He still moves

Thirty-one years today since that pick-up truck plowed into her little car, leaving her motionless.  The spark snuffed out.  Leaving her to sit and moan the occasional word.  Rubbing constantly at her crusted eye, still swollen shut.  Her lifeless hands and legs. No animated gestures to light up a room.  They’re nearly all but gone, but for the sudden reflexive movement.

But there are times.  When one sees it in her face- a knowing.  It’s the way she sometimes looks at you, as if she understands.  And in that knowing is found the deepest wounding – that’s where proverbial knife meets flesh and gouges.  It cuts to the heart.  And as she sits year after year after senseless year in that chair by the occasional window, I wonder.  Do thoughts of Christmas miracles ever fleetingly pass through her mind?  Does she know?  Does she ever question why?  And does God care?  Is He with even her, there in the dark recesses of her mind?

It’s all I’ve ever really wanted to know.

And sometimes what we really want, but are afraid to voice in more than merely a whisper, is a miracle.  A sign.  A sense that God does care.  That He is truly with us.  That He’s not dead.  That He’s alive.  That His voice can still be heard as if over a rocky hillside speckled with dirty sheep.  Grungy shepherds herding them along with stumped staffs.  Heard in a little Jewish town with the lone sound of a newborn’s cry, a doting mother’s gentle lullaby heard softly in the still of the frigid winter night.  As if in a dirty stable, sticky cow manure littering the floor.  A filthy manger piled high with straw, roughly hewn: given as a bed.  As if we were there.  As if I were there.  Because He was there- truly there among the people.  In the messy, complicated jumble we call living.  And that He is still here: in the present, the here and now.  It is a miracle.  For that is all we truly need to know in the stark reality of everyday living.

To know that He is with us.  Emmanuel.

Emmanuel, God with us.

It is so easy to forget that truth when faced with the pain of loss- the pain of separation.  Easy to forget in the midst of the trouble that is betrayal and rejection.  The tragedy of disease and unexpected loss of both minor and grave proportions.  Those harsh realities so peculiar and perplexing to as human beings.  All is not always well.  Life is not always easy- even at Christmas.  Especially at Christmas.

It seems that Christmas time accentuates  trouble.  For life is difficult all year round.  It is struggle.  When financial stress touches down, wreaking havoc on families and marriages, trouble is there. When an unfortunate father walks out on his child or a distressed mother slits her wrists in a cry for help.  Trouble is there yet again.  When a child gets cancer or some other terminal diagnosis and suddenly life takes a turn for the worse: it’s hard to really sense God is with us through all of that.  That He hears and He sees and He feels our pain.  That He knows.

That He is there in the midst.  Even in the midst of all that trouble and distress.

Emmanuel.

For all we really want is a miracle.  A sense of His presence.  To feel as the shepherds did the joy of knowing wonder.  To experience as did that simple innkeeper the humbling knowledge of  having room for a King.  Preparing a way for the Christ-child’s birth.  To know as did Mary and Joseph that even simple common, everyday folks can still receive the miracle of Christmas.  Because all we’re really looking for is a sign.

All I am really looking for this Christmas is a miracle.

A friend wrote me the other day.  Last year this time, her life was falling apart.  Her marriage was in shambles.  Her faith was being tested.  She was experiencing trouble on every level.  And I remember the day still when she looked me in the eye and said, “There is very little hope.”  I remember those words.  And I remember wondering myself, “Is there?  Is there really little hope?”

And then.   To receive her letter this week- knowing a Christmas miracle had occurred in her life.  That her little faith had been multiplied.  And that God had moved and increased her ‘little’ to make it filled to overflowing- that’s the miracle of Christmas.

And it can happen again and again and again.

Because God still moves in mysterious ways.

