Sunday, December 25, 2011

Into My Heart

One Christmas, a long, long time ago, when our granddaughter Melanie was very small, she was wandering and wondering her way around our living room, gazing intently at Carolyn’s “set–arounds.”
Carolyn has a wonderful array of ornaments and Christmas knick–knacks she has collected over the years. One of her cherished items is an olive-wood crèche she bought in Bethlehem many years ago. Every Christmas Carolyn arranges it in its place on our living room coffee table. It’s there as I write this piece. 
Melanie came to the crèche that day long ago and stood over it transfixed for a moment. Then she picked up the carving of the baby Jesus in her tiny hands and drew it up to her heart. She closed her eyes and said, “Baby Jesus, sleep…” and rocked the little olivewood figure of Jesus in her arms.  
Tears sprang to my eyes and I felt the strangest, strongest emotion. I could not have told you then what I was feeling, or why I was so deeply moved, but I knew that something profoundly stirring had occurred. 
Later I realized why my heart was so deeply touched by that simple gesture: it was symbolic of that other childlike act in which we take up the wonderful gift of God’s love, our Lord Jesus, and draw him close to our hearts. This is what he longs for—to love and be loved in return.
There is that song that children sing (and adults too, once they get over their fear of being child–like):

Into my heart, into my heart;
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today; come in to stay;
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus. 
And so it is, “where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”


Friday, December 23, 2011

Two Caves

English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy writes of Mixen Lane, a low district in the city of Castlebridge, as “the Adullam of all the surrounding villages. It was the hiding place for those who were in distress, and debt, and trouble of every kind.”[1] He was thinking of a cave near the city of Adullam in Israel’s lowlands, a safe place to which David fled from the rage of King Saul (1 Samuel 22:1,2). 

As the story goes, word of David’s cave spread rapidly and mysteriously through Israel and in time “every one who was in distress, and every one who was in debt, and every one who was discontented, gathered to him; and he became a prince over them.” It was a threatened and threatening crowd that found David—full of their own troubles, frightened, faint–hearted, stressed out, burdened and embittered by what they had endured.

David took them in—all of them—and taught them what God had taught him through years of adversity and pain. He read his poems, sang of God’s covenant love (Psalm 89:1) and taught them to fight the battles of the Lord. The outcasts found a new center of life in David, and he in turn became their prince.                                                                                                                                                                         

This once–motley crew became the core of David’s mighty men, brave warriors, “ready for battle and able to handle the shield and spear. Their faces were the faces of lions, and they were as swift as gazelles in the mountains” (1 Chronicles 12:8). They were Israel’s border guard protecting her southern flanks against the Philistines and Amalakites, a wall to Israel “by day and by night.” They became the nucleus of the greatest fighting force of that time, an army that carried the standard of Israel from the Tigris to the River of Egypt.

—All of which suggests another cave not too far away, near Bethlehem in Judea, a stable in the earth into which shepherds drove their flocks at night. There another prince was born, that other David whom the prophet foretold: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says,” ‘…my servant David will be a prince among them’” (Ezekiel 34:23–24).

There in that lowly cave (one must stoop very low to get in) the weary and heavy–laden still gather. Some come in dire distress, worn out by worry and fear. Others come burdened with debt, owing much to many. Others are downcast by an unhappy childhood, a failed marriage, a cruel death that snatched love away. Still others come starved for want of something they cannot name.

There they find a Prince who sings to them in their misery and weakness, who tells his stories and strengthens them with his love.

There, as they sit at his feet, they learn to be mighty men and women once again.


[1] The Mayor of Castlebridge

Monday, December 19, 2011

Simeon's Farewell

Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken word,
Grant Israel's consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.

-T.S. Eliot, "A Song for Simeon"

Simeon was a venerable, old saint that had long waited "the consolation of Israel" (cf., Isaiah 40:1). The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah.

