In late November and early December 2012, Lavone and I were priviledged to be on sabbatical in the Holy Land.  During that time we visited Bethlehem and found this nativity carving.  It has since become a Christmas icon in our home during Advent and Christmas.

We love the symbolism of this nativity—the Holy Couple, with their newborn child, in the natal cave which turns out to be none other than the loving Hand of God.  It reminds us that the whole story was and is “well in hand,” held and supported by the Hand that made all things in the beginning, the Hand which in the story itself becomes the little hands that are too small even to see in the natal carving.  The Hand and the hands in the foreground with a Heart in the background.

We recall and are moved to cherish these Hands—big enough to embrace and turn to good account all that was, is and will be, yet also small enough to clasp the reality as we clasp it, and to be touched by the things that touch us. 

Hands that can make, suffer, and heal.

Hands that rise in protest and praise.

Hands that give and hands that receive. 

Hands that tremble as they are pierced and fall limply dead.

Hands that surge with LIFE again holding what is broken until healed and whole. 

Hands that bid us come. 

Hands that warm our hearts and motion us on. 

Hands that gesture broadly to the wide and wonderful unimaginable expanse awaiting us.

Hands that hold us now and will not let us go … until then!  

Hands that in all these ways express the heart of God!

We may take comfort, draw strength, and dare to live in these good Christmas-Hands underneath, behind and all around us, strong and tender, providing and protecting, creating and completing, now and in the New Year.  

No, Mary Didn’t Know

Of course, that is the point of the song, isn’t it?  Mary could never have guessed all that her child, hers yet God’s, would do.  The exploits, the healing, the mastery of all powers earthly and heavenly, and the use of them all to love people whole and well.  Then again, had Mary thought about what we so easily take for granted she might have guessed.  After all, we’re talking about God—almighty, everlasting, creator, redeemer GOD.  Had she thought as we now assume, she might well have expected many coming attractions filled with jaw-dropping exploits. 

But Mary’s mind, so far as we know, didn’t go there.  Instead, Mary’s mind went to the familiar places all parental minds visit.  How shall we care for this little one?  What if he gets sick?  What if there is an accident?  How can we provide all he needs?  Where and how shall he learn about life, about his/our God, and about why we are here in God’s world?  What if the government turns more hostile?  What if there is no work, no food, no place?  What if …

Mary knew the unpretentious and ordinary village life of her people.  She knew the talk that would swirl around her, usually out of range of her hearing, and the innuendo it conveyed.  She knew the dangers of her world occupied as it was by pagan powers.  She knew that no one would believe what God told her about her baby boy.  She knew that Joseph loved her, but there was only so much a man could do.    And Mary knew that God had visited her, called her, and given her this child, and she believed God would make good on the promise that came with the child.  In this child, a savior had come.  More, in this child somehow God had come.  The name God told them to give him was Jesus, which means “Savior.”  The name God gave him was Immanuel, which means “God with us.”  Mary knew that heaven’s DNA nested within her womb and that or He signaled “salvation!” 

But Mary didn’t know the details. 

She didn’t know the how of it.  If she had tried to guess, she would have got it wrong much of the time. 

She didn’t know the when of it.  If she thought about it, she may have assumed it would be sooner rather than later and, no doubt, would prefer and hope sooner.

She didn’t really even know much about it itself.  I mean, what is the “salvation” that comes in this form?  What does it mean to say and to believe that in the swaddling of this newborn she was comforting, warming, securing, and caring for a bundle of “God-with-us?”

She didn’t know what the Prophet Simeon was getting at either, though she would pondered it in her heart through the years.  What could it mean for a sword to pierce her heart?  And what would happen to her little one to cause the piercing?

Even with the passing of time, Mary often didn’t know.  I am sure some of the wonderment receded as life happened, as Herod plotted and perpetrated his fearful atrocity, as they fled to become displaced persons, living for a time in Egypt where they didn’t belong—not only because they were citizens of another land but also because God had already delivered his people from that place.  Now, strangely, here they were again, for a time, only now the place of former bondage was haven for the salvation of the savior himself.

Even with the passing of time and the growth of her boy physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually, Mary didn’t know.  Whether at home with periodic bursts of unexpected words and deeds in the midst of an otherwise normal boyhood, or in the Temple asking questions and considering their answers—Mary didn’t know. 

Even when her boy became a man and began to wander about making friends, talking about God and God’s ways as though he were Family, sharing and caring with people no one else did, somehow helping, healing, providing and provoking.  Even with crowds swelling and controversy swirling, with celebration one day and conflict the next, Mary didn’t know.

Even on the final day when best friends betrayed or deserted him, and the most unthinkable things began to happen, and as it became clear how it would end—even as she understood the piercing predicted so many years before, still Mary didn’t know.

Even so, from Bethlehem onward there was at least one thing Mary did know.  Her boy was God’s gift.  Her boy was somehow God gifting the world in saving, healing, life-giving ways.  Mary knew her boy, loved her boy, waited to understand her boy, followed her boy, trusted that the prenatal word about her boy was God’s word to her and to all.  This Mary had always known.  And it was enough. 

