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Today

8th February 2023

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The Quiet Power of Christmas Hymns

Reflections on Rediscovering Simplicity in Worship

By: John Van Deusen 

Links : John Van Deusen | Bandcamp

John Van Deusen | Spotify

In the Bleak Midwinter | Youtube | John Van Deusen

If I was to define a “Merry Christmas” for myself, it would mostly involve a great subtraction: an epic reduction of information, noise, people and things. Lit by unscented candles, snow would gently fall on some quiet pastoral landscape outside my window. Slow to wake and quick to sleep, the December sun would beckon me towards calmer days full of printed words and a crackling fire; my 3 year-old son, lost in imaginative play to my right. My wife, baking a Dutch pancake to my left. Just picturing this helps me slow my breathing. Consumerism has rolled the cosmic gift of a Messiah into a cheap, toxic stocking stuffer. Whether in a mall or a church, something about the 21st century’s incessant need to capture our attention and sell us addictive experiences feels powerfully ubiquitous. Thus, Christmas doesn’t really inspire the way it used to. Where did the non-politically charged dinners go? When did the time for jigsaw puzzles slip through our fingers? What even is caroling? For many the holiday season now breeds busyness and last minute panic gifts. It lurks, like a hair-raising shadow of unchecked emails and burdensome expectations, always watching. There is too much to do and too many people to please. Many of us can’t catch a break and thus are at risk of reaching our breaking point. Our anxiety simmers as our faces reflect the pale glow of our smartphones.

If I was to define a “Merry Christmas” for myself, it would mostly involve a great subtraction: an epic reduction of information, noise, people and things.

Strangely, Christmas music can add to our restlessness. I’m probably a bit pickier than most, but contemporary Christmas music usually drives me mad. Remember how our beloved savant, Vincent Van Gogh, cut off one of his ears? That’s essentially me every time I hear a Christmas song at the grocery store. Everything pitch corrected into oblivion. Everyone over-singing, over-producing, over… everything. My hands shake as I contemplate a life without ears. Most Christmas music embodies a shiny chaos; an aura that practically screams “look at me and buy my stuff or die a death of shallow agony!” It doesn’t need to be this way but our attention economy thrives on the white noise and it has slithered its way into our most sacred of spaces: our brains and our hearts. I lament.

Photo Credit : Stefan Elmer

As many well-know, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings a gray, dark covering that stifles the sun. People in my hometown of Anacortes, WA feel the gloom in their bones. The onus is on you to battle it back. While working as a worship leader at a small Presbyterian church I watched — as we all did — Covid usher in a new paradigm. We started live-streaming our services and I led worship alone on the acoustic guitar for well over a year. It was often a bleak, lonely time. As the pandemic stretched on into winter and Advent came I felt the need for gentleness, simplicity and warm light. I needed the exact opposite of LED’s, advertising and Disney+. I needed something grounding, aged and organic. 

I started playing Advent and Christmas hymns on my acoustic guitar, but instead of over-singing them, I under-sang them. Playing them gently, with my capo high up on the neck, my guitar and voice lost any sense of power. This was counter-intuitive for me: my music “career” has always been defined by an intense vocal delivery. Characteristically, I do everything I can to make my voice powerful and gut-wrenching. However, this time “powerful” felt incongruent and even a bit intrusive. In this way, I stumbled on to a new posture of worship. It sounded like I was leading hymns for a bunch of sleeping infants whom I didn’t want to arouse. Its potency startled me.

The more gently I played the better my soul felt. The cold within my bones lessened and my head felt open and quiet in a new way. I began to worship. As in, truly worship. I imagined myself at the feet of my vulnerable savior: wrapped in a worn cloth as he fed from Mary’s breast; this poor, soon to be refugee family staying warm in a cattle shed. I was close to Jesus again and it brought life back into my holiday purgatory. I actually felt merry in some true sense of the word, liberated and set free. I remember playing a song I’ve always loathed—The Little Drummer Boy— and instead of hating it I cried worshipful tears. Choking up I sang, “Little baby… I am a poor boy too… I have no gift to bring…to lay before the King.” Having nothing regal or proper to give to the Messiah was abruptly relatable. I possessed no power. I held no riches. My offering was imperfect in its underwhelming, lowly nature. I tear up thinking about it, even now.

Image of John Van Deusen's "In The Bleak Midwinter" which is a winter hymns collection album. The image is of a painting with a log cabin and people playing the snow.
John Van Deusen’s In The Bleak Midwinter – A Winter Hymns Collection

Under-playing these hymns began to counteract some of what had stolen the merriness of Christmas from me. Something about less power, less volume, less complexity, seemed to meet an Advent need deep within my heart. Pondering this experience led to a simple revelation: power, profit and noise are inherently incompatible with the nativity of Jesus, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Us. Prone to violence; lost in our sin; afraid of the other; forever needy in our anxious appetites. That is the “us” that our omnipotent Messiah came to save. He did so as an infant born into poverty; title-less and obscure. This humble act of servanthood saves us. This is why, I believe, the dominant chaos of a modern Christmas feels backwards and unaccommodating. I think this is why I crave some great reduction. Funny, how I realized all of this while leading worship into an empty sanctuary.

Under-playing these hymns began to counteract some of what had stolen the merriness of Christmas from me. Something about less power, less volume, less complexity, seemed to meet an Advent need deep within my heart.

I’m not saying anything revolutionary here. All of us know something is amiss, even if we enjoy the sounds and sights of Christmas. Perhaps, Christmas has always been magical for you. Maybe you’ve never enjoyed it, even as a child. Maybe Christmas music is a life-giving joy for you. Or, maybe a pastoral Christmas with your family sounds like a nightmare. We all have different needs and desires during the holiday season and that’s a good thing. However, there is one need that we all share regardless of our familial culture, economic class, or enneagram number: we all need to slow down long enough to worship at Christ’s feet. He came and walked among us, lowly and covered in dirt. Our worship must meet him where he’s at. Our Christmas patterns must interface with his: humble, quiet, organic, small, soft-spoken, subversive. Otherwise, amidst all the spectacle and consumerism we might miss what we most deeply need.

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John Van Deusen

John Van Deusen

John Van Deusen is an artist and musician based in Anacortes, Washington. Follow the links to find out more about John and hear his music. Bandcamp | Spotify | Instagram