Holy Chaos

Even in Bethlehem, there’s no such thing as a silent night.

I love “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” with their plaintive melodies about the dark quiet streets of that obscure, beloved village under the stars, waiting with hopes and fears for the Christ to be born. But the Bethlehem I found on my last visit to the Middle East was anything but quiet or plaintive. Instead, it was crowded, noisy, and exhaust-filled, as drivers blasted their horns and shouted loudly at each other through open windows.

My small group was deposited, heads spinning, at the Church of the Nativity, where surely we would find some peace and good will. It was, after all, the oldest functioning church in the world, dating back to A.D. 339, when it was built on the spot where Justin Martyr said Jesus had likely been born.

The enormous basilica was under renovation. Scaffolding crosshatched the interior, obscuring the astonishing pillars, the ancient mosaic floors. Undeterred, people from all over the world stood patiently in line, filing past police stationed there to keep the peace. I, too, stood and watched and followed. All had come for this: to step down into the grotto, to kneel and lean into a tiny cavern where there was barely room for a single body. There, a silver star adorned the floor, marking the place where many people believe Mary gave birth to Jesus.

On this day, a tour guide stood outside the room, pushing people through with shouts: “That’s enough! You go! Next! Next in line!” as men and women took their turn. Each one knelt to fit into the tiny space, flashed a photo of the star on the floor, rubbed an arm on its silvery surface or swept a scarf across it while bodies pressed before and behind. The air was thick and damp. One elderly woman in a headscarf lingered in her worship a few seconds too long. “That’s enough! Too long! You get out!” the tour guide yelled at her before impatiently waving the next person in.

The present reality [of Bethlehem] mocked my lullaby image of that dear place.

When I emerged, stumbling, from the grotto, the tour guides could be heard across the church speaking in Italian, French, Polish, and English—their voices mixed with the hushed chatter of the pilgrims. It was a glorious sound, but then above it all, a shout came, “Stop! Stop talking! You!” I spotted a policeman in a distant corner, gesturing to the guides. The buzz of voices continued, unfazed. He tried again, louder this time, “A service is beginning. Stop now or I’ll kick you all out!” Above his voice and the tourists’ mumbling, the drone of chanting began over in the Orthodox sanctuary.

What chaos, I thought. This church is occupied by police and six denominations that operate their own separate realms of this contested cathedral, all eager for a claim to the birthplace of Christ. Sometimes there is peace between them all—sometimes not. The police have broken up brawling priests on occasion.

The day wasn’t over. Near the end, the guide unexpectedly took us to a glistening souvenir shop. It wasn’t on our itinerary. He smiled and rubbed his hands and urged us all to shop ’til we dropped. “It’s all on sale—a 20 percent discount, just for you!” he said. Two men approached us grinning widely, ready to usher us to the cash register. Minutes later, most in my group left the shop empty-handed. The well-dressed owner, running out of quarry, approached me and began to plead: “You must support us! You simply have to buy something here!”

It was not the happy day I imagined in Bethlehem. I found no peace on that small piece of earth, no pretty little town lying still as it waited for a Savior. I found no silent moment, no light shining from dark streets—only shouting coming from the church that lauds His birth. The present reality mocked my lullaby image of that dear place.

My attempts to create a cathedral of worship for Jesus will likely end up a mess. But Jesus already knows all of this, and in the end, everything will be all right.

But later, after I returned home, I realized how hopeful this all was. Yes, there is constant wrestling over that city and that church because both are held as precious. And was Bethlehem so very different that sacred day? Because of the census, everyone was returning to his hometown and the hotelkeepers were raking it in. The restaurants were overfilled. Every family rented out whatever room they had and charged too much. The noise, the dirt, the animal dung on sandals—everyone too busy making money and trying to get ahead. They paid no thought to a baby born in the hay that night. It was all a mess.

I’m so relieved. I’ll never be as quiet or still as I want to be at Christmas. I won’t make everything clean and beautiful. There will be dirty rooms and impatient shouts. There will be too many people at the wrong time and not enough at the right time. The Christmas program I am writing for our church will be unremarkable, and we’ll forget our lines. We’ll try to profit from the season, selling our own wares—and we’ll also spend too much. My attempts to create a cathedral of worship for Jesus will likely end up a mess.

But Jesus already knows all of this, and in the end, everything will be all right. Because this is exactly the kind of place He chose to be born. This is exactly the kind of people He chose to be born among. And these are exactly the kind of people He was born to save.

We don’t have to clean it all up or perfect it. We make room for the season. We kneel. And enter in.


