Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The House of Highly Infectious Kids

A slightly odd but entirely fresh perspective 
on Advent

~ Candle 1: The preparation ~

This morning while the kids were in school, I pulled out the first of many boxes and started the lengthy process of transforming our house into the cozy-glowing, gingerbread-smelling, carol-pealing abode that a home at Christmas yearns to be.  Along the bedecking way, I’m sure I’ll try my hand at a Martha Stewart project or two. Last year I was in a model-home mood and made a centerpiece of silver spraypainted pinecones and a candle floating in a vase of cranberries.  This year I’m feeling crafty and my eyes are pinned on a count-down chain and new way to wrap cookies in a repurposed Pringles tube.  The course of my creative juices, like the seasons, is always changing and I delight in finding newer, brighter ways to sparkle up the house each year.  It’ll take a week or so, this transformation from drab post-turkey sag to glittering elfin verve.

Today’s task involved wrapping the garlands around the stair banisters, setting out the Christmas tea towels and napkins in the kitchen and finding places to stash the ordinary knick-knacks to make room for all the red, green and gold that waits in the boxes stacked in the back corner of the basement.  I have learned that it’s best to do all this work while the children are out of the house or asleep, else none of it ever really gets done and the job is unnecessarily stressful.  So I’ll pick away at it little by little while they’re at school or deep with the sugar plums, my joy simmering like the bubble lights on the tree, until one last stack remains. 

The real delight of Christmas decorating comes when I open those boxes…the ones where I keep nostalgia…Great-Granny’s shiny ornaments packed to the brim of the old Croft ale box from the 1940s… the one containing frames with black and white photos from the 1950s of our parents as children, perched on Santa’s lap…the box with all my childhood ornaments in it, including the salt-dough angel that my piano teacher made for me in 1982.  These are the scraps sewn into a well-loved quilt, the one where every fabric square has a story. For these boxes, I’ll wait until the weekend when the kids are home and we can decorate together, talking again about the straw bells from Sweden and the delicate glass hearts from Italy.  With care, I’ll peel back the tissue paper from the felt-hatted Santa and Lauren will remind me that my great-grandfather bought this for me when I was a baby.  “Yes, and we used to hang it in the middle of our tree each year, when I was a little girl,” I’ll add.  When we find the box containing the slightly ovaled ball, the one with the rusty hanger and flaking silver foil, Matt will remind me that his great-grandfather hung this heavy ornament on the tree as a child, but we just put it in the china cabinet where it’s safer to keep.  “That’s right,” I’ll agree.  “Granny passed this down to your Daddy several years ago.  It’s very old, one of a kind.”   And when it comes to unpacking their own yearly ornaments, quite a ruckus ensues.  Josh will hoot with delight as he hangs the Wicked Witch of the West on a high branch.  “I love it when she throws a fireball!” he’ll exclaim, pressing the button that lights up a section of the ground beneath her feet.   “You were never afraid of her in the movie, even as a toddler,” I’ll recall for him.  “But I had nightmares about her until I went to college!”  He’ll laugh at the thought of Mom being scared of anything as he digs through the box for his second favorite bad guy, Captain Hook.   I never thought I’d have a collection of villains on my Christmas tree, but it makes perfect sense that the child who sword-fights through his days and nights would relish the yearly task of displaying an armful of plastic bad guys on the branches allotted to him.        

I love to open these boxes with the kids and tell them each tale, treading the path year after year, so that should the boxes survive 30 more seasons of unpacking, the same stories will spring to life for another generation of homemaking long after my house has ceased being the center of their Christmas memory-making.  I imagine Matt will take the Philadelphia sports team ornaments, as he is clearly the child whose gaze is always casting about for a diamond, court or field.  With a strong wistful bent and tender heart, Lauren might well choose the heritage pieces that we display with special care behind the rounded glass of a china cabinet door.  Josh will probably ask to have the light-up pieces from the kitschy era of gaudy ceramic trees, snowmen and elves.  Nothing conveys Christmas cheer quite like Frosty with rainbow pegs dotted across his belly!  Many things change from one generation to the next but it seems this appetite for illuminating this season is passed down from parent to child like recipes for raisin-filled cookies and banana bread. 

One of my own favorite childhood memories is of piling into our old blue station wagon a few nights before Christmas and heading down the hill toward town where house upon house was lit to the eaves with strands of twinkling color.  Dad would drive slowly down each street as my brother and I pressed our faces to the window, eyes wide with wonder at seeing so many points of light in such a condensed space.   I do the same now with my own children and they already know which streets will produce the greatest harvest of oohs and aahs.  At home, it seems we’re always adding one more strand, one more candle, one more spotlight.  With the invention of battery-operated timer lights, the possibilities are endless and I feel giddy at the thought of my downstairs rooms being wrapped in the embrace of a thousand tiny white stars.  Perhaps it has something to do with the short days and cold nights and that aforementioned hunger for an illumined life, but certainly the preparation of a home at Christmas…mine, yours and the ones we pass in the ebb and flow of our day…includes the anticipated advent of light.      

~ Candle 2: The hope 

The suspicious questions have started and frankly, I’m surprised we’ve made it this far.  With the world moving at such a frenzied pace these days…preschoolers in their car seats playing Nintendo DS like a bunch of college freshmen holed up in their dorm rooms and kindergarteners singing along to Taylor Swift’s We're Never Ever Getting Back Together… it’s kind of shocking that my 7-year olds still race downstairs in the morning to find the Shelf Elf and faithfully set out their lost teeth to trade for tooth fairy loot.  Tonight they’ll finalize their wish lists as we’re going to see Santa at the mall tomorrow after school.  Rumor has it that it’s a different guy this year and I’m wondering if they’ll notice and what I’ll say if they do.  Josh has already detected that the Santa in the photo of Grandma as a child looks nothing like the Santa in the photo where Daddy is sitting on his lap.  He’s a thinker and so we had a long discussion on the theory of St. Nick having a network of world-wide helpers vs. the theory that Santa Claus is more of a title filled by elite members of an ancient toy-tinker society.  He’s leaning toward the helper theory as it’s entirely reasonable that Santa is hundreds of years old.  Noah lived to be over 900 years old, he reminds me emphatically, and we’ve left it at that. 

From the first day we told the kids about a jolly old elf who managed to bypass all laws of physics and reason to deliver toys under the tree on Christmas Eve, I knew we’d one day be facing the end to the fairy tale.  And just as I coveted the days of rocking chair lullabies, knowing they’d take flight as quickly as a dove to the roost at dusk, so do I pray that these days of permitted fantasy linger awhile longer.  It’s not that I’ll miss spinning the yarn so much.  Let’s be honest…as the kids get wiser, the job becomes exponentially harder to carry out and I have several friends who have whispered confessions of relief now that their children have finally figured out the source of all those gifts under the tree.  But once the bulb on Rudolph’s nose has been permanently unscrewed, children take a step away from childhood and by obligation, move closer toward a whole new set of questions to sift through in their young minds.  Instead of wondering how Santa gets back up a chimney or how he fits millions of presents into his sleigh, the questions too soon turn to wondering about families whose houses were destroyed in the recent hurricane or children spending Christmas in hospitals because they are still waiting to regain their health.  It’s this dimming of childhood’s bright and unreasonable innocence that leadens my heart and sees me praying for one more year of shaking the heavy sleigh bells outside their bedroom windows on Christmas Eve while they squeeze their eyes shut tight in hopes that St. Nick will believe they are fast asleep.

Lest I give the impression that Santa plays the star role on our family’s Christmas stage, let me remedy that care by saying that he actually is a minor character in our home throughout the month of December.  In fact, you might call him our “supporting actor” as Bob and I have always explained that Santa’s reason for generous giving is rooted in a heart filled with God’s love for others.  In the weeks leading up to Christmas, we’ll think of ways to play Santa and spill that love into other lives around us…cookie trays delivered to neighbors and hand made cards sent to some elderly folks who might not have much to look forward to this season.  We strive to keep the focus on the sending out, not the bringing in.  And because Jesus received the gold, frankincense and myrrh as the first Christmas gifts, the kids know that Santa is happy to bring them three gifts as well.  When we reach the capstone of the 24th, except for the race to get in bed before the sleigh bells are heard, the evening is set aside for a birthday celebration complete with angel food cake and a reading of the nativity story.  Jesus is most definitely the star of our show.

