Advent Reflection – A Mom’s Tears

jerry-kiesewetter-198984

Ask any mother and she will tell you that the tears we weep for our children are like no other. They are tears that come from deep within our souls as we cry out in pain, either for them or because of them. They are the tears we weep in solitude when our daughter has faced her first break-up. At that moment, should the boy be present, we would possibly commit a crime that locks us up, unless the lawyer can use the grounds of love, impulse and passion to convince a jury that we are not dangerous.

They are the tears that we shed when our pre-schooler is not invited to the birthday party that every other kid seems to be attending. They are the tears that come when we know that we are helpless to make life better for our children, that the days when we could control who comes and goes from their lives are now gone. They are the tears of rage when we feel wronged or misunderstood by these products of our womb, when the path they are taking is leading to a place that we know will cause pain.

They are the tears of agony when we know they are in deep pain, pain they can’t share with their moms. They are also the tears of unspeakable delight and joy at weddings and graduations; tears of admiration as we are invited to participate in their world; and the tears of happiness as we realize how proud we are and how much we love them.

One of the Orthodox icons depicting Mary, the Theotokos or God-bearer, is an icon that shows Mary with seven swords going into her heart. The icon is called the “Softener of Evil Hearts”. In Orthodoxy, these seven swords are seen as representing the immense sorrow that the Theotokos experienced at the foot of the cross; the sorrow that was prophesied by Saint Simeon when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple.

“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”*

I had been a mom for many years before I first heard about, and then saw, this icon. I thought about it for a long time. Here was one who understood far more about a mother’s tears then I could ever imagine. Sitting there at the foot of the cross, helpless and watching her son die, she did not yet know the full picture. The resurrection would be three days later. Her heart was pierced by a sword many times over before she saw the risen Lord on that Paschal morning.

I think about this icon as I shed tears for my children. Though we know but a fraction of this pain, our hearts too are pierced. We shed our tears and we too, wait; wait for the God of resurrection and miracles to comfort and strengthen us.

We wait for our souls to heal, for wrong to be made right. And we press on.

*Luke 2:34-35

Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

 

Insomnia–Advent’s Distant Cousin

candle for suffering

Yesterday I sent Marilyn an email. Words rushed over the keyboard past the constraints of grammar and spelling. I was so angry and so very upset. Even this morning I don’t trust myself to write–about gun control, about mass killings, about climate change, about forgotten Syrian refugees, about the NRA—I’m not sure if I could write about any of it. So I’m giving words the silent treatment and I’m dusting something off from the archives. This is a re-post from last year’s advent–

I had a rough night last night. I fell into a hard sleep but a short hour later, woke to Lowell’s moving and tossing, and then I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Using quiet whisper thoughts, I tiptoed around my brain, so as not to wake it…but to no avail. My brain is a light sleeper it would seem and it woke with a vengeance. It was demanding and incessant and loud. I couldn’t silence it and calm it back down for a long time.

I hate insomnia. I abhor those midnight hours when sleep avoids eye contact and we all just lay there awkward and fuming.

Last night my brain was a hodge podge of distractions, a collage of worries and niggling little anxieties. Earlier in the week Lowell and I had attended a meeting up at the high school on financial aid for our soon-to-be-college student. As gracious as the moderator was, my midnight mind kept imagining that he called us out for being so dim-witted all those years ago when Connor was first born. We should have started saving then! I could nearly see him rolling his eyes at us. I imagined him shrugging his shoulders, and dismissing any chances Connor has at a future, glaring at us, blaming us—Connor’s poor excuse for parents.

My brain also brought up Christmas—not the wonder and holiness of Jesus’ birth—but the frenetic pace of preparations. Gifts. Stockings. What to get Neil? Where to get Colleen’s gift? Who has Adelaide’s name? Baking. Food. Weight gain dread. Making up beds. Where would we sleep my parents? Where would we put my brother and his family? I stressed over and over on how to love my family well, how to be hospitable in the midst of the season’s crazy zone. I entertained booking everyone into hotels. I entertained booking only myself into a hotel.

