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for Miffy 🙂
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Mark 11:23-25 For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them. And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.

9-1-2012

“You don’t have to climb the whole mountain at once.” His voice beside her made her jump. She’d been so intent on the mountain, she hadn’t heard His approach.

“Huh?” she said a little stupidly.

He replied with an amiable chuckle. “You’ve been staring at the mountainside above us for at least half an hour, trying to find the way up it or over it or through it or around it. Just like you have every single time we’ve paused to rest or camp. All I said was that you don’t have to climb the mountain all at once.”

She stared at Him, trying to find her way through the new idea He’d presented her with. “But I can’t live my life freely unless the unforgiveness no longer looms in my way. I mean, until I can successfully surmount this obstacle, I can’t properly love the people You’ve put in my life to love.”

She stared back at the mountain, and He let her puzzle over it a bit more on her own.

“Are you saying that total and complete forgiveness is too big a project to complete all at once? That somehow . . . ” she trailed off but looked at Him hopefully (hoping He’d caught enough of this question she didn’t quite have words for).

“When you have to tackle the peak, you’ll be able to. But you’re not there yet,” He threw an arm around her shoulders and they stood together looking up at the peaks ahead and above them.

I’m just so tired of its shadow being everpresent and not knowing what to do to surmount it,” she said softly. “I’ve done all I know to do, and the bulk of it is still there.”

He squeezed her shoulders. “Just do what you know to do,” He said. “You’ll stand on your high places one of these days.”

“Scout’s honor?” she asked teasingly.

He shook his head in mock solemnity. “Guide’s  honor,” He said.

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*Mountain Guides: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_guide
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Note: this sketch is one that came to mind a few years ago when wrestling with some of the feelings and questions that come with forgiveness. In talking through the topic of forgiveness in Bible study today, this sketch came to mind as we were discussing the way forgiveness is not only a choice but also a process.

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My first year of teaching high school, I was faced with the question of why we read and teach the books we teach. What makes them worth reading?

Well, they’re classics, right? They’ve been around for a long time, lots of people have read them, so they must be worth reading, right?

But that can easily become a circle to get stuck in, can’t it? We read these classics because everybody always has. And they read them because everybody always has.

So. I began making a list of the qualities that give these books staying power.

Don’t worry. I won’t treat you to the whole list, but if you think of the movies that your family watches every year at Christmas time, you will most likely be able to figure out some of the qualities I discovered.

Unique characters–what is it about George Bailey that keeps us watching his wonderful life again and again, even though we could quote all his lines for him? Though no one will ever be able to breathe the life into those lines like Jimmy Stewart did. _It’s A Wonderful Life_ gives us two characters for the price of one!

Engaging characters–Elf, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Grinch and Cindy Loo Who, Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, Tim Allen’s Santa Claus, Clarence Cloudbottom: they touch our hearts and lives because they are like us or like someone we know . . . or even wish we knew. Somewhere along the storyline, we find a person that we can connect to through our own lives and experiences. And as we grow and our life experiences broaden, we experience these stories in a new way.

Universal themes–How in the world did _The Sound of Music_ become a Christmas classic? There’s nothing remotely Christmas-y about it! But it’s been shown on tv at Christmas ever since I can remember . . . and I can remember watching it from a rather young age! Perhaps it’s because at Christmas time, families want to come together to watch something good and something filled with hope and joy and love and something worth believing in. And the story of the Von Trap family–both the true story and the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein version we all know so well [I’ll bet you’ve sung along with it at some point or another yourself!]–their story is full of those things. Something worth believing in so much that it’s worth risking one’s life and livelihood for. Hope and love: “A dream that will need all the love you can give/ Every day of your life for as long as you live.” And, of course, joy.

Timelessness–some stories can only be enjoyed once or twice through before they are put on the shelf and never really thought of again. Some are good again if you are experiencing them with someone to whom the story is new. But some. Those classic some. They are good again and again. There are new things to notice, new connections to make each time we experience them. They grow with us. We connect with the story and characters in different ways as our experiences follow the path of time that we all take. Scrooge today is a rounder character to me than he was when I was a middle-schooler reading _A Christmas Carol_ on my own for the first time. And though in the past I have been more touched by his own personal redemption story, my attention was caught this year (as Dickens would have had it, I’m sure) by the poor and the needy and by the way that Ebenezer did what he could to remedy the deficits. Timely story indeed.

