Wednesday, December 26, 2012

All kinds of stuff

After a very restful few days, I'm not really ready to get back to the routine of posting here. Or even thinking deeply. We had our precious Christmas moment Monday night when our adult children shared so transparently about their hopes and emotions about the year past and the year ahead, their faith and their doubts, that I could hardly sleep for the joy of it. For the joy that Incarnation continually brings to our family. Jesus comes in each of us, between us, and when we sit quietly together, tasting the bread that commemorates His body and drinking the wine (grape juice) that is His blood, I sense Him there. Deeply and truly. Taste and see that He is good, that wrapped in human skin, He saved us so that we can each go out into our lives--in excitement for the new adventures, in expectation for what He will do, for hope that He will meet us--and we will change the world by our being in it.

And that lovely moment carried me through the more silly parts of the day that is Christmas day. I say silly because much of the gift-giving is silly if considered without Him as the foundation of it. I know I get up from my place on the couch of communion and hurry to get the last of the presents wrapped, the stockings filled, the tasks finished. I lose Him in the final push of it all. And though we have a more leisurely pace than we did when our children were small, there are still gifts beneath our tree of a substantial nature, and we wait for them with bated breath. The ones we give and the ones we receive.  And it's all a little silly in comparison to the great big gift He gave.

And I'm fine with that. I'm fine with the disproportionate nature of it all. Fine with paradox that is this holiday. The natural and the sublime wrapped up together. It's just so like the Incarnation itself. Human and God all at once. It's a matter of keeping it in perspective, however. Realizing that no matter how large or small the gifts beneath the tree, we cannot buy what we need most. Not for ourselves nor for those we love. It's not ours to give. We can ask for it, but it's--HE'S--not for sale.

That's all I have to say.
I was blessed this Christmas. As I always am.

And, since I can, I thought I'd post a few pictures of the quilts I've been working on in the last little while. I haven't been as busy this fall, since I spend so much time chasing a puppy around. But he's finally slowing down, so I have high hopes that all those projects awaiting me will become more than just fabric in containers after the new year.

This is a baby quilt I made for the granddaughter of a friend. These were the colors of the nursery. I love the way it turned out. So fresh and clean-looking. It's backed with a white minky fabric, perfect for a baby to play on.

These are the back and front of the quilt I made in honor of our big dog, Jackson. I wanted to show the finished product because I love how it turned out. I used extra pieces of the batik fabric for the back and quilted it with random lines. We've been using it in the back-room when we watch movies. That was where Jackson liked to hole up, especially at the end of his life.
I made this quilt for a gathering of my cousins on the 28th. We were going to have a Christmas letter contest, and this would be the prize, but none of us has managed to write a letter yet. We're like that. So I think we're going to raffle it off...
along with this one. After I finished the plaid quilt, I decided it was a little feminine for some of the younger male cousins, so I decided to whip up this quilt. I got my inspiration from a photo E took of grass and stepping stones on UW's campus. I'd post the photo, but can't figure out how to do that. Anyway, it's only inspired by that photo, not a copy of it. I have to it quilted tomorrow so it's ready to go for the dinner.
And finally, the Christmas tree skirt I made for us this year. It's the same pattern I made for my sister last year. I liked hers so much I used the pattern again, which is something I almost never do.  Beve thought it about time we actually had out own skirt, since I've made them for other people. It took us a long time to get any lights and ornaments on the tree, but at least we had the tree skirt.
NOT a quilt, but the photograph we're going to use for our Christmas card this year. We've been getting so many cards for Grampie as well as us, we decided we needed to explain to his friends what has happened to him in the last year. So for those of you who will not receive our 'snail-mail' greetings, may God meet you in this coming year, may you experience what it means to live Incarnationally--His very presence within you, making you more (more in EVERY WAY) than you can imagine being.
Much love from all the Wileys
Clockwise from left: E, J, SK, Grampie
 Beve and C (not pictured, but definitely present--one taking the picture, one working to make Grampie smile!)

Friday, December 21, 2012

Awkward and Awesome

Because it's been that kind of week, and because I'm sometimes as fad-follower, I thought I'd copy my daughter and her bloggy friends "Awkward and Awesome" of the week. They try to post this list on Thursdays, so I'm a day late (and a dollar short--at least! it is December, after all!), but here's my list:

Awkward:

