Listen: This Is Not Just Sweet Baby Jesus in a Manger

Nate read a story the other day about a little girl turning eleven who realizes she is not simply eleven, but all the ages she has been.

I have this feeling, especially at Christmas. I am this nearly 47 year old mother of four, wife, and daughter. I am immersed in the memories we are creating in our home. I am present as we bake cookies and hide elves. I am fully immersed in watching Maddie absolutely squeal in delight at a surprise letter from Santa the elves brought her. The excitement of Nate in helping to decorate and transform our house is contagious.

The sights and sounds of the season draw me in every year.

And yet…as I sit in the coffee shop for a few minutes, memories strike me and suddenly I am a child again. Listening to Christmas playlists, I am taken back to the house of my childhood. The sights and sounds of New Mexico fill me with a mixture of delight, sentimentality and sadness. A yearning for what is just not quite right now.

My Mom amazed me in her ability to create an atmosphere. She loved to say that the house came alive every Christmas; it puffed itself up and delighted in all the trimmings. She created a wonder-filled home. The culmination came on Christmas Eve as we gathered around an enormous table filled with a meal we only ate once a year. Tiny cinnamon rolls, potatoes au gratin, asparagus, and a beef tenderloin which melted in your mouth.  Shrimp cocktails and cheese sticks and egg nog and other treats started the evening.


We talked.

My grandparents would arrive and we would sit around munching on cheese sticks and talk. I wish I could remember more clearly the conversations. I simply remember the atmosphere. Everyone dressed up in Christmas sweaters and my velvet dress. Shoes shined. Eventually we would move from couches to the table and have a long dinner. There was no rush, and even as a child I don’t remember wanting to rush away from the table. There was something magical about the table and the conversation.

Eventually we would move back to the couches and sometimes act out the story of Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus. In our bathrobes with towels on our heads, held tight with belts. Some years Dad would simply read the story.

We were waiting for the culmination of the evening. We would wander outside and watch the cars slowly creeping by, only parking lights lit, seeking out the luminaries through the neighborhood. Before the dinner and the cheese sticks, before the dinner preparations shifted into high gear, we would have lit hundreds of luminaries. On the roof of the house, lining both sides of the sidewalk. Our neighbors had done the same. There were no electric lanterns…we lit every tea light in those paper sacks.


Christmas was filled with the feel of crisp, cold air and the smells of candles and meat roasting, of cinnamon and nutmeg topping egg nog.

Still…the culmination was loading up in the car late in the evening and heading to the midnight mass at St John’s Episcopal church. Walking in with only whispers, trying so hard to stay awake. The room filling with more and more people dressed in velvets and reds and greens, and then suddenly the music beginning and the room filling even more with sounds and voices. Filling with the word proclaimed.

“Unto us is born…”

“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”

“God has come. He is among us!”

I don’t remember if I ever fell asleep on the drive home. I remember getting to open one present on Christmas Eve. I remember strict instructions not to come down by myself, but wait until Dad came and brought me to he and Mom’s room to wait for my brothers so we could all come down together. I remember the anticipation. We didn’t have Santa Trackers, although I do think there was some type of tracker on television.

Laying in my bed. Trying so hard to fall asleep, and finding it so difficult. After midnight service, it had to be well after 1am.  Then….waiting….hearing footsteps on the roof and maybe bells? This didn’t happen every year, I don’t believe, but I know it happened at least once because it is firmly in my imagination of those days.

All of these memories, filling my mind as I sit here in a coffee shop, taking me through the events of the evening and on into Christmas morning with egg casserole for breakfast and presents opened, all of these memories bring me joy. Delight.
And yet, as I follow them, eventually they bring me to a deep sadness.

These memories are filled with a woman who absolutely filled a room with her presence. Dad somehow brought to life what she designed, and they were a great team. Dad was content, though, to stomp on the roof and jingle bells, to create the egg nog delights and enable the lighting of hundreds of luminarias. He was happy to quietly make it all happen….but

Mom orchestrated the whole event. And it was an event.

And now she has no idea. She has no delight in the music and the sounds and the sights. She no longer orchestrates. She trusts like a child in my Dad who helps her to know how to sit and stand and eat. She grasps tightly to his hand and she hums or whistles. She speaks, but the words have no cohesion or meaning.

She, who would greet the guests at the door with a smile and warmth which immediately set the tone, now is unaware when people come to visit. She no longer knows us. She cannot delight in the the grandchildren who carry so much of her character and strength and humor with them. And they cannot know the strength of this woman who directed and orchestrated so much of my history.

And so, in the midst of delight in the laughter of Maddie and the anticipation of all the kids for Christmas morning, in the midst of the sounds and sights and tastes of our Christmas, there is a deep sorrow and longing for something more whole. There is a longing for the true peace of Christmas, for a world ruled with truth and grace.

There is alongside the joy and hope, deep awareness of brokenness. And that brokenness and loss does not detract from the joy and hope: it amplifies them. That longing for all to be made whole is there because joy and hope have been tasted. I wouldn’t know to long for a woman filled with grace and elegance and wisdom if I only knew her in her Dementia and confusion.

