Popular Song Wisdom

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Andy Mead, the rector who brought me to Saint Thomas in New York City, often emphasized the importance of simple truths for Christian living. One was: Keep your “Thank you”s and “I’m sorry”s up to date. He’d tell us to remember to count our blessings.

It’s an old song, isn’t it? “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings, see what God has done.” I used to discount simple wisdom like this, even as I discounted country music. I preferred classical music, even as I preferred the sort of insight that you had to work hard for. Why take the time to do such a simple and obvious thing as count blessings?

Because: when we do take the time to count the blessings in our life, we discover there are more of them than we knew. You start by thanking God that you are alive, that there is a new day at hand, that you can see the sun and hear the birds; then you think of other sunrises, other birdsongs heard; you may think of friends, of other places. You think of parents, and people who have loved you, people who taught you. And on and on it goes.

Of course, there are also the sad memories: the places you cannot revisit, the illnesses and injustices of life, the missed opportunities, the sins done, the good things left undone. But those sad memories themselves are wrapped around in blessings. A place you cannot revisit is, still, a place that once you visited. And even in sin and loss, if you count your blessings, you’ll find God was lurking in the shadows all along. 

Forgive me this personal reference, but I think a number of my readers may see themselves in this. I asked for healing prayers after my wife’s death. And the person with me was moved in her prayer to give God thanks that I had had the gift of marriage.

Count your blessings, and your blessings will multiply before your eyes!

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In Starbucks recently, I heard “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” a song that is relatively new and certainly popular. (You know it’s popular if even yours truly has heard of it.) There’s nothing explicitly Christian in the song—which goes for a number of other Christmas songs—just the singer asking her beloved to be at her side. And yet . . .

If it is true that the Song of Songs is a key to the interpretation of the whole Bible story, then it tells us that at the heart of things is God’s desire for his bride, Israel, and her desire for him. As we come to Christmas, we long for God to come to us. But the converse is also true: God longs to come to us.

I rather like thinking that all God wants for Christmas is us.

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Out & About. I’m visiting St. James in Texarkana on Wednesday, December 7, to homilize at their 5:30 p.m. Eucharist. Then at 6:15 p.m., around the corner from the church at Pecan Point, I will speak at “pub theology” on “What is freedom really? Or, how God causes my free actions.”

My Sunday class on the Song of Songs continues through Advent at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney, Dallas. The class is in Memorial Chapel at 10:20 a.m. Newcomers are welcome every week. The previous classes have been audio recorded: https://incarnation.org/class-recordings/

The Song of Songs

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I’ll start with the conclusion. Contrary to all expectation, and despite its appearance as something that doesn’t fit with the rest of Scripture, the Song of Songs is in the Old Testament as the key to reading the entire Old Testament—and by extension, for Christians, the entire Bible.

The Song of Songs is, I believe, an intentional allegory. That is to say, the literal meaning is the allegory; it is not an independent love story upon which an allegorical meaning has been laid. The arguments for this are made by, e.g., Robert Jenson in his commentary on the book (Westminster/John Knox; short and affordable) and by Edmee Kingsmill in her remarkably readable scholarly study, The Song of Songs and the Eros of God (Oxford; unfortunately, quite expensive).

The message of the book is thus that God is in love with us, that he has chosen us and desires us. That message does indeed run through the Bible, and once you grasp the point, you will start to see it everywhere.

I am writing these words on the morning of November 28. In this morning’s Psalms (I use the old 30-day calendar, so they are Psalms 132–135), I noticed this: “For the LORD hath chosen Sion to be an habitation for himself; he hath longed for her” (Ps. 132:14). The words leapt off the page; I must have read them a hundred times before, and not noticed. First is God’s choice, a choice for which there is no reason! God just has chosen Israel to love her (and Zion to be the place where he dwells in order to love her), and he has chosen us in Christ Jesus to love us as well, not because we are good or worthy, and not for any other reason. God’s choice is just his choice; there is nothing behind it. 

And second, the verse goes on to say: “he hath longed for her”! God longs for us—as the groom longs for his bride, as it is set forth with aching beauty in the Song of Songs.

As we enter this season of waiting, may we experience it as a season of longing. Our hearts and souls and bodies yearn for God as for nothing else. And the great mystery at the heart of the universe is this: God also is yearning for us.

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Out & about. I am teaching a course on the Song of Songs this Advent at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney, Dallas. The class is on Sundays at 10:20 in the Memorial Chapel. I always find the “live” class to be the best experience, but if you can’t be with me, you can listen to the class when it is posted on this page: https://incarnation.org/class-recordings/.  

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."