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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I recently started working for a counseling ministry in Birmingham, Alabama called Restore Ministries. My first assignment was to write a response to a dynamic bible study called Idol Addiction created and taught by Restore’s co-founder, Julie Sparkman. I am writing about Chapter 5, titled “Remember, Repent and Return.” The lesson deals with the biblical beliefs that as children of God we possess the righteousness of Christ and that we are well-provided for children of God. And since we’ve been given a perfect standing and an equally perfect provision, we can live like heirs rather than orphans.

I wrote this piece while twisting and turning with my own unbelief. Every word I penned was hard-earned and fought for, not by me, but by Jesus. During the week of my deadline, I found my back against the wall emotionally, physically, financially and spiritually. My personal circumstances were being crunched by external pressures making this writing assignment especially difficult…and needful. I wrestled with every word until a divine mercy transported my spirit beyond the temporal and terminal into the eternal. How? The gospel sank in, like way in. I found myself trusting not in “things seen but unseen,” believing God’s Word over my cynicism and circumstance. It was grace, mysterious and inexplicable, like grace always is. 

It was another step towards my true self, my child-of-God self.

 

 

Strong Flesh, Weak Memories

As I get older my memory fades. My children love to remind me of the things I’ve forgotten.

“Mom, you forgot to send a check for the book fair.” “Mom, you forgot to sign my permission slip.” “Mom, you forgot to put peanut butter and jelly on my sandwich, I only had two pieces of bread!” (Yes, I did this.) It’s usually small stuff that doesn’t cost much in the way of negligence. But one thing I cannot afford to forget is the gospel, it is the “life” within my life. When my aging brain is unable to dial up my “to do list” or why I’m at the grocery store it’s one thing, but to forget that I have a righteousness before the Holy God of the universe is another.

Forgetting my perfect position in Christ costs me more than a wasted trip to Publix; it costs me a night’s sleep, a fight with my husband, humility in relationships. It costs me peace. Not long ago, I texted my oldest daughter to ask when she would be home from a night out and she replied, “I’m waiting on you to pick me up.” Oops. I forgot. I forget constantly and not only about carpools but about my Christ-righteousness, especially when another mom has waited 20 minutes for me to collect my child. I forget the gospel when I look bad. I forget because my flesh is strong and my memory is weak. When I “blow” it, I scramble to recover my lost credibility. I begin to clothe my shame with filthy fig leaves, it looks like this: “I have five kids, you know…I’m a single mom…I’m not used to this new school schedule.”  Then, I remember 2 Peter 1:9 that says when I lack faith I am “nearsighted, blind and easily forget.” So, I’m off the hook, right? Well…yes, because God knows this about me He has provided a remedy for my strong flesh and weak memory–Jesus–but it requires a knowledge of Christ and with that, my repentance. Instead of covering, I must welcome the exposure. Then, it looks like this: “Jesus, I did it again. Help me to live like I believe that my righteousness is in you.” This is true repentance, not just a “mending” of my ways because my sin runs much deeper than that, it’s a cry for rescue from my unbelief.

Repentance is admitting that you don’t believe the gospel in two ways: either you forgot that you have a righteousness through Jesus (like I did on the infamous “bread sandwich” day) or you forgot that you’ve been given all you need for life and godliness. I forget this too, almost on a daily basis. Just yesterday I had a friend say to me, “Michele, if God were to show you and me the factual forecast that, of course, shows a magnificent bottom-line for us, I dare to guess, we would not be disappointed.” You know why she had to tell me? Because I forgot that I was a well-provided for daughter. I forgot like I had some sort of spiritual amnesia and not just a bump on the head. She grew very sad watching me frenetically scramble around securing all that’s “mine.” I was acting like an orphan so she reminded me that I have a heavenly Father running towards me with open arms. I had a choice in that moment, I could keep pilfering the air or I could breathe in Christ.

I like the way The Living Bible puts it, “For as you know him better, he will give you, through his great power, everything you need for living a truly good life: he even shares his own glory and his own goodness with us!”

Really, Lord? Can this be true?

“I will supply all of your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” [Phillipians 4:9 NIV]

Hmm.

It really changes everything, doesn’t it?

So, I repented of my unbelief, “Lord, forgive me for forgetting that I already have been given all I need in spite of how things appear; give me clarity beyond my vision. Forgive me for taking matters into my own hands; I forgot to trust you. And Jesus, the next time I feel a wave of panic wash over me, make me remember that my righteousness is in you, and I have everything I need.”

What if I believed that I am a well-provided for child of the King?

“Let the beloved of the LORD rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders.” [Deuteronomy 33:12, NIV]

I want to stand securely in the righteousness of Christ, allowing His peace to be my shield from shame and worry. Only God can show me how to rest “between his shoulders.”

