Nativity

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Last week, my husband hurled our Christmas tree out of our living room window. We discovered this method of getting the tree outside last year and it saves us from having to collect needles that were, in previous years, strewn across our living room to the front door. Pushing a tree out the window is also just ridiculous enough to feel liberating. While our tree (which was so dry that it was ready to go up in a fiery blaze) had to be disposed of early this year, our Nativity set reminds us that it is still Christmas for one more day. However, it is a different Nativity scene that I find myself contemplating as I write this.

Unlike the peaceful statues that depict the birth of Christ in my home, the Vatican Nativity scene this year has caused quite a bit of controversy. If you haven’t seen pictures of it, I would encourage you to look it up. Far from the usual tranquil and picturesque scenes that tend to depict Jesus’s birth, this one is chaotic and messy. The walls behind the Holy family appear to be crumbling. The figures are crowded together, so much so that it is sometimes hard to tell which appendage belongs to which statue. When we really think about the Christmas story, we realize that this is how it should be – Christ’s birth was chaotic and messy. His family was “living out of a suitcase” as they stayed in a town that was overflowing with visitors. They were sleeping in a shelter for animals which, no doubt meant that they were enjoying all of the sounds and smells that accompany a quaint barnyard birth. Into this environment that was far from homey, came unfamiliar visitors from diverse social classes. To top it all off, the king already wanted Jesus dead. Certainly there was peace and joy on that night, but that had nothing to do with Jesus’s surroundings. Instead, God Himself reached down and drew peace and joy out of a virgin womb. It was this act of God that brought those two gifts into the hearts of those who worshiped the newborn King who was born to dwell in the desperation, filth and despair of humanity.

While the infant Jesus is at the center of the Vatican’s Nativity scene, the figures that surround the more traditional Christmas statues reveal another aspect of our Savior through the corporal works of mercy that they are performing. In one corner, a woman quenches her neighbors thirst. In another, a man offers dignity to a boy lying naked beneath him by offering him clothes. At the bottom of the scene, with arms outstretched, a figure walks toward an invalid who is bandaged and flushed with fever. Next to them, someone visits a prisoner and, in the far corner, a young man provides burial for a dead body. These figures not only prod us to do what Jesus calls us to do, but they remind us that the irresistible baby lying in a manger would grow up to be a man whose teachings divided families, who demanded that we take up our cross daily, and who told us that to truly serve Him, we must care for others.

 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:34-40

If you know this passage, you will also know that Jesus’s next words are some of the most terrifying in the Bible:

Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” Matthew 25:41-43

Every time I read these words, I shudder. For how much food do I have in my pantry, while there is still great hunger in the world? How easily do I open my faucet that flows with pure water, while children are dying from diseases borne by unclean water? How many strangers have I failed to welcome into the safe, little world that I exist in? How many homeless men and women are shivering on the streets, while hats, gloves, scarves and coats hang unused in my closets? How many times have I been too busy or afraid to offer help to the sick or to those who are cast aside or imprisoned by society? The reality is that I do not measure up well to the standard that Jesus has set before me. However, one of the incredible mysteries of our faith is that salvation is available only through Christ even though we do not deserve it and, yet, Jesus Himself has commanded us to perform great acts of love and sacrifice.

The 2017 Vatican Nativity, portrays both of these truths: that God loved the world so much that He sent His son to be born amidst a desperate people and that He sends us to minister to that world today. It reminds us that faith in Christ has little to do with adoring the little Lord Jesus who made no crying and much more to do with following a man whose message was loud and painful. It forces us to consider the reality that, from birth, our God made His home in the often dirty, fragrant, and chaotic company of the poor, the forgotten, the sinners, the hopeless. It makes us wonder whether or not we have made our homes with Him there, too.