Even in the little things.  In the details.  Just this week, I lost something worth hundreds of dollars.  It was an important item to me personally.  And I searched high and low and in corners and crevices.  I called family members, having them strip-search rooms so as to find that one little lost item.  And when all seemed about lost, I had no sooner asked my mother to pray that I would find what I had lost, when God placed it right before my eyes.  Literally.  No sooner were the words spoken and I looked: it was there.  As if by miracle.  My little Christmas miracle.

And I don’t say all this to trivialize those miracles that have not yet happened, that are yet to occur- there are people in my life who are still hurting.  Who are waiting for their Christmas miracle.  Who have all but given up hope.  Who believe there could never be a way.  Whose faith seems so small.

I am here to tell you: God’s not dead.  He’s a God that’s in the details.

And He still moves.

And even within her- I know He does.  He still loves.  He still understands.  His heart breaks just as does mine.  As does all of ours.  And He’s there with her in the darkness of her room each night.  He meets her in those desolate places where loneliness threatens to steal joy.  He has not left her there alone.  And time is in His hands.

Time is in His hands.

And though I may not yet understand the mystery of His ways.  This I know for sure: He still moves.

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This Christmas: It’s About Receiving

Black, velvet sky melts into night-time darkness. It’s something below freezing. And I think to myself, ‘here we go again’. It’s another ‘up-too-late’ week-night, and I find myself driving snow-dusted roads riddled with pot-holes. This is becoming a habit I wish I could break; that is, the custom of making lesson plans in a creepy building where toilets flush spontaneously and every creak and whistle is felt like a chill. I glance at our passenger side floor mats that are gently speckled with frost. Makes me shiver. I’m glad for the double insulation tonight in the form of two pairs of pants, a warm coat, gloves and a hat.

All the houses I pass look warm and inviting. That’s where I should be right now- at home, cuddled up with a good book and a cuppa something hot. I notice to my right a curtained bay window that partially hides a glimmering Christmas tree. Seriously, I mutter. Already? White lights sparkle as if to inspire. But rather than stir the heart strings, it stresses.me.out.

I am not ready for Christmas. And I admit it: I am not at all excited about the upcoming Christmas season which lies just around the corner.

When I conjure up images of the Season, thoughts always turn to giving. That notion of giving has been ingrained in me from a child, and truly giving is something I have come to believe in as worthwhile and necessary. Of course, I learned how from the very best. My parents- the epitome of sacrificial ‘life-givers,’ having devoted their every breath and good intention to the families and people they served in full-time pastoral ministry.

My mother with a permanent curvature in her spine from having spent more hours than a person could recount on the phone, counseling women- young and old alike- she has lost years of sleep praying over women. Lifting their names heavenward when she could have been deep in slumber. Her life has been a gift freely offered to those she has mentored, prayed with, loved and befriended. She has been and continues to be an inspiration.

My dad, just released yesterday from the hospital, has Parkinson’s. A trip years ago to the Lahey Clinic in Boston confirmed that indeed, Parkinson’s is related to full-time ministry work. Many of those patients studied came from a life of stressful, full-out, service to the people they assisted. That’s my Dad. He was a wonderful pastor. Throughout my growing up years, his minutes, hours, days and weeks were devoted to The Calling. But years take their toll. And then some. What my parents had, they gave. And they gave over pretty much everything.

And what of their offspring? Are we treading similar paths? Yesterday, I found myself on the way to school yet again with the gritty taste of a broken tooth in my mouth after having pulverized yet another molar into dust. The grinding a result of stress acted out in restless dreams. The daily circus- running here, there and everywhere- and for whom? For what? And why?

It’s all getting to me.

Yes. I have seen with my own two eyes what havoc self-less living can wreak on lives that place great emphasis on generous service, duty and responsibility more so than on intentional acceptance. Even if that giving was done with the right motives. There were years when we kids waited, as hours ticked by, for a Dad who willingly made hospital calls on Christmas morning- knowing that this Calling of his and my mom’s was 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s just how it was. So when I think of Christmas, of Christmas trees- lights shimmering in the dark. Of presents underneath and happy, cheerful voices. I think of my parents. How they gave freely from the heart- year-round- and gave from what little monetary value they had. Their time, their resources, their lives. All characterized by self-less giving. And it has surely caused us as their children to be the better for it.