"By chance," some would say, Simeon arrived at the temple coincident with Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Seeing the child, Simeon took him from his mother, cradled him in his arms, and began to sing:

Now Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people; A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

Thus Simeon passes off the scene, his small part in the drama well played, "with peace and consolation dismissed," Milton said.

Much of what Simeon sang about Jesus came from the Prophet Isaiah, who promised that, "all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God" (Isaiah 52:10). This infant would bring glory to Israel and salvation to the entire earth.

This was surely a moment of great joy for Mary. All mothers know that their children are special, but for Mary, this was a public ratification of what she already knew: that her son's kingdom "would have no end." (Luke 1:33.[1]
But Simeon then states a hard fact: though the child was appointed for ”rise of many," many would fall—They would trip over him and curse him in their frustration. He would be slandered, rejected and killed, and Mary herself would suffer excruciating pain.

Simeon's words reinforce the bitter-sweet quality of the nativity: the story delights us, but we know that the birth of the child will lead to suffering and death, as do, in fact, all births. Beyond the cave in which Jesus was born we see the shadowed outlines of the cave in which he was buried.

[I think of the irony in an old Christmas episode of The Simpsons, in which the character playing one of the wise men admits to re-gifting the myrrh he's brought for baby Jesus, "because," he argues, “Nobody needs myrrh!” No one but One who must suffer and die.[2]]
Perhaps that's why we old folks are strangely moved when we look at happy parents cradling a newborn baby, for we know that their child will surely suffer and that a sword will pierce their hearts as well. I've been around too long and have seen too much to believe otherwise.

How often have I listened to the stories of old friends and thought back to our youthful naiveté. Little did we know what sufferings we would endure.

I think of a childhood friend whose wife was murdered in a savage invasion of his home, while he was left confined to a wheel chair. Two other friends have challenged children; others have lost their children or seen them damaged in tragic ways. One friend's wife was injured in an accident from which she never fully recovered; others have suffered multiple losses through disease, death, or divorce. In fact, I can think of no friend who has not suffered in a significant way. I think of George Herbert's poignant words, "I cried when I was born and every day shows why."

"In this world you will have trouble," Jesus said, but, he said, "Be of good cheer!" I must say—as I think of my friends— despite their challenges they are of good cheer. They sorrow—Christianity is not Stoicism; there's no virtue in the stiff upper lip—but they do not sorrow as those who have no hope for they have learned that we all share in Jesus' sufferings, for if nothing else, the Incarnation tells us that at the center of our life is One who has been broken, who, from the cradle to the cross, has been one with us in our pain and loss. This is our consolation.

Does God promise that we will not feel pain? Not in this life. Does he feel our pain? The Incarnation is the final, irrefutable proof that he does. We can cast our care upon him knowing that our suffering matters to him, and sometimes that's all we need to know.

There is great relief in laying our burden down, even briefly, in the presence of someone who understands and cares. Author Margaret Guenther tells of a Scottish pediatrician who comforted her hurt and frightened child, not with medicine, but with a great, enveloping bear hug and the words, "Och, poor wee bairn!" "The wee bairn stopped crying at once," Mrs. Guenther said, "for she realized that another understood her pain and did not seek to minimize it." Thus Jesus consoles our broken hearts.

I, like Simeon, have grown old, but I have lived to see the Lord’s Messiah. And I too have seen that he is indeed our consolation.


[1] The phrase, "no end" can be interpreted both temporally and spatially. The Moravian translation of this text is "without frontiers."
[2] Myrrh was an expensive spice used to embalm the dead.
Growing Old With God

Anna was old—waiting for “the death wind,” T. S. Eliot said. She had lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. Anna never missed a service at the temple, worshipping night and day (Luke 2:36–38).

Anna had grown old with God, the alternative to which is to grow old without him, the end of which is boredom, futility of existence and effort

Growing old is not for sissies, as they say. It’s often overclouded by the multiple losses to which aging is susceptible—separation, bereavement, physical and mental decline. These blows can fall on us at any time, but they seem to fall heaviest in our latter years.

