Blue-Eyed Baby Jesus

December 18, 2014

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One of our family’s annual Christmas traditions is setting up my mother’s handmade ceramic nativity. Actually, I’m the only one that sets it up. My kids watch because I won’t let them touch it.

Welcome to my merry madness.

The reason they can’t touch it is because this nativity is special. It represents one of the only happy memories I have of my mother—let’s just say she was on the naughty list. Because of her personal demons, there weren’t many moments of ‘heavenly peace’ in my home but this was one of them. And every Christmas, my children watch me become as neurotic as my mother as I carefully resurrect this childhood relic from its cardboard vault and meticulously unwrap each piece, careful not to break the fragile memory of my mother.

When I was six years old, my mom made this nativity out of chalky lumps of clay. She cast, fired and hand-painted each piece to her idea of perfection. It was a painstakingly slow process. Each figurine sat upon its own pedestal, receiving my mother’s undivided attention. Regularly, she sponge-bathed the little nativity people, keeping them in pristine condition as she painted. She filed and smoothed their rough edges and at the end of every day, she inspected each piece with her careful artistic eye. She gave special attention to the newborn babe and I wondered what my life would look like had she given as much care to me.

I was jealous of baby Jesus.

It may seem cruel to write about one’s mother this way (mine has passed) but I have writer friends with entire novels waiting to be written about their mothers. Let’s admit it. Mothers are lightening rods of emotion, even if you have a good one. And my mother was the equivalent of standing barefooted in a puddle during a thunderstorm while holding a 20-foot metal pole.

This nativity was the one “holy night” of my childhood and my candy-covered kids aren’t about to touch it. As a child, I was allowed to watch but not participate in my mother’s nativity creation. And now my children do the same; they look on while I unpack Jesus and the gang along with a lifetime of hurt. We drink hot cocoa with peppermint sticks as the scene unfolds.

I pour Schnapps in mine.

My mother was an artist. Her “studio” looked like a Category 5 hurricane had blown through it, and it had. By my account, she was the storm of the century. Tables were buried under hundreds of tubes and half-empty bottles of paint—some had caps, most did not. Pools of dried paint covered the surfaces and floor leaving a road map of past projects. One puddle was from her ceramic elephant phase. The green stain was a three-foot leprechaun. One year everyone got metallic-gold praying hands for their birthday. I had to dig mine out of the back of a closet whenever she came to visit. One Christmas my mother made adorable little Santa boots filled with chocolate treats for my third-grade class. To my horror, she walked into my classroom carrying them in an empty Miller Lite cardboard case, half of which she must have drunk before arriving. She smelled like the Santa at my dad’s office party.

She had a kiln that sat in a dusty, dark corner of our garage. It looked part lunar module, part nuclear reactor. I stood on a footstool looking down into its belly wondering what would happen if I fell in. Would she even notice? What if I was one of her precious projects? Would she put me on a pedestal and gently tend to me like she did baby Jesus?

Every project required new materials; the tips of used brushes lay ruined from the dried paint of her last piece. Dried-out sponges, pencils with broken leads, half-empty glasses of gray water and her sanity were strewn all over the room. Along with her creative flare came a burning inferno of crazy. But while she painted, she was as calm as that storied silent night. She summoned beauty out of those lumps of clay. It was the only time she seemed extraordinary for something other than her madness.

I remember watching this nativity come to life before my eyes. The most vivid memory is that of my mother bedazzling the magi with faux gems and silver beads. I wondered if they were real jewels. No, of course not. She would be wearing them if they were (my mother had a gift for gaudiness). Once she had several smaller pieces of tacky jewelry melted down into one giant piece of tacky jewelry that she proudly wore on her middle finger. It gave her bird-flipping a certain pizazz. I watched with amazement as she glued each bead to the magi’s crown. I leaned in for a closer look and to my complete surprise, she asked me if I would like to help. It was the first time I’d been invited into her creative world. “Just one tiny little drop,” she whispered as if not to wake the sleeping baby Jesus. She demonstrating the technique with a toothpick dipped in glue. She allowed me to do the rest. I carefully placed each bead in just the right spot. “Like this, Mama?” I asked, hopeful to have done it properly. “Yes, that’s right, honey.” And it was for a moment.

I continue to unpack the box, trying not to get distracted by the wrapping-paper newsprint from 2004—the year both my mother and father died. I inspect the magi and his gift, admiring the beads I glued on, still there after 38 years. Every season a few of the nativity characters take a hit. How? I do not know. It sits unmoved in a box in a bin in a closet. And this year was no exception—the shepherd lost his staff and the lamb, a hoof. Most of the pieces have been broken over the years. However, nothing is beyond repair.