  • The state of my dining room table and carport.Both are still covered with ruined things from our basement. Christmas ornaments we're still hoping will dry out, given just a little bit more time. Like Christmas ornaments from both Beve's and my childhood and the first ones we bought together. Children's books (sigh, I do know these are a lost cause but can't bear it, really I can't!). Linens, sweaters made by Beve's mother. All a treasure trove of our history. All waiting for the insurance adjuster to go through our list before we can get rid of the water-logged. Sigh.
  • A cold which has taken up residence in my eyes. Somehow this is always where I get colds. Not in my nose, but my eyes. It makes me want to keep them closed all the time, and if they're open I need to wipe them constantly, and look like I haven't slept in about three days. 
  • The lack of interest I have in decorating our house for Christmas. I think this has to do with the flood in the basement and the loss of so many of our things. We've had our tree up since the day before the flood but J thought it was the scrawniest tree he'd ever seen (we do favor Nobles). But I think mostly its scrawniness was because it stood naked until Tuesday when we finally lights and decorations up.  And they were only simple blue and silver balls, and clear lights. Almost like we're newly-weds again. 
  • Trying to figure out how to keep our Springer Spaniel from running. Her favorite activity in the whole wide world is playing fetch and she's under strict vet's orders to lay low until she finishes her course of steroids. She has a fracture in her left shoulder, tendinitis, bursitis, and some floating bone spurs. In short, just about everything that could go wrong with that shoulder has. So she's limping like an old lady, rather than the springy 5-year-old that she is.
Awesome:
  • The smell of the Christmas tree in our house. Seriously, is there anything better? I know, I know there's a lot to be said for the ease of an artificial tree, but that smell...I can hardly wait each year. Along with the smell are the lights. Love them with all the lamps off, and carols playing in the background.
  • The luxury of time with Beve that come when school's not in session. I realize that there are those who envy the surfeit of vacations educators get, but given how hard the ones I know work, what long hours the one I live with puts in (many days 13-14 hours a day plus time on weekends for which he gets--none of which he gets compensated for), he needs his breaks. And when he lets down, the quality of our conversations...well, it's been a surfeit of riches. 
  • Time to quilt. Our puppy is calming down, so that's a factor. And Beve's presence is also a factor. So I've been more productive in the last week (even with burning eyes) than I was all fall. I'll post pictures soon.
  • Cuddly puppies. Jamaica's bum wheel means she's even more of a velcro dog than usual, needs to lay against one of her humans to sleep. And she's just so sweet.
  • The great books I've been reading lately. Elizabeth Goudge. Old-fashioned stories of family, faith and reconciliation. They're sweet and well-written and I forget how much I love them. I was introduced to them by an old friend years ago, ought most of them at used bookstores, and wish I could find the rest  at non-collectors' prices.
  • Traditions of Advent. Being intentional about the story of the Incarnation. Each Christmas Eve, just before we go to bed, the five of us sit in our living room and have communion together. We take stock in the year, who Christ has been to us, where we hope He'll take us, then ask Him in again through the bread and wine. This, even more than the candlelight service at church, is our true celebration of His birth. 
So, that's my list. Hope that if you have a list it's disproportionately full of the 'awesome.'

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Good news among the bad

The grape-vine in my family is a tried a true means of communication. Faster than the speed of light sometimes.

For example: yesterday morning, my younger daughter got a text from my sister's younger daughter. Immediately, SK texted E, who yelled at me from the bedroom where she was packing to go back to Seattle. The barn on my brother-in-law's family farm burned down Sunday night.  I instantly called my sister. "You already know?" she said, rather incredulously. When I explained the chain, she laughed. "I was just about to call you," she said. "Leave it to our daughters to beat me to it."  My sister, her husband, their son, my b-in-law's mother, brother, other folks stood and watched that old barn burn to ashes Sunday. It was built of dry timber and straw and, even in a blizzard, went down fast. And, along with the saddles, harnesses, piglets and their mama, a couple of lifetimes of memories went up in flames and down in cinders that night. Hard to recapture.  Their livelihood depends, to a large extent, on that barn. On all the farm's buildings. Fortunately, the quick thinking of my b-in-l's brother, who grabbed a garden hose before the fire department got there, the barn was the only building lost. But though that should be comfort (and surely is in the abstract), I can imagine it's hard to face the black hole where that barn sat all the years of this family's life (only Grandma remembers before it was a fixture).

But while I'm thinking about them this week, it also struck me how quickly the news of this fire traveled to us. Gossip. That's what some people might call it. Gossip carries a negative connotation, doesn't it? And I realize that the definition of gossip is 'idle talk' or rumor. And about such chatter, we're warned often enough...as we should be. When what we share is based wholly for the sake of hurting someone, it's nefarious indeed. But now and then, maybe the word, the very idea of gossip gets twisted on its head, this idea of one person telling another amazing, wonderful news--like the news of an impending marriage or a new baby-- then that news being passed on and on and on. Not all news is bad news, not all 'passing it on,' the wrong thing.

