Blue-Eyed Baby Jesus

December 18, 2014

image

 

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.

Advertisements

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.

I read an article yesterday titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Write.” It’s exactly what you’d expect. As I read, however, I waited for a twist at the end that said something like, “Some of you wake up to colorful metaphors, the sun rises and brings with it glowing similes. Your waking thoughts are tethered to a stream of consciousness from the night before. You, dear friend, must write.” But it didn’t. Instead, it said, “Do us all a favor and please don’t write because even if you are one of the few who are good at it, you won’t get paid, you won’t finish and you’ll never feel satisfied. The end.”

Huh.

I didn’t mind the brutal honesty. Lately, I require much less to hang up my stylus forever. Besides the sneaking suspicion that I suck at writing but none of my friends have the courage to tell me is the burden of perfectionism. If I can’t write something better than the last good thing I wrote then I won’t try to write at all. And even if I should be lucky enough to produce something decent it will still feel like a fluke despite any previous successes. So, I avoid writing altogether which according to the article is the right choice anyway.

Writing is hard. Every amazing writer agrees except for this one award-winning jerk who said that when writing gets hard it’s time to quit. I wonder if he feels this way about everything in life or just writing? Writing has always been hard. Words don’t effortlessly flow out of me. I work really hard for rhythm and context and honesty and character. For example, I’ve spent thirty-two minutes writing these last three paragraphs and chances are good that I won’t finish this because it’s junk.

The thrill of the moment when the story first explodes onto my imagination lasts about as long as a road-stand firework. The bang of the original idea just doesn’t have the sizzle to keep me going for very long, so it becomes work. A writing project that started out as a “love-child” ends up feeling like an orphan. I know people say that anything worth having is worth fighting for but I am beginning to wonder with writing.

I haven’t even mentioned editing. I edit and edit and edit somemore. Editing is endless. I have compared it to tweezing your eyebrows. If you don’t know when to stop, you won’t have anything left. After I am done obsessing over a piece, it looks like the Betty Davis of manuscripts. If there was a Compulsive Editors Anonymous, I would be president and would have changed the name several times.

My need to write has ruined perfectly normal parts of myself that previously existed in mindless simplicity. I once looked at a sunset and enjoyed its majesty but now I wonder how I would describe its glory to a blind person without using adjectives that involve color. The result? I don’t enjoy the sunset anymore. Instead, it’s become a private game of Words With Friends but I am my only friend. Writers are inward like that. Writing has stolen the blank look off of my face because there is always an unfinished story in my head. I can’t even write a simple email without an edit or two.

Not only has the burden of writing ruined my ability to simply observe without commentary, it has also wrecked my ability to read without opinion. My obsession with writing detail has robbed my ability to escape into a mediocre story. As I’ve become a better writer, it’s been tragic to discover that some of my favorite authors are average storytellers. It’s like realizing the truth about Santa or Lance Armstrong or the war in Iraq or that your aunt is really your mother and your grandmother has been raising you like a daughter. I used to read books with the same ease that my golden retriever drifts in and out of sleep; frequently, effortlessly. Now, I can’t read without noticing the punctuation or how new characters are introduced into a story. I used to read without concern over cadence but now I regularly toss books aside for a lack of timing or thoughtful sentence structure. I’ve lost the ability to read without editing.

I just want to watch a sunset again. I’d like to be able to read a cheesy romance. Is it too much to ask for an email just to be an email and not a novella?

The writer of the article is right; most people can’t write well. It’s hard work to break a concept into manageable ideas so that the reader doesn’t have to work as hard as you did to write it. It’s really hard. It’s even harder when you’re compelled to do it on everything from a text to a blog entry.

So, why do it?

I don’t know. It has something to do with my design because I’ve been writing ever since I became aware of myself. There’s also some kind of power involved. I need to summon emotion. I want you to feel something when you read what I’ve written. I want to flush as I write it and I want you to blush as you read it. I want you to feel something you’ve been aching to feel.

Are those reasons to stay up until 1:00am writing a story I won’t even like in the morning?

Again, I don’t know.

My life is hard. Why would I willingly introduce another hard element like writing into my already difficult circumstances?

