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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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.

My (not so obvious) Easter Miracle

The candy is mostly gone and the world assumes Easter is over. Not exactly. The momentum that may appear to have been stuffed in a tomb is, instead, loose in the world. The Season of Easter provides 50 days in which to get used to the concept that the stone has been pushed away. The momentum is sufficiently ample to hold all our sorrows and enable us to risk the abundance of joy. -Helen Barron

I loved this little thought Helen Barron shared in her Easter newsletter from Candlepress. I think of all the momentum I had going into Lent and the changes I wanted to make. What a long haul those 40 days seemed once I got into the middle of them and how many times didn’t I want to just “go back” to the way things were?

But now, Easter is here, and I can see (when I take the time to reflect) that I have been changed. Not in the ways I’d hoped or planned, perhaps, but I’ve changed all the same. In “giving up” my excuses, I have noticed changes in the following areas:

  • Diet and exercise: I have not had a Diet Coke  in almost two months, and I now exercise a minimum of 4 days a week (but usually 6). This has not amounted in the 20 lb. weight loss I’d dreamed of that all the infomercials promise, but I have lost 5 lbs. and I continue to eat better each day.
  • Writing: I think the calendar on the  right is proof enough that I have been able to blog every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for almost a month!
  • Household chores: I’ve always had a set schedule for chores since the time I was very young. What’s happened over the course of the past 13 years that I’ve stayed home, however, is that I’ve found my motivation for staying on a schedule to fall into the category of the most mundane. I mean a girl can only clean out toilets every Tuesday and Friday for so long before she really starts to doubt that maybe there’s something more.   But over the course of this past Lent, I’ve told myself it doesn’t matter if they’re dirty or not, I’ll do it anyway to save myself having to do it  when they’re really dirty.  And while I haven’t been perfect about it, I’ve certainly been more routine in the last 40 days than I have for quite some time. Which brings me to my final realization…
  • Being less than perfect: This is an odd one for me to realize, because I would have never said I was perfect before. Or probably even a “perfectionist.” But as I peeled back through the layers of why I’d failed at keeping routines down before (like diet and exercise, writing, and chores) I came to realize that I would stray from the plan at the slightest sign of it not being perfect. In other words, I’d think that if I didn’t exercise right away in the morning, I might as well not exercise at all that day. And if I missed one day, then I might as well miss two because “the week’s been shot,” etc. The same goes for writing. If I couldn’t put out something that felt “complete” I  didn’t want to post it. And, of course, the chores… why wash dishes right away this morning, when they’ll be dirty ones again by lunchtime?  But that’s what I’ve learned: life isn’t perfect.

But, of course, life isn’t meant to be perfect.

It’s meant to be lived.

Sure, we should make plans and try to keep some balance in our lives by striving for our best work.

But we’re almost always going to fail.

In fact, I’ve come to believe we’re meant to.

Because, as C.S. Lewis once said, “All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, ‘You must do this. I can’t.’ ”

And seeing it in this light, from the most ordinary of “duties” has, for me, brought God from “out there” to “in here.” I’ve long understood, of course, that God would care about whether or not I broke a commandment, but would he care if I broke a promise to myself?

One month later, five pounds lighter, a calendar full of regular blog posts, and the house a bit cleaner, I have to admit I’ve changed.

Or rather, Some Thing has changed me.

In ways I never thought possible.

My “perfect” stone has been “pushed away,” and opened a space for an abundance of joy in the most ordinary of ways.

It may not sound like much…but it’s my Easter miracle.

 

P.S.  Check in with me Friday, and I’ll show you around the new place here at The Mystic Mom!  Also, I apologize if you received this post in an incomplete mess yesterday.  I was “housecleaning” here on the blog and accidentally published this before it was properly “cooked.”  Oops.  Good thing I’ve gotten OK with being less than perfect! 🙂

Easter: New Life, and a New Look

I am in the process of changing my blog template and background for the coming year.  I had hoped to have it properly unveiled today, the Monday after Easter, but I was busy enjoying sacred time with family.  I hope to have it ready, with a new blog post, on Wednesday.

