Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Away in a Manger

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

--James Murray

There was indeed a manger near Bethlehem, a cave full of foul odors and animal waste. There a homeless couple crept when the door of the inn was shut in their faces. There the little Lord Jesus “laid down his sweet head”--a helpless infant with unfocused eyes and uncontrollable limbs, needing to be cuddled and cared for.[1] "The infinite made infinitesimally small," G. K. Chesterton said; the little Lord Jesus. An easy thing it is to love him.

Fredrick Buechner wrote "The child is born among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again. Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be what lengths he will go, or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of mankind..."[2]

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, but nothing can match what happened that night in that manger. Now we know to what lengths God will go to be near us. "Ludicrous depths of self-humiliation." Indeed!

This is Christmas, the final, irrefutable proof that God will do anything to get next to us, to be close by us forever. And the startling thought is this: If there were but one of us he still would have come.

Mozart's Requiem contains a wonderful line: "Remember, merciful Jesu, that I am the cause of your journey."


[1] "No crying he makes?" Nonsense. There is no sin in crying: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35)
[2] Fredrick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Odd, this twisted form
should be the work of God.
God, who makes, without mistakes,
the happy norm, the status quo--
The usual--made me, you know.

The Royal Palm He made;
and, too, the stunted pine.
With joy I see the lovely shapes;
with pride I live in mine.
No accident I am:
a Master Craftsman's plan.

-Ruth Bell Graham

I came across a tortured, twisted pine tree some years ago, high on a ridge--an ugly, misshapen thing at first glance. But I looked again and saw something deeper and better and thought of those whose deformities are overwhelmed by rare beauty.

Appearance is overrated, a mere sensation in the eyes (or brain) produced by shape, color and motion and conditioned a good deal by society and association. (In some cultures, foot-long ear lobes and distended lips are thought to be the essence of loveliness.)

A philosopher-friend of mine once pointed out to me that objects cannot be beautiful in themselves for they're only arrangements of colorless, shapeless, invisible atoms. We can't see them, but if we could, they would bring us no delight or satisfaction.

There is a spiritual beauty, however, that is much deeper and more enduring than anything we can see with our natural eyes. It is the symmetry and splendor that God brings to his children, what scripture calls "the beauty of holiness."

Our present culture turns the phrase upside down, worshipping outward appearance and the holiness of beauty.[1] But that's a terrible mistake, for it leads us to vanity--the desire to exceed the limits God has appointed for us--and is the means by which pride and self-preoccupation enter in and we miss the highest good. Preoccupation with our bodies, as even pagan philosophers affirm, unavoidably leads to the diminishment of our souls. Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo, argues that we can love wisdom, or we can love our bodies, but we cannot, at the same time, love both.

We must be satisfied, then, with the way God has formed us. Our disabilities and deformities are not a mistake, but part of God's eternal plan. His way of dealing with them is not to remove them, but to endow them with godlike strength, dignity and beauty and put them to his intended use-as they are.

McGuffey had it exactly right...

Beautiful faces are they that wear,
The light of a pleasant spirit there;
Beautiful hands are they that do,
Deeds that are noble, good and true;
Beautiful feet are they that go,
Swiftly to lighten an other's woe.

-McGuffey's Second Reader

Has aging brought humiliating disfigurement? Do you consider yourself an eyesore, too ugly to be of use?

No, you are "(God's) workmanship" created as you are for good works (Ephesians 2:10). You are his special creation, designed from birth to manifest God's loveliness in a unique way. The Craftsman's plan surpasses the material.

Your countenance, though wrinkled and blemished, can be adorned with the joy of the Lord and made lovely with his kindness and compassion. Your body, be it ever so humble and lumpish, can be graceful in unselfish service and love. This is "grace beyond reach of art," human ugliness hidden in divine loveliness, beauty at its very best.

And, of course, this is not all that will be. On ahead lies the redemption of our bodies. One day soon we will be made new: "We are as God has made us, but we are not as God will make us. We will be made over again and everything will once for all be set right" (George MacDonald).

And so I pray, may the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us.


[1] I'm reminded here of the character on "Saturday Night Live" that always ended his monologue with the reminder: "Looking good is better than being good."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Give me a world, to part for praise and sunder.
The brooks be bells; the winds, in caverns dumb,
Wake fife and flute and flageolet and voice;
The fire-shook earth itself be the great drum;
And let the air the region's bass out thunder;
The firs be violins; the reeds hautboys (oboes);
Rivers, seas, icebergs fill the great score up and under!

But rather dost thou hear the blundered words
Of breathing creatures; the music-lowing herds
Of thy great cattle; thy soft-bleating sheep;
O'erhovered by the trebles of thy birds,
Whose Christ-praised carelessness song-fills the deep;
Still rather a child's talk who apart doth hide him,
And make a tent for God to come and sit beside him.

-George MacDonald, Diary of an Old Soul, December 12,13

MacDonald hears creation alive with the sound of music; nature is singing the praises of her Creator. Brooks, storms, volcanoes, trees, rivers, seas, and icebergs "fill the great score up and under!" Cattle, sheep, birds and other breathing creatures fill out the chorus with "Christ-praised carelessness." But children, apart from all the rest of creation, in simple, playful trust "make a tent for God" and invite him to come and sit beside them.[1]

David, in Psalm 8, says the same thing and much more. His poem begins with a startling contrast between the witness of the heavens and the chatter of little children.

O LORD, our Lord,
How excellent is Your name in all the earth,
Who have set Your glory above the heavens!

Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants
You have ordained strength, because of Your enemies-
That You may silence the enemy and the avenger. [2]

David, like MacDonald, argues that God has revealed his glory and greatness in the skies, but the most persuasive answer to his critics is not the universe at large, as magnificent as it is, but the utterances of a little child: A toddler, accordingly, is a more compelling witness than the cosmos, for, unlike the unknowing universe, the smallest child can know and love God.