There’s no way to shield ourselves from the difficulties encountered as we age, but our last years can be happy, productive years, years of growth in grace and beauty, if we give ourselves to developing the inward life of the soul.

Age breaks down our strength and energy and strips us of our busyness so we have more time to develop intimacy with God. Far from frustrating God’s best in us the weakness and limitations of age enable us to grow to full maturity. The end of the process is body and spirit united—one in loving God and others. Without the limitations of old age we could never make the most of our lives.

I recall a man saying that long aging and years of weakness and failing health had made his life worth living. “How awful it would have been if, instead of getting old, I’d been extinguished in middle age without learning what God has to offer.”

The senior years can be viewed as a pleasantly useless era where we qualify for Social Security, AARP and senior discounts and have a lot of free time to do nothing at all, or they can be a time of great usefulness to God. There’s much left to do!

We can serve as mentors and conservators of wisdom and virtue, the essential role elders play in society and in the church—grand old men and women who point out the ancient paths and show young believers how to walk in them (cf., Jeremiah 6:16).

Furthermore, there is the power of an ordinary life lived with an awareness of God’s presence, seeing him in everything and doing all things for him. Teresa of Avila found God in her kitchen walking among the pots and pans. Brother Lawrence, the author of Practicing the Presence of God, saw God in his mundane tasks in a monastic scullery. This is the mark of the mature soul, quietly, humbly going about his or her homely tasks, living in joy and leaving behind the sweet fragrance of Jesus’ love.

By God’s grace, we can grow sweeter as the days go by, easier to live with, more delightful to be around. Izaak Walton, wrote of an old companion: “How comforting it is to see a cheerful and contented old age…after being tempest–tossed through life, safely moored in a snug and quiet harbor in the evening of his days! His happiness sprung from within himself and was independent of external circumstances, for he had that inexhaustible good nature which is the most precious gift of Heaven, spreading itself like oil over the troubled sea of thought, and keeping the mind smooth and equable in the roughest weather.” This is the mind that is stayed on God.

Even when our journey leads into illness and weakness and we’re confined to our homes and then our beds, our years of fruitful activity are not over. Like Anna, we can worship and pray night and day. Prayer is the special privilege of infirmity and in the end its greatest contribution.

And we can love. Love remains our last and best gift to God and to others. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “Now I guard no flock, nor have I any office. Now my work is in loving alone” (A Spiritual Canticle).

Prayer and love. These are the mighty works of the elderly.

And then, on ahead, there is the resurrection of our worn out bodies, what ancient spiritual writers called athanasias pharmakon (the medicine of immortality), God’s cure for all that ails us. This is God’s loving purpose for us beyond all earthly existence—“that when this mildew age, has dried away, our hearts will beat again as young and strong and gay” (MacDonald).

This is our hope and, I must say, the most cherished article of my creed.

The soul's dark cottage, batter'd and decay'd,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become
As they draw near their eternal home.

—Edmund Waller (1606-1687) 

Friday, December 16, 2011


“There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them...” (Luke 2:8,9a).

The angel bypassed Jerusalem and the religious folks of that day and appeared to a band of shepherds “living in the fields.” No one back then would have thought that shepherds would be interested in such things, for they were hard, profane men—more like Idaho’s Owyhee County buckaroos than the sanitized shepherds we associate with the story these days.

Yet, like all of us, these were spiritual men, for “spiritual” is not something we seek, but “something we are and cannot escape” (Philosopher Dallas Willard). In all of us there is a deep, insatiable hunger for transcendence, that elusive “something more,” and our hearts break with that longing.

Here is our satisfaction: “Today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you; he is Christ the Lord.” And this is where you will find him: “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

And so the shepherds went off to search for the baby. They skirted the resorts, spas and lodges of the rich and famous (for there were no feed troughs there) and went looking for a stockyard, a feedlot, or a sheepfold. They found the baby “nearby” (They had no idea how near he was), lying in a manger—the "savior who is Christ the Lord.”

