Monday, December 30, 2013

Pa-Rum-Pa-Pum-Pum: My Hope for the New Year

Early in December my youngest son and I found ourselves quietly alone in the house.  The big boys were off somewhere with their Daddy, and this little one and I had an evening to ourselves.  We powered up the DVD player and watched "The Little Drummer Boy."  

It seems silly, but the story rekindled in me a yearning I had forgotten.  During my last Christmas as a campus minister I showed the video to my college students.  Before the evening was over I gave each one of them a glitter-covered glass drum ornament, a reminder to give the stuff of who they are to Jesus.  Fast forward three years later to my living room.  I sat holding my little one, watching in wonder as another little boy who had neither gold, frankincense, or myrrh to offer the King of kings simply began playing his drum.  His drumming was the gift.

Tears rolling, heart lurching, mind running, I sat there trying to remember where my ornament was.  After tucking my son into his bed I made my way upstairs to the attic.  The search was on.

I took me a couple of days to find it, but soon it was hanging on my tree with all the other memories each ornament represented.

I find myself singing the song, rum-pum-pumming everywhere.  All this pa-rum-pa-pum-pumming has me thinking about what exactly I have that is of any value to the King of kings.  Even as this year closes the song echoes in me, until even my cells seem to be humming and strumming and singing along.  What can I give that has worth?  What can I offer Jesus?

And my heart keeps beating.  Drumming.  Humming.  Pa-rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-pum, rum-pa-pum-puming.

What I like about the new year is that it gives each one of us a new start, a new opportunity to get something right.  A chance to try again.  I feel like I need that more than anything right now.  I need more than anything to know that my life has meaning beyond myself, that I am a part of God making a difference.

This desire was awakened within me early in December with startling clarity.  I was visiting the elementary school where my husband is principal.  Together we were handing out small gifts for those who worked there.  As we passed through the cafeteria I saw a woman helping a little boy about six years old with his shoes.  She held his sneaker in her hands.  Then I saw his foot resting on the floor while he waited, sock-less.  The image stayed with me, always in the back of my mind, niggling, keeping me awake at night.

What began keeping me awake even more were the memories that image evoked.  Times when I was about six years old, struggling in school, having some needs that others met, other needs that were invisible to the outside world.  My heart woke up to a long buried ache and a deep need to heal it by somehow making a difference for these little ones.

Christmas day has come and is now past.  I am writing this post on New Year's Eve eve.  Tomorrow we will begin the countdown to a new year.  With the ticking my heart keeps pumping, drumming, humming.  I am offering its beating as gift.  I am hoping that God can do something with it, that God can move it and in doing so move me into His purpose, His plan for my life.  I realize I need it to keep beat with a Song beyond me, to make music that heals the brokenness, comforts the loneliness, restores hope to hopelessness, and brings joy to the weary.

My new year's resolution:  to make my heart available to Christ, to offer it as a vessel for Christ to fill however He sees fit.  This isn't so much about giving Jesus my heart so He can take me to Heaven as much as it is about giving Jesus my heart so He can pour out some Heaven on earth.  I feel so limited in what I can do for the King.  I look at the things others are doing, knowing I don't have that kind of thing in my pocket right now.  And so I listen to the song playing in my heart and offer it with the hope that it is enough to make Him smile too.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Emmanuel Coming

I am in an Advent kind of mood.  Sorry.  Christmas is lost on me this year.  I don’t feel merry and bright.  I can’t really even explain it, except to say that my heart hurts.  It has been living too long in the tension of what should be and what is.  I ache with the disparity and my own inability to reconcile the difference.

 This Christmas season, unlike any other, I am aware that there are children who will go to bed tonight cold, hungry, feeling very much alone.  The needs are real.  They are intense.  For some children it is not even the physical needs that are so bad, but the sting of being left alone by those who are supposed to love them the most, the emotional abandonment that comes because other things in life are more important.  What can ever be more important than caring for one’s own children?  But here it is, the evidence revealing itself in surprising ways, in surprising places.

