Hoping in the Smallness of Christmas

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I lost my faith yesterday while driving to the grocery store. It happened while the sun shone on sparkling snow and my favorite Christmas music filled the car. While hearing songs about the Jewish Messiah, long awaited, and at last come, I realized how much I wanted it to be true. I longed for this messiah. And, strangely, in the face of my need and longing, my faith faltered. I saw my heart, so small and needy, and I thought I must just be imagining that it’s true. Suddenly, Christmas was just a story. Just a porcelain nativity set with fake gold trim.

My mind has done the work of belief. It’s researched and studied. It’s questioned and sought answers. As answer after answer after deeper answer has come, I’ve started to trust with my intellect that the Bible is true. That Christianity, with its explanations and historical accounts, is factual. My mind doesn’t cause me to doubt.

But it’s my heart. It’s my little heart that wants so much to believe that causes me to lose faith.

So yesterday, as an agnostic, I walked into the grocery store to buy the last of my Christmas supplies. Somewhere, I thought, there’s something higher. There’s another world around and mingled with this one, with spirits and powers and things I can’t see. But, I can’t know it. It’s impossible to know what’s true. We’re too small to hold it. We’re all just needy guessers.

And, I walked through the aisles with other souls around me filling their carts. There was the mother with tired eyes. The baby in a car seat was sleeping, a knitted hat circling the little head that I could just see through the quilted cover. The mother studied with hurried and tired exactness the fruits and vegetables. An elderly couple smiled back at me as they moved slowly and took their time, choosing their holiday foods and scratching things from their list. I stood in line next to a well-dressed middle aged man. He had a bachelor cart, filled with some locally brewed beer, a rotisserie chicken and some items from the salad bar. I wondered if he had children, even though his cart had nothing to indicate he’d be feeding any, and if so, if he’d be seeing them this Christmas. I hoped that the sweet lady that bagged my groceries, as she managed the busy day shift, would be spending Christmas at home. She has a new baby boy, just a few months old. I know that while she smiles and places my eggs and bread so carefully in bags, that her heart is somewhere else.

I left this store that’s always full of hungry people, and I drove again through the white world. And, I wondered. What is true? I see beauty and brokenness everywhere, all mixed together and shaken up. I know that there’s love and hate and anger and sadness and laughter and joy and self-sacrifice and selfishness and it’s all contained in each one of us. Ancient, orthodox Christian doctrines would also tell me that this is true. We were created by God in His image… we have the fingerprints of the divine on our souls that make us valuable and beautiful beings full of worth. The people in the grocery store are so beautiful. I see that. And yet, there’s something wrong. I can feel it when I’m doing something as simple as standing in line to pay for my groceries. There’s something heavy weighing on us and it’s not just when we’re watching the latest heartbreaking crisis on the news that we know it. Even in the mundane, or celebratory moments, there’s an ache in our humanity. Weeds have sprung up in the garden of our hearts and pain has poured into the labor of our relationships. In smallness we toil. In the shadows of Eden, there’s an ache for an old glory. A restoration. For something to make it all better.

Once, I stood in my farm kitchen with some ladies who’d come to save my soul. I looked into their eyes and I saw their sincerity. But, when I told them that we could never agree because of this one thing that I believe, that Jesus is God, they admitted it. They pleaded their case with me and, looking aghast at each other, exclaimed, “Why! If Jesus was God that would mean that God would have had to sleep and eat just like us. God would have even had to use the bathroom! Don’t you see? God could never do that! He’s too holy, too majestic.”

And, as they spoke, the truth of what they said came washing over me. If Jesus was God that would mean God would have had to … be just like us.

…Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

God. Emptied, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of men. In human form, humbled, hanging on a cross. God in the smallness of human life and the humiliation of death.

Christmas is hard to take in.

It’s so much easier to imagine a God that is far away. He’s somewhere in the sky separate from us. He set things in motion and then took a hands-off approach. He might be keeping tabs on what we’re doing, and he might hear our prayers sometimes, but he’s big and we’re small. He could never be one of us.