I spent some time lamenting over Grand Jury decisions that no longer make any sense. Puzzling over the pain of it, the drama, the messy mixed messages of the media, the masked racism that continues–I wondered where healing would come from. I wondered what I can do to make a difference. I worried for my children growing up in this environment. I prayed pleading prayers for change and peace.

In the middle of it my brain thoughtfully reminded me where we were a year ago….in our beloved India, eating our favourite foods, seeing our favourite people. I found myself nearly choking on longing for that trip, that time, that experience. I wanted, desperately, to be there again. Tears rolled down my dark face in the dark night.

The insomniac brain suffers from attention deficit disorder. I bounced from anxious thought to despairing thought and back again.

This morning as I think about it, I’m struck with the similarities between insomnia and the advent season. Insomnia is the prolonged inability to sleep. On nights when I’m struck with sleeplessness I long for the morning to come. I want the night to be over! Advent too is a yearning— for justice, for hope, for mercy, for morning, for Jesus! I find myself responding to insomnia in different ways as I grow older. I used to do what many recommend. I’d get out of bed, go to a different room, read a book, drink a cup of chamomile tea. Now I usually just lie quietly and let my body rest. The same is true about my experience of Advent. I used to busy myself more to create meaning in the midst of the Advent longings and silences. I’d distract myself with activity. Now I’m trying to resist the rushing. I’ve found that busy air blows out the candles; worry winds tend to snuff out feeble flames of hope. I’m trying to sit still through the agonies and heart aches, to lie there and rest, waiting, breathing, holding steady.

The advent wreath still contains four candles encircling the white and glorious Christ Candle. But this year the wreath is surrounded by protests and angry crowds and Grand Juries and heart ache. Ebola deaths are rising in Western Africa. Refugees are still fleeing from Syria and Northern Iraq. It seems that this year the longings are deeper, the confusion and disillusionment are thicker. We toss and turn. We kick and squirm. When will the morning come? When will the long night of waiting be over?

The first candle in the wreath is lit. It’s the candle of hope and expectation. Some celebrate it as the candle of prophecy and promise. Either way, we’re holding on to what we know with hope and expectation. We’re keeping our hearts focused on what we’ve been told. Because of God’s tender mercy, the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide us to the path of peace. (Luke 1:78-79)

We couldn’t be more sure of what we saw and heard—God’s glory, God’s voice. The prophetic Word was confirmed to us. You’ll do well to keep focusing on it. It’s the one light you have in a dark time as you wait for daybreak and the rising of the Morning Star in your hearts. The promises… are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:19-20)

Please Jesus come….quickly. We’re ready for the night to be over. The darkness is growing wearisome. We’re eager for morning. We’re hungry for breakfast. We long for the day!

 

Away in a Manger?

View of Bethlehem, 1898

Away in a Manger…a repost.

Away in a manger,
no crib for a bed. 
The little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

I’ve read many lovely Christmas pieces — how alone Mary and Joseph were during their night-time trip to Bethlehem, her heavy with child and all; how there was no room, and so they were put in the stable; how the cows came and licked the face of Jesus (like any new mom would let that happen….) These pieces are written in beautiful prose and I find myself tearing up a bit.

Cold, alone, dirty stables, animal excrement, mooing, neighing, hay — it’s all there, and for the person who is an artist with their words, it is perfect material.

But the thing is, we’ve got the stable and the manger thing a bit distorted. It’s the limitations of language and translation coupled with our own misconceptions about life in Bethlehem at the time.

I don’t wish to be a cynic or spoiler – those who have written pieces have done a beautiful job in capturing our emotions. But when did we begin to re-write Biblical stories, church traditions through a western pen?

When did the familiar story become so familiar that it became incorrect?

Living in Pakistan and the Middle East helped me to view the scriptures in a different way, to think about the Bible beyond western thought and tradition.

