Words from the Stable

Tiny head



The Return Counter

It’s not often that you find yourself walking through the mall with an archangel. But that’s kind of the way dreams are: a normal day and you then- throw in something odd- like going to school in only your underwear or discovering that your teeth are falling out one by one during the sermon at church… He was definitely an odd sort of angel I decided, as I watched him (in blue jeans and flannel shirt) finish off an oversized slice of pepperoni pizza from Sbarros. 

He winked at me and said, “Well, looks like you survived another last minute shopping spree.

“I never was much of a planner,” I replied.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure.” (Who could resist a secret from an archangel?)

“It’s not much of a secret, but I love to point it out.”

“OK,” I said, wondering if he would reveal the truth about Big Foot, the JFK assassination, or Donald Trump’s hair.

“It’s not really His birthday. I know—not a big surprise. But I just like to point that out to people.”

“So when was it?”

“Oh nooooooo. Not gonna tell you. You’re a writer and it would be all over the blogosphere in a day.”

“You overestimate me. I don’t have that many followers.” 

(I suddenly winced at my own words. I’m talking to an archangel about Jesus and then I shift gears to mention my followers. The seedy underbelly of social media exposed once more…)

“I guess you’re wondering why I’m here instead of geo-tracking terrorists,” Gabriel said.

“The thought did cross my mind.”

“Michael is the angel in charge of Battle. Not my job. I just had a little time and I thought I’d help you out,” 

He tossed the pizza container in the trashcan next to the bench. He wiped his mouth and turned, looking me squarely in the eyes with grave attention. 

“You’ve got way too much stuff.”

I glanced at the bags I had plopped on the bench next to us and confessed, “Yes. Way too much stuff. This is how I compensate for all the thoughtlessness of 2015.” 

“You and 300 million other Americans… But I’m not talking about THAT stuff I’m talking about THIS stuff—“ Gabriel said, pointing to a shopping cart filled with beautifully wrapped boxes.  

“Those aren’t mine.”

“Yes they are.”


“Don’t argue with an archangel.” Gabriel said with a chuckle. “Seriously they are yours and you might want to return them.”

Now I’m feeling like a thief but he assures me that I am no thief. I had come by all these boxes honestly- every Santa sleigh, Rudolph red-nosed, green or purple and snow-white one of them!

He rolled the cart while I followed, feathers falling in a Gump-like fashion in his wake.

We arrived in front of the smallest shop tucked next to Dillards and in front of the “Discount Swag-Nation Jewelry” kiosk. The sign above the shop seemed dull, sterile, businesslike. No marketer would approve of it. It simply said “RETURNS.” 

The man greeted Gabriel with a smile and said, “We meet again.”

Gabriel got straight to the point. “This fellow has a number of things he’d like to return.”

“Whoa. Wait a second,” I interrupted. “These are really amazing looking presents. I mean, I’d keep them just to decorate the lawn next year,”

“You’ve had them long enough,” Gabriel said gravely.

“What are you talking about? I’ve never seen these boxes in my life!” I exclaimed.

It was then that I noticed the tag on the box wrapped in Winni the Poo paper.


Gabriel sighed and said, “You’ve had that one hanging around as long as I’ve known you. You’ve concealed it with a veneer of kudos, applause and congratulations, but deep inside you feel rotten. It turns everything into a competition and you always feel like the loser. It’s just ugly. You hate it. I hate it. HE hates it. It’s just not you.”

The returns assistant smiled and said, “So you are returning ENVY.”

“He is.”  

“And the reason for the return?”

“It doesn’t fit him.” 

Gabriel paused for a moment and then pulled out a huge box with the tag: SHAME. 

“This has a lot of moving parts. Most of them are under the surface of the item,” Gabriel explained. “He’s had it since childhood and now he needs to let it go back where it came from.”

I gulped.

“And the reason for the return?” The assistant asked, as he scribbled down notes.

“It doesn’t work.”

“He’s right.” I added.

“Fair enough.”

For a long time, as dreams go, we emptied the seemingly bottomless cart of packages and provided reasons for the record

Bitterness (“It so very old school”), 

Acclaim (“It doesn’t do what they said it would do on TV.”)

Fear (“Too many side effects when he uses it.”)

Anger (“It’s just ugly. Who would want that? Really.”)