Not only for her.

Christmas Transformation

The message of Christmas means that things are not what they seem, that a new world has dawned so that we find ourselves on the front edge of powerful and beautiful realities worthy of the Maker who became like the made in order to re-make everything better than new.  In the jubilant words of Mother Mary:  

46 “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord.
47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!
48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.
49 For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me.
50 He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him.
51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
52 He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.
54 He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful.
55 For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”
(Lk. 1:46-55 NLT)

In considering Mary’s song, many of us should be struck by the stark contrasts between our relatively full and richly blessed life and the way it was and is for most of the world’s peoples.  In truth, it was not primarily to the likes-of-us that Jesus was given, in the first instance.  The first recipients of Christmas-giving were, like Mary, relatively poor folk.  This good news initially delighted mostly the lowly, and was most deeply appreciated by those who were last and least.  Indeed, the joy of the first Noel was not a confirmation of a fullness only a few already enjoyed (and was certainly not their entitlement or right!), but a promise that the hungry were to be fed, the empty made full, the oppressed liberated, and the sad made glad by dream-come-true good news tailored specifically for the bad news situations with which most people were stuck. 

A merely worldly-vantage point could suggest little has changed in the two millennia since. 

Our Advent observances, however, offer us a strange means of grace when we face this fact: the joyful good news of Jesus’ coming was a threat to all whose comforts trace to sources other than the outrageous generosity of God that stopped at nothing for the sake of us all.  We might therefore consider what forms of celebration help us find joy in the gift of Jesus on its own terms.  That is, how might the coming of Jesus gather us up into His continuing over-the-top generosity for the sake of others, especially others yet to know? 

As we look ahead from this vantage point, we will perceive that MSNBC, CNN and FOX never simply tell it like it is.  No, despite the varied signs to the contrary—such as global pandemic, widening gaps between rich and poor, terror and war, economic crises, political corruption, social/cultural disintegration, environmental disasters, and whatever other woes—despite such signs, something has happened and is happening in the gift of this child, something decisive and sure.   Indeed, something like transformation is afoot; not just change, but transformation, a comprehensive and extreme makeover! 

The good news of this season will not be limited in scope to some people but will expand and reach toward all people; it’s not suited to just one time but all time and then beyond time; and it’s not targeted merely toward humans—and certainly not some part of the human being—but all creatures great and small and every facet of creation in all its magnificent variety.  We can insist on it and affirm it, long and yearn and pray for it, and give our lives in the New Year to participate in His work to make it so.

Because “Immanuel,” God-in-Jesus present and at work, must become everyone’s reality.






Praying for a Mary-Christmas

How surprised Mary was!  One day—I imagine it to be morning, but maybe it was at night, just before sleeping—an angel appears.  I resist the temptation to mythologize the story by assuming that angel-appearances were to be expected, since this is the Bible.  No, Mary had never seen an angel, and wasn’t sure about the protocol when she did.  She was surprised, as all of us would be.  But Mary’s surprise turned to wonder and then modest humility.  The angel told her she had been “graced,” highly favored, and that the Lord was with her (Luke 1:25).  This perplexed and troubled Mary.  Among the reasons, I think, was realistic self-awareness—she was no one special, would never have expected this, and now that it was happening to her she doesn’t know its meaning.  In one way she was right, she was nobody special, according to all the ways “special” was commonly understood.  Yet, the grace of God was extended to her in some extraordinary way.  As the unfolding story will make clear, it is especially to people like Mary, unsuspecting, undemanding, unworthy, that this unexpected gift, this grace comes.  Why her?  What now?  I doubt Mary ever got over the wonder and the surprise, even the shock, of this grace reaching out and embracing her.

How intrigued and drawn in Mary became in response to God’s gracious announcement. The angel tells her some of what this grace will mean—conception of a son, Jesus-Savior, hers but also the Most High’s son, to be King with never-ending throne and reign.  Talk about mind-blowing!  Revelation often raises as many questions as it answers.  Mary wants to know how this could be.  She knows enough biology and has enough integrity to be baffled by this message.  How?  This was a different kind of question than her uncle Zechariah had asked (see 1:18).  He wanted a “sign,” proof positive that would guarantee what he had been told.  She wanted understanding and insight.  She wanted to know more—how could such a thing happen to her, under the circumstances?

The angel reveals how: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, power from on high will overshadow you and, as a result, what is begotten will be called “Son of God,” (Luke 1:35).  I doubt this helped much in the moment, except that it let Mary know this was entirely a God-thing.  So, again, how?  Well, … God!  Because with God, you see, impossible things have been known to happen, even inconceivable things!   Elizabeth can show and tell you!  And soon Mary went to visit Elizabeth and found that God’s grace was even then bringing forth what had been totally inconceivable (see Luke 1:39-45).

How willing Mary was.  “Let it be to me according to your word, O Lord,” (Luke 1:38).  In the face of the “impossible,” when the Angel’s kind explanations only deepened the mystery, Mary declares herself to be the Lord’s servant, and first expresses the prayer her son would one day teach us all: “Thy will be done on earth (as in the heavens) with me and through me, now and always!”

