It's a little after 7 am on the morning after Christmas. I am in a hotel room, husband and 3 big sprawling boys asleep all around, and I am trying to pray.
I manage, a little. But even after an hour and a half of wakefulness, this prayer time could be better called "distraction time."
There's no good reason for this. I am enjoying my vacation time with extended family. I'm not unhappy or upset about anything.
I'm not even down on myself about not being able to pray much. Religious performance anxiety is for people who are trying to earn something. I have no thoughts of earning anything.
I am thirsty, and I want a drink of Living Water.
I am Bethlehem. I am busy with life, with plans and activities and schedules and discipline issues and fatigue, and with political concerns looming as regularly unwelcome intruders in the mundanities of the day-to-day.
I am just Bethlehem, a sleepy little town of ordinary folks who have no worldly power, whose lives have been thrown into chaos by imperial decree, who are trying to navigate the channels of disruption so that they can get back to the not-so-comfortable Ordinary.
I have nothing special to make Jesus come to me.
But He comes anyway.
He comes because He doesn't come looking for the deserving. He comes for the undesirable, the clueless, the hardened, the proud, the weak.
And He shines a glorious light from Heaven to open their eyes - Our eyes - because otherwise we would miss Him altogether.
2 Corinthians 4:6
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
If God had waited for Bethlehem to make itself ready for Him, He would be waiting still. But He came first, He broke the stillness, He gave the glorious announcement, and He gave Himself.
Only those whom He had prepared (Mary, Joseph, the shepherds) saw this as anything other than an ordinary birth, though a few might have wagged their heads and clucked their tongues at the shame of a cattle-stall delivery. If word spread at all, it was due to the wild story of the shepherds, babbling on about a Heavenly visitation.
That's why it was harder for them than for us to see something wonderful in that manger. The people in Bethlehem heard anguished labor cries and newborn wails vaguely intermingled with the bedlam of myriads of tired, disgruntled travelers. They smelled sweat and cattle. They saw flesh and blood and vernix, and it looked so ordinary.
God among them. And they had no idea.
It still takes a heavenly visitation to show us who Jesus really is. And it's still the most vital thing for us to see.
Humanity cannot be saved by a metaphor for human suffering, poverty, or moral struggle, but such a safe, sanitized sentimental Jesus is the only one most people are willing to think about. Safe, soppy, sentimental Jesus, however, doesn't exist.
Humanity can only be saved by the very unwelcome, intrusive, sovereign Savior that it's clueless about, blind to, rebellious against.
So He came. Not to give things like healing, peace, joy and an example to follow, but to show us that He Himself is our healing, our peace, our joy, our life. He came to open blinded eyes, to soften hard hearts, to turn rebels into loyal subjects.
He came to give us Himself, and in Himself to give us everything we truly need.
Most have never seen Him that way.
And even those of us who have seen Him, who have begun walking with Him, who are finding our lives more and more in Him... even we still have Bethlehem mornings when we unaware and unprepared. And EVERY morning is undeserving.
Yet He comes. He comes. Because that is who He is. God With Us, the Savior who has come into the world.
May God open your eyes to see Him, for the first time, or the thousandth.
Just a reminder - prayer is not the recitation of magic words. Nor is it a way to "get God to see things our way." Prayer is not bending God to our will, but bending ourselves to His. When we pray, we align our desires with God's priorities, and we submit to Him where those two things differ. And when we petition Him according to His will, we know that He hears us (1 John 5:14).
But how do we know if we're praying according to His will? He has not left us in the dark about that. Though there is no one "right prayer," Jesus taught us tremendous lessons about praying within the will of God when He gave us His model prayer.
The more time I spend allowing the Lord's Prayer to shape my praying, the more convinced I am that there is NO situation in which its guidance is not helpful. So I hope you will join me is praying for Newtown, CT in this manner:
Our Father: Dear Lord, please become a Father in truth to those who don't know You in Newtown. May they come to know you and call you Father and feel Your care as never before.
Who art in Heaven: I thank You, Lord, that You are enthroned in power, and that there is nothing I could ask you that would be too difficult for You. I thank You that Your sovereign control extends even into the incomprehensible.