But, Christmas says differently. It says God doesn’t think the way we do. His story is so big that he can enter our smallness.

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.” Luke 2:10-12

This year, my thoughts turned to Christmas early. My very first Christmas card came in October. The dear friend sent it before Halloween, not knowing if she would be alive this week before Christmas. I spoke to Tamie a few days ago, from her hospice room in a nursing home, and she sounded embarrassed about sending her cards so early. She said, “I just didn’t know…” and her voice trailed off. My heart ached with that familiar pain of knowing that my friend is going to leave us soon.

In October, she had already decorated her room for Christmas. The nurses called it ‘Christmas village’ and paused by her bedside a little longer to stand by the small lit tree and listen to Christmas music. Tamie told me, “I know it’s early but I’m going to enjoy Christmas. And, I’m going to leave everything just the way it is until I’m gone. I won’t pack everything in boxes. It’s going to stay Christmas.”

I want it to stay Christmas, too. I want Christmas to sweep over this hurting world and to make it all better. And I want it to stay. I want it so much that I feel like I’m asking for a fairy tale ending. I’m begging for a ‘happily ever after’ but this broken down world tells us over and over again that those don’t exist.

As a child, it used to be so easy to believe in Santa and to hang my empty stocking for him to fill. I wasn’t cynical. I didn’t think about my smallness in the face of a big world of empty stockings on Christmas Eve. I went to sleep with faith. I rested, knowing that in the morning I’d see my hopes fulfilled. And, without fail, my stocking was near bursting when I woke. Do I dare to hope that there’s a real version of this story?

Can I bring my small and needy heart to be filled at Christmastime?

Maybe we’re not just imagining because we’re weak and needy, but our weakness and our needs point us to something real. We long because we are made to long. Maybe in our smallness He’s seeking us.

Driving home from the grocery store, with all these thoughts going through my mind, I started to pray. I prayed like it was all true. I prayed like there is a God who became man and understands our weakness. I prayed like He cares about me and my children and my husband and my hurting friends and family and the strangers I saw in the grocery store.

And, as I prayed, belief came sweeping back in. I took Christmas in my hands, held it tight and let it be mine. And the God who doesn’t despise smallness was there. One holy night, He took the hope of the world, wrapped it in swaddling clothes and placed it in a manger. This was the sign he gave to the humble shepherds and it’s still the sign he gives to us if we believe it. He’s willing to enter into a stable or a car full of groceries and He’s even willing to fill up a human heart. What makes it so hard to believe is the very thing that makes it genuine. It’s the longed for true ending of every story we’ve ever hoped to believe.

May our hearts be full of the smallness of Christmas, friends.

Grace to you and peace~

Lara

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

The Taste of Ashes and Redemption

Somewhere in my blood there’s likely pagan ancestry mixed there with the puritan. Far back there might have been grandfathers or grandmothers that danced around trees in the moonlight. I thought of this once, during a time when I was tired. If I were a pagan I could look around at the world and find objects that give me a feeling of wonder, like the ocean or trees, mountains or moon, and I could make them my gods. My gods would think the way I do so their judgments would make sense to me. I would dance to make them do the things I want, like bring the rain or give me babies or heal my loved ones. Yes, I thought, maybe I could be a pagan.

