On September 6, 1782 Martha “Patsy” Jefferson, beloved wife of Thomas, died at Monticello. She had not recovered from the birth of their sixth child, some months earlier. Jefferson tended her for long weeks, never leaving her bedside. After her death he closed himself up in his room for weeks more. He never remarried.
Jefferson loved Patsy, and never recovered from her death. Neither did he write or speak about it to anyone. The closest he came was in a note to his dear friend John Adams on the passing of Abigail. In his short note, dated November 13, 1818, he wrote:
I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same ills have taught me that, for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicines.
Jefferson was so private about his private life that Joseph Ellis’ classic biography of him is titled American Sphynx. But some secrets come to light. Shortly before Patsy died, she and Thomas copied, in their own hands, this quote from Thomas Sterne’s Tristram Shandy:
Her Hand: Time wastes too fast. Every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. The days and hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day, never to return more. Everything presses on. His Hand: And every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu – every absence which follows it are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.
Jefferson burned every letter he and Patsy ever exchanged. They were private letters. But this note was folded, with a lock of her hair, and hidden away in a secret compartment, in a secret drawer, in the table by his bed. When the note was found after Jefferson’s death, the paper had been unfolded and refolded so many times it barely held together. How many nights had he taken it from its hiding place to reread their last note, and to stroke again his wife’s hair?
Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6.21). Jefferson was known for prizing his books, his wines, his gardens, and his singular home. But he kept his heart hidden in a secret compartment of a secret drawer.
Few of us are as intentionally inscrutable as Jefferson - fewer still wear our hearts on our sleeves. How little we know of each other. How little we show to each other.
God knows. The reason He chose the boy David to be king was because He saw into the young shepherd’s heart (I Samuel 16.7). David fully felt and cherished the penetrating gaze of God. He wrote in Psalm 139:
Oh God you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up. You understand my thoughts from afar. You scrutinize my path, and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways. Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it all. You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand on me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me. It is too high. I cannot attain to it. (psalms 139:1-6)
The point I am making is this – we should not deceive ourselves. Nothing is hidden from Him (I Corinthians 4.5). Whatever is in our heart: the love, the heartache, the pride, the pain – whatever we have hidden away is known by God. This means we should talk to Him about our heart’s content now. He already knows what is there. He loves us (John 3.16). He is working for our salvation (Habakkuk 3.13). That which we have locked away might be benign, it might be insidious. It is, in either case, powerful. Thus, we must be honest about it with our God. To fail to do so could have tragic consequences.
We must talk to Him now. We will answer to Him later.
My mother took down our Christmas decorations a couple of weeks ago, just as December was coming to a close. Back into the basement went the tree, the lights, the ornaments, and various other knick-knacks that had festooned our living room for the three weeks prior, and among them was the little nativity scene that we set up at the base of a bookshelf each year. The Christmas season is sadly over, but that crèche, as the French, and my grandmother, would call it, has remained on my mind even after being packed away.
It must be a good 40 or 50 years old, but our crèche is hardly traditional. The basic pieces—a dilapidated wooden shack of sorts, appropriately meant to resemble a barn; Mary, Joseph, and a host of ceramic animals who observe the little Lord Jesus as he rests peacefully in a crib of hay— are close enough to what actually happened, I guess, barring the fact that the Biblical figurines are conspicuously whitewashed (our baby Jesus is blonde— I mean, come on.) But what makes our nativity scene, I mean what really makes it, are the little figures surrounding the barn, tchotchkes that my grandmother picked up over the years she spent traveling to France and Germany and various other European countries.
There is, for example, a woman who looks like she just stepped out of 1800s France, a tall lace headdress capping her tiny clay head. There is a man who I have decided best resembles a pirate and a little old woman who appears to either be knitting a scarf or stabbing herself in the abdomen with her knitting needles. A little drummer boy (actually, more likely a man, seeing as he has a mustache), who looks better suited for a scale-model Civil War battlefield than one of ancient Bethlehem, beats away on his little drum, alongside a fat priest of vague denominational background and a camel. And my personal favorites, who this year stood neatly in front of good King Wenceslas: a couple bearing an uncanny likeness to George and Martha Washington.
Alright, so it doesn’t look that close to what actually happened. And yet, I can’t help thinking that this admittedly tacky crèche is as close as it gets.
In Luke 2:10-11, perhaps the most-quoted verses of every Christmas ever, Luke writes, “…The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’”
Joy for all the people. I love that word: all. And in Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
How beautiful. The kingdom of Heaven is open to all, if only they would take its invitation.
So often do we forget that oh-so simple notion: that all are welcome. The ones who show up in dresses and pearls; the ones who show up in jeans and tee-shirts. Teachers and dentists and secretaries and stay-at-home moms. Bleeding-heart liberals and those who would probably build shrines to Ronald Reagan in their living rooms if it was socially acceptable. Ivy-Leaguers and GED program graduates, introverts and extroverts. Men and women.
Even fishermen and tax collectors.
If that’s what the kingdom is going to look like, then I hope that’s what the church can look like, too.
After all, I like to think of Jesus’s story as being an awful lot like the nativity scene that sat at the base of our living room bookshelf— everyone from Martha Washington to a priest, to a French lady who appears to have just left the 19th century, all coming to see what the fuss is all about. A hodgepodge of people, minuscule in comparison to God’s infinite power, who can freely come to lay their eyes on Jesus, to taste Him, to see that He is good.
People who can come just to know that He loves them, too.
People are lost without Christ. Our nation needs a moral compass to guide it. Will you be such a man as Stephen to rise up and point people to Christ? Consider the life of that Spirit filled man, Stephen; and how his life blended into the life of Christ until they had become as one fully united. Based on the Gospels and the account in Acts 6:8 through 8:1, I have noted these thoughts in poetic fashion:
It was Mary’s time.
All of Heaven was watching.
Then the shameful happened…in Bethlehem no room at the Inn.
Heaven gasped at the story:
The summoning star,
Shepherd and beast and king
Each in their place.
Heavenly hosts held the moment in awe.
A baby cried.
Thirty-three years passed as though it was only a moment.
In Jerusalem another cry is heard…it is no new born cry.
But it is a cry that seven times pierces the air.
“Forgive them they know not what they do.”
Saul held their clothing.
The Righteous from the Synagogue of Freedom
Tore their clothing and grasped stones.
I, Stephen, saw the stones…the stones
The stones hurling, smiting the earth…God made flesh…
The stones thudding on my flesh.
The bestial mob howls,
The King is witness.
Yesterday soft flesh and birth blood,
Today pulped flesh and death blood.
Rocks crushing, life streaming from broken flesh.
Yet the triumphant cry,
“I see my God!”
The Spirit filled man sleeps.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord
Is the death of His saints.”
In the presence of the Firstborn from the dead,
Blessed, Stephen, the first martyr.
The joy and sorrow of a cry
Heard by shepherds, and Beasts,
Priests and King.
Birth among the rocks…cave and Hill and stones
Accused blasphemers meet in a cry,
“Forgive them they know not what they do.”
There is in theology what is called esprit de corps. That is to say that whatever happened to our Biblical brethren also happened to me. It was not just that they stoned Stephen, but in some sense I was the one stoned. It was not only that Paul was beaten with rods and whips, but I was beaten because of my faith. There ought to be such a kindred feeling with those heroes of faith (compare Hebrews 11) that when we finally see them in Heaven we will not need an introduction to them.
- Jerris Bullard