I hope you had a blessed Easter Sunday, and that as we move forward in the Easter season you will continue to know New Life within and witness New Life all around you!

Peace and kindness,

Lisa

The Pharisee In Me

Of all the characters throughout the Gospels, the least relatable to me are the Pharisees.  Those well-to-do, high-and-mighty, laa-dee-da, goody-two-shoes men who have taken their jobs of upholding the law (Their God-given law! The Church’s law!  Man’s law!)  so seriously that they do not see what we, some 2000 years later, have the full benefit of seeing:

They are killing God.

And so I look for the Pharisees around me, and I speak out against them when I see fit.  “Get behind me, Satan!”  I say.  (Only it sounds more like, ”  “That’s just stupid!”  or  “You are so blind to the Truth!” or “How can you say that?”)

And when I’ve successfully changed their hearts and minds, I walk away feeling triumphant in my battle.  I have won!  I have shown “them” the way of Truth!  (Because I know it).

I am impressed with myself.  And sometimes, I can see others are, too.

And I smile to myself, “Look what I’m doing for you, God!”  I say.  (And secretly, I think I’m his favorite).

Until today.

Good Friday.

The day I see what God’s love really looks like:

…the buzzing coud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up….  Herein is love.  This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.   -C.S. Lewis, from The Four Loves

Today I see that if this is what love looks like, I am more like the Pharisees than any other character.  Me, still thinking God’s love is “earned” through careful score-keeping.  Me, still thinking I can “see” God’s truth better than anyone else.  Me, still thinking it is my duty (and my God-given right!) to uphold the Law.

But not willing to open my arms, and my mind, and my heart to those who think differently.  Who live differently.  Who sin differently. And who love differently than I do.

Not willing, despite the fact that I say I am.

Who else can I be in these stories, if not the Pharisees?  Why am I so willing to see myself in any other character of these stories–even Judas, who at least has enough sense to just get rid of himself!–but not the Pharisees?

I don’t know…probably because it stinks to admit that I’m killing God?

I. am. killing. God.

And my breath catches at that realization.

I am a Pharisee.

And the thought sinks into my core.  The awareness dawns that even though I am just now beginning to see the Pharisee in me, our Triune God has seen it there in me the whole time.

And I wonder at that for a while.

I am speechless.

The tears begin to fall, as I want so desperately to hate myself for God.  But how can you hate yourself when God has commanded you only to love?

I don’t know how to remedy that.  In fact, if I understand the stories right, I don’t even think *I* can.

But, what I see in Jesus on the cross, is an act of love.

“Follow me,” he says.  And I want to.

What will my act of love be?

Today, it will be that I will go to liturgy, and I will kiss Jesus on the cross.

And I will ask for forgiveness.  (Again).

And I will feel his love. (Again).

And I will accept his love. (Again).

And I will cry.

Because my heart spills over with this impossible realization:

I am a Pharisee…and he loves me, anyway.

Garden Moments

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Yesterday, for the start of the Christian Holy Week, I watched for the second time in my life, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  This week, in celebration of Holy Week, I’d like to share some random thoughts I had as I watched the movie.