It’s all grace.

 

 

“But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves.” [John 1:9, The Message]

For more information about Restore Ministries or Idol Addiction go to: http://restore-ministries.org/

 

Borrowed Shoes

September 13, 2013

My family of six recently moved to a new home. Everybody knows what’s involved with that so I’ll skip the part about what a pain it is. Four weeks after moving, I finally got to a point where I thought, “OK, I can live with this” and resumed my previous life. However, five boxes remained untouched. Since they contained items like wedding pictures and books on parenting, they were easy to ignore but on a whim of wild ambition, I started unpacking again today.

Jacked up on caffeine and raw determination, the first box was easy to tackle. “No, Michele,” I’d tell myself, “you may NOT stop to look at your sixteen-year-old’s preschool crafts. Keep moving, stay focused.” I resolved to finish. In the meantime, my kids were running in and out of the basement taking full advantage of my single-mindedness.

“Mom, can we….”

“Uh-huh,” I said never looking up from a box of books on marriage. I don’t need these anymore.

A few minutes later another child, “Hey, Mom, would it be all right if….”

“Yep,” I’d say without hearing the end of the question. I was too focused on color-coordinating my bookshelf. Instead of listening, I debated if the teal-colored books should go with the blue books or the green books or should they go in a category by themselves between the blue and green books. No, that would be too predictable. Hmm, I wondered.

So while organizing white books with black titles from white books with red titles, my kids wreaked havoc on my home. It looked like two F-4 tornados had blown through the front door. With a massive cleanup effort needed upstairs, I continued to de-clutter downstairs. Only one box remained. While removing newspapers from 2004 (the date of my previous move), I took a quick inventory of the box’s contents to consider where everything should go. At the bottom of this cardboard vault, I found something surprising. It was a studio-portrait of me when I was five. I’m wearing pigtails, a pink frilly dress, black patent leather shoes with white ruffled nylon socks. Around my neck is a heart-shaped pendant with a pearl in the middle. The best part? I’m poking my lip out as far as it would go without getting it “smacked off my face.”

In the portrait, I look exactly like I felt.

There’s a reason why this portrait is on the bottom of a twice-neglected moving box–I hate it. I remember that day vividly because just before the picture was taken I had a meltdown. Why? Because I’d never worn a dress before. In fact, my mother had to buy the dress for this portrait. And it wasn’t just any dress. No, it was the Shirley Temple of all dresses. I’m not even sure why we were making portraits anyway; we’d never done one before or haven’t since. The shoes were borrowed because the soles were scuffed and worn but I’m certain they’re not mine. I had boots that I wore with everything including shorts. And as far as the necklace? It could’ve been my mother’s or my sister’s but again not mine. The only piece of jewelry I owned was a mood ring that I thought catapulted me right into adolescence. My mood on that day? Is there a color for “rage”?

I’d like to ask my mother, “Where did the idea of this portrait come from anyway?” I had seven, yes, count ‘em, SEVEN siblings. None of them were having their pictures made. Just me. My mom and dad weren’t having their portraits made either. I think this whole idea was a ruse by my mother to capture an image of the little girl she always wanted but never had.

I would have no part of it.

I was a tomboy. I liked to fish with my dad and could bait my own hook. I had a dirt bike, a pocketknife and could proudly say that I never owned a Barbie or a stupid baby doll…I mean, a baby doll. So what was I doing in a pink dress with pigtails? Where were my Hee-Haw overalls? “Why can’t I have my portrait made in those?” I remember asking. Whatever my mother said was drowned out by the sound of earthquakes and plane crashes because I was wearing a dress. There goes my street credibility with the boys I’d recruited to play football in my neighborhood. When they saw this picture of me over my mother’s mantle, I’d be the laughing stock of our team or worse; I’d be reduced to a cheerleader.

My extravagant aunt must have played a part in this because the portrait sitting was in her living room. My mother and Aunt Gene (not really my biological aunt) were always nursing some newly-hatched nutty scheme; think Lucy and Ethel. Aunt Gene worked in the gift-wrapping department at Gayfords, which was the equivalent of a 1970s Belk. She gave the prettiest presents although her gifts were never anything I wanted. I asked for a spacesuit like the astronauts wore on the moon but I kept getting scarves. Aunt Gene was redneck royalty, her parents were some kind of Appalachian aristocracy. She was COUN-try with a touch of couture. She always dressed as if she was going to a beauty pageant–hair, heels, hose, all done to perfection. Gene had a son named Ezra Clayton. Yes, Ezra Clayton (you can’t make this stuff up). In his mid-twenties, tall but not lanky, blonde and blue-eyed, he had a “big personality” like his mother. Aunt Gene and Ezra Clayton both had high-pitched, nasally Tennessee twangs–Fran Drescher meets Paula Deen. Aunt Gene’s husband, Uncle Wade (again, not really my uncle…whatever) was a mean man. He was the foulest person I’ve ever known–nasty, obnoxious (like my dress) and heartless. He cursed, drank and smoked habitually. An ex-Marine with a purple heart from Vietnam, Wade was nearly deaf from a hand-grenade blast that also took his legs. He hated everybody. He especially hated his son, Ezra Clayton. He was emotionally and verbally abusive to him publicly. Who knows what happened behind closed doors. Ezra Clayton somehow maintained an amazing sense of humor and joy. When I remember him, he’s always smiling which is what I refused to do on this day–smile.