If you think about it, something like this 'good' gossip happened in Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord. It wasn't a human whispering in the ears of Simeon and the prophetess Anna.  It was the Holy Spirit himself who said, "Hey, do you know what's going on here? He who you've been waiting for is here."  The Holy Spirit spoke familiarly enough to these two people, intimately enough that each knew exactly which baby of the presumably many who were being presented that day. Simeon had been promised he wouldn't die without seeing the Messiah. His position was such that parents put their babies into his arms for a blessing. When he was handed Jesus, something powerful happened. A switch flipped (on an unrelated note, I always want to say a flip switched, which makes me wonder about my aging brain) and an amalgamation of words from the prophet Isaiah came out of his mouth. All about the Servant King. It's a jaw-dropping moment for these pious Jews, even ones who'd already been told (and believed) who their baby was.  They marveled at this confirmation.
But God didn't leave it at that. At one confirmation, I mean. He gave them two. Anna, the prophet, also immediately recognized Jesus. And spoke loudly and firmly to all within the sound of her voice about him.

These moments in the temple, which began with the Holy Spirit whispering in the ears of His faithful, were confirmation in three ways, really. Confirmation for Simeon and Anna, that what God had promised--that they'd live to see Him--had come. God was faithful to fulfill His promise to them. And they'd been faithful to wait. And, as I said, it was confirmation to Mary and Joseph that God would continually remind them that their baby was not just any random baby, but God Incarnate. He would always--always be unusual, and they'd always marvel. And thirdly, it was confirmation to those within the reach of the words spoken. Even  though the events were taking place outside their sphere of understanding (though they stood right there listening), God was on the move. There was more going on than most could comprehend. Only a few had been told. Only a few had had the good news whispered to them.

In any situation there's more going on than we can understand. We stand in a crowd and whisper among ourselves. Gossip about what we've heard, trying to make sense of the commotion. But somewhere, God is whispering the truth. If we open our ears, get the cotton of this world out of them, perhaps the gossip we hear is will be from the Holy Spirit Himself.

And then, only then, can we begin to spread the GOOD NEWS.

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel." Acts 2: 29-32


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just a typical morning

Christmas presents already wrapped,
already tagged and set out under decked-out trees--"Give me a hard present, Daddy!"
gifts that will never be opened.

Unmade beds
with stuffed-animals so crowding the pillow,
     only a small imprint is visible.
And the smell of fresh children's 'no-tangle' shampoo
     or the sweat of hard playing lingers
          in the air
     like priceless perfume.
Beds that will never be slept in again.

Art hangs on the refrigerator,
Half-finished meals sit in plastic containers inside.
Events written on the calendar,
Lists of stocking-stuffers with that precious name
lays on the counter next to a small note
that says, "I love you, Mommy," in uneven (maybe misspelled) handwriting
 signed with both first and last name--
as if  Mommy wouldn't recognize the giver without such identification.
Meals that will never be finished. Art that is the last art.
First grade handwriting that will never grow up.
A note that will be kept for the length of that Mommy's life.
For the hole in it will also be kept.

These are the things I've been crying over this weekend.
These are the images that cause tears to fall.
Tears that cause my knees to buckle and prayers to join the host of others for a small town who keens with grief.

I think of the rush of a Friday school day, of trying to get a first grader (and older siblings?) out the door in time for that all-important bell. I think of the "morning noises," that aren't always pleasant. The many times those noises consist of harried words like "Did you get your worksheet?" "Finish that last bite." "Keep still while I brush your hair." "I told you to brush your teeth." "What do you mean, you can't find your shoes?"  Not all mornings are like that, of course. But some are. Some were for me, I know. And this is the kind of morning I imagine. Then I picture such a morning as the last morning. The last moments of being with my first-grader. And how the horror, the absolute, rest-of-life pain of losing a child would be compounded by what I'd missed in that last morning. Though taking a few moments to simply sit and be with my child wouldn't change their home-going just a mere half-hour later (O God, so short a time?) but it would haunt me.

But it all haunts, of course. It always will. Because it started out as a typical morning. Like all such unfathomable events begin. They start from where we cannot predict. Going to shopping malls. To hear a congress-woman speak. To school. So many times, just to school. People leave their lives just as they always do, and someone takes it because...well, that's the burning pain that haunts.
And we cannot pretend it doesn't. We cannot. Even here, a continent away from those parents, I sit shiva with them. I am not IN their pain, but I acknowledge it.
We lean from wherever we are in this world to  acknowledge. To pray. And to love you as you hurt.

PS.If you missed it, the speech President Obama gave at the Interfaith Service tonight was very moving. No matter what your politics, it was pretty powerful especially in the very beginning and very end. "When you become a parent, you watch your very heart beating outside your body," he said someone told him once. I'd never heard it put that way before, but it's the best way of explaining a parent's love that I've ever heard. And at the end, he simply spoke the first names of those twenty children. I was crying before he finished. Powerful.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Lessons of the star

The town I grew up in was small enough that on clear nights there were stars in abundance overhead. And from my house it was half a block to the water-tower that marked the very edge of town in those days (though now, there are neighborhoods in every direction beyond that water-tower). But back then there were only rolling hills as far as the eye could see. I liked walking out there and often did, any time of year. But in the winter, covered with snow when I walked past the water-tower, it was like I was alone in the world out there with only those layers and layers of stars the lights to mark my way.

