Saturday, November 17, 2012

Excerpts from "Songs of Saints and Angels" by Herbert L. Smith

A while back, I was contacted by an author to share with you some excerpts from an unpublished book of his called Songs of Saints and Angels.  His name is Herbert L. Smith, and before I forget to share these excerpts again, I am sharing them now.  Be sure to check out his website here.


An excerpt from the book, “Songs Of Saints And Angels” to be published soon
                                                                                By Herbert L. Smith            

In a time before memory, Cora came into my life.  I learned about her as I grew into a more than energetic child, but her story - one that clearly merged with mine - didn’t seem at all extraordinary until I was a lot older.  It was just a part of family lore, and although I knew it was true, the story was so commonly accepted that I had few thoughts and no sense of wonder about it during my early years.   Eventually I came to realize the import of the account and what she had done for me in my very first moments.                    
            I always had a great affection for Cora and found her fun and full of interest in whatever I said or did.  She was a significant advocate, and nearly glowed with pleasure whenever she visited.  I could do no wrong, so she seemed to think, and I responded to her with excited joy.  She had a pet name for me, “budd-ner,” which she always used, and I accepted it with patience, something I wasn’t inclined to do in most other cases. The nickname also came from a time before I could recall, when she had brought me a toy truck and I started rolling it on the floor, making an engine sound that she interpreted as “buddenbuddenbudden- - -.”
            Cora talked with a strong twang in her voice and a bit of a lisp as well.  I never understood, until I thought of her many years later, that she was probably developmentally disabled to some extent.  I can’t be sure what her disability was, or if it was anything more than being dreadfully poor and uneducated, but as I watched people deal with her they often talked down and treated her as though she might not grasp ideas easily or be fully aware or informed.  I have the feeling that she always knew much more about life than she was given credit.
            Cora was a strong woman, however, and could, in her loud and abrupt way, get the upper hand over people who disagreed with her about matters she thought important - or anyone who offered unfair criticism.  She seemed to know just what and where her priorities were, solidly placed side–by-side with her faith, and she followed her set of values with vehement fidelity.  She was a force that could not be moved when she made up her mind, but she was as gentle with me as she was pushy with many people.  We had a special bond that has always reminded me of how much I owed her.  She saved my life.  Literally.
            As the time for my birth came close, my parents lived in a tiny house on the flat “river-bottom land” near Glenwood, Iowa, down in the southwestern corner of the state.  The Missouri River, very wide and very muddy, flowed close to the tiny house, only a little more than a mile toward the west. There were two rooms, and those were small.  It was the cottage for the hired man, and was minute in comparison to the overwhelmingly large farmhouse that sat next to it, where the farm family lived.
            There was really no space for another child, but my parents were expecting me and couldn’t do anything but accept the outcome after the fact.  My three older sisters were sent across the road to a neighboring farmhouse on the night I was born, and my father had already brought the “hired girl” - Cora - to the house a few days before.  It was 1938, a time before most Iowa countrywomen went to a hospital to give birth.
            There was a storm that night, a midsummer thunder storm that shook even the largest farm buildings. The Missouri River flooded a couple of days later as a result of all the storms that were in the area, and the family evacuated the house in a horse drawn wagon with big wheels; right through the flood water.  I was two days old.  The house gradually filled with the enlarged river and we were not able to return to it, although it was later repaired and made livable again.
            I was never told many of the details of that night.  My mother didn’t want to talk about it, and my sisters weren’t there, but Cora told me her role, the same story with the same details, time after time, and my parents never disputed the things she said.
            After some hours of mother’s labor the doctor finally arrived and set about the preparations for childbirth.  He didn’t please my parents very much, and father always scoffed at the doctor after that; for his lack of attention to my mother and to me.  I suspect that the doctor wasn’t paid a lot for his services and wanted to leave as soon as he could, especially with the river threatening to rise.
            However it all happened, the doctor made the delivery, took a look at me, and told them all that I was stillborn.  He gave me to Cora with instructions to put me up on the dresser, which she did.  She always emphasized that I was blue and absolutely still.  But she started pumping my feet and arms, slowly at first, rotating and pushing them to try to get me to breathe; offering prayer with both her actions and her heart.  I don’t know how long she worked, but she succeeded.  It must have been a great thrill for her to see movement and then hear a kind of screaming sound and then the gasping and breathing start.  She massaged and worked on me for quite a long time until they were all sure that I could survive.  I don’t think the doctor ever thanked her, but my parents did, and after all these years, I am thanking her now.