 

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The Battlefield

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I just watched two Canada geese, with their feathers ruffled and necks stretched straight ahead of them, chase two other geese who were hoping to get some bread from me. Even though I didn’t have any bread and wasn’t planning to feed any of the geese, I was angry at the two aggressive Canada geese since I dislike all forms of aggression. It is no surprise, then, that I tend to pass over Bible verses that talk about the spiritual battle we are engaged in. Lately, however, I have been thinking about them more frequently and I am beginning to realize how much they reflect our reality. Whether I like it or not, we are living in the midst of a battlefield where the forces of evil are doing everything they can to diminish the glory of God and to destroy His beloved children. Of course, we do not need to fear because God has already won victory through the death of Christ but, in this time between Christ’s death and the final restoration of His kingdom, the battle still rages on.

I recently read something that helped me to realize that, in me, the battle is most apparent in my distorted thoughts and feelings. Too often, I find myself thinking that the world is out to get me, that I am not good enough, that I am deprived of something, or that life is not fair. Not surprisingly, these thoughts quickly lead me to feel depressed, frustrated and bitter. *

I have to remember that the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44) and that He loves to pull me away from God’s truth by getting me to believe untruths about my reality. If instead of believing the devil’s lies, I choose to believe the truth of God’s love and abundant graces, my feelings of depression, frustration and bitterness quickly change to joy and thanksgiving. Ephesians 6:11-12 and 14 says: “Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in heavenly places…Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth…” Of course, the most powerful of God’s truths are found in the Bible: we are His creation (Genesis 1:26; Psalm 139; Acts 17:26-28), we are deeply loved (John 3:16-17; Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 5:8; Romans 8:38), He is intimately involved in our daily lives (Proverbs 16:9; John 15:5; Romans 8:5), His plans for us are good (Jeremiah 29:11; 1 Corinthians 2:9; Romans 8:28), we serve an important purpose (Matthew 5:13-16; Romans 12:1-5; 1 Corinthians 16:12-20; Acts 1:8), and we are saved (John 3:16; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 8).

Ironically, some of the lies that I believe are so simple that I can easily refute them with logic when I spend time actually thinking about them. For example, today I was feeling sorry for myself because of the many “challenges” I face. Yet, when I spent a moment thanking God for the blessings in my life, I quickly realized that the blessings greatly outnumbered the difficulties. In fact, I am so blessed that when I tried to count my blessings, I couldn’t do it!

There are other lies, however, that are much more powerful and can only be refuted by clinging to God’s Truth. One of these is the lie that the story of my youngest daughter, Noemi, is entirely and only sad. While her story absolutely contains sadness, it is saturated with joy! Joy that God chose to create her – a unique person with a beautiful body and her own special soul. Joy that God chose us to be her family. Joy that we had eight months to have her in our lives here on earth. Joy that our belief that she was a tiny person allowed us to accept those months as her life. Joy, unbelievable joy, that she still is, that she brings God glory, and that we will be with her again.

A few weeks ago, I went to Noemi’s grave alone and, for the first time, rather than petitioning God to take care of my baby and allowing me to see her again in Heaven, I found myself thanking Him for Noemi and her story. As I stood there, looking at the ground where I had laid my baby’s body, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness for her life and eternal story. I felt God’s sweet victory which won, not only my daughter’s eternal life, but also my freedom to embrace the Truth and to conquer the lies that the devil had strewn across my battlefield.

*Our emotional struggles are complex. I absolutely believe that the battle between Good and evil is waged largely in our minds and hearts. As a result, our feelings and mood can often be heavily impacted by this battle. That being said, I also firmly believe that there is both a physical and a chemical basis for our mental health. Fortunately, God grants us insight into the biological bases of mental distress through the fields of psychology, psychiatry and neurology. I would never want my words to diminish the importance of these fields in helping those who suffer or to make someone feel that their mental health difficulties are somehow their own fault. 

Uncomfortable Truths

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Here’s a little uncomfortable truth about me: even though I don’t play dress up anymore, I still want to be a princess. Not necessarily a poofy gown and glass slippers kind of a princess – that sounds like way too much work. No, I just want to be the kind of princess who has people to take care of everything she doesn’t want to deal with, unlimited financial resources, and a home with every latest convenience. Also, I’d like to be the kind of princess who doesn’t have to struggle to make herself heard in the world, because she was influential at birth. In fact, if I’m really honest, up until the day that my husband became a U.S. citizen and renounced all of his titles, I secretly imagined that my in-laws were really royalty pretending to be commoners. I figured that they could possibly have done this so to ensure that I really love their son and not his status as a prince.  In fairness to myself, I only dwelled on this fantasy when I  had a really bad day (think horrible morning sickness mixed with defiant yet clingy preschooler), but the desire was there.