And a flood of smaller items that are too many to name.

After the cart was empty, a feeling of lightness enveloped me. I was beginning to experience what Christmas was all about.

As I surveyed the brightly decorated packages, the assistant of the Returns Shop said, “I wish we could reimburse you for these, but they aren’t worth a plug nickel. However… we’ll put them in the layaway department next to the Cinnabon if you ever want them back. It’s open 24/7.” His crooked smile haunted me. It still haunts me. 

Gabriel chuckled, “I wouldn’t recommend it. Just cut your losses and get on with life.”

As we walked away I asked a million questions and Gabriel answered them all. He revealed mysteries great and small. Answers to a thousand questions… But for the life of me, I can’t remember any of them. Isn’t that just the way dreams are?


The Art of Pondering

“But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:19b

Advent is to ponder.

If you don’t take time to turn everything off and ponder sometime this week, you are left with all that is temporal, ordinary and fleeting about Christmas.

Stop and ponder.

Luke tells us in his gospel that Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. What happens when you catch a glimpse of God’s glory? You treasure it. She could have griped about the travel arrangements, the lack of planning, the constant need to improvise. But Mary, in a barn full of visiting animals, horses, mules, stray dogs, camels, splinters, hay, horse manure, kept all these things treasured in her heart. 

That night she had to contend with Joseph’s snoring. And those shepherds, loudly recounting angelic visitations. They probably woke the Baby several times that night. But, just before dawn, with all asleep, except Mary and a mule, she gathered from the hope chest of the near past a tapestry of memories —

The beautiful colors of Gabriel’s clothes,
The look on the face of Elizabeth when she turned and saw Mary,
The clamor of packing for the dreaded tax appointment,
“No Vacancy” signs,
The nervous, frustrated father,
The incarnate kicks,
The looming grief,
The tiny hands that would pierce her heart.

She wept and smiled. She experienced an orchestra of emotions in concert with the breeze that swept through the Bethlehem hills like a Spirit newly released.

And Mary pondered. 

Will you join her tonight?

Grace is on a Family Tree

My friend loves Jesus.

That sounds commonplace, doesn’t it?

It becomes less pedestrian when I tell you that his Mom died a drug addict and his father was a devout atheist. My friend was gloriously saved at the age of 10 at a Vacation Bible School event and never looked back. This. Makes. No. Sense. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree but this apple fell off the tree rolled down the hill, was picked up by a pilot and flew across the ocean! (Figuratively speaking, of course.) And believe me, I don’t have enough white space here to chronicle the entire sordid tale. His story is a monument to the fact that God can save anybody He wants to save, no matter how messed up the family tree.

The New Testament begins with a family tree that had a number of ugly branches. Matthew 1 tells us that in Jesus’ lineage are a number shady characters including a prostitute, daughter of incest, an adulterer, a lying brother, lots of cautionary tales and ultimately an scandalous unwed pregnancy. It’s almost like God wanted to say from the start that this Gospel is all about grace and not about our upbringing. God isn’t as interested in your family history. He’s interested in what happens next. And when it comes to transformation, what happens next is glorious. He flips the script with grace. It’s His specialty. Never count yourself or your family out because of what happened yesterday. It’s an insult to the power of God when you do.


The Birth and Crucifixion of Christ

A scripture reading that works well for Christmas or Easter.

Scriptures: Luke 2:6-14; 23:43; Mark 15:12-32; John 19:30

Reader 1: So it was that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

Reader 2: And Pilate answered them, What shall I do with this man you call King of the Jews? And they cried out, Crucify Him!

Reader 1: And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.

Reader 2: And they clothed Him in purple and fashioned a crown of thorns about His head.

Reader 1: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

Reader 2: And they smote Him on the head with a reed and did spit upon Him, and bowing knees, worshiped Him.

Reader 1: And the angel said unto them, fear not, for I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be to all people.

Reader 2: And Jesus said unto him, truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.

Reader 1: For unto you is born in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord.

Reader 2: Likewise, the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, let this Christ King descend from the cross that we may see and believe. When Jesus, therefore, had received the vinegar, He said, It is finished. He bowed His head and He died.

Reader 1: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace . . .


Grace and Recompense

This Fire of Love
unquenched by Eden’s wreck
and flowing seemingly in perpetuity
toward all that soon will be
in all its violent beauty
He shall hold all hell’s poison and heaven’s glory.
Small beginning, love’s grandest story
from the heartbeat in a virgin’s womb
til one Sunday rising from the tomb
for all…
for all…
This is the salvation from garrulous platitudes and languorous days
Advent… in slightest breath, in manger lay.
Ten-thousand kingdoms would bow through ages.
The cause of grace and recompense
From distant past to future tense:

Just West of Bethlehem

Shepherds from the West!
This works well as a dramatic vignette or a simple reader’s theater piece.  Fun to perform with the country accent of your region. 
Cast: Josiah, Henry, Jake, Angel Gabriel

Josiah: And before I knew it, that wolf done snuck up behind me and started carryin’ the sheep off by the scruff of the neck, one by one.

Henry: That ain’t right, and you know it! You were out like a light! How would you know? You were snorin’ so loud that I couldn’t sleep, and it was your watch that night.

Josiah: I wasn’t snorin’—I was clearin’ my sinuses.

Henry: For 15 minutes!?

Jake: You got some sinus problem, boy!

Josiah: Well, you sure didn’t seem like you were in too much of a hurry to help.

Henry: I woke you up, didn’t I?

Josiah: How many times do I have to tell you? I wasn’t sleepin’!

Henry: Well, tell Jake about what you did after that.

Jake: Hold it.

(Pause. Light angelic music is heard, and its volume slowly increases.)

Henry: What was that?

Josiah: Sounds like . . .

Jake: Music! And . . .

Josiah: What’s that light?

Henry: Angels! Great heavens!

Josiah: “Great heavens” is right!

Henry: Boy! Are we in trouble now!

Jake: Head for cover!

Josiah: Come back here, Jake! This ain’t no thunderstorm!

Henry: (trembling with fear) Jehovah, forgive me for breakin’ the Sabbath two weeks ago. Forgive me for eating that bacon when I went to Samaria! And for yelling at my wife last Thursday, and for—

Jake: Will you cut it out? That angel is trying to say something to us.

Gabriel: Don’t be afraid!

Josiah: You ain’t gonna kill us?

Gabriel: I bring you the most joyful news ever announced, and it is for everyone! The Savior, yes, the Messiah, the Lord has been born tonight in Bethlehem.

Henry: The Messiah? Our Savior? Well, uh, that’s great!

Jake: How’re we gonna know who He is?

You will find the baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger.

(Heavenly music.)

Josiah: Wow! Listen to all those angels!

Henry: Praise God! The Messiah is here!

Josiah: What’s “Messiah” mean?

Henry: I’ll tell you later. Would you look at all those angels!

(Sudden silence.)

Jake: Hey! Where’d they go?

Josiah: They plum vanished into thin air!

Henry: Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go see this baby!

Josiah: You never did tell me about who the Messiah is!

Jake: We’ll tell you on the way.

Josiah: What about the sheep?

Henry: Forget the sheep! We just saw angels flyin’ round in the sky, and you’re worried about sheep!

Song Introduction to “Away in a Manger”

Here is an easy, informal reading to be performed before “Away in the Manger”

Reader 1:  away

Reader 2:  but so near to the outcast

Reader 1:  near to the blood of the innocents

Reader 2:  near to life, a dangerous mystery

Reader 1:  no crib for a bed

Reader 2:  1st century squalor of animals

Both:  away

Reader 1:  alone

Reader 2:  no turning back

Reader 1:  the little Lord Jesus

Reader 2:  God meshed in skin

Reader 1:  helpless Master Infant

Reader 2:  laid down His sweet head

Reader 1:  the brow of thorns

Reader 2:  smitten by bandits, spit upon, mocked

Reader 1:  yet eyes still fixed on His love

Reader 2:  the stars in the sky

Reader 1:  each fixed in place

Reader 2:  bold, mighty, universe

Reader 1:  the Author: this Infant

Reader 2:  full of wonder

Reader 1:  as angels, and Abba

Reader 2:  proudly, sadly

Reader 1:  looked down where He lay

Both:  away

Reader 2:  relentlessly committed

Both:  away

Reader 1:  vacating the thrones and crowns of glory

Both:  away

Reader 1:  the glory of His love

Both:  away

Reader 2:  humble

Reader 1:  Master

Reader 2:  Creator

Both:  away

Reader 1:  matchless mysterious Ruler

Both:  Away

The Cradle and the Cross

Worship leaders start early with some creative tools to enhance your Christmas worship.  Here is a simple reading that contrasts the Christ’s Birth and Crucifixion. Works great as an introduction to a song.