Illustration by Greg Clarke

By Leslie Leyland Fields 

Giving Out Of Need

2 Corinthians 8:1-5

In elementary school, we learned how to subtract: Take away, and you have less than when you started. Contrary to the laws of mathematics, God tells us that when we give, we’ll receive even more in return. “Give, and it will be given to you. They will pour into your lap a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over. For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (Luke 6:38).

God’s design for giving requires that we depend on His revelation, not our own reason. Logic tells us to check the bank account before deciding how much to offer. The Bible, however, states that all wealth belongs to the Lord and we’re to give back to Him the first fruits of our labor (Deut. 10:14; Deut. 18:4-5). When we obey, we trust Him to provide and care for us—which sometimes means that we choose to ignore what makes sense, humanly speaking. God doesn’t always provide in the manner we expect or hope. Instead, He satisfies our needs and blesses in the way He knows will truly be best for us.

When facing financial hardship, we can be tempted to justify hoarding our resources. But God, understanding the situation perfectly, requires us to give not simply out of our surplus but also out of our need. The Macedonian church, for example, gave generously even while they were experiencing affliction (2 Cor. 8:2). This was pleasing to the Lord because they were giving in faith.

Ask God what He’d like you to give to Him. Pray for the courage to obey. Then eagerly await His blessings.

Father of Believers

“And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

The key New Testament doctrine of imputed righteousness, received through saving faith in the Word of God, is foreshadowed beautifully in the life of Abraham. Because of his strong faith, demonstrated again and again in difficult acts of obedience, Abraham has been called “the father of all them that believe” (Romans 4:11). Our text verse is quoted four times in the New Testament (Romans 4:3, 22; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23) and is made the basis of the great gospel theme of salvation and righteousness. This is obtained, not by one’s good works, but by imputation, and is received through faith in the gracious promises of God through Jesus Christ. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure . . . to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:16). Just as “Jerusalem which is above . . . is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26), so faithful Abraham is “the father of us all.” Spiritual Jerusalem speaks of salvation by grace rather than by law, and Abraham testifies of righteousness through faith rather than by works. And yet, 12 of the 40 verses of Hebrews 11, the great “faith chapter,” deal with the outward evidences of Abraham’s inner faith.

There is still another reference to Abraham’s spiritual seed: “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). As Abraham’s spiritual children, therefore, we also ought to believe God’s Word at whatever cost, demonstrating the reality of our faith to the world—as did father Abraham—by obeying God. HMM

The Imperative of Meeting God

Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. —Ezekiel 1:1

Sometimes preachers get carried away and start sermonizing on the great calamities posed by communism and secularism and materialism. But our greatest calamity is the closed heaven, the silent heaven. God meant for us to be in fellowship with Him. When the heavens are closed, men are left to themselves. They are without God.

Ezekiel and all the rest of God’s faithful servants learned something that we must learn. If there is anything worth having, it will have to be something that we get from God Himself. The heavens have been closed since mankind began reasoning God out of our world. What used to be the hand and providence of God is now just natural law….

But in the Christian faith it is imperative that the individual meet God. We are not talking about just the possibility of meeting God. We are not saying just that it would be a good thing to meet God. Meeting God is imperative!

Lord, deliver me from Your absence today; open the doors of heaven and bestow upon me Your presence. May this be imperative in my life, both now and always. Amen.

God Does Not Set Limits

Let no man deceive you with vain words. (Ephesians 5:6)

Do you know that there are Bible “interpreters” now who believe they can set up rules as to how much we can have of God? However, the Lord Himself has promised that as far as He is concerned, He is willing to keep the candles of my soul brightly burning!

So, my heart tells me to ignore the modern scribes whose interpretations, I fear, are forcing the Spirit, the blessed Dove, to fold His wings and be silent. I turn rather to one of Dr. A.B. Simpson’s hymns rarely sung now, probably because very few believers have this experience of which he wrote:

I take the hand of love divine,
I count each precious promise mine
With this eternal countersign—
I take—He undertakes!

I take Thee, blessed Lord,
I give myself to Thee;
And Thou, according to Thy Word
Dost undertake for me!

The river of God is full of water

The river of God is full of water; but there is not one drop of it that takes its rise in earthly springs. God will have no strength used in his own battles bat the strength which he himself imparts; and I would not have you that are now distressed discouraged by it. Your emptiness is but the preparation for your being filled; and your casting down is but the making ready for your lifting up.

Unexpected help shall come to us when affairs are at their worst.

Let us learn from our Master to reckon upon forces invisible.