Saturday, December 19, 2009

Meditation #4: Christmas Chiaroscuro

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a lgiht has dawned." Isaiah 9:2

I remember many years ago puzzling over why Christmas could be so hard for some people. Why couldn't people just "get into" the season? Why couldn't they focus on the real meaning of it, and forget whatever was hard? After several traumas, and some choices of my own (good choices, but not without consequences), Christmas took on a whole new feel for me several years ago. I set myself up for it. I had spoiled my kids and even spent my lifetime of Christmases caught up in the whirlwind of traditions. Suddenly, I was barely able to get out of bed each morning. My chioces about what were important for me and for my boys had left me living paycheck to paycheck, hardly able to make ends meet. Christmas made it worse, as I faced "celebrating" without the trappings I had come to love. I faced Christmas with no money, no energy, and no enthusiasm. Still I turned to the things I had always done: decorating, baking, singing songs, and even reading the Christmas story as a way to escape the sense that I was messing it all up. I have really struggled with Christmas for years now, having little sense of wonder and little anticipation of something wonderful in the holiday.

I woke this morning thinking about a terrible, stupid book I read by Lemony Snicket called "The Lump of Coal," about a piece of coal that is hoping for a Christmas miracle. Even an author as dark and vile as the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events can see that Christmas is a time for miracles. Why couldn't I? Most days I walk in a world of darkness. Oh, many of the people around me think they are enlightened, but I see through the facade. I have tasted some of the world's hopelessness in the loss of those dear to me, in the struggle to do what I think is important work, in my own struggle against the parts of me that terrify and shame me. Yet over the years, as I have tasted the devastating consequences of sin, I have also become more aware of something there that I know is real and dependable: hope. Not hope in me, because I let myself down all the time. Not hope in others, although I have come to love and appreciate the relationships I have and the kindness that people can show. I know deeply though, that my hope comes from belonging to the Most High God . . . of knowing I am His daughter and his beloved, and that even when I mess up big-time, He will use it all for my good and His glory. My hope comes alone from Christ, and everything else I experience that is good in the world is because of His hand at work upon it. In the darkest morments of my life I have sensed His presence and tasted His peace, knowing that I didn't have to understand what was going on or why I was hurting to know He was in control and loved me and was going to use it all. I know this, even if my feelings have been slower to respond to it.

A few people at the time of Christ's birth found this hope too. In the midst of a very dark time for Israel--with the rule of the violent, oppressive Romans--there were people looking for hope. Of course, they were looking for the hope that a ruler who would throw off the shackles of Roman oppression would bring. Instead, what a few found was a baby, some angels, and a star. In the midst of the dark of night, during a time of darkness in Jewish national history, in a dark and backwards place like the little village of Bethlehem, a sudden great light shone out. It was accompanied not only by a glorious angel, but by a heavenly host of them . . . enough to inspire fear in shepherds who regularly fought lions and thieves. It was proclaimed not only by a star, but by one bright enough in the dark night to impress some very well-educated, important men from faraway eastern countries. The only thing in that whole story that doesn't seem to shine is the baby, and yet in eternal eyes, he was the brightest of all, for He was God Himself. He would continue to shine through His short life: as he perfectly and respectfully obeyed His parents in everything and showed unusual compasssion for his age on the children around him, as He worked dilligently to help care for His family all the while studying scriptures and worshipping with passion, as He left His beloved family (surprising everyone) to travel and preach and care for the outcast and downtrodden, and as He exposed the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of the religious establishement of the day, urging, calling, chastising them back to true worship of the Living God. The reactions to Jesus were mixed, because he was light--the Light of the World (John 3:19-21)--and while some were drawn to it, many ran from Him or tried to extinguish Him like cockroaches when the switch is flipped.