It stings because I sit in my warm home, surrounded by my family.  My boys are so deeply loved.  They are surrounded by a network of family that holds them, a safety net that is always there, resting gently beneath the love my husband and I hold for them.  I see the way Tim cares for them, the time he takes, the surprises he plans for them, especially when work keeps him away.  It warms my heart.  I know my life is blessed.  Even in this imperfect life, I know we are so, so blessed.

It breaks my heart when I think of children in other homes, not having what is so easily taken for granted in ours.  And I want to do something.  I have responded to the needs lodged in my chest to the capacity that I can.  And I know it still isn’t enough.

I hate it.  I hate that I have so much passion inside of me to make a difference and I can’t.  And I will say, I’m a little mad at God.  Because I’m stuck in circumstances beyond my control.  I can only do so much.  I can only leverage my gifts and abilities so far.  And the gap between what I want to do and what I can do at this moment is tearing me up inside.  So my Christmas spirit is shot.

But Advent is fitting.  Advent is that season that anticipates the coming of the anointed One.  It is living in the dark place, while leaning into Promise.  The darkness can feel so pervasive.  In Advent one lives quietly with darkness, but holding fast the hope for light in one's heart.  It is the staunch refusal to allow the darkness to pervade everything, even if the corner of hope left is small.  The One we wait for is the anointed One. the Christ, the Messiah, the One filled with Spirit for the purpose of eradicating the darkness.  His awaited Presence touches need, perfectly answering, filling, punctuating, satiating.  He is all we desire.  This waiting intensifies our need, clarifies it, distills it.  Even if we cannot name it, it names us, affecting all that we do, the choices we make, the way we make our way in the world.

The ancient Hebrew people waited for the Holy One in the silence of 400 years, without one word from the prophets.  Even words of reprimand would have been welcome when you wait in silence that long.  They waited as they passed from one hand of domination to another, eventually subdued by Roman rule.  Their waiting was a groaning, a yearning, a longing, stretching into centuries that looked desperately for relief. 

I love the way the hymns of Advent answer this need, this pervasive darkness—

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

God answers the world’s deep need by piercing the night with the squalling peals of a newborn.  His answer for a need so huge is a baby.  Israel was looking for something more. 

If I am honest, I am too.  I want the hurting to stop.  I want the ache in my heart to go away.  I want the passionate need in my chest to be quieted by the living out of purpose, to know that I’m spending myself in a way that alleviates the needs I can’t not notice.  To know that I am participating in God’s redemption of the brokenness I see.

I think the thing that the Hebrew people missed, the ones who couldn’t accept Jesus, was that they missed the meaning of His name.  He is called Emmanuel—God with us.

God is with us. 

In the darkness.  In the silence.  In the disparity.  In the paradox.  In the long night that feels 400 years old.

God is with us.  He hasn’t left us.  He hasn’t gone blind.  He knows and He sees and He loves and He is answering the deep, deep needs we cannot even articulate with His Own Self.

I don’t know why God doesn’t just make the earth shake.  I don’t know why God doesn’t just snap Divine Fingers and solve these needs.  But here is what faith is telling me—

God has touched my heart in a special way in this Holy season, not so that I will be forever lost in a chasm that I cannot bridge.  God has given my heart eyes to see a need, the grace to feel it deeply, so that when He changes my circumstances from lack to abundance I will be ready to serve.  And I will be absolutely clear about how I should do it.

The 400 years of silence was really a gift; it created a hunger perfectly matched to the Salvation God wanted to send.  I believe God does the same thing for us; He stirs in us desires that He is already prepared to fill.  Our waiting just shows us how big the  Gift really is.

Can one timidly rejoice?  The words of the song hit me fresh.  This is my exile, my longing and hoping and yearning.  I feel so deeply the need that only God can satisfy.  I know that He is going to have to move some mountains around for this to be alright.  And the faith part of me says that even though I can't be sure exactly how He will do it, I can rejoice because Emmanuel shall come to me too.  Emmanuel comes for all of us who are weary of living in the darkness and longing for the light:

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh; to us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.  Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Does the Baby Need a Blanket?

