Tag Archives: Light

“Get Woke!”

“Sleeper, awake!  Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
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Ephesians 5:14

 asleep

While some people are too grown-up to take themselves too seriously to engage with slang terms, the Oxford English Dictionary has officially added the word “woke” to its pages. It’s defined as “alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”, or (more broadly) politically and culturally aware. …The roots of the word date back.  Fiona McPherson of the Oxford English Dictionary told Dazed Digital that ‘woke’, with its current meaning, has a history in Black American slang that dates back to the 60s. …Wokeness is an ongoing process, I think, even for the very woke. …Discussions about the porous boundaries between becoming woke, being woke, staying woke, being selectively woke, not being woke enough – need to happen. …There’s substance enough here (in the word and concept of woke) to unpack the complexities of what it means to live deliberately as a culturally/politically aware person. New, evolving language is what makes this possible.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________ http://www.marieclaire.co.za/latest-news/woke-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary

You, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

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I Thessalonians 5:4-10

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Surprising seasons of special spiritual sensitivity and heightened spiritual receptivity in the life and ministry of a church are sometimes called “revivals.” Our church – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – was actually born during just such a time (see: “Revival at Cane Ridge” – Mark Galli – http://www.christianitytoday.com). Another word that has been used to describe these times when God’s presence, power and provision are especially “thick” is “awakenings.”

The slang phrase “stay woke” that has just been added to the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary is used to describe someone who has become socially and politically aware. “Awakenings” is a word that describes a time in the life of the church when this same thing has happened to people spiritually.  They have become aware, and this is an idea that goes all the way back to the pages of the New Testament.

sleepI have an icon of the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane hanging on a wall in my office that I look at every Sunday morning as I head down the hall to preach, teach and minister to my people. I deliberately put it there to tell me that I must be spiritually “woke” myself, and to remind me of the challenge that I face every single day as a local church pastor – spiritual sleepiness. “Could you not stay awake with me for even just one hour?” Jesus asked his disciples, and this torpor is the steady state of most of the churches and Christians that I know, and based on what Paul told the Thessalonian Christians in the first century, it seems that it always has been.

Richard Lovelace, an American church historian who has written extensively about spiritual awakenings, observes that “only a small fraction” of the Christians he knows, or for that matter, “only a small faction” of all the all Christians who have ever lived have “solidly appropriated the justifying work of Christ in their lives.” At best, he said that most of us have only what might be called “a theoretical commitment” to Christ, and it is from this lethargy that we must stirred.  We need to “get woke.

kellerA sleepy Christian may believe that they’re a Christian, but they don’t have a real sense of God’s holiness, their own sin, or the depth of his grace. They may be a moralist or a relativist, or living inconsistent lives. Nominal Christians may be going to church, but have never really been convicted of sin or received salvation personally. (Tim Keller @ https://www.redeemercitytocity.com) –

The question is how?
How are sleepy Christians awakened?

William Perkins (1558-1602) was a Puritan theologian and pastor who believed that the two primary instruments that God uses to stir us from our spiritual slumber are a sustained exposure to “the ministry of the Word” and the “Providences” – “some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God.” To “get woke” spiritually we first of all need to know what it is that God promises and provides for us by His grace, and second, we need to know our own desperate need for what it is that God promises and provides by His grace.

This spiritual dynamic was captured nicely by the title of Reuel Howe’s 1949 book Man’s Need and God’s Action.  Awakenings, personal and corporate, occur at this intersection. Where our deepest felt needs and God’s saving actions touch, people get stirred from their spiritual slumber and it will begin to show in their interests and concerns. Again, Tim Keller writes helpfully –

Let me give you what I would call my modernized American versions of the kinds of questions I would ask people if I was trying to get them to really think about whether or not they know Christ. These questions are adapted from The Experience Meeting by William Williams, based on the Welsh revivals during the Great Awakening. He would ask people to share about these types of questions in small group settings each week:

  • How real has God been to your heart this week?
  • How clear and vivid is your assurance and certainty of God’s forgiveness and fatherly love?
  • To what degree is that real to you right now?
  • Are you having any particular seasons of delight in God?
  • Do you really sense his presence in your life, sense him giving you his love?
  • Have you been finding Scripture to be alive and active?
  • Instead of just being a book, do you feel like Scripture is coming after you?
  • Are you finding certain biblical promises extremely precious and encouraging?
  • Which ones?
  • Are you finding God’s challenging you or calling you to something through the Word?
  • In what ways?
  • Are you finding God’s grace more glorious and moving now than you have in the past?
  • Are you conscious of a growing sense of the evil of your heart, and in response, a growing dependence on and grasp of the preciousness of the mercy of God?

