Songs of Christmas… O Little Town of Bethlehem


This is part 2 of a Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.

It has been said, “The two most important days in your life: The day you were born and the day you discover why.” I’ve been there. I get it. Since I graduated from high school I have been a retail worker, a sailor, a construction lab technician, a hot shot delivery driver, a movie operator, a computer operator, a computer room manager, a computer programmer and a preacher. I have spent the last twenty-five plus years doing that last one. I have come to understand that this is why I was born. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the work in all those other things (some of it, I didn’t enjoy at all). I wasn’t fulfilled. Something was missing.

I’m not exactly sure when I discovered the great “why” of my life. While it may be one of two most important days of my life, I can’t look back and say, “On this date I knew.” I can tell you the first most important date, the day I was born. But, for the second, I just don’t know.

Phillips Brooks, lyricist of one of the great hymns of the Church (to call it a Christmas carol limits it so), “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” had that same kind of discovery, but it wasn’t when he wrote this Christmas carol so many of us love.

Brooks was born December 13, 1835 in Boston. He went to Harvard and after graduating he started teaching school. He quickly became disillusioned when students didn’t seem as motivated as he would have liked. Brooks despair grew. He was never very effective with his students and was soon fired. He say himself as a complete failure.

He was still searching for his “why.” With no better idea, Brooks enrolled in Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria Virginia. Brooks found his “why” as a Priest in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition.

Upon graduation from Virginia Theological Brooks was assigned as the rector of Trinity Church in Philadelphia. People flocked to hear him. Worship attendance grew as did the membership rolls of the congregation.

Though he was headed for hard times, Brooks grew to be the most popular and most effective preacher of his generation, really the entire 19th century.

Then the Civil War broke out. The war took its toll on Trinity Church in many ways. First, there was no one in the church, or elsewhere for that matter, who was not directly impacted by the war. Almost everyone knew, someone, family or friend who died or was severely wounded and disabled because of the war. There were other ways the war effected people, but this was one of the biggest. As the numbers mounted, people wanted the war to end. It impacted Brooks physically, emotionally and spiritually.

When the war did come to an end, Brooks had seemed to have lost his preaching power. Though he was not Lincoln’s pastor, he was asked to speak at the funeral. He dug deep and came out with words fitting for the occasion.

It wasn’t long before Brooks decided to take a sabbatical. He traveled to the Holy Land. On Christmas Eve, how rode out on a borrowed horse toward Bethlehem. What he saw there, saw of the peaceful little town spoke to him. The trip was powerful to Brooks.

When he returned he still struggled to find the right words to impact his congregation. As the Christmas season of 1868. Brooks sat down to write a new Christmas hymn for the Sunday school at Trinity Church’s children’s Christmas pageant. He wrote the words in short order. Brooks was back.

He carried the quickly written poem to his church organist, Louis H. Redner. Tradition has it that Redner struggled with the music much as Brooks had struggled with words. On Christmas eve Redner gave up and went to bed. It was while lying in bed the tune came to him. The children sang it for the first time the next day.

From there, as it has been said, the rest is history. They hymn spread across Europe and then to North America. We all know it today as one of the great hymns of both Christmas and the Church.

Phillips Brooks became an Episcopal Bishop in 1891 and assigned to Boston. He died 15 months later.

The two great moments of life, when we are born and when we discover why. It is a great quote. But there are many people who never reach that second great moment. It is sad that someone can go through life and never know or understand why they are here. For many of them it is because they never look. They are to busy trying to find happiness to know that real happiness comes from God who put each of us here for a reason. When we find that reason, when we live out the why of God putting us here, when we respond to God’s call on our lives it is only then we will truly be happy.

Phillips Brooks found his “Why.” I believe I have found mine. Have you found yours? What are you waiting for?

Have a blessed day in the Lord.

Joy and Peace,

Tomorrow, December 3, “There’s a Song in the Air”

Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved


Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.


Spirita Spiro (Esperanza for "Spirit's Breath) is rather new in my life. But the blog is not. I began writing a blog several years ago. It lived under the title, "The Pastor Ponders." Over the years I have tried several different names and "The Pastor Ponders" always seemed to fit best. I am trying again with Spirita Spiro. For 27 years I was a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church. This year, August 2018, I semi-retired (I can't actually retire quite yet) and began teaching social studies. It is something I have always wanted to do and if I was going to do this, I needed to make it sooner rather than later. So, I made the move. I thought with the career change there also needed to be a name change to the blog and other things, such as spiritual direction. Spirita Spiro is my attempt to share some of my thoughts. I often share what I am thinking with my dog "Bishop," but he keeps his thoughts to himself. He will even go to sleep sometimes while I am sharing my thoughts with him. The truth is, if it doesn't involve getting his ears scratched, his belly rubbed or some kind of treat, he really doesn't care. I will say this for him, he never argues with me or tells me I am wrong. So, I decided to share some of my thoughts with whoever might come across this blog in their ramblings around the Internet. I live with my wife Cindy and our little dog in Lufkin, Texas. I spent the past 27 years as a full-time United Methodist pastor. Most recently I served as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Sweeny, Texas. I have also served United Methodist congregations throughout East Texas including rural Madison County (Elwood UMC), Lovelady (First UMC) and Kennard (Center Hill UMC), Canton (First UMC), rural Smith County (Mt. Sylvan UMC and Union Chapel UMC), Grapeland (First UMC), Tyler (Pleasant Retreat UMC), Santa Fe (Aldersgate UMC), Freeport (First UMC) and Oyster Creek (Oyster Creek UMC), Diboll (First UMC), and now Sweeny (First UMC). My wife Cindy and I have been married for over 40 years. We have two grown sons. Wayne and his wife Nikki and all our grandsons (Kaleb, Noah, and Jaxon) live in Southern California. Christopher and his wife Morgan and both our granddaughters (Jenna and Natalie) live in Tyler Texas. I enjoy preaching and all aspects of preaching from research to writing to the actual preaching event. I also love writing, reading, playing the guitar as well as a bit of drawing. I have spent quite a bit of time over the past two years working with paracord on various projects, mostly prayer ropes I usually give away. I sing bass with a local barbershop chorus called The Coastalaires. I have also recently begun doing a little wood carving. I also enjoy playing with Bishop, something he likes a great deal better than listening to my thoughts. I hold an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Business Data Processing, specializing in Microcomputers from San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, a Bachelor of Science in Political Science with a minor in History from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, a Master of Divinity from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX and a Doctor of Ministry from Carolina University of Theology. When I was a student at Carolina, the school was in Iron Station North Carolina. They have since relocated to Manassas Virginia (Yeah, go figure, a school named Carolina geographically in Virginia). This blog is mostly devotional writing, but there are other things here too. Just about every week I will either post my sermon manuscript or a video of the worship service. On occasion, I will post something I see in society. Occasionally I write a short story, a poem, or a song and will post it here too. I will say this, my motivations for writing this blog are really selfish. I write it to get what I am thinking out of my head and onto something a bit more permanent. They say, after all, once something is on the internet it never really goes away. Still, I hope you enjoy reading it. And, should you desire, you can one-up Bishop and actually tell me what you think. Who knows, it might generate a bit of discussion between you and me and anyone else who might make their way here. With Joy and Thankfulness, Keith Sweeny, Texas May 2018

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