Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

Birth, Hope and Pain: A Christmas Perspective (Sept – Dec 1994)

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by Thom Lemmons
September – December, 1994

When, for the third time, my wife Cheryl and I experienced the birth of a child into our family, it was, as it had been twice before, a time for assessment, a time for an inventory of the soul. It was a time for asking the large questions of life. It was a cusp event, one of those passages so self-evidently momentous that we know intuitively it will become a part of our self-definition.

In reflecting upon these and other considerations, I was drawn again to the words of the prophet Isaiah. Within three chapters, Isaiah speaks of the births of three children, and in these widely divergent nativities are encompassed the two poles of human existence; they move from despair to hope, from rescue to desolation.

The first passage, beginning in Isaiah 7:14, is one that, at first glance and according to modern usage, is an oracle of faith. Indeed, in Matthew’s version of the Annunciation, this prophetic word is shown clearly as an allusion to God’s final, invincible deliverance of mankind. But see it in its entire context:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria (Isaiah 7:14-17).

In the next chapter, the prophet speaks of another child, whose name not only lacks the comforting nuances of “God With Us,” but also foreshadows essentially the same dire results for Isaiah’s audience as those shown above.

Then I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-HashBaz. [Quck to the plunder, swift to the spoil.] Before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria” (Isaiah 8:3-4).

The third, and by far the most familiar passage, has become irrevocably associated with the Christmas season:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

But, as we have seen, this hymn to the magnificent prospect of God’s deliverance occurs in a preceding context which is anything but hopeful.

In the first case, Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us that the presence of God brings the precise opposite of comfort to those who are in rebellion toward him. In the second, the consequences of God’s judgment are graphically illustrated. Only in the third place are we permitted to see the healing hand of the mighty God as he visits his faithful people in benevolence and power, in justice and authority. The last passage cited is a joyous proclamation of salvation, the first two are dirges composed to lament a coming devastation. The latter verses are intended to fill us with exaltation, the former to fill us with dread. And, curiously, all are wrapped about the visceral imagery attendant to the birth of a child.

But isn’t the experience of childbearing and child-rearing composed of varying degrees of exactly these two opposites? We are at once drunk with joy and sick with anxiety. We are enraptured by the miracle of our children’s birth and terrified by their vulnerability. We are moved to ecstasy by their first smiles, and we arise from a sound sleep, during the wee hours, to tiptoe softly into the nursery and make sure the precious little bundles are still breathing. We glance worriedly at every cough, rue every sniffle, consult each other in somber tones over every unusual bowel movement. Like T. S. Garp, the neurotically protective father from John Irving’s novel, we gnash our teeth in rage over teenage drivers speeding recklessly down our neighborhood streets—conveniently forgetting the disregard for caution we displayed before parenthood made us acutely conscious of such things. Even as I write this article, I get up to pad quietly into the room of seven-month-old Austin, “just to make sure he’s all right.” And, thank God, he is. But, while I’m up, I might as well see about ten-year-old Heather and five-year-old Jessica, because there is no statute of limitations on parental concern—ask my mother.

What other human experience can give rise to such excesses of jubilation and trepidation? Why else are the illnesses or deaths of little children perceived so unambiguously by every human society and culture for the dreadful tragedies they are? Is it coincidental that at Jesus’ presentation in the temple, the holy man Simeon tells Mary, even as he blesses the sight of the infant Messiah, that, one day, a sword will pierce her heart? What godly parent has not felt, albeit to an infinitely lesser degree, the exhilaration of that benediction, the prick of that cruel blade? And in this season, when our hearts are turned toward the miracle of God’s greatest Gift, let us not forget that the ultimate purpose for the manger in Bethlehem was to set Immanuel’s feet on the path toward Golgotha. The Almighty put himself in the crib so that he might place himself on the cross.

Perhaps in this juxtaposition of pain and pleasure, of aspiration and apprehension, we may trace the outlines of an eternal truth: those gifts which produce the most profound blessings are those which cost the giver most dearly. To that we might add this corollary: God rarely permits a gift which costs the giver nothing. He himself is the ultimate and final example of such lavish, reckless, self-forgetful largesse.

What are the implications, in this season of giving and receiving, for those of us who have been thrust like wary pioneers, by the birth of our children, into the daunting expanse of that bewildering frontier, that wide, confusing, trackless country which is called “Parenthood”? I suggest two.

Our children are gifts from God. This statement is surely instinctive to most parents. Who can witness the miracle of birth, who can gaze into the wrinkled face of a newborn baby, who can marvel at the blooming of a personality without recognizing the powerful hand of the Creator? In our better moments, we recognize how infinitely precious are the lives and experiences we share with our children. Though we all, from time to time, permit the dulling drudgeries of the daily routine to numb our sense of priorities, God reminds us—in those heart-stopping, entrancing, spontaneous flashes of insight, those fleeting times which my friend Max Lucado has dubbed “eternal moments”—of the incalculable value of these little people He has placed in our care. The vision may show itself in a laugh, a quick, unplanned hug, a joyous greeting at the end of a difficult day. It may come in the relief we feel when the fever has broken, or in the look of unalloyed delight on their faces when a wished-for present is beneath the Christmas tree.