Unique characters. Engaging characters. Universal themes. Timelessness.

Do these apply to THE Christmas story? The one that started it all?

You know what my answer should be, of course. The “Sunday School answer” that I should give as a good Christian.

But I hate giving answers just because they’re the expected answers. Not even the First Christmas story should be locked into a cycle of meaninglessness: “we read it every year because everyone reads it every year because it’s the classic Christmas story.”

Is it worth reading every year? Should not the Author of the Universe do work excellent enough to withstand scrutiny? Is the First Christmas story timeless enough to be heard again and again each year with ears both familiar and new at the same time?

This will, of course, depend on the other three qualities we have just mentioned. In this post I will leave you to ponder its universal themes while I take the briefest of looks at the characters.

We don’t know a lot about them. Some of the principal players are known only by their occupations and titles. And even those around whom the story swirls are sketched with minimalist lines. Yet it’s an old actor’s adage that character is action. And from the actions that make up the plot of the story we can derive the characters. What kind of a person kills all the babies in a town to try to get at the one he fears may one day grow to take a throne he will, by then, be too old to hold? What kind of men rush from fields to search a sleeping town for a little baby? And what kind of person sends his only son into a hostile world?

The story of the First Christmas is a story of many different reactions to the same gift. Were we in their shoes, what response would have been ours? In whose company would you find yourself?

Steven Curtis Chapman was exploring that question himself one Christmas, using those thoughts to write his song “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us).” And on this Christmas Day, I leave you with that question: where are you in the Classic Christmas story this year?

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)”

Steven Curtis Chapman “I Am Joseph (God Is With Us)” lyrics

2014-11-14

“Pastor Steve is preaching a series called ‘Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit.*'” I said.

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “What have you thought of it so far?”

“Well,” I said, “Something he said in the very first sermon of the series has really stuck with me.” I could hear it again, see Pastor Steve’s expression, see the words on the power point presentation. But most of all, I could see the words written–in my own handwriting, on my page of notes. “He said that sometimes people are afraid of the Holy Spirit because they don’t think He will show up.”

“Hm. Interesting.” We were quiet for a moment or two. Then,

“Do you think that way sometimes?” He wanted to know.

I nodded. “That’s why it stood out to me.”

Quiet again.

“Sometimes I get afraid that You won’t show up, that You won’t be with me when I need You . . . or even just when I want You.”

“Even though I’ve promised to be with you always?”

I nodded. “Even though You’ve promised,” I said. “And then sometimes I am afraid that when You do show up, You’ll be a different person than I thought I knew. That I won’t recognize You.”

“Or that I won’t be FOR you, right?” He finished the thought I didn’t even realize I’d begun. But it was true. I nodded again. He was silent, and I was silent. The kind of silence that comes from there not really being much to say at the moment. Finally,

“What do I do?” I asked.

“You keep calling Me and watching Me keep My promise,” He said simply.

 

 

 

*[yes, the series title has been taken from a book of the same name: Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit: An Investigation in the Ministry of the Spirit of God Today by Daniel Wallace]

During my middle school years, the whole world changed. Literally, the whole world. Yes, my personal world was turned upside down—a move across the country, a tiny house in a huge city instead of a sprawling house on the outskirts of a small city, and a traditional classroom with new and more urban peers instead of self-study amid childhood friends—all of those together do constitute the equivalent of a personal 8.4 earthquake. But my personal changes are not what I am writing about today.*

I am writing about how the world itself changed during my middle school years.*

 

[Hint: I am about to wax autobiographical. So: if you don’t have time for a jaunt through personal history followed by multiple reflections, then before you leave this page, you REALLY should skip to the end and follow the link at the * note. That’s really the best part. My favorite part. And the point of the whole thing, really.]

 

I grew up under the shadow of Communism. Grew up watching shows about American spies—the good guys—outwitting the Russian secret service—the bad guys. Grew up hearing about Christians persecuted under Communist rule and reading about the lack of freedoms that people in Communist countries enjoyed. The imaginative games my friends and I played—aside from some creative forays into historical worlds—were infused with Communist bad-guys chasing the good guys and almost catching them. The good guys were captured sometimes but always managed to escape and save the day . . . provided the game didn’t end prematurely when our teachers or parents called a halt to play time. After all, that’s what always happened in my favorite tv show Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

Russia, Communist headmaster of the USSR, was a country cloaked in mystery and competition. Mystery because few people were allowed behind the Iron Curtain and even fewer people allowed out. Competition because Russia was determined to steal all of our secrets and win all the Olympic medals. Not to mention the space race (but that was a topic that went above my the radar of my elementary mind).

