When God Sends Clarence

I’m a huge fan of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It tells the story of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) who considers committing suicide on Christmas Eve. His uncle and business partner has lost $8,000– enough to ruin their business. His rival has called for him to arrested, after George has begged him for help. He had nowhere left to turn. In desperation, he leaves his family, goes to a bar, has a drink, and finally, broken and crying, he prays a simple prayer. Almost immediately, an angry man slugs him in the jaw, and both men are thrown out into the cold. George runs his car into a tree, and proceeds on foot to a bridge, where he plans to jump to his death before he can be arrested and sent to prison. Not a feel-good holiday movie, right?

However, that simple prayer has been heard in Heaven. George thinks that the “answer” to his prayer was being punched, but God has other plans, which include sending a “guardian angel” to help George change his mind. But God doesn’t send a mighty angel to prevent George from jumping off the bridge. He doesn’t send a glorious angel of light to amaze and instruct George. He doesn’t send a warrior angel to protect him from his rival or the consequences of his uncle’s mistake. Instead, He sends Clarence.

Now, I have to pause a moment to say that I disagree with the film in its depiction of angels. I believe angels are spiritual beings who serve the Lord of Heaven, but I don’t believe that humans “become” angels after they die, nor do I believe that they must “earn their wings.” In fact, this flies in the face of the Gospel, that we are justified by faith in the saving work of Christ on the Cross.

But I mention Clarence, because, in the film, he is precisely the sort of “help” we do not expect of God– someone who is earnest, but inept and uninformed. Clarence has almost no clue how to keep George from throwing away his life. He tries to reason with George, but to no avail. He tries to cheer him up, encourage him, and befriend him, even explaining that if George would just let him help, Clarence would earn his wings. George is still determined that his life has been in vain. Finally, he tells Clarence to go away, and claims it would have just been better if he (George) had never been born.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who has never seen it, but the story reaffirms the value and the joy of life, even as it faces the very real darkness of depression and despair. George finally realizes that his life is really far more wonderful than his circumstances– and very much worth living!

We live in a desperate and dark world– many people are discouraged and facing dark days. Debt, sickness, grief, homelessness, betrayal, alcoholism and addiction, prison, abuse–they are all very real and overwhelmingly oppressive. Sometimes those who face such circumstances cry out in desperation, only to have an experience similar to George Bailey’s– they end up getting punched in the jaw! But this is NOT the answer from God– this is the world’s “solution.” Anger, despair, chaos, violence and abuse come when we try to run away from problems or solve them in our own powerlessness. God’s answers often come in unexpected packages. An unexpected encounter with a stranger; an overheard conversation on a bus or train; even an ad on TV or a song on the radio. God doesn’t usually send an angel– He often “sends” ordinary people in ordinary ways to do His extraordinary work.

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But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

1 Corinthians 1:27 (KJV)

God delights in using the “simple” things and ordinary people. (See a much fuller exposition here:) https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_corinthians/1-27.htm#:~:text=To%20confound%20the%20wise%20%E2%80%94%20To%20shame%20those,he%20does%20it%20in%20irony%2C%20he%20aggrandizes%20them. George Bailey is a simple man who stays true (often in spite of himself) to what he knows is right. Even as he despises his life, it has produced dozens of small miracles. But it requires a change of perspective to see them. “Clever” people; “powerful” people, and “successful” people have surrounded, and even “surpassed” George, but it takes a “Clarence” to make him see the eternal value of a life well-lived. George’s life is worth far more than money; far more than worldly success; far more than power and greed. George is truly “the richest man in town” in all the things that most matter.

It’s a Wonderful Life– George with his family

If God has blessed you by sending a “Clarence,” take a moment to thank Him. If God is calling you to be a “Clarence” in someone’s life today, take a moment to thank Him for that, too! You may not earn a pair of wings, but I guarantee you will be blessed.

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The Silent Treatment

Have you ever had someone give you “the silent treatment?” Or have you ever been angry or disgusted and refused to talk to someone? It can be very frustrating. You may ask a simple question– even look the other person in the eye–only to face a wall of silence. Silence of this type can be oppressive. It is less an absence of sound than a presence of something heavy and dark.

