Manger Moments: The Nativity as Metaphor

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As the Advent season meets Christmas, I find I am able to relax just a bit more and begin to accept the outcome of Christmas as it will be.  I don’t fuss so much now.  Soon, what is done will be done and what is not done will likely not matter.

That insight came to me late last week as I realized that I will soon celebrate my 41st Christmas.  Yet, from all those years, I do not have a long-running play-by-play memory of each and every moment of those Christmases, only little bits of memories.  Some memories are of sicknesses experienced during the season, like the year I had Chicken Pox, and the year my daughter was hospitalized with pneumonia.  Some I remember for the gifts I received, most notably a stuffed dog named Ralph and a stuffed monkey named Zip when I was little.   Some are more general memories of the laughter shared with friends and family, songs we sang together, and food we enjoyed together.  And then there are the few memories of truly magical moments, when we would set out from Grandma’s farm for Midnight Mass to find freshly fallen snow, as if God read our minds and delivered the gift beyond our power to purchase…a blanket of white for us all.

I realized that none of these moments are exactly newsworthy in and of themselves.  None of them make a great story or show all my hard work, or the hard work of those who loved me enough to make them happen.  What they show, I guess, is that I am still no different today that the people of two thousand years ago.  I still prepare for Christmas looking for a majestic King, not a humble babe in a manger.

Year after year as Advent dawns, I try to make Christmas royal and perfect:  A Celebration To Remember!   I am searching for a regal palace, not realizing that all the while all my busyness has left no room in my heart for anything less that the Royal Coming that I am prepared to celebrate.  Meanwhile, quietly, in the midst of all my running errands, buying and wrapping, baking, mailing and all-out-busyness, God is working behind the scenes journeying with me, even as I feel my feet sinking into the sand.  He strengthens me as I become overwhelmed by the pains of my labor. He finds rest for me, as I protest and keep searching for somewhere better, somewhere nobler, somewhere more worthy.

It is only in His perfect timing, that I am finally left with no better choice but to look around and realize that the hay is soft enough, the barnyard warm enough, the blankets gentle enough to welcome New Life into my heart after all.  Only there, in that moment of acceptance, do I begin to see that even now, at Christmas, I am a child who believes in One she cannot see.   Though the gift now is not the latest gadget or the newest gizmo delivered by a Man in Red.  The gift now is a stirring up of memories from within that are the pinpricks of light from years past, moments of light from today, and the hope of more moments of light yet to come.   These memories, experiences, and promises are the little bits of light strung around and through my heart that I hang in celebration for that Invisible One I long to see…but not yet.

And I realize, as I look back at all the preparation and labor, that I have begun to slow my breathing now, exhausted, and waiting in anticipation of that last final push, when I will welcome and see with new eyes the One who in true devotion, never left my side, but rather humbly allowed himself to disappear into the shadows of my heart, so that he could emerge anew.

Rejoice!

He is Emmanuel, God with us.

Enjoy your Christmas!  I look forward to seeing you again after the New Year!

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Expectant Waiting

 

 Mary kissing Baby Jesus

On this day forty –some years ago, at least two mothers I know sat in hopeful expectation of the birth of a child.  The first mother already had three little ones at home.  This, the delivery of her soon-to-be fourth child, carried a greater reason for concern.  There had previously been complications, and, if her doctor had had the final word, this child would not have been created at all.  The risk to both mother and child for a successful delivery was greater than he felt comfortable delivering.  Nevertheless, a child was soon coming into the world, and despite her doctor’s fears and concerns, the mother held out hope and confidence that this child would be delivered safely into the world.

The second mother had one child at home and was eagerly looking forward to the experience the delivery this second child promised.  For the delivery of her first child, her husband had been absent due to the growing conflict –many called it war—in Vietnam.  At that time, she’d had to wait six months before even introducing their first-born child to his father.  Now, the war had ended, her husband was home, and this baby would know the loving gaze of both its parents, right from the start.

In both instances, there was much to celebrate:  obstacles overcome, milestones reached, dreams realized and the simple reality of promise and hope soon to be held in their arms.  Both instances also had very real doubts about the possibility of it all working out.  What if something is wrong with the child?  What if the child or the mother doesn’t survive the delivery?  But these questions would only be answered by moving forward through the process, when the time was right.  Waiting and worrying were hardly productive. There was only room for hope and promise now.

Remarkably, (or perhaps not so remarkably, because most days we take it all granted) the first mother went on to have a healthy baby boy, and the second, a healthy baby girl.

Almost twenty years after their births, these stories merged where few would have guessed.  The boy and the girl grew up, met, and fell in love.  They went on to have three beautiful children and as normal a life together as anyone could hope for them.

This month at our house, we celebrate the birthdays of those two babies born so long ago.

The boy was my husband.

The girl was me.

As I reflect on these stories today, through the eyes of my mother-in-law and my mom, I am reminded of the expectant hope in all of us this Advent season. May we wait with the same quiet confidence and joyful hearts of soon-to-be mothers everywhere.

And may God continue to reveal himself to us all in ways we never imagined!

Happy birthday, Ted!