Let’s hear it for the shepherds who found salvation. Let’s hear it for a God who was willing to humble himself to save—the only God worth having; the only God for you and me.

The shepherds found the baby nearby—an easy thing it was to find him. I hope you’ve found him too. If not, I hope you’re still seeking. Wise men and women do.

If you’re seeking, I can tell you where to find him. He’s not in our culture, devoid as it is of any indication that our savior was born. We've left him far behind.

Not to worry, however: he’s still very near: “You’ll find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What If Christmas Means More?

He hadn't stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came with out ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”

-Dr. Seuss, How The Grinch Stole Christmas
As incredible as it may seem, a manger is where Christmas CAME! The God of the universe came to earth—to a cold and solitary cave and was born as a tiny, helpless infant. How could it be so?
My task is not to explain it, but to take it into my heart. The more I do, the more I discern the heart of God.
Here’s the lesson for me: That God loves us enough to share our brokenness, weariness, worry and sorrow. He clothed himself in mortal flesh "that so, he might be weak enough to suffer woe" (John Donne). He was and has always been, as one of Israel's prophets put it, “acquainted with grief." 
The world is steeped in sadness these days. Despite the season that promises great joy there is little that comforts and satisfies us. Poet Mathew Arnold was right: "And the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain..." —Dover Beach
Ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags can never dispel that sorrow, nor can they heal our broken hearts.
We know that's true; it's a simple and undeniable fact, empirically verified every Christmas. We've all tasted the sadness that descends upon us when the holidays are over and everything is done. Life again becomes "dukkha," as Buddhists say, painful, disjointed and unhappy.
But what if the Grinch was right? What if Christmas doesn't come from a store? What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more? What if it means that God loves you—you, the one reading these lines.
Indeed, God does love you like you wouldn’t believe. He loved you before you were born; he loves you now; he will love you after you die. He has "appeared...from afar saying, 'I have loved you with everlasting love'" (Jeremiah 31:3).
Human love has reasons to love—wealth, beauty, intelligence or other attributes that make love's object loveable and desirable. But divine love is not based on merit or distinction. God loves you, not merely because you are yourself, but because he is himself: "God is Love" (John 4:8,16). Philosopher Peter Kreeft argues that God cannot answer the question, "Why do I love thee?" He can only say, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways..."
One measure of that love is the Crib where God, for our sake, become a wee bairn—the final proof that he loves us as no other.
Why, then, are there no crèches these days? Why do we try so hard to avoid the mystery of God's amazing grace when it is so simple and so blindingly clear? Why are we so afraid of His three little words: "I love you"?
You are God's beloved. Why not tell him, "I love you, too."

Sunday, December 11, 2011


I was walking through our mall last week and thought of an old Doonesbury cartoon: Michael J. sits ensconced in his easy chair watching TV. After loud shouts and the sounds of gun fighting the announcer says, “This concludes our regular broadcast day. Stay tuned for film clips of the Marines, a story from the life of Jesus and our National Anthem.” Doonesbury gets to his feet and joins in the singing of the anthem.

There you have it—the good, old American way: Equal time for everything and everybody. Nothing is special any more, not even Jesus, who, if we acknowledge at all, we place in a cluster of traditions.

Especially at Christmas. We keep the Christ–child around to grace an occasional manger, but he’s merely one symbol among many: Rudolph, Scrooge, St. Nicholas and his elves, toy soldiers, little drummer boys, shepherds, angels, Christmas trees, Yule logs and Jesus, all vie for our attention; everything alongside everything else. The Son of God gets lost in the Yuletide clutter.

Melissa knows better. She’s one our grandchildren. Some years ago, Carolyn and I took her to the Festival of the Trees—an event here Boise in which businesses and organizations decorate Christmas trees, competing with one another in various categories. The display is magnificent.

