Let All Mortal Flesh Be Silent

“You can’t go. We need you here.”

 

“Ali, I have a wife and two children to look after. If we do not leave now, we might not get another chance.”

 

“Kasim, think of all the ones who might die if you are not here.”

 

“That is not fair.”

 

“I don’t care about fair, I care about the truth. You work in the hospital. I know, I know, you are not a doctor. But there are no real doctors here. You nurses are all we have. And if you go, people will die. Besides, this is Aleppo. When was the last time anything in this city was fair?”

 

Kasim and Ali continued to hash it out, but Kasim knew his younger brother would win this round. Too many people in this beleaguered city needed help, and he was one of the few with any medical training still in the city to help them.

 

A short while back, the government forces managed a complete encirclement of the city. Nobody could get in or out. But just this morning, a counterattack reopened a way out of the area to the east. That door would likely not stay open long, so Kasim really wanted to get his family out while there was a chance.

 

Later that night, he went back to what remained of their home. The building was still intact except that some of the windows on the north side had been blown out. There was electricity for now. He had bought his cousin’s generator when he left the city two months back. For as long as the gas lasts, he would have electricity.

 

“He talked you into staying, didn’t he?”

 

Kasim had barely walked through the front door when Rima questioned him.

 

“Yes. Just for one more month.”

 

“One more month? Can we get out a month from now? Will we be alive a month from now?”

 

“God willing, we will be. If God does not will it, then we have no chance no matter when we leave.”

 

“You know they bombed another hospital today? You are safer at home than at work. We are all safer leaving, why can’t you see that?”

 

Actually, it was not one hospital that was bombed today. Two hospitals and a clinic were all hit. But Kasim was not about to strengthen his wife’s case by correcting her. For weeks now, the Syrian and Russian forces had been targeting hospitals. From a heartless, pragmatic viewpoint, it made sense. This is where the greatest number of people were packed together. It was where you could do the most damage, both physical and psychological. One of those hospitals would be back up and running tomorrow. The other would likely be down for weeks. Kasim’s hospital had been hit twice over the past month, but neither time caused any vital damage to the chaotic mess one would call the hospital’s functioning.

 

“Rima, I need you to go. Take the children and get out of the city. Go north into Turkey. I cannot leave, but I will have peace knowing you are safe.”

 

“Peace? What is peace? No, Kasim, we have talked about this. I will not leave unless you are coming with me. What kind of life do you think awaits a young widow in those camps?”

 

“A young, gorgeous widow.”

 

Rima tried to look stern, but she could not hold back the edges of a smile. Her husband pulled her close and kissed her on the forehead. Then he held her as she rested her head against his chest. Rima was his life. But some things are more important than life. Ali was right, Kasim could not leave… not yet.

 

Three days later, Rima was awakened by shelling that was too close. The government was unleashing another barrage, and this one seemed to be coming down right on top of her. She started to get out of bed to gather up her kids, but they were already at the entrance to the bedroom, waiting for her. Together the three of them rushed into the storage closet. It was a small room with no windows as close to the center of their building as they could get. Once upon a time, it would have held food and other supplies, but those days had long since passed.

 

While Rima lit the candle, one of their last, she saw Amira and Farid huddled together. Farid was four. He was rocking back and forth, right on the verge of tears. Amira was ten. She looked just like her mother did at that age. But there was an age, a depth to her eyes that belied her age. This poor girl had seen far too much of the cruelty of life. Rima squatted down and took the two of them in her arms. She tried to silence their fears as the banging of bombs would be followed by the crumpling of whatever destruction they had caused.

 

“You need to help me with Amir, OK, honey?” Rima said, “Whatever happens, don’t let him out of your sight.”

 

Almost as soon as she had said these words, there was an ear-splitting explosion. And then the house fell down around them.

 

About three hours later, two men in white helmets were working through the rubble of what had once been a four-floor apartment building. They had pulled out a half dozen bodies so far, all of them women, none of them alive. Suddenly, one of the two men called out to his friend, “Hey, I’ve got kids here. I think they are alive.”

 

Together the two men worked to clear away the rubble. Although they wanted to work faster, they had learned from painful experience that it was better to keep a steady, cautious pace. You needed to be sure of every piece of rubble that was cleared. One-piece pulled quickly might end up bringing another piece right down on those poor kids.

 

“Oh. Oh no. Oh, God, no.”

 

One of the two workers stepped back and folded his arms behind his head. He looked up into the sky, and tears streamed down his face. His friend looked down to see what had rattled the other guy. There, right next to those two children, was a woman who had been crushed and killed. The dead mother’s arm was still on the young girl’s leg.

 

As the two men pulled away the rest of the rubble, Amira simply watched them. She never made a sound. More than an hour back, she had given the last of their water to her brother. He had long ago screamed himself hoarse and now was sleeping in her arms. Amira dares not talk because she knew that she would start screaming herself. Nothing was more important to her right now than her brother’s sleep. Not even the burning pain on the side of her face.

 

The two white helmets finally managed to get the kids cleared. They saw the burn on Amira’s face and passed them off to another boy, about fourteen, who wheeled them off to the nearest working hospital. It was there that Kasim found them. He held Amira’s hand while another nurse bandaged her up. There was no disinfectant left, so a very gentle sponge dipped in clear water was the best they could do in cleaning her up. Kasim did his best to be strong for his babies, but he was broken inside. The boy who brought them in had told him what had happened to his wife.

 

“I want out, and I am taking my kids now.”

 

Kasim and Ali leaned against the wall of a ruined building a block from the hospital. Ali just shook his head.

“I’m sorry, brother, the way out has been sealed. Government forces have beaten us back.”

 

For a long moment, Kasim just looked out into the night.

 

“I should have never listened to you. I should have taken her away from here when we had the chance. She wouldn’t go without me. Now… now…”

 

Kasim was too choked up to continue. Ali watched as the silent tears slowly fell from his brother’s face. When Kasim pulled himself together and looked back Ali’s way, the younger brother made his offer.