Hallowed be Your name: Oh Father, there are many who blaspheme You because of this tragedy. Even though this massacre was pure evil, and You are pure light...even though You sent Jesus to save us from sin...even though those who love You and walk with You are growing to love their neighbors and enemies more and more...yet people will blaspheme You when sinners do evil. I pray that You will open blinded eyes, even those dimmed by tears, to see who You really are, and to hallow You from the depths of their souls. Then they will find the peace and the newness that only You can give.
Thy Kingdom come: Oh Father, how we long for this! May Your Kingdom come to Newtown! Your Kingdom is not a place, but a reign in hearts, and it is a reign of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. May Your kingdom be brought there by Your people coming to serve, to weep with those who weep, to pray. And may Your Kingdom spread there as more and more people come to know You.
Thy will be done in Newtown as it is in Heaven: Oh Lord, Your precious, perfect Will is done trustingly, lovingly, loyally, joyfully, obediently in Heaven. Let Your will be done the same way in Newtown, even in the midst of tremendous sorrow. May the beauty of Your Will shine more brightly than ever in that place.
Give Newtown today its daily bread: There is so much to this prayer! Yes, Father, we ask for the provision of daily food, for those who are grieving may not have the strength to prepare it for themselves. May Your people bring material support wherever it is needed. We pray that you will free the grieving from the fear of lacking tomorrow's bread, and that they will instead trust You to provide for tomorrow, too. But You have taught us that our daily bread is so much more than material provision! Jesus said that doing Your Will was His food. He found refreshment in it. And so I pray that You will refresh Your people in Newtown by giving them manageable ways to do Your beautiful Will. And please show Your people outside of Newtown if some part of their daily "work allotment bread" should bring them into Newtown. And finally, Jesus taught us that HE is our bread, our food on which we feast for nourishment. So we pray that each person in Newtown would get a daily supply of Your grace, and that they would recognize it as coming from You.
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors: This one is so hard in Newtown right now! Such forgiveness is impossible without Your forgiving grace. Please God, free them from the prison of bitterness. Show them Your forgiving grace as they most clearly need to see it in these dark days. May those who have never received Your forgiving grace do so now, and be made new in order to be free to forgive others as well.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: Yes, Father, please. There will be such a strong temptation to sin in response to sin! Even outside of Newtown, there will be those who will want to hate. As the mother of two kids on the autism spectrum, I am very worried that hatred will be turned towards them. Father, protect those whom you have created on the "spectrum" from the prejudices of others. Protect them from revenge. And Lord, as hard as it is to comprehend, there will be those who will envy Adam Lanza his notoriety, and will want to follow his example. Protect both us and them from this evil! Protect us, too, from the temptation to live in fear. I have received notifications from both schools that my 3 children attend, detailing the increased police presence, the increased security, the siege mentality that characterizes our godless age. Oh Father, in the name of freedom to sin we have sacrificed true freedom! Help our schools, nationwide, to find the balance between wise precaution and unwise terror. Most of all, may they welcome You back into schools, not as a token nod, but as the Savior who alone can change evil hearts.
For Yours is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. You alone have the power and authority to change all of this. May people realize this and turn to You! Amen!
Just yesterday a gunman murdered 20 kindergartners and 6 school staff members in Newtown, Connecticut. I spent yesterday buried in the news, numb with the shock of it all.
Yet today I am working on translating and perfecting my presentation of Christmas Carols in American Sign Language, so I can be ready for church tomorrow. I believe in the true Christmas...one that has nothing to do with trees, elves, white bearded men in red suits, or greed, so I'm dealing with songs that celebrate the incarnation of God Himself.
It's been hard, hard work. Not just because of the struggles that always come with interpreting from one language to another. That's a challenge I actually enjoy. Usually (for example), fitting the convoluted, implied-subject, passive-descriptive imperative form found in the single line, "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see" into ASL grammar within the confines of artistic style and musical speed...well, I would normally relish it. I don't actually know the right grammatical terms for all of it, but I can feel it in my heart, and I love to coax it out and watch it dance on my fingers.
Not this time. Not with a soul that is stunned by the horror of yesterday.
