Christmas Drama

We’ve whitewashed everything about this scene:  beatific Mary gazing serenely at a cleaned up baby cozy in a cleaned up manger towered over by Joseph and surrounded by adoring shepherds and freshly groomed, sweet smelling animals.

It was nothing like that.

Birth is pain and sweat and effort.

And messy.  So, so messy.

I like to think more clearly about what that night was like.  It helps my heart to know that even while God was being birthed as a man into the world He created, He didn’t hide the hard.

The world was a mess on the first Christmas night, but Jesus came. He came wearing a name of endless hope and promise: ‘God with us.’ God is with us when the money runs out, with us when the bad news comes, with us when the holiday isn’t happy, and with us when everyone else disappears. The question this Christmas is not, ‘Will Jesus show up?’ The question is, ‘Will I receive Him, even if He’s all I have?’

Today is a good day to give yourself permission to be the real you in front of the real God. You don’t have to hide your hurt or sin away. He comes to heal, to save, and to rescue. Let earth receive her king.

~Bo Stern, When Holidays Hurt

There’s no evidence that Mary was spared labor pains or all the usual difficulty of bringing forth life.

And poor Joseph!  In a culture where women helped women he was alone and lonely with his young bride in a place hardly appropriate for birthing a baby much less for protecting her modesty and reputation.  He was unwitting midwife to the most important birth in history.

I’ve often wondered whether Mary and Joseph were relieved to see the shepherds who confirmed again the truth that their Son was Savior or if they were thinking the visit might have been better timed a few days later when things were tidier and the idea of parenthood had settled in.

Drama. 

All of it.

But the biggest drama that night was this:  Darkness was overcome.  Once and for all.  Never to reign again.

When He created the heavens and the earth, God declared, “Let there be light!” Physical light entered time and space.  Darkness was pushed back and limits set on its power and dominion.

Yet sin marred the light of God’s love, provision and perfect creation.

And from that moment on, darkness crept forward through the actions of men whose hearts were hard and by the designs of the evil one who has no heart but only destruction in his bosom.

But God….

He would not leave us this way.  He did not allow the darkness to win.

We were not abandoned.

We are not abandoned.

Emmanuel is here.

And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.

~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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Facing My Inner Pharisee

 

In centuries past it was common for Christ followers to fast.

They fasted for many reasons:  to consecrate themselves for a task; to seek answers to prayer; observance of seasons on the church calendar; or for strength to overcome besetting sin.

Today, fasting has fallen out of favor in most western churches-deemed unnecessary or an attempt to gain favor with God by “works”.

That’s unfortunate.  

Because fasting has never been about making points with God, it’s been about removing self-reliance from our spiritual vocabulary.

It’s not about demonstrating personal fortitude or displaying self-righteousness, it’s about recognizing my weakness and desperate dependence on Christ.  

Perhaps the greatest hindrance to our work is our own imagined strength; and in fasting we learn what poor, weak creatures we are – dependent on a meal of meat for the little strength which we are so apt to lean upon.

~Hudson Taylor

Like the Pharisees, though, I am apt to make much of my “sacrifice” and little of Christ’s sufficiency.  I want to bargain with God and rise in the ranks of His favor because I’m so “good”.

It doesn’t work like that.  

I was almost to the end of a 40 day fast when Dominic was killed.

I am physically unable to fast 40 days consecutively so, for several years, I had done an every-other-day fast so that it equaled 40 days.

At some point in the first week after Dom ran ahead to heaven I remember crying out to God, “What exactly do You want from me??? I’ve done all that I know to do in an attempt to live up to Your expectations, and yet it is never enough!”

And (not then, certainly!) but at some point in the nearly 3 years since, He answered, “Your righteous acts are as filthy rags. The only sufficient sacrifice is My own Son’s blood.”

THAT was humbling.

Because even though I would have given the same answer to anyone else who thought they could “work” their way into God’s good graces, obviously the truth of it had not seeped into the fabric of my being.

I WAS trying to make points with God.  And I was angry He hadn’t taken that into consideration and spared me the pain of burying my son.

We often mock the Pharisees for thinking that “getting it right” means “being righteous”, but I understand the temptation to substitute acts of righteousness for relying on relationship through Jesus Christ.

The one means I am in control, the other means I have to follow and give up control.

If there is one thing I’ve learned through child loss that I cannot forget for even a millisecond is: I am NOT in control.

I am utterly dependent on Him for life, for breath, for saving AND sustaining grace.  

For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing.

Ephesians 2:8-9 VOICE

Fasting from food is relatively easy.  Fasting from my tendency toward self-righteousness is much harder.  

This year, as I observe Lent,

as I fast,

as I add in holy habits,

I am asking God to help me remember that I am not trying to win His favor,

I am making room to hear His heart.

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The Silent Joy of Memory

We live in a noisy world.

Music, television, voices and the hum of electricity tunnel into our brains and distract us from hard questions and painful circumstances.

We live in a busy world.

If I’m not in motion, I am getting ready to be.

It is tempting in my grief to try to stuff life full of noise and busyness so I can ignore the pain and emptiness of missing my son.

But there is quiet beauty in the unfilled space of my heart–the spot once brimming with the living essence of the son I love.

In the silence I can hear his voice and see his smile.

So I will guard the noiseless place that still belongs to Dominic and keep it as a treasure,  a comfort, and a tribute to him until we are together again.

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even in pain — the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer