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.

When I was in third grade, there was an abandoned house falling apart in the woods behind my elementary school. It was painted green like Depression Era glass and the roof had halfway collapsed evidently from a witch’s brew gone bad. It was creepy like Boo Radley’s house. One day during recess my friends dared me to look through the front window and give a full report of all I saw. We had been told by a reliable fifth-grade source that on the other side of that window was a casket in plain view. This seemed reasonable since after my grandfather died his body laid in his casket in my grandmother’s living room while everyone sat around eating potato salad like he wasn’t lying there dead.

With my heart pounding out of my chest, I started toward the house. The front door stood ajar. A shutter hung lopsided by a single nail. Dappled light filtered through the canopy of trees overhead. The shattered windows held broken shards of glass that caught the light at odd angles giving me the same spooky feeling I’d had at the House of Mirrors at the state fair. A pair of glowing eyes glared at me from underneath the wooden front porch stairs. Certain it was the devil himself, I looked back at my friends to make sure I had eyewitnesses to whatever happened next. I was five feet away from becoming a schoolyard legend.

I took a step. Did I see something move?

The sound of cracking branches underfoot sent my adrenaline soaring. Sweat poured down my back. Just as I’d put my foot on the first step of the porch stairs, one of the boys in my class jumped out from behind a rhododendron bush and scared me. Without thinking, I cocked my right arm and punched that kid right in the face. Blood splattered everywhere. It turned out that the only bloodstain in that rickety old place was from Jason Smith’s busted nose.

That was the first time I understood the power of unchecked emotion. I also learned fear felt a lot like rage. It would be the first of many self-discoveries.

Yesterday, I experienced another epiphany and it came as a surprise only to me. While texting with a friend about her sometimes overly theatrical husband, I defended him by saying I understood his need to embellish emotions. Because he and I grew up in similar homes, explosive and unpredictable, we experience our feelings more acutely than others. We’re not dishonest but we are intense. We articulate life as we perceive it, with a passion not everyone understands. We’ve been conditioned to feel everything but show nothing.

We’re dramatic in the most understated of ways.

However, you wouldn’t suspect it because, on the surface, we’re both as easygoing as people get. He’s a calm, cool, collected guy—not even a hint of Charlie Sheen. Similarly, a friend says she can hear the ocean when she’s with me. We are lords of our emotions…most of the time.

I earned a PhD in Self-Control from the School of Survival while growing up. It was a graduation requirement if I was to matriculate beyond my family’s pedigree of mental illness and addiction. I wanted to be a first generation fighter; I was determined to be sober and healthy, however, doing so required conflict. There are deeply trenched places in my soul from the emotional hand-grenades lobbed at me as a kid. So, when I read in Brennan Manning’s book, The Wisdom of Tenderness, that “suffering will either make you bitter or tender,” I wanted to be tender. As a result, I feel more than most which can sometimes be a burden on those I love.

It’s a lovely way to put it, isn’t it, “Feeling more than most?”

Of course, I know I’m intense; I live with myself (which isn’t always easy), but what I didn’t know was the toll it takes on those who experience life with me. My closest friends help bear the burden of the emotional violence done to me. In doing so, there’s a sense in which these safe people in my life are making up for the other lousy people in my life. Yet, sometimes it’s hard on them to watch me retch and writhe with raw emotion.

With these uncomfortable truths in mind, I listened to my friend share her husband’s most recent hysteria—an auto accident involving a 23-car pileup that turned out to be a dent in the driver-side door. I remembered her words to me earlier in the week, “You’re a good storyteller.” In the moment, she was paying me a compliment, so I blushed and feigned humility. I am a writer, after all, and it’s my artistic obligation to beautifully emote and perfect the art of hyperbole. However, as she continued sharing about her husband’s gravity towards grandeur, I couldn’t remember if she was talking about him or me. Doubt and shame began to creep their way into the space between my head and heart. Suddenly, I felt like I had spinach in my teeth but no one had the courage or kindness to tell me. Then she sealed my doom, “If I’m not on the phone with you, I’m on the phone with him. It seems like one of you is always in crisis.” With those words a veil lifted; my eyes opened. Shocking like the ending of The Sixth Sense, I saw myself with horrific clarity—how needy I can be in my pain.

I felt naked, the bad kind of naked.

Shame tempted and taunted me. “See what happens when you’re vulnerable and share your pain? You become this gross, needy thing nobody wants. You’d better think twice before you do that again, dummy.”

Like Eve, I immediately began looking for a place to hide. I wanted my fig leaves. So, I did what all of us do, I made excuses. “You know,” I said, “I didn’t grow up with normal people. For most of my young life, talking meant screaming, happy meant manic, quiet meant danger and peaceful meant dead. I’m hard-wired for extremes.”

I could hear her blinking on the other end of the phone.

Didn’t she know I had to find obscure but dramatic ways to get my needs met? My mother’s demands were so relentless and so severe that very little else got noticed in my home. The trick was finding a way to be seen and heard without competing with my mother. Eventually, I learned to respond to the overwhelming circumstances in my life in the most underwhelming of ways.

