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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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.

A JOYful “To Do” List

It’s been a looong time coming, but I finally did it.

I took the day off.

As a housewife, some people may think that that’s all I ever do– have “days off.”  And that’s fine for them to think, but I know it’s not my reality.  Before I became a housewife, I may have even thought that myself.  Instead, what’s been my reality in my 12 1/2 years as a housewife, is that since my “work” is my life and my life is my “work,” when I’m doing nothing, I feel guilty (even all weekend long), and when I’m doing something, I can only think about all the other things I still need to do.   Sure, I’ve spent many days getting nothing done.  And I’ve had many “off” days where things just didn’t go right.  What I’ve never done, ever before, is picked a day that would otherwise be a “work day” and just taken the day off.  You know what that requires?  It requires permission from yourself.  And that can be a challenge.  Especially when the laundry is mounting, the Christmas shopping has only a dent in it, and (in my case this year) there is a trip to plan.

Today, I decided it didn’t matter.  In fact, I kind of had to decide it, or very quickly I think LIFE would have decided it for me, by making me sick.  You see,  I was already feeling run-down, stressed out, ragged, exhausted, and overwhelmed.

All last week, I didn’t post here on my blog one time (you may have noticed), because I had the worst writer’s block I’ve ever had.  And THAT was stressing me out, too.

So last night, I went to bed with the intention that after a good night’s sleep, I would wake up revitalized today and start knocking things of my very long and very demanding “To Do” list.

But guess what?  I didn’t get a good night’s sleep.  I had a terrible night’s sleep.

I woke up at 2:30 in the morning and NEVER got back to sleep.  I could have slept in, but I had so much “To Do”, that I didn’t think sleeping in was possible.  So, at 6:30 AM, I did what I always do and spent some time reading Scripture and meditating.  At 7:30 AM, once I got the first child off to school, I decided to do what I normally do, and I did a quick workout.  I knew if I was going to have any energy today, it would only come from taking care of myself.  Then I got myself showered and ready, got the other kids off to school and walked the dog.  After that, I normally start the “To Do” list of the day and I don’t stop again until the kids get back home, which usually involves more stuff “To Do,” just with others involved.

Not today.  Today, I decided when I got home from walking the dog, that everything I’d done up until then was really all I could “Do” on so little sleep.  So I gave myself permission to sit, watch TV (very life-affirming TV, I might add, as I had DVR’d “Super Soul Sunday” on OWN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, yesterday) and I sat down and watched hours…literally hours…of uplifting stories of faith, spirituality and healing.

Then I wrote in my journal for a bit, did a little more meditation, and took a nap.

I woke up just in time for my kids to get home from school.  And you know what?  Aside from their homework, I’m going to give them a day off, too.  No chores for anybody tonight.  No need to race and rush and struggle to “get it all done” for tomorrow.  No harping and nagging to put this away, do this, do that.

I spent all last week desperately hoping and praying to channel some brilliant message from God (as if I can control that), to share with you this week, and it just didn’t happen.

So I knew something had to change.

What changed was that, after a “day off,”  I realized I needed to actively put into practice  the message and lesson I’ve been learning (and re-learning) all year:  love yourself.

And you know what?  About the time the kids got home from school, I realized that in taking a day off, I’d succeeded in completing the very form of “loving myself” that was needed.  It felt good!

So good, in fact, that I feel I am better equipped now to handle all that this season demands of us…both the” inner” work required of the religious season of Advent, and the “outer” work of the secular world and all it’s hustle and bustle.  I feel more clear of mind and more loving of heart than I have since the first signs of Christmas appeared in the stores before Halloween.  For the first time in awhile, in fact, I feel like I’m in the rightful spot of giving from love and  receiving love as it comes my way.

And that’s when I realized that God’s message doesn’t change for this season.  We change.  We look inward.  We wait and watch.  But the message is as old as time:  love Jesus, Others, Yourself.  Do this and you will know JOY for this– and every– season.

It’s a simple message, but I sure do try to make it complicated.

Not today, though.

Today, after giving myself permission to do nothing else,  it was the only thing left that was still acceptable “To Do.”