I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe
I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word
Every time I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe1
Those are the lyrics of a song written the year after I was born and which was very popular in the early 1950s. Frankie Laine, the Four Letterman, Elvis Presley, and many others recorded versions of it. It was even arranged in combination with Gounod’s Ave Marie as a Christmas choral piece.
Truth be told . . . I have never liked the song! But it has been running through my head every day for the better part of three months!
I was out shopping in late September, looking for a wine carafe for the church actually, and just not finding what I was looking for. I went to antique malls and I went to crystal and china stores and I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond and I just wasn’t finding what I wanted. I was looking at the Bed, Bath & Beyond store on Grande Blvd. one afternoon and decided to go next door Pier 1 Imports to see what they might have.
What they had, on September 29, was their Christmas merchandise already on display! And on the wall above the cash register was a wooden wall hanging. I just stopped and stared at it. “That,” I said to myself, “that is what I’m going to preach about on Christmas Eve.”
As many of you know, something I do every year for the Christmas Eve sermon is find something to be a sort of “focus object” or trigger for our Christmas Eve meditations. I knew that wall hanging would be the thing, but I didn’t buy it that day. I was sure it would never sell, that no one would buy it.
I went back to get it the week after Thanksgiving . . . and it was gone. And, no, they didn’t have another one in stock and, no, they wouldn’t be getting another one and, no, it wasn’t available online. “Lyndhurst,” the clerk told me, “the store in Lyndhurst has one.” So I called that store. “No,” I was told, “we don’t have one, but the store in Mentor has one.”
So I changed my mind. I decided I would not preach about that piece of wall art. But . . .
“I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows . . . .”
I could not get that song out of my head. I could not stop thinking about that wall hanging.
So the next week I called the Mentor store. “Yes, we have it . . . yes, we’ll hold it for you for 24 hours.” So I drove to Mentor and I bought the sign. And here it is.
When I first saw it, my initial reaction was, “What? Believe . . . what?” But for some fairly specific cultural clues, like the red tartan on the B and the final E and that gilt silhouette of a star-topped evergreen taking the place of the I, there would be no reason to associate this with Christmas. And if we weren’t steeped in a Northern European and North American cultural tradition, we wouldn’t even pick up on those clues. We would just be confronted with this word, this imperative command – “Believe” – and left to wonder.
Belief is an action; it requires an object, particularly religious belief. As bible scholar Karen Armstrong has written:
[R]eligion is something you do, and . . . you cannot understand the truths of faith unless you are committed to a transformative way of life that takes you beyond the prism of selfishness. All good religious teaching – including such Christian doctrines as the Trinity or the Incarnation – is basically a summons to action.2
To be told simply “Believe” leaves one in a lurch! The song offers some options, but in the end they do not satisfy. Rain ends, flowers (as the prophet Isaiah reminds us) wither: “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it,” he wrote.3 The darkness brightens in the dawn and, as the foolish bridesmaids learned, candles and lamps burnout.4 Belief in such ephemera is impoverished.
We live in a world in which the whole idea of believing has been impoverished. We have stripped the concept of belief of its ancient meanings and relegated it to the tiny arena of personal opinion. And even there we have pauperized belief. “We value your opinion . . . ” but we criticize, dismiss, and even ridicule beliefs not our own.
This is because we have equated believing with intellectual assent to factual propositions. But this understanding of what it means to believe is a very modern one. Only since about the late 17th Century has the word believe come to mean this. It is derived from a root-word (leubh–) meaning “to care, desire, or love.” Previously, believe meant “love, loyalty, commitment.” It is related to the word beloved and also to the word libido.
In a few minutes, we will recite the Nicene Creed. The word creed comes from the Latin credere, which is often translated as “to believe,” but which is derived from the Latin word cardia, meaning “heart.” To believe is to entrust one’s heart to someone or to something. In John’s Gospel, Jesus comforts his followers, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”5 Entrust your hearts to God; entrust them to me. Here, as elsewhere, our English-language Bibles translate the Greek word pistis (“trust; faithfulness; involvement”) as believe. In demanding pistis, Jesus was asking for commitment not simply for credulity, for engagement not just for an opinion, for a relationship not merely an acknowledgement.