I like these questions. As a “Justification Gospeler,” to use Scott McKinght’s language (https://bensonian.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/three-ways-of-framing-the-gospel-justice-justification-or-jesus/), they push and poke in all the right areas when you are concerned about being, or becoming, or staying spiritually awakened. But despite my decidedly “Justification Gospeler” commitments and inclinations, my desire for the “whole Gospel” and not just a “Soul Gospel” (again, thank-you Scott McKnight for the categories of my thinking) pushes me to frame some additional questions from the “Justice Gospeler” perspective that I believe would also challenge people “to really think about whether or not they know Christ.”

  • Are you washing anybody’s feet?
  • Are you as concerned about the interests of others as you are concerned about your own interests?
  • Do you prefer others in love?
  • Do you show mercy and prove neighborly to those who have fallen among the thieves?
  • Do you visit orphans and widows in their affliction?
  • Do you feed the hungry?
  • Do you give drink to the thirsty?
  • Do you welcome the stranger?
  • Do you clothe the naked?
  • Do you visit the sick?
  • Do you bring good news to the poor?
  • Do you proclaim release to the captives?
  • Do you recover the sight of the blind?
  • Do you set at liberty those who are oppressed?

Awakened people belong to the day. Awakened people walk in the light. And just one awakened person in a congregation can be the instrument of renewal that God uses to awaken the whole church. They shine and bring light to the whole house. Will that be you?  DBS +

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O Morning Star…

O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life;
you are the dawning sun, the sun of justice:

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Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death!
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lightA year ago last November Mary Lynn and I went to Hawaii to celebrate our Fortieth Wedding Anniversary. Because of the time change and the jet lag, I was up well before dawn on our first morning there.   And so I went out on the balcony of our hotel room with a cup of coffee just to sit and watch the sun come up.  It was truly spectacular.   It didn’t happen all at once, mind you.  It wasn’t dark, and then all of a suddenly light as if somebody had thrown a switch.  No, it was a slow and gradual change.

First there was just a warm glow on the far horizon, and then this tiny little sliver of light that slowly erupted into bloom that, in turn, became this great big ball of light that seemingly rose up right out of the ocean.   It was the most impressive sunrise I have ever seen.  And what’s stayed with me from the experience was the gradual process of the darkness turning to light that that morning entailed.

In his chapter on “Defining Conversion” in his book on Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press – 2002), John Stackhouse described our usual way of thinking as Christians as being “binary.”   Spiritually we’re accustomed to thinking that we’re either in or out, saved or lost, spiritually dead or spiritually alive.  I once heard an evangelist say that just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so you can’t be a little bit Christian!  Either you are, or you aren’t, and that’s binary thinking, and it’s Biblical, to be sure.

“You must be born again,’” Jesus proclaimed (John 3:7). “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13).  Only “those whose names were not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” would go to heaven and the rest to hell, prophesied John (Revelation 19:15) [Stackhouse 73]. It’s black or white, yes or no, in or out.  The Christian life begins with “a single, obvious, transformative experience of conversion” that fundamentally and irrevocably reorients the direction of one’s whole existence.  “When were you saved?” is the question that this perspective just loves to ask, and what it expects by way of an answer is a day, and an hour, and sometimes even a minute.  That’s binary thinking.

But the Bible also speaks of conversion more organically than this abrupt binary way of thinking might suggest. Just like that sunrise in Hawaii last year, there’s this beautiful process that gradually unfolds as the darkness turns to light.

growthThe Spiritual Life continuum from Willow Creek’s “Reveal” study describes the process as the movement from “Exploring Christ” to “Growing in Christ,” and then from “Growing in Christ” to being “Close to Christ,” and finally from being “Close to Christ” to becoming “Christ-Centered.” It doesn’t happen instantly or invariably.  We can get stuck, and we can regress.  But the ordinary course of the spiritual life is one of gradual growth into greater intimacy with and obedience to Christ as our Lord and Savior.