I am now an adult on that same side of the fence as my parents were once, and I am coming to realize indeed that giving is important. But that there are drawbacks when it comes to giving. Yes, there is amazing joy to be found in giving. And truly giving gets our eyes off ourselves and focused on others. And while I will always believe that giving is truly a worthwhile portion of the whole, I have come to believe that there’s more to the story than this. Because many of us, if we’re truthful, find this part somewhat easy. Giving- we know how to do that. It’s part of our culture. But when it comes to receiving back from others, well- that’s another story. It’s harder somehow. It’s hard to accept the gift with humility and gratitude. Shamelessly reveling in the pleasure of the offering. There is just something about a person who can with acceptance receive the gift with unabashed abandon. Just like a child seeing Christmas for the very first time.

It’s receiving that is hardest, in my books, folks. And this year, I’m just not ready yet to give more of me. Stripping my resources to the bones, wiping myself out so as to outdo what I might have done last year. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet for Christmas if what I have to look forward to is wearing myself thin, turning myself inside out, holding my emotions upside down all in the name of burning out for Christmas cheer.

If Christmas means giving more and more, then I’ll take a pass, thanks.

This year, I plan on receiving. I want Christmas to wash over me in all its glory. This year, I want to focus on receiving Christmas.

And I am coming to realize with the passing of years that there is a point of no return. A point when reached that one realizes they just can’t give anymore. Something else has got to give. But yet the paradox seems to be that while one is coming to the end of the proverbial rope with giving endlessly to seemingly worthwhile causes, that one can at the same time find it difficult to place themselves square on the receiving end of the gift.

To be sure- through the years, we’ve been inundated with the message that it’s better to give than receive. That God loves a cheerful giver. That it is in giving that we find true joy. That there is no better exercise than reaching down and lifting people up (John Holmes). That it is through giving we are blessed.

And most of us give- maybe not until it hurts, but we do know how to give. We give to charity, to community and church service. We tithe. We place ourselves on the altar of sacrifice for our children. But when it comes to receiving something back ourselves, don’t we have a hard time accepting that we’re really worthy of the gift? That we’re worth being sacrificed for, worth being the object of someone else’s blessing? It is humbling to be in the passive role, accepting that I am at times: needy, lacking and without. It is humbling to be the receiver when encountering one with something to offer me. Because I like to be in control. Being the receiver puts me at a distinct disadvantage.

Being on acceptance end of the gift-giving reminds me of my frailty. It reminds me that I don’t have everything- I’m sometimes at a disadvantage. It reminds me that in receiving, I have cause to be thankful. It reminds me that I am loved. It reminds me that I am the route to someone else’s blessing. I am the pathway to blessing for the one who gives to me.

And it is a humble reminder that I should never stand in the way of that. Of letting someone else feel the joy of giving.

It’s hard to receive. It’s hard to receive when we know the cost. When we know what it truly means. We hate to impose, to bother- to be that burden on another. For we know the price of time, of scarce resources, of money spent. We’ve been the giver so many times before. And don’t we sometimes just feel so unworthy? Not worth the offering. Such a nuisance.

As if the gift was never meant for us.

Almost 2000 years ago, God sent a gift. It was His absolute delight to do so- and what a gift that Baby was. That Child came to give so that we might receive. It was a gift, His birth. A gift to all those that witnessed the spectacle. A gift to Mary- and Joseph. A gift to the shepherds, the village people, the wise men. It was truly the Ultimate Gift- a gift that keeps on giving. Even today.

