The Outrageous Claim of Christmas

At the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon prayed, “Will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple” (1 Kings 8:27).

Yet there is this outrageous claim by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. God, in the person of his Son, came in the flesh. The Creator of all things, the one whom “the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain,” came into his creation as a human being. He was conceived in the womb of a woman. Jesus of Nazareth, born like any other human baby, grew, lived, and died. His disciples claimed Jesus was God, the Son of God, in the flesh! Jesus was God dwelling on earth!

The apostle John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-3, 14).

Max Lucado vividly captures the mystery, the awe, of the coming of the Son of God in the flesh. “The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. And he who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created.” (God Came Near, 1987, p. 25)

One writer expressed his struggle with the outrageousness of the claim of Christianity. “The virgin birth has never been a major stumbling block in my struggle with Christianity; it’s far less mind-boggling than the Power of all Creation stooping so low as to become one of us.” (, 12/4/2000)

C. S. Lewis calls the incarnation, God coming in the flesh, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the grand miracle. “The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.” (“The Grand Miracle” in God in the Dock, 1997, p. 80)

The apostle Paul wrote of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).

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The Struggle for Joy in Our Hearts

Journey through the Shadowlands

christmas-treeChristmas is one of the most joyous times of the year. Yet Christmas brings a mixture of emotions. For Christmas evokes memories. Memories are a mixed bag of joy and sorrow. The joy can be tempered, if not overwhelmed, by the continuing pangs of grief, of family conflict, of illness, or some other struggle and tragedy of life. For many, Christmas is a time when they can relate to the words of the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament book of Lamentations“I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me” (3:19-20).

With life falling apart around him, the prophet lamented. the weight of his emotional load did not lighten. Conditions for him did not improve. Yet he remembered something which gave him hope. Remembering he found strength with which to carry the weight of…

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Out of the Depths of My Suffering

Recently I was reminded how the musical arrangement of a hymn can influence the interpretation of the story and of the message of the hymn. The words of the old hymn “My Jesus, I Love Thee” were probably written in 1862. It is attributed to then sixteen year old William R. Featherston. That he was sixteen when he wrote this confession of faith in and love for Jesus Christ is an impressive story in itself. Apparently this fact is all that is known about the writing of this hymn. With this hymn the young Featherston provides us with words by which we confess our love for Christ.

“My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine; For Thee all the follies of sin I resign; My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

We love Jesus who has poured out upon us the grace of God as our Redeemer and Savior. In response to His love for us, we express our love to Him by turning away from the follies of sin. “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now,” as I commit my life to living the life to which You have called me.

“I love Thee, because Thou hast first loved me, And purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree; I love Thee for wearing the thorns on Thy brow: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

Christ first loved us. We come before the cross. Humbly we see Jesus taking upon Himself our sin and guilt. Through His suffering and death, by the grace of God, we are forgiven and become children of God. In response to the love of Jesus seen in His sacrifice on the cross, we confess, “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

“In mansions of glory and endless delight, I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright; I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen. He is enthroned at the right hand of God. The living Jesus graciously gives us hope, the hope of life eternal, the hope of eternally dwelling in the glory of God. In the confidence and joy of this hope we confess, “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

A hymn of praise and celebration of Jesus, our Redeemer and Savior. A hymn of thanksgiving. A hymn of love expressed to Jesus. A hymn of confession, of faith, of commitment.

The traditional tune was written by Adoniram J. Gordon in 1876. When I sing the hymn with this tune I sing the story of celebration and joyous thanksgiving. The story of the hymn is one of a grateful disciple of Jesus, in the wondrous grace and hope of salvation in Christ, expressing his love for Jesus.

As my wife and I recently drove three thousand miles we listened to one CD of hymns again and again. One of the hymns was “My Jesus, I love Thee.” The words were the same. Only the musical arrangement was different, a more recent arrangement. As I listened the story and the message of the hymn changed. It was still a hymn of confession, a hymn of faith, a hymn of commitment, a hymn expressing love for Jesus, especially now. Only the story was now of a disciple of Jesus in the depths of suffering, in the depths of grief. The hymn was now the story of a disciple who had every reason to doubt the love of Jesus and to question his own love for Jesus. In this disciple’s suffering, in his grief, Jesus seems so silent, so far away.