Copyright 2012 by Herbert L. Smith
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any print
or electronic form without permission.

The Way Of Love

An excerpt from the book, “Songs Of Saints And Angels” to be published soon
By Herbert L. Smith

            The Via Dolorosa - The Way Of Sorrow - is a narrow cobble-stoned street in Old Jerusalem that most pilgrims believe to be the path Jesus took across the city as he carried his cross to Calvary.  The buildings along it are shabby with lots of broken-down looking shops that hold tacky tourist stuff.  The street itself collects some debris, although people do try to keep it clean, and there is a general appearance of neglect that has probably been part of the scene for a very long time.  The Way has been venerated for the past three centuries by countless believers, and has “Stations of the Cross” plaques along its length to inform visitors of various events that befell Jesus there.  There is the plaque that indicates where he made visual contact with Mary, his mother, as he stumbled forward, and another where Simon, the man from Cyrene, was compelled to carry the cross after Jesus fell beneath it.  Some of these memorials are recorded in the Bible narrative, while others are not, but the possibility that some are fiction is of small importance now.  All the things that happened that day, as a total experience, changed the perspective of humankind forever, and our remembering and retelling them play crucial roles in our perception of who Jesus is, and what his life, death, and resurrection accomplished.
            I came upon the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the final five Stations of the Cross are located, almost by accident.  On one of the first days I spent in the Old City, I entered through the Damascus Gate from Nablus Road  (I was staying in the guest house at St. George’s Cathedral, near the gate), and soon saw a small sign painted high on a wall that read:  “Via Dolorosa.”   Happy because I had found something I knew about and wanted to visit, I stepped into the little street with high hopes.  It was narrow, but open to the sky (some of the old streets on the ground level are covered), and cobbled with large and small stones that were worn smooth by the feet of centuries.  I read only recently that many of those stones were in the streets at the time of the Roman occupation, but were later removed to “improve” The Way.  These paving stones were found again in the twentieth century and restored to the roadway, so I was literally walking on the ancient stones that Jesus might have stepped on during his days in the city.  There were small groups of pilgrims and knots of people wearing religious garb of various kinds in the street, all moving slowly forward toward the end of The Way and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
            Shops, schools, churches, mosques, and houses lined the passage, and voices from their upper stories floated down to the street.  The pilgrims walking in The Way that day were quiet, but confused noise from those unseen sources filled it with the sounds of life.  Most of the pilgrims were there to follow Jesus to Golgotha and the cross, and it was in their nature to be somber. They bore sorrowful faces and stepped with slow determination as they progressed down the street.  I wondered at that; it was a fine day, the sun was bright but not too hot, and I felt energized by my recent discoveries and the potential of the day at hand.  More importantly, Jesus lived, but the doleful ones were behaving as though they were with him - on their way to die. 
            It is good to think carefully about the suffering of Jesus, and I don’t want to suggest that it does not need to be a part of Christian contemplation and meditation.  There is a proper time for sorrow, but despite the name of the street and the events that happened there, I didn’t think it necessary to walk in The Way recalling only sorrow for the day Jesus went to his death.  Perhaps that is significant for some of the pilgrims, but for me it seemed better to keep in mind the truth, that he accomplished his divine purpose - the salvation of the world.  We should remember, as we remember when we receive communion, but we don’t have to suffer guilt and agony.  Jesus fulfilled God’s plan, and that is a reason to be hope-and-joy-full.                     
            The street grew more crowded.  People entered from everywhere - buildings and streets and shops - all headed toward the point where the Via Dolorosa turned toward the south and approached the church.  I was thinking of getting away from the somber crowd when I noticed a wide set of old iron stairs, finely wrought in spokes and spikes that were painted industrial green, rising from the corner where the street turned, and suddenly decided to follow it up to the next level, perhaps because there was no one else there.  I was curiously drawn toward it, and in a moment started up toward the top. The stairway rose to a landing, then turned in the opposite direction and ascended to a smaller passage above, where there was a lot more sky and sun, trees and flowers grew in a wide space, and doors to houses and gardens opened onto a nearby pathway.  In the distance, the top of a large iron and glass dome rose from a green lawn, and on the left was a wall with two doors spaced a few feet apart - its only openings.  Two priests were headed in the direction of the doors, ignoring me as I stood on the top step and watched as they entered one, stepping through quickly and closing it gently, almost soundlessly.  I followed them without hesitation.  
