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Archive for December, 2014

I take my birthday greetings – wishes – blessings – prayers seriously.

It may not always appear that way since I use the same birthday wish-prayer for everyone each year, but it’s true.

Each February (for my wish-prayer year begins with the birthday of Josiah in February, not on January 1st), I prayerfully sit down to consider and write out the next year’s birthday blessing. I let the images of hundreds of friends and family scroll through my mind as I reflect upon what God has been showing me recently and seek Him for words with which bless folks in the coming year.

Some years these wish-prayers are more poetic than others.

Some are longer and some are shorter.

Some come slowly to me and some seem to flow with ease.

This past year the words seemed to flow.

But when I reached the last word and read back over it, I cringed a bit.

May you have enough
so that want does not make you bitter.

May you lack enough
so that abundance does not cause you pride.

May you have peace
so that despair does not overtake you.

May you have struggle
so that you learn to rely on Jesus.

Everyday
may you have eyes to see what is at hand
and the graces which are all around.

Really? That is my wish-prayer for my loved ones?

And yet somehow I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the words written were meant to be.

And meant to stay.

Still, every morning as I got on Facebook to post my wish-prayer to that day’s recipient(s), I hesitated.

Would I want someone to wish and pray this for me?

May you lack enough?

May you have struggle?

Yet I did push send day after day.

And I prayed that my birthday greeting would be well-received.

And over the months I began to realize something:

“May you have struggle” does not mean “may you suffer”.

 

15 years ago this past August I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Common phrases that I heard went from “you don’t look sick” and “it’s all in your head” to  “fibro-what?!” and “you’re too young for that”. Doctors put me on various medicines to try and help different symptoms, which, of course, had different side effects. I was in my sophomore year of college, had gotten a part-time job at a florist shop and was leading a mime team of fellow classmates. My journal of the semester shows ups and downs with decreasing highs and increasing lows which felt (and reads) like a downward spiral of poor sleep, nightmares, deadening fatigue, depression, weight gain, poor concentration, brain fog, biting off more than I could chew and pushing myself when I should have been listening to my body better as I tried to deal with my new diagnosis in the midst of college life.

To put it simply, it was a struggle.

Because my brain and body were so impacted and I was having a hard time keeping up with schoolwork, I talked to each of my professors – more than once – to keep them abreast of what was happening and seek some aid in discerning and completing the most vital readings and assignments. Some of my professors were more than understanding, lenient with time and helpful in making needed adjustments. A couple of my professors came off a little harsher, not giving extra time and telling me that “in the real world” no one would give me a break because of bad days or bad health. (I’ve since discovered these were both right and wrong…)

But then I had one professor who basically said to me, “I’m glad you are struggling.”

Now, I don’t remember his exact wording. And looking back now, I wish I did. But that was the gist of it.

And I was insulted.

Now perhaps I should inform you that I attended a wonderful little Christian liberal arts college and this professor was in the Educational Ministries department wherein I was majoring. And though it was my first official class with him, I knew him well enough to know he had a love for Jesus and for students (teens and young adults) and desired to see them know Jesus and follow Him whole-heartedly. And I knew he had nothing against me.

So somewhere in my head I knew that his words were more wisdom than evil. He was not cursing me.

But I was still insulted.

And I’m pretty sure there were tears after I left his office.

See the thing is, for most of my life I have equated struggle with suffering.

And I equated suffering with sin. Not in the way that the disciples did in John 9 thinking the man was born blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents. I’d fallen in love with that story long before.

Sure, suffering comes sometimes as a direct result of our sin.

And suffering can come as a direct result of the sin of others.

Suffering can also come as an indirect result of the sin of others.

But sometimes suffering comes simply because we live in a broken world. A world broken by sin.

And because I equated struggle with suffering and suffering with sin and sin with evil, I felt that struggle was evil and someone being happy that I was struggling was… well… horrendous! 

Suffering is a struggle.

But struggling is not always suffering.

Struggle can be edifying.

Struggle can even be part of intended design.

Like the oft-used butterfly illustration. It is the work, the struggle of the newly reborn butterfly against the cocoon which strengthen it to fly. If you stop to help a butterfly’s struggle and release it from its cocoon, not only will it not be able to fly, but it will perish.

Or like the man-pushing-a-rock illustration (a version of which is illustrated here by mime artist Todd Farley).

 

I am slowly learning to remove the word struggle from its tightly-wound association with suffering and evil in my head.

Struggle is more closely related to discipline than to suffering.

And after months of posting this “may you have struggle” birthday wish-prayer, I am finally not hesitating as I tap the “post” button.

 

My own birthday is quickly approaching.

And I’ve come to know that should someone greet me with my own wish-prayer, I would not walk away with tears as I did 15 years ago.