Yet, this suffering and grieving disciple, remembers the love of Jesus for him expressed in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. He remembers the hope of the resurrected and enthroned Christ. His faith strengthened, he remembers why he first loved Jesus and loves Him still. Out of the depths of his suffering and grief he sings, “My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine. If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

The voice and heart of a suffering and grieving disciple is heard in the third verse, which I have not seen in a hymnal or heard sung. “I’ll love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death, And praise Thee As long as Thou lendest me breath; And say when the death dew Lies cold on my brow, If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.” [Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul, p. 150]

The new musical arrangement was composed by Mark Hall of Casting Crowns. The attached recording is from their CD “Glorious Day, Hymns of Faith.”

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The Compassion of the Suffering

In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, verses 17 and following, Jesus is on his final journey to Jerusalem. Jesus told his disciples that in Jerusalem he was going to be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, beaten, and crucified. Jesus was determined to go. As he and his disciples were leaving Jericho toward Jerusalem, two blind men on the side of the road cried out to Jesus for mercy. “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight.” It is difficult to imagine the weight of grief in the heart of the Son of God during this journey toward his death. Yet in the midst of his own suffering he showed compassion on two fellow sufferers.

As I read this text this past Thursday morning I thought about the children who are patients of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Often I have observed these children, in the midst of their own suffering, showing compassion to other children who are their fellow sufferers. The weight of suffering carried by the parents of these children is beyond description. I have witnessed these parents, in the midst of their suffering, extend compassion to parents who are also suffering under the weight of their own children’s life-threatening illness.

After reading this text in Matthew, I went to St. Jude for my weekly volunteer shift. Making my initial rounds I spotted a mom and dad I see often. Dad was pushing the stroller carrying their little baby who had surgery shortly after birth to remove a brain tumor. The child has been undergoing chemo treatments. Mom was holding the hand of another young child who is well. I waved them down. Mom continued on to the surgical waiting area. Dad and I talked a minute. Their baby is outpatient and had no appointments that day. They came to the hospital to sit with parents of another patient who was having surgery. In the midst of their suffering this mom and dad were showing compassion to fellow sufferers.

Reading of the compassion of Jesus in the midst of his suffering humbled me. Witnessing the compassion of children with pediatric cancer and the compassion of their parents, compassion from the suffering to the suffering, humbles me. During a time when we understand self-centeredness, the suffering reach out with compassion from hearts large enough for fellow sufferers. I am moved by the capacity for compassion in the hearts of the suffering. My heart is humbled in awe of such unselfishness. Humbled in awe of such love and compassion. Humbled in awe of such Christ-likeness.

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Sully’s Birthday and Trusting God, Part Two

Sully and his mother

It began with Sully’s mom, our daughter, experiencing the faith of the mother of a child taken all too soon by leukemia. It continued with seeing, hearing, and reading the faith of other mothers of children with pediatric cancers. Their faith spoken, written, and lived, humbles me. I have thought of them this past week. In the mix of the joy and the grief of our grandson Sully’s birthday, I have also been thinking of two passages of Scripture. One passage from Daniel I shared in my last post. In this post I share the second passage with you. As I read this text today, I am reminded of these mothers and their children.

Hebrews 11 has been called the Hall of Fame of Faith. The names and stories are familiar, Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the list continues. Stories I learned in Sunday School as a child. Stories I preached as an adult. Stories of faith, of trusting in God, no matter the circumstances. I have often gone to this chapter to encourage faithfulness toward God. As with Daniel’s three friends, these are stories of answered prayers, of deliverance, and victory. Well, perhaps the exception is Abel, murdered by his brother. The writer concludes stating there were more examples than he had time to discuss. He names a number of them, summarizes the victories of faith they experienced. “Who through faith conquered…Women received back their dead, raised to life again”, Hebrews 11:33-35a.