My youngest son will be in his first concert tomorrow!  The three year olds at his preschool are doing a Christmas program for the parents.  Jeremiah told me, with all seriousness, "If you're bad you can't come see me sing."  Apparently there is a good behavior requirement for attendance!  My friend who subs in his class told me she was there the other day for their practice.  She said he looked so much like me, with his expressiveness and enthusiasm pouring out.  Our third son must be something of a ham.  We will soon see for ourselves!

One of the songs his class will sing is a simple chorus that repeats a question over and over, finally giving the answer--

Does the baby need a blanket to keep him warm?
Does the baby need a blanket to keep him warm?
Does the baby need a blanket to keep him warm?
I’ve got a blanket I’ll share!
It helps the story of Jesus' birth come alive for little imaginations--a stable is not a warm place to be in the winter time.  How will a new born baby stay warm?

I'm sure God figured out all those details on the night Jesus was born.

But I've been singing that song over and over in my mind, and the question will not leave me alone.   Baby Jesus is still cold.  He still needs someone to share what they have.  The details of Christ's need still need to be figured out.

As I reflect on this I realize that my boys have not been exposed to much of the deep need so many live with every day.  They attend a new school, filled with kids from experiences much like our own.  The basic needs are met, and often there is more than enough to go around.  It is not a community categorized by lack.  I am struggling with how to help them see the needs of the world, when the world they live in doesn't seem to have any.

Especially as I realize that as a child, I lived in the need they haven't been exposed to. 

My mom tells me of the Christmas we were so poor that all they could afford was a tree and one present each for my brother and me.  The tree was a bit of a miracle.  The young guy at the tree lot mistakenly sold it to them for the lowest price, not realizing it was the best one they had.  My mom's old photographs show a regal pine--tall and stately, perfectly shaped.  Tucked beneath its branches on Christmas morning was a bride doll and robot.

I remember the bride doll, not the lack.  I remember the gift, not the need.  Because every time the need was felt, God worked out the details of meeting it.  When my mom was figuring out how to buy groceries, God had a choir member give her a $20 before leaving church.  When I needed a winter coat and shoes, God moved the hearts of an older couple to buy them.  When my brother and I needed someone to help raise us, God sent Joe into my mom's heart and our lives.  I've always felt a special kinship with Jesus over that.  We both got great step-dads.

So I find myself living in the question that the song asks--does the Baby in the manger need something I can share?  What is it I have that can help?  How am I supposed to share it?  And even when there doesn't seem to be a lot of extra, is there something within my means that God can use to bless another child? 

Is Jesus cold this Christmas? 

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

How Hope is Born in Dark Places

Just days ago we celebrated my youngest son's fourth birthday.  He is a delight and a treasure and a sweet surprise of Grace that blesses us each day.  I thank God for him often, especially when he presses himself to me in a big embrace for that last hug before we walk out the door.  He is a tangible and sweet expression of God's Goodness in my life.  This truth is not lost on me.  It is the one I make my home in each day.

Yet on his birthday a sadness pressed in on me that kind of took my breath away.  It could be that time is falling away from us, and with it his little-ness.  Soon he will be like his brothers, a big boy out and about in his own world where I cannot follow.  While he will always be my baby, already he gives me a look when I call him my baby.  It is clear to him that he is growing up.  He welcomes it.  I am fitting myself into all this growing up with eyes and heart wide open, so that I don't miss these moments.  I don't want to miss a one.

A deeper truth has been seeking attention though.  The day this sweet angel boy was born was so hard.  And the days following were hard.  His birth demanded something from me that I didn't know I had it within me to give.  The giving of it leveled me in a way that had not happened previously, nor since.  I am hesitant to speak of this. 

My body could kind of tell the story.  It is a reflection of what my soul felt like.  The incision they made to remove him stretched up toward my navel.  What lay beneath the flesh was a mess of scar tissue.  The healing process for such cutting was long, and for a long time looked real ugly.  I guess when God delivers something New into our lives, sometimes the process of  delivery feels anything but life-giving. 