And I don’t know about you, but I am starting to feel ready to let that gift of peace and hope and love and Light and good will toward mankind wash over me this Christmas. I don’t need to give up, give out, give away or give over to receive this gift- I just need to accept it. I don’t need to burn myself out chasing after it- it already came. Hand-delivered. And the Gift is just waiting for me to unwrap it.

So I don’t want my focus to be giving this year. I don’t want to sell myself out, burn myself out, using up all my energy playing Christmas. I want to receive the gift. With absolute, awe-filled wonder.

I want to receive Christmas. As if it was my first Christmas ever.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever…

“Now, we all know what kind of person Mary was.  She was quiet and gentle and kind, and the little girl who plays Mary should try to be that kind of person.  I know that many of you would like to be Mary in our pageant, but of course we can only have one Mary.  So I’ll ask for volunteers, and then we’ll all decide together which girl should get the part.”  That was pretty safe to say, since the only person who ever raised her hand was Alice Wendleken.

But Alice just sat there, chewing on a piece of her hair and looking down at the floor…and the only person who raised her hand this time was Imogene Herdman.

“Did you have a question, Imogene?” Mother asked.  I guess that was the only reason she could think of for Imogene to have her hand up.

“No,” Imogene said.  “I want to be Mary.”

(taken from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson)

 

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I am sitting in the front row waiting for all the little shepherds and wise men to finish rolling across the stage.  To the left, a fiddle solo is in the works.  Away in a manger.  All actors take their final resting place before the nativity scene begins.  The angels flank the troupe, some of whom already have their hands pressed together in the prayer pose.  Every one of these sweet little girls looks as if they could audition for the Philly Cheese commercial and win an appearance.  Indeed, they are every bit the docile cherubs they are touted to be.

I make a few final changes to the arrangement on stage.   As I step back to resume my spot in the front row, I trip over the speaker monitor, propelling myself backwards and very nearly in a downward spiral.  I catch myself just before damage is done.  Meanwhile on stage, Mary the Mother of Jesus is furiously pushing Joseph’s hands away from the baby.  Any attempt he makes to get even an inch closer than his already “hands-off  allowance” to the babe wrapped in non-biblical white polyester blanket with satin edges is thwarted by her “don’t mess with my baby” face.  Joseph decides to pursue other interests, and instead gets caught up in something the shepherds are doing.

Meanwhile, the littlest shepherd decides it is his job to keep everybody quiet.  He walks around shushing everyone, including the vocalist standing off-stage, who sings on oblivious to his tirade.  Things get really bad at one point when he blocks the Late Elementary Girls class as they are speaking their lines.   They very nearly forget to begin speaking, they are so distracted by his antics in front of them, along with his continuous chatter.  No one really minds,though; and he eventually gets sidetracked by the baby in the cradle surrounded by the two ever decreasing bales of hay, which are flying helter-skelter all across the stage.  Little Shepherd is off again toddling across the stage toward Mary.

Won’t she be glad to see him coming.

Mary continues to fuss over the baby.  And when it comes time for the Early Elementary class to borrow the baby to use as a symbol, Mary is outraged.  She has not let him out of her sight yet, and she’s not about to break tradition at this point.  A few quick explanations suffice, and the show rolls on.  The final number is coming up, and the Nativity dissolves to form a choir.  But Mary is insistent that baby Jesus follow her to the front row.  She proceeds to push the cradle with her toe for the finale, even though doing so puts Baby Jesus at risk of falling off the stage.  At the rate things are going, there might be a few unexpected twists to the traditional Nativity Story, particularly if Mary happens to follow suite behind the cradle. I lean forward on high alert in case I need to make a sudden lurch, while Mary rocks the cradle precariously near the edge of the step on which she is standing.

All in all, some said it was the best Christmas pageant ever.  And that’s saying something.  Particularly in light of the fact that it was my own little imp who played Mary.  And considering her track record, we all know how chancey it was for her to be in this role.

I guess the Imogene’s of this world really do make the best Mary’s after all.