If only hearts were that easy to mend.

Every year as I set up the nativity scene, I have the same dialogue in my head. My mother had her own lens on life as most artists’ do. My mother saw Mary as a bleach-blonde bimbo. “Good grief, look at this,” I scoff. “What was she thinking? Didn’t she know these people were Jewish?” Mary has black eyeliner, blue eye shadow and cat eyes. She looks like a tart. Yet I handle her with great care.

Next are the magi, two of which are divas. One looks like a pimp and the other, a drag queen donned in hot pink, a feather boa and a diamond-studded headdress. The tallest, most majestic of the three magi looks like King Jesus, which I really love but never noticed as a child. I wonder if she did this on purpose. It’s one of those discoveries you make later in life that forces you to rethink what you thought you knew. There are sleepy shepherds, an angel, camels, an ox (minus one horn—that damn box) and wanderers–what appears to be the little drummer boy and a clarinet player from a bluegrass band although he could be Little Boy Blue. Most interesting of all is baby Jesus. He is blonde and blue-eyed like Mary (which makes sense), looks nothing like Joseph (which also makes sense) and is laying on a bed of hay with his arms spread wide, just like he would do one day on the cross. Standing over him is the magi, “King Jesus,” robed in royal red, diadems and fur. For a second, I see what she sees.

The nativity is beautiful, weird and complete.

I stand back and admire her creation. I love that it’s so “her”—flashy, colorful and strange. My kids stare at it with both wonder and confusion, like I do. Yes, this is in part who we are. Unbelievably, despite her chaos in my life, all is calm and all is bright. I’ve learned to let my kids help me set up the nativity scene in recent years. I even let my youngest play with baby Jesus until I found him in the bottom of her fish bowl. She said she wanted to see if he walked on water. Fair enough.

I guess what’s great about this nativity, besides the fact that it gives me one good memory of my mom, is that it connects me to something bigger. Not just the story of my past or my family, but it’s the story of all our pasts, all our families, the story of a real baby broken to save us from our own brokenness. This strange cast of characters–the wanderers, the divas and unwed mothers–could be members of any family.  The boas, feathers, and fur are what make it look like mine.

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Freedom

October 13, 2013

I can’t think of anything to write today. I have a weekly deadline to produce a blog post for Restore Ministries and even though I’ve written three drafts, I’ve deleted each one because after reading them, I thought to myself, “Gosh, who is this person? I don’t like her.

Why is this so hard today?

The topic is “Living in the Freedom to Believe.” Oh, wait! Suddenly I realize why this may be difficult. This is the last thing the devil wants us to be thinking about–the gospel and freedom. So I pray, “Jesus, help me write something that will encourage us to have a biblical understanding of belief.” I realize I’m not really qualified to do that, so I pray again, “Jesus, help me write about belief.” Still, something doesn’t seem right, so I pray once more, “Jesus, help me.” Then it dawns on me…with my eyes closed, hands open, I whisper, “Jesus.”

I can write about what I know, and that is Jesus.

The Bible says that it’s not enough to believe in Jesus; even the demons do that (James 2:9). Belief requires repentance. And to be clear, repentance is not just telling God you’re sorry for what you did but that you’re sorry for why you did it. The sin is in the unbelief, as much as the behavior. True repentance doesn’t say, “God, I’m sorry I complained all day about how hard the writing process is and that I squandered my gift.” It also says, “I’m sorry I felt the need to produce my own righteousness by being an extraordinary writer.”

Last week I wrote about how our need to repent is grounded in forgetting one or two things about the gospel: 1.That God has given me the righteousness of Christ and/or 2. I have a loving Father who’s given me everything needed for this life.

So, once I repent, then what? Belief.

Believe in the gospel. What does it mean to believe? First, I know what it doesn’t mean–it doesn’t mean that I’m not scared or disappointed or angered by the harder moments in life. It doesn’t mean that I call ‘bad’ circumstances ‘good’ when they aren’t–marriages should survive, a paycheck should come, a 36-year-old mother with three small children should live. Belief means that when all of these emotions are in play–anger, confusion, heartache–I am sustained by God. It means that I believe Jesus and take Him at His word in spite of my pain.

Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” [John 6:28, ESV] And what are we to believe of him? That my righteousness is in Christ and that because of Jesus, I have everything I need in this life–this one, not just the one that is to come, but right here and right now: without a spouse, without an income, without a cure, without savings, without a resolution.

Believe is, after all, a verb and not an emotion. But tell that to my heart. The act of believing means that I accept the truth of God as Provider and Provision as if it really is true and apply it to my everyday life. But as we all know, this is done imperfectly, especially in a crisis. When I am faced with an overwhelming situation, my truest theology is exposed.