And that is why I appreciate Ken Bailey and his scholarship around Middle Eastern life during the time of Jesus so much. Bailey lived for over 60 years in various countries in the Middle East, including Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, and Cyprus. He is an expert in New Testament scholarship.

He wants to set the record straight on the dirty, cold stable and in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he challenges our western assumptions and guides us to a more complete understanding. He does this so that the stories can, “like a diamond, be restored to their original brilliance.”

So let’s see what a more complete picture looks like:

First off – there was no inn in the sense that the west knows it. There was no commercial space with a fireplace and breakfast in the morning for a price. Instead the word in Greek refers to a guest space, an ‘upper room’ commonly used for hosting guests, relatives of the family. Likely the relatives had others staying with them as the census was being taken “throughout the known world.” Joseph was from a royal line and as such there would have been a space for them to stay. Early Christians when hearing the narrative of the birth of Christ would not have assumed a public inn where there was no space, rather they would assume there was no room in the upper room where guests usually stayed. Instead they were put in more of a ‘family’ room. At one end of this room would be an area a few feet lower where animals were brought inside during the night and led outside first thing in the morning. The family room would also have mangers dug into the ground where animals could feed during the night should they be hungry.

Second giving birth was a big deal, a community event that took place with female members of the family, one of whom would have been a midwife. There is no way Mary gave birth alone and Joseph cut the cord and delivered the placenta. No.Way. That is 21st century thinking right there. Although probably not with her mom, she would have been with Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem. There would have been a clean space, water heated, and women to help. Stop for a moment and imagine you were the midwife at the birth. Can you picture the miracle moment, that moment that happens after every successful delivery, when you realized this one was different? When a chill went up your spine and a ‘Glory to God’ was spontaneously shouted  from your soul? For it wasn’t an emergency birth, rather it was a common birth of an uncommon child.  

Third – He was worshiped by shepherds, the lowest of all in the social strata. And their sign, says Bailey, is indeed the manger. Because they would find him in a manger, they knew he would be in a home of a peasant and the family would not dismiss them as unworthy and unclean, not allowing them to come and offer their worship. The gospel of Luke says that “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” Bailey goes on to say that the word ‘all’ refers to the “quality of hospitality”.

“If they had found a young mother with her first child in the middle of a filthy stable, scared to death with no older women around to help her, the shepherds would have said, ‘This is outrageous! Come home with us! Our women will take care of you!’” Bailey, Open Hearts in Bethlehem

Ken Bailey summarizes it this way:

“To summarize … the holy family traveled to Bethlehem, where
they were received into a private home. The child was born,
wrapped and … ‘put to bed’ … in the living room in the manger
that was either built into the floor or made of wood and moved
into the family living space. … The guest room was already
occupied by other guests. The host family graciously accepted
Mary and Joseph into the family room of their house. … The
village midwife and other women would have assisted at the birth.
After the child was born and wrapped, Mary put her newborn to
bed in a manger filled with fresh straw and covered him with a
blanket.” Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 34–35.

He goes on to say that understanding the context and the real story makes the story better, richer, and more filled with meaning.

Because the truth about the birth of Christ is this:

That this Jesus laid aside all that was rightfully his, putting aside his glory to become Incarnate. This is the beauty of Advent, the mystery of the Incarnation.

He, a King, was born in a peasant’s home. He, the Lord of all, was reduced to a newborn baby with an umbilical cord that needed to be cut. He, the Saviour, needed breast milk and human warmth to survive.

And if we could wrap our heads around that, we would have no need to make the way he was born harder than it was. 

Note: Rachel Pieh Jones and I both wrote on this topic a couple of years ago. Here is her piece that is more indepth than mine and a great read: Rethinking the Nativity. 

A Ten-Dollar Coupon and My Poverty of Soul

ten dollar coupon

The ten-dollar coupon had grown hot in my hand. Literally. I was clutching it tightly. I was doing something I have never done: Arriving at Macy’s at seven in the morning, at the ready for the Big.Sale.

Truth is – I had only just realized Macy’s was having a Big.Sale. The coupon and the sale had been simultaneously discovered. If there’s a coupon, that means you need something, right?

