1. In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
2. In Christ shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find; his service is the golden cord close binding humankind.
3. Join hands, companions in the faith, whate’er your race may be! Who loves and serves the one in him, throughout the whole wide earth.
4. In Christ now meet both east and west; in him meet south and north, all Christly souls are one in him throughout the whole wide earth. ~William Dunkerley
We Christians are often rightfully accused of being judgmental and unwilling to consider other points of view. We can be the first to criticize another Christian of being unfaithful or heretical, not following doctrine and creeds, or being too liberal or too conservative or just too plain stubborn.
I’ve done it myself (doing it now in this post!) and have received more than my share of mean-spirited, even hateful, messages from Christian brothers and sisters who disagree with my point of view on some issue. Christians can tend to revel in eating their own.
When I’m tempted to judge lest I be judged, I remember who Christ hung out with: the cast offs and most undesirable people in society. They were surely more receptive to His message than those who believed they knew better than Him, who questioned His actions and motives, and who plotted against Him behind His back.
We need reminding that Christ isn’t more present in one political party over another, one denomination or faith community over another, one zip code over another, or in one racial or ethnic group over another.
We, east and west, north and south, constitute His body on earth, we dwell fully in His image just as we were created to be. It is only through His loving Spirit we are brought home where we belong, back to the center from the fraying edges of our faith.
(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia. His family gave permission for his story to be told.)
Nothing was helping. Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible. A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.
The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost. Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating. He had been unresponsive for most of the week.
The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.
After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.
Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.
He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.
His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek. He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:
It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.
His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.
As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace. The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, And mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, A life of joy and peace.
When we’ve been here ten thousand years Bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise Than when we’ve first begun.
And he left us.
His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.
This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.
This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.
Could we with ink the ocean fill, And were the skies of parchment made, Were every stalk on earth a quill, And every man a scribe by trade, To write the love of God above, Would drain the ocean dry. Nor could the scroll contain the whole, Though stretched from sky to sky. ~from the hymn “The Love of God”
by Frederick Lehman, derived from Jewish poem Haddamut,
written in Aramaic in 1050 by Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai
We try to wrap our arms and minds around that which is so immense, so infinite, so eternal, so mysterious, so unimaginable — in the hope we can hold it in our consciousness, even if momentarily.
We can try with metaphor and parable and poetry and our finite imagination.
Yet God’s love permeates everything from the empty space between tiny atomic particles to the clinging/flinging forces of the galaxies in the vast universe. It is impossible to fathom or describe.
We may try but we can’t — and simply be the image bearers we were created to be.
“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” ~Luke 19:40
1. A stable lamp is lighted whose glow shall wake the sky; the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, and straw like gold shall shine; a barn shall harbour heaven, a stall become a shrine.
2. This child through David’s city shall ride in triumph by; the palm shall strew its branches, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull and dumb, and lie within the roadway to pave his kingdom come.
3. Yet he shall be forsaken, and yielded up to die; the sky shall groan and darken, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry for gifts of love abused; God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s blood again refused.
4. But now, as at the ending, the low is lifted high; the stars shall bend their voices, and every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry in praises of the child by whose descent among us the worlds are reconciled. ~Richard Wilbur
Feeling heavy, dull and dumb,
I could be convinced
I’m no more than a simple rock
among a multitude of rocks~
inconsequential and immobile,
trod upon and paved over,
forgettable and forgotten.
I could believe
there exists no pulse
in my stony heart.
I could believe
I am incapable of love
if I turn away
from a God descending to walk
on the same humble ground where I lie.
Yet even the low are lifted high by His descent–
even the dumb and lifeless,
shall cry out in community with Him,
even the silent will find a voice to praise.
Even my own voice,
meager and anemic,
shall be heard.
Even a barn can harbor heaven,
straw a bed of spun gold,
a stall becomes a shrine.
I am no longer forgotten.
In fact, never forgotten.
So hard to reconcile,
if the stones and barn and stalls
have known all along,
so should I.
Then we shall be where we would be, Then we shall be what we should be, Things that are not now, nor could be, Soon shall be our own. ~Thomas Kelly from his hymn “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him”
Because I finished my term on earth and had no knowledge of either fear nor care, no morning knowledge, no knowledge of evening, and those who came before and those following after had no more knowledge of me than I had of them. ~Mary Ruefle from “Marked”
Whether we are coming or going,
beginning or ending,
leading or following,
rising or setting,
north or south,
east or west,
one day we shall be
where or what we should be,
even if not now
even if not now
even if not now~
we soon shall be.
1. Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.
2. “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.
3. “I,” said the cow all white and red
“I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”
“I,” said the cow all white and red.
4. “I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn.
5. “I,” said the dove from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I.”
“I,” said the dove from the rafters high.
6. Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.
~12th century carol
She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Luke 2:7
I know a fair amount about animals and their feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn. This is “stable rude” –no fanfare and no grandiosity, just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.
The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.
His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.
Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a kind and good treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.
These daily Advent reflections are each devoted to one Christmas carol (or canticle) to prepare us for God dwelling among us– then, now and forever more.