I have a son-in-law--actually Sam and I have four sons-in-law--a great treasury of good men bringing strength and affection to our lives, but I have one son-in-law whose own mother died not too many months ago. As one would expect, he and our daughter made two or three trips back to his home after that death, and they did with sorrow and peace all the things that human passing requires of those of us who love and have been loved.
One of those trips back home--the last one in fact--was to close down the old home place, emptying it of the personal effects that had been his mother's life and his own childhood, dividing goods and memorabilia amongst all the siblings, cleaning the remaining shell of home for re-sale to some other family. Several weeks after that most painful week of rending and leave-taking, our daughter came into my office one day and laid on my desk a piece of paper. "We wanted you to have this," she said, "because we thought you would care for it the way Dorothy did. She kept it with her all the time."
What my daughter had sat on my desk was actually a photocopy, but even in photocopy, it was clear that the original of which this was the image had been well-worn and, indeed, carried into Dorothy's daily life. Here, then, is what she had so valued, the prayer-poem she had so honored.
Lovely Lady dressed in blue,
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little Boy.
Tell me what to say!
Did you lift Him up sometimes,
Gently on your knee?
Did you sing to Him the way
Mother does to me?
Did you hold his hand at night?
Did you ever try
Telling Him stories of the world?
Oh! And did he ever cry?
Do you really think He cares
If I tell Him things--
Little things that happen?
And do the Angels' wings
Make a noise? And can He hear
Me if I speak low?
Does He understand me now?
Tell me--for you know.
Lovely Lady dressed in blue,
Teach me how to pray!
God was just your little Boy,
And you must know the way!
They were right, of course, our daughter and son-in-law. I do treasure their gift. I carry it now, in fact, or more correctly, I carry a photocopy of their photocopy sealed in clear plastic in my breviary. I treasure Dorothy's prayer. I have to call it Dorothy's for there is no indication on my copy of where she found it or of who originally wrote it. I treasure Dorothy's prayer-poem as a mother, for of all the gifts my adult sons and daughters have given me in the years of their maturity, I can think of few that have sunk with greater meaning into my own life, nor can I think of any that have more touched me with their candor and grace.
But just as my daughter also knew and understood in making their gift, I treasure the Lovely Lady as a professional religionist as well as a mother and mother-in-law. That is to say, that for one who like me makes her living as an observer of and commentator upon religion, the Lovely Lady is a proof text of sorts of where many Americans, observant Christians or cultural Christians or just would-be Christians, where many Americans are yearning to be. What the Lovely Lady prayer speaks to-the reason she so moves my heart and so presumably moved and sustained Dorothy's-is that, as a picture poem, it carries our Lord to complete humanness.
Dorothy' poem assumes the most fundamental of human relationships, that of mother with child, and then assumes from there all of the normal emotions for God that inform human childhood. What the prayer does, in other words, is almost naively, but very persuasively, give us a God who has an emotional life. Such a daring feat becomes a shocking one when it is pulled out and articulated for what it is, but buried in the innocence of a small poem, such a feat becomes a shrewd and small, but mighty, miracle.
What Dorothy's poem subtly does is jump all the barriers of the centuries. In two dozen lines of very ordinary verse, it removes the encumbrances of 2,000 years of doctrine and distance. Doctrine and distance, blessedly, have given us who are here today, the incarnate God who is Christ, but they have also sealed away from our hearts and from all immediacy the vulnerable human being who was the incarnation itself. Even those of us who know and walk with Jesus, and say so in just those terms everyday, cannot know the inside corridors and mansions of His own interior life. They are blocked to us, they are nowhere recorded for us, they are forever a barrier between us. Only He knew them--He and the Lovely Lady.
The centuries have given Christians the divinity of Christ. Mary, as always, gives contemporary Christians a bridge of connection with His ancient and original humanity. It is a connection, an intimacy in knowing, a consoling comfort in identify, that fills the hearts of thousands today who yearn to find the heat and flesh of the God they hold in their thoughts to be the Son of God. In this, my daughter was correct. But it is as an observant Christian, more than as a mother or as a professional observer, that I treasure her gift of the rhymed prayer.
There is much discussion amongst us these days about the Virgin Birth. In fact, I suspect that few, if indeed any, of the historic tenets of our faith are under anything like the barrage of skepticism and revisionism that are presently assaulting the twelve verses from the Gospel of Luke that are our appointed Scripture for this Christmas Sunday. That concerns me deeply as a Christian. It concerns me because, for Christians, belief or disbelief in the virgin birth has become a point of division and of mutual scorn that eats away at the far more fundamental imperative of Christian love. It concerns me as well because so long as we Christians are ourselves pinioned and flailing on the spikes and stakes of our scornful divisiveness, we become a human fence between our non-Christian friends and neighbors and the faith which we say we wish to offer them.
The truth in both our camps is that no one knows. As with the infant needs and adolescent emotions and young adult interior of Jesus of Nazareth, only He and the Lovely Lady know what really happened. Only they, too, know by what means and machinations He really came to be among us. Once, in adulthood, He Himself addressed this, I think, if I read correctly, with a good deal of relish and perhaps some humor.
On that occasion, He had just been tested three times in a row in a public forum by the religious leaders of his day and by their cleverly contrived questions of dogma and practice. After He had rendered his answers to their questions--presumably with success--He turned, while they were still all together, and took them on with a dogma/doctrine question of His own.
"What do you think of Messiah?" he asked them. "Whose Son is He?"
"Why, David's," they answered immediately, for that answer was, and remains, central to Judaism, being in many ways the lynch pin that holds all the rest together and gives it purpose in as much as without it, Judaism has neither consolation nor design.
Good Jew and irregular rabbi that he was, Jesus accepts that answer as the only one possible and counters with the only response possible. "If that be true," He says, "then how can it be that David, inspired by God himself, calls Messiah Lord? If David calls Messiah Master, how can Messiah be David's son?"
And there was, of course, no answer to that question. There never is to a mystery. There is no answer because an answer would only wither the elegance, the poetry, the awful beauty of faith and leave us merely human again, stripped bare of all that exceeds us, for in the end it is Dorothy's poem that holds the truth:
Lovely Lady dressed in blue
God was just your little Boy
And you know the way.
Lovely Lady dressed in blue
Teach us this Christmas Sunday
How to watch and pray.
Let us pray.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming may find in us a mansion prepared for Himself who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.