I loved the Olympics, especially the winter Olympics and especially the figure skating competitions. I always wanted skaters from “the free world” to win over those from the Communist world, of course, but I couldn’t help but love and admire some of the skaters from the USSR. Their stories, told Olympic style in all their inspirational warmth, gave me a glimpse into the lives of real people. There were real people living behind the Iron Curtain, real people who somehow didn’t get in trouble for thinking and who somehow made a living . . . and whose lives were decided for them from childhood. Just like that. Sergei Grinkov and his partner Ekaterina Gordeeva were my heroes. Sergei’s sudden death in 1995 touched my heart with genuine sorrow. I may have cried, but I don’t remember. My parents bought me the memoir his wife wrote of his life. Their childhood skating partnership had eventually turned into love that led to marriage. They were a Russian fairy tale.

 

All of this feels so long ago and so far away.

 

25 years ago, in fact.*

Spectators walk between balloons of the art project and remains of the former Berlin Wall at the wall memorial Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, Germany. USA Today – Picture by Markus Schreiber, AP

 

This week, the city of Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall that divided Communist-controlled East Berlin from self-governing West Berlin. The Berlin Wall that physically represented the metaphorical curtain that shrouded all of the countries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from the watching eyes of the rest of the world. As a child I always wondered what the “Iron Curtain” was—besides one of those things that everyone talks about and everyone knows about and everyone says without explaining what it means to the listening children. I think that somehow I imagined it was a wall like the Berlin Wall, but was never quite sure. Substituting “Berlin Wall” into every sentence where “Iron Curtain” was used did not always bring the clarity I imagined it would. Eventually, yes, I did come to understand that the term was metaphorical for the measures of secrecy and red tape that the Soviet states employed to keep the world out and keep their own people in and behind which the Soviet government ran its powerful schemes of control ranging from semi-absolute to moderately intrusive.

 

As a child, I knew nothing of John F. Kennedy’s mistranslated but heartfelt pledge to the people of Berlin—Ich bin ein Berliner—nor even what his speech meant to the people of Berlin.

If I did hear about Reagan’s demand that Mikhail Gorbachev “take down this wall” in Berlin, it either went over my head completely or was far less interesting to my child-mind than the latest episode of Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

I had no idea that in the year I turned 10, a mistake was made in a speech by an East German official giving permission for the gates to be opened and East Germans to walk freely through them—and across the former “death space”—and into the West Germany they’d been longing to rejoin.*

I was dimly aware of the news that the Berlin Wall itself had been torn down.

But I remember vividly sitting in my 8th grade social studies class and being introduced to a brand new, redrawn map of Europe. Our teacher asked us that year to memorize maps of all the continents, all the countries of the world. None was so interesting as the map of Europe—the map on which we could no longer find some countries (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia), the map with so many new countries that hardly knew what to do with themselves. The map that was history being made in our lifetimes.

All of a sudden, those probably dangerous and definitely mysterious potential-spies dressed in long dark coats and fur-rimmed hats became real people. People who enjoyed owning property, people struggling against crushing economic forces, people trying to figure out self-government. People like us. People who didn’t have it easy but were people again instead of a mass to be ruled and managed.

 

We don’t hear much about Communism anymore. Sometimes I think that may not be a good thing—now that the Cold War is over, now that China is the smiling face of Communism and cheap labor, I sometimes fear we no longer remember or care about the foundational differences between Communism and freedom. And those differences are very important to remember because those differences cost the lives of thousands upon thousands of people—in places and during times that have nothing to do with American capitalist interference. And those differences still cost many lives hidden away in secret places where no one but God can really see them. Sometimes I wish we remembered that Communism teaches beneficial change can only come through bloodshed of the ignorant masses. That Communism does not really see people as people.