This is why every significant metaphor of the Christian Life that I can find in the Bible emphasizes this process of gradual transformation. Being a Christian is like a plant growing from a seed to a sprout to a harvest. Being a Christian is like a building going up from a foundation to a superstructure to the roof. Being a Christian is like running a race from the starting blocks to the course to finish line. Being a Christian is like the growth of a human being from birth through childhood to maturity.  And what this means is that rather than thinking about the spiritual life in strict binary ways, there is some real value in thinking about it instead in a more organic process that is slowly unfolding sort of way.   Rather than thinking in yes or no, black or white, in or out, “I’m saved” or “I’m not saved” sorts of ways, thinking in an “I’m in the process of being saved” sort of way opens us up to the more nuanced way that the experience of spiritual awakening occurs in most of us.

The Engle Scale was a tool that I learned about at the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the mid-1970’s.

engel

What this tool helped me to see is that a “decision of faith” (#’s 7-8-9-10 on the Engle Scale) are just steps along the way rather than the sum total of what it means to become and then be a Christian.  Just as that Hawaiian sunrise was not a sudden throw the switch from the darkness of night to the brightness of morning experience, but rather a gradual dawning of the light dispelling the darkness kind of experience, so I believe spiritually that people, all people, are somewhere in the process, on their journey to Christ.  And I think about this at Christmastime each year when I pray the fifth “O” Antiphon –

O Morning Star, you are the splendor of eternal life;
you are the dawning sun, the Sun of justice:
Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death!

With this petition I want Christ who is the light who enlightens every person in the world (John 1:9) to rise and shine in each and every person’s life, dispelling their darkness like a sunrise and ushering them into the light of His glory forever (John 1:14). DBS +

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How the Light Gets In

light

“There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen, Selected Poems, 1956-1968
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Jesus told the parable of the soils (Matthew 13) –

 parable18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

I know the truth of this parable personally. I’m a minister, you see. I do soul work. In fact, I work in these “heart soils” every week, all week, and after more than 40 years of doing so, what I can tell you is that it all still mystifies me. I mean I just never know whose heart is going to be receptive, and whose heart is going to be resistant. In fact, I’m frequently surprised by the ones whose hearts prove fruitful, and by the ones whose hearts turn out to be barren. I think that I could easily become a Calvinist at this point. I see why they have concluded that it takes a sovereign work of the Spirit of God on a human heart – “regeneration” – to make it responsive at all to the good seed of the Word that gets sown. “Breaking up the fallow soil” (Jeremiah 4:3-4; Hosea 10:12) is how the preparation of the heart for the reception of the Word is sometimes described in Scripture, and to see this as the interior work of the Holy Spirit in conviction (John 16:8) makes more sense to me than any of the other explanations that I’ve heard. Where I would want to quibble with my Calvinist friends on this is at the point of the extent of this inner work of the Holy Spirit and its resistibility — and so, I guess I am a Calvinist in the same way that Arminius was a Calvinist!

doveheartIn my reading along the way I came across two “clues” about how this inner work of the Holy Spirit’s conviction on a human heart might work. In the early 1980’s I heard George Hunter make a presentation at a denominational Evangelism Conference I was attending. I picked up a copy of his book – The Contagious Congregation (Abingdon 1979). This remains as helpful a book on the evangelistic ministry of a local church as any I know.   In the last chapter where Dr. Hunter “puts it all together,” he told churches to “deploy teams for ministry and witness to persons in transition” (139). He explained –

There is abundant evidence that people in transition are more receptive than people in stability… During and shortly after significant life changes, people tend to be fairly receptive to religious ministry and truth claims. (139)

Among the “transitions” that Dr. Hunter named as having the capacity to make us spiritually receptive were adolescence, going to college or into the military, the first job, getting married, moving, the birth of a child, a separation, getting fired, a significant health issue, a divorce, a financial reversal, the last child leaving home, the death of a loved one, menopause, retirement, and becoming terminally ill.  In other words, all of the changes and losses that fill our lives are moments of spiritual potential, experiences that can awaken us to the reality of God and our core need for Him.