This fall my seven-year-old son is playing on a youth football league. Football is his passion. His wardrobe consists of various jerseys from his gridiron heroes. Anything that doesn’t have a number and a name on the back is considered “church” clothes. Honestly, I had concerns about him playing tackle football because of his size. He’s adopted from Guatemala, and even though he’s an average-sized kid for his culture, he doesn’t quite measure up to the biggie-sized American boys on his team. What he lacks in height, he makes up in heart. The first game of his season came with a great deal of anticipation. These boys practiced seven hours a week for a month. After sixty minutes had come and gone in his first game, he didn’t play a single down. I was in tears behind my sunglasses. After the game, none of us knew what to say to him. Finally, my daughter offered, “Buddy, you look so cool in your uniform.” He didn’t say a word on the long drive home. Later that night, I emailed the coach to ask why he hadn’t played. The coach apologized and said it was a mistake; he called it “first-game glitches” and promised to make it up to him in the next game. A week later the same thing happened; he played two downs. Several other boys never made it on the field. I was upset but remained quiet because my son was happy about their win. By the third game, however, after only participating in the last play of the first half, I was furious. You know that “warning light” you get when you’re about to say something you’ll regret? Well, I ignored it. As we left the field, I approached the coach–who was all smiles because of their undefeated record–and asked to speak with him privately. I told him that, if he thought playing the same boys on both offense and defense during each half of every game while other boys sat on the bench was something to smile about, then he should reevaluate his priorities as a coach. Then, I told him that his obsession with winning had clearly made him lose sight of the purpose and privilege of coaching. I finished by saying that the weekly six-hour investment these boys (and parents) make was not worth the poor return.

Are you uncomfortable yet?

See what happens when I forget that the condition of my son’s heart is not my responsibility? I get ugly and mouthy.

I didn’t only forget the gospel for myself, I forgot it for my son. Have you ever done that?

I went to bed angry but unsettled, and a subtle shame snuck up on me. By the time I awoke the following day, I felt sick inside. Rather than having cereal for breakfast, I was about to eat crow. I realized the reason I was disturbed was because I worried about how not playing was affecting my son. He’s a boy in a broken home. He’s also aware that, because he’s adopted, someone who should’ve wanted him didn’t. He wrestles with rejection and anger. I was so bound up with fear that my son wouldn’t have what he needed from this experience–or worse, that it was doing irreparable harm. My nail biting kept me from entering into the experience with him. I was as much of a spectator of him as he was the game.

In my unbelief, I thought I could fix the problem by “talking” to his coach, but all I’d done was take off my robe of righteousness in exchange for a filthy rag. I wish I had taken that rag and stuffed it down my throat instead.

I didn’t believe that God is my son’s righteousness. I forgot that his identity is not in his broken home or his orphan status but in Christ Jesus–solid and secure. I didn’t believe that God had given him the resources to cope with this disappointment. I didn’t believe that God could be using his pain for a greater and glorious purpose that will serve him beautifully in his future. I didn’t believe in anything other than the sharpness of my tongue and my ability to use words like weapons.

I called the coach and apologized. I kept it simple because that’s what coaches do. I strapped on my “big-girl’’ chinstrap and said, “Coach, I’m sorry for what I said last night. I was wrong and it won’t happen again. Will you forgive me?”

I wanted to say, “You see, I’m worried about my son. He’s already endured so much pain and I’m afraid that not playing him is crushing his fragile spirit. He needs this and you aren’t giving it to him.” But I knew that wasn’t repentance, so I didn’t. The coach said, “All is forgiven.”

All is forgiven. All is secure. All is provided.

My son’s team is undefeated after seven games. He plays regularly and even scored a touchdown last week. I later learned that he’d been kept out of those earlier games because the opposing teams were so big that the coaches worried he might get hurt. Ahh, humility. I’m glad I didn’t know because the experience allowed so much unbelief to be exposed in me. “It’s His kindness that leads us to repentance.” [Romans 2:4, ESV]

This day, I choose to believe that Christ is my righteousness and not how I respond to disappointment. I choose to believe that God is a Good Father and that He’s using everything for my good and His glory. In other words, I don’t have to make a way for myself (or my child). Will I forget? Probably by the end of the day, maybe even the hour. That’s why I stay in the Word, not so much that I won’t sin (though that’s the idea) but rather when I’m tempted to unbelief, I know the truth from the lie.

     “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” [Galatians 5:1, ESV]

I’m free to try and fail without either defining who I am or how I live. I’m free to believe.