            A long, dark hallway led from the door.  Voices were rising in a chant down toward the far end, and as I found my way through the dimness I came to an opening where a chapel was busy with priests who were chanting and praying.  Candles and smoke from incense burners filled the place, and its ceiling was grimy from the fumes and smoke of many centuries. I didn’t go in; they were obviously involved in one of their daily offices; the chapel didn’t seem to be a place that was available to everybody, and I hadn’t been invited.  Just ahead was a stone stair, long and dusky, leading down into a high, vaulted area, and from the top I could see the interior of the dome that stood in the center of the garden on the roof.  It was now positioned high above the floor of a rotunda.  I had entered The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from its side door and uppermost point, above the very end of The Via Dolorosa.  
            The church is not beautiful - it is very old and musty, and shows its age in an uncomfortably plain sort of way.  Built in Roman style sixteen-hundred years ago, the church is venerated by Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians. I marveled at the place, of course, because it is ancient, and has seen so much of the history of Christianity pass through its doors, dating by extension from the day that Jesus first went there.  In what is now a chapel high above the main floor, he was crucified on a now-enclosed hillside called Calvary.   
            Calvary is a stony place that is protected with large glass panels.  Behind the panels there are painted figures of Christ on the Cross, Mary, his mother, John, the beloved disciple, and I believe, Joseph of Arimathea.  There is a hole in the rock where the cross was thrust into place after Jesus had been nailed to it, and two other holes, some distance on either side, where the thieves who died with him were placed on their crosses.  The public no longer has direct access to the rock that was the hilltop, except for a small opening in the center of a glass panel - a hole large enough for pilgrim hands to reach inside and touch the place where the cross stood, or to kneel and  kiss the rocky depth that had supported the cross.  The chapel seemed small in comparison to the large rotunda down the stairs; there was a line of pilgrims that had formed along one side of the glass, moving quietly, solemnly, toward the place where they could reach inside and touch the rock. 
            There is little about the Church that brings hope or thoughts of life.  It seems to be entirely devoted to death - the death of Jesus - and although his tomb is there (the place where centuries of Christians have believed he was buried) I could find no notice or mention that it was also the place where he came to life again - by his own power - and was seen by Mary Magdalene in the garden that had filled much of that space before the church was erected.  There was no indication that there were angels who sat on the stone slab - now covered with marble - where his body had lain inside the tomb, to tell the disciples that Jesus was no longer there, that he had risen, as he had told them.  Death seems to have taken the reigns in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and has not yet relinquished them although Christians depend upon the fact that Jesus is alive.          
            I do not want to disrespect people who have kept the place open and available all these centuries, but the obvious fixation on death seems a sad way to remember Jesus - who has asked us to remember him whenever we receive the elements of communion.  We do not remember a dead Lord.  We believe in his Life, and we expect, as did many people in the earliest days of the church, that we might see him coming around a corner, or walking beside the Sea of Galilee, or standing on the Temple Mount, or the Mount of Olives, in triumph and blessing for all the world.
            The ongoing life of Jesus, his eternal existence, has given us all new life and hope, and the love of Jesus that he shares through that life has given us abundant love to share.  I have come to believe that everything in the universe is centered upon the love of God, known to us through Jesus, and that God’s Love is the prime mover of everything that has been, everything that is, and all that is to come.    
            I am an irremediable optimist, which I consider a gift of grace, but also recognize that many people do not share this gift, and they suffer in numerous ways, often from a sense of fear or loss or abandonment - things I cannot understand but accept because they tell me how difficult their lives are.  And yet there are times in the midst of these issues when God comes to them and they are surrounded by his presence and his love.   
            I don’t want to give up what I have in order to experience another’s woes, but that is exactly what Jesus did for all of us.  And because it was for everyone, he suffered on a greater scale than anyone else has done.  Then, when he returned to life, he knew from his own experience all the agonies of death as well as the enormous blessings of resurrection. 
            Now he asks us to share in his Love and Life.  He invites us to come to him to find mercy for every day, and to find love - not only for ourselves, but also for others, an immense supply that grows exponentially so that we can offer it to anyone we may encounter as we rub shoulders with the world - our world.  We share, not by duty or formula or some sort of programmed performance, but out of a heart that loves, which only he can give us. 
            The Via Dolorosa, The Way of Sorrow, has existed for a time on the earth, but The Way of Love that God gives us through Jesus will last eternally.  There is nothing simpler nor more profound than that.  Love permeates the entire history of God’s interactions with humankind, and because of his love, God has placed such great worth on humanity - the life of Jesus - that we cannot fully comprehend it, even though we may talk and write and sing for untold ages about the enduring, unchanging love of God.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
Or were the skies of parchment made.
Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill,
And ev’ry man a scribe by trade.
To write the love of God above
Would drain the oceans dry.
Nor would the scroll contain the whole,
Tho’ stretched from sky to sky!