In past years, the kids have used the Fisher Price set to act out the night of Jesus’ birth while I read from a children’s book.  Last year, however, we passed down the plastic nativity to a young cousin and so the kids scavenged the house for new characters to use.  One of Matt’s WWE wrestlers made for a credible Joseph and Lauren’s Barbie mermaid made for an eyebrow-raising Mary.  King Herod was appropriately a fearsome PlayMobile knight from Josh’s castle and Baby Jesus was a somewhat inappropriate Squinky.  It actually worked quite well, this Bethlehem mashup, and the kids really enjoyed making the story come to life with their wide array of repurposed toys.  This year, we’ll probably do another re-enactment and certainly the birthday cake will remain, but I think I’ll read directly from the Scriptures instead of the children’s book and it might be time to teach a little Spanish, too. 

Many years ago, while studying Spanish in high school, I found that reading a bilingual Bible was an excellent way to increase my vocabulary since I was already familiar with the text in English.  If I came upon an unfamiliar word or phrase in Spanish, I could quickly find it’s partner on the opposite page rather than go through the laborious task of looking it up in a dictionary and figuring out the verb conjugations or pronoun cases.  For the most part, I can’t recall the words that I learned by reading this way, with the exception of one extraordinarily meaningful phrase. 

I had flipped to the nativity story that day, though I don’t remember if it was Christmastime or I was just picking it because I was already so familiar with the passage.  In any case, I came to the sentence that is one of the most recognizable parts of the story.  “And Mary gave birth to her son…”  In Spanish, the text says, “Maria dio a luz a su hijo…”  As anyone who has studied a foreign language knows, words between lexicons do not translate literally, one-to-one.  Part of the consternation of learning a new language is unlearning how it is said in the native tongue and learning how it is expressed in the new one.  I paused for a moment over the words “dio a luz” and my mind scrambled between natural and supplanted speech.  In English, we say a woman “gives birth” to a baby.  But in those paused moments, my heart leapt forward and flipped on the switch that my brain was fumbling to find.  With a flash of understanding, I discovered a beautiful and stunningly perfect description of the moment a child leaves his mother’s body and begins his life apart from her shelter.  The Spanish translation literally reads, “Mary gave light to her son…”  Dio=she gave … a luz=light…  

I can still see my surroundings as I sat there in my room, crossed-legged on the blue carpet by the window nearest my bed.  I read and reread the passage, pondering the revelation, amazed at how just minutes before I had never stopped to think that the moment of birth is when a baby is touched by light for the first time.  Or how the mother is given the excruciating privilege of offering that beautiful gift.  

That would have been enough, that moment when I pulled back a layer of tissue paper and glimpsed the power of the Word to change you in an instant.  I knew I’d never casually speak of birth again, not with such an exquisite image accompanying me now.  I knew I’d never forget the moment when I understood dio a luz.  That would have been enough.  But God is always about the more, the greater, the higher and deeper.  And so his Spirit whispered into the same space where my heart had just been opened a little wider, “Mary not only gave Jesus his first light.  She gave Light to the world.”  