But I am glad that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain has taken Communism out of our working vocabulary and away from the forefront of our imaginations (though I do pity the kids who have less perfect bad-guy material to use in their imaginary games—a dark, tricky, and impersonal force from across the world really does make for a good force of evil to fight against). Most of all, I am glad for Berlin because for all the difficulty that reunification brought—and it really did bring a lot of difficulty for every country that had been a member of the Soviet bloc—but for all of that difficulty, Berlin made it work.

The wall coming down was nothing short of a miracle. So many people had hoped and prayed and worked for it. And then it actually happened. It must have seemed like a dream. Like a perfect dream. But it was real life, not a dream, and real life is a lot more difficult to negotiate than dreams are. But Berlin lived up to JFK’s statements about them and embraced reunification so well that today it is hard to tell where West Berlin ended and East Berlin began.

 

And it makes me think about how true JFK’s claim really was—Ich bin ein Berliner—or as his interpreter correctly retranslated for him: I am a citizen of Berlin.* Because I think that all of us are citizens of Berlin.

We all face conflicts and divisions. Sometimes we build walls to protect our interests; sometimes we build walls to try to control what we think we have a right to control in our lives and the lives of others. Sometimes we feel closed in by walls we did not want built or have come to regret; sometimes we are the maintainers of walls, just doing our jobs. Sometimes we are the ones looking at walls that others built and mourning the broken relationships on both sides. We are Berliners. And like the citizens of Berlin, sometimes we see the walls come down.

And like the people of Berlin, when the walls come down, we find that working out the differences, extending freedom to all, and patching up the damage is not an easy task. (Sometimes we wish the walls had just stayed up!). It takes work to see and treat each other as real people. We aren’t born being good at it.

 

But I have to hand it to Berlin—they did it. Like JFK said, the people of Berlin were a model to the world: in his time, they were a model to the world of how terribly divisive and cruel Communism was. And when the wall came down, they modeled to us reunification. Not automatic, not easy, but a task worth doing. A miracle worth receiving.

A victory worth celebrating.

 

Happy 25th anniversary, Berlin!

 
 

*Note: Watch Tom Brokaw’s view of the celebration–he was there in 1989, and again 25 years later. His clip tells stories from multiple angles and is my favorite of all the things I saw and read. It encapsulates it all. Please watch it.

**Note: What JFK really said in German was “I am a jelly doughnut.” A Berliner was a kind of pastry. By throwing in the article “ein,” he changed the German sentence from “I am Berliner” (a citizen of Berlin) to “I am a Berliner” (a jelly-filled doughnut-pastry-thing). I love listening to his speech because when he first says that misinformed sentence, a whole lot of things happen at once: the interpreter catches and rephrases the mistake, a buzz of excitement runs through the audience, Kennedy realizes that he has made a mistake of some kind and enters the general laugh himself by thanking his interpreter for helping him out. Kennedy has no idea what the mistake was, but his gracious poise and interaction with his audience is beautiful and perfect. What is even more beautiful is that at the end of speech when he makes the same ill-worded comment, a buzz of excitement runs through the audience again, but with a very different note than the earlier buzz. Nor does the interpreter need to make a correction this time. The people know exactly what Kennedy is really saying. The first buzz of excitement may have been good-natured laughter; the latter is cheering and connection with JFK’s message: you’re not alone, Berlin, because the whole free world stands with you.
That was a truly beautiful moment.

 
 
 

Other Berlin Wall and Communism resources:
Berlin Wall —
1) BBC/Wikipedia History of the Wall — http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/places/berlin_wall
2) History lesson links and Berlin Wall quiz — http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/11/12/text-to-text-the-fall-of-the-berlin-wall-reporting-in-1989-and-remembering-25-years-later/?_r=0

Communism —
(these are books, not sites; very retro, I know, but they did a good job of helping me get a picture of it . . . a consistent picture, even though none of the sources were connected with each other)
1) biography: God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew (first-hand experiences)
2) classic fiction: Animal Farm by George Orwell (explores the natural end of the ideology . . . in fairy-tale form)
3) play: Letters to a Student Revolutionary by Elizabeth Wong (this comedy/drama is about Communism in China)
4) children’s book: The Mystery of the Smudged Postmark by Elizabeth Rice Handford (this one touches on the reasons people wanted to leave, from a child’s point of view)
5) historical fiction series: The Russians by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella (Last 3 by Pella alone)–this series is pretty long, but by the end of book five, you have a pretty good idea of what Communism sounded like and what it looked like in actuality. It’s like watching a train wreck.
By now you may have noticed that none of these are treatises on Communism. Those are readily available through an internet search, but sometimes it’s a biographical or fictional story that helps us to really see what is going on. And piques our curiosity to search. And no, none of these are the sensational Hollywood spy-style-stories I loved as a kid. (Ok, so the only one that gets close to it is so true, it’s stranger and more amazing than fiction!) 😀