I find it easier to see the wisdom.

And the grace.

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The day after April posted about her girls' nativity, another friend with a new baby boy shared this picture saying, "I have a feeling this will be our house in a few years"

The day after April posted about her girls’ nativity, another friend with a new baby boy shared this picture saying, “I have a feeling this will be our house in a few years”

I don’t have any children. But most of my friends do.

In recent days it has become apparent to me that children can make for some great theological insights at Christmas time.

Take my friend Lydia, for example.

Lydia has 5 boys. Under 8. The other day she posted to Facebook:

Though I’d love to have those flawless, beautifully crafted porcelain nativity figures to arrange and display (up high; up very high), with their smooth, painted faces just beaming the glory of Jesus’ birth, a Fisher-Price version is what we’ve got right now. This morning I sat here feeding Levi and watching the boys play war with the little plastic shepherds and the angel (WWIII happened in the stable this morning) and something occurred to me… this plastic set is more realistic- more what it really was like that first Christmas morning… There was no hoity-toity fanciness; there was no “hands off” sign hung above the manger. Jesus made himself accessible, reachable, hands-on to all people– lowly farm-hands, kings, thieves, prostitutes, politicians, the rich, the poor, the clean, the dirty, and most definitely- the children! He is for everyone. So yes, kids; play with this nativity set. Play war, play house, play the donkey pooping on the shepherd- but play knowing He is accessible to you!

Her children’s play reminded her that God put on flesh, this baby-child-man was Immanuel, God with us.

The Message paraphrase of John 1:14 goes begins with this:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.

And in story after story in the gospels he was indeed making himself accessible. He stretched forth his hand and gave the blind sight and touched the untouchables. The sickly, unclean woman knew that she could reach out and touch him.

Indeed, Lydia said it well, “There was no hoity-toity fanciness; there was no “hands off” sign hung above the manger. Jesus made himself accessible, reachable, hands-on to all people… He is for everyone.”

And not only is Jesus for everyone, he is always here, even when we don’t see him. Which is what Lydia was reminded of as they began to clean up after their play, trying to “find all the pieces after they’d exploded all over the living room”…

“Where’s Baby Jesus?” someone asked.

Of course no one knew, so the search was on. And you know, sometimes it’s that way in real life… you can’t see Him; you know Jesus is there, but you have to look for Him.

Gabe hollered out, “I found a wise person!”

Yep, you need those along the way, too, kid.

The funny thing was, you know where I found Baby Jesus?? I was sitting on Him. He was right under the edge of the rug. He was right there all along.

He was right there all along.

 

So I have another friend, April, who has 3 girls and a baby boy. The day after Lydia’s post, April was amused at her children’s Nativity set…

So baby Jesus has some interesting visitors at our house; the girls’ nativity currently has 4 dwarfs, rapunzel, minnie, cookie monster, big bird, and 4 little people in cars (along w/ the ‘normal’ characters)…

And judging by the comments on her post, we adults were cluing in on what the children do so naturally – allow anyone to come and worship the Baby Jesus.

One friend’s daughter helped a 2 ft dinosaur come to worship at their nativity.

Another friend was enamored by the scene, “Surely everyone is welcome at the manger!”

And as for me, it reminded me of a poem I’d read in college. It is found in a book of “Uncle Handsome’s Redneck Poetry” which was introduced to me by none other than April’s husband when we were in undergrad together.

The poem is entitled “Flamingos in the Manger Scene” and it goes like this:

There’s flamingos in our manger scene
We put ’em there this year
Leavin’ ’em standin’ off by themselves
Just seemed a little queer
With them other critters all gathered ’round
A-worshippin’ the baby Jesus
Them flamingos stayin’ across the lawn
Just somehow didn’t please us
So we pulled ’em up and set ’em there
‘Tween the wise men and the manger
Some folks think it’s a little strange
But I’ve seen a whole lot stranger
I reckon they do stand out a bit
Bein’ so pink and all
But the way they sway on one leg in the hay
They look so handsome and tall
Folks from town’ll come drivin’ around
And they’ll slow way down and grin
At them flamingos there with the camels ‘n donkeys
And them three fancied up wise men
And every now and then folks’ll stop their cars
And come stand by our white tire fence
And take pictures and laugh at our pink flamingos
But to us it just makes sense
For all of God’s critters to gather together
And worship at this time of year
And now that I stop to think about it
We left out the plastic deer!

Sometimes it takes those who see the world a little differently, like children, to help remind us of what we celebrate at Christmas:

Immanuel.

God with us.

Present. Touchable. Available to all.

 


 

(And, by the way, if you liked “Uncle Handsome’s” poem, you can find more funny, witty and poignant Redneck poems in The Road Less Graveled by Brent Holmes.)

 

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