Now, with a view to application during these Advent-days and on into a new year:

  • Mary was surprised to be shown such incredible favor and then continually surprised at how the grace of God worked through her and the Messiah. 
    • So, Loving Lord, help us never to get over the wonder of amazing grace, never to yawn at your including us, never to think we’ve got you and your way figured out and nailed down, and never beyond the surprises of grace.


  • Mary was drawn in, enthralled by the wonder of it all, eager to engage in this drama that seemed to be gathering her up and taking her where she did not know. 
    • So, Loving Lord, keep us alert to how your grace makes inroads in our lives and relationships.  Keep us asking for deeper understanding, and taking you at your word when your explanations deepen the mystery.


  • Mary was willing to remain in the flow of these God-happenings, though she did not comprehend all it would entail. 
    •  So, Loving Lord, with Mary we say, whatever YOU say, whatever—Let it be, for we are your servants!

Renewal is NOT a Missional Work-Around

Spiritual renewal requires followers of Jesus to be shaped (or “discipled”) into the KIND of people who become agents of God’s renewal.  IF renewal happens, it normally happens first to them and then through them to and for others.

It is common for us to read the remarkable report on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2) and long for Pentecostal visitation of God’s Spirit in our day.  We desire a seismic, cataclysmic in-sweeping of the Holy Spirit that no one can deny, a veritable Pentecost Spectacle that will bring change to (or “impose” change upon) our world.  But that is unlikely if WE are not ourselves indwelt by the Holy One, learning to live in the love of Jesus and actively sharing that love with one another.  (I’ll come back to this shortly.)

A flaming up and flaring out of Pentecostal power waits for communities to form characterized by loving warm-heartedness that gives the world light and warmth.  Communities breathed alive by the Spirit of God whose members live a JESUS-LIFE in all the places and spaces they happen to be.   Communities that hear from God and respond with daring trust and obedience.  Communities led and guided by power not their own, to witness and win a following that will, in turn, do likewise again and again.

In other words, renewal calls for a certain kind of people—individually and corporately—who relate to one another, as well as their neighbors and friends, in redemptively powerful ways.  A certain kind of people who regularly experience and express renewing grace which they then share (super)naturally as a consequence of the kind of life—the Jesus-Life—flowing to and through them.  As we read the story of the earliest churches in Acts, and of the later church, I think we can see this dynamic of renewal working among and through followers of Jesus.  As a rule, that is how renewal typically has come: The Jesus-Life within the community flowed to others not yet part of the community.

To be sure, “Pentecost” happened as Jesus promised.  It WAS a sudden, powerful, incursion of Holy Spirit presence and power.  It WAS a Holy Spectacle indeed!  It was apparently just the sort of Holy Spectacle we want and pray to see.  Just the sort that prompts us to think: If only we wait and pray enough or in the right way, “God may do it again!”  Especially in times when the world seems to careen from bad to worse, how good if God awesomely intervened!  And so, we join together in seeking, praying and waiting.

As we pray, however, we should note that the SPECTACLE was not the most important thing that happened that day.  One day after the Pentecost Spectacle (in Acts 2) there was still a mission to be accomplished. The story of “Church” had only just begun.  We must not skim quickly over the next scenes of Acts.  In them the community of Jesus—followers of the way, as they were called—came to life and devoted their life together to certain non-negotiables: to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer (see e.g., Acts 2:42, NLT).  At first their life together astounded many who saw what was going on, but then it generated conflict, sparked violent responses, and led to the murder of Stephen, the first of many martyrs to come.  As a result, the followers of Jesus’ way scattered, and this SCATTERING becomes the context for the renewal of God in Judea, Samaria, and the farther reaches of the Roman Empire.

Here is one important take-away: RENEWAL is not a work-around for the primary task or mission of Jesus-followers.  That task is to make disciples who have learned to live together in the way Jesus taught, and who in fact live that way according to the Kingdom values and priorities Jesus showed them.  Since it was to such disciples that Pentecost first came, we should not be surprised that Pentecostal renewal also comes to such disciples in the continuing story, down to our present day.

In my experience and ministry, periodically it seems appropriate or imperative to pray for “revival,” for God to move with power over the landscape to convict sinners, convert the repentant, and transform the world.  Such prayers feel more urgent when the church is in decline and struggles to hold its own, or when the culture takes a new turn for the worse.  While I am eager, and pray regularly, for God to move and to do a “new thing” in our day, it strikes me that God is more likely to empower the church to do an “old thing,” to double down to reaffirm who Jesus is, what he has accomplished, what he said the Spirit would do within and among us, and then relearn and recommit to a genuinely Spirit-filled Jesus-way of life, under his authority and in his company all the days of our lives (as in Matt. 28:16-20).

Like the earliest church, I suspect that following Jesus in this way would lead to plenty of spectacles but also lasting and substantial change, first in us and then in our world.  Renewal is NOT a missional work-around.