The trees would be the first gods I’d bring to life. For all my love of the ocean, I am a shore dweller. Roots appeal to me and so does the idea of being firmly grounded. When I had my babies, the midwives encouraged me to try water births. But always there came a point when I needed to be out of it; frantically I needed to have my feet on something solid. When in labor with my third son, the nurses let us leave my room and walk in the woods behind the hospital.  It was a warm day in May, and my husband and I paused beneath a hardwood tree with a wide trunk and fresh, new leaves. Leaned against it, breathing deeply, I felt the pain stop as the labor continued. Finally I felt myself grounded, with the roots of this giant tree stretching deep into the earth beneath me. Drawing from the strength of that immovable tree, I felt new life moving through me unhindered. When we went back inside to the hospital room, I tried to bring the strength and rest I felt under the old tree with me. Before long my baby boy was in our arms. My husband calls him now ‘the boy who notices things.’ Yesterday I walked with him in the woods, just he and I, and again I understood why my husband says this. This boy loves the winter snow because of the tracks. He pointed out ones made by squirrels and rabbits. He showed me how to tell the coyote tracks apart from those of the big-pawed black dog romping around us. He took me off the path to see where the squirrels have a hole in the ground to store their food, and the log they sit on to eat in the sunshine, with the debris scattered around like crumbs left on the floor by children. We followed deer tracks and saw where they’ve been biting off the delicate buds of beech trees. He remarked to me, “I am so glad we don’t live in the city.” I smiled with him, and pointed out the trees stretching out as far as we could see up the hill and against the blue-grey winter sky.

During these winter months, when I sit in front of our warm woodstove, I sometimes think of a book I read once called, ‘The Trees in My Forest’, by Bernd Heinrich.

He said, “I’m sure the BTU equivalent of energy captured by a growing tree has been calculated to the third decimal point, but to me that figure provides less meaning than the heat I feel when I burn a stick of wood in my cast-iron stove. Two or three dried split pieces of rock maple can make it glow red-hot, warming the stove and the house. Heat is a form of energy. The source of energy, captured by the trees’ leaves, is the sun. Multiplying the potential energy of those two to three pieces of split wood by the untold thousands of logs accumulating in the trees all around me, I am awed by the sheer magnitude of energy that drives life, passing from one form to the next. The energy captured by trees and other plants will eventually be tapped by bacteria and fungi, by insects and other herbivores, and then passed on to birds and other predators, like us.

Given the constant extravagant input of energy into the forest and into life, it is a small wonder that the evolution of the most extraordinary complex creatures, as well as human civilizations, has been possible. After looking at trees, and heating coffee on my woodstove, it is not difficult to comprehend how life can proceed toward incredible complexity, such as a hummingbird or moth, in a seemingly “uphill” direction from chemical chaos.”

I read those words once, before a walk in the woods. One thing I’ve always had trouble with, in thinking about scientists that don’t believe in a Creator, is how they manage to reconcile the wonder all around them in the natural world with lack of design and intention. But here, I thought, maybe this is it. Maybe they have a way to wonder enough at the world, that the world itself becomes god enough to be its own creator.

On my walk, after reading Heinrich’s words, I tried to share in his wonder; to be an atheist and to still experience awe. Just for a moment, I stood in the snowy woods with that quiet that only winter can produce all around me. I looked around me at the trees. I let myself think deep about the energy in their roots and in their trunks and branches and multiplied across trees as far as I could see in every direction. I tried to let go of every religious presupposition and just feel energy swirling around me. And there, in that attempt to empty myself of faith, something swelled in me that affirmed again that it wouldn’t work. From the core of me rose words that make atheism impossible. At the height of experiencing wonder and beauty and awe, the words, “Thank you,” swelled up beyond my control. I couldn’t stop them. There they rose; reaching beyond myself and these woods toward One my soul has started to know.

Long ago a woman stood underneath a tree, gazing up at its branches laden with fruit, and listened to the lying words of the devil. He planted doubts about the goodness of God in her mind, and she became the mother of all doubters.

A true daughter of Eve, I’ve had a tendency to be a great doubter. For years and years my favorite hymn was one that contained the lines, ‘Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love…” But somehow, as the days and years go by, I’m forever becoming less of a skeptic. He has loved me with a keeping strength. I feel it working, tilling my heart at times, and the worship that rises from that overturned soil is for Him alone. Long ago, with those first meager glances at the tree of Calvary, He planted a seed in my heart and now even my doubts have become tools to break apart hard ground and let my roots go deeper.