But I've never been able to identify more than the Little Dipper in the sky. And the North Star at the tip of its tail, of course. The North Star is a good star to know, if its the only one in one's arsenal, a metaphor for God if ever there was one, I'm told. But I confess, it has never been such for me. I only see stars when I look heavenly. Though my sister's astronomer boyfriend would cringe to know it, I'm as close to a dunce as they come when it comes to finding lines to form shapes of bears, goats, or whatever else is supposedly up there. And it's not for lack of trying, either. My dad tried pointing out planets, and constellations when we were out  camping, but I couldn't even see the difference between planets (apparently brighter and with less (no?) twinkle). Saturn's rings? Really, Saturn has rings? Could have fooled me. Not even in the telescope a brother-in-law once set up in our back yard did I see anything more than dimples in the moon (and at least I saw those!).

To me, it's good enough that the heavens declare the Glory of God. They don't have to align themselves as animals to make His glory more breath-taking. But whenever I ponder the star that God hung in the sky in 4 BC over a tiny town in a tiny country where the most monumental event in history was taking place, I really believe even I could have seen it. Men from half a world away (or so) did. So brightly that they left home and position and were compelled to bring extravagant gifts on a arduous journey to find the source of that star. The one under whom that star shone. And by camel (as tradition has it) that journey would have been a long one, which leads us to this startling revelation: the star over Bethlehem began to twinkle months before the babe lay in the manger. In fact, perhaps it began to glow as soon as an angel visited a young girl in Nazareth and she said, "May it be unto me. I am your handmaiden."

It's not so far-fetched an idea, is it? That God would put into place such a thing. Now it's possible the people of Bethlehem saw the star and were surprised at first by it, even frightened by it's sudden overwhelming appearance, but when it didn't go away but didn't become a menace, grew used to its presence. Perhaps. More likely, however, God revealed His glory--His star--to the magi alone. In their sky, so to speak. As the earth turns, they saw it before those directly under it glimpsed what God was about.  This is a more obvious conclusion, since we have no mention in the text that any other than the magi saw the star.

So let's trust that only the magi saw the star. Interpreted it not merely as unique but important. Even at this they made some missteps. And as missteps go, this was taking a step off a cliff. Through no fault of their own--perhaps with all the good will in the world--they went to the one person they should have most avoided when they finally reached Jerusalem: a paranoid king whose desire for power made him as malevolent as any Hitler. He was the worst of villains. He knew at once what their journey was all about, asked for confirmation from the Jewish elders, then immediately began to plot a baby's death. A baby's death. Not an assassination of a man already at the height of his reign but a baby. And when the magi, warned by God NOT to inform on said baby, didn't return, he actually killed EVERY baby boy in Bethlehem.

Imagine, every single baby a town. Every mother crying over her baby's empty manger, so to speak. Every single baby boy not to grow up to work with his daddy in the fields, or shops, or whatever. It's a picture of decimation like we've seen other places, at other times through-out history.

And it can be a stumbling block for the glory of this story. I know this. Couldn't God have saved those babies? Yes. Let's admit that. But let's also admit, that in this world, there has always such evil. It points out in sharp relief the absolute point of His coming. A man is evil. They sin. People die as a result. Even babies. Yes, because of sin. And from the first sin, God promised a way out. He didn't say that the moment He came to earth there would be no more sin, He said He would save us.

And, in order to do so, He was spared the day those babies were killed. Herod killed the babies. He couldn't kill Jesus. Jesus would not be killed until HIS time. Until the time was fulfilled.

The other piece of this episode is that we, too, are the magi. We take mis-steps. I mean, sometimes, through no fault of our own, we put into motion events that cause great harm. Is it our sin? No. But sin is the result. The magi are not culpable for what happened to those babies. In fact, God told in a dream to return to their countries by a different route. He warned them to have no more part in the grave sin that was coming. Sometimes this is our lot as well. Have you ever questioned whether you've sinned if you meant something for good but it resulted in something terrible? The magi's story is the answer. You aren't responsible for what others twist into ugliness. You are responsible to pray for the lives affected. As always.

These, I think, are the lessons of the star.
Happy Friday.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shepherds

I have to confess that I don't know much about sheep personally. I've had an occasion or two to run across their paths now and then in the days when our family was spending time on Hunterston Farm on Galiano Island of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. It's a working sheep farm but also has space for vacation homes for people I know, and an year-round home for my all-time favorite Regent College professor and his wife (whom I also took a course from). The road to their home went straight through the sheep's land, so we had to open and close gates to keep the sheep penned. And sometimes yell at them to move from sleeping on the road so we could pass. During our visits there we'd often take walks among them and the ewes would lumber away from us--if they felt like it--and only the lambs had charm to them. In fact, from what I could see, sheep are a dirty, lazy animal, their wool matted with sticks and other things sticking in it that isn't fit to mention in gentle company.