 

“You can stay with Fatma and me. They are going to try another breakthrough in a few weeks. We can get you out then.”

 

So Kasim, Amira, and Farid moved in with them. After a few days, Kasim could not just sit around and went back to the hospital. Most days, Ali would also be gone from dawn to dusk doing who knows what. The breakthrough Ali promised was not attempted until October. It failed. By then, it was too late for Kasim. There was another bombing of his hospital on September 20th. He was one of nine killed. Ali felt he owed it to his brother to get the kids to safety. He pulled some strings and got them out in early November. On the 21st of that month, the WHO declared that there were no working hospitals anywhere in the city. On the 6th of December, Ali and Fatma were killed trying to defend one of the few remaining districts still in rebel hands.

 

Their names have been changed, obviously, but I know Amira and Farid. I was telling the Christmas story to a group of refugee children at a school for them here in Gaziantep back in 2016. Amira was the one who made the connection that Jesus was also a refugee.

 

I don’t know the real story of what happened to her in Aleppo. To the best of my knowledge, she still refuses to talk about it. I do know that she and her brother are now living with cousins. I know that she wears the hajib in part to cover up the nasty scarring by her left ear. She is a beautiful and intelligent young girl but also incredibly quiet. Until the government here shut down that refugee school, I know she was in the third grade, and so was Farid. The two could not be separated. Anytime Farid even left the room, Amira would be in a state of near panic, watching the door until she could see her little brother again. I know one other thing, it is out of love for little children like Amira and Farid that Jesus came.

Joseph’s Lullaby

“Your girlfriend’s pregnant? Dude, why didn’t you tell me?”

 

I saw the text, but I had to rub my eyes and reread it. No. The words didn’t change. I texted Hoshea a reply, “Not funny.”

 

His return text came back almost immediately, “Don’t play coy. Levi was down by their house just this morning and heard her arguing with her dad.”

 

My response: “Well, he must have heard wrong.”

 

I stared at my phone for what seemed an eternity waiting for a reply. The three dots signaling typing in progress appeared and disappeared at least a half dozen times. Finally, a text appeared. “Listen, talk to Levi. Hit me up when you get to the bottom of this.”

 

I had just started to form a reply when another text came in from a different sender. It was from Levi.

 

“Jo! Is it true?!?!”

 

I furiously typed, “You need to shut your mouth!” Well, I typed something like that. I might have thrown in a word or two. Not my finest moment. Then I shut off the phone before he had any chance at a rejoinder. I stuck a “closed” sign on the front door of my shop and spent the next hour or so pacing back and forth. I was furious.

 

Finally, I could take it no longer and turned my phone back on. I had six missed calls and thirteen texts. Three of the calls and four of the texts were from her. All her texts said basically the same thing. “We need to talk.”

 

I picked up my phone. She answered before the first ring had finished.

 

“Hello?”

 

“So, I guess you hear the rumor too?”

 

There was a pause… a hesitation.

 

“Yes.”

 

“How did it start? What were you and your dad arguing about?”

 

Another silence went on for too long.

 

“Jo, not now. Not on the phone like this. Meet me at our spot in an hour?”

 

“I’ll be there.”

 

“Jo, I love you.”

 

“Love you too…”

 

Click.

 

There was silence on the phone. For a while, I continued to hold it to my ear. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move.

 

Finally, I did. Once I started moving, I couldn’t stop. I closed up shop and went upstairs. I was showered and changed as fast as I ever had in my life. No more than fifteen minutes after I had hung up the phone, I was out the door and on my way to the park.

 

Our spot is a certain picnic bench about halfway down the trail. It was where we first met this summer. I had sat down to rest after a jog, and she stopped to tie her shoe. I had seen her before. I knew who she was. Everybody knows everyone in a small town like ours. But she was younger enough that this encounter on the bench was the first time I really, truly saw her. I was smitten. I knew I couldn’t let the moment pass. I had to say something.

 

“Hot day today, huh?”

 

Yup. That was my brilliant pickup line. Sometimes I am not the best with words.

 

I had startled her. She was so focused on what she was doing that I don’t think she realized she was sharing the bench with someone else. That’s my Mary. She is always so intense and focused.

 

That horrible pickup line did end up turning into a thirty-minute conversation. The next day I was out again running laps. She was sitting on the same bench, reading a book. She was pretending not to notice me. Typically, I only run about 2 or three times a week. I went running, and we met at that bench afterward every single day for more than two weeks straight. By that point, my legs were about to fall off. I finally worked up the courage to ask her out on a real date.

 

No matter where we went, no matter what we did, every date started at that bench. A little over a month ago, I proposed. It happened right here at this bench. And now… Is it all going to end here as well?

 

I had arrived at the bench with a little over 30 minutes to spare. I sat. I couldn’t sit. I started pacing. Different scenarios of the coming conversation kept playing through my mind. Various theories of what she had to tell me kept popping up to be shot down.

 

As I paced, I rubbed my hands and blew on them to keep them warm. It was cold outside. It was freezing. I wasn’t dressed for this weather. But at this point, I didn’t have time to go back for a coat. The lights in the park started popping on. It was snowing. The big, thick flakes glittered in geometric rainbows as they dance their way past the park lights. At the far end of the park, a couple of kids were playing. I heard a boy sing out, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” A bald guy with hands in his pockets walked past. He had a grin on his face like he knew something the rest of the world did not.

 

I turned to start walking in the other direction. There she was. Mary was just standing there watching me. I hesitated a moment, just staring back. She is so beautiful. At the same moment, we both walked towards each other and into a hug. I took her hands as we pulled apart. For a second, we just looked at each other.

 

I tried to start, “If… I… well… um…”

 

Mary rescued my struggle, “Can we sit first?

 

I let go of one hand, and we walked together to our bench. When we sat, this time, she broke the silence.

 

“I’m so sorry. This is not the way I wanted you to find out…”

 

Oh no.