This last portion of the poem deals with the one word that seems to be impossible–hope. Because that is the message of the Resurrection. Hope. Hope for new life that springs from the inside and changes us for eternity. Hope because the One who knew no sin became sin for us so that WE MAY BE MADE THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IN HIM. That’s hope. And not the wishful-thinking kind. It’s the hang-your-hat-on kind. The lay-your-every-waking-moment-on-the-line kind of hope. Expectation.

I’m standing at the tomb
His tomb
My tomb
Your tomb
Dare I hope to see an angel
Announcing over empty grave-clothes
The Impossible has happened?
Where does my heart,
My death-wounded heart go
to find Your Resurrection?
Like Martha, I believe
You are Who You Are—
God, the Son of God,
The Resurrection and the Life.
Can this belief become
the spice I bring to mourn the dead?
Here is where we dwell:
We dwell with Death—
death of loved-ones, hopes, and dreams
Should I really be
Surprised that You should die?
It’s not ok
But I’m used
To it, to death
There’s always one more tomb.

But Yours is empty
Empty, hollow, vacant—
Incomprehensibly absent
Is the corpse I came to find.
“Because I live, ye shall live also”
Was Your promise,
A promise just as impossible,
Just as improbable—
Teach me to believe!
For now, just help me trust
In You, the One I’ve come to know.
I know You’ll read my message
When I send to You saying,
“Lord, the one You love is sick, is dead.”
You’ll come, e’en though he’s dead,
Because You love him, too.
I’m waiting for the glory of God
Promised by You,
Incomprehensibly impossible.
Hoping, waiting, believing
That You defeated Death.

If I show You,
if I show You where he is buried;
if I take that long, slow walk to his tomb again;
if I take that long, slow walk with You—
if we take that walk together, even though he’s four-days dead;
if I show You where he lies decayed,
What then?

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Go back and read it again. Slowly. As though it is so hard to express the thought you really want to ask that you have to preface it with several attempts. As though you can hardly get the words out. Because that’s really what you are wondering but it’s very hard to say, to admit that there’s really no hope. To admit that you feel that way.

This third part of the poem deals with the response I have when I put myself into the story being told in John 11 and when I bring the story into my own life. Jesus asks Martha, “Where have you laid him?” and she replies, “Come and see.”

That response makes sense within the moment. That’s what you do when the dearest friend couldn’t make it to the funeral of your brother but makes it to town 4 days later. You show him the grave. Maybe you pick up a bunch of flowers to lay at the grave, too. And you take a pile of tissues or a handkerchief because you know that the mourning is not over. In fact, you know that the grieving has just begun. You know that almost anything can set you off again, calling up memories that make you smile through your tears and wring your heart out through your smiles. You know that your younger sister is grieving deeply, too, and you try to be strong for her sake. One of you must be the sensible one that takes care of the details. But you and she both know that your lives will never be the same again.

But however normal Martha’s response may have been, as I read the story, as I think of the deaths (both physical and emotional) that I have mourned, my response is a bit different than Martha’s and Mary’s. As I find myself in their shoes, in their story and mine, I want to say to Him . . . very slowly . . . and in words that can hardly get past the tears . . . “What then?”

This is the second part in my repost of a previous poem.

Before He took the final steps of His journey to the cross, Jesus had spent a great deal of time teaching His disciples what to expect. But they didn’t get it. Not even when He performed the amazing miracle showcased by John in chapter 11 of his account of Christ’s life on earth, not even when He performed that greatest of all miracles He had performed so far, not even then did they imagine in their wildest dreams what He was trying to tell them. Not even then were they even able to imagine the promise He was making to them. I don’t blame them for their lack of understanding. I have a hard time comprehending it myself–I who have read the whole story and know the ending–I have a hard time comprehending the promise of resurrection when staring hideous DEATH in the face. But Easter calls us to remember. And to remember than right before that amazing miracle which foreshadowed the greatest miracle of all time–right before He changed the fabric of space and time for the grieving family, as He met grief and anguish wreaked by DEATH, Jesus–God Himself–wept. It’s ok to cry.