I consider, then, those men whose job it was to take these sheep to the hillsides in search of grass, to herd such lazy, unlikely animals. The climate in British Columbia makes for good eating for sheep, grass is verdant and lush and on Hunterston Farm they are merely moved from one pasture to the next to keep the grass down.  But herding sheep is harder work in the dry, rocky terrain of Israel, where the heat and aridity creates the need to search out grass enough to feed sheep. Shepherds must have been nomadic and hardy, their most frequent community the dumb and lazy sheep themselves. Sometimes other shepherds would sit around the fire sharing stories of the work, the day's herding, the lost lambs, the climb, whatever shepherds might talk about at night when sheep were drowsy in the fields beyond the firelight.

And those shepherds might wrap their cloaks more tightly around themselves to ward off whatever chill was in the night air, and drowse themselves. But lightly, like a mother with her newborn baby. Ready any moment to be wide awake at the slightest mew or change in breathing from the herd.

That night, that wondrous night, to these marginalized, set-apart men came the singular moment of all time for they were the first humans to hear the gospel. Imagine that. Imagine being the very first to know that Messiah has come. Waiting not simply through the night, with one ear half-listening, but through all of history for Him to come. And in a heart-beating-out-of-your-chest instant, an angel tells you it is so.   "Don't be afraid," the angel says (because the unexpectedness of angels ALWAYs cause fear in mere mortals!). "For I bring you...good news."  Good news, indeed. "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah.." To you. Not simply to the rich and powerful and those living in houses even but to you.

And this is such an earth-shattering moment that all of heaven must burst into song at such news. To those men on the hillside. They have the unparalleled experience of hearing/seeing the choir of heaven whose only  'job' is to worship around the heavenly throne break through the dividing wall between the world and heaven. Between the visible and the invisible. Between what we know in part, see in a mirror dimly and what they see face-to-face.  What lies wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger is the very one those angels worship day and night. And these men hidden on the hillside, awake as they've never been awake before, have the Kingly honor of hearing, seeing, having all their senses positively drip in that heavenly choir's harmony.

And once the last chord has rung in the air and only the stars sit quietly in the sky (in the understatement of history), the shepherds say to one another, "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." Without any discussion, the text says, 'they hurried off...' They found their way to that manger, to the parents hovering over the manger, the animals lowing in the barn.

 Let's leave them there, shall we? And think a moment about where we find ourselves when the Good News comes to us. It may not be with such fanfare. In fact, I'd guess that was a one-time only performance by that choir. Incarnation-only, I might say. But we are always more like shepherds than kings when we hear the good news. No matter what our lives look like. I'm not talking about wealth or power or privilege or beauty now. I'm talking about our real place before our real God, the place that made the Incarnation necessary. We are the marginalized. Paupers. Beggars. With our hands out, tattered and torn from what we've done...who we've been. Who we are.

In exactly this state, He comes. The Good News comes. The baby comes. God wrapped not in the cloths of flesh just like ours comes. And we are privileged to hear this news, to have heaven break so open that we are let in by it. This is who that baby is--that heaven sings and we are let in to that song. And let in to heaven itself if we hurry to Him, fall at His feet. Who we are, in our needy flesh worshiping who HE is in His Holy wholeness. God among us. Messiah.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

First, the animals

It's been anything but a day-of-rest kind of Sunday. Beginning with our pellet stove not lighting (or even clicking), it was a cold morning. A bit later, while I was still trying to warm my chilly hands around my mug of tea, I asked Beve if he heard the water I was hearing. "Well, I started the washer a while ago." Hmm, that must be it, I thought, and dismissed it from my mind. But then I heard a bang. And then Beve, coming out of our bathroom, said, "I hear water, and our toilet isn't filling." When Beve opened our basement/cellar door a frantic moment later, water poured out, and two inches covered the floor. And worse, a waterfall was flowing from a pipe above a metal storage unit where everything from our high school yearbooks to our kids' childhood treasures, to Beve's parents' early photo albums are stored. And now ruined. Beve got the water turned off, a plumber arrived half an hour later, the problem remedied for now (though we need a new regulator, whatever that is). But those treasures are toast. Irreplaceable.

We've been drying things all over the house all day. And, as I was leaning over at some point, my cell phone fell out of my pocket and our incorrigible dog, Kincade, grabbed it and--you guessed it--chewed it up. That's the 4th cell-phone since school started. I screamed. Literally screamed so loud Beve came running from the basement. Put Kincade in his kennel, calmed me down. Asked me if I want to get rid of him (sometimes I wonder!). Fortunately, I have a back-up for the back-up for the back-up for the back-up...now I'm using my sister's old phone. Sigh.