 

“Jo, first of all, you should know that I am still a virgin…”

 

I let out a breath I didn’t even realize I had been holding.

 

“…but I am pregnant.”

 

“Wait, what? I’m confused.”

I didn’t even realize that I had said that aloud. Mary smiled a nervous smile. Then she started to tell me her story. It was unbelievable. I mean, really, I couldn’t believe it. I was so stunned with what she was telling me that I didn’t even catch half of it the first time around. When she finished, I had her tell me again. This time I seriously tried to listen. It was clear that she really believed what she was telling me. All I could think was that she had snapped. She had gone insane. My poor girl. Something so awful had happened to her that she had lost touch with reality.

 

When she finished the second time, we sat together in silence. I was too stunned to even begin to formulate a response. Finally, I mumbled something about needing some time to think. She started to say something, but she stopped. She patted my shoulder, stood up, and started walking away… alone. It wasn’t until she was a few steps away that I looked up from my folded hands. I just watched her go. Part of me wanted to get up and run after her. But I couldn’t pull myself off the bench. The large snowflakes sparsely falling blurred Mary’s image as she slowly walked further away. She never once looked back.

 

I don’t know how long I stayed sitting on that bench. At some point, the snow stopped falling. It left no trace of its existence on the walkway and only a very light sprinkling of white on the grass. It was the pain of the cold on my face and hands that finally got me going again.

 

I love Mary. But could I spend the rest of my life with someone who had gone insane? Was she insane? I had read something recently about some girl who kept believing she was a high school teenager all the way into her thirties. She embraced the belief with such a genuine sincerity that for a long time she had everyone else fooled as well. It turns out she had been abused by her uncle. What if something like that was happening here? Could I live with someone deluded like that for the rest of my life? And if she is pregnant… could I raise a child that is not my own? Yes. But what if everyone, at first glance, could immediately see that the child is not my blood?

 

As I continued to walk through the park, I slowly came to a decision. The relationship would have to end. At least, it had to stop until she got better. In the meantime, I would do everything in my power to assist the family in getting her the help that she needs. This was my decision.

 

Then the light appeared…

 

Mary Did You Know

It’s gonna be another sleepless night.

 

It’s going to be another sleepless night.

This will be, what, my third in a row? Fourth? It has been just over a week since I met with the angel. I don’t think I have had a full night of sleep since.

At first, I was overjoyed. Who wouldn’t be? For hundreds of years, we have been waiting for the coming of the Messiah. For just as long, every young girl has dreamed that she would be the one to mother him. And it’s me. It’s me! My heart races at that thought. Whose wouldn’t?

But I don’t think any of those dreaming girls ever thought through the logical conclusions of their dream. At least, I don’t think any of them would have imagined they would have the same second thoughts I am struggling with now. I am not talking about abortion, I would never be that stupid. But I have been starting to realize that these next few months are not going to be easy. First of all, how on earth am I supposed to tell my parents? Hey mom, hey dad, I’m pregnant. Don’t worry, I’m still a virgin, though. Oh, and this angel told me that my baby is the Messiah. Can you imagine my dad even beginning to try and swallow that one? His daughter, who won’t even be old enough to get a drivers permit for another year and a half, is trying to tell him she is carrying the most important child in Israel’s history? Will he believe me? Would I believe me in his place? Not a chance.

And what about my friends at school? Do I dare even tell them? Do I dare not? How long can I keep going to my classes before I start to show? Do I drop out then, or should I start planning to do so immediately? There’s not a chance on God’s green earth that I will stay through the school year. I remember when Sarah married David. She was a couple years older and two grades above me. Even still, she was the talk of our class for weeks when Sarah was having her baby only five months after walking the aisle. She went from popular to outcast overnight. So what will they be saying about me? I will end up having my baby two months before my wedding.

If there even is a wedding. Father worked hard to arrange my engagement with Jo. He’s a good match. Yes, he’s almost twice my age, but he is wiser and more mature than any of the guys still in school. It also means he is set up in life. He has his own home and shop. He built it himself for goodness sake. He might not ever be rich, but he is kind. Mom says that is far more important.

For me, right now, that thought of his kindness is a lifeline. It is more than just our marriage that is at risk. It is my very life. Now that I am engaged to him, Joseph has every right to have me killed for adultery. No priest, no group of elders, would ever believe my defense. Kings are born in castles, not in the small home of a backwater village in Galilee. If I will even have a home soon.

Part of me knows that death isn’t a real possibility. After all, why on earth would the angel have come to tell me that the baby is the Messiah if I am going to be killed before he is even born? But knowing this with me head does not quiet down my heart enough to let me sleep.

So I live. So Jo doesn’t have me killed. That doesn’t mean he isn’t going to break off the engagement instead. It doesn’t mean the gossip will not spread like wildfire the moment word leaks. It doesn’t mean my parents aren’t going to kick me out of the house the moment I try sharing my news with them. Who is going to want a single, unwed, homeless mother?

It’s going to be another sleepless night.

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

Mary, did you know. Who would have guessed that a song written by a comedian a couple decades ago would today be such an integral part of the soundtrack of Christmas? I think it is safe to say that this Christmas season, it will be one of the most viewed Christmas songs on youtube. I would also bet that there will be more covers of this than any other song created within the last fifty years as one artist after another puts out their holiday album. It is such a great, heart-gripping, singable song. Who can resist? If I had a voice worth listening to and if I were putting out a Christmas album, it would undoubtedly be on my list.