Reader #1: Mankind had wrapped Him in swaddling clothes,

Reader #2: And now they stripped him.

Reader #3: Wise men had sought Him, to worship Him at His birth.

Reader #2: 
Now men of earthly wisdom sought only to kill Him.

Reader #1: And the shepherds who left their sheep in the fields that night to see Him as a baby . . .

Reader #2: Now? Now they saw Him as a man who was like a lamb led to the slaughter.

Reader #3: They had bowed to worship Him in that humble manger,

Reader #1: And now they spit upon Him and mocked Him as King of the Jews.

Reader #2: Mankind had seen the glorious presence of angels, heard our music and joy,

Reader #3: And now they turned their backs on Him.

Reader #1: This same Jesus, once lavished with gold, frankincense, and myrrh was now shamed by a crown of thorns and a wooden reed.

Reader #2: The Bethlehem star seemed to be only a distant memory as Jesus hung on that cross.

Reader #3: The angels wept to see the King of kings and the Lord of lords mocked and betrayed and unjustly slain for the sins of man. And as He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” He was looking through the hall of eternity where time is of no significance and He saw you. He came down for you.

Mary’s Little Boy

And Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart–

This phrase has arrested me for years, because pondering to me in a sense is a form of worship. To ponder, in a sense is to daydream about God. A time when the world stands still in quiet moments. There is very little pondering that goes on these days. Lots of scurrying, entertaining, playing, eating, arguing, and obsessing but pondering is a rare commodity.

“All these things”

What things? The adventure of this teenage new mother towers over the likes of kings, rulers and presidents. Generals, celebrities, and artists. She was the hailed by an archangel, the one and only virgin to be impregnated. That would be enough to lift her into the stratosphere of history. But that’s not half the story. The Baby she carried was the Son of God.

And after all was done. Mary pondered.

What would she ponder: Fears, hopes, wonder,and a tapestry of memories.

“Mary . . .”


“Mary . . .”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

You can imagine the fear that accompanies every angelic visitation.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary.”

With those words, Mary knew that this wasn’t Joseph in her bedroom. It wasn’t her Father. An uncle, or a grandpa. The vocal chords the reverberated into her room were not of earthly origin.

“Did I die? I don’t want to die.”

“No, Mary, you’re not dead. I have a message for you.”

“A message for me? Are you sure you have the right Mary?”

“This is good news–you are favored by God. God is going to bless you in a wonderful and miraculous way. You will give birth to a Son. And you will call His name Jesus.”

You can imagine the questions because millions of pregnant teens have had to grapple with the fears, the worry, the reputation, the explanations that accompany an unexpected pregnancy.

But there is no record in scripture that Mary did anything other than believe God. It was a strange time for her. Mary took the challenge and faced the gossip and rejection, but she wasn’t alone. Love and companionship are miracle cures.

Like Noah surrounded by laughing neighbors, like Moses being mocked in Pharaoh’s court, like Elijah before the prophets of Baal, Mary stood strong. In truth, her faith was challenged even more than those men because she had not miraculous rod-snake to throw at the feet of unbelievers. She had no fire from heaven, she had no storm clouds or thunder. She only had the private promise on an angel and the certainty that she was pure and purely blessed. She lived in an ordinary quiet little town, much smaller than Tioga and much less regarded by outsiders.

However their were some small private confirmations. They included a very old aunt who probably could have been a great grandmother, named Elizabeth. Pregnant for the first time, she was escorted by a husband who seemed to all to be at a loss for words. Life the lions on Daniel, God shut his mouth.

Certainly Mary and Joseph had their unheavenly moments. The 70 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Just imagine this possible scenario. Mary begins to have contractions before the Bethlehem city lights are in view.

“Mary, are you okay?”

“I don’t think I can ride another mile on this donkey!” Mary cries out.

“Mary, we’re almost there. Before you know it, we’ll pay for a room and I’ll find a doctor.”

“You don’t have enough money for a doctor,” Mary reminds the Nazareth Home Improvement employee.

Joseph moves away from Mary a little and whispers into the night air,”Lord, I’d like to speak to that angel again. Do You think that’s possible?”

They were selected by God, but rejected by people.

“Sorry, no room”

“The room isn’t available.”

“Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.”

“No vacancy.”

“Didn’t you read the sign?”

“We’re booked solid.”

God, in His infinite love, passed over the rich and elite to touch the common. He chose the shepherds, street people, lepers, and the unwanted of the world. He could have created a palace that would make Buckingham look like a cheap hotel, but He passed on the palace and made a reservation for His Son at a stable. And there in that stable, Jesus Christ began His task, His do-or-die mission to save the world. But time stood still that night. That holy night. Woman: There was a glimmer of divine hope in this evil world. Mary and Joseph, I’m sure, were exhilarated, but certainly exhausted. Mary,in a barn full of visiting animals: horses, mules, stray dogs, and perhaps a camel; splinters, hay; Joseph snoring; and those shepherds loudly recounting angelic visitations woke the Baby three times! But now, just before dawn, with all asleep except Mary and a mule, she gathers from the hope chest of the near past a tapestry of memories.

What would be a few of those memories that she would ponder.

the beautiful colors of Gabriel’s clothes,
the look on the face of Elizabeth when she turned and saw Mary,
the clamor of packing for the dreaded tax appointment,
no-vacancy signs
and a nervous, frustrated father,
the incarnate kicks,
the looming grief,
the tiny hands that would pierce her heart.
She wept and smiled
an orchestra of emotions in concert with the breeze
that swept through the Bethlehem hills like a Spirit newly released.
And Mary pondered.

What could she say. This this complex and mysterious supersede words. They are moments to ponder. I like to call them “selah moments” Moments where we can only say “God did it.” Anything else, any extra words would only taint the experience. These are moments to ponder. The mystery of the Christian experience is that we all are invited to enter into the dance of the divine. We are all offered an experience that will turn our Narareths into Bethlehems.

Holy moments to ponder… if we stop and listen and realize that God did it.

When we see a baby born on a bright and beautiful morning we can say God did it.
When a rebel son is seen on the western horizon of home, we can say God did it. 
When a woman in her eighties experiences a touch from God in the midst of her grief, we can say, “God did it!”
When a minor symptom is investigated, and a hidden, deadly, ailment is discovered and repaired we can say, God did it.

Luke 11:11-13 says this: “You fathers–if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”

This is the how much more-ness of the gospel. It’s realizing that God’s Son is the prince of Peace- not the prince of revenge. That he didn’t come to heap more laws, or guilt, or curses upon the land. He came to introduce us to the word and the concept of grace.

St. Paul’s prayer to the Ephesians at the close of his letter reflects my conclusion as I ponder this extravagant grace:

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

She was there and Mary watched her son’s breathing on that cross- the final moments of agony-  as she looked at him there, we can imagine her mind racing back to those moments as a two year old- Jesus sleeping on his tummy, the back rising and falling with each breath he took.

We understand this dangerous truth:  That the choices we make are given meaning by the things we give up.

And those words-  Woman behold your son- Son behold your mother.

And then he died.

I can only imagine the grief.  As they took his broken, lifeless body down from the cross. The anger of her son destroyed, mocked, rejected, a felon called Barabbas was preferred over her boy.

No doubt Mary went through the grief any mother would experience.  Like a scene from Steel Magnolias…

I’m fine! I can jog all the way to Bethlehem and back and back, but my son can’t! Oh God! I am so mad I don’t know what to do! I wanna know why! I wanna know *why* Oh *God* I wanna know *why*? *Why*? Lord, I wish I could understand!

No! No! No! It’s not supposed to happen this way! I’m supposed to go first. I’ve always been ready to go first!



King of every king

and yet this was Mary’s boy.

blood spilled grace on me

and still Mary’s boy

piercing your heart Mary

to save me

forsaking you

and his kingdom

for me.

What a terrible loss

you suffered

to watch this one you feed, changed, embraced

carried, protected, and nourished

now condemned to bear nails and thones

whips and shame

so that we could all come to the table.

and face the gethsemane of every broken generation

he cried for his Daddy as the sunset brought shadows

on the edge of town.

You had others

but that night He was your only Boy.