.”
Mary’s song reminds us that in Christ, God remembers the forgotten. Mary was a poor girl, and Jesus was born in a feeding trough. The song should remind us to stop and give a donation to the Salvation Army when we go shopping, to help Toys for Tots, and share with Operation Christmas Child and Backpacks for Appalachia. The Christmas child shoe boxes and backpacks are a wonderful way to share Jesus with the poor at Christmas.
B. Zechariah’s song says that Christ came to save us (Luke 1:67-79)
Not only was Jesus’ birth a miracle, but the birth of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, was also a miracle, because his parents were way too old to be having children. Yet an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child in her old age. When John the Baptist was born to them, Zechariah broke out into a song of praise. It is found in Luke 1:67-79.
Zechariah’s song emphasizes that Christ came to save us. Luke 1:68-69 says, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David.” In the Bible, a horn was a symbol of strength. The Messiah was to come from the family line of King David. So Zechariah was singing about the same thing his son would prophesy when John the Baptist saw Jesus, and John proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Zechariah’s song reminds us that Christ came to save us from sin.
C. The angel’s song says that Christ came to give us peace (Luke 2:13-14)
When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, he was suddenly surrounded by a great angel choir that sang the best-known of the songs that first Christmas. We read it in Luke 2:13-14. It is called “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” because it begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest.”
The angel’s song spoke about Christ, the Prince of Peace, coming to bring us peace. Most of us know this song from the King James Version, which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Good will towards men.” Many of us react to that like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. He wrote,
And in 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.”
The good news is that the most reliable ancient manuscripts do not say what the KJV says. That is why the HCSB translates it, “peace on earth to people He favors!” You see, Jesus’ coming is not a general guarantee that everybody will have peace. The more accurate translation does not say peace to all men, but peace to people He favors. That is, peace is available to those who receive God’s grace, or favor, through faith in Christ. As Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve, 1914, during World War I, the British, French and German armies laid down their arms and visited with one another in peace, and they all sang “Silent Night” in their own languages, as they all knew the song. The message about the Prince of Peace made all the difference, even in the midst of war.
Have you found the peace of Christ? The angel’s song reminds us that Christ came to give us peace, a peace we receive by faith in Him.
D. Simeon’s song says that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it (Luke 2:29-32)
There is one more Christmas song in Luke’s Gospel. Officially, it was after Christmas, since it happened a few days later. A lot of people get the post-Christmas blues after Christmas is over. They get kind of sad, taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations. And we rarely sing Christmas carols after Christmas Day. But Simeon did.
A few days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord in the temple. There they met a prophet named Simeon, who had been waiting all of his life for the Messiah to come and save His people. Luke 2:26 says it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, Simeon took Him in his arms and sang the fourth Christmas carol. In that song, Simeon reminded us that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it. We read the song in Luke 2:29-32.
Simeon sang, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel.”
Simeon knew that the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ was prepared for “all peoples,” both Gentiles and Jews, and he wanted everybody to know that the baby Jesus that he was holding in his arms was the Savior.
Simeon’s song reminds us, to keep Christmas all year long, keep on sharing the good news.
Christmas carols that celebrate Jesus may not be in the top 20, but people still recognize the songs and enjoy hearing them this season of the year, which is all the more reason for us to play carols in our homes and cars and places we work. It’s a simple way to share the good news.
And how we need to renew the tradition of going Christmas caroling! I have a suspicion that if Zechariah and Simeon and Mary were with us today, they would be going door-to-door caroling, with some shepherds right behind them and angels overhead.
Years ago, a small group of carolers went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California. They rang a doorbell, and the man of the house answered, all in a hurry. He said, “Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but I really don’t have time for this. The house is a mess and we’re trying to get out the door to go shopping. Come by some other day.” As he shut the door, Bing Crosby and his family said, “Okay,” and left.
God sent His Son at Christmas. Don’t be so busy you miss the song.
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