So who is this Mary that Mark Lowry and, thanks to him, millions of other people are singing to? Who is this woman that we are asking questions of? I have had some Muslim friends get confused when they find out that I do not believe Mary is part of the Trinity. Apparently, they were taught that Christians believe the Trinity is God the Father, Son, and Mother. The funny thing is, the Quran actually mentions Mary more times than the New Testament does. According to Islam, she was born sinless. She was born miraculously to a couple in old age and dedicated from birth to the Temple. There in the Temple, Mary was given a specific room in which to pray. In that room, she was miraculously fed and placed under the guardianship of her uncle Zechariah. At the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, she was declared the greatest woman in the history of the world and made sinless (from what I’ve read, most Muslim scholars view this as a statement on her perpetual virginity). She gave birth while eating dates under a palm tree, and when she returned with the baby to the Temple, the newborn Jesus defended her against her skeptics. At this last point, I cannot but think of the cigar-smoking “baby” from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He stands up in his crib, wags a finger at the Pharisees, and says, “You pwiests outta be ashamed of yourselves.”

Anyways, except for the last bit, that is how Muslims view Mary. What about Catholics? Although they do not worship Mary as divine, it sometimes seems they come close. With some of the statements some Catholics will make, it is no wonder why our Muslim brothers would claim they do. The thing is, most of the Catholic doctrine of Mary does not come from the Bible but from a text called the Protoevangelion of James. The first record of the Protoevangelion we have was by Origin. He called the document a recent writing and clearly false. Innocent the First, is today considered one of the early popes. He was writing not long after Origin when he also condemned it as false. It was not once included as part of the canon by any of the early church counsels. At least one counsel explicitly rejected it. Even Thomas Aquinas, the most celebrated religious scholar in RCC history, rejected it. Even still, it is only in this writing that you will find things like Mary’s perpetual virginity, the announcement of her birth, and her dedication to God from that time onward.

A common prayer to Mary begins, “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed are thee among women…” This actually brings to mind a time when Jesus was teaching. A woman in the crowd raised her voice and shouted out, “Blessed is your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus did not deny that his mother was blessed. However, he wanted to make sure people kept things in perspective, so he replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” According to Jesus, you and I can be even more blessed than Mary, just so long as we obey Him.

This last statement might sound like heresy to some of you reading me. It actually does line up with what Mary herself has said. In all of scripture, there is only one command that Mary gives. Do you know what it is? She said, “Do whatever He [Jesus] tells you to do.” Her only command in all of scripture is that we obey the commands of Jesus. Jesus commands are more along the lines of: come to me, follow me, do what I tell you, listen to my words, and put them into practice. It is made very clear that Jesus loved and respected his mother. At twelve, he chose to return home with her and dad rather than stay in the Temple. At twelve, Jesus had the right to do this and begin learning from the greatest rabbinical scholars of His time. But he chose his parents instead. Jesus also made it a point to see that she would be cared for even as he was dying on the cross. He loved his mother, but he never pointed to her as one worthy of adoration, or even emulation.

So who is Mary? She was a girl, probably in her early teens or maybe even younger when she was first visited by Gabriel. She was still unmarried, which meant she was not far past her first bleeding. Mary had relations who served in the Temple, but she was just a small-town girl who became a young mother of at least three kids. Two of the books in the Bible are written by Jesus’ brothers. In short, Mary was just a normal girl who loved God and wasn’t all that different than you and I. Yes, she was used by God for one of the greatest miracles in the history of humanity. That was because of God’s grace, not her own goodness. She was simply a child who said, “Let it be to me, just as you have said.” Did she have any idea what she had just agreed to with those ten simple words?

Go Tell It On The Mountain

“How goes the work?”

“It struggles. More than half the surviving families have fled this autumn before the Mana pass was closed for the winter. The king is dead, he was betrayed by his own brother. Now the lamas rule as puppets of the Ladakhis.”

“They certainly have no love for us.”

“Their jealousy has only increased since you have left. You could not believe the suspicion and hatred the Christians face from their Buddhist neighbors.”

“Perhaps I can. With each new family who embraces Christ, the Hindus here hate us all the more. Manuel, my friend, I doubt either one of us will live to become old men.”

“Father, please don’t talk like that.”

“It’s true and you know it. Our calling is to go and to tell. That calling does not pair well with a comfortable life.”

“But Father Andrade, surely you are secure here. Goa is a well-established mission and the church here has been growing just as the work was in Guge.”

Father Antonio de Andrade and Brother Manuel Marques continued their discussion long into the night. Father Andrade considered it a blessing that his friend was able to return and celebrate the Christmas season with him. He also mourned the circumstances that allowed this reunion to take place.

Six years before, the two had been the first Europeans to cross into Tibet. There they met and befriended the king of Guge, a small kingdom on the western end of the plateau. That king gave them permission to set about sharing the love of God with his subjects. The work was incredibly successful but about a year back Father Andrade was called back by the Jesuit order to help set the faltering mission in Goa back to rights.

Brother Marques continued on in Tibet, but it was not long after Father Andrade’s leaving that trouble came to the young Tibetian Church. Their success fostered jealousy among the Lamas, including the king’s brother. They invited the neighboring Buddhist Ladakhi kingdom to invade. The king was killed. His brother who betrayed him was considered too powerful to remain and was also killed. Some other Lamas were installed as puppet rulers and they instituted a policy of oppression and most of those who were not killed outright fled late this summer south into India. Brother Marques had appointed an elder to lead those who chose to stay and returned to continue as the spiritual leader of the majority that had fled.

Father Andrade was grateful to see his friend but his heart did not feel right with the decision Brother Marques had made to flee.

“Stay with me for now, but when the pass reopens you must go back. Christ did not come to this earth to call us to a life of retreat. We must always press forward. From the moment he was born in that manger, our Savior’s life was set on a course that led to His cross. In the same way, He has called us to deny ourselves, take up that cross, and follow Him. To know Christ is to share in the fellowship of his sufferings and to become like Him through martyrdom.
“The people of Guge have a right, a need to hear the gospel and we have been trained, equipped, and called to meet that need. I wish I could return with you but I have those in authority over me commanding me to stay just as I am commanding you to return.”

“Your heart and mine are one in this,” Brother Marques replied. “I will go as I am able, but I do not know how that will be possible. The Ladakhi’s control the pass and it will be next to impossible to slip past them.”