We are marked by Eternity. The reality of Christmas moves us deeply because we have tasted of hope and joy. Some years Christmas  may be difficult because the sorrow is more present, and the longing fills us to the point we have to fight back tears sitting in the coffee shop…but that longing is holy. That longing is the mark that we are created for something more than just what is in front of us.

Christmas is the proclamation that there will be healing and restoration. So, if you sit next to a parent who no longer knows you. If you sit next to an empty seat of someone no longer with you. If you sit in a home where stress and sorrow demand your attention more than joy and hope. If you simply do not know what tomorrow holds, and the stress of a very confused and chaotic world has exhausted you…listen to that longing for something true. And hear:


And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,


“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  Luke 2



Listen: that is not some quaint story of the baby Jesus, cute and tame. That is the story of God wrenching open our reality and stepping. This is what we wait with held breath for, this is what we seek in this Advent season filled with chaos in our world and brokenness as far away as those we love. This is God stepping in to our brokenness and promising healing and hope.

Sing the songs this Christmas. Bake the cookies. Let your children delight in all the wonder of the season…and hold tight the truth that this is the story that changes everything. Do not miss the enormity of this truth: God became man. Take all your sorrow and longing, all your delight and joy and remember that you are remembered and loved by. God willing to become man to save you.

Buechner:

“Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed – as a matter of cold, hard fact – all it’s cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.”

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.”

We Only Hope When We Are Needy

One of the deepest realities of Advent is an awareness of our need. Part of the waiting, part of the anticipation, we sit with our need and become more aware of the longing within us. We make the space to contemplate and to listen, to be still and recognize our need.

 

When we rush to Christmas morning, we miss the longing. We rush right up to the birth and think of how cute Baby Jesus is with the cows and camels nudging him softly. We ooh and ahh at the nativity scene. He is familiar and good and sweet.

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We miss the longing, we miss the absolutely stunning wonder, that God has come in our midst.

 

 

The Jews had waited. The years between Malachi and the coming of Jesus were filled with warfare and kings, from Alexander the Great to Ptolemy to Antipater and Pompey. Ultimately Antipater’s son Herod the Great sits in rule over Judea. The people had been tossed and turned between violent men. Their identity had been questionable as some of them assimilated more with Greek culture or tried to legalistically hold on to what made them distinctively Jewish.

 
They had to be a weary people.  I have read that Jerusalem has been battled over, conquered, destroyed and captured 27 times. The area of Palestine has been fought over countless times. The people were weary. They needed hope.

 

In the midst of this, think of the whisper of hope, fulfilling prophecies they had to think were crazy.

 

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  Isaiah 7:14

 

Mary. Visited by Gabriel. Bringing forth the Son of God. In the midst of such a weary time, how must that have sounded to her. Not another king coming in battle, but something so completely different. A rescue so contradictory to everything.

 

Have we lost sight of that a little, in the rush of the holidays? In the rush of life. Have we lost the awareness of a deep longing within us for things to be set right? Have we looked at the babe in a manger with oohs and ahhs rather than stunned amazement at the plan of God?

 

Before we can rejoice in the hope we have to know our need. Sometimes that is as simple as recognizing our lack of belief. Sometimes that is as simple as rolling out of bed and being aware of the challenges of our life again. The suffering around us and the sorrow within our own families. Sometimes, though, we need the help of our poets to spur us toward prayer and anticipation.

 

We’re only six days in to Advent. There is plenty of time to listen, to wait and to hope. Settle yourselves and allow the need to be present so we can rejoice in the hope that God has ‘come to us here, who would not find you there’. Malcolm Guite helps with this, and you can click on the title to hear him read.

 

O Adonai

Unsayable, you chose to speak one tongue,

Unseeable, you gave yourself away,

The Adonai, the Tetragramaton

Grew by a wayside in the light of day.

O you who dared to be a tribal God,

To own a language, people and a place,

Who chose to be exploited and betrayed,

If so you might be met with face to face,

Come to us here, who would not find you there,

Who chose to know the skin and not the pith,

Who heard no more than thunder in the air,

Who marked the mere events and not the myth.

Touch the bare branches of our unbelief

And blaze again like fire in every leaf.

Holding The Beautiful in the Midst of the Terrible

She had done this just the other day; falling out of bed only to roll under the bed and sleep the rest of the night there. I heard her moaning a bit, dreaming, so I gently pulled her out from under the bed and brought her in to my bed.

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It was time to get up. Time to begin another day, focused on homeschool and laundry and cooking. Time to wake and see what conversations were taking place on FB, time to listen and hear more of the state of our world.

 

I didn’t.

 

I actually didn’t have much of a choice: as I went to lay her in the bed she wrapped her arms around my neck, clasping her hands. She did not let go. I lay there, firmly grasped by the hands of a four year old.

 

The innocent, trusting and loving arms of a child.

 

And I thought about our news. I thought about the terrors all around. I thought about Syrian mothers and wondered if they lay by their child, firmly in their grasp, and smelled their hair. If they just waited and listened to the breathing, feeling that little one beside them.