  • I like that Gibson’s portrayal depicted Jesus’ time in the garden as one of an ongoing internal struggle.  In the past, it’s been far too easy for me when reading Scripture to think that Jesus said, “Not my will, but Thine” (Luke 22:42) with a lot of strength and certitude.   My thinking had long been that because Jesus is also God, somehow facing his own impending doom was easier than it would be for us “mere humans”, but in that thinking, it also makes Jesus very distant from our own struggles.   Instead, Gibson nicely casts the human side of Jesus for us, struggling with putting his own personal agenda aside, letting God work through him as the darkness surrounds him.  In this depiction, Jesus is much more relatable to us, much more understanding of our own struggles, making our own suffering perhaps more tolerable because we know that he, too, has “been there.”
  • Gibson’s portrayal depicts Satan as a soft, gentle tempter.  I think very often the challenges that God lays out for us are often the more difficult for us to choose (Remember “choose always the hardest”?), and so this makes Satan’s job much more easy, because he is simply appealing to our own human weakness.  If you don’t believe me, look again at Genesis and the story of Eve.  Have you ever noticed that she doesn’t ever question the serpent?  Never says, “Where did you hear that?”  or “What would make you say such a thing about God?”  No.  There’s no need to question because she’s already thought it for herself.  The serpent’s gentle suggestion that God is not being completely honest with her was all she needed to act in vain.
  • I like the fact that when Jesus was looking to the moon and praying for God to take away his burden, a cloud immediately passes in front of the moon.  I’ve had experiences like this in nature before and I personally believe God speaks to us all the time in nature, but we rarely listen, or we slough it off as coincidence.  I remember one particular incident last year when I was really angry with God about our having been relocated again.  Why was I being called away from the work I had grown to love in my old town and the friendships I’d formed?  Why was I being asked again to start over, knowing that this location, too, would likely not be permanent?  And the whole time I was letting God have it!  (If you’ve never done this before, you may want to try it.  I’ve learned he can take it!)   As I was demanding answers to these questions, the sun was parked hidden behind a cloud.  The cloudy sky seemed to fit my mood perfectly.  As I rounded the church building that was part of my dog’s and my daily route, the sun and cloud were blocked entirely, but just as I rounded the corner of the building on the other side (and was really letting God have it), the sun popped up real big from behind that cloud  and I heard (in the quiet of my heart) the ringing laughter of my grandpa who’s been gone for over 20 years, and the words, “It’s OK, I’ll leave the light on for you.”  And just like that, my anger was gone.  Gone!  And I was ready to move forward.  It was the perfect “sign” for me, and the perfect “thing to say” to my heart.  It made me laugh out loud!  In a similar way, Gibson’s version of the cloud covering the moon at the time that Jesus is praying for relief, seems to be the perfect “sign” for Jesus, too.  It seems to confirm what Jesus already knows, that he will not be relieved from his fate.  And just after that, when the soldiers arrive, Jesus meets them with a new resolve that he was missing earlier.  I like this depiction. From my own experience, it makes sense to me.
  • My thoughts on this final topic are jumbled, but I’ll do the best I can to explain…. If there were one thing I would change about the garden scene, it would be to try to draw us into what I see as the deeper meaning of Jesus’ request to the disciples to “stay awake.”  I’ll admit I wouldn’t have the first clue how to show it.   But, I personally  contrast Jesus’ ability to do this with the inability of Adam & Eve to do so in the Garden of Eden.  True, Adam & Eve never literally “fell asleep” there, but it seems to me that if they had been “awake” to the serpent’s suggestions in the garden, and not “fallen”  into blaming others (and each other) for their own bad choices, our whole salvation history would probably be written much differently.  To me, it is every bit as disappointing to “fall asleep” in the hour of another’s need like the disciples did  (I’ve heard many a divorcée or ill person lament about the so-called friends that left them in the hour of their greatest need), as it is to “fall asleep”  and abandon ourselves, as I believe Adam & Eve did, in our hours of greatest need.  The times we really should question the gentle, coaxing voice that says, “There’s always tomorrow,” or “God wouldn’t mind,” (am I the only one who hear’s that voice?)  are, as I see it,  all “garden moments” because somewhere deep down we know that tomorrow is never guaranteed, and that if we are seeking reassurance that God “wouldn’t mind” something we are about to do, it is only because we already know that he would.  I’ve come to believe that the only real difference in a garden moment is whether we choose to follow Adam & Eve’s example, or follow Jesus.  This is, I believe, why it is only proper that Jesus is the only one fit to “stay awake.” (Of course, eventually all of the disciples did “wake up”– providing hope for us that we can do the same– and then went out to spread God’s Word instead of blaming “the crowds” for putting God to death…and that is, in fact, Good News!)

Join me on Wednesday as I take a closer look at Gibson’s depiction of some of the other characters in the story of the Passion.  And if you haven’t yet seen the movie, or it’s been awhile, I encourage you to revisit this movie for Holy Week, as well as reading about the Passion in Scripture which begins in each of the four Gospels at the following chapters:  Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and John 12.