A Helpless Baby as Savior?

When did Jesus become the Savior?

It’s no idle question reserved for abstract thinking by academic theologians or reflective pastors. Was the vulnerable, helpless baby Jesus the Savior of the world or only the potential, future Savior?

Much of Christendom limits Jesus’s saving acts to the three years of his public ministry, with the decisive actions taking place the last week or even his three hours on the cross.

Only Matthew and Luke make direct reference to Jesus’s birth, though John describes the Incarnation in philosophical language (John 1:1-14). Other New Testament writers place the emphasis on his teachings, death, and resurrection as indicators of his identity as “Savior.”

Does that mean Jesus became Savior at his baptism and not at his birth?

Some in the early church believed that Jesus was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism, or crucifixion, or resurrection. His birth and early life were mere prelude or preparation for becoming the Savior.

“Adoptionism,” however, was declared a heresy by the Synod of Antioch and the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD. But the notion of Jesus’s birth and obscure years as being inconsequential to his role as Savior remains prominent in today’s understanding and practice of Incarnation.

At the core of the meaning of Incarnation, however, is that the sovereign, infinite God of all Creation became flesh in a helpless baby, born among the homeless of an unmarried teenage peasant girl in a faraway corner of the earth. He spent the first two years of his life as an immigrant. He grew up in a working-class family in a backwoods town, without any notoriety, doing nothing newsworthy or particularly noticeable.

Jesus was no less the Son of God as he nursed at Mary’s breast than when he was hanging on a cross. He was the Savior while having his diaper changed AND while feeding the multitudes and healing the sick. He was Emmanuel, God with us, while learning the Torah in the Nazareth synagogue as when he was teaching the disciples on the hillside. He was the Word-made-flesh as he worked with his hands in the carpenter’s shop as surely as when his hands were nailed to a tree on Golgotha.

The Incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is more than a story of how God came in human flesh two thousand years ago. It is a description of how God comes NOW. God continues to come in vulnerability, powerlessness, poverty, dependency, and obscurity. And it is through vulnerability, weakness, powerlessness, and obscurity that Christ SAVES us.

Another name for the God who became human is LOVE, and love is a relationship of giving and receiving. Another way to describe it is as a dance. Dancing involves both leading and following. Sometimes love requires that we lead, even lift the other; at other times, we follow, and are lifted off by the other.

In the last years of my wife Linda’s life, she was totally dependent on my care and that of others. Her vulnerability, weakness, and powerlessness called forth our acts of love and devotion. Through her vulnerability, the “fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23) grew in those of us who loved her: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Jesus the Christ still saves us through the vulnerable, weak, powerless, and dependent. Our most transformative celebration of Christmas is to meet him in those he called “the least of these”–the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the imprisoned, the sick, the grieving (Matthew 25:31-46).

An Enjoyable Interview

Brennan Hurley, a pastor in Taylorville, Illinois, invited me to join him in a conversation about dementia and the church. Brennan does interviews each week with a persons representing different experiences and topics and the conversations are shared with his congregation. I appreciate the opportunity to share my journey with Linda and lessons I have learned,

You may access the 45-minute interview below. Your feedback is welcome.

Grief: Two Years Later

October 3 marked two years since I, along with daughters Sheri and Sandra and sons-in-law John and Kyle, stood in muted reverence beside Linda’s bed holding her hands as she serenely slipped into that mysterious realm we call “death.”

Though the moment had been anticipated for months, even years, as the losses had been inexorable over a decade, the finality of this moment was emotionally jarring. It set in motion a life-altering process with new challenges and adjustments.

Grief, though universal and unavoidable, defies all our attempts to fully explain or completely control. We confront our losses out of our own reservoir of experiences, values, traits, and relationships. Therefore, I offer no prescriptions for how others should grieve. I can only describe my own journey and hope others might find their own resources.

C.S. Lewis’s image of grief as a bomber flying overhead continues to speak to me. Two years ago, in the aftermath of Linda’s death, the disorienting bombs were dropping relentlessly, shattering every aspect of my being with waves of deep sadness. I didn’t know if I could endure the bombardment of such painful feelings of loss, disorientation, regret, guilt, anger, and loneliness.

