The mystery of the Incarnation

I originally wrote this piece for Through the Roof, and it is reproduced here by kind permission.

Crib at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Saint John NB by Cusack5239

At this time of the year, we are remembering the Incarnation and all that it means to us.  Surely one of its most significant aspects is that weakness and vulnerability have once and for all been emptied of shame or stigma.  What God dignifies with His presence is forever sacred.

Jesus came to us first of all in complete helplessness.  He literally handed over all control and submitted to total dependence on another to sustain His life.  As Michael Card put it in one of his songs,

“When the Father longed to show
The love He wanted us to know
He sent His only Son and so
Became a holy embryo.”

Imagine the utter dependence of an embryo.  It has no independent life, all its biological systems are connected to and supported by its mother’s.  Imagine the impotence of a baby during the course of birth – there is absolutely nothing it can do except surrender to the process.  Jesus chose to go through that.  The “physically able” period of his life was sandwiched between a period of inability to walk during babyhood and an inability to walk, or even move, when He was nailed to the cross.  As a baby he was fed by his mother, and on the cross he was offered vinegar on a sponge that He could no longer lift to His own lips.

He knew what it was to be under the authority of His parents; He knew hunger and thirst and bone-aching weariness.  He probably knew how it felt to hit His thumb with a hammer when He was learning the carpentry trade from Joseph.

After His resurrection, when He appeared to His disciples, He invited Thomas to touch the wounds in His hands and feet, and to thrust his hand into the gaping hole gouged out of His side by a Roman sword.  In doing so, He not only affirmed that God is permanently scarred by His experience of becoming human, but also that no physical disfigurement renders anyone untouchable, a point made by Nancy Eiesland in her book The Disabled God.

The scars that Jesus still bears are signs of injury – God has shared in human suffering; and also, as Nancy Eiesland again points out, signs of healing – the place where wounds once were but have now healed.  God is not only the giver of healing, but also the recipient of it.    These mysteries are to some degree beyond our ability to grasp, but they also tell us that no matter what human condition we are experiencing, God has experienced it, and He understands and knows what it is like.  Jesus prayed to His Father, “Glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”  God answered that prayer, and yet even restored to His original glory the scars remain.

I remember once when my daughter was going through some particularly harrowing suffering resulting from her cerebral palsy and one of the many operations it necessitated, I was in church one Sunday, and my heart was crying out for her.  And it came to me in that moment that no human parent would voluntarily sign up to see their child go through something like that – any parent will tell you we would rather suffer ourselves than see our child suffer.  And yet God understood more than anyone, for He voluntarily signed up to watch His Son suffer, and to be made impotent to help by His love for us.  The only reason God didn’t swoop down and rescue Jesus from the cross is because He loves you and me as much as He loves Jesus.  What a thought.  In that same prayer, Jesus also prayed “that the love with which You loved Me may be in them”.  The love that God feels for Jesus is the same love that He feels for us.

And so as we once again set aside our normal lives for a few days to reflect on His first coming, let’s remember that He knows and understands everything we face, every weakness and pain.  He despises no one – in fact the only thing He despises is shame itself:  “He endured the cross, despising its shame”.  That’s powerful.  He reaches out and touches even those who recoil from touch out of fear that others will see their disability and stigmatise them.  Those who experience weakness, vulnerability, pain, limitations or the scorn of those who despise them hold a special place in His heart.  Given the choice of filling any role in the universe, theirs is the role He chose.

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Matthew 26. 1-14

Today I have been on a retreat for the day.  In the morning we were invited to divest ourselves of all the things that trouble us and the buzz that goes on in our heads, and to meet with God in the silence, which was a powerful experience.  In the afternoon we were each designated a passage of Scripture and invited to engage imaginatively with the text.  Again, it was a powerful and very emotive experience.  I found myself afterwards just wanting to go and find somewhere to fall on my face and worship God.

The passage I was given was Matthew 26. 1-14: “When Jesus had finished all these words, He said to His disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion.’  Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him.  But they were saying, ‘Not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people.’ Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste?  For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.”  But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me. For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.’ Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests.” 