A pastor in Manhattan, Timothy Keller, once said, “A faith without some doubts is like a human body with no antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask the hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.”

I’ve learned to notice and to lean into my persistent questions and not to leave them unattended. Some wonderful day I trust that all these doubts will pass away forever, but until then they propel me to use my mind and my heart together to seek and to know. Always, so far, these times of honest questioning have given birth to deeper faith.

Jesus has always been willing to listen to and answer an honest question.

When the hungry crowds pressed in around him they asked, “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus’ answer was that they must believe in him.

Another time, when asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said that it was to “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

These things aren’t pretty sayings to stick on the refrigerator and feel inspired to be a better person. They are crushing if we know ourselves and we’re left to ourselves. Those who have tried to love anyone, and to love them completely, know this. The only one I naturally love with all my heart, soul, mind and strength is myself. Life has been a long and sobering revealing of that reality. This inability to believe in God and to love Him is at the core of what the Bible calls sin. From it every other sin sprouts as we work to fill a hungry place in us designed for worship.

If it were not for another tree, one without roots and branches, we would all be left to our own means to try to fill that void. We would make our own gods, each a reflection of our own hearts. We’d stay self-worshipers ever growing more self-holy. We would be designing and furnishing our own Hell.

There are so few today that see the cross as beautiful. But some, untangling and pulling weeds of doubt as they walk ever closer, fix their gaze on the tree where Jesus hung, cursed, not for His but for our own transgressions. Here we find the restoration of our worship.

I drew strength the day my son was born from a massive and glorious tree. There was something sacred and holy about that moment as I leaned against its solid trunk.

But hours later, when I held that baby in my arms, it wasn’t to the tree that I whispered my thanks.

There are times when I can almost hear the mountains, waves, moon and the great trees singing a song that causes worship to rise in my soul. But if I try to sing to them my voice is lost to the wind. They have no ears to hear my voice and no words to answer.

In the Bible the prophet Isaiah describes a man who goes into the forest and chooses a strong tree. He cuts it down and with part of it he kindles a fire, warms himself and bakes bread. Another part of the tree he carves into a god and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-20)

About this man Isaiah said, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” (Isaiah 44:20)

Over and over again the Bible shows us God’s people falling down before false gods of their own making. Their deluded hearts lead them astray and they feed on ashes rather than on bread and living water. And this is my heart as well.

God has proven Himself faithful to me in countless ways. He has saved me and made Himself known to me. He has met me in prayer and He has opened up His Word and my eyes to see His story. I’ve shared in all of the blessings He’s poured out on His people, most importantly the treasure of being able to be near Him.

I’ve shared in the shame of His people as well. I’ve held lies in my right hand. Even as His child, I’ve had times of turning my back and wondering if there might be some other way. I’ve complained about His ways and tried to provide for myself because I didn’t think He would give me what I need in the future even though he has never failed me in the past. I’ve clung to the people in this life that give me a sense of security while being too afraid to draw near to the God who loves me better than my dearest friend. I’ve been bitter and full of worry. I know what the ashes of idol worship taste like.

But, amazingly, I’ve also shared in the redemption of His people. I’m a branch that has been grafted into the promises.

The passage in Isaiah goes on to say,

“Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel, for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me, for I have redeemed you.

Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest, and every tree in it!” (44:21-24)

The beauty of these words makes my heart ache in worship.

Once I heard someone ask the question, “Would you be happy if you could have Heaven, with all its treasures of life and wellness and beauty, with reunion with loved ones and all that Heaven contains, if only God were not present?” Like the thank you that rises beyond my control when witnessing beauty, this question forever affirms my faith.