“We believe in God,” we will say in the Creed. “We believe in God . . . We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . .” In doing so, we are saying that
. . . . we have faith – because certain things happened to us once and go on happening. We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God too.6
Christ’s Incarnation affirms this whole messy work of being human.
“Christmas [is] the humanisation of God: the poverty and humble birth of the child Jesus give meaning and dignity to all human situations, even the poorest and most difficult.”7 The Incarnation and our belief in Christ, our entrusting our hearts to God, empower us to live in a way far more radical than mere intellectual assent to doctrinal statements ever would. Static adherence to a set of propositions would never enable us to love those who hate us, to forgive our enemies, or to pray for our persecutors, but commitment, engagement, and relationship with Christ, entrusting our hearts to God makes these things possible.
Near the end of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul prays for his readers: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”8 We will close our worship this evening with Isaac Watts’ famous prayer for Christmas joy:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come:
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.9
Joy comes from believing, from entrusting our hearts to God in Christ.
One hundred and twenty years ago, a New York editorialist assured a little girl named Virginia about a truth of Christmas. At the end of his reply to Virginia’s letter asking, “Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?” Francis Pharcellus Church wrote:
[T]here is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.10
More recently, another New York editorialist wrote,
[I]f the holiday season means anything at all, it’s about believing in things that we cannot actually see. That virtues as shopworn as faith, hope and love can abide, even if others think you’re a crazy person for believing in them. That those we have lost — parents, friends, even our own younger selves — can live on, in us. That there really are spirits that can make us more than ourselves, that can turn our perilous, fallen lives into something sacred. 11
“God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them,” says the Book of Genesis.12 You are sacred. You are the image of God. “You are the expression of the greatest idea that ever was! Every human life is equally valued and represented in Christ.”13 The Incarnation, the birth of a baby, which we celebrate tonight and tomorrow gives context and reference to our being. Again, I say, the birth of Jesus affirms and sanctifies the whole messy work of being human.
When our son, our first child, was born, Evelyn and I sent out announcements with a quotation from Carl Sandburg: “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.”14 The baby whose birth we celebrate tonight and tomorrow is more than God’s opinion that the world should go on; the baby whose birth we celebrate is God’s belief in you, God’s commitment and engagement and relationship with you.
So do all the things we all do at Christmas:
Love. Pray. Cry. Laugh. Feast. Rejoice. And then take that feeling with you, try and bottle it up, or tuck it deep in your heart. And then on those days when [you are] not celebrating a major religious holiday you can draw on it. . . . . Draw on that belief for sustenance, love, and strength. Give back. Be grateful. Trust. Because belief . . . is just that – trust.15
Entrust your heart to God. That awful song with which I started ends:
Every time I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe15
Tonight, we touch the leaves of straw in the manger; we look to the sky to see the star; we listen to the angels sing; we listen to the shepherds tell their story. We hear Joseph and Mary welcome their newborn son; and we hear that new born baby cry, and we know why, we believe.
This is a homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the service, Christmas, Set I, in the Episcopal Church Lectionary, are Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and St. Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)
 Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl, and Al Stillman, I Believe, Published 1953. (Return to text)
 Isaiah 40:7 (Return to text)
 Matthew, Chapter 25 (Return to text)
 John 14:1 (Return to text)
 Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir, HarperOne, New York:1991, page 35 (Return to text)
 Francesco Zaccaria, Participation and Beliefs in Popular Religiosity, Brill:Leiden, Netherlands, 2009, page 151, Netherlands, 2009, page 151 (Return to text)
 Romans 15:13 (Return to text)
 Isaac Watts, Joy to the World, Published 1719 (Return to text)
 Genesis 1:27 (Return to text)
 Francois Du Toit, God Believes in You, Mirrorword Publishing, Praetoria, SA:2013 (Return to text)
 Carl Sandburg, Remembrance Rock, Harvest/HBJ, New York:1991, pages 6-7 (Return to text)
 Tracey Jackson, I Believe in Belief, Gratitude and Trust Blog, April 16, 2014, online (Return to text)
 See Footnote 1, above (Return to text)
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.