I found myself living this story through Jesus’ eyes.  And it made me realise how much our worship ministers to Him.  Here’s what I wrote:

I knew.
Of course I knew.
I had known, not quite all along;
it had been a dawning realisation.
But by the time I took up the mantle of ministry
that my Father had prepared for me,
I knew how it was going to end.
I had learned to trust it to my Father
and not let it play on my mind.
But now here we were, the end almost upon us.
I tried to share with them the burden of my heart.
Two days – only two days more.
By the time we reach Passover
I will have been handed over for crucifixion.
No reaction.
Two days, guys!  Only two more days!
Their eyes glazed over,
blind to my anguish, so that in time to come
they could truthfully say
they didn’t know what was coming.
And so I hugged my secret to myself,
the loneliest man since the dawn of creation,
and I walked those streets all by myself,
surrounded by the twelve of them
and yet utterly alone.
And when we entered Simon’s house
to sit down at his banqueting table,
I scarcely noticed the insult,
the failure to wash my feet as for an honoured guest.
I felt rather than observed it,
another pound or two added to the weight
of desolation that pressed down on my shoulders.
But then, like a ray of light from God’s throne,
She crept shyly in, hugging the shadows,
shuffling round the walls to where I sat.
She broke open her soul in the form of an alabaster jar
and poured liquid worship over me.
And in that moment I remembered,
I was not alone; I had a Father who would never leave me.
I was not alone.
The sovereign Ruler of the Universe had seen
the shattered fragments of my spirit
and, through this lowliest of women,
had bathed me in His love.
The others were mumbling, something about the poor.
I wasn’t listening.
I was like a man rescued from the wreck
Of a fishing vessel in the nick of time,
Just before the waters closed over his head.
I reached out, took her hand in mine,
smiled a smile of relief and gratitude,
and told them, “Wherever the Gospel is preached,
this woman will be remembered
for the beautiful gift she has given me.”
And looking round, I could see they still didn’t get it.
But it didn’t matter any more.

Still

Still.
A place where something is distilled,
where raw material is taken
and turned into a perfect, finished product
which satisfies thirst.

Still.
A state of being where all is motionless,
no turbulence or stirring is felt,
not only the storm, but the after-effects of the storm
have ceased, and all is peace.

Still.
A state of continuing, still progressing,
still moving forward, still trusting,
not having given up
or abandoned the dream.

Be still.
Be still and know.
Be still and know that I am God.

Prodigal

Setting out is the hardest –
the swallowing of pride,
the rehearsal of words,
the recognition of what is lost.

Even the leaving of the pigsty,
the new normal,
leaving it behind and embarking
on what may, after all, prove a fruitless quest.

And then the weary trudge,
step after painful step,
a wolf clawing at my inside,
faintness from lack of food.

And the wolf clawing at my heart,
assuring me it’s too late,
what’s done is done
and can never be undone.

And just as I give in, lose my heart
to the wolf, resolve to turn back,
I look up and see him,
running hell for leather to meet me,

Break-neck with open arms,
not waiting for my weary steps
to totter to him, but racing to scoop me up
and sweep away whatever has been done.

A poem for National Poetry Day

This is my language, the language of poets.
That is to say, this is the language
in which I speak with You.
Only you understand the visceral dialect
that gurgles up from the deepest place.
Only You have words that respond
in like vein and communicate
before they are understood.
This is our language,
in which we converse,
and I am content
to know and be known.

The Once-A-Year Dustbin Household

Sir David Attenborough’s series, Blue Planet, seems to have succeeded in bringing to everyone’s attention the damage we are currently doing to our planet, particularly through plastic pollution.  The BBC recently reported[i] that even the plastic food trays that we carefully wash out and drop into our recycle bins don’t actually get recycled – as much as two-thirds end up in landfill.  And of course, we fill our dustbins with non-recyclable waste.

As Christians, the Bible gives us compelling reasons to care for the environment.  It tells us that Adam was placed in the garden to “cultivate it and keep it”[ii].  After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses tells the people that the land they are about to enter is “a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.”[iii].  The Old Testament law and Wisdom literature include compassion for animals and nature: “If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young”[iv]. And, “A righteous man has regard for the life of his animal”[v]  In Revelation we are told that the final judgement will reward those who have obeyed God and “destroy those who destroy the earth”.

But how easy is it to live by those principles?  When even cucumbers come shrink-wrapped in plastic and so many containers are still not recycled, what difference can individuals make?  It’s true that significant change is going to require action by the big corporations and manufacturers, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to reduce waste.  I went to talk to one woman, Rachel Carson, who has dedicated her life to doing as little harm to the environment as possible and, as a teacher, teaching her pupils to do the same.  I was intrigued to know what she does, especially as I had heard that she produces so little waste that her dustbin is emptied only once a year and her recycle bin only about eight times a year.