Resurrection?

Rising from the dead?
Just doesn’t happen
Impossible
So improbable that our minds
Cannot conceive the thought:
“Your brother will rise again.”
“Yes, Lord, someday he will
when life as we know it
comes to an end and
You make all things new.”
“I AM the Resurrection
and the Life,” You reply;
and, though my mind believes,
my heart still cries:
“Lord, if You had been here,
My brother would not have died!”
I cannot help but weep.
And You weep, too—
You, who are Life itself,
Weeping over Death.
I know by Your weeping
that You loved him, too:
that Death can touch Your heart,
divine though You may be.
Perhaps Divinity is wounded
more by Death than is Mortality.
And for this moment,
once again, Death
trumps Victory.
And so we weep together.
What comes next?

“Where have you laid him?”

This is actually a partial re-post of a previous poem, a poem that fits again with the Easter season, especially as we think about the fact that Christ died in our place–He joined us in the death that we all are born into. For those moments on the cross, the ONE WHO KNEW NO SIN BECAME SIN FOR US. And all of the horror and sorrow of death and of the deaths of love and hope and dreams and beauty and righteousness was wrapped up into His dying and the laying Him into His grave. His death has not been the only death to bring sorrow and hopelessness. No, we come face-to-face with death over and over again in our own lives. Easter calls us to remember and to grieve the destruction caused by sin . . . . .

When another one falls,
not falls, but stumbles,
not stumbles, exactly,
but trips, and catching
his façade on a protruding edge,
rips it away for us to see
the things that lie inside—
Death rules again,
And I seem to see
You again, cold and lying
in Your grave enwound with
grave clothes and embalming spices.
I find myself at Your tomb again
Bringing spices, mourning You
Wondering
Was everlasting Life all a Dream?

With deathful Sin triumphant,
standing, gloating, leering,
mocking all our hopes—
now dashed with cold reality—
Who will roll the stone away?

And once the tomb is open,
letting out the stench of death,
exposing to our eyes the
lifeless shell within,
where will we find You?
You are not there, the corpse
that was Your body
cannot now be You—
Your spirit’s gone.
And where You’ve gone
We do not know
And cannot follow.
The memory of You fades
to a dream of something
we thought we had.
But we were mistaken.
What hope is there?

Prophecy and nail
A woman gets the credit–
Deborah, Jael

So, a friend of mine shared this video on her blog: A Social Network Christmas
it makes the Christmas story seem so real, reminds us of the fact that the people in the Christmas story didn’t walk around with halos on their heads but lived as real people did back then. Pretty awesome.

and, yes, it made me cry just a bit =) the good kind of crying. But that’s just me =)

Just in case this video doesn’t post, you can check it out here:

http://meditationsfortheliminal.blogspot.com/2010/12/social-network-christmas.html?spref=fb

Merry Christmas!

“If we cannot believe God when circumstances seem be against us, we do not believe Him at all.” – Charles Spurgeon
qtd in NBBC Alumni Update: January 28, 2008

I’ve been studying the life of Job lately. (Actually, the whole church was, and the children’s class got behind: we’re still studying that book along with the Psalms that the rest of the church is studying. We’re having a great time figuring out what each of the characters in Job is saying and getting quite an education on the behavior of people discussing things!)

If anyone had a hard time with circumstances, Job was the one. And he had so many questions for God. Questions I find that I have–sometimes even without knowing I’m wondering them.

“God, why are you punishing me? I’ve been doing my best to serve you!”

“God, if things are really truly ok between us, why these circumstances?”

“How is it considered punishment when it happens to others but not to me? It appears the same!”

“How can you still be ok with me when everyone else seems not to be? and when my world seems to be falling apart? and when I can’t tell up from down?”

Yet, before we begin the series of discussions between Job and his friends, we know the answers to some of the questions. As I say to my kids, God was really bragging on Job.

God: “Satan, see Job down there? He’s my friend. He’s such a great guy!”

Satan: “Yeah, he’s just your friend because you’ve given him everything he wants and needs and even some things he didn’t know he wanted or needed. Take all that away, and you’ll lose his friendship.”