We were enchanted by the grandeur of the hall as we moved from one tree to the next, pointing and exclaiming. But Melissa soon lost interest, surfeited by splendor, until she came to a small manger scene and there she paused transfixed.

Nothing else mattered—not the magnificently decorated trees, not Santa Claus who was nearby and beckoning and not even an incredible talking tree.  She was captivated by the Child.

We tried our best to urge her on—we wanted to see the trees—but she lingered behind, wanting to hold the baby, pressing closer to him despite the ribbon stretched around the cradle, keeping her away.

Finally, she agreed to leave, albeit reluctantly, looking back over her shoulder to get a glimpse of the crèche through the trees. And as we were leaving the building Melissa tugged on my hand and asked, “Papa can we go see the baby?” We returned to the manger and waited while she gazed long and longingly at the Child. 

As Melissa adored Him, I marveled at her simplicity. Unlike her, I often fail to see Jesus for the trees.

“There are some things worth being a child to get hold of again,” George MacDonald said. “Make me a child again,” I prayed, “at least for tonight.”


Monday, December 5, 2011

Journey of the Magi

“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The was deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter."
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires gong out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I’m drawn to T.S. Eliot’s brutal honesty, his willingness to write what he really felt rather than what he would like to feel. “The Journey of the Magi” is one such study in candor.

Christianity came hard for Eliot. Like C. S. Lewis, he was “dragged into the Kingdom kicking and screaming.” His was a desperate leap from bitter cynicism, characterized by a good deal of uncertainty, “wavering between profit and loss,” as he put it. Here, in this poem Eliot spells out his ambivalence. 

“The Journey of the Magi” purports to be a monologue in which one of the wise men, traveling from the East to find the Christ-child, recounts his journey with all its hardship and perplexities. 

The opening paragraph of the poem (in quotes) is a direct quotation from a Nativity sermon by a seventeenth century bishop of the Church of England, Lancelot Andrewes, lines Eliot admired for its stark realism. Instead of the simple Gospel report that “magi from the east arrived in Bethlehem,” we read of one man’s arduous journey: the cold, the distance, the dirt, the sleepless nights, the regret, the memories of a palace and the pretty girls left behind; and the hostility of those he encountered on the way, their lack of understanding and encouragement, singing in his ears, “This is all folly.”

One after another (note the repetitious “and”) we learn of the obstacles along the way. The man has little confidence in himself as he pushes toward his goal, haunted by doubt and no assurance that he will find what he seeks at the end of his journey.

The next paragraph opens with a ray of hope: “Then at dawn we came to a temperate valley”: dawn and freshness, the rich smell of damp earth and vegetation, running streams and mills beating in the darkness. Yet in the midst of these pleasant surroundings there are ominous signs: three trees silhouetted against the sky and sinister hands dicing (throwing dice) for pieces of silver, and “no information.”

Nevertheless the wise man journeys on, and eventually arrives one evening, “not a moment too soon” (catch the moment of heightened expectation!) to find “the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory”—a masterpiece of understatement if there ever was one! The goal of the grueling quest is an anti-climax. There is no feeling of fulfillment; no drama, no excitement, no ecstasy. Only perplexity and paradox.

The old man’s faith is firm, “I would do it again,” but what was the purpose of it all? Was it only to die to his past life—his friends, and the ease and affluence of his former days? Having found the Child, he cannot go back to the old life and “an alien people clutching their gods.” He is no longer at ease there. Yet, his new life is “hard and bitter agony,” something “like Death.” Is there nothing now to live for but to wait for “another (final) death?”

Here is one man’s dark night of the soul, a period of unhappiness and skepticism in which he wonders if it’s been worthwhile to leave everything to find and follow Jesus. Who’s mind, if we’re true to ourselves, has not harbored that thought?