Now, two years later, the bomber hovers further in the distance. The bombs fall with less frequency and intensity. Recovery and reorientation come more quickly. The pervasive and penetrating sadness has abated. Preoccupation with the images of disease, decline, suffering, and death are receding as joyful memories of decades of shared love and happiness move to the forefront. Gratitude is overshadowing regrets. Forgiveness is at least softening the pangs of guilt.

I’m learning anew that grief can only be lived through. Attempts to deny it or escape will only delay and exacerbate the consequences. We can get through it and move toward the future with hope. Indeed, love endures!

Marilynne Robinson in her acclaimed novel Gilead writes:

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave — that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful.

  • This prevenient courage comes to me in. . .
    • the encouragement and support of family and friends
    • tasks to be accomplished
    • memories mingled with gratitude
    • the beauty of an approaching autumn
    • works of art or melodies and words of music
    • prayers of lament and thanksgiving
    • sharing the suffering and grief of others
    • nurturing old friendships and entering new ones
    • the birth of a great grandchild bearing Linda’s middle name

Anne Lamotte writes, “You lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly–that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

I never could dance, as Linda often reminded me. But I do walk a lot! The limp you may sometimes detect is prevenient courage enabling me to move toward the future with hope.

The wise and compassionate Don Saliers summed it up in a thoughtful and much appreciated message to me: “This deep rhythm of loss, consolations of grace, and then gratitude for the joy of shared life, it is a great mystery, isn’t it?”

Yes! Mysterium Tremendum! Tremendous Mystery! I call it GOD!

Celebrating Love Connections Across Generations

One of my previous blogs consisted of reflections on entering my eighties. The dominating theme was that time is running out for me. Capacities and experiences are diminishing rather than expanding. More family members and close friends are dying than are being born. I am more focused on endings than beginnings.

Then on March 20, my granddaughter, Katelyn Nash Aiken, gave birth to Vera Faye! Suddenly, life expanded rather than contracted. Coincidently, she was born on the first day of Spring as the earth was bursting with new life and beauty.

One look into Vera Faye’s beautiful, innocent eyes, and my heart leapt with joy. Here was pure, spontaneous love connecting across generations. It was a holy moment!

Her sparkling eyes and spirited smile brought instant joy. I felt the sanctity of pure love and the hope of new beginnings.

Such is the rhythm of creation. Such is the cycle of life. Birth and old age are part of the same tapestry of life. Being born and dying are built into the structure of everything, human and nonhuman.

There is continuity between beginnings and endings, birth and death. In one sense, nothing ever totally dies. All life is interrelated and in a constant process of changing. Biologically, we are all a collection of recycled atoms!

But we are more than clusters of cells and atoms. We are interconnected stories and part of a God’s Story of creation, liberation, restoration, incarnation, and transformation.

At the heart of life’s story is love, which is the power that creates us, connects us with one another and the creation, and ever seeks to unite us and enable us to flourish as God’s beloved children.

Sixty years ago tomorrow, June 30, Linda and I entered the covenant of marriage. I’m sorry that she did not live to know her great granddaughter. I can only imagine her ecstatic joy given the chance to hold this new member of our family. I will still celebrate our life together which now lives on in Vera Faye.

Vera not only carries Linda’s genes; she bears her middle name, Faye!

With Vera Faye’s instinctive grasp of my finger, I feel connected to one whose hand I can hold no longer but whose love continues to give life and hope.

In Praise of My Meek and Mighty Mom

Mother’s Day is filled with sentimentality; yet mothers well deserve recognition and gratitude for their indispensable contributions to our lives.

Booker T. Washington captures my sentiment: “If I have done anything in life worth attention, I feel sure that I inherited the disposition from my mother.”

When I think of my mother, Edith Walker Carder, I am confronted with the paradoxes of her remarkable influence on me and those who knew her.

  • She had a sixth-grade formal education but excelled in wisdom,
  • She was small of stature but big of heart,
  • She never held an office in church but faithfully served God.
  • She never taught a Sunday school class but knew the Bible thoroughly,
  • I never heard her pray aloud, but she prayed without ceasing,
  • She had strong moral values but never condemned others,
  • She lived with constant physical pain but never complained,
  • She knew poverty firsthand but was generous toward others,
  • She grew up in a racially segregated world but welcomed ALL people,
  • She never occupied a leadership position but influenced for good all who knew her,
  • She never accumulated wealth but was rich in the “fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peach, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Mom died in 2013 at the age of 95 but lives on in God’s eternal presence and in the lives of those who were fortunate enough to know her.