“If God wills it, He will provide the way,” the Father said. “The love of Christ compels us.”

“The love of Christ compels us.”

 

–  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –  –

 

The historical record of Father Antonio de Andrade and Brother Manuel Marques is sketchy and somewhat contradictory. What we know for certain is that they were the first two Europeans to cross into Tibet in 1624. There they befriended the king and established an incredibly successful church. In 1629 Father Andrade returned to Goa and became Father-Superior of the mission there. In 1630 the Tibetian Lamas rebelled against the Christian-friendly king of Goge and invited the Ladakhi kingdom to attack. The growing church suffered grave persecution and by some accounts was completely wiped out at this time. In March of 1634 Father Andrade was poisoned and died two weeks later. In 1640 Brother Marques attempted to re-enter the kingdom of Goge in western Tibet. He was caught and captured by a Ladakhi patrol and was never heard from again.

Similar stories can be told down through time in one location after another. Many missionaries, when departing their homes to bring the gospel to foreign lands would pack their belongings into coffins. This was a very real reminder of what awaited all too many of them as they departed for Asia, Africa, or the New World.

The experience is much different now than it was centuries past. Even still, it is impossible to measure the amount of sacrifice those who are sent out by God experience to follow him to “Go tell it over the hills and everywhere”. That sacrifice is very often most strongly felt during the loneliness of the holiday season. I remember listening to a cassette tape made of a Thanksgiving phone call. My aunt had gone to serve God in Japan and she was calling back to New York during the Thanksgiving family reunion. My dad was just a young boy at the time and you could hear him, as well as many other cousins and aunts and uncles as the phone is passed around person to person. The emotions shared as they convey their love and prayers is too poignant for words.

More than five decades later, it is my turn to be on the far end of those calls. These days there is almost no noticeable delay in the conversation. What is more, we can actually see each other face to face even if it is only through the tiny screens of handheld smartphones. God bless the technology that is able to so beautifully connect us. But it is not the same. In some ways, it only makes the absence, the lack of physical connection, all the more real.

Do you know someone who is separated this season by oceans and obedience to God’s call? Have you any friends and loved ones who have followed God’s call to go? If it is possible this holiday season, give them a call and let them know they are in your heart, even if they are not going to be under your roof anytime soon. Even if it is not, please do support them… support us through prayer and giving. We need both, most especially the former. And who knows, God willing perhaps you might the next one He calls to go tell it on the mountain, over the hills, or across the oceans.

Away In A Manger

“I hate being out on the roads like this.”

Joe’s fiance, Mary, grunted a halfhearted reply. He struggled to keep his focus and attention on the slick road as the heavy snowfall made visibility steadily worse and the roads more and more dangerous. She, in turn, seemed to ignore the roads as she drifted ever closer to sleep in the passenger seat next to him. Joe would much rather the two of them be snuggled warm and cozy by the fireplace back home. But he has to go where the work takes him. He has to go when it sends him there. Joe owns his own business as a handyman. He can fix problems of a variety of types and he charges a lot less than some big-city specialist. Unfortunately, work seems to be busiest during the early months of winter.

Even more, his young fiance insists on coming out with him as often as possible. He doesn’t blame her. She just doesn’t want to be alone. Both Joe and Mary are small-town people who were raised in very traditional families. Mary is more than eight months pregnant and their wedding is still three months away. Those two facts do not sit well with small-town conservative values.

Mary’s family does not much like Joe. Joe’s family does not much like Mary. It would be even worse if they found out that the baby isn’t his. At least, it isn’t his biologically. Joe has made a commitment before God and Mary to raise the boy as his own. That means this is one secret that will never pass his lips.

Many of Mary’s so-called friends have completely abandoned her. Many of the ones who hadn’t still seem to have an unspoken rebuke right on the tip of their tongues. Mary’s aunt Liz and her uncle Zach have opened up their home to help the young couple escape the eyes and the gossip they were facing at home. These relatives are the only ones to accept the situation with no reservations, but now Liz has a newborn baby of her own to care for. So Joe and Mary have been doing their best to give the older couple some space.

That’s why Joe has a very pregnant Mary sitting in his passenger seat as he drives through the winter snow. He is heading on this dark night to some random bakery that needs it’s furnace fixed before their business starts tomorrow morning. Or is it this morning? What time is it anyway?

Suddenly, a hand reaches out and grabs his arm. Mary, who moments before was practically asleep, is now sitting up with eyes as big as saucers.

“Joe… Joe… it’s time!”

“Now?”

“Yes, right now!”

Joe pulls over to the side of the road as quickly as he safely can. Perhaps he is a bit quicker than is safe for these slick wintery roads.

“Okay… think… we got this. We can do this.”

Joe fumbles open his phone and he pulls out google maps.

“Alright, the nearest hospital is about an hour and a half back in the other direction. That’s in good weather.”

Joe looks at a panicked Mary who has one hand on the dash and the other with a stranglehold on the seatbelt.

“No time. Breathe, honey, breathe. OK… umm… hotels… hotels… What? This town only has one hotel? How can someplace calling itself the bread capital of Judea only have one hotel?”

“Who cares? Just go,” Mary breaks into his panicked rambling. “Just go!”

Joe pulls back into traffic while setting up the directions on his phone.

Less than ten minutes later they were pulling into an inn called “The Barracks”. Mary’s second contraction hadn’t started yet when they parked. She shooed her anxious husband away to go book a room.

As Joe rushed across the parking space he noticed that there seemed to be an awful lot of cars here. He opened the front door and was immediately hit by the noise. This place was loud. Apparently, the inn was a converted old army barracks and there were no walls. There were just curtains separating one bed from the next. Apparently, the local high school was hosting some competition and the place was full of visiting school kids.

When Joe rushed up to the front desk, an older lady, probably mid-fifties, gave him a sympathetic look.

“I know you’d probably hate to drive any further in this weather, but you might be better off heading to the Econo Lodge. It’s about a thirty-minute drive straight ahead on these roads tonight.”