Oh, and did I mention that Beve put his back out?

As I said, it was a really relaxing Sunday. A true Sabbath.
We never even got over to see Grampie today. Not that he'll notice. But we did.

And I intended to write this post a whole lot earlier, and with a lot more sensitivity. Sweetness. But the truth is, sometimes life is raw and gritty and we spend what should be restful and reflective cleaning up a flood. Calling plumbers. Working in the cellar.

And maybe that makes it even more sweet that I'm still thinking about that stable, that most base of all places, where very little is clean and all of life is carried out right there in the hay. Life and death and eating and elimination for all the creatures who call it 'home', if they had language to call it anything. I think of all the creatures we can find in such places as barns and stables, like the ones stabled or fed there, like cows and sheep and horses and donkeys (I'd include pigs, but that stable was a Jewish stable so you can be sure there were no pigs there). But there are the uninvited creatures as well--rats and fleas and lice and other bugs whose names I do not know. Other burrowing rodents, perhaps, a stray cat, birds in the rafters. Who knows what else.

The stable is teeming with life. Ripe with it and you can bet that at any given time there are pregnant animals and fowl and insects. There is creation happening everywhere you turn.

Into this fully alive place is born the baby Jesus. And before a single human saw Him other than His human mother and dad, the animals saw Him. They who were created BEFORE humans saw Him as a human first. There's a startling symmetry to this, I think. Those creatures didn't sin against Him. God created them and saw that they were good, Genesis says. And when He created humans those creatures of every kind were given to us to rule.

We like that, I think. We're glad to have dominion over beasts. To rule the earth and every other species on it. I've often read of our superiority over all the other creatures on this earth. We have language, for one thing; the ability to communicate with each other. And we use tools. These are two of the things that separate us from beasts. But though these things are great gifts, they can cause great harm. They have. Because we are also sinners. We are separated from the rest of the species on this earth by our ability to choose, because we alone are made in His image, which is the most spectacular creation of all. And it's ours, and with that creation, comes the free choice that is part of His character. Yet...from the tree-of-life beginning, we have chosen, and choose wrong. Daily. Bluntly, we sin.

So maybe that's why is this Genesis moment of the Incarnation, He honors the animals. Just for a moment. It isn't for them that He came, of course. I  certainly don't intend such a distortion of the gospel. I'm not even saying the creatures understood what they saw that night. But God knew. And God is always intentional. I can imagine that He had purposes in that place, and gave a spirit there that we cannot begin to understand, no matter how often we read the gospels, or how long we walk with Him. His coming will always be a mystery. It doesn't take much to imagine the scene in the moments before anyone else enters the story.

When He's simply lying in the manger with only Mary, Joseph and the stable animals watching Him, it's like a held-breath of time. A pregnant pause before the action starts. I suppose it gives Mary and Joseph a few moments (though we don't actually know how long it was) to collect themselves. Mary and Joseph were just two country folks from Nazareth, they were used to such sounds so the gentle sounds of the stable was soothing, I imagine. I think even this moment becomes an irreplaceable treasure to Mary.

But then, of course, the story takes off.
And when the angel appears to the shepherds, when the host joins in the chorus to those people on a hillside, we're invited in as well. Because these are not dignitaries to whom the news comes, but the most lowly of the lowly. Over and over, the most important Good News is given to unexpected people. The disenfranchised. Those who we might overlook.
Us. Really. Us. Each of us falls into the story as the lowly. The sinful, but the beloved to whom He comes. It's a contradiction that saves our lives.

But first, let's hold our breath, and listen to the sounds of the creatures who get to see Him first.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A real baby

It's the first Friday of the month, which means I'm digging into past journals along with others like me. We're a mixed bag of artists, poets and those who write in prose (me!), but each of us brings something tasty to the banquet. Check us out at Dawn's blog.


I was hopeful this morning as I reached for a journal among the ubiquitous line-up on my shelf. Hopeful that I'd grab a composition book containing an advent reflection. And, God who is faithful, certainly intended the same because not only did I pick correctly (no small feat) but amazingly opened the notebook to December 2, which was the first Sunday in Advent in 2007. I am humbled sometimes that I have so little faith that God will work as I ask. Even in such small a thing as this.

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog might find this somewhat similar to part of what I wrote earlier this week, but what is that to me? This is what I'm always thinking about when Advent begins. It's the astonishing thing.

Enough prelude.

December 2, 2005
"Mary, did you know...
when you kissed your boy,
you kissed the face of God?"

