what holds us back: Galatians 4

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This is the home of the little matchstick girl by Hans Christian Anderson.  The image is drawn on the inside of the cover page in the edition I’ve had since I was a little girl.  Here is the first line:

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No one has bought any matches from the little matchstick girl all day.  She lost one slipper escaping a carriage.  A little boy ran off with the other.

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The little girl is afraid to go home because she knows her father will beat her for not selling any matches. So she kneels down in the snow and lights a match…  and she has a vision:

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The walls disappear, and she sees a feast.  The match goes out.  She lights another match, and she sees a beautiful Christmas tree.  The match goes out.  She lights another, and sees her Grandmother, the only person who was ever kind to her, who carries her up to heaven where there’s no cold or pain or little girls freezing to death alone in the streets with no one to notice.

It’s tragic.  And it was one of my favorite picture books as a child. But I don’t think it’s because I was a macabre child.  I think it’s because the story not only tells a deep truth about the disappointments of earth that children sense, but also points to the images of glory that can be found here.  It’s not just a story about how no matter how bad it gets down here on earth, there is always hope of heaven in our future.  That strain is there, of course, in the grandmother lifting the dying girl into the arms of Jesus, but it’s only part of the story.

One of the beautiful things Hans Christian Anderson did here was give this little girl an audience.  Every child who reads the story sees the little girl.  Every child cares.  Every child shivers in the cold with her.  Every child is outraged when she loses her slippers.  And most of all, every child is horrified that she can’t go home because she will be beaten for something that isn’t her fault.  In other words, children sense that by reading the story they are entering it, and that by entering they are helping.

In empathizing, every child also sees their own story reflected in hers.  Every child has been yelled at for something that wasn’t her fault.  Many children have been beaten for things that weren’t their fault.  Children know there’s something rotten in the state of the human heart.  Children sense that they were made to be treated the way the grandmother treats her – that we are all created to be loved, cared for, embraced and taken to a place of warmth.  Children read the story and sense we are all united in our pain but also in our need for love.

Another reason the story resonates on such a deep level, at least for me, is that it’s the gospel story.  Jesus was the poor outcast who was beaten and died alone for something that wasn’t His fault.  He died for all the many things we humans do wrong, every day.  His lonely death created a way for the rest of us to never have to be lonely again.

Jesus was, I think, the loneliest man who ever lived. When the woman at the well flirts with Him, and He tells her He can give her “living water,” she says, “hey, wait a minute.  I’ve heard there’s a Messiah coming.  Are you the Messiah?”

Yes, Jesus says.  I am.

It makes me cry.  Why?  Because it’s one of the few times someone sees Jesus.  It’s one of the first times someone has listened to Him.  She’s one of the first people who really understood who He was.  It’s not surprising that it took an outcast and marginalized person like the woman at the well to see Jesus.  Perhaps we humans have to be thrust outside the gates before we’re willing to look up to the heavens.  When we begin to realize that we are all the little matchstick girl, but that Jesus become the little matchstick girl on purpose to save us, we begin to realize the depth of God’s love for us.

The third and last way I think this story is one of tremendous hope – and the thing about it I loved best as a child – is the way the matches melt walls and show glimpses of glory.  Every struck match created magic.  In my experience, that, too, is part of the Christian journey.  God gives us incredible flashes of his glory if we’re willing to kneel in the snow and seek His light.  Sometimes He gives us visions or words.  Sometimes He speaks to us in a deep quiet knowing in our hearts.  Sometimes He speaks to us through the words of the Bible, making them come alive and pierce our hearts.  Sometimes He speaks to us through the kindness of a stranger.  Sometimes He speaks to us through friends or family.  Sometimes He speaks to us through the snow swirling in the sky or the wind whistling through the trees or the deep throated chuckles of a dove or the keening cry of a red tailed hawk.  Always His voice is heard, and sometimes it’s audible.

Those images of glory are the real story.  The darkness is not our story.  To hold onto the visions we see through struck matches is the story of faith.  To close our eyes to the darkness and hear the still small voice of love – or the great and roaring orchestra of the angels singing Holly, Holy, Holy – that is the hope that can sustain us through the cold and the dark and the inequities or the dread of going home looking like failures.

So what does that all mean for us?  It means that in this world, we can light a match of prayer and faith and see a vision of how things are through the lens of the gospel. We see, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once put it, that the world is charged with the grandeur of God. He reminds us that when God looks at us, He sees not our failures but Jesus’ perfection.  And then the match dies out, and all we feel is our cold and loneliness and our sense that we are trapped.  We can feel like our own homes are places where we will be beaten – metaphorically and sometimes literally – for showing up empty handed.  We feel like there’s no one to help us and no hope.