Or it may happen, as it did to me, in a time of burden, of unrelenting financial cares and pressures. Seated in the back yard and submerged in a deep study of all my pressing problems, I surfaced at a moment when my oldest daughter was playing on her swing set, singing a snatch of song I had taught her. And in that instant, when, almost by accident, I was able to look outside myself and beyond the difficulties that seemed so insurmountable, I saw a ray of sunlight gleaming through her blond hair, and realized that God had already given me all the gold any man could want or need. In her gaiety and her childish, simple joy in living, my daughter ministered to me that day. For that brief time, my problems subsided in my mind, and I was blessed, and given respite.

No one can seriously debate the inestimable value of the lives of our children. But if they are precious to us who can love them—however fervently—only imperfectly, imagine how much more precious they must be to the One whose love contains no flaw of possessiveness, no shred of ego gratification. And if God so treasures our children, ought we to withhold them from him? With that in mind, allow me to suggest a second implication of parenthood.

Our children are gifts to God. It is this, the second part of the equation, that creates the most difficulty. Being a joyful receiver is the far easier than being a joyful giver. But if we are to be the one, we must be the other. The divine economy is replete with confirming examples of this same fundamental paradox: we must die in order to live; must be humbled to be exalted; must become servants to receive crowns; must give away everything to receive all that matters.

One of the cornerstones of our faith is that the Lord has plans for his chosen ones. Even amid the devastation of the Babylonian captivity, God told his people through Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you….Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future….”If we truly believe that this sovereign God has plans for our children, we must, as loyal caretakers of his treasury, be prepared to release them into his will. This statement may seem obvious to some, but I’m persuaded that it bears contemplation, because if it is true, it then behooves us as parents to surrender ourselves, on behalf of our children, to that purpose for which the Hand of heaven has fashioned them.

This surrender will not come without a struggle—for us and for our children. It may be that they must spend many years and much pain in uncovering that calling, in realizing it within themselves. But that struggle, that very difficulty may be an indispensable part of the divine summons. We will want to save them the pain, spare them the trials and contentions which will inevitably come their way. We must remember that only God can determine the proper course for them; they can’t afford the difficulties created by our attempts to ease their way. We can teach them to listen for God’s voice; we can’t tell them what he will say.

How many times have we witnessed the tragic consequences of the collision between a parent’s overly zealous protection or overriding ambition and a child’s own, perhaps God-given, inclination? The mangled wrecks of children’s self-esteem, the tattered remnants of family relationships litter the landscape like pathetic monuments to battles which should never have been fought.

As parents, we must be faithful stewards of the precious, fragile dreams of our children. Sometimes, this means giving them the freedom and confidence to pursue whatever calling God places on their hearts—regardless of how foreign it may be to our understanding. Must we guide them? Yes. Must we cautiously, prayerfully shepherd their young minds and hearts during the critical formative years? Absolutely. Must we seek to bind them to conformity with our aspirations, our objectives—try to accomplish in their lives the ambitions and goals we missed in our own? Emphatically not! To do so is to intrude our designs upon those of the One who, as he told Jeremiah, knew them before he knit them within the womb. To do so is to be guilty of emotional and spiritual abortion.

Annie Dillard, in her autobiographical work An American Childhood, writes of a youthful experience which has a profound effect upon her life. In her elementary school classroom, there was a glass jar containing a large cocoon, along with a section of the tree limb to which it was attached. A classmate had brought it to school for show-and-tell. For weeks the inert, drab, gauzy bundle sat in it jar on the shelf of the classroom, unmoving and unnoticed. Then, one day in the spring, the cocoon began to hatch.

The cocoon proved to be that of a Polyphemus moth, which can have a wingspan of as much as six inches from tip to tip. As the fascinated children watched, the large insect fought its way free from the womb which had suddenly become a prison. Presently it emerged, its wings crumpled and wet with the secretions of its emergence which, after contact with the air, would soon harden, like shellac, into a stiff, durable outer coating.

But there was a problem. Confined in the glass jar, the moth could not fully extend its wings, so that circulatory fluid might distend their capillaries and flush them out properly. Though the moth strained and flapped valiantly, struggling to spread wide its wings so that the hardening secretions would weld them into the sturdy, full mainsails they were meant to be, the jar constrained it, defeating its best efforts to fulfill its destiny. Eventually, the secretions hardened, forever freezing the Polyphemus’ wings into crumpled, useless mockeries of what they should have been.

The moral is obvious. God has plans for each of us—and for our children. He intends that we should emerge from the cocoon and spread our wings to the sunshine, to leap gladly skyward and be buoyed by the updrafts of his will. We must not place our children in the jar of our preconceived notions, must not restrain them to the shape of our dreams. While in the jar, the moth was invulnerable to predators, immune to cold and damp. But neither could it fly. Few things are as dangerous to the soul as a surfeit of safety.

So, as we enter this joyous season, may we remember not only the gift of the precious Christ child, but may we also recall the extravagant value of these little ones which we ourselves have swaddled in blankets and held close to our hearts. As we praise God for what he has given us, let us also empty ourselves in surrender to him of all that is most precious to us—knowing that he will fashion of that surrender a victory more marvelous than any of us could ever have imagined. My prayer for each of you is that God will visit your home and manifest his presence among you in this and every season.Wineskins Magazine

Thom Lemmons

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