A song from church this morning that I keep singing as I walk through the rest of a quiet Sunday. It takes me to the heart of Incarnation. A soft, dewy new baby's face the matchless face of God. Hands curled into fists clutching at his human mama's breast the hands that had 'flung stars into space' and would be punctured by the darkest shade of blood--our sin. A real human baby. A real face the face of God.
As real as my own son for whom He bled. As real as my son who laughed and ran and played deep and hard. As earnest, tender and all boy as my son.
A real boy.
Real God all at once.
This is the story of Advent.
Come, Baby, come.
Come, God-in-new-flesh, come.
Come, Jesus, Emanuel, O Holy One, Come.

 One more thing: this was five years before my son began his struggle with mental illness, so today the words are even more poignant to me. God reminds me today of what is true for all of us, but for my son in specific. And I crumble to my knees in hope. And that's what Advent is, after all, isn't it? Hope in the darkness. Hallelujah.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Pebble in the shoe

It was a morning of errands for me and if there's anything I can't stand, it's driving from this place to that to drop off, pick up, check on, do a single thing. It's just so dang inefficient. And...I'm just the opposite of my beloved Beve who, I swear (though I don't really), LOVES to run errands. Seriously. We can't get into the car to go somewhere without him having to stop by somewhere else (or two or three) on the way home. And there I am, trying not to grind my teeth because he didn't mention it and I should have known and really, why the heck do we need to go to Costco every single time we visit Grampie, anyway?

There are always things about our spouses that annoy us, right? But it's because we're different. And that balance makes us better, I suppose. At least that's what I tell myself when I'm walking through Costco for the fourth time in a week...and it's only Wednesday.

Anyway, today I wasn't being drug by my reluctant fingernails by Beve. It was a morning of my own making. And it seemed like everywhere I went the lines were long and people were chatting to take their minds off the time. Standing near the cutting counter at Joanne Fabrics (clutching my number like it's my lifeline), waiting to have my flannel backing cut  (for the Christmas tree skirt I'm finishing), I moved before the woman cutting fabric called my number.
"If 67 comes after 66, I'm next," I told her.
She laughed and said, "It did back when I learned to count."
"I think I could count that high in Kindergarten," I said.
She quoted Erma Bombeck--something about kids from Kindergarten to about 13  being capable of ruling the world and after that needing to be locked up until they finish high school. Beve and I were lucky to start with a child who was born 30, and is just now growing into her age. And because of her, our younger two didn't slam doors or yell at us either when they hit those apparently volatile years . But..."teenagers are my people group and I could hardly wait until my kids got to 13," I said. "I didn't do as well when they were little." She laughed. "I never heard it put that way," she said. "I'll have to tell my daughter. I think she'll be relieved to hear that not everyone has to be great with their toddlers and it still turns out okay."

Then I went off to Comcast where the line was snaking out the door. Shudder, sigh. All I needed to do was return Grampie's router. Yep, router. We had one put in about a year ago so we could try Face-time with Thyrza, but since that's been a giant FAIL (even her daughter can't make it work), returning it seemed only reasonable. I spent 40 minutes in the line at Comcast. Talked to all those around me about all manner of things--routers (like I actually know any thing about routers!), babies, food (it was lunchtime), how we'd actually been there overnight, and, finally, about Grampie and his Alzheimer's. The man just ahead of me told me he used to work in an Alzheimer's unit, but the patients really scared him with their violence. I nodded. I've heard that about people with dementia, of course. We all have. However, the two parents in our lives haven't moved to violence. As I told this man about my mom and her sad fright, and Grampie and his continuing sweetness, the line seemed to lean in and I began to feel like something bigger was going on. Could feel Him right there in that long line.  I just told this man (and the others) what I've often said before: that it's what's most deeply in a person that comes through when their brain empties. When the filters are gone and the masks are lost, you can really discover who a person is. Angry, sweet, insecure...even if they don't have words for it, you can tell. The man blanched, I could see it. "I'm going to be one angry *#&%!"
Dropping the F-bomb right there in Comcast, like it was no big deal.
My reaction was as instinctive as his, I think. "But you don't have to be."
"How can I help it?" He asked. "I have three daughters who are all out of control, I've lost two marriages, so many jobs I can't count, and none of it's my fault."
"Except how you respond to it," I said (though I'm pretty sure a whole lot of it IS his fault).
He looked at me a little like I have two heads.  And was probably relieved that he got to walk away just then. But maybe, maybe he left, thinking that there's a different way of being than just angry, and blaming everyone else for his life.

I love such conversations, though. I love that suddenly, unexpectedly, something more is going on that those participating in the conversation know. And I love being His vehicle for change, even when I never see that change. Even if all that conversation is a pebble in the shoe of how someone thinks or lives. I hope that man feels the pebble rub and rub and rub. So much that he has to take off the shoe, look at his life more clearly. May God use that pebble to change his life for good.

Yes, it's a sweet thing to be out in the world, being Christ among the people. Being His pebble in the shoes of those we walk among.

