It wasn’t really a silent night. The town was full of irritated, tired, hungry travelers, all jockeying for position at the local motels. It wasn’t an easy road trip. Those twenty miles may have taken them nearly a week to cover on foot. They didn’t want to go to Bethlehem, but there they were – homeless and jobless. Alone in a strange, crowded, noisy town. She didn’t have her mother there to help with the baby’s birth. We don’t even know if her mom was still speaking to her, a young unwed mother. Though she was full term, she had no cute baby clothes with her. No one gave her a baby shower. There weren’t any gifts waiting under a tree. There was no tree. The original Christmas didn’t look much like mine.
Then the baby came, as babies do. Back in the corner of a shelter that smelled like sheep and sweaty donkeys, a teenage girl wrapped up her newborn son in rags and laid him in a feed trough that would have to serve as a bassinet. The nativity scenes all show kings with expensive presents worshiping around the baby, but those guys took another two years to show up. Either they had the same sense of direction I do or camels are crazy slow transportation.
Jesus came under difficult circumstances. He lived a humble life under the radar for thirty years and then under the scrutiny of public opinion for three more. His homeless arrival mirrored his homeless departure. Even his final resting place was a borrowed grave. I guess that was appropriate, though. He wasn’t planning to use it for very long.
I love the romantic version of Christmas. I prefer it. The glowing lights that imitate Bethlehem’s stars two thousand years ago. The traditions that connect me to my past and bring comforting memories. The music inspired by an angelic ‘Hallelujah Flash Mob.’ All that and more is what I enjoy about this season. The thing is, sometimes I lose sight of what it really meant for Jesus to come to earth. There’s a lot of heartbreak this time of year. Sad events seem worse when they happen at Christmas. Somehow I think sorrow should take a vacation every December and give us all a break.
But Jesus always identified with people. He experienced the same limitations we do. He hung out with those the rest of society was too good to make eye contact with. He touched the untouchables. And in doing so, he himself became an outcast. Isaiah 53:3 says, “He was despised and rejected and forsaken by men, a Man of sorrows and pains, and acquainted with grief and sickness . . . and we did not appreciate His worth or have any esteem for Him.”
I’m thinking tonight that the best part of Christmas is that, from the first breath he took on earth to the breaths I’m taking while I write this, Jesus came to win my heart. To win my trust. He knows how to comfort me because he has suffered, too. “The fact is, it was our pains He carried . . . all the things wrong with us. We thought He brought it on Himself . . . but it was our sins that did that to Him. . . He took the punishment, and that made us whole. Through His bruises we get healed.” (Isaiah 53, The Message)
The helpless baby became my Healer. “For to us a child is born . . . and He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9)
Joy to the world.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
There's a Willow Tree figurine on my piano. It shows a husband and wife seated with the husband's arm around his wife. It looks a lot like Rob, and the woman has my hair color. Rob bought it for me in Atlanta two weeks after his heart surgery last year as a reminder of the heart challenges we'd faced and come through together. The piece written below was an entry I journaled in the middle of the night a few weeks before his surgery. Guess God speaks to me best when I can't sleep.
It was happening a lot. It happened so often I’d begun to expect it. As the countdown continued and March 5 approached, I would wake up in the night, unable to go back to sleep. Fears rolling over and through me, I felt like a surfer tumbling in waves, fallen from the safety of her board, carried further out in the ocean’s grasp. Feeling alone and unseen, the darkness closed in, suffocating me. Twice I cried out to God, muffled so I wouldn’t waken my husband, Rob, but it was Rob’s hand that reached through my grief and grasped mine. He wasn’t even awake when he did it and didn’t comment on it the next morning. I knew God had become flesh again and held my hand in my dimension.
Reassurance. I realized I was not alone. He really was there. He always keeps His promises and He promised that He’s always with me. But only in these two manifestations had I really been startled into believing it. Most of the time I tumbled in waves of fear . . .
On this night, a few weeks before Rob’s heart surgery, struggling again in the midnight, words of comfort began a quiet resonation in my soul. Softly at first, then like a voice approaching from down the hall, they gradually increased in volume. Distracted from my worrying, I paused briefly to focus on what I was hearing. “ . . . Master, the tempest is raging . . .” “. . . carest Thou not that we perish? How canst Thou lie asleep?” “The winds and the waves shall obey My will, peace, be still.”
What was that? Gradually I remembered the familiar wording. It was the first hymn I learned to play when I took piano lessons as a child. Knowing it was my grandmother's favorite song, I was determined to learn to play it. Now I was determined to remember it.
More of the lyrics came back to me as my heart rate slowed and my mind focused on Jesus. “. . . No storm shall swallow the ship where lies the Master of ocean and sea and skies! They all shall sweetly obey My will, peace, peace, be still.”