Joe shook his head. “No choice. No time. My wife is in labor.”

The lady’s head picked up at this. She turned grabbed for her coat. At the same time, she called back, “Tim, clean up the shed. We’re giving it up for the night.”

The front desk lady, Lorna, had her coat on and was out the door before Tim’s questioning reply from somewhere in the back could be heard. Together, she and Joe trudged back out into the snow to help bring Mary inside. Connected to the old army barracks was a maintenance shed. It doubled as a break room and rest area for employees. It wasn’t uncommon during winter for Tim and Lorna to sleep there instead of risking the fifteen-minute drive back home that ended with a steep climb on an all too often unplowed road.

Tonight they stayed by Joe and Mary’s side for the eleven hours of labor that ended shortly before sunrise. Along with them, one of the visiting school chaperones with Red Cross First Responder training assisted. When baby J was finally born, the other three went to grab some much-needed sleep from bunks inside the barracks. This left Joe, Mary, and her baby with a brief spell of weary peace. Joe looked around at his “lodgings” and smiled at Mary.

“Well, now he will be able to truly say that he was born in a barn.”

 

–     –     –     –     –     –     –     –    –     –

 

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Christmas songs, Away in a Manger is almost certainly one of the first ones to come to mind. Although it isn’t one of my favorites, certainly no collections of Christmas songs would be complete without it. It is also one of the Christmas songs I most love to complain about. I know Martin Luther supposedly wrote the lyrics to it as a means of teaching his children the Christmas story. For some reason despite the evidence to back this claim, I remain skeptical.

When I imagine Away in a Manger being written, I picture a guy who knows absolutely nothing about the Christmas story. The future author is placed in front of some idyllic nativity set and told this scene is all he really needs to know about Christmas. So he gathers a little information about who each person or thing is in that nativity set. Then our author starts putting words to paper without ever bothering to consult Matthew or Luke. I know this is not how or why the song was written but this is how I like to pretend it happened.

I guess in a way my feelings about this song are about the same as the song’s feelings about the Christmas story. I know this is not how it really happened, but this is how we like to sing that it happened. I’m not being fair. There really isn’t much to the song and it is definitely a kid’s poem. As far as kid’s poems go, it is worlds better than Rock-a-bye-baby. As soon as a child grows old enough to understand what is being said, that one is sure to give them nightmares. Ring around the Rosie? Great. Let’s sing a song about the bubonic plague. Come on kids, it’ll be fun!

Away in a manger… Was Jesus really born in a cave after being barred from the local hotels? How have you been told the story? I have seen plenty of Christmas pageants in the forty(ish) Christmases I have been able to celebrate. For a while there it seemed like I was being dragged to at least two or three pageants a year. As a kid had even taken part in more than my fair share. Normally I played the part of Joseph or one of the wise guys. One role I don’t think I have ever played, but which is always a part of the play is that of the villainous innkeeper. The greedy heartless businessman cares not one whit for Mary’s huge belly and obvious contractions. “No room! There’s a barn in the back. I’d rather you do your screaming in there than out here in my yard where the paying customers might take notice. Hurry up. Get out of here!”

Did you know there is no innkeeper in the true Christmas story? The guy we like to shake our heads at as our children play their parts doesn’t even exist. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself. What is worse, having them give birth in the manger was not an act of cruelty but rather an act of kindness. We have our modern conception of what that inn was and the wrong definition for the word room. Luke isn’t talking about a room like a living room, a bedroom, or a hotel room. “Here’s your key sir, you are on the third floor to the left, room 312.” No. The story I shared above gives us a better picture of the inn and manger than the myth we are being fed every winter.

While in many other ways I have taken artistic license, it does give a much truer picture to what really would have been happening that night in Bethlehem. To illustrate the manger and the inn I’d also like to point to two other Bible stories: Jephthah’s daughter and the Last Supper. Before entering battle, Jephthah promised God that he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. Obviously, he wasn’t expecting that to be a person. Definitely not his daughter. No. Many homes in this region would have had what we would consider an attached garage for their animals. Jephthah was expecting an animal to exit from his house. Joseph was given the same such garage for his wife and child to come that Jephthah had. Given the time of night and year that “garage” almost certainly would have been empty.

Many larger houses during Jesus’ time also would have had a guest room upstairs. This would have been a single large upper room that would have been about the same size as the entire house below. The room would have served as guest lodgings for people coming to the Jewish celebrations in Jerusalem. Just think of the room Jesus and his disciples stayed in for the Last Supper. This was an upper room that was able to accommodate at least thirteen (probably more) people for a Jewish ritual meal. If you are reading this in a typical American home, then you can picture a room probably about twice the size of your living room.

There were probably many such rooms in various homes in Bethlehem that night but they also would all have likely held quite a few stinky, smelly, noisy, travelers. When Luke says there was no room in the inn. He wasn’t saying every room was booked. He was saying there was no appropriate, adequate, or suitable place for a woman in labor to give birth. The owner of the home was giving Jesus the best he had to offer. He doesn’t even get a mention in the recorded story and has been misunderstood by nearly all from that time to this. Even still he did the best thing he could have in that situation. That first Christmas, he made room for Jesus. This Christmas, have you?

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Oh little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.
Until the soldiers come with swords to make your mothers cry.
Blood in thy dark streets floweth on this horrible night.
The hopes and dreams of all it seems were crushed in thee tonight.

It is horrible, isn’t it? This is how I “rewrote” this Christmas song when I was in junior high. Everybody else was singing out an idyllic song of this peaceful town where sleeps the Savior as angels keep watch and stars shine out. Me? I was a young teenage boy doing what sheltered young teenage boys tend to do. I was reveling in a massacre of blood and death and gore I knew nothing about. That dreadful moment in history for which I dedicated a verse has come to be known in Christian lore as “The Slaughter of the Innocents”.