No, I wouldn’t be happy if He were not present; this God that I will never be forgotten by but that I must be told to remember. No god of my creating can replace the God who formed me. Would I rather have a god in my control or a Sovereign who has made my sins lift like the mist? All the energy in the world, most literally, cannot fill my soul as He does. Only the One who has etched by hand and thought, and is the source of all, can fill me with true worship. This breaks forth just as it does with the heavens, earth, mountains and forest- yes, even every tree. My worship is restored through His redemption of my soul and with each remembrance of it. Yes, with the rest of creation I will break forth into singing, “…for the Lord has done it!

Embracing An Honest Conversation

Though it’s hard to believe, there was a time in my life when I really savored a good debate.  I think it was back when I knew everything (you know, when I was in high school).  These days, if you have something controversial you would like to discuss with me, please submit it in writing and wait patiently for me to get back to you in a day or so.  Or, on the other hand, maybe I’ll just bake you cookies and hope you don’t bring it up again.

Anyway, back in those simple days, there was one guy in all my classes that loved a good debate as much as I did.  We’ll just call him Jimmy.  Since we happily and energetically argued about anything, it was no surprise that when I decided that I believed in Christianity this became the ultimate source of fodder for debate.  I thought that I really needed to convince Jimmy of the truth that I now held as of eternal importance and he was delighted to find a topic that he could get me really riled and emotionally distraught over.  As a new Christian I took some interesting approaches.  I wanted to show him how much it hurt God’s heart to have his name used in vain.  So, the lucky day we were paired as partners in chemistry class I decided to exclaim, “Jimmy!” or “By Jimmy, now you’ve done it!” whenever something would go wrong just to let him see how it felt to have his name used as a swear word.  So he could, you know, empathize with God.  He thought God would find it very amusing.

The challenging thing about Jimmy was that he asked really good questions.  There were the classic questions like, “What about the people in the jungle that never heard of Jesus?  Can you really say that they are going to be damned to Hell?”  Then, there were some surprise questions like, “Why do Christian girls wear fancy underwear on dates?”   Let’s just say the conversations were unpredictable and lively.  And, since I had gone to church consistently for maybe three months and I started every day reading a chapter of the Bible and ‘Our Daily Bread’, I believed I should have an answer for every single question.

Somehow I convinced my friend Jimmy to start reading the Bible.  As much as he enjoyed the debate for debate’s sake, I think he also really did earnestly desire to find out what was true.  When he came back with his assessment after reading the Gospels (the four books that tell the story of Jesus’ life) and some of the early letters to the church from the apostles (they didn’t have blogs or mass email back then) I was really taken aback.  Jimmy said, “I really liked Paul.  He was a nice, humble guy.  Jesus seemed so arrogant, though.”  Jesus was arrogant?  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Or could I?  Deep down inside, though I would never have admitted it to Jimmy, I knew what he meant.  It was much easier to read what other people said about Jesus than to read what Jesus said about himself.  Some of the things he said made me feel uncomfortable.   In the first century those things made the religious leaders of the time so uncomfortable that they decided to crucify Him.  There wasn’t much I could say to Jimmy about Christianity after that.

After what I saw as my evangelistic failure with Jimmy, I was happy to meet people in college that were excited about sharing their faith.  I started attending a Christian group that met on our campus and found some older women (they were like twenty two or something) that taught me how to use a little booklet to share the basics of Christianity and hopefully lead people to say a prayer when we got to the last page.  I lived with my sister in an apartment off campus my freshman year.  She was not a Christian.

I came home armed with the booklet and asked sweetly, “I was just learning something, can I, umm, practice it with you?”  An older sister always eager to see me learn something new, she good naturedly agreed.  So, we sat at the table in our little apartment and I shared each point thinking that this would be the moment it would all make sense.  We got to the last page.  She didn’t say the prayer.

I did keep trying with other people though.  This actually led to some good conversations and it was kind of fun to approach strangers and ask them if they wanted to talk about spiritual things.  Most people actually do like to discuss big questions and big truth.  Do most people like being read a booklet?  Not so much.