“Carest Thou not that we perish? How canst Thou lie asleep when each moment so madly is threatening a grave in the angry deep?” My accusing thoughts were gently re-directed to a favorite passage in Luke. It must have been the inspiration for this hymn. An unbelievable storm came up while Jesus and the disciples were on a lake, putting them in "great danger." In Mark’s telling of this event he describes the storm as having hurricane proportions.
But the Guy Who talked them into getting into the boat for a midnight cruise fell sound asleep, out of sight, while the disciples were left on the ship’s deck, clinging to wet lumber, tunics floating around their ears in the rapidly filling boat, their panicked voices unheard in the noise of the storm. Finally, someone found Jesus and shook Him awake. “We are PERISHING,” he told Him, “and You don’t care.”
So He told the storm to knock it off. Then He told his drenched disciples to knock it off. He censured the storm, winds and raging waves and all, and then He censured His friends. “Why are you so fearful?” He asked them. Hellooooo???? They were in GREAT DANGER?! “Where is your trust and confidence in My integrity? In My veracity?” He asked them.
In His veracity? Veracity: habitual observance of truth.
His mighty men were soaked to the bone by the very real threat of death by drowning, and Jesus wanted to know what caused them to doubt His word. Hearing that from anyone else might have caused them to doubt that person’s sanity. But hearing it from Him caused them to doubt themselves. They began to ask each other, Who is He? Even the wind and sea obey Him!
I asked God for reassurances of His presence in my storm. He gave me alot of them in scripture and even a couple of physical touches. I asked Him for reassurance that Rob would live to see many more 5ths of March. He promised me that, too. And still I doubted His Word. I doubted that He tells the truth. His veracity was in question again as I stood before Him, drenched in my own tears, clinging to the rotting lumber of fear.
Rewind to the afternoon of the storm, Luke 8:22b: “. . . and He said to them, Let us go across to the other side of the lake.”
Translation: Let’s go to the other side of the lake (it might get rainy on the way) and then we’ll get out of the boat at that dock over there. Let US go, together. And then WE will get out over there, together. You and Me, together, all the way across the scary lake with the shrieking eels and violent wind until we reach the other side and step out on land, together. I said we’re going there, and we won’t stop until we get there.
Mark says that when Jesus told the turbulent sea to “Hush Now!” the wind sank to rest “as if exhausted by its beating”. Immediately there was a great calm and perfect peace. Apparently even hurricanes are no match for the Maker of heaven and earth. “No water can swallow the ship where lies the Master of ocean and earth and skies; they all shall sweetly obey my will . . . “
The ship where lies the Master. Truth caressed my desperate heart. I was the ship in the storm. He is the Master. And He was within me. I was the storm-tossed vessel wherein the Master peacefully lay sleeping. And because He was in me, and He is addicted to telling only the truth, we would take the E-Ticket ride together, and all live to tell about it.
Not one disciple was lost in that storm. Nor were they stranded on a desert isle beside a damaged Minnow. Everyone and everything, including the battered ship, made it safely across the lake. Because Jesus was in the boat. And He makes storms obey Him.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
It was just a dusty old box at the bottom of a plastic bin from the garage. Tired and surrounded by the annual Christmas chaos I call “decorating”, I thought I’d found a puzzle to set out for the season. Instead, I realized what I was holding was a select collection of Christmas gifts saved for the last twenty years. Fine art disguised in construction paper. Though they're too priceless to lose track of, it's been ages since they were displayed on my sacred gallery, the refrigerator door.
I pulled them out of the box one by one, handling them so gently you'd have thought Picasso himself painted them. The Christmas Tree shaped by Katy’s five-year-old fingerprints lay on top of the pile, followed by Lee’s seven-year-old version shaped by two inverted cutouts of his hands atop a brown tree trunk. I recognized our son’s reindeer drawing immediately. For years his artistry was made up of ovals and lines that, if rearranged, could also pass as a pretty respectable “skah-worpion”. Our daughter’s drawing style was distinctive, too. The Holy Family in her Nativity with their double-sized heads are, nevertheless, posed in a reverent position before either a baby in a manager or our family's pet beagle, Harmony. I still haven’t figured out the meaning behind Joseph’s green mohawk, but that’s art for you.
Each drawing was wrapped in bright paper at a Christmas long ago and placed with excitement under a tree by my children. As I worked my way through the stack of pictures, I remembered the joy on my kids’ faces as I opened their handmade present. And just like the dust that fell away from the puzzle box, the years evaporated for a few minutes as I relished again the feeling of holding my young children’s gifts.
There’s a new art gallery in our living room this Christmas. A large frame that holds all these treasures has a place of honor on the wall next to our Christmas tree. And I have a new appreciation for the guy who invented construction paper. The stuff is practically indestructible. I’m so grateful.