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God spoke through His prophets, messengers (angels), and sometimes, in visions throughout the days of the Old Testament. But then, He was silent. For four hundred years! There were no new messages, no prophetic visions– just a gloomy silence. There was still noise in the world– chaos, confusion, war, debates, chattering, gossip– but no word from God. He had spoken for thousands of years, and His laws and the words of the prophets still stood, promising a coming Messiah, a rescue and a redemption for the nation of Israel. But then, nothing.

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Imagine how much more glorious it must have been when the angel hosts announced the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds! After such a long silence, they must have nearly exploded with the joyous news! The shepherds, already frightened by the sudden appearance, must have been held in thrall to hear voices from the heavenly realms– something that hadn’t been heard or even heard of for over a dozen generations!

And that’s how it often is–after a period of silence, the sound comes spilling out in a mad rush. Feelings, thoughts, announcements, all waiting to rush out in an explosion of sound and excitement. The silence is over! The heaviness is lifted. The dam has burst, and the words pour out in a great flood.

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When Jesus– the Word of God– arrived, He spoke to many. He told parables and spoke words of healing and kindness and even warning. But at His trial, He refused to answer many of the questions that were posed. He dared to give “the silent treatment” to Pontius Pilate and the Pharisees. People who had refused to listen to Him during his ministry suddenly wanted answers. But He had already spoken and told them everything they needed to know.

Not so with His disciples. He spoke to them plainly and promised them a “counselor.” The Holy Spirit would speak, and would teach them how to speak. There would be no more “silent treatment” for those who knew the Spirit. No need for angelic messengers or prophetic visions (though God could still choose to use them as well)–God’s Spirit would dwell in the hearts and minds of His people.

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And yet, we often feel that God is “silent” in our own time. But is that really the case?

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Have you ever given God the “silent treatment?” How long have you held in resentment or doubt over something God did or didn’t do; a prayer He answered in a way that left you feeling hurt or confused? Is there a wall of silence on your part? It may not even be full silence. Is there some issue or topic you refuse to bring to prayer? Some secret desire you won’t discuss with Him? How does it weigh down the rest of your relationship?

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I have found myself holding things back, keeping silent about things in my life. It stunts my growth and hinders my prayers. But when I finally break my silence, pouring out the full measure of my fears, confusion, and deepest desires, it is like a weight sliding away, and light breaking through the clouds. The joy and relief are overwhelming. (See Psalm 32 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+32&version=ESV) What the psalmist says about sin can apply to doubt, anger, or confusion, as well. Unconfessed and unspoken, it will weigh upon us.

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Don’t give God the “silent treatment.” He already knows all that you would keep back from Him. Silence doesn’t “treat” anything– real healing comes from open communication with the Great Physician. Don’t wait four hundred years– or even four hundred seconds! Let the words (and maybe the tears) flow…And don’t be surprised if your silence is replaced with singing!

Let No Tongue On Earth Be Silent..

“O ye heights of Heav’n, adore Him,
Angel hosts His praises sing.
Pow’rs, dominions, bow before Him,
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Ev’ry voice in concert ring,
Evermore and Evermore!”

“Silent night, Holy night…” Tradition has it that Christ was born on a cold and silent night. The Bible doesn’t exactly say when he was born. It does say that the angels appeared to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flocks by night; and that the wise men of the East followed a star to find the newborn King. But the Bible doesn’t talk about the night being unnaturally silent or cold– these are details we’ve added to the story that may or may not be accurate.

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But one thing is certain– whatever silence may have settled over Bethlehem near the time of Christ’s arrival; whatever lull in the hustle and bustle of the busy city’s streets–there was no silence among those who heard the good news of His birth. From the singing hosts of Heaven’s angels, to the excited voices of the shepherds, the inquiring whispers among the wise men, and the nervous recitations of the prophecies among Herod’s advisors, Christ’s birth was met with a symphony of reaction.