Oh Love of God, how rich, how pure,
How measurless and strong.
It shall forevermore endure!
The saints’ and angels’ song.
                                                   -Frederick M. Lehman
                                                   THE LOVE OF GOD

Copyright 2012 by Herbert L. Smith. 

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any print or
electronic form without permission.


An excerpt taken from the book, “Songs Of Saints And Angels” to be published soon
by Herbert L. Smith

The word was made flesh and dwelt among us,

And we beheld his glory,

The glory of the only begotten of the Father,

Full of grace and truth.

                           --The Gospel of Saint John, 1:14


            Christmas at a church in Berkeley, California, where we usually spend the season with family, is a highlight of the holiday.  We go to the church at ten on Christmas Eve, after a traditional dinner of fish, followed by family gifts; out into the cool quiet of the dark and nearly empty city streets.  We sit waiting in the wide nave of the old church that is dressed in green garlands and white candles for the Lessons and Carols to begin.  All the lessons, beginning with parts of Genesis and moving on through the Bible - a recited history of the origins of Christmas - are read, interspersed with choral anthems and lots of traditional carols that everyone sings.  That is the glorious prelude.  It is followed at about eleven by the celebration of the Holy Communion which begins when a side door opens, the organ speaks out in full voice, the tympani rolls, and the choir processes through proclaiming the call:  “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  It never fails to create anew the marvel of the moment, and to bring an always expected jolt, a somehow surprising surge of power, grace, perception, and emotion as we sing the wonder of Christmas once again.  “O come, let us adore Him.”  
            Jesus, our Lord, is born!  Sing with the angels!                 
            I have never understood how any Christian could be a Christmas detractor or refuse the celebration of that most remarkable day simply because they think it is remotely descended from pagan sources, or because they disagree with the date of its placement or think that the season is overly commercial and therefore to be repudiated.  We, as Christians, should be united in one purpose at Christmas; to celebrate Jesus at his birth.  God has purified - sanctified - the Day for his own use. 
             Jesus, our Lord, is born!  Sing with the angels!
            In the proper time God sent Jesus to be born.  That is the story we hear in the lessons.  The timing was God’s choice, whatever day it might have been, and Christmas became for the ages one of the mightiest of Holy Days.  It marks the beginning of the end of the reign of Lucifer on the earth, and the revelation of God’s plan for salvation of the human race.  What greater cause for celebration could there ever be? 
            Jesus, our Lord is born!  Sing with the angels!
            It is certainly a mystery.  We have no idea how the incarnation was achieved or how God divided himself to become human.  We can only accept the whole thing by faith, another of the many mysteries of God that require belief instead of hard evidence.  When I truly came to believe, the problems and weights of earlier concepts fell away and I began to realize that God doesn’t challenge us to find truth and then make it impossibly difficult to accept.  He leads us into truth, to believe readily and easily.  The living Word, the very life of God, became flesh and came to live with us.
Jesus, our Lord is born!  Celebrate and sing with the angels!
            Christmas is ageless and universal.  It belongs to everyone, everywhere, whether they recognize it or not.  From the earliest times, before the creation, God made plans for Christmas.  We read about it all through the Bible.  When everything was set into motion, angels brought messages about the great event as it unfolded over the next few months; from the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Zacharia, the father of John The Baptist, to his (Gabriel’s) Annunciation to Mary and on through to the arrival of the child Jesus in Bethlehem,