Some individuals live in their heads; they’re born with a questioning, inquiring spirit and are predisposed to doubt. It’s the way God made them. Other’s doubts are born of argument: a comment by a respected, but unbelieving university professor, a random word spoken by a friend, an article on the Internet, reflecting the spirit of this age. Or doubt may come through sickness, disappointment, or a friend who succumbs to sin. All give logic to unbelief. What then can we do when “doubt swells and surges, with swelling doubt behind”?

We can take comfort in the thought that doubt is not displeasing to God. He knows how frail and fragile one’s faith can be. “He will not quench a smoking flax.”[1]  He is wonderfully compassionate, and infinitely patient with our misgivings. He was himself tempted in all points as we are.[2] He fully understands.

We can pray, for nothing is of ourselves, not even faith. Faith is a gift of God. [3]  “I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” is the cry of honest skepticism.[4]

We can turn doubt into action. We can take up the next duty, the very next thing God is asking us to do. Like Mother Teresa, who, if we can belief her biographers, floundered in deep despair in her final years, we can live a life of service in the midst of our uncertainty. No matter how dark things seem to be there is truth to be lived and, though it seems odd, that obedience can begin to restore our faith. As Jesus said, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”[5]

Finally, we can ponder Peter’s response when Jesus asked his disciples if they too would go away: “Lord,” Peter asks for all of us, “to whom shall we go?”[6]  


[1] Isaiah 42:3
[2] It’s worth noting that doubt is not sin, but mere temptation.
[3] Ephesians 2:8,9
[4] Mark 9:24
[5] John 7:17
[6] John 6:68

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The God Who Would Be Man

“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling to himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two very different places.” “Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “it’s inside is bigger than it's outside.” Yes, said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside that was bigger than our whole world.”
—C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle

“The Incarnation is the central miracle asserted by Christians,” C. S. Lewis insisted. “They say that God became a man.”

One of first questions raised by the early church is how did it happen? How did the immortal, eternal Word become flesh? Matthew and Luke explain Jesus’ entry into the world as a virgin birth, or more correctly, a virgin conception, for it was Jesus’ conception and not his birth that was unique.[1] Mary was a normal woman in every way and Jesus’ gestation and birth was normal in every way that matters. But his conception was unique for he had no human father. As the old text puts it, Mary “had known no man.”

Mary herself was concerned with this question, for nothing in her schooling necessarily led her to the expectation that Messiah would be virginal born:[2] “How can this be?” she asked the angel, who then explained, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:34, 35). This is a miracle and a mystery.

Every conception, of course, is a miracle. No woman ever conceived a child, no mare a foal, no doe a fawn apart from God. But once, for a very special purpose, God dispensed with natural process and a long line of descendents. With his naked hand he touched Mary and made a wee bairn who was…well, himself.

Here’s where clinical explanations falter. All we can say is what the first writers said: the child was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20). This was inexplicable then as now, and yet was acceptable, a staunch belief enshrined in the earliest creeds.[3] It became part of the minimal faith of new converts. Today it stands at the heart of our faith.

“But does it matter?” you ask. Of course it does. “All this took place,” Matthew informs us, “to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means (Matthew translates), ‘God (is) with us’” (Matthew 1:23).

God is with us. That’s what the virgin birth meant and still means. This is an answer to the old question: Does God care? Does disease, pain, infirmity, handicap and death overwhelm him as much as it does us? Does God weep? Does it matter to him that babies are hooked on drugs and infected by AIDs in utero? Dostoyevsky’s cynic, Ivan, asks of human suffering, “What do the children have to do with it?” Does it matter to God that children suffer?

The answer is the Incarnation, for in this act God entered fully into our suffering. Pain was his lot in the slow ascent from a struggling, kicking embryo to an utterly dependent baby, through gangling, awkward adolescent to become a man—a “man of sorrows.” Through all, he was “acquainted with grief.” “In all our afflictions he was afflicted.” Yes, he understands. He cares like no other.