A second “clue” about how the light gets in came from Sinclair Ferguson’s essay on “The Reformed View” of Christian Spirituality in the IVP book (1988) on Five Views of Sanctification: Reformed, Lutheran, Wesleyan, Pentecostal & Contemplative (ed. Donald Alexander).  In his discussion of the “Means of Sanctification,” Dr. Ferguson noted –

Reformed teaching on sanctification has focused attention on four areas in which the grace and duties of sanctification coincide. Together, these constitute “means of grace.” (67) …The Word of God is the principal means. …God’s Word is the instrument of both the initial cleansing which takes place in regeneration and the sanctification which continues through the whole Christian life. (68) …The Sacraments also play an important role in sanctification… as communicative signs. They point us away from ourselves to Christ; but they also are a visible, tangible means by which he communicates with us and we with him.  They display his grace and our union and communion with him in it. (73) …The Fellowship of the Church is the context in which sanctification matures, and in this sense is also a means for its development. …The love which is the heart of imitation of Christ cannot be isolationist; the death of inordinate love of self is tested therefore in fellowship. (72) …The Providences of God , not least of which are severe trials and afflictions, are also ordained for the purpose of sanctification. “These afflictions,” wrote John Flavel, with the quaintness of a 17th century divine, “have the same use and end to our souls, that frosty weather hath upon those clothes that are laid and bleaching, they alter the hue and make them white.” (71)

The first time I read these words it was “the Providences of God” that got my attention.  You see, I was already familiar with the way that Scripture, the Sacraments and the Church functioned in my life and in the lives of others as means of grace.   This was familiar enough terrain. In fact, I had long urged the people who trusted me with their souls to read their Bibles, take Communion and go to Church.  The problem was that many of those who actually heeded my counsel to do these things in the interest of their souls did so without any apparent spiritual benefit.  The Bible just confused them.  Communion was an empty ritual, just a little bite of bread and a sip of juice.  And church was largely boring and irrelevant to them, more of a “have-to” than a “want-to.” 

As I thought about the differences between the people who were telling me this about their experience with the Word, the Sacraments and the Church, and those who were reading the very same Bible, taking the very same Communion, and going to the very same Church and who were deriving great spiritual strength and comfort from doing so, the big variable seemed to me to be the Providences. The Word, the Sacraments and the Church were more often than not “means of grace” for people who had a felt need for grace, and it’s the Providences that tear the roofs off of our lives and leave us exposed in our hurts and needs, desperate for grace.

In recent years I have found myself reading more Puritan authors on the spiritual life than anyone else. J.I. Packer argued that contrary to the widespread popular impression of the Puritans being spiritually sour and severe, that they were in fact the grand masters of the spiritual life with a highly developed understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the human heart, and I have found this to be true.  I have learned so much about myself and the ways of God from reading them. One of my Puritan teachers has been William Perkins (1558-1602).  Writing about how the light gets in, he observed –

God gives man the outward means of salvation, especially the ministry of the Word, and with it he sends some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God

In other words, the Providences of life break up the fallow ground of the human heart where the good seed of the Word can then find room to take hold and grow. Now, I know that this flies directly in the face of the kind of popular Christianity these days that promotes itself as the quickest way to personal gain.  The Prosperity Gospel promises its practitioners instant happiness and success, a sure-fire way to health, wealth and popularity.  But the way of the Crucified One would seem to be on an entirely different trajectory.   As Paul put it –

To keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh… Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 7-10)

I take this to mean that the troubles that we try so desperately to avoid and the trials that we work so hard to escape could very well be part of the Providences that God intends to use to open up our hearts to Himself. They just might be how the light finally gets in.  The “outward or inward crosses” that we have to bear, instead of being problems for our spiritual lives, could be the experiences that empower our engagement with the Word, our reception of the Sacraments and our participation in the life of the Church. It could be that as the Providences of God expose our deep need for God’s grace that the Word, the Sacraments and the Church actually become the means of grace that God established them to be for us.   