            We can imagine that the angels must have been astonished when God sent The Son to be born of a human mother in one of the most inhospitable situations that could be found.  And the low-caste shepherds, hearing the announcement that their savior was born in a dirty barn with its filthy floor, and a grimy manger - where animals ate - for the baby’s bed, must have looked with surprise and wonder at the scene.  But angels do not think as people do, nor could the shepherds after the divine announcement.  The angels only watched and considered what it could mean, trusting God with complete confidence, and then sang God’s glory over the fields of that rough place. And the shepherds believed, and were elevated for all time to be people of great merit –forever placed in the Christmas story - because they were the first to hear the news and the astounding music.
            Jesus, our Lord, is born!  Sing with the Angels! 
            I have a long and delightful history with Christmas.  It is a Holiday I love fervently.  It tells me, over all the years, how much God loves me and all his children of the earth. It tells me that God has made himself known to us in a most peculiar and familiar way, perhaps the only place in all the universe where he came to be one of his own creation.  It tells me to love, without condition, all of this world and its inhabitants, and I live enthralled with the idea that God loves me - and knows me.  Why-ever else would he have done such things, except to prove that he is Love?
            The arrival of the child Jesus on the earth was the most important day that this planet had seen to that time, superseded soon after by the events of Easter, but Christmas remains of great significance for all people, and for God and all the angels, too.  It is a truly transforming wonder, changing the direction of the human race, and lining up all events that preceded and followed that day - Christmas Day - in the history of human-kind and the planet; a cause for celebration beyond anything that had been known before.   It is no wonder that the angels sang!  It is no wonder that all the earth still celebrates!
            I have received Christmas cards from communist Chinese who were my students at a university in California.  These cards were made in China, sent from China, and used by Chinese people, even the communists, to give a Merry Christmas greeting in English and Chinese to all their friends.  I was assured that it was a common practice there, and although there was a Santa Claus - a comical Chinese one - depicted, and no religious reference except for the “Merry Christmas” across the front above the reindeer antlers, it warmed my heart.  It was an admission of God’s love from a most unlikely place; an irrepressible display of the Joy of the Season despite the ideological conflicts that people sometimes thrust upon the Christian message.  The message is still there, and people, many who are not Christian, respond to it everywhere.  God’s great gift cannot be ignored.
            In the Muslim world, December is somber and quiet - on the outside.  In one country where I lived for a while, I went to a small shopping mall in early December.  The sand from the desert was blowing into the corners of the parking lot, women in black abiyyas were carrying bags out to their cars, hiding their faces behind total veiling, hands gloved - altogether covered.  Men in white thobes (robes) strolled along, apparently ignoring all the women as was usual in that world, talking casually to each other, smoking and joking all the while. 
            The country is a rich one; oil and natural gas are buried beneath the whole area, even under the waters of the gulf that their land displaces, and there was no sign of anything that resembled Christmas or of any religion except for Islam.  Then I stepped through the entry doors of the mall and Christmas happened!  Reds and greens and spangles and stars, Santas and reindeer and even small creches for those who wanted them at home.  Everything for Christmas.  The food emporium featured the tiny mince pies and tarts that British people love, the cafe was bedecked with colorfully decorated trees, all artificial, of course.  (No natural trees but palms grow anywhere in that country.)  There were also boxed Christmas trees to take home.  Huge cases were filled with toys and delights for children, elegant and casual clothing in the familiar sparkles and colors, and even piped in Christmas tunes, secular, to be sure, but “Merry Christmas” liberally fell from the speakers throughout the center.  Everything was wrapped and tinseled right down to the floors, and nearly all the shoppers were native Muslims, and they were happy. 