So.Wrong.

I had limited time and I could feel my body growing hot with frustration. This sweater? No. That one? The blue one is pretty, I have too much black. Oh – I can’t buy that one! That’s only twelve dollars and I’m supposed to spend twenty-five in order to get the coupon. Frustration rising I picked out a sweater and began heading to the cashier. The cashier was nowhere to be found – it was after all seven in the morning…..

And right there in the aisle where glitter and sequins met designer jeans, I stopped, assaulted by the irony.

Earnestly shopping for something I didn’t need because I had a coupon. With a rueful sigh I put the sweater on the nearest rack I could find, and there it sat – a bright, blue miserable reminder among all the black, gold, and red glitter of seasonal items.

I headed toward the exit, stopping only to give the coupon away. The woman smiled at me gratefully — who doesn’t love a deal.

The sorry truth of who I was and how I was behaving felt like the 25 degree Farenheit temperature and wind that whipped my face as I stepped outside. It felt icy cold and I wanted to escape.

All for a ten-dollar coupon. Wasted time and sick in my soul, I felt all of it acutely.

It’s my own hypocrisy, my own poverty of soul that slaps me in the face like icy weather. I am so dang good at pointing out the flaws in our society, in other Christians, in America in general (for the arguably big baby that it is). But at the end of the day, the only person I can change is myself.

I think about this season – Advent, Christmas, Nativity, Holiday. The season of Advent differs profoundly from the “Holiday Season” as celebrated in the Western world. Advent brings waiting, hope, and a promise. The holiday season brings coupons, stress, frustration, and poverty of soul.

How do I continually bring myself back to Advent?  It starts today with giving up a sweaty ten-dollar coupon and admitting the poverty in my soul. Tomorrow it may mean something else. But today is what I have.

What about you? Have you ever found yourself with a coupon that grew hot in your hand? How do you separate Advent and Christmas from the Holiday Season? 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/shirts-exhibition-shop-shopping-428627/

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Giving Voice to the Longing

voice to a longing

Thanksgiving is over. It was a day of grace and gratitude with people from around the world gathered in warmth and belonging. Israelis mingled with Syrians, Iranians with Americans, Greeks with Serbians – all over turkey and pumpkin pie. Candles burned bright and laughter came easily. We said goodbyes slowly that night and the goodbyes have continued as our adult children linger on for just a couple more days.

Yesterday as I sat on our couch, the light of day fast fading into a dark that comes too soon, I felt an inexplicable sadness and longing. My daughter Stefanie and I had taken out some Christmas decorations to bring some solace to our aching hearts and Sufjan Stevens played in the background, but it wasn’t enough. The ache was deep, the longing acute.

In years past I thought that much of my longing was about being a third culture kid; about living Between Worlds, not really belonging to either. That there is a unique longing and grief associated with growing up between worlds cannot be denied, but this longing is in a separate category. The longing that I felt yesterday is not the longing associated with place and people.

It’s the longing for whispers of sorrow to become shouts of joy.

It’s the longing for glimpses of truth to be replaced by complete and clear vision of that which is good, that which is holy.

It’s the longing for wrong to be made right.

It’s the longing for a broken world to be repaired and redeemed.

It’s the longing that comes when I see a man, his body deformed and his ability to function impaired and weep for him to be made whole. The longing that comes when I hear of atrocities and cry for justice; the longing when I hear of pain and beg for comfort. The longing when I hear the stories of refugees, and pray desperately that they will heal and find peace.

The longing to see the world as it was intended, not as it is.

Advent allows me to wait with expectation, to hear whispers of hope echo throughout this world. Because this is truth –  from small villages in Pakistan to large homes in suburbia, our deepest longings are the same.

The season of Advent allows me to put words of longing and expectancy in the same sentence, the same breath. In the words of Madeleine L’Engle, it is the “irrational season” – a time when reason can be replaced by anticipation, trust, and expectant belief.

“This is the irrational season, when love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.” Madeline L’engle