Now that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has forced me to face the reality that I am not, and never will be, royalty, when I find myself having an “I can’t believe this is my life! Where is my fairytale?” kind of moment, I hear this tiny voice in my head saying, “Okay, you aren’t married to the long-lost prince of the Czech Republic, but you are the daughter of the King, which makes you a princess.” The problem is that “daughter of the King” princesses often don’t live very princessy lives. As I recently heard someone say, just look at the life that God gave His son’s mother and you will see that having servants and luxuries are usually not part of the “daughter of the King” deal. In fact, the woman who was “highly favored” (Luke 1:28) by God didn’t have maids, cooks or a nanny waiting in the shadows to meet her every need. As far as we know, she had the responsibility of changing her sons diaper cloths and washing them, too. Presumably, she woke in the middle of the night to nurse her wailing son and I can’t imagine that Joseph could have been much help on that front since they lived in the pre-breast pump era. In addition to all of this, Mary probably got to do all of the other daily tasks that common women did in ancient Isreal. Maybe she carried water from a distant well. She probably had to cook all of the family’s food over not very convenient fires or in primative ovens. Perhaps she even had to make her family’s clothes. Of course, Mary’s unprincessly life would become even more difficult when her Son was rejected by the people of His town and later brutally crucified. Mary’s life was very real, it was relatable, but it was by no means a fairytale!

And then there’s His Son. It would make sense for Jesus to get to live the life of a prince, but no! God had him enter the world at a time that was inconvenient for His parents – He was the long-awaited Messiah but not their long-awaited baby. As an infant, He was a refugee who fled from a king who wanted Him dead. He was rejected by many, lived the life of a wanderer, and even faced a mob that wanted to stone Him. Sure, He had some good friends, but all of them abandoned Him in His time of greatest suffering and one of them handed Him over to be killed. He was wrongfully accused, brutally beaten, mocked, and crucified. Then, He was hastily buried in a borrowed tomb.

The lives of God’s princes and princesses tell me something about God: the things that He deems important about our lives are different from the things that the world thinks are important. This shouldn’t be a surprise to us since Matthew 6:19-20 says, ” Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where theives break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where theives do not break in and steal.” The uncomfortable truth is that God cares about our lives and He cares about our pain, but, ultimately, He cares most about the salvation of His creation and He is willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to bring it about. As a result, He is much more focused on building our love for Him, our love for those around us, our patience, our gratitude, our faithfulness, our trust, and the countless other ways He wants to shape our souls than He is about showering us with earthly comforts.

That might mean that, in order for Cinderella to grow the servant heart that she was made to have, He asks her to spend the rest of her life sweeping ashes and she will never sit on a throne; however, if she lives her simple life well, the Creator of the universe will be pleased and the world will be a better place. It could mean that there is some working man outside of the Beast’s castle that He wants Belle to fall in love with instead of the Beast and, as a result, she will never be the mistress of a castle; however, if she learns to be grateful for the things she does have in her life, she will discover true happiness and satisfaction. Or it might mean that Prince Eric never falls for Ariel and that she has to live a life that is very different from the one she had dreamed of; however, she will eventually find that God loves and cherishes her far more than a voice obsessed prince ever could. Whatever the case may be, God is intimately aware of the details of His princesses’ lives. Often, those lives aren’t very princessy, but He is in the business of using them for amazing good and embracing His plans can bringing us more abiding joy than our worldly dreams of “happily ever after” could.

So on those days when the vacuum backfires and spits dust all over your newly cleaned kitchen, or those nights when you never get past “barely asleep” before being woken by a sick child, or during those times when the one horror that you couldn’t bear to imagine actually happens, remember that you are still the deeply beloved child of the King and His plans for your life are exactly right.