So God let it be tested. And He had something more to brag about when Satan returned from carrying out the terrible deed of stripping from Job everything that he had.

God: “See, I told you he was my friend! You took away everything, and he’s still my friend! What a great guy!”

Satan: “Yeah, but he’s still healthy. Make him sick, put him into some real, physical pain, and he will start to curse you.”

So God allowed that, too. And still Job didn’t stop being God’s friend. And then (as an added “bonus”) Job’s friends misunderstood him. And they added misunderstanding to misunderstanding. And Job didn’t stop being God’s friend.

But He began to wonder if God was still his friend.

And I guess that when I’m under the circumstances, I begin to wonder that, too. I’m looking forward to the end of the book, looking forward to seeing how God answers some of these questions.

The first recorded Christmas song in the Bible did not come from the heavens with a full choir to back it up. It was sung composed and performed by an amateur to an audience of one. The composer was Mary, the mother of Jesus herself. Here’s how I imagine it:

“Only a few more turns to go, and I’ll be standing at their front door,” Mary thought as she trudged wearily along. She had already hashed things out in her mind countless times on this journey. Why did I decide to leave Galilee? Well, I needed to leave. I’m starting to feel the symptoms of pregnancy, but I can’t talk to anyone about it. There’s no one to tell: Nazareth’s too small a town to hide things in for very long. Tell one person and the whole town knows in a minute! I can’t live there, growing more and more pregnant and raising more and more questions. I have to leave. I have to get away for a while. Why Elisabeth’s house? I know it’s a little risky–after all, Zacharias is a priest and might have trouble buying my story. But I think they will understand; after all, things have not been normal with them, either, according to the angel. Imagine! Having a baby after all these years! In fact, I suspect the angel told me about their current miraculous situation just so that I would know that I have a place to turn. Surely they will not reject me. And Elisabeth will help me. Each question had raised itself to be answered over and over again until they were all silent–all but one, that one haunting question that had lingered long after the angel-radiance had left the house feeling drab and colorless that amazing day. Is this all truly from God as the angel said it was? or is there some sort of horrible mistake? I couldn’t be dreaming this up, could I? But who will believe me?

Elisabeth’s house appeared over the rise of the hill, a welcoming atmosphere about it. Tired and road-weary, Mary concentrated all of her thoughts on reaching that inviting doorway ahead. Time had not allowed her to send a letter pre-announcing her arrival. She would just announce it herself. Too tired to work out the words ahead of time, she would just have to wait for the moment itself to bring the words. Somehow she would tell her story and hope to be believed and understood and welcomed.

“Who is it?” a low, pleasant, parchment-paper voice replied to her knock.

“It’s Mary, your cousin.” A pause. She realized she was holding her breath, but she couldn’t help it.

The door flew open, and she found herself tightly enveloped by a little old lady with excited eyes and a warm smile. “Mary! Oh, Mary! So good to see you! Oh! You are the happiest, most favored woman on earth! You were chosen to carry the Savior of the world! Oh! I’m so happy for you! What in the world did I ever do to deserve having a visit from the mother of my Lord and God? Come in! Come in!” Another bear hug. Elisabeth talking and chattering and drawing Mary into the house. A rather dazed Mary wondered how in the world Elisabeth could have known, but she couldn’t find the words to speak at all.

Elisabeth was still speaking excitedly. “I just knew it! Oh! The minute I heard your voice I knew! Well, actually little John here knew,” she patted her protruding stomach to punctuate her sentences as she continued. “The minute we heard your voice, he jumped! He jumped–must have turned a somersault in there! And I knew what had happened to you! Oh! I am so happy for you! And so happy that you came here of all places! You are more than welcome to stay with us!
“And, Mary,” she paused to regain Mary’s focused attention, “Mary, bless you for your belief. You truly will be happy that you believed God’s message. God has promised you something, and He will keep his promise to you.”

There was a stillness in the room for a moment, Elisabeth wisely being quiet for a moment to let her last words sink in. She had lived long enough to know that believing is not easy–even after an angel has spoken to you and told you what will happen. Even after the predicted event had begun to unfold itself. Believing can be very difficult.

When Mary found her tongue, it was to sing. To sing the song that had been writing itself within her over the miles of the trip from her hometown to her cousin’s house. Her question had been answered in a way she had not looked for: how could it not be from God when Elisabeth had known before she had even been told? how could it not be from God when even Elisabeth’s baby had known who Mary was carrying in her womb? And Elisabeth had believed. No explaining, no begging, no pleading required. It was answered, and her full heart responded in the only way it could.