And so it continues–as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day approach, hymns will be sung, rich with words like “Hallelujah,” “Joy, ” “Blessed,” “Adore,” “Savior,” “Lord,” “Wonder,” “Glory,” “In Excelsis Deo,” “Redeemer,” “King,” and “Emmanuel!” From every nation, and in every language, praise and worship will erupt from homes and churches. And this is in addition to prayer and worship that rises in an unbroken stream around the globe each day, every day.

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It fills me with wonder to think that at any given moment, someone, somewhere, is praying and praising our Wonderful God. But millions of tongues are silent– even on Christmas–in response to God’s Everlasting Love and Grace. There are millions, even billions of tongues that will greet Christmas Day without wonder, without hope, without joy. Billions who will grumble about the weather, or the outcome of a sporting match, or their family relationships.

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Someday, “no tongue on earth” will be able to keep silent in response to the Messiah. “Every knee shall bow, in Heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10b-11 NIV)

Can you imagine a choir made up of every single human being–“every voice in concert”– declaring the worth and majesty of God’s Holy Lamb?! This babe born to be the Prince of Peace; this Only Begotten of the Father; our Emmanuel– He is worthy of such a concert! Let NO TONGUE on Earth be silent! Let us Extol Him! How Great Our Joy!!

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With the Poor, and Mean, and Lowly..

During this season, many of us spend time decorating–we add lights, candles, sparkling ornaments, and fragrant trees–we make our houses and yards festive and bright. And it is appropriate to do so, as we are preparing to celebrate the Light of the World, and the joy of Immanuel– God With Us.

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But it is also good to remember that God did not enter a world cleaned up, decorated, adorned, and prepared for Him. Jesus was born in a stable. Angels sang; prophets dreamed; the faithful waited and watched; but the rest of the world was distracted by a census, crowded streets, rude and grumpy neighbors, taxes, cold nights and endless bad news.

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Some of us put up elaborate mangers with beautiful figurines–robed Wise Men, earnest Shepherds, and the Holy Family; a few animals, and an angel or two– all clean and shiny and serene. In reality, it was likely crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, and cold. The Shepherd and Wise Men were not there at the same time, and the angels were not present at the stable.

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It seems obvious to say, but it’s important to remind ourselves that Jesus himself never celebrated Christmas. He never sang carols about His own birth; He never counted down the days on an Advent Calendar; He never decorated a Christmas Tree, or enjoyed a plate of Christmas cookies. Instead, He spent His life among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. He entered the lives of beggars and lepers and outcasts–and He brought light into their world. The Lord of all creation, who created galaxies of glittering stars, who commanded armies of angelic hosts–walked on dusty roads and had no home to decorate. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and showed compassion to those who were possessed by demons.

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This Advent season, as we decorate and prepare our homes for a warm and merry Christmas, may we remember to live among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. This year, it may seem more difficult, but it is not impossible to share hope and joy with those who need it so desperately. May we prepare our hearts as well as our hearths to accept the Light of the World. And may we reflect it into the world around us– more than ever!

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Holy God, you came in humility and compassion. You lived to serve, and you died to save. Show me how to love and serve in this season of darkness and fear, just as You did so long ago, that those living in darkness may more than just holiday tinsel and glitter. Amen.

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks


While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
“Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread
Had seized their troubled mind;
“Glad tidings of great joy I bring
To you and all mankind.
“To you, in David’s town, this day
Is born of David’s line
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
And this shall be the sign:
“The heav’nly Babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swathing bands,
And in a manger laid.”
Thus spake the seraph and forthwith
Appeared a shining throng
Of angels praising God on high,
Who thus addressed their song:
“All glory be to God on high,
And to the Earth be peace;
Good will henceforth from heav’n to men
Begin and never cease!”

Words by Nahum Tate

Why the shepherds? Angels might have appeared to the rulers and priests of Israel, announcing the birth of their long-awaited Messiah, but they did not.  Nor did they appear to the common citizens (and other visitors) in Bethlehem.  We make much of the shepherds being lowly and humble, and that is true enough.  But there were other poor and humble people throughout the land.  And there were “important” people who waited to hear the news.  