            All the world celebrates Christmas, and that is a cause for rejoicing.  God’s great gift cannot and will not be ignored.  Jesus, our Lord, is born!  Alleluia!  Sing with the Angels!
            Actually, I don’t suppose everybody celebrates at the Christmas season.  I have met some Christians who declare that because Jesus didn’t celebrate his birthday, it is not something for us to do.  I have known people who decry the decoration of trees for the Holiday, and Christian people who refuse to join in celebrations of any kind for various reasons, but these seem joyless folk who don’t have a clear understanding of how important Christmas is to all of the earth.  If angels had a celebration for Jesus’ birth, why shouldn’t we? 
            I am very aware that in some countries and cultures it is forbidden to celebrate or even give voice to the fact of Christmas.  But I am also aware that in those countries there are people of faith - and even some who are not Christian - who celebrate Christmas while they are hiding in their homes.  I firmly believe that God expects us to be happy, to celebrate, and to fill all our earth - the places where we live - with love and joy.  It seems a duty, a joyous one of course, to do these things, and to join together with all Christians, and even all the earth, to hallow within our spirits the glories and beauties that Christmas brings.     
            Christmas always carries more fond memories of my own childhood than any other time of the year.  When I was young enough to sit on my father’s shoulders as he walked through the snow, I remember his trudging home on a wonderful snow-filled moonlit night after seeing a Christmas program at a church.  The snow was too deep for cars to get through, so the whole family walked, in single file, along the edge of the street for several blocks.  I could feel the steps father took, the shifting of his shoulders as he moved along, and sense the joy that filled the whole earth as far as I was concerned.  The beauty of the still night, the brilliance of the moonlight on the snow, and the warmth of my father’s head and shoulders as he stepped carefully along the street and finally into our house - transformed by the heaps of snow on the roof and the gigantic icicles that hung from the corners - made that Christmas memorable for me. 
            Christmas brought a new kind of love into the world, and that love is our guide to loving.  It is because God loves us that Christmas came to be, and because God loves us, we are able love each other.  We have received God’s love, the greatest and best gift to our hearts, and the finest thing that we can share with anyone else.  Celebrate the love that God sent us at Christmas - all the time, all the year! 
            We need to live as Christmas Christians, loving beyond the boundaries of people we know and have a reason to love, and beyond what we understand as our duty, into the dimension of unconditional love for people we encounter - even those who are not socially or politically aligned with our thinking, or spiritually attuned to our beliefs.  If we really understand that love can conquer where nothing else can, we should act on it, to honor God and the people he has created.  Love is the very essence of Christmas, the mighty motivator and enlivener of the world, and a gift God gave us in Jesus. 
            Jesus, our Lord, is born!  Alleluia!  Sing with the Angels!

Copyright 2012 by Herbert L. Smith

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any print or
 electronic form without permission.

 He would welcome any comments or insights you have about these.


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