The Gift the Child Was Giving

He’s lost a lot of blood already and can hardly see.  The pain is like a drug, blurring his mind.  He staggers on, eyes closed, remembering…

“It doesn’t have to be like this!” His friend was shouting at him, angry and frightened.  “You can do what you need to do without this suffering!” 

Another scene, a softer voice: “You’re very hungry, you know. Just turn this stone into food.  It won’t hurt anyone.”

He opens his swollen eyes, glances into the roaring sea of faces.  Many are laughing at him, jeering, a few weeping.  He sees his mother, mouth open, staring in shock and agony.  He stumbles, sways beneath the heavy beam, crashes to the pavement.

It doesn’t have to be like this.  It doesn’t have to be like this.

No.  It has to be like this. 

Not just this – this day he had long feared – but all of it.  The years of loneliness.  The sorrow and temptation and weakness.  The knowing that it would someday end here, rejected by his own.  Hated.  Abandoned.  Unrecognized.

It had to be like this for him to say to earth what he had decided to say, to be for earth what he had decided to be. He would be inside what he was over, the aching, dangerous highwire of human experience.  The languid, contented simplicity of a creature with a full belly.  The searing anger and frustrations of human emotion, the frailty of a human brain, the bizarre tension of a soul within a body. 

He knew what it meant to come, and still he came, and for one night, at least, the suffering was still far off.  That night, there was only joy, for unto us a child was born. 

His birth was a beginning, but also an end – the end of a chapter that began in microscopic secrecy, in the merest speck inside one young woman: in one living cell with 46 human chromosomes.  The Son of Man was knit together as any human child is knit together.  He “became flesh” or – as enlightened people in our day say – a mere “clump of cells” and was eventually born in a gush of blood and water as he would later be proved dead in a gush of blood and water.

There is no dignity here, no self-preservation, no standing apart from the humanity he created.  His condescension was not condescending. 

The wonder of Christmas is not that there is a being so majestic as God, nor that there are beings so tattered as us, but that a bridge was built between the two and in a shape no one expected – the shape of a child who is God With Us.

It was the “With” that hurt.  He might easily have become God Among Us or God Above Us.  It didn’t have to be like this… unless he had come searching, not for subjects, but for his beloved.  Unless, by his suffering and condescension, he became “the firstborn among many brothers”, a living bridge “who has been tempted in every way – just as we are”, coming “to seek and to save that which was lost”.

That we are lost seems pretty clear these days, and it was to such people as us that Christmas came.  “A people living in darkness have seen a great light”.  Mary and Joseph, the angels and shepherds – they knew what a gift this child was.  And we know, perhaps better than they did, what a gift this child was giving.

After he has suffered,

he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured out his life unto death,

and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,

and made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53

Christmas in the Shadows

The tree seems small this year, the lights dim, but maybe I’m asking too much.  I long for Christmas to arrive, bulldozing my fears, flooding my soul with peace, but the harder I stare, the less magic I see.  Our decorations look like so many trinkets dragged from storage boxes or picked from store shelves – a desperate incantation to console ourselves.

     The people living in darkness have seen a great light;
     On those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.

Americans have spent a year in the shadow of death and there is no end in sight.  We need Christmas — a miracle on any street, a more wonderful life, a visitation of Christmas spirits to break open our hearts, to break open the hard sky that overshadows us.

    An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
    and they were terrified, but the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news…”

After this year of isolation, I long to reenter the heart of the Christmas story, the moments of shining unity.  Sheep puzzling over bright angels and perhaps joining in their song.  Dazed shepherds crowding into a cave, staring in wonder at a baby.  Mary “treasuring up these things and pondering them in her heart”.

But there’s another side to the story.  It was a child who first recognized the Christ and “leaped within his mother’s womb”, but there are other children here, too, murdered in Herod’s blind swipe at Jesus.  There are mothers “weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more”.  And watching her son’s life unfold, a sword was to pierce Mary’s own heart, too.

    He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    A man of sorrows, familiar with suffering.

The story of Christmas is a story of earth, and so it is, in part, a sad story.  The baby did not come to be king; he was already that.  He came to become a lamb. 

    He was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
    the punishment that brought us peace was upon him
    and by his wounds we are healed.

The baby we celebrate at Christmas was not born into a fairy tale, but into a world like ours, writhing in the shadow of death.  He did not enter history as a king striding to his throne, but like a fireman running into a fire, into the thick of our fear and sorrow. 

In this year, more than any I recall, I need Christmas.  Not the decorations or tradition.  I need to crowd into the cave and stare in wonder at this child who is, as the prophet declared, “God with us”.

     For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,
     and the government will be on his shoulders.
     And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
     Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.

The Broken Airplane

I lean over the broken airplane, twisted metal reflecting dim lights from distant hangars. The engine clinks as it cools. My friend, Luke, shakes his head.


Five minutes ago, all was well. And then, as we left the ground, we heard a sharp thump and the airplane darted sideways, away from the runway, its propeller desperately clawing at the night sky. Somehow, she held onto the sky, limping sidelong and tremulous as we circled back to earth, and here we stand in the dark, shaking our heads, taking photos of an airplane that may never fly again.

The thump was a deer, sprinting across the runway. If she had arrived half a second later, we would not have met. But we did meet, and the deer, like the airplane, picked herself up and stumbled a few steps further, finally dragged herself off the runway to die.