Luke 1:46-55 records the words for us.
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;

For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His name;
And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation;
He hath shewed strength with His arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;

He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He hath sent empty away;

He hath holpen His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to His seed for ever.”

My eyes and thoughts are drawn over and over to this line: “He that is mighty hath done to me great things.” She could look at her circumstances and be happy that “great things” were being done to her. I am truly awestruck at her, not at her super-spirituality, but at her humanness. Mary was a regular girl who had just been thrust into a difficult situation, a situation unheard of before and since her time. Sure, she had welcomed God’s plan for her life when the angel had announced it to her. But since that magically astounding moment, reality had set in. She knew exactly what it would look like for her to become pregnant at this time: she was betrothed to Joseph. The whole town might think that they had not waited for the proper time to act as husband and wife. Joseph’s reputation would be tarnished. And no one would know that it was God’s baby rather than Joseph’s. Joseph would know that the baby was not his and would be devastated. This marvelous news would not look beautiful; it would look wrong. And if its appearance had been true in any way, her situation would have been wrong. Terribly wrong! She couldn’t blame them for what they would think of her. But, on the other hand, this was a beautiful gift God has given her, creating within her womb–without any action on her part at all–the precious life of His Son. Mary was stuck–stuck in the jaws of circumstances.

And yet, she accepted it. Not only accepted it, but rejoiced in the God that had done this preposterous, incomprehnsible miracle in her. She recognized that being stuck was part and parcel of the “great things” that God was doing to her–not through her, not around her, but TO her. She saw those things as for her.

I can relate to her stuck-ness. Some days feel like a long crawl through tunnels too small for a rat. Yet, looking back at how I came to be where I am, I can only conclude that I am here because God wants me here. I feel small and insignificant and helpless and . . . well, flattened. I am stuck with no way to escape. I feel like molasses cookies must feel.

Molasses cookies are wonderful! I do not remember making them as a kid, but I have grown to love them over the three years of living in St. Louis with my aunt’s family and with my Grandmother (mom’s side). Molasses cookies are dark and thin and a little chewy. They are spiced cookies and taste wonderful in milk. To make them, Grandma could roll out the dough thinly and cut it into shapes with cookie cutters; but more often she plops blobs of dough onto the cookie sheet, butters the bottom of the cup and dips it in sugar, then uses the bottom of the cup to flatten the blobs into respectable cookies. That’s right, she squeezes them flat. For that moment, that crucial moment that they are being shaped, they are stuck. Completely stuck. Nowhere else to go. Stuck like Mary was. Stuck like I am. Stuck like you are.

Perhaps I could escape–perhaps I could just throw my hands up and say “I quit!” But what would become of those “great things” happening around me? I don’t want to miss what He is doing. I want to be where He is watching Him work. I’ll sit still! I’ll be quiet! Just let me be where I can see what you are doing! I do not want to quit. But sometimes it seems that it is impossible to exist in the circumstances He has given to me. And rejoicing at my front-row seat becomes fear and sadness over my impossible situation.

Perhaps the secret to rejoicing in being stuck can be found in two comments: one made by Elisabeth and one made by Mary herself. 1) Elisabeth reminded Mary that God would fulfil His promises. God is a promise-keeping God. He is also a sure God: He does not decide to abandon a project once He has started it. The God who favored her today in giving her His only begotten Son to mother would not decide He had made a mistake the following day and remove her from His favor. 2) She realized that the “great things” God was doing were hers, too, not just for the rest of the world. It is easy for me to see myself as a mere tool of God’s work in the lives of those around me. It does not occur to me that the situations I am in, the places I feel “stuck” are for me, too, not just for those around me. Mary recognized that God’s Son within her was for her personally. God was doing great things TO her, not just in her, not just around her, not just for others, but for her. And this knowledge made her feel safe.

See, eventually, the flattened molasses cookies will go in the oven and bake and be ready to eat. Their “stuck” position is good for them. It is done to them so that they will bake as they are supposed to bake and be as wonderful as they are supposed to be. Molasses cookies are meant to be flat.

Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see That without dust the rainbow would not be. ~ Langston Hughes

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