A year ago I wrote the following:

The other day, after a friend called me a ‘wordsmith,’ I glowed for days like Moses after he saw God in the burning bush. I enjoy summoning words as much as an evangelist enjoys a good altar call. I love liberating starchy nouns and rigid verbs into more believable conversation. It’s like proselytizing Presbyterians into Charismatics. It brings me joy. I do realize, however, that simply thinking about words all day is not what makes one a good storyteller. Being able to pull those words out of the lofty space in my head and arranging them in a way that produces beauty and context is what makes one a writer. Writing is the thing that I do that makes me feel the most alive. I am able to give my grief, joy, hopes, rage, humor and imagination a dimension and depth that did not exist before I poured them out onto a piece of paper for someone else to hold and feel.

I fear I’ve lost that joy. Maybe this is what was meant by “when writing becomes hard, it’s time to quit.” If it’s true that writers must write, then maybe I won’t. If I truly am a writer then I won’t survive creative celibacy. My hands will start to tremble, my eyelid will twitch. I’ll drive by bookstores that aren’t on the way home. I will eventually be devastated by my writing wants and needs. But if I cannot NOT write then I choose that. It would be easier. Regardless, I need to know. Maybe the article is right: maybe I shouldn’t write.

So, I quit. My mind is a blank white page. With that said, I’m never writing again…..starting now.

One more thing, why is it my responsibility to write anyway? It’s not like I ask to wake up thinking about the best way to say “that” without using the actual word. Instead, I’ll use my newly found free time peeping into the pretend lives of people on Facebook.

Goodbye writing, I don’t need you anyway. Time will tell (or should it be, “and time will tell”?). Damn it.

Why don’t I ever know when to stop?” – Betty Davis

Valentine Rewind

February 15, 2013

I awoke to a friend’s text yesterday morning that read, “Don’t let this stupid retail-manufactured day upset you.”

I replied, “You can bet Cupid’s bare-bottom I won’t.”

Valentine’s Day.

It’s impossible to ignore especially since I spent most of the previous night stamping and stuffing 64 Valentine cards with tattoos and candy. Consequently, I went to bed after midnight, so getting a text before my morning alarm was not my box of chocolate. Knowing I had another twenty minutes to sleep, I closed my eyes and drifted off again immediately.

Suddenly, there was a pounce on my bed.

Then another.

I could feel a soft, warm voice whisper in my ear, ”Hey, Mom, it’s Valentine’s Day,” like it was his and my little secret. “Mommy, wake up! I have a surprise for you, too!” said my happy-morning child. I’ve turned my kids into occasion-crazed junkies. We celebrate everything around here; I make big deals out of even the smallest of things. “OK, OK!” I said and asked for a few more quiet moments to wake up slowly…..and alone. They agreed but only after a hot chocolate deal was brokered.

I rolled toward my bedside table, fumbling around for my glasses when I felt something unexpected. It was a vase. I sat up and to my surprise was greeted by a dozen white roses. If they could speak they would’ve said, “Good morning, beautiful.” That’s how they made me feel anyway. Next to the flowers was a note that read, “Mom, of all the things you could’ve chosen to do in life, being a mom probably required the most patience, the most sacrifice, the most love. And that’s what you’ve given. The most and the best of everything. Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you.”

Wow.

As if that wasn’t enough there was also an invitation from my little man asking me to be his valentine along with a love letter and a Hershey’s kiss. Wonderful homemade cards and candy-coated affections filled my entire morning.

Love was in the air. No one fought over school snacks or who sat where on the way to school. It was a divine blessing bestowed by St. Valentine himself. Even as we said goodbye to each other in morning carpool we did so with such serious devotion that my son responded, “Geez, it’s not like I’m going off to war. I love you all, too.” We all laughed. His words reminded me of something Rumi wrote, “Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.” I like that we aren’t afraid to “be in love.” And in doing so, I discover yet another way to live “naked and unashamed.” What a mercy on a potentially difficult day.

You know that part of the Lord’s Prayer when Jesus asks for God’s will to be done on Earth as it is in Heaven? I feel like that happened in my home yesterday.

photo-9

“That which God said to the rose, and caused it to laugh in full bloom beauty, He said to my heart, and made it a hundred times more beautiful.”