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There is something about shepherds that is close to the heart of God.  All the way back in Genesis– Abel was a shepherd.  The early patriarchs– Abraham, Isaac, Jacob– were all shepherds.  Moses, when God called him, was working as a shepherd.  King David started as a shepherd, tending his father’s sheep, while his older brothers were serving in the army.  The prophet Amos was a shepherd.  Jesus used several parables about and allusions to shepherds and sheep as well.  (See Matthew 18:10-14; John 10 among others.)

Shepherds are humble, yes, but there are other traits that I think are at work in the story of the Nativity– some important, and others incidental:

  • Shepherds watch.  That seems pretty self-evident from songs and passages, but it’s also important.  The shepherds weren’t watching for angels that night, but they were alert, combing the area for dangers, pitfalls, straying sheep, wandering predators…There is nothing in the Bible that says that the angels were invisible to anyone else in the neighborhood; only that the angel appeared to the shepherds and was joined by the hosts of heaven.
  • Shepherds must focus on others.  Much is made of the “lowly” station of shepherds.  But that is the nature of the job.  A “Good” shepherd is one whose focus and efforts are directed at the sheep.  He doesn’t “climb the ladder of success”, “toot his own horn”, “keep banker’s hours”– in fact the shepherds of the Nativity story were the “night shift”, tending the flocks when it was cold, dark, dangerous, and thankless!
  • Shepherds were familiar with “unconventional” birth.  An announcement that Messiah was born in a stable and could be found wrapped in strips of cloth would come as a surprise to shepherds, but not as an impossibility or a cruel joke.  Shepherds (anyone whose livelihood depends on the safe delivery of livestock) would understand and rejoice over new life, even in unexpectedly humble or unconventional circumstances.
  • Shepherds were often “left out” of ceremonies and celebrations, because of their frequent contact with blood and death.  The angel’s announcement had special meaning in the inclusion of shepherds, which was to show that even those who had been deemed ritually unclean were to be included in the “Good news of Great Joy!”
  • The shepherds were “abiding” in the fields.  These were not the temporary visitors thronging to Bethlehem for the census.  They were not the patriarchs of great families living in walled compounds or great estates; neither were they awake in the middle of the night plotting, scheming, or creating havoc.  They were humble, but they were faithfully doing their work.
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This Advent season, may we consider the shepherds and learn to be watchful, other-focused, joyful, ready to accept the Good News, and faithful in all that we do and say in response to our Good Shepherd!

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Go, Tell It on the Mountain


Go, Tell It On The Mountain

While shepherds kept their watching
O’er silent flocks by night,
Behold throughout the heavens
There shone a holy light


Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.



The shepherds feared and trembled
When lo above the earth
Rang out the angel chorus
That hailed our Savior’s birth;


Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.



Down in a lowly manger
The humble Christ was born;
And God sent out salvation
That blessed Christmas morn.


When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day
I sought the Lord to help me
And He showed me the way.


He made me a watchman
Upon the city wall
And If I am a Christian
I am the least of all.


Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

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During the Christmas season, we often focus on giving.  And it’s certainly appropriate.  But there is another aspect of Christmas that sometimes gets overlooked– Telling.

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Christ came to earth humbly, but he didn’t come secretly.  Angels announced his arrival to the shepherds; stars aligned and shone brightly as a signal to the wise men.  Prophets had foretold his coming for centuries.  John the Baptist even went ahead of Jesus, baptizing and preparing his hearers for the good news yet to come.  The earliest followers of Christ were eager to tell of his words, his deeds, and his glorious resurrection.  Many lost their lives doing so.

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If the birth of Christ was reason to fill the night sky with songs and wonders,  reason enough to send angels and stars, prophets and messengers; what about the news of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension?  Why do we allow this amazing news to sit on a dusty shelf, unopened and unshared?  Or treat it like a secret, good news for only the few, the righteous?