It's so tempting to say that yesterday threw Christmas into the dust, that the bleating of manger-side sheep is drowned out by gunfire, that the cries of labor pains pale next to cries of terror and death, that the message of peace on earth has been disproven. Rendered trite. Annulled.
But, of course, the millennia that have passed since Christ's birth have been full of horrors. If Christ's coming to earth could have been rendered meaningless, it would have happened long before now.
But how can we sing "Peace on Earth, and mercy mild" so soon after Newtown? Can we only sing it wishfully, wistfully, as a prayer for what we hope will happen someday?
How can the truth of these songs not get lost in translation when "the real state of things" is interpreted to us by the hands of madmen?
How can "Peace on Earth" be communicated in a world like ours? The first step is to remember that the song of the angels was not about peace.
It was about the Prince of Peace.
The angels didn't sing a sermon that told people how they ought to live peacefully. They sang an announcement of the One who was, and is, Peace Incarnate.
Incarnation is not the same as interpretation. Some things can't be expressed in language. They have to become flesh and blood.
"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." (John 1:14).
Humanity has tried countless ways to interpret the message of peace, but unlike any other communication, this one cannot truly be received without receiving the Messenger.
Oh, it is undeniably true that there are many good, peaceful people who do not know Christ. They are as good as they are by the grace of God, whether they know it or not. If He did not bestow such "common grace," Newtown would happen every day. There is not a single good person on the planet; not one who, if left to his or her own devices, wouldn't become a horror (Isa 53:6, Isa 64:6, Jer 17:9, Mark 10:18, Rom 3:10). So God gives a common form of goodness with the same mercy that makes Him send rain on both the just and the unjust (Matt 5:45). It's a providence largely ignored. It's also a providence that will someday be withdrawn, if I understand 2 Thess 2:7 correctly.
But every human being, even those with a measure of sweetness, kindness, and goodness, needs to be saved from their own sin.
This is the kind of message that the religious elite of Jesus' times could not stand. The kind that made their rage murderous against the most innocent one who ever walked. Think of it... a perfectly innocent adult, telling the religious elite that they needed to repent and turn to Him so they could be saved. They wanted Him dead...and temporarily got their wish.
The world hates that message today, too. Oh, they believe that some people need to be saved, for sure. But they bristle at the thought that they themselves need to be saved from the evil within themselves, and that only Christ can do that. They can't imagine that they could be capable of truly heinous acts, even though history is full of people who, under the right (wrong?) circumstances, did things they never thought themselves capable of.
If they're not a Hitler or a Klebold or a Breivik or a Lanza, they're just fine, thank you.
They want humanity to find a workable interpretation of the message of peace, but without the incarnation of the Prince of Peace in their own hearts.
And peace gets lost in the translation. Because without Christ Himself... trusted, worshiped, indwelling... there is no power for peace with God (the ultimate peace) or for the truest peace with neighbors.
But with Him, everything is possible. And there can be no doubt...if Christ had sat enthroned in the heart of Adam Lanza, conforming him to ever-increasing Christlikeness, including love of neighbor, love of enemies, peace, joy, righteousness...the Newtown Massacre would never have happened. Christ's Spirit inside makes that much difference.
And so I must Sign the songs of incarnation tomorrow with a heart full of hope, and joy, and peace. Because the message has not been annulled, nor can it ever be, as long as The Eternal One lives in people's hearts.
Does He live in your heart by repentant faith?
Isaiah 9:6 (ESV)
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
John 14:27 (ESV) Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 (ESV)
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
Because God, in His inscrutable wisdom, has chosen to put treasure in clay pots.
I can't be a superstar, but I can be a pot.
Remember the story of Gideon, and how he and his rag-tag army took on the Midianites? Their lights were hidden in clay pots until the right moment, and then they smashed the pots to let the light shine. God then miraculously routed the enemy before them.
God has given me plenty of good hard whacks in my life, and at times I've felt like he's completely smashed me for good. Maybe one of His purposes for doing that is to let some light out.
I don't have any light of my own, but He is the light, and it's my hope that He'll shine through just a bit on these pages, "that the excellence of the power may be of God, and not of us."