I read Hebrews 11:1-35a. Yes, this is the story I expect in my life. Faith in God who is love. Faith in the Lord God Almighty who is sovereign over all of his creation. Faith which results in strength, deliverance, and victory. There will be hard times for the faithful, yes. Yet these verses reveal God giving his faithful the strength to overcome the hard times. He gives them victory. God delivers his faithful. “Women received back their dead, raised to life again.”

My grandson was not delivered. We visit his grave. Children suffer and die. Yet their mothers beautifully share their faith in the midst of suffering and death. Their faith, including my daughter’s, taught me, teaches me. There are more stories in Hebrews 11. Stories of faith unwavering. Something is different about these stories, these unnamed faithful of God.

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith.” Hebrews 11:35b-39a

Perhaps we respond better to the stories of faith and obedience in which the outcome is deliverance and victory. Yet these stories in Hebrews 11 are between the bookends of faithful Abel who was murdered and the unnamed faithful who faced horrific persecution, poverty, and death. Those who have lost their children and grandchildren to pediatric cancers know only too well the need for these stories. The stories of faith and obedience without deliverance and victory in this life. The stories of the faithful who persevered. The faithful who cried out to God in the midst of suffering and were heard. The faithful whose prayers were answered, not with deliverance. The suffering continued even to the point of death. The Lord heard their cries and gave them his presence and strength to journey through the valley of death.

The stories do not give us the understanding of why. The unfairness of it all does not disappear. Yet the stories teach us that in all circumstances God is with us. The stories teach us God does not desert us. The stories encourage us to continue to trust God “even if he does not” deliver us from the flames.

When we lost our precious grandson Sully, I wrestled with my faith. I wrestled with God. I read the stories in Scripture. I watched Sully’s mother, my daughter. I read the stories written by mothers of other children ripped from their arms by pediatric cancers. They teach me the hope of faith in the resurrected, living, and reigning Christ. They teach me the love of God poured out in the crucified and risen Son of God. His love never forsakes me. Hope in Christ, the hope of resurrection and eternal life, is as certain as God is faithful. I have learned from the story of Scripture. I have learned from these mothers and their children. Even if God does not deliver me from the flames, trust him still.

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Sully’s Birthday and Trusting God, Part One

Mom, Dad, siblings, delivering toys to St. Jude.

Our grandson Sully’s tenth birthday was this past Monday. The ninth birthday we celebrated and remembered his life without his physical presence. So much love for Sully, his parents, and his siblings was poured out this year. Many donated toys and money to buy toys for the children of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The love of so many people enabled Sully’s parents and siblings to make the largest donation yet in memory and honor of Sully.

It is difficult to put into words the death of a grandchild. Grief becomes a part of you. Most of the time now it lies quietly in your heart. You know it is there. Yet it does not dominate your life. You remember your grandchild every day. Mostly the thoughts are of that sweet child who brought, still brings, joy to your heart. There are times, unexpected, catching you off guard, when grief awakens. For a moment or for hours, you grieve. You weep. Your heart is sliced open again. Once again you wrestle with your faith. You wrestle with God.

In the mix of the joy and the grief of Sully’s birthday, all this week I have been thinking of two passages of Scripture.

The first is Daniel 3:17-18. Three friends of the prophet Daniel refused to worship an idol built by the king. They faced being burned alive. This text is their response. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Yahweh, the God of Israel, did rescue them from the fire, a miraculous outcome. As I heard this story as a child I marveled at God’s deliverance of these men. Sully’s death caused me to look more closely at the words of these three friends. For the first time I paid attention to the full depths of their trust in God. “But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” “Even if he does not!” Even if the flames began to consume their flesh they were determined to continue to trust God.

During his short life of fifteen months, battling leukemia, Sully taught all who knew him. He taught me. People all over the world were praying for God to deliver Sully, to rescue him from his illness and his death. I prayed this prayer, fervently. I trusted that the God I serve was able to save Sully from leukemia and death. When God did not so answer our prayers, my prayers, my faith was challenged. I wrestled with my faith. I wrestled with God. “Even if he does not!” Could I so trust God? With his strength and spirit Sully taught me. The faith of those three men so long ago taught and encouraged me. God did not save our precious Sully. Yet I have learned to trust Him still.