Of course!  Years later, Jesus would share this with the people who pressed near to him in hope, wanting to hear this man who spoke of God’s love for them.  “I am the light of the world.  If you follow me, you will never walk in darkness because you will have the light of life.”   Not a prophet proclaiming doom or a Pharisee lecturing on the law.  A simple carpenter’s son with an extraordinary claim and an offer that a decaying world had hoped for since the last day of Eden’s glory.  We walk in the light of His life by accepting that claim, realizing that as part of the decay, we have nothing to offer a holy God and no power to pull ourselves out of the looming darkness that every life drifts into.  On that ordinary day so many years ago, with eyes sifting words on the pages of a bilingual Bible, I tasted the living Word in an extraordinary way and I have never been the same since.  And now that my own children are edging closer to seeing a world full of harrowing realities, I’m eager to teach them about anchoring hope and holding fast to the Word which is their lamp for the path ahead.
This year, three faces still light up at the mention of Santa and fingers grasp pencils to meticulously give print to dreams of Legos, doll clothes and video games.  They’re still in the shelter of wide-eyed wonder, but nearing the cusp of harsh reality with each passing day.  I catch them watching the evening news now and talking about schoolbus bullies more often.  They’re starting to realize that the veneer of childhood rubs off as we age and not everybody wants toys for Christmas.  Many people, far too many, are just hoping for a report that reads “benign”…a raise… a visitor…a day without fear…a midnight feeding…a night without hunger…forgiveness.  These are the hopes that a weary world has carried for ages, shuffling in darkness in Jesus’ time and lurching still in ours. 

In so many ways, nothing has changed.  And yet, because of that Light, delivered to us in a backhills stable in Bethlehem, everything has changed.  On the night of His birth, Jesus became Emmanuel, God with us, and the darkness knew it was drawing it’s dying breath.  We, on the other hand, draw living breath as we step into the radiance of the Light of the world.  It’s a move the enemy works hard to prevent, hoping to distract us with worry, doubt and just the everyday busyness of life.  But once the frailty of the dark is exposed, once we realize it has no ability to push back against even the flicker of a candle, all hopes, all needs, all prayers are suddenly freed to find their Amen in Him. 

Two thousand years ago, the Word became flesh when Mary gave Jesus his newborn light.  In doing so, the Light that allowed each sinner to be newly born in grace was also given.  My privilege in this epic unfolding of God’s plan for our salvation is to catch my children’s hearts as they begin falling away from the fairy tale and show them how to tether their footsteps to lamplight that will never lead them astray.  As hope in Santa’s magic fades, a hundred new dreams, worries, longings and wants will fill the void that naiveté leaves.  Because I’ve been on the journey awhile and know the importance of hoping rightly, I’m eager to see that they start with sure footing.  More than ever, I’ll turn them to the Scriptures where He burns brightest.  Not for a December eve or a row of Sundays, but for a lifetime.  

It’s part of the excruciating privilege, this training up of a child in the ways of the Lord.  Long after the travail of birth has subsided, parents labor on, sometimes in victory and other times in vain.  But always in expectation that dawn trumps dusk and a flame is never snuffed out by a shadow.  It’s a message a darkened world needs to know and the sending starts as we illumine our homes, one child at a time.

~ Candle 3: The joy  ~

I have good news and bad news about our visit to Santa.  The bad news is that the rumors were true.  “Our” mall Santa, the white-haired well-padded fellow whose knees have juggled the triplets since they were mere babes, had been replaced with a slightly younger associate. The larger framed glasses and noticeable bounce in his welcome were quickly detected by me as we meandered the path through the bristlebrush trees and quilt-batting snow on our way to his great green armchair.  I watched intently to see if the kids would detect this switcheroo, but they eagerly hopped up onto his patted knees (Matt, ever reticent, squeezed himself into the space between Santa’s leg and the edge of the velvet arm.  In 7 years, I don’t know that he’s ever actually sat on Santa’s lap.)  They excitedly told him of their wishes for Lego sets, winged horses and new ball caps.  They extolled their good behavior and dissembled about his favorite cookies and reindeer treats.  Wishlists were handed to the tall elf wearing the mall security badge as they smiled like cherubim for the other elf behind the camera.  And within the span of 5 minutes, we were finished with another visit to the local North Pole, belief in Kriss Kingle secured for the rest of the season.  That’s the good news.  For now, they’re still deeply steeped in the joyous mélange of childhood’s lore and I’m OK with allowing their innocence to marinade there as long as possible.  They still have easy joy and don’t we all desperately need that these days?

As the kids made small talk with Santa, I asked the badge elf in hushed tones, “What happened to the regular guy?”  I was curious as to the real reason why our Santa of the 6 years prior was not in audience this season.  The elf confessed that he was new to the scene and didn’t know for sure, but he had heard the other elves discussing something about contract negotiations and a falling out with mall management.  “I think they moved him to another location,” whispered the elf and I stared at him hard, trying to take in what I was hearing. 