Rachel told me that she grew up in a very environmentally aware family, with parents who grew as much of their own food as they could and told their children, “You either eat chemicals or you eat greenfly!”

I asked how she started to reduce her impact on the environment.  “I started well,” she told me, “saving and reusing items as my parents taught me.  Then I lost it a bit when the children came along; it ceased to be a priority, but I did continue to grow my own food, eat organically, reuse scrap items, and so on.

“But five or six years ago I saw some pictures by photographer Chris Jordan from an island in the Pacific where lots of albatross chicks were dying because of plastic waste.  I was totally shocked that our arrogant way of life could affect another species so completely.  The parent birds were flying thousands of miles to feed their chicks, and then unwittingly stuffing plastic down their throats.”

Rachel acknowledges that plastic has some good and even essential uses – in medical devices, for example – and that her lifestyle would not be possible for everyone.  “I’m fit, I’ve got a car, I have enough money to live on, but the things I do would be beyond the means of many people.”

Nonetheless, she was delighted when she heard a child at school ask another child whose class he was going to be in, and when he replied, “Mrs. Carson’s”, the first child responded, “You’ll be using a bamboo toothbrush by Christmas!”

I asked Rachel if she found it hard at first, and what advice she would give to anyone else wanting to reduce their impact on the environment.  She told me, “I decided I couldn’t do everything at once, so I made a decision to change one thing, using shampoo bars instead of bottles of shampoo.  And once that was a habit, I changed the next thing.  I did loads of research using social media, blogs and books.  Some people say choose one room in which to eradicate plastic, and once you’ve succeeded, move on to the next room.  The bathroom is a good place to start, using shampoo bars, bamboo toothbrushes, and tooth powder instead of tubes of toothpaste.  A rubbish audit of your bin is a really good way to work out what’s being thrown out regularly and therefore what action would make the biggest difference to your household.”

Rachel shops at zero waste shops which she visits when she goes to London to see her daughter, though she recognises that this isn’t an option for everyone.  She also buys from farm shops and local butchers instead of getting everything plastic-wrapped from the supermarket. She showed me two jam jars containing all the unrecyclable waste she has generated this month, but added, “I’m aware that I can do it because I’m privileged.”

I asked how she finds time to shop in these different places while working as a full-time teacher.  She replied, “It’s quite difficult, but I feel so strongly that I’ll make time for it and prioritise it.  I plan it like a military operation; I’m incredibly organised and I devote quite some time to it.  Not everyone could do it.  If I had caring responsibilities I couldn’t do it, but I’m at a stage of life when I can.”

And her advice to someone wanting to start living in this low-impact way?  “Try one thing.  Then when it’s a habit, try another.  Walk the children to school, picking up litter as you go.”  It sounds like great advice for fulfilling Adam’s original mandate to “cultivate the garden and keep it.”

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-45058971
[ii] Genesis 2.15
[iii] Deuteronomy 11. 12 NASB
[iv] Deuteronomy 22.6 NASB
[v] Proverbs 12.10 NASB

This was my entry for the Association of Christian Writers 2018 Journalism competition, for which I was awarded 2nd place.  If you want to hear more from Rachel Carson, you can follow her on Instagram: @onestepatatime61.

Testimony

To recount in simple terms
the unembellished truth
of the path I have walked down years;
to recall and describe the ways
You stopped me in my tracks
to redirect my steps,
relieve me of a burden
or heal a wound acquired along the way;
to speak of the times Your touch
restrained or drew me back
before my chosen route
led me to disaster;
to tell of how Your power
enabled me to do the things
far beyond my strength or inclination;
to remember with renewed wonder
Your provision for all my needs;
and then to see hearts open,
wounded souls receive hope,
saddened eyes light up
at the realisation of a Love
that only wants to give, heal, restore and bless,
to hear the shy, whispered confessions,
“Aunty I want to forgive the people
who did wrong things to me”
“Aunty I believe this story give me strength”
“Aunty I want to trust because
God will provide for me”
this makes it all worthwhile,
not just the journey of 4700 miles
to come and tell of Your deeds,
but all of it, the whole
of what You have led me through,
worth every tear, every doubt,
every moment of unexpected joy,
every puzzled misgiving
that dissolved into delighted realisation
that You knew what You were doing all along;
every second of it worthwhile
to see the One who has been
my Saviour, Guide and Friend through it all
adored and loved and worshipped
by young hearts renewed in hope.