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I wanted to slap her!

I was wearing one of my St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital golf shirts. When I wear one of the two I own someone usually asks me if I work at St. Jude. Typically I respond, “I am a volunteer. Also my grandson was a patient during his short life.” (Sully was diagnosed with infant leukemia at the age of two months. He fought valiantly. We continue to be very grateful for the efforts of everyone at St. Jude to help Sully. He died at age fifteen months.)

After lunch with my grandson Max, I went to Sprout’s Farmer’s Market. A
fellow customer noticed my shirt. She asked if I worked or volunteered at St. Jude. I answered with my typical response. Forty-four years of ministry, and especially the illness and death of my grandson Sully, have taught me not to be surprised at people’s responses to those who have lost a loved one. People mean well. As they search for the right words, so often what comes out of their mouths is not helpful. Yet I know typically their hearts are compassionate. I admit to stumbling with my words at times. Even though I know better.

This woman’s response shocked me. I was not prepared for it. “Did your grandson have cancer?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Leukemia.”

“What caused it?” she asked. Her question and tone caught me by surprise. I fumbled to explain what I understand about Sully’s leukemia.

“You know likely it was the result of the environment, cell phones, computers, and the like. You know that the chemotherapy industry is a multi-billion dollar business.”

I don’t remember what else she said as I fumbled in my effort to respond. The inferences I was drawing, but not saying, weren’t helping. You are saying my daughter and husband could have prevented Sully’s leukemia?! St. Jude’s dedicated medical and research staff are only interested in the money?! I could not believe what I was hearing.

There were no attempts by this woman to express sympathy or compassion. She saw my shirt and saw an opportunity to get on her soap box. Her parting words: “Go to this website [I did not hear it]. And keep an open mind.”

An open mind?! I wanted to slap her! My anger kept growing after she walked away.

The words of Job in rebuke of his “comforters” come to mind. “Then Job replied: ‘I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? I also could speak like you, if you were in my place; I could make fine speeches against you and shake my head at you. But my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief.’” (Job 16:1-5)

Admittedly this is a little rant I had to get off my chest. If it helps you think carefully about what you say to the hurting, the rant was worthwhile.

Here is a link to a very good article on things not to say to the grieving.
Things You Never Want to Hear in Your Grief

God’s blessings!

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Sunday, Another Visit to the Grave

Journey through the Shadowlands

(From my CaringBridge site in honor and memory of our grandson Sully. Written on Easter Sunday, 2010.)

Sunday had come. The Sabbath was over.  Women who had followed Jesus went to the tomb to finish the traditional anointing of the body of Jesus for entombment.  To their surprise and concern, the stone at the door of the tomb had been rolled to the side.  The tomb was open.  Entering the tomb they found the body of Jesus missing.  What happened?  Did his enemies steal his body to add further shame to his death?  While they were standing and wondering two men suddenly appeared beside them with clothes brightly gleaming. Angels?  The women bowed down before them in fear.  The men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!” (Luke 24:1-5).  The darkness and grief of the Sabbath…

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The Day after Good Friday

Journey through the Shadowlands

(From my CaringBridge site in honor and memory of our grandson Sully. Written on the day after Good Friday, 2010.)

IMG_4737A Grief Observed is C. S. Lewis’s journal of his grief when his wife Joy died after a painful battle with cancer.  His stepson, Douglas Gresham, wrote the forward to my copy of this little book.  “All human relationships end in pain–it is the price that our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love,” Gresham writes.  “The greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm its fortress.”  He gives Satan his due for the suffering in this world.  Later in the forward Gresham wrote of his mother’s death and the love she and Lewis shared.  “It almost seems cruel that her death was delayed long enough for him to grow to love her so…

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Good Friday

Journey through the Shadowlands

(From my CaringBridge site in honor and memory of our grandson Sully. Written on Good Friday, 2010.)

On this Good Friday, I remember the suffering of Jesus.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?…But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him….” Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me…My heart has turned to wax; it has melted away within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death…a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands…

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