We have the greatest news in all of history– more important than any political scandal, more amazing than the latest technology, more joyous than any other announcement imaginable.  Emmanuel– God WITH US–He came, he lived, worked, spoke, laughed, shared, loved, cried, ate, slept, and died, WITH US.  And he died and rose so that we could continue to live WITH HIM!

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God didn’t send all the signs and wonders– he didn’t come into the world to be a guilty secret.  And though there is still a risk involved in proclaiming the gospel, it is no less good, and no less NEWS now than it was nearly 2000 years ago.  Let’s TELL it!  SHOW it!  POST it!  SING it out!– Everywhere!

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Father, Thank you for this wonderful news. Thank you for the Greatest Gift–Yourself.  Give us hearts filled with joy and courage, and lips eager to share your grace and love with those we meet.  Help us to be faithful messengers of that grace and love; transparent and true in word and deed.  May every mountain and valley, forest, meadow, desert and ocean ring with the hope and glory of your nativity, your ministry, and your death and resurrection.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo


Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echoing their joyous strains.Refrain:
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Gloria, in excelsis Deo!
Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heav’nly song?
Come to Bethlehem and see
Him Whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore on bended knee,
Christ the Lord, the newborn King.
See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.
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This has always been one of my favorite Christmas carols to sing.  I love the movement of the melodic line and the harmonies, especially when singing the angels’ chorus:  “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!  Gloria, in excelsis Deo!”
(Glory to God in the Highest Heavens!)

Yet, if we think about it, the angels seem almost to be having a joke.  There is something ironic about hosts of angels praising the glory of God in His highest Heaven, when they are announcing that He is, at that moment, a wailing, helpless infant, wrapped in rags and borrowing a feeding trough for his bed, miles from the warmth and comfort of a home of any kind, let alone the glory of His rightful throne.

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And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Luke 2:8-18 (NIV)
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And this is how God chose to appear, and chooses to work– confounding the power of the powerful, the wisdom of the wise, and the goodness of the self-righteous.  God does not glorify that which is already a spectacle.  Instead he glorifies the lowly and unqualified things of the world by coming into them, working through them, and reshaping them for His use.

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And so, may we have eyes, ears, and hands to work in the same way–to raise up, encourage, bless, and honor those who cannot yet see the Glory around them, the Glory God offers to share freely.  May we be the host of God’s messengers to spread the Glorious news of Christ’s gift of life and salvation.  May we be like the shepherds, jubilant in our acceptance of His great news.  And may we be, like the babe himself–humble and kind–bringing Glory to the world around us, no matter how dark or unwelcoming it may appear.  Remember, God himself is with us!

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Gloria!  Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

What Child is This?


What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby;
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Words by William C. Dix

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No other name in all history elicits such differing and intense responses.  Jesus, the son of Mary
Jesus, the Son of God
Jesus, the Son of Man
Jesus, the Son of David
Jesus, the Christ
Jesus, the Messiah

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Who is this child– ruler of the universe,
Laid in a feeding stall,
In a simple stable,
In a small town,
In a captive land?
Son of a carpenter (illegitimate, by some accounts),
In the royal line of David (but so far removed as to be of no account).

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Yet angel hosts sing “Gloria!”
Kings and philosophers travel from distant lands for just a glimpse,
Bringing priceless treasures and humbled hearts,
While the beleaguered puppet king of a conquered people 
Prepares to destroy him.

Will he rise to take his place in Herod’s palace?
Will he lead a revolt to free his people from Rome?
Will he bring together rival factions among the priesthood?
Will he …
Die in agony, betrayed and scorned?

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This, this is Christ the King;
The Lamb of God.
Savior and Sacrifice.
“The Silent Word”, 
Pleading,
Healing,
Bleeding,
Ascending.
Even in his humble life and
Ignominious death
He rose to change the world–
Stopping time and dividing it into
All that came before and
All that has happened since.

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This is Christ the King
Bruised for our sins,
Betrayed by our selfishness
Cheapened by our compromise and corruption.

Bring him incense, gold, and myrrh;
He is more than our tinsel, jingle bells, and platinum charge cards.
He is the King– He is a Babe; the son of Mary.

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