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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Peace To All People

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On that first Christmas night, so long ago, the shepherds fell to their knees as they beheld a wondrous presence. They bowed, with their heads so close to the ground that they could smell the rich dirt beneath their knees, and heard a host of angels crying out, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14) As the years have passed, these words have persisted at Christmastime. We print them on our cards, we sing them in our carols, we write them in our stories: “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” “Peace on earth,” “Peace,” “Peace,” “Peace.” Yet, somehow, in the two thousand years since they were first proclaimed, the angels’ words have lost their power. They have come to be happy reminders of warm, cozy feelings that many of us associate with Christmastime, rather than signaling a powerful change that was taking place in our world.

When the angels’ songs pierced the cold, dark fields that night, they heralded the beginning of a life that would shake the very foundation of our existence in two profound ways: by His sacrifice and by His teachings.

First, because the baby born that winter night would offer himself up as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of a perfect God, the angels’ songs proclaimed that the time had arrived when the favor of God, which had been lost through sin, would be restored.  The Bible tells us that when sin first entered our world, Adam and Eve heard God coming and hid from Him. In other words, their sin shattered the intimacy they once shared with God and the angels’s song so many years later proclaimed that men could again draw near their Creator. “Peace,” they sang, “peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.”  They rejoiced before the shepherds: “Finally through God’s son, His favor can rest on you,  unworthy though you may be.” The praise of the angels was an announcement that the sin of man no longer demanded that he was the enemy of God. Instead, unlike Adam and Eve men could again stand before God naked and unafraid.

But let us consider that moment when sin first entered our world again. Immediately after Adam and Eve found their relationship with God to be shattered by their disobedience, they discovered that their own relationship had been marred. While Adam had once loved Eve so deeply and intimately that he viewed her as part of himself (Genesis 2:23-24), after sin entered the world he became so detached from his beloved and so controlled by his fear that he turned on Eve in an attempt to deflect blame from himself (Genesis 2:12). God Himself identified this shift in their relationship when He told Eve that, because of her sin, “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 2:16). Because of sin, the selfless peace of right relationship that had existed between man and woman was lost. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that this disruption of peace spread beyond the relationship between the first man and his wife. The story that comes immediately after Adam and Eve’s descent into sin and their banishment from the garden, tells of the murder of their son by his older brother (Genesis 3).

Peace no longer dwelt with humanity. There was no peace with God. There was no peace between men.

Yet, in the fields outside of Bethlehem on a dark Christmas night, the angels announced the birth of one who would teach his children to live in peace with one another again. This little baby whose birth brought peace between man and God would also grow up to teach that the love of our neighbors was second only to love of God (Mark 12:30-31). The same child would one day proclaim that those who fed the hungry, quenched the thirst of the parched, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited the sick or imprisoned are the ones on whom His favor truly rests (Matthew 25:31-46). This tiny baby, the one whose birth was celebrated by choirs of angels, came to restore all of the peace that was lost through sin. He came to bring man peace with God through His sacrifice and He came to teach peace between neighbors.

These past few years, though, it has been difficult to believe the angels’ promises of peace. Continued conflicts in the middle east, battles with ISIS, the threat of nuclear war with North Korea, the weakening of alliances within the European Union, the fear of Russia all remind us of the fragile state of peace on a global scale.  At home, we have witnessed our leaders fighting with words that are banned from our homes and overlooking violence their peers have done to others for the sake of their own power. We have been forced to face the horrific resurrection of racism that we thought was dead. We have mourned for our brothers and sisters who are being killed on the streets, at concerts, in their schools, and in their places of worship. We have turned our backs on those orphaned and abandoned by addicted parents. We have blamed and neglected our own countrymen who suffer unimaginable losses.  Even nature seems intent on seeking revenge for the years of abuse that we have battered it with and our determination to continue to take it for granted. In short, all too often, we find ourselves forgetting the song of the angels, and instead sing along to the words of Longfellow: “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!'”

Still, as we light our Advent candle this week, we are forced to remember the angels’ songs. We are reminded that Longfellow’s poem did not end in despair. Instead, we must sing along: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail,the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.” As we are comforted by the knowledge that God is not dead and does not sleep and as we begin to hear again the song of the angels who proclaimed the birth of our Savior, we hear Jesus whisper to us, “I am here, Emmanuel, God with you. I have restored your peace with me. Now, go out and bring my peace into the world as I have taught you to do. Advent, the time of preparation has ended. Go now!”

*If you are interested in listening to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poem, “Christmas Bells,” I highly recommend Casting Crown’s version of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” 

Preparations

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“Uh-oh!” I thought as I listened to my preschooler say, “I have to be really good now because Christmas is coming and I want to get all of my presents, but it’s so hard to be good!” Last year she asked us if Santa was “really real” and because she was in the midst of learning that Heaven is “really real,” and that her sister is alive there, we told her the truth. I was surprised, therefore, that she thought that Mommy and Daddy would give her coal if she was naughty.