As I awoke this morning and pondered all of this, I realized that my struggle to find purpose and meaning in Christmas has the same cause as the struggle of every person who has heard, saw, or met Jesus from the time He came here to earth until now. If I get caught up in all of the tradition, in pleasing my children, even in dutifully reading the Christmas story, even my best efforts to celebrate are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). What God wants from me . . . what I was created for . . . was to live in relationship to Him, and then as an extension of that relationship to reflect His light to a dark world. If I want to celebrate Jesus' birthday, I need to do it by reflecting and celebrating Jesus Himself. It's not about conjuring up enough emotion or feigning devoutness to celebrate the season, Christmas is still about the same thing that it started as: renewing my relationship to God. I am grateful that Chrismas comes at the end of the year, because every year, regardless of my feelings I begin a new year reflecting on my Savior, on what He has given me, and on how and where I have strayed away, again, from Him. I have nothing that He really needs, but He wants me. All Jesus wants for His birthday is for me to give back to Him my heart, surrendering to the light and banishing a little more of the darknes

Meditation #3: When the Plan Looks Different Than Expected

At Christmas time I often find myself puzzling over Mary. I've tasted what it is like for God's plan to turn out so different than I expected, and I wonder about her thoughts as Jesus' life unfolded before her. Surely she understood the gravity of the proclamation by the angel that she would have the Son of God. Surely she felt the weight as it dawned upon her that she would be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah. And yet, did she have doubts? Did she wonder at God's choice of her, a simple peasant girl, to give birth to one who had been proclaimed to be a great warrior-king? Even as a child he must have puzzled her. Not the conquering ruler so many had envisioned, but tender, compassionate, kind . . . and at the same time, bearing an air of authority.

Did the birth of the Messiah confuse her as much as it does us? I mean, when we really think about it. It's easy to buy the traditional story of a baby in a manger, but when we really begin to grasp that it was God in the manger, when we really start to understand the majesty and holiness of this one who had come . . . a stable seems an odd choice.

Of course, if we really study God's whole story, we see that He is a God who delights in turning things upside down. Over and over He proves to us humans that we can't apply a simple formula to life and get what we want or expect. He just doesn't work like that. He loves to make the youngest the heir, the lowly a ruler, a woman a deliverer. He loves to show His might through the weak and the broken and the hopeless.

Perhaps that is because eventually that is where we all end up: facing our own helplessness. The husband leaves. The illness ravages our body. Parents and siblings die. All of our education and training can't find us a job. When sin decimates our lives, God's stories of using humble maidens to bring a king into the world remind us that this same king conquered death and sin for us. He offers hope and life in the midst of a hard world. Only in a relationship to Him do we find satisfaction and joy.

I wonder how much of God's story Mary knew. Did she know much beyond the traditional tales of folklore that were told. Somewhere had she glimpsed the God who loved her? She was a woman who treasured up things and pondered them, so I wonder if she had pondered the truth of God's story enough to just trust that He knew what He was doing even though the plan never seemed to make sense to her.

Christmas is a time of giving to others and asking for your deepest desires. I think this Christmas I'm going to give God my attention and my worship. He deserves so much more, and nothing less. I'm going to give Him control of my life (again . . . although He never lost it). And I'm going to ask Him to draw me back into His story in the year to come. This year I would like many more glimpses of the life-giving, hope-bringing God-incarnate.

Meditation #2: Guilt By Association

I am struck every year by part Joseph plays in the Christmas story. His initial reaction to the discovery that his future wife is pregnant is surprising enough--most young men I know would hardly decide to handle it quietly! I wonder how his quiet handling of the matter would have appeared if word got out in Jewish society--if that was considered the reaction of a guilty party who didn't want to admit his guilt by fulfilling the betrothal. Surely Joseph was going to be unable to "save face" by sweeping the matter under the rug. Since we, the readers, know the truth, his decision speaks volumes about his character, his tenderness toward God, and perhaps about his feelings for Mary.

But what comes next is astonishing. In a dream he is told to take Mary as his wife, and HE DOES IT!!! As I ponder this for a moment, I'm humbled. You see, my tendency with dreams is to laugh them off as odd and go on with my day. To marry a woman already pregnant, especially when he had dealt quietly with the whole affair was as good as admitting that HE was the father of the child. I cannot imagine how they would have been treated in Nazareth after this juicy bit of gossip circulated. Did Joseph's business suffer? Were they looked down upon when they went to worship? Did they worry about the neighbors treating the child--the Messiah--as inferior because of his family's dirty little secret? I wonder if they were as puzzled by this plan as I am. Yet the scriptures indicate that Joseph's obedience was immediate, and Mary and her baby found a protector. What a guy!