Jesus, you may recall, quoted this verse when the chief priests and scribes of Israel were scandalized by the children, running around in the temple and shouting "Hosanna ('Save, I pray!') to the Son of David."[3] These little ones knew, as Israel's wise and learned men did not know--indeed could not know for they did not have the wisdom of a child--that Jesus was the long-awaited and much-loved Messiah.

Some of my most memorable moments as a parent were those when Carolyn and I knelt beside each child's bed at night and they, wearied by a long day of play, "made a tent for God" and invited Him to come and sit beside them. The simplicity of their love and faith as they poured out their prayers moved me deeply, often dispelling my doubt and fear and drawing me back to their simple trust in a tender and caring Friend.

"I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." [4]


[1] The analogy, of course, is to child-play in which children make tents of blankets draped over chairs and tables and invite their playmates to sit in hiding beside them.
[2] Psalm 8:1,2
[3] Matthew 21:16
[4] Matthew 11:25

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Hymn To God the Father

--John Donne (1573-1631)

WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sins their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow'd in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done;
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I've spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore:
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

Theologians tell us we're guilty of "original sin," not that we sin in original or novel ways--most of our sinning is common-place, banal, and boring--but that we're sinful in our origins, sinful from the day our mothers conceived us.[1] We're hurled into the world like a curveball with a hard spin on it, with a predilection to break down and away.

Furthermore, we're said to be "totally depraved," an unpleasant phrase that implies that we’re always on the wrong side of the law. Nonsense. We’re made in the image of God, capable of extraordinary acts of altruism and heroism. But sin and selfishness do touch the totality of our being. If sin were blue we would be some shade of blue all over.

But, though sin is systemic and our sins (the manifestation of our inherent sinfulness) are many, and though sin itself is inexcusable, it is not, thank God, unforgivable. Love has paid the price. Beyond the bad news of our habitual failure, there is the good news of God's amazing grace that has unreservedly forgiven and forgotten our most outrageous and oft-repeated transgressions. [2]

But what of the sin that lingers? I ask with Donne, "Wilt Thou forgive that sin through which I run, and do run still, though still I do deplore?" I lament with him: "When Thou hast done (forgiving), Thou hast not done, for I have more," i.e., I have a lot more sinning to do.

But God is not done, for there is no end to his mercy and forgiveness. Long ago, before we are born, before we did anything good or bad, our Lord paid for all our sins--those that were, those that are, and those that shall be. No matter what we have done, are doing, or will ever do, our sins are gone forever--replaced by Love that "covers a multitude of sins," even sin and guilt not yet acquired. Thus, we live, "by faith in future grace."[3]

Now, despite our false starts and failures, God is at work conforming some part of us to his likeness, making us his masterpiece, his work of fine art.[4 ] We can be confident of this: "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion..." (Philippians 1:6). God is never in a hurry, but he does mean business, and someday, because he has done all, our battle with sin will be over--God will have "done"--and we will stand, without fear, "faultless before his glorious presence with great joy!"[5]

But, you ask, won’t this unqualified assurance lead to spiritual sloth? To the contrary, it draws us to long for greater holiness and to pray, an inexplicable but indispensable part of the process by which God completes us.[7]

And so I pray with David, God's better poet...

Finish what you started in me, God.
Your love is eternal--don't quit on me now.[6]


[1] Psalm 51:5
[2] Ephesians 1:7
[3] Theologian John Piper’s luminous phrase
[4] Paul says "We are (God's) poiema" (Ephesians 2:10), a word Plato and other Greek writers used for "a work of art."
[5] Jude 24
[6] Psalm 138:8 (The Message) The Hebrew text reads,

Yahweh will perfect that which concerns me;
Yahweh, your love is everlasting.
As for the work of your hands (me!)--do not give up (until the work is done).

[7] It’s worth noting that our Lord’s promises to unconditionally answer prayer are linked to “fruit,” i.e., the acquisition of Christ-like character. Cf., John 15:7 in context.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Lovesick and Dumbfounded

Carolyn and I often spend our quiet times reading from A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, an Upper Room publication (If you've visited Shepherd's Rest you've seen the copies in each bedroom.) The Old Testament passage for this morning was Zephaniah 3:17.

With apologies to Zephaniah and Bruce Waltke, my old Hebrew professor, here is my translation...

The LORD, your God is with you--
your hero, mighty to save!

He takes great delight in you.
He is speechless with love for you.
Every time he thinks of you he breaks into joyful song!

-Zephaniah 3:17

I'm awed by the notion that God takes great delight in me and breaks into song each time he thinks of my name. But it's the phrase I render, "He is speechless with love for you" that captivated me.

The verse is usually translated, "He will be quiet in his love," or in some translations, "He will quiet you." But the verb doesn't suggest tranquility or rest. It actually means, "to strike dumb."[1] And since the verb is in parallel with other verbs that suggest God's strong emotions ("takes great delight," and "breaks into joyful song") it must point to what He himself feels.

I wonder then: Could the analogy be that of a lovesick swain who is bowled-over, flabbergasted and dumb-founded by his love for the beloved-so overcome with fondness that he is tongue-tied? Is God, in some inexplicable, anthropomorphic way, "struck dumb" with love each time he thinks of us? If so, to be loved like this is, in turn, to be rendered speechless. As Isaiah would say, "I am undone."

And who is it that God so loves? One who is strong and able, brilliant, and breathtakingly beautiful? No, it is one who is "weak and the weary... who takes refuge in the name of the LORD" (Zephaniah 3:12).


[1] Jenni-Westerman, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament.

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