When my baby was so new, I entered an aloneness no one around me could comprehend, an isolation no one could penetrate.  Its dimensions were physical, spiritual, and emotional.  Its walls so high I could not climb out.   I want to say this was not depression.  I've been there before too, and it has its own struggles.  This was not something that originated from within me and impacted things outside of me.  This was something that beset me from circumstances beyond my control, rendering me down to nothing.  I could not fight what I found myself in.  I could not invite anyone to share the burden.  I could not escape the sadness that came with the isolation I felt.

The irony is that this struggle came in the heart of Christmas, my boy being born on December 1st.  During one of the most joyful times of the year, I was trapped in a darkness I could not see my way out of.  Eventually I figured out how badly anger was working to alleviate my heartache.  Eventually I could see that this aloneness was not going to end because I willed it to.  I began to understand that the mess I found myself in was asking me for something that I had not thought to give--relinquishment.

I am not speaking of giving up.  I am speaking of giving over.  To allow this isolation to be changed into something holy.  An offering for God to use however God could use something as broken and empty as that.

I discovered in my surrender that God has a special love for our empty places.  While I was baffled with my abyss, God knew just what to do with it.

I would love to say that everything was instantly better when I began seeking God within my emptiness instead of trying to fight the emptiness.  I would love to say that the darkness I felt within  immediately radiated with light.  But I'm not going to lie to you.  I will speak truth.

At first the measures of peace I felt were incremental.  For a moment here and a moment there, the aloneness didn't matter so much.  Slowly I came to recognize this Quiet, that would settle within me, a gentle Contentment resting gingerly within my soul.  If I tried too hard it would leave.  If I demanded its presence it would vanish.  I had to relinquish my expectations of what healed looked like, accepting instead the healing God would bring.  I found I even had to let go of the isolation itself, choosing to let my heart dwell not so much on the realities only I could know, but to join others where they were, in places where I also could relate.

I had to stop looking at others with the silent demand, "Make this better for me--"  Instead I recognized it was something God alone could do.  When I began resting my need in God's Goodness, this Goodness showed me resiliency within that I had not known was there.  I began to believe in my ability to endure.  And I eventually began to believe that there was once more life outside of my brokenness.

Light came into the darkness, and I found God there.  Not blinding me with Radience, but Holding me until I was brave enough to open my eyes.  I found Grace that allowed my vision to adjust to something beside the blackness I felt. 

Here is my inner dialogue with God at the moment:

"Why would You want me to write about this?!"

"Why, when I have made peace with it, and the blessings of that time are now so evident?!"

"Why should I risk this kind of exposure and the opening of old wounds that have healed?!"

Quite honestly, I rarely think about that time.  There is still pain etched in the memory.  But it pushed itself into my awareness.  Not asking my permission.  And I have looked at it blankly and asked, "Why are you here?"

But the Spirit has been whispering in my heart--

There are some who are sitting right now in that same dark place.  The circumstances are different, but it is that same, dark, isolated place.  They not only feel completely alone, they are completely cut off from human comfort and companionship.   When they say, "no one understands," they are telling the truth.  They are having to walk a road that no one can accompany them on.  They need to know they are not walking alone.

Where human companionship is lacking, the Spirit is able to order their steps.  Where the ache is piercing, the Balm of God's Comfort is close at hand.  There is a genuine need to know that darkness cannot obscure the Light.  And the Power of the Almighty can use this experience to train our eyes to see His Presence no matter where we are.

And when we walk with the Light of God's Presence, everything in the world changes.

I believe this is the true miracle of Christmas.  It's not about tinsel or parades or discounts.  It's about something as sturdy as Hope showing up in unlikely and unwieldy circumstances.  It is the story of how God sees our depravity, our endless uselessness in trying to change things, and how He enters in to lift us up, giving of His Strength to transform the darkness we live in.  The true miracle of Christmas is the story of a Baby born in darkness to reveal to us the Light of the world.  His name is Emmanuel, God With Us:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined. . . .  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.  He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.  Isaiah 9:2, 6-7