The gnostic writing The Martyrdom of Matthew says that Herod resides in hell because he murdered three thousand innocent children in Bethlehem. While I am quite sure Herod is near the front of the queue for people deserving of damnation. I am also just as certain that the Bethlehem massacre is only a minor footnote compared to his many other crimes. More on that later. Not to be outdone by Martyred Matthew’s gnostic tall tale, the Byzantine liturgical tradition places the number of babies killed at fourteen thousand. It quickly slides downhill from there. The Syrian tradition places the number at 64,000. I am told that some medieval writers claimed that 144,000 babies were killed in Bethlehem. I am not told, however, what writers claimed this so I remain skeptical of its veracity.

Today there is a swing in the opposite direction. It is a popular past time of amateur skeptics to point out that there is no historical record of Herod actually killing anyone in Bethlehem. Ummmm, actually no. That’s not true. There is a historical record of it. It is called the gospel of Matthew. This gospel was certainly written before Josephus wrote his Antiquities and possibly (I would say probably) written before his history of the Jewish War. I know the very next counter any one of these skeptics will give me was that Matthew had an agenda in his writing. So what? The same can be said for virtually every writer of history up to and far beyond Matthew’s time. I would argue that the same can be said of every single work of history written in our time. Nobody writes without an agenda. Matthew is certainly far more reliable than Herodotus, Thucydides, or Theophanes. Ignoring this hypocrisy, the skeptics will say Matthew just made up this story to tick off a “prophesy fulfilled” box and prove Jesus was who Matthew claimed him to be.

There is no current other historical or archaeological proof of this massacre. I will acknowledge that. If this slaughter really happened, why is there no record of it? The answer to that question is found in the title of today’s Christmas song: O Little Town of Bethlehem. At the time of this atrocity, the town of Bethlehem was barely a blip on the map. Most historians would put this city’s size at around 300-500 people. Nobody who knows anything would go so far as to say there were more than a thousand in the city. Now, considering the fact children under 2 normally account for about 2-3 percent of the population, that would mean this slaughter in Bethlehem amounted to between 6 and 15 babies being killed. Two real scholars (Professor William Albright, dean of American Archaeology in the Holy Land and Dr. Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at WMU) both argue for the lower end of this spectrum but for argument’s sake, lets put the number at ten. In our modern era, we would rightfully call this a horrific crime.  But Herod would consider ten kills a random way to liven up a boring Tuesday.

King Herod was a paranoid schizophrenic. That isn’t my opinion. It is the diagnosis of multiple scholars after viewing the evidence of this man’s life. There was a recurring pattern in Herod’s life that Matthew’s account fits into perfectly. Herod would hear of a potential threat to his life or his throne. He would kill the threat. He would feel guilty. Then he would build something. Later on, he would hear of some other threat and the cycle would repeat. Among the thousands of others he killed, even one of his wives and three of his sons would fall victim to this paranoia.

Herod came to power with the backing of Rome and its armies. The first thing he did upon securing the throne in 37 BC was to execute his rival Mattathias Antigonus. At the same time, he also executed 45 other influential men who had backed this rival. In 35 BC he had eighteen-year-old Aristobulus drowned even though the boy was both High Priest and Herod’s brother in Law. In 30 BC he had John Hyrcanus strangled. In 29 BC he executed his wife Miriamme even though she was the person he loved most in the world (besides himself). In 28 BC his mother in law Alexandra was executed. Shortly after this Herod set up an ever-growing spy network and executions of potential threats and rebels became an everyday occurrence.

Jump ahead a few years. In the waning days of Herod’s life, he upped the ante and became even more brutal than before. In 7 BC he had two of his sons (sons of his executed wife) Alexander and Aristobulus (named after the executed uncle) killed. That same year Herod executed 300 military leaders suspected of plotting against him. He also executed a great number of Pharisees because they had started a rumor about a was prophesy saying that the kingdom was about to be taken from him. Then in 6 BC, Jesus is born. Sometime in 6-5 BC, the wise men with their entourage show up claiming the king of the Jews was born. When questioned, the religious leaders claim that the prophecy states the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Now, what do you think Herod would do?

To round out the story of his known history, Herod has a third son killed just days before he dies himself. When his own end was near Herod knew that he would not be mourned. To fix that he gives orders that everyone is to join him in Jericho under penalty of death. Then a command is given that at the moment of his death all the influential and respected men in the gathering were to be killed. Fortunately, this order was countermanded as soon as he passed away and instead the entire nation rejoiced.

King Herod would have fit in well with many of the Middle Eastern despots of our day. His actions would fit right in with the atrocities of Bashar Assad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Omar al-Bashir, or Kim Jong Il. People feared him in his time just as much as they fear ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, or Al-Shabaab. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus was born under his rule and lived his early childhood as a refugee and a fugitive? The book of Hebrews says that God can sympathize with us because He has been tested in every way just as we are. God knows and cares about the plight of the homeless and refugees so deeply that He came and was born one Himself. If He cares so passionately for them, should we not also care? He set aside the safety and security and comfort of heaven to live among us… among them. What are we willing to sacrifice this Christmas to reach out and show love to the least of these?

Carol of the Bells

Father Ekkehard was a kindly man. He had been the abbot for our small monastery probably longer than I had been alive. This morning he saw that I was out of sorts and he pulled me aside for a discussion. In a small, closed knit community like ours, it was not good to allow frustrations or animosity to fester. Father Ejjehard had become a master at nipping such issues in the bud.

“It isn’t you, Father, or any of our brothers that is bothering me. It is the bell.”

He motioned for me to go on. I was the youngest novice at the monastery. Only a few weeks before I had left my father’s home in the adjacent village to take up orders. I was still learning to adjust to my new life.

“Living in the village, the ringing of the bell was background music. Yes, we would hear it and scheduled our day around it, but here those infernal bells are just so much louder.”

“Infernal?”

“I’m sorry, Father. I meant no disrespect.”

“Then you should choose your words with more wisdom and care. Please, continue.”

“There really isn’t anything more. Those bells here just seem so much more obtrusive than when I was living in the village.”