As the shock of the moment passes, I begin to ask myself what this means, if it means anything at all. For now, it means I’m largely out of a job because most of my teaching was done in this airplane. It means the loss of a good machine and days of paperwork and email and phone calls. Bad luck, I suppose, yet here we stand, shaken but uninjured. Not dead. Not worse than dead, demolished in some hospital bed.

How many steps do you have to go back to measure your luck? Is it worse to wreck an airplane than to never have an airplane, maybe never to fly at all? Could I even count the hundreds of good things I have received that made this bad thing possible? The thousands of hours airborne in which bad things might have happened but didn’t; the dangers I didn’t even notice; the deer that crossed just after I passed…

I don’t know the moral of this story, but I believe my days are numbered, and that’s a good thing because they are numbered by the one who gave me those days.

* * *

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways…

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

– Psalm 139

– Note: The middle photo is from a flight a couple of days later, showing how little fear deer have of airplanes. The deer that struck our airplane twisted the entire tail section (thus, her insistence on flying sideways) and partially separated the elevator and horizontal stabilizer.

The Party of Fire

I have always enjoyed a quiet fire, chatting with friends, faces glowing in the flickering flame.  There is a cheerful solemnity to it, apparently, whether you burn a few logs or an entire department store.  And everything, it seems, is now fuel for the fire.

The new kind of fire is a bit unsettling until you get into the mood. Homes and cars and banks seem a bit extravagant for use as firewood.  Bibles and American flags, though more affordable, appear especially ill-suited.  One half-expects the government to take an interest, to find some poor policeman whom it has not yet defunded and send him to investigate.

But then, there is no mystery to investigate.  Everything is fuel for the fire because the fire is more important than what it consumes.  Everything is fuel for the fire because, when the businesses and Bibles and flags have settled to ember and ash, something will rise to take their place.

The real mystery is this: Who and what will rise?  Who and what, having tossed onto the flames so much that we love and honor, will build upon the ruins, and what will they honor?

It won’t be people that they honor, regardless of race, gender, or integrity.  A few months ago, Mr. Kavanaugh became fuel for the fire, and now it will be Mrs. Barrett.  Their lives, however innocent, are to be incinerated, as Clarence Thomas was incinerated before them, all for the thought-crime of respecting the Constitution.

It won’t be public safety they honor, because we can see in every police officer they abuse, every police station and emergency vehicle they destroy, every police confrontation they distort and exploit, that they regard law and order as an obstacle to their rise.

It won’t be America they honor, because they want nothing so much as to erode, distort, and finally erase our memory of those who laid the foundation for this place, and the beauty of much that has been built upon that foundation. 

That beauty and even that foundation are fuel for the fire and this year’s virus provides a preview of the new foundation, where fearful obedience is honored and reasonable precaution is mocked, where rage is blessed and peace belittled, where government spills into every corner of our lives and independence in punished.  

The fires in our cities show what we can expect from the party of fire — a party that has (astoundingly) coalesced around the death of children, the closing of our churches and businesses, the defamation of our nation, and the careless destruction of all who impede their power.   Next in their string of firecrackers, our jobs were made fuel for the fire so that our electoral system might become fuel for the fire.   I fear this might be the final blast, the fire that consumes what remains of America.

And against all this, the humble firemen.  In St. Paul’s words, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good”, and we suddenly stand in urgent need of brave souls who will not only love what God loves but hate what he hates.  The evil is upon us and the fact that it hates our nation tells us much about America.  If we don’t stand now, if we don’t fight the arsonists and defend what is good, let us not speak of God’s love.

The Experiment

As good experiments sometimes do, my experiment proved me wrong.

It’s only one experiment, but the results are spectacular, and you can easily run the test yourself. 

I got the idea a while ago, remembering this story I heard as a kid – a story that has haunted me ever since.  The story was so big, so crazy that I imagined it with a dramatic backdrop – earthquakes, signs in the sky, vast armies marching across the countryside.  Well, it’s been a strange year in America, but not that strange.  Still, I thought I would give it a try.

I began at a restaurant I’ve frequented for years and, yep, it worked.  Then I tried the bank.  And then the grocery store.  Finally, the church.

I’ve been running the experiment for weeks now and it works every time.  It works so well that I’m reconsidering that old bible story, which describes a massive social shift – a movement to unite behind an idea and bake that idea into the daily processes of life.  If you show support for the idea, your life is allowed to continue, much as before.  You don’t have to believe; you just have to go along.

Well, as good experiments sometimes do, my experiment proved me wrong.  I thought that story could not happen here, or that it would at least be accompanied by earthquakes and armies.  I thought it would take longer, or that we would think harder, or be more inclined to resist, or be more loyal to old neighbors than new rulers.

In fact, my experiment proved that the story I feared has already come true.  I have been turned away from the restaurant and the bank, the grocery store, and the church; turned away by old friends who doubt whether the idea behind the current story is even true.  I don’t blame them for turning me away.  That’s the way the story works.  You don’t have to believe, but if you want to participate in this society – to buy or sell or bank or worship – you do have to go along.

And go along, we do.  The book of Revelation tells of a “mark” that will be required by the government “to buy or sell”.  We’re not there yet, but if the story seems far-fetched to you, take off your mask and try.