While Mom poured another Bloody Mary and I screamed “bloody mary,” my cousin (who was not really my cousin because, remember, my aunt’s not really my aunt) came to the rescue. Mom was screeching about sitting fees and how I better find a way to put a “ #!*damn smile” on my face because she paid “good” money for the photographer when Ezra Clayton slipped into the room. He took my mother gently by the arm and escorted her out while whispering in her ear. After she was gone, he stood quietly with me. I was sitting on the floor carving the Pittsburg Steeler’s Franco Harris’ jersey number, 32, into the side of “my” shoe with a bobby pin pulled from my hair.

Ezra Clayton was a gay man who grew up in the South. He knew about pretending to be something you’re not and how bad that feels. Even though I was only five, I knew he was gay and I sort of knew what that meant although nobody would talk about it openly. He lived with his boyfriend, Leon, who bred hundreds of exotic birds in their house for a living (no, I’m not making this up). Leon stayed home with the birds while Ezra Clayton worked as an ER nurse.

I thought this portrait idea was for the birds. I felt like giving the photographer “the bird” which I knew how to do because I watched my dad exchange middle fingers with the elementary school crossing guard daily for years. When I was younger, he nearly hit her during carpool and she evidently had a hard time forgiving him for it.

I sat silently holding my photogenic charm hostage.

While my mother raided Uncle Wade’s narcotic stash (thanks to a tip from Ezra Clayton who knew mom preferred Vicodin over vodka), my fake cousin joined me on the floor. Every inch of his six-foot body twisted on top of itself like a pretzel so he could sit eyelevel with me. Through angry tears, I looked up to see him sulking. I asked why he was sad and after a long pause he said, “It’s such a pretty dress. I wish I could wear it.”

Stunned silence.

Then disbelief. Wait, did he just say that? Yes, he did. I looked around to see if anyone else had heard him too but no, just me. I pictured this tall Beverly Hillbilly-of-a-man wearing this ridiculous, pink Little-Miss-Muffet-of-a-dress. I snickered. Ezra Clayton was trying to make me laugh but because I knew he was serious about the dress, I laughed even harder. We sat together until our giggles were gone. Then he told me that I wasn’t going to win this battle with my mother and the sooner I could get it over with the better off I’d be. I told him I felt silly. He smiled and said, “I know and one day you will laugh at this…but not today.” I held on to those words while I sat for my portrait.

One day, I’ll laugh.

Looking at this picture, I realize my face says it all. I don’t belong in those clothes. Even though I wore the dress and the shoes and the necklace, I refused to wear a smile. Honestly, I cringe when I look at this portrait because I remember how badly it felt to be in that dress. I feel sorry for that little girl. I’ve become an observer much like the photographer on that day. I remember my mother’s stubbornness, her drunkness, and how awful it felt to look like something I wasn’t. Mostly I remember the helplessness.

There’s more than an unpacked box here.

As I look at the portrait again, I’m beginning to see something different. I see a little girl being true to herself and my feelings change. I admire her tenacity and authenticity. I see the silent protest she is staging with her eyes. If she could hold a sign it would read, “I’ll never act like something I’m not.” But I will. And I’ll do it again and again. The difference being that when I do, I’ll know I’m in borrowed shoes. Sadly, I’ve put myself in worse situations than my mother did with her fantasy photo-shoot that day. I’ve played the part of orphaned child, jilted wife and martyred mother to name a few. I don’t belong in those “clothes” either; those filthy rags feel worse than frilly dresses. It’s easy to pull off the whole “boots and shorts” look when you’re five but not when you’re 40. It’s even harder to pull off the “freelance-writer, divorced woman, still-a-tomboy-at-43” look too, but it is who I am.

This portrait helped me remember.

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John 1:11-18: He [Jesus] came to his own people but they didn’t want him. But whoever did want him, who believed he was who he claimed and would do what he said, He made to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, not sex-begotten.” (The Message)