I didn’t give up on it completely though until I went on a summer missions trip to an inner city.  I was helping with children’s programs and kept a bunch of the kiddie version stuck in my purse to easily pull out and share.  I did share it; a few times to a few precious children.  And, then I realized I was lying.  You see, in the adult version, one of the essential truths is that ‘God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’   I hadn’t thought about what that was really saying until I saw the way it was simplified for kids.  There were two drawings of the same child.  In the first, before he knew Jesus, his life was a mess.  I think they had him doing poorly in school, missing the ball in soccer and his parents were mad at him.  In the second picture he had asked Jesus to become the center of his life and everything was wonderful.  Good grades, happy parents, goals in soccer.  Really?  This is what I was going to tell the little girl who lives with her grandmother probably because her father is in jail and her mother is on drugs?  The little girl that didn’t speak to me for the first week and now won’t let go of my hand?  The little girl who snuggled next to nineteen year old me and whispered that she wished I was her mother?   Was I going to tell her that if she prayed a prayer to ask Jesus into her heart that her life would be wonderful?  I trashed the booklets.

You see, I realized I had a problem.  I thought I had to protect Jesus from the truth.

The truth is not always so pleasant sounding.  It goes something like this: God loves you and you might get cancer.  God loves you and you might struggle with infertility.  God loves you and you might get in a car accident and end up paralyzed.  God loves you and someone with evil intentions might break into your home.  God loves you and your child might die.

God loves you and you are going to suffer.

The truth also is that there are some really hard questions that I don’t necessarily have good answers for.  How can God be completely powerful and still be completely loving when there is so much pain in this world?  Why does He let suffering continue so long for the sick and dying when we can barely cope with seeing an old dog suffer and we try to give it a peaceful end?  Is God less humane than His creation?  What about Hell?  What about the unending, painful, crushing, tormenting punishment for still aware, thinking, feeling souls?  Can we brush that off?  Should we as Christians say that it shouldn’t give unbelievers pause when they think about the validity of what we believe?  There are hard questions.  I don’t have all the answers.

So should I just lose heart?

I still believe there is a beautiful, freeing, exhilarating story to tell.

With all my heart (and mind) I believe that the Bible really is true.  It’s a collection of reliable books that tell the history of the world, of the ancient Jewish people and the accurate history of Jesus and his church.  I believe that Jesus lived and was murdered and that he was resurrected so that we could be saved from the disease of sin and the terminal diagnosis that comes with it.  I believe that God hears and answers prayer.  I believe His love is so much greater than we can fathom.  I believe in a lot of hard to understand doctrines like the trinity and the sovereignty of God and the reality of Hell.  I believe in the Holy Spirit working in hearts and his church to spread a powerful message called the gospel.

And, I totally get why a lot of really thoughtful people think these things I believe are foolish.

The apostle Paul was a highly educated, respected religious leader.  He wanted to see the followers of Christ wiped out.  And then, he met Jesus.   The message he once thought foolishness became a great treasure.   He left his respectable position behind and spent the rest of his life sharing the message.

It was Paul who said, “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.  But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.”  (2 Corinthians 4:2,3)

Like Paul, I want to renounce underhanded ways and embrace honesty.  I don’t want to soften what the Bible says to make God look better as if I could have written a better story.  In the story God authored, Jesus suffered great humiliation and the shame of the cross.  Why?  Because of his love for those he had come to save.

Do I love others enough to be thought a fool?

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”2 Corinthians 4:7

God places His story, the treasure of the knowledge of the gospel, in jars of clay. Remembering that it is the surpassing power of God that transforms his message from foolishness to shining light, I’m suddenly free to trust Him with His own message.  I’m free to give up the debate and really listen to other’s stories and also to their questions, sometimes admitting that I have the same ones.  And ultimately, I can love others enough to plainly share the truth even if it makes me a fool in their eyes.  

I really don’t enjoy a contentious debate the way I did in high school but I’ve come to really love an honest conversation.  I’d love to hear where you are in your own journey of faith.