Dorothy Sayers says it far better than I: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever the game he is playing with His creation, He has kept his own rules and played fair.  He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself.  He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.  When He was a man, He played the man.  He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”

Jesus’ conception, though one of a kind, is timelessly typical of what is eternally true of God. He “never undoes anything but evil, never does good to undo it again. The union between God and (human) nature in the person of Christ admits no divorce. He will not go out of nature again…”[4] He is, and has always been, Immanuel: “God with us; the God who became just like you and me.


[1] The virgin birth should not be confused with the “Immaculate Conception," the Roman Catholic tradition that Mary was free from original sin, or the “Immaculate Reception,” a Franco Harris catch in a play-off game against Oakland in 1972.
[2]Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) does not necessarily raise this expectation. The word Isaiah uses, usually translated virgin ('alma), is ambiguous and may simply mean "young maiden." The near fulfillment of the prophecy probably was a child born to the prophet's wife who was not a virgin. (She had already borne children.) Matthew, however, translates and interprets Isaiah's prophecy with the Greek word, pathenos that is not ambiguous and unequivocally means "virgin" (Matthew 1:14).
[3] The earliest creed, the so-called Apostles' Creed states in part: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..."
[4] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 123

Monday, November 28, 2011


“The lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song... Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) “out of the Lion’s head.” When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them” (C.S. Lewis Magicians Nephew p.126).

C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

Plato, the Greek philosopher, reasoned there must be an “idea” (or “form”) behind every object in the material world, one that preceded its existence. And if that idea exists, there must be a mind that conceived it and spoke it into being. These three transcendent realities—a divine mind, an idea, an utterance—Plato combined into one absolute and named it the “Logos” (the Word).

Plato was very near the truth, so near, in fact, that early Christians sometimes referred to him as “one of our own.” But though he caught a glimpse of “the true Light that gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9), he did not fully comprehend it. Something more was needed, something tremendous, something yet to come, something the wisdom of man could not conceive: “The Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelled among us …” (John 1:14). The divine Logos and a mortal man together bore one name: Jesus. This is what Christians call The Incarnation, the final, irrefutable proof that God really, really cares.

American Theologian Frederick Buechner had this to say: “We all want to be certain, we all want proof, but the kind of proof that we tend to want — scientifically or philosophically demonstrable proof that would silence all doubts once and for all — would not, in the long run, I think, answer the fearful depths of our need at all. For what we need to know, of course, is not just that God exists, not just that beyond the steely brightness of the stars there is a cosmic intelligence of some kind to keep the whole show going, but that there is a God right there in the thick of our day-to-day lives who may not be writing messages about himself in the stars, but who in one way or another is trying to get messages through our blindness as we move down here knee-deep in the fragrant muck and misery and marvel of the world.  It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want, but whether we use religious language for it or not, the experience of God’s presence.  That is the miracle we are really after, and that is also, I think, the miracle that we really get” (Secrets in the Dark, p.16).

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, humbling himself, condescending to make himself known, but nothing can match what happened that night in that cave. It was there that the Logos became the little Lord Jesus, a helpless infant with unfocused eyes and uncontrollable limbs, needing to be breast–fed, swaddled, cuddled and cared for, “the infinite made infinitesimally small,” G. K. Chesterton mused. “Immensity contracted to a span.” That is indeed the miracle we’re really after and the miracle that we got: The Logos become Immanuel: God with us.

John speaks of the Logos in a most personal way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled—(this was) the Word (the eternal Logos)!” (1 John 1:1).

John was astounded by the thought that he had heard and seen Plato’s Logos, and held him in his hands.[1] The one who made up the universe “out of his head” and spoke it (or sang it) into existence was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” Why did He do it?

It was love—pure and simple.