DBS +

 

 

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“Christmas is for the Dying”

trumpet

Recently I was reading a blog about which Christmas Carol has the best theology (http://blog.livingstonesreno.com).  The author had previously named the three most “theologically misleading” Christmas Carols, in his opinion, to be (1) “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” – what he described as “the Diet Coke of Christmas carols – bad taste, zero substance,” (2) “We Three Kings”  –  asking, “Why do you say “Guide us to thy [your] perfect light,” as if the star possesses the perfect light, instead of “Guide us to the perfect light?” which would be Jesus?” and (3) “Do You Hear What I Hear?” – explaining, “I’m not urging you to read like a legal treatise, I’m just asking that you stay within the boundaries of truth… Jesus does bring us goodness and light, but most people denied this during his life on earth…He was executed for claiming to be the light of the world… (and) Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted by the world until the day he returns.  Then there will be peace, and every king will bow to him, and there will be nothing but goodness and light,” but not until then.  “Away in a Manger” got “honorable mention” in this category – as the blogger explained, “we can’t downplay Christ’s humanity, even with something as harmless as making it seem like he didn’t cry as a baby.”

The author then came up with 16 contenders for the title of what he called “the most theologically rich” Christmas Carol of them all:

Joy to the World
Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Silent Night
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks
O Come All Ye Faithful
Go Tell It On the Mountain
God Rest Ye  Merry Gentleman
Angels We Have Heard on High
What Child is This?
Mary Did You Know?
O Holy Night                                                                                                                                       
 
Angels from the Realms of Glory
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel

When he was done examining the theology of each of these Christmas Carols, the author of this blog moved four into the “Finals”

O Holy Night –

It’s uncontested redemption line Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til he appeared and the soul felt its worth” is chillingly profound.”                                                                                                                                          

Mary Did You Know?  –

This upstart Christmas carol written in 1984 demonstrates theological solidity with its theme of rhetorically asking Mary if she was aware of the magnitude of Jesus’ birth, with the intensity of the song’s Christology building and building throughout.”                                                                                                                        

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing  

A Christmas Carol of “Solid Christology, featuring the highlight “Hail the incarnate deity.”

O Come, O Come Emmanuel –

An onslaught of Christological foreshadowings from the Old Testament.”

And then he narrowed it to just two – “O Holy Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” – for a theological showdown before naming “O Holy Night” as his grand champion.  Personally, I would have gone with “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”  I am struck by the theological depth of this Christmas Carol every time we sing it.

Hark the herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim: “Christ is born in Bethlehem”
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored. Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

As someone was overheard to remark after singing this carol, “There’s a lot of important stuff in there!”  But the theological “thickness” of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” was powerfully brought to my attention recently as I prepared for our December “Faiths in Conversation” program with our Jewish and Muslim friends.  The topic was “Death and Dying,” not so much about what we believe happens to us when we die, our specific convictions about the afterlife, but rather about what are the traditions and practices of our particular communities of faith when someone dies?  Of course, that’s a rather artificial distinction since our funeral traditions and burial practices are rooted in our convictions and beliefs, and so in order to talk about our funerals Christians I had to begin by talking about what we believe as Christians that Jesus Christ has done about death, and that brought “Hark! The Herald Angels” immediately to my mind and heart –

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

Several years ago there was a death in author Madeleine L’Engle’s family at Christmastime.   She wrote about in in her book The Irrational Season (Crossroad 1979).  The funeral for Madeleine’s loved one was on the morning of Christmas Eve, and when the service was over the family gathered in the front room of Madeleine’s home emotionally and physically spent, and the question that was hanging in the air finally got posed out loud: “What about Christmas?”  They were torn. “Is it proper (even possible) to grieve and rejoice simultaneously?”  they wondered.  And finally Madeleine spoke up – “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all, yes. If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all; yes!”  (24)

I hope that you will take a look at what I said last Monday night at the Interfaith Conversation about what we who are Christians do when someone we love dies.  I’ve posted it in the “Sermons” section of the church webpage in the “Worship” area (“Faiths in Conversation”).  It was a conscious attempt to explain what Madeleine meant when she said that Christmas must be celebrated in the shadow of the family funeral “If the love I define in my own heart as Christian love means anything at all… If the birth of Christ as Jesus of Nazareth means anything at all!”

Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing “Glory to the newborn King!”

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