“You know,” I said, “I want you to be good because you want to be good, but you don’t need to be good to get Christmas presents. We can never be good enough to receive the gift of Jesus, but He came anyway, right? Mommy and Daddy give you presents because we love you (not because you deserve them), just like God sent us Jesus because He loves us and not because we deserve Him.”

As we prepare ourselves for Christmas during Advent, it is easy to focus on the many ways that we are not ready to stand in Jesus’s presence. Since it is a season of penance, we rightly examine the state of our souls, but we can become preoccupied with our sins and feelings of unworthiness. We forget that our failure to measure up is the very reason that Christmas is such an unbelievable gift: Jesus came into our world in the midst of all of its unworthiness because He loves us. He doesn’t love us “if we do something.” He doesn’t love us “if we don’t do something.” He just loves us.

It is in response to this love that we should begin to prepare ourselves for His coming and to set out on our journey towards becoming the people who He intends for us to be. It is because He loves us that we should persevere through hardship and do the work that He has set before us to do. It is due to His love that we should be willing to go where He leads us. It is only ever in response to His love that we prepare for His coming and never to obtain His love, for it cannot be obtained.

“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

“…his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (James 2:22)

What Am I Called To Do?

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Last week, I shared about my failure to prayerfully seek God’s plan for my Lenten journey. I realized that, while it is easy to enter into seasons of intense prayer when I am faced with a major decision, I rarely pray for discernment about the daily tasks that God has assigned to me. For example, how often have I asked God how He wants me to feed my child, clean my kitchen, dress for my husband?

When I was trying to choose which college to attend, I spent many days praying for God’s wisdom. One Saturday morning, my father took me on a walk so that we could discuss my thoughts about my future. After listening to me talking anxiously about the pros and cons of my two top choices, he said, “I think maybe God doesn’t care so much about which school you choose – He can work with either one. I think that He is more concerned about what you do wherever you end up going.”

At the time, this idea was simultaneously world-view shattering and a huge relief. Yet, in the years since I have become increasingly aware of the wisdom behind my father’s words. Often, we get hung up on big decisions that we, from our limited human perspective, see as life-altering. Yet God is just as concerned (perhaps even more concerned) with those little decisions we make each day that draw ourselves and others closer to Him. In the same way that we ask God to guide us to the right schools, jobs, spouses, retirement plans, we should be asking Him to guide us through each of the tasks that He assigns to our daily lives.

In light of this, I would like to offer some of the questions that I find helpful in discerning the ways that God wants me to fulfill my various roles. Please know that I am greatly challenged by these questions myself. I offer these questions to you, not because I can honestly answer yes to all (or even any) of them, but because I hope that they will help you to reflect more deeply on the daily tasks that God has assigned to you.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the length of this post! Many of the roles I play will not be applicable to everyone and I encourage you to skip over the roles that you do not play and use only the questions that correspond to the roles that you do. Don’t stop at just answering the questions! Use your answers to guide your prayers for God’s direction in your daily life.

As a child of God, am I: 

  • Ensuring that I have not let anything become more important to me than God?
  • Repenting of my sinfulness and praising God for my salvation?
  • Thanking God for each of the good gifts that He has given to me?
  • Trusting God with all of the scary, painful and difficult parts of my life moment-by-moment?
  • Turning to God in prayer with all of my doubts, questions and anger?
  • Honest with God?
  • Taking time to pray and nurture my spiritual growth through books, retreats, bible studies, etc?
  • Open to changing my plans if God leads me to do something different from what I had expected?
  • Using each of my relationships to share God’s love and story of redemption so that God can be reunited with all of His children?
  • Participating actively in a faith community that proclaims the Gospel in a way that reflects God’s amazing love for all of His created people?
  • Looking for the needs of those around me and making it a priority to meet them?
  • Striving to see the image of God in those around me? Quick to forgive? Slow to anger? Offering love?
  • Participating in activities that bring God glory and focusing on things that are good, rather than allowing negative and ungodly thoughts and activities to take up my time?

As a wife, am I: 

  • Praying for my husband each day and throughout the day?
  • Praying with him regularly?
  • Encouraging my husband in his faith and challenging him to grow spiritually?
  • Making time available to be with and available to my husband?
  • Thankful for the gift that my husband is, for the things that he does for our family, for the amazing ways that I can see God’s craftsmanship in him? Do I let him know this?
  • Gentle when I need to address a problem and willing to accept blame?
  • Quick to forgive?
  • Eager to change the things about myself that breed conflict?
  • Carrying out the tasks that I have agreed to complete around the house as loving gifts to my husband?
  • Making his physical, emotional and spiritual health a priority in our family?
  • Speaking of him with respect when I talk about him with friends, family and our children?
  • Trying to look nice and fulfilling the physical aspects of my marriage vows with excitement and passion?
  • Ensuring that I do not let anything or anyone besides God become more important to me than my husband?