[1] The Greek word translated “handled” suggests something more than a tentative touch. It has the thought of familiarity and affection—perhaps a hug. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Love Finds a Way

“Love never dies.’ (1 Corinthians 12:8 The Message)

Years ago I saw a cartoon in the New Yorker Magazine that depicted a sour, disgruntled, elderly gentleman standing in rumpled pajamas and robe at his apartment door. He had just secured the door for the night with four locks, two deadbolts and a chain latch. Later he noticed a small white envelope stuck beneath the door. On the envelope was a large sticker in the shape of a heart. It was a valentine. Love had found a way.

We ought to have a reason for the hope that’s in us, Paul says, but reason alone can never change another person’s heart. Only love can.

(Do you recall Dostoevsky’s parable of The Grand Inquisitor and Ivan Karamazov’s arguments against the love of God? His brother Alyosha did not debate the issue. He simply leaned over and kissed Ivan—a “line of reasoning” that burned its way into Ivan’s heart.)

Folks don’t believe much in God’s love these days. We have to show it to them—incarnate it, as God did in Jesus. In that way we can—so to speak—help him bring salvation into the world.

Authentic love, however, is not the matter of a moment, a month or a year. It is eternal: “Love never dies!” It is the gift that we keep on giving.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Poor Preachers

Judge not the preacher for he is thy judge
If you mislike him, thou conceiv’st him not
God calleth preaching folly. Do not grudge
To pick out treasures from an earthen pot.
            The worst speak something good: if all want sense,
God takes a text and preacheth patience. 

—George Herbert

Years ago I heard about a young minister who asked a local auto mechanic to give him a special rate to fix his car. “I’m a poor preacher,” the young man explained.

“Yes, I know,” the mechanic replied. “I heard you preach last Sunday.”

Perhaps you have a “poor preacher.” So he isn’t polished and articulate, the most artful guy around. Don’t judge him harshly. If you do, it may be because you don’t understand God’s purposes. Despite the text your pastor may have chosen, God has his own text in mind.

Look for the nugget in the rubble. "The worst speak something good” now and then. Listen to the message carefully—try not to let your mind drift away—and ask God to give you one thought that will transform your thoughts and your heart. Jot it down, take it home and think about it throughout the day.

If nothing else, you may learn patience, that hardest of all virtues to acquire.


Sunday, November 13, 2011


“The lion was pacing to and fro about that empty land and singing his new song... Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connection between the music and the things that were happening. When a line of dark firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a rapid series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) “out of the Lion’s head.” When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them” (C.S. Lewis Magicians Nephew p.126).

C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

I love this time of the year: the first skiff of snow on the mountains, Canadian geese circling, gathering strength for their journey south, the extravagant patchwork of multihued leaves overhead and strewn across the forest floor. I echo the poet, “Whence comes this beauty?”

Plato, the Greek philosopher, concluded that there must be an “idea” behind every beautiful thing. Before there could be a beautiful object, there must be the thought of the object that preceded its being. And if that thought exists, there must be a mind that conceived it and then spoke it into existence. These three transcendent realities—a divine mind, an idea, an utterance—Plato combined into one and named it “Logos” (the Word).

Plato was very near the truth, so near, in fact, that early Christians referred to him as “one of our own.” But though he caught a glimpse of “the light that enlightens every man,” he did not fully comprehend it. Something more was needed, something tremendous, something yet to come, something the wisdom of man could not conceive: “The Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelled among us …” (John 1:14). The divine Logos and a mortal man came to bear one name: Jesus—“immensity contracted to a span.” This is what Christians call the Incarnation, the final, irrefutable proof that God really, really cares.

John speaks of the Logos in a most personal way: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled—(this was) the Word (Logos)!” (1 John 1:1).

John was stunned by the thought that he actually saw Plato’s Logos, and held him in his hands.[1] The one who made up the universe “out of his head” and spoke it (or sang it!) into existence was “pleased as man with men to dwell.” Why did He do it?

It was love—pure and simple.


[1] The Greek word translated “handled” suggests something more than a tentative touch. It has the thought of familiarity and affection—perhaps a hug. 

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