Such a man seems super-human, and it almost makes the story unbelievable. I admit, I have known a few men who I think of as being of that quality of character, but it still seems outrageous to imagine the cultural impact of Joseph's obedience. It was a one in a zillion pick, which of course God knew.

Then I realized tonight that in his choice of a father for Jesus, God modeled His own divine Fatherhood of His beloved children, for the very reason Jesus was coming into the world was so that God Himself could associate with sinful, willful, rebellious children who had "played the whore" and turned their backs on Him many times. While Mary's guilt was only that of appearance, and Joseph's one of association, my guilt was real. The sins I have committed against my most holy, glorious God are real, as are the consequences of that guilt that I carried. And yet, He chose to come into the world to suffer guilt by association. Throughout His life, Jesus embraced the weak, the immoral, the rejected, the imperfect, and I'm so glad He did, because it makes it easier to believe that He could love me.

It kind of hurts to think of the number of times I'm afraid to associate myself with him--afraid of the cultural impact of admitting boldly that I'm a Christian. I don't mind whispering it to those who are closest to me. I don't mind bringing it out to show when someone is in a tough spot and doesn't know where else to go. But often I fight the urge (and even give in) when associating with Christ will make me look guilty, crazy, or even just weird. So today, for Jesus birthday, I'm going to shout it! Jesus is my beloved!!! He loved me when no one could! He loved me even when He saw the things in me I hope most people never see!! He has faithfully loved me and cared for me and pursued me in my most faithless moments!

Christmas is Jesus birthday, and this year, I want to celebrate it, because He is my most beloved!

Meditation #1: A Costly Gift

I've been wrestling lately with some young friends who are trying to understand God's sovereignty. It's that age-old question: If God is good and in control, WHY would He create a world, and people He loved, and even give them an opportunity to sin and to open the proverbial Pandora's box, letting destructive murderous sin into the world? How can a God who does that be called good?

"Mystery--how He came to be a man. But greater still, how His death was in His plan. God predestined that His Son would die, and He still created man. Oh what love is this? That His death was in His hands?" (Selah, "Mystery")

Suddenly I realized this morning that we're not seeing the complete picture when we ask this question. We only see a man and a woman in a beautiful garden, and an even more beautiful relationship with each other and with their God. If we only look to the separation from the simple life in the garden and the intimacy they knew, it does seem cruel that God even gave them a choice to sin. But what was God going through? He ALREADY knew what choice they would make! But more than that, He knew that with all the good things He had already given them, it was going to cost Him more! He would lose fellowship with His own precious creation for a long time! (Not to Him, I know--billions of years aren't that long compared to eternity) Moreover, He was laying His own son on the line--a part of Himself! He would be compromised in a way He had never allowed Himself to be before! He would have to watch the Holy One He loved more than any other suffer and die!

I've given gifts before that I was proud of because I knew "they'd keep on giving." I've passed over things because "they cost too much." I've received things that I knew I really didn't deserve. But wow! God watched Adam and Eve choose rebellion, and saw at the same time the unimaginable suffering it would cost HIM!!! Why would He do that?

You see, I realized that God didn't inflict suffering on us wantonly or with pleasure. He didn't simply want to humiliate us before His power or righteousness or control. The gift of life wasn't enough for Him to give. A stroll in the garden wasn't enough. He needed to give us all of Himself! He needed to have a relationship that showed the full extent of His love.

If a woman marries a rich man, and he puts her in a house filled with beautiful things, has dinner with her regularly, and takes her on luxurious vacations, will she be happy? We see often in Hollywood that even with all your basic needs met and many of your wants, a relationship devoid of intimacy and the mutual sacrificing of oneself is empty and meaningless. So knowing fully the cost of our sin--to us as well as to Himself--God gave us a choice to love Him, and at the same moment chose to love us even though we wouldn't love Him like He deserved. Several thousand years later, He loved us again, by giving us the true gift that "keeps on giving," the most costly gift, and the one with the most thought and planning put into it. The incarnate Jesus was tailor-made for us!