But we have to hold onto the light.  We have to remember that God is the opposite of the father in that cold hovel.

God actually longs for us to come to Him empty handed.

Just as Paul says here that he is suffering “birth pangs until Christ is completely and permanently formed within you,” so Jesus died in labor.  Ga. 4:19.  He died to give us the new birth He tells Nicodemus about.  But instead of asking that we prove our worth in order to get this gift, He asks only that we come to Him humbly, knowing we can offer nothing worthy of true glory.  Human flesh can only give birth to flesh.  But the Spirit of God gives life to our spirits. And when we allow God to make us spirit filled, Paul says here we are like a desolate barren woman who breaks forth in a joyful shout, because we have “more children than she who has a husband.”  Gal. 4:27 (quoting Isaiah 54:1).  When we become born again with the living water of Christ, we become children of the free.  God’s Spirit in our hearts calls the Almighty God “daddy.”  Gal. 4:6.

And so it’s time to let go of all that holds us back from striking our last few matches.  The light God gives us is the light we all truly long for.  When we feel can’t sell a single match, God lights a flame in our hearts that will burn brightly forever.  When we lose our slippers, God tells us how beautiful are the feet that run to share the good news.  When we kneel in the snow and try to warm ourselves and fail, God whispers that He knows we can’t warm ourselves against the frost. We have to let go of the dark and see for the lie it is.  We can’t let the enemy “isolate” us.  Gal. 4:17.  Even when we feel alone, we are never alone.

Jesus is the Light of the World.  He is the love that we’ve always longed for.  He has good plans for our lives.  He has plans to prosper and not to harm us.  He promised never to leave or abandon us.  The visions that we see in the snow on the last day of the new year, are visions of how warm we can feel every day of every year, if we let Him in.  He wants us to open wide our doors.  He wants us to open our hearts.  He wants us to welcome Him in to dine with us. He wants us to remember that the lonelier we become, the more room there is for Him to fill us. That’s why the very snare the enemy sets for us can become the very thing that sets us free.

For if we turn to God in our pain instead of away, Jesus will be like that guest who gives us the never-ending pasta pot – the flask of oil that never runs out – the fire that never stops burning in our hearts, until it lights the whole world on fire with His love.  He welcomes us home, and His home is so capacious and warm and undemanding that the whole world is welcome.

And the snow and cold and unfair treatments can never hurt us again.

with love, Caroline Coleman, on the seventh day of the New Year.

2 thoughts on “what holds us back: Galatians 4

  1. Thanks for writing this. The little match girl left an indelible mark on me as a child. I’ve been debating reading it to Audrey who’s six even though she’s already tackled batnia and other Hans Christian Anderson stories. I do remember being so struck and sad… And yet the memory of reading that story also is beautiful. Where is the verse from you quote from Paul saying “more children than women with husbands”. Sorry if I’m inarticulate- this is from my phone and I find it difficult to type well!

    • Dear Julia: Thank you for commenting! I can’t tell you whether to read it to Audrey. I did love it. But I didn’t have the loss she had. I will pray for wisdom. Thanks for pointing out I forgot to put in my citation! I’ve fixed it, but to answer your question: Paul writes in Galatians 4:27 “For it is written in the Scriptures, Rejoice, O barren woman, who has not given birth to children; break forth into a joyful shout, you who are not feeling birth pangs, for the desolate woman has many more children than she who has a husband.”

      He’s quoting Isaiah 54:1-6:

      “Sing, O barren one, you who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who did not travail with child! For the [spiritual] children of the desolate one will be more than the children of the married wife, says the Lord. Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; spare not; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes, For you will spread abroad to the right hand and to the left; and your offspring will possess the nations and make the desolate cities to be inhabited. Fear not, for you shall not be ashamed; neither be confounded and depressed, for you shall not be put to shame. For you shall forget the shame of your youth, and you shall not [seriously] remember the reproach of your widowhood any more.” Here comes my favorite part: “For your Maker is your Husband – the Lord of hosts is His name – and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; the God of the whole earth He is called. For the Lord has called you like a woman forsaken, grieved in spirit, and heartsore – even a wife [wooed and won] in youth, when she is [later] refused and scored, says your God” Is. 54:1-6.

      with love, Caroline

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