 

I am sure their hair does not smell like strawberries, and their embrace is more determined because there is so much to fear.

 

I wondered about the mother near us who had her daughter, just a little older than mine, killed at a football game. One moment she was there and cheering on her brothers, and within moments she was gone.

 

I didn’t move. I inhaled the fragrance of this innocent little one, and swallowed down the fear which is so near. I thought of our sermons lately on the book of Ruth, especially this:

May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.   – Ruth 2:21b

I wondered about the refugees and I wondered about so many who face immeasurable fear. Do they find the God of Israel to give them refuge? Through servants like Boaz? Like us?

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I found it interesting when I was looking at images with the above quote that none of them showed the terrible things. The quote was written across beaches and sunsets, pictures of stars and Northern Lights, in a variety of pleasing fonts.

 

Maybe it needs to be written across images of terror, because the encouragement to not be afraid rarely comes when things are beautiful.

 

Or, maybe….

 

Maybe in those moments when things truly are beautiful – like being held in the embrace of a child while the rain falls outside and all is quiet – reminds us of the starkness of terror. The sun still rose in a sunrise in Paris Saturday morning. There was still beauty, but it was all the more fragile because of the horrors.

 

I know, I am rambling. I have read several posts this morning from others sorting through these things as well. I am one of many. All of us. Trying to sort through our lives in seeming disparity from evil that is rampant. Still attempting to get the laundry done and cook dinner, teach the children and sing songs while things seem to be falling apart.

 

There is a fine line between discernment and fear. I do not want to let evil near my children. I do not want to turn away those who are without hope and who we can help. I do not want to tell my children about the terrors that exist across the ocean, across the country. Right next to their summer camp…where the little girl was killed just a few days ago.

 

The thing I am beginning to settle more and more with is this: we simply fall apart when we give ourselves completely over to fear. There are still beautiful things. There is still good. And we have been called to not be afraid.

 

Called by One Who is able. Able to be our refuge, or use us to be another’s refuge. We…I…so need the beautiful to give me strength to face the fearful and terrible.

 

Like little children sleeping under their beds and holding on in embraces with locked hands and innocent hearts. Like the sound of the rain, or the taste of chocolate.

 

Like the realization that God came here to this mess. And it matters. I wish His justice and His refuge was more immediate and clear…but I trust that one day it will be. There is strength in that, strength to face the evil and say no, strength to comfort the refugee and the wounded. Strength to embrace the beautiful even when there are terrible things around.

 

 

 

Grace Brings Glimmers of Hope….

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I am sitting in my favorite coffee shop, sipping great coffee and listening to good music mixed with the chatter of happy folks. I have a pen to use in my journal, but the pen is not cooperating; the ink just won’t flow very well and I find I have to re-trace the lines. I am, however, stubborn.

I want to use this pen, and when I am done I want to slide it back into its flowered sleeve. Because the lilac pen and the flowered sleeve hold more than a simple writing instrument; they hold the memories of the woman who used to write with this pen. Back when it flowed well.

The pen and the holder are stylish and I can remember Mom pulling them out of her purse and using them. I can remember even that act being done with a sort of elegance.

Mom was always stylish, and she carried herself with this confidence and elegance. Everywhere. People noticed her.

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Dementia has stolen her thoughts and some of her elegance. Not all, though. She still carries herself with dignity and she still speaks with an innate politeness and compassion.

However, she simply is not completely there…she is a shadow of herself. A physical reminder of the strength of character, sharpness of wit and commanding presence she once had. We catch glimmers.

I realized that sometimes I am not much different.  Some days I am a shadow of myself. I am caught in the mundane and the demands of the day, the trivialities and the noise, and I am lost. Sometimes the broken world is stronger than the creativity and the wonder that I desire to develop. The strength of character and the intellect I inherited are stifled by a weariness of a broken world.

I catch glimmers of who I could be, of who I would like to be.

Those are the moments God graces me with a reminder.

A lavender pen tucked in a floral case. Words of grace and beauty from authors who live more fully in the moment than I.

Words of grace from a Creator who understands the weariness because He took on the flesh we wear and He walked:

 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ

Words of reality that although this world in which we walk and live and breathe is marred by brokenness and by sin, there is still healing and there is still hope. Words of reality that although sometimes we only see the glimmer, there is One Who sees more and Who knows the whole of the story. He sees the result of the storm we walk through and sees the result of the long obedience.

He sees the ultimate healing and the ultimate glory that we only long for in this season.

“When I asked my mother why the trees were so much larger on the ridge than anywhere else, she replied that it was because the winds were the strongest and the storms were the fiercest on the ridge. With nothing to shelter the trees from the full brunt of nature’s wrath, they either broke and fell, or they became incredibly strong and resilient.
God plants you and me in our faith as tender saplings then grows us up into “trees of righteousness,” using the elements of adversity to make us strong. And He leads us to endure, not just somehow, but triumphantly as we choose to praise Him, regardless of the storms swirling within us or the winds howling outside of us.” -Anne Graham Lotz