The Condescension of God

One does not have to look far during the Christmas season to find images of Christ’s birth: an idyllic scene full of hay, a smiling Mary and Joseph, three wise men with gifts, and friendly looking animals, all surrounding a peacefully sleeping Jesus. This is an amazing image: a king, not coming in power and with a sword, but in abject poverty and humility.

At the core of Christmas we celebrate the great condescension of God himself. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” and again in Philippians 2:6b-8, “Though he [Christ] was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” The classic manger scene is a beautiful picture of the humiliation and hope of Christ’s life intertwined: the suffering and death and, ultimately, resurrection in victory.

Whenever reading the account of our Lord’s birth today, let us do so in the context of what a recently imprisoned Chinese pastor said, “The way that Christ resisted the world that resisted him was by extending an olive branch of peace on the cross to the world that crucified him” (Wang Yi, 2018). If in the beauty of the human birth of our Lord we see the depth of his humility, and how he would go on to even greater and more painful sacrifices out of love, then only can we truly begin to grasp the magnitude of that peaceful manger scene and respond as Zechariah did:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has come to help and has redeemed his people. For he has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from long ago, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us. He has done this to […] remember his holy covenant -the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham. This oath grants that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, may serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.” (Luke 1:68-75)

Merry Christmas!

My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience -Wang Yi

Review: Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life

Inspirational or motivational books often put their promises in their title: Think and Grow Rich, The Magic of Big Thinking, The Power of Positive Thinking, What it Takes to be #1. Why not judge these books by how well they deliver on their promise? For Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In: Lessons From an Extraordinary Life, Louis Zamperini’s last book (co-authored by David Rensin), the question is: does Zamperini have any worthwhile lessons to impart? While some of the lessons outlined in the titles of each chapter are hackneyed, the stories are interesting, and the reader can learn lessons simply by listening to Zamperini tell of both his successes and failures.

That Zamperini’s life was extraordinary is beyond doubt. An Olympic-level runner who was widely thought to be likely to be the first athlete to run a 4 minute mile, Zamperini’s life took a different turn when the U.S. joined World War II and he became a member of a B-24 flight crew that was eventually shot down in the Pacific. But instead of dying, Zamperini, along with Captain Russell Phillips, survived on a raft for over a month with nothing more than a flare gun, some candy bars, and some other basic survival gear. Captured by the Japanese and imprisoned, Zamperini survived and eventually returned home, to the great surprise of everyone. But the most significant changes took place in Zamperini’s life after his rescue: following an onset of PTSD and a growing dependency on alcohol, Zamperini’s wife convinced him to attend a Billy Graham crusade, and he eventually committed his life to the Lord. He never drank again, and he devoted his life from then on to helping at-risk children find purpose—and adventure.

Some of the “lessons” in Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, have a cheesy ring to them—chapter titles such as “You Need a Cloud to Have a Silver Lining,” “Don’t Ask Why, Ask What’s Next,” give an idea of some of the trite lessons drawn from what would otherwise just be an interesting story. Other chapters, such as one that includes a story of getting a kiss from Angelina Jolie (one of his friends), seem more like opportunities for Zamperini to reminisce, but that’s a forgivable flaw in someone who lived such a colorful and interesting life.

Other vignettes, however, are moving. One story in particular stands out—where Zamperini begins training to run again, and works hard at it for over six weeks. At the end of the month, he has his wife time his laps, and discovers that he is much slower than before. This forces him to accept that he will never recover his running ability—it’s time for him to find another path. Several other stories stood out to me from his post-war life as well: a giant boat trip, business ventures, and other escapades as he tried to find a calling.

Overall, this was a really quick, interesting book that gave some solid, if not revolutionary or cohesive, advice on how to live well. Living actively to the age of 97 and packing a second book with more tales, Zamperini certainly knew how to live well.

Ode to the Ornaments (on the Back of the Tree)

One far off eve, when I am ridiculously rich,
With oodles of ballrooms to spare,
My Christmas tree shall center the room,
With pretty ornaments every which-where

But today, well, this isn’t the case,
And square footage comes with a fee,
So I push those branches into a corner,
And hang…certain…ornaments on the back of the tree

I wouldn’t keep them, of course, if I didn’t have
On some level a bond, a fond feeling,
But, aesthetics, aesthetics, judging books and covers
I could say I didn’t care – but then, I’d be dreaming

So my one-year-old bear, with the pacifier,
And that red-headed angel who’s lacking in grace,
They both reside on the back of the tree
Doing their part, filling in empty space

With them are the globes with the gingerbread men,
Which I don’t like as much as the floral ones,
And a draping lace fan that’s been misshapen
But whose part in my tree isn’t quite done

And there, at the top back, high, near the star
A smiling bear once of no value to me
But when he cracked, Mom glued him together
And though I put him at the back, it’s where I just see

So, though I have ballrooms and parlors to spare,
The angel and gingerbreads will not go away
And there, very high, at the top of one tree
That bear, still smiling, will likewise stay

Christmas for All Ages

Just as Christmas is a story for the ages, I’ve noticed that the season we have named for Christ’s birth has yielded stories for all ages.  This year, I want to share the six latest Christmas books I have found, some of them Christian and others secular, but all beautiful and special in their own ways.

Christmas in the Barn

Christmas in the Barn / Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Anna Dewdney)—Brown takes liberties with the original story as she turns it into lyrical poetry, but I found the poetry simple and sweet.  This book would make a good read-aloud.  I think little children will enjoy Brown’s rendition of the story and the quirky animals in Dewdney’s oil illustrations.

The Birds' Christmas Carol

The Birds’ Christmas Carol / Kate Douglas Wiggin—This Christmas story has little to do with actual birds, which is what I went in expecting, most likely because of the cardinals and greenery on the paperback edition my family owns.  Instead, the story is about a little girl who is born on Christmastime and her family.  The Birds’ Christmas Carol is very touching and reminds me of Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street / Karina Yan Glaser—Christmas is only days away, but the Vanderbeekers are more focused on winning over their landlord so they can stay in their townhouse than anticipating Christmas gifts and surprises.  This is a fun children’s novel in the vein of All-of-a-Kind Family books, but with a modern setting.  At first, the book seems like an unconvincing imitation of Elizabeth Enright’s The Saturdays or similar series.  But as the story progresses, Yan Glaser finds her own voice and characters, and the book establishes its own place in children’s literature.

Christmas Fairy Tales

Christmas Fairy Tales / Selected by Neil Philip (illustrated by Isabelle Brent)—These twelve Christmas tales include new renditions of popular stories like “The Nutcracker” as well as a few I had never encountered before.  Overall, I liked the selection and retellings.  Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Last Dream of the Old Oak” is especially beautiful, both in its illustrations and content.  (Note: The featured image for this article is one of Isabelle Brent’s illustrations.  Her artwork is beautiful and perfect for a collection of fairy tales with its delicate colors and style.)

The Mitford Snowmen and Esther’s Gift by Jan Karon—For fans of Mitford, these two Christmas short stories are sweet and mix the spirit of Christmas and Mitford in a cheerful combination.

Have you found any new Christmas books this year?  Or do you have any longtime favorites?  If so, I would love to hear about them in the comments below.