I became a Master of Measured Emotion.

My mother would scream and I’d stare back like I had a face full of Botox. You’d never know the inside of my heart was a cauldron of conflict. With emotions rolling to a boil, my anger bounced around inside of me like the lid on the rim of a steaming pot.

One afternoon, I walked in from school to hear my mother screaming, “I’m leaving and never coming back!” Fresh on the scene, I handed her the keys to the car and calmly said, “Go, then.” My dad and uncle stared speechless, stunned by my audacity. Mom wrapped a scarf around her strawberry-blonde hair, neatly tying it under her chin as she walked toward the door. Other than the click-clack of her three-inch heels, all else was quiet. Before leaving the room, she whirled around and announced, “If I leave now, you will never see me again! You will ALL be sorry when I’m gone.” I doubted anyone would be sorry as much as I doubted her promise to never come back.

As the door slammed, my uncle whispered to me, “You’re one cool cat.”  He was right; I was composed because it allowed me to survive not just my mother’s histrionics but my own emotions, too. Over the years, like any cat worth its nip, I mastered the art of slinking about my house without ever being noticed but when needed, I found ways to scream without ever raising my voice. This was one of those times. Truthfully, I didn’t want my mother to leave but I couldn’t allow her to manipulate me with her threats either. My spirit curled into a fetal ball, rocking inside of me. She had left before…for six years. She could leave me behind, but would that be so bad? Fear and guilt were now tangled up like sheets around my feet. I was scared of being abandoned but exposing this vulnerability to my mother terrified me more than her leaving.

She drove off in her 1975 Buick LeSabre, kicking up a cloud of dirt as she peeled away. The tiny rocks flung from her screeching tires pelted my twelve-year-old body like war-zone shrapnel. I stood in the front yard watching, wondering if she would come back. A part of me wished she’d keep her promise and stay away forever.

This is why I’m needy in my pain,” I thought to myself.

After justifying it in my head, I felt better about the exposure with my friend. Then I remembered a counselor’s admonishment from a year ago when my husband filed for a divorce. Her words entered my thoughts with the subtlety of a bullhorn. “Michele, I know you are in a great deal of pain but your cries for help are so vivid and so graphic, they send us all into a panic. We have to counsel each other after we counsel you.”

Ouch.

It was the worst pain of my life. Divorce felt like death. If it makes a holy God sick to His stomach then imagine what it does to the human heart. “Soul-shattered” described my condition; I needed help. All those years of pressure-cooking my feelings resulted in overwhelming strain. The bouncing lid was about to blow.

Sometimes the survival skills you develop as a kid are hard to unlearn as an adult. The sting of my friend’s words, “If I am not on the phone with you, I am on the phone with him,” at first made me regret not keeping a lid on those emotions. To my surprise though, I remembered my new calling to live naked and unashamed before God and man. I had a sudden urge to be kind to myself and to welcome this estranged part of me into my life. I struggled to remain vulnerable, though. Wavering between self-loathing and self-acceptance, I didn’t know what to do, so I made a joke. I said to my friend, “Your husband and I are closet drama queens.”

These words felt like an earth-shattering confession to me. Yes, it was couched in a joke but it was an admission. I thought a breaking-news ticker would scroll across the bottom of CNN and the Emergency Broadcast System would issue an alert. Instead my friend responded, “Yeah,” like she was making a grocery list or reading someone else’s blog.

“Yeah?” I wondered. I had bared my soul and all I get is, “Yeah?” Torn between pride for being so bold to state what only turned out to be obvious and shame for becoming my mother, I attempted to explain why I feel this way.

My parents screamed. Stuff was thrown. The police were called.

My friend was pinning boards on Pintrest.

Since she clearly hadn’t heard me, I explained again how the ordinary feels banal because I didn’t have a normal childhood; my divorce didn’t help either. Despite my pontificating, she remained unmoved, and her lack of reaction consoled me. She said, “I know. Relax. You’re loved.”

I had wondered what the implications of soul-streaking would be (and they were clearly something like this). I am really not a drama queen but there was freedom in confessing my melodramatic malady to my friend and there was relief in her acceptance. Grace is teaching me to look at my nakedness—the girl with unfiltered emotions, scrappy fear, feigned ambivalence, and needy desperation—and not to be ashamed of her. In doing so, I take another step toward becoming my true self, my child-of-God self.

I reconsidered my assignment to live naked and unashamed. Realizing this latest exposure was yet another opportunity to feel comfortable in my own skin, I allowed myself to go down to my true desire: wanting to be fully known and fully loved. If I take this desire to anyone or anything other than Jesus, I’ll be met with frustration and futility. But since my passions are safe with Jesus, I offer myself to him in those deep longings. Wanting to be seen and known is a good thing; maybe that’s why God gave Himself the name El Roi, the God Who Sees. He knows we need Him to cup our faces in His hands, stare deeply into our eyes, and see all of us. He must be the One to pull back the many covers, lay us bare, and cherish every inch of our frame.

A God who sees is a God who knows, even a not-so-drama queen.

Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

— Derek Walcott