Hmm, I guess I should look at errands as a privilege.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A stable

After this summer, I really understand the words, "No room in the inn." When we had people sleeping in every bed, couch and cot and a trailer in our carport, we were full up. In fact, some old friends wrote an email just at the beginning of that time and asked if they could stay with us for their son's baseball tournament here in town, and we wrote back to say, "If you're willing to pitch a tent, we'd be glad to have you."  It was wild and wonderful and I wouldn't change a thing. Well, except maybe to have a second floor on our house with more sleeping space and a couple more bathrooms. Maybe a larger kitchen. But the hosting of people, the community that happens around a table, the grins on Grampie's face every day: these are the precious gifts of our summer.

For all that, I can't imagine running an inn. Making it my life's work to keep linens clean and fresh, to make meals for people who are passing through. For me, it would be a harried life, one very far out of my comfort zone. I'm not a servant by nature and would not be equal to the many domestic tasks necessary for such a venture. Beve might, and what he'd be doing with grace and ease, my work would be clumsy and I'd be harried and stressed. Probably eight days out of seven.

A person must be called to the work of hospitality. To inn-keeping and making folks feel relaxed and special and able to rest in a place not their own. And when I think of Bethlehem's inn on that day during the census when the town was swollen to bursting with David's descendants, I like to imagine inn-keepers good at their calling. Deft at handling the crowd at their table, able to bark orders and put out 'brush-fires' with good humor. I don't imagine a mean-spirited woman but a somewhat matronly, kindly woman with an apron around her ample waist, and her more lean husband, the actual inn-keeper, hustling to do the heavy work--help put up the animals, carry bags, chop wood, etc. Yes, I'm mixing a whole lot of centuries in my imagination (were there aprons in 4 BC?), but imagination has license.

So I imagine the last man coming to the door, late at night, his wife on a donkey just beyond the reach of light. She's been sweating lightly though the night is cool, and her gasps of pain have come more frequently in the last few hours, making him sweat as well. She presses on the hard bulge beneath her cloak, holding it, swaying, and it's all he can do to hold her on the donkey and guide them to this inn. Now he knocks with the force of fear, and when the inn-keeper opens the door, the man's face alights with hope.
"A room, please." he says.
But the inn-keeper frowns. "We're full up."
"But my wife...she needs a place." He looks back at the young woman slumping on the donkey. "A baby's coming."
The inn-keeper looks away, awkwardly (this is not a thing for men), and motions to his wife. She comes toward the door, drying her hands on her apron. The inn-keeper whispers to her. They look at the man sadly, but shake their heads. "We've people in hallways, in the eating room. There really is no room left." Then the inn-keeper says, "but the stable...it's not clean, but out of the weather, at least."
The wife says, "Go now, I'll bring you some towels, some hot water. Some soup."

So they are turned away from the inn.
But not turned away from shelter. A stable. A dirty, musty, messy stable. Not with just one cow, a couple of chickens, lambs as our creches always give include, but also full up. Full of the pack-animals of all those folks who have come to Bethlehem. Jam-packed with them.  But Joseph finds a somewhat clean corner, places his cloak down on the hay and helps his young wife off the donkey finally. She lays back on the hay and breathes out, "Thank God."

Yes, thank God. She means it. For His presence on their journey, for His provision in the stable, for the end of that hard journey and the end of her longer journey.

And for what lies ahead. Immediately ahead. For the work of the next few hours, and the result of that work. "The virgin will conceive and bear a child..." She will see the fruit of that conception soon. The son she will love as no other. And she alone can thank God for that.

Imagine Jesus being your child. Imagine. I think of how I love my children, how I felt when they were born, how I could hardly wait to see their faces and curl their hands around a finger. To pick features that came from Beve or me or someone else in our family.  So I imagine those hours in the stable (or cave, as some scholars believe), and imagine Mary waiting for the giant, "THANK GOD," she'd be saying when she sees her baby's face. Her baby--and God's.

I don't think she cared where she was then. I don't think any of us would have. The world itself is only encompasses that small baby in her arms. I know this feeling. Every woman who's ever had a baby experiences Mary's moment here.

But we also have this momentwhen we first meet Jesus. In a stable. On a street corner, in a church sanctuary or camp, when we first see His face, we are like Mary. That is our Christmas morning. Face to face with the one we've been longing for--even when we didn't know it. Face to face with the One we've been struggling about or laboring over or whatever. The story of the road to Bethlehem is our story. Our coming to Him story. It looks different on each of us, but in the end, when we see Him and know Him, there are angels singing Glory to God. FOR US. Yes, for each of us.
Glory to God in the Highest.

Who is on the road in your life? Who is in labor (even if they don't know it)? Who is sweating and working and struggling in the dirt of a stable without recognizing what is about to happen?
Thank God for them, ask God for them, trust God for them.