“These bells are how we order our lives. Is it this life here at the monastery that is the heart of the problem?”

“No, Father Ekkehard. It isn’t this life. Really, when I think about it, most of the time the bells themselves do not vex me so. It is only their ringing for Matins and Lauds.”

Father Ekkehard leaned back in his seat and gave me a knowing smile. “This is a natural thing. You enjoy your sleep. So do I. So do we all. Sleep is a good, necessary, and important part of our life. But the very purpose of the bells at those times is to wake us from our slumber. They call us out of our natural life and they point us toward the supernatural.”

I left Father Ekkehard’s office shortly thereafter. He gave me a parting challenge. When I hear those early morning bells, I should declare that my desire for God is greater than my desire for sleep or any other thing of this world. It is true. My desire for God is first and greatest. But sometimes it is hard to remember that when I am waking long before the sun.

 

Later that day, about an hour after Sext, I heard the bells again. They were ringing at the wrong time. This time it was not the normal sound the bells usually make. It was a loud, persistent clanging that did not end. We all knew what that meant. Vikings.

At the time I was down by the estuary. A few other monks were with me and we were checking over the fish traps. We immediately returned them in the water and hurried back inland. Partway between the monastery and village, there is a strong palisade. It had been built as a protection against the Norse raiders for both the village and the monastery. My fellow monks and I were some of the last people to crowd into this defense.

Being the young and impetuous man that I am, I nudged and jostled my way from the gate to a good viewing spot at the wall. Standing beside me now was Father Ekkehard. We saw three Norse ships coming toward us from the horizon. Two slowed and turned slightly while the third came closer to investigate. This third ship came to a stop just outside the range of our bows. Their rowers expertly held the craft in place despite the strong current. Eventually, it backed away and the three boats regrouped heading upriver in search of easier prey.

A couple of the young men from the village would be out there tracking the progress of the boat until they were safely beyond us. I had been one of those tasked with that task until joining the monastery. The rest of us would spend the evening, or two, huddled together safe behind these walls until word reached us from those boys.

As we settled down to wait, Father Ekkehard nodded toward my muddy feet and sandals. “I’m guessing you don’t think those bells are so infernal now, do you?”

“No Father.”

“The bells call us from the natural to the supernatural but there is another purpose they have served today. They warn us to be alert to the enemy.”

“Yes, Father. If not for those bells, I would not have known that a raiding party was a-viking. Down by the traps we would have never seen them in time. We would all now be slaves.”

“Praise God that has not happened today.”

“Yes, Father.”
“Next time those bells ring for Matins, keep that in mind. Just as the bells rang to warn us of physical enemies, so do the bells ring for prayer that we might be alert to our greater enemy. He also prowls around like a Norse ship seeking whom he might devour.”

I was pretty that Father Ekkehard was taking liberties with the scripture, but I dared not call him out on it. Besides, I have never seen a lion except in pictures. It is difficult to know how much of what I see in those pictures is nothing more than the artist’s imagination. I would venture to guess most of those artists were other monks just as sheltered and naive as I was. A ship going viking, however, that was a familiar sight that strikes fear in all who live near the sea.

We were pulled out of our discussion when we noticed a growing commotion over at the north end of the palisade. It seemed that Agnete was going into labor. Her husband was in a panic as the other women kept trying to shoo him away to give space for the midwife.

“Come,” Father Ekkehard said. “We have a nervous young father to settle down. He is not much older than you and I would appreciate your help.”

Father Ekkehard and I drew Godwin away. A few other men from the town, some of his closest friends, also joined us. It seemed that Agnete was a few weeks early. The excitement of the raider ships and the fast trek up the hill from the town seemed to speed this birth along. As is his way, Father Ekkehard’s presence helped settle him. It was good because the rest of us would have done the opposite if left to our devices.

Now and then one of the women would come over and give us an update. Pretty much that was, “All is well and the midwife says this is a normal delivery.” Normal it might have been, but swift it was not. We sat and talked and sat and talked for hours that seemed an eternity. The sun set below the western wall of our wooden palisade. The stars came out and crickets could be heard over the soft conversations of various clusters of men and women. Every few minutes those crickets and conversations both ended as Agnete’s cries rang out once again. I always thought of her as a soft-spoken woman, but that night my illusions were shattered. You could see from the way he sat on his hands and looked toward the women that it was all Godwin could do to keep from joining them. Not that he would have made it that far. One of his best friends was the smith and Edwin had strategically placed himself between Godwin and the women.

Sometime after dusk smoke was spotted to our northwest. The Vikings had found their prey. We all were half relieved it was not us and half afraid it might be friends and neighbors we knew. Speculation was raised as to whose homes or which village had been hit, but between the darkness and the intermittent clouds, it was impossible to guess with any accuracy. None of us slept. We knew that those three ships would likely be returning our way as they made their way back to the sea. There was better than even odds, they would still be looking for more plunder.

About a half-hour before dawn one of the weary boys came running up to tell us that the danger had passed. They had followed the three ships back past the town and out to sea. Most of the townsfolk and monks returned to their homes. The midwife refused to move Agnete, however, and so Godwin also refused to stray too far.

Finally, after a particularly violent round of huffing and puffing, screaming and shouting, the sound of women’s laughter was heard. Shortly after, it was the hearty wail of a baby’s cry that brought a smile to all our weary faces. Two of the boys had been pressed into joining us men for just this moment. One ran off towards the town and another towards the monastery.

Father Ekkehard was exhausted and leaning on me as we made our slower trek back down to the monastery ourselves. We were about halfway there when the bells from the church started ringing out again. He stopped and smiled.

“That is the most beautiful sound those bells can make, don’t you think Willem?”

I nodded and he continued.

“They are ringing in the joy of new birth. This is why we associate bells with Christmas. They ring out the coming of the birth of God’s Son. He was born that we also might be born again. There is no sweeter music than the ringing in of a new birth.”