As a mother of a living child, am I: 

  • Praying for my child each day and throughout the day?
  • Praying with her regularly?
  • Helping my child to know and love God?
  • Encouraging and guiding my child on her journey through this world?
  • Nurturing a longing for Heaven in her heart and giving her an eternal perspective?
  • Demonstrating God’s love to her through my own care and enjoyment of her?
  • Keeping her safe physically and mentally?
  • Helping her to use and value the gifts God has given to her?
  • Teaching her to accept the things that God has not made her to excel in with grace?
  • Giving her the academic and social skills to thrive in our society?
  • Modeling how to interact with those around her in a way that reflects God’s love?
  • Providing a clear understanding of right and wrong?
  • Communicating freely and being available to her whenever possible?

As a mother of a child in Heaven, am I: 

  • Thankful for the time that I had with my child?
  • Praying that my child will bring glory to God even through her death?
  • Trusting God for my child’s eternity?
  • Willing to share my pain to help others who are also suffering?
  • Living in the hope of Heaven?
  • Doing everything I can to help my husband, living child and I be reunited with my child someday?
  • Allowing God to teach me, through her death, that life, even when it never breaths outside the womb, is incredibly valuable and was created for Heaven? Open to bearing that life again?

As a daughter, am I: 

  • Praying daily for my parent’s and in-law’s physical, spiritual and mental health?
  • Encouraging them to grow in their faith?
  • Communicating with them regularly and listening to their needs? Trying to meet their needs whenever possible?
  • Expressing my gratitude towards them?
  • Sharing my life with them?
  • Open and honest in my communication with them?
  • Talking respectfully about them in all situations?
  • Doing whatever I can to encourage my living child’s relationship with them?
  • Seeking to learn from them and appreciating their wisdom?
  • Slow to take offense and quick to forgive?

As a sister, am I: 

  • Praying daily for my brother and brothers and sisters in-law?
  • Making communication with them a priority?
  • Opening our home and immediate family to them and welcoming them into our lives?
  • Doing whatever I can to encourage them in their own spiritual walk?
  • Honest with them?
  • Enjoying them and appreciating their many gifts?
  • Accepting their decisions and encouraging their dreams?
  • Willing to meet any needs that arise?

As a granddaughter, am I: 

  • Praying daily for their physical, spiritual and mental health?
  • Prioritizing time with them?
  • Communicating regularly?
  • Sharing my life with them?
  • Honest with them?
  • Encouraging them in their faith?
  • Slow to anger, quick to forgive?
  • Respectful?
  • Gently caring for their physical needs while doing everything I can to maintain their pride and independence?

As a friend and cousin, am I: 

  • Praying regularly for them in general as well as for each of the specific requests they have shared with me?
  • Communicating with them as often as possible?
  • Thinking about their needs and doing what I can to be a blessing in their lives?
  • Being open about my life and faith?
  • Meeting them and encouraging them wherever they may be on their journeys to find Truth?
  • Generous with my time, possessions, energy, money?
  • Assuming their best intentions and quick to forgive?
  • Helping them to raise and care for their children and demonstrating God’s love to their children whenever I interact with them?
  • Available in a crisis?
  • Willing to interrupt my routine to help them with any needs they may have?
  • Forgiving and forgetting?
  • Encouraging them to be the people that they were created to be?
  • Telling them the ways I see God in them and the things I appreciate about them?

As a teacher, am I: 

  • Keeping God and His word at the center of all of my lessons?
  • Instilling a love of learning about God’s creations, the way His world works, and the history of that world?
  • Making sure that I provide a quality education that prepares my child/the children in our Co-op with the skills and knowledge she/they need for the plans God has for them?
  • Encouraging exploration of personal interests, even if I do not share them?
  • Patient and encouraging? Do I speak words of affirmation? Do I work gently with areas that are challenging?
  • Meeting physical, spiritual and emotional needs before expecting learning to take place?
  • Seeing myself as a gardener who tends the flowers God is creating and not as a creator who determines who or what grows?
  • Teaching about the whole world and not just those people and topics that are familiar and comfortable to me?
  • Helping my child develop the skills she needs to address difficult situations and problems rather than avoiding them?
  • Discouraging the need for perfection and encouraging an understanding of effort and process?
  • Willing to let someone else teach my child if God leads me that way?
  • Delighting in the gift of teaching?

As a writer, am I: 

  • Using my words to point others toward God?
  • Genuine, candid and honest in all I write? Living with integrity and striving to allow the lessons I share to take root in my own life?
  • Praying for the people who will read my work and for the wisdom to know what it is that God wants them to read?
  • Refusing the temptation to become discouraged and clinging to the belief that if just one person draws closer to God because of something I have written, then it will all be worth it?
  • Making it a priority to put my best work forward?
  • Taking time to feed myself spiritually before seeking to feed others through my work?
  • Seeking opportunities to share what I write, not because of pride or my need for success, but because I genuinely want others to know the lessons that I share?
  • Willing to express deep, painful, and embarrassing things in order to help others know God in new ways?