Love,

Lisa

Photo source:  Google search, artist unknown

The Gift of Darkness

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As the daylight draws more rapidly to a close in the weeks ahead, it is hard not to feel as though the world itself is losing the battle for light.

I have found that, if I am not careful, I can begin to grow quite comfortable in the darkness.  After all, even in darkness we find comfort, but here it is very often the ego that comforts us. In the darkness, our ego minimizes our spiritual wants and rationalizes our spiritual needs to the point that we may begin to doubt that we need God at all.  We grow complacent, convincing ourselves that our bad habits– ranging anywhere from the socially shameful habits of alcohol or drug abuse to the socially acceptable habits of material self-indulgence–aren’t hurting anyone (or at least only me). 

And we forget that we were born into the light.

The light is not welcome now.  When light begins to dawn, we turn away, digging ourselves deeper into our own little corner of the world, where we are in control, even if it’s only in the shadows. Our darkness has become our blanket of comfort and protection. Our habits serve us just fine.

We don’t feel suffering at all, until our habits get old and stop serving us the way they once did.  Then the struggle begins anew, as we try to find ever more “things” to appease our wants and desires—more drugs, more financial security, more “friends” so that we never have to be alone (with ourselves).

In that struggle, somewhere deep within, we remember that we are made for the light.  We find ourselves filled with longing for it. We know suffering once more, because we see we can only be in control in the darkness—we cannot control the light.  We may become fearful that the hole we have dug for ourselves this time is too deep, too dark, too far from the light to ever feel its warmth again.

Only then do we realize the gift that darkness brings…an opportunity to welcome the Light once more.

1.  Prayer taken from Little Pieces of Light…Darkness and Personal Growth, by Joyce Rupp.

Using Nature as Our Guide through the Darkness

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I’ve confessed before that relocating is one of the most painful experiences for me to undergo.  For me, it feels like the closest experience to dying I’ve ever known.  I give up so much of the “me” I’d come to be in one place… faith formation coordinator, religious education teacher, vacation bible school coordinator, book club member, Bunco player, room mother, PTA chairperson, committee member of x, y, and z, etc. etc….only to find myself uprooted and transplanted to another place where people do not know my gifts, my favorite past times, or even my (often sarcastic) personality.  It takes time to get to know others, to get to know who I will count among my friends, and who I will come to consider family.

There is no blue print for how to do this.

Much like the relocation experience for me, I believe we are not meant to stay whole during this Advent season’s experience of waiting and darkness.  Like our landscaped bushes and shrubs during this season, parts of us are meant to be trimmed away, and left broken and raw as the darkness sets in.  There we sit stunned, immobile, and unsure of where to go from here.

Then, eventually, we catch a glimmer or a twinkle perhaps, of something—someone–glistening in the darkness.  Our eyes begin to adjust, ever so slowly, and gradually we make out silhouettes of others that reflect and project the light our way.  Pretty soon, even the heavy snowfall bounces the light around and we feel ourselves lighter, brighter, more hopeful of things to come.

Finally, we realize perhaps this isn’t the end after all, but rather the increasing of Someone in us, and the decreasing of the self we are no longer meant to be. (John 3:30)

It is yet another journey for our soul.

And like all journeys, it requires trimming back some areas of our lives, so that what matters most can break forth and blossom when the light dawns.

Love the One You’re With

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“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,

And in his word I hope.”

(Psalms 130:5)

Open-ended waiting is the hardest kind of waiting for me.  While waiting at stop lights, checkout lines and doctor’s offices can try my patience, at least I know for certain that I will be done with those things before too long.  I can see that my place in line is now three back, or that my appointment is now 20 minutes past due, and I can know –even in my frustration and irritation—that my needs will be tended to soon.

Waiting for God is so different from any other type of waiting.  We do not know how long we will be left to wait, if we are meant to be doing something while we wait, or if we are meant to do nothing at all.  We sometimes do not even have a clear picture of what we are waiting for.  We just know God’s voice has gone quiet, or his presence within our hearts has vanished from our awareness, and so we wait for him to return, to connect with us again.

This type of waiting requires faith and trust that go beyond anything humanly possible.

As I sat this week wondering what exactly it is I’m waiting for God to do (after all he has already become incarnate in Jesus and in a more general way incarnate in each of us and throughout all of creation) so, why wait at all?  Because what kind of Christians are we, really, if we don’t believe and understand that every day God dwells among us?  Put another way, “Every day is Christmas!” which was the enthusiastic reminder of our priest last year at the Christmas Mass we attended.

And I felt the truth in it as he said it.

So what, then, am I waiting for this season?

I would be lying if I said I knew the answer to that.

Can we always know what it is we are waiting for from God?  And are we even meant to know?

I rather doubt it.

While I did feel divinely inspired earlier in the week to point out and recognize my own personal “kingdoms” of Christmas, I know from experience that without God’s help I am completely incapable of letting them go.

Then, by mid-week I realized one thing that would help me.  Instead of focusing my sites on which of my “kingdoms” to let go of this season, I needed to keep within my vision what it is I can hold on to throughout Advent.  And it was that realization that led me to this:

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never fails.”  (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

It is a verse commonly read at weddings, (including my own) and is one that now, eighteen years later, I have a different and deeper understanding of than I ever could have had as a twenty-something bride.  That’s what healthy relationships do over time, isn’t it?  They broaden our perspective, deepen our understanding and unify us with another to the point that words become less necessary, expectations become less demanding, and we begin to trust the other to the point of being content and grateful just being together.  There is not always a need to do something, except be present in each moment as it comes, knowing that whatever happens next, we will face together.

And that is where I found God today.

With all the talk of “preparation and waiting” I’d begun to think I was doing something wrong by not putting up my Nativity yet, not saying the right prayers for Advent, not doing this, not doing that; when I suddenly remembered that the God of Advent is the same exact God he was before Advent.  And the same exact God he has been throughout my entire life, and throughout every year, century, and millennia before me.

He is the same God who has borne every trial with me, who has believed in me every step of the way, who has hoped all the best for me (in spite of my sometimes bad choices), and who has endured every injustice I’ve ever suffered right alongside me.

He has never failed me.

And while I may not know exactly what I am waiting  for right now, nor how long I will be waiting, I am happy and relieved to be reminded today that the One I am waiting for, is also the One with whom I wait.

The Kingdom of Christmas

As the Advent season opens, I think many of us wonder how we can possibly find the time and space for God when the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations (the decorations, the shopping, the baking, the meal planning, etc.!) demands so much of us already.

Many of us, as the Christmas season begins to dawn, become stressed at the thought of all the ways in which we may disappoint ourselves and others this season:  our gifts may not be appreciated, our decorations may not be admired, our meals may not be edible, and as a result our time and efforts are not validated.  This process can often leave us feeling unappreciated, unloved and rejected.

The simple truth, of course, is that in order to make room for God, we must let other things go.  And the things we must let go are very often things we aren’t meant to hold on to in the first place!

For me, the primary thing I need to let go of is my perfection.  There is no better time of year than Christmas for my inner Supermom to rear her ugly head.  THIS YEAR the house will look (and stay looking!) beautiful!  THIS YEAR our family photo will be the envy of all.  THIS YEAR the smells of my fresh baked cookies will permeate the very walls of our house and leave guests saying for months…mmmm, doesn’t their house smell yummy?    THIS YEAR our family will give so generously to our local charities that we’ll be contacted by our newspaper wanting to give us some recognition (“Oh, no thanks,” we’ll say so modestly, “we want to remain anonymous!”)  THIS YEAR our kids with their shiny cheeks and sparkling clothes will not only go to church and sing like angels but serve the local soup kitchen before they even think to look under the tree and see if there are any presents for themselves.  When they do notice, they will shriek with excitement saying, “Oh my goodness, pinch us!  We do not deserve such kindness!”…  

I will confess this is a *bit* of what my “kingdom” looks like every year.

It is my own personal Kingdom of Christmas.

And, perhaps not shockingly, it never happens that way.

While I do exaggerate my Kingdom of Christmas (at least a little), the one thing I’m certain of is that I’m not alone in my quest for making the Christmas season one of my own private perfection.  What there is “no room” for in my vision of this kingdom (despite my penciling in the extraordinary charitable donations and soup kitchen, haha) is a breaking down of my self.  Because guess who in my little kingdom sketch is really the hero?

That’s right:  me.

Most of us don’t create for ourselves a Kingdom of Christmas where we fail miserably, or where we are humbled, or where we give to the point that it makes us angry or sad that we’ve had to sacrifice our own material comforts (maybe even disappoint our children from the latest technology upgrade?) for people we don’t even know, and who will never know it was us who sacrificed at all.

God’s kingdom, of course, is vastly different from our own personal kingdoms.  I think my good friend Anne over at www.makingroomforgod.com said it best in her post on pride a few weeks ago:

“God sent us Jesus to mimic for us – in human form – just what He wants us to do.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom looks like a stable and a manger – not a palace and a throne.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom serves the poor and the lowly, not the rich and the prideful.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom will go against the rules of society.

He wants us to realize that His Kingdom will endure trials and tribulations that no person should ever endure; it won’t have a lot of uplifting, powerful moments that open the door to prideful thoughts. You may not ever be recognized for your work.

His Kingdom will require us to relinquish control, be smart on our feet, and to outwit with God’s control; it won’t have anything to do with us.

His Kingdom requires the death of ourselves on a lowly cross; it will not be a celebration of all that we have accomplished.”

It’s no wonder Luke tells us that Mary had to lay our infant King in a manger because there was no room for any of them in the inn (Luke 2:7);  many of us are so busy trying to be the heroes of our own stories, that our egos have booked every room!

The Good News, of course, is that when we do fail (and we will), and we feel ourselves “humbled and suffering” as a result of our failures, we can know that that is the precise moment in which a much more beautiful process has begun.  It is the process in which we have broken down enough for God himself to begin working in us, because, unlike us, God does not fear nor avoid the lowly places.

In fact, Luke reminds us, it is always there, where we least expect, that he begins to “make room” and build what we never could—a Kingdom that will last.