I remember the day when I realized that teachers got paychecks.  It was startling to me, this notion that my beloved Mrs. McCracken came to school to earn money.  I had always thought that she lived somewhere in the back hallways of the building and read My Side of the Mountain to us because she couldn’t help herself.  Her room was full of plants, some canopying the ceiling, and I was sure she must have been growing them since the days of George Washington, who seemed like a reasonable contemporary in my 3rd grade way of thinking.  So hearing her ask the secretary if their checks were in the mailboxes yet was one of those firm shoves off my childhood playground.  Although I have been privy to the truth of Santa for decades now, it was similarly deflating to hear that contracts were negotiated behind the scenes of this winter wonderland where children waited patiently in their matching argyle sweaters vests and black patent shoes to spend a minute with the Big Guy.  I suppose in some back corner of my mind, where a few crumbs of childhood’s cookies had evaded the sweeping hand of time, I believed that surely those tinkers of the ancient society were above the petty bickering that we’re so used to hearing about in the news.  Alas, it seems that Santa, like the rest of the commercialized holiday, has a price tag attached to his cellophane wrapper.  My children are oblivious and their joy remains bright.  But for me, learning that our Santa had packed up his sleigh and headed to the next mall south was like moving a candle to a drafty windowsill.  As if there weren’t enough snuffing tempests already, now I faced another in my quest to hold the flame of joy to the wick.      

Truth be told, until last Friday, I had intended to write about the everyday disappointments that threaten the joy candle.  I was planning to write about how easily we lose our mirth during the holidays because everything, including a visit to Santa, always seems to have a dirty underbelly to it, like our peppy dachshund who loves to jump on Bob’s lap and give slurpy kisses.  That’s joy until he realizes she’s been in the mulch beds and her belly is coated with smelly debris which has now been deposited on his favorite shirt.  I was thinking of how easily joy is lost in the simple traditions…a plate of homemade cookies gobbled down alongside a glass of milk that turns into a shatter of curses when we step on the scale 2 weeks later.  Or the longhand letter writing to distant friends and relatives that our mothers and grandmothers inked between batches of pie baking, now dried up into a mass-produced computer-stamped stack of hurried obligation.  

But last Friday’s breaking news set me on my heels.  Like the start of Desert Storm and the black day of 9/11, I can tell you exactly where I was when we heard the news that 20 bright sunbeams had been permanently shuttered, the sweet zephyr of their young lives forever stilled.  Bob had taken me out for a rare lunch date while our own sunbeams were busy at school.  There’s a new restaurant in town whose menus consists solely of toasted cheese sandwiches and soup, hard irony considering that so many lunches of childhood are shared over the very same fare.  Between the bites of ham and apple mustard, Bob was keeping track via Twitter of a developing story about a school shooting.  When we left the house, there were no numbers attached to the reports and we assumed that there would be an unnerving but relieving ending with everyone safe and the perpetrator abrogated.  When I saw him slowly lower his hand to the counter and slide his phone over to me, I met his eyes and saw the disbelief.  Neither of us could fathom the number 18, and later 20.  With a decade in the schools myself, I spun through the schematics of my former classroom....on the second flood…no windows…a supply closet that might have held us all.  That 6 women had offered their lives as barricades was thinkable.  I know that all of my colleagues would have done the same for their students in a similar setting.  But nothing – nothing - was comprehensible about the hell-seeded warfare made against those children. 

And so I’m left to deal with joy, the third candle of Advent.  How it first came with tender Mary’s Magnificat and later with angels singing glory over impoverished shepherds on the Bethlehem plain, urging them to leave their earthen treasures in search of the heavenly one.  How it reached doubting Thomas when he pressed his fingers into the gouge and then to the trembling disciples assembled at Pentecost as they waited for the promise of the Spirit, their guide and comfort for the difficult days ahead.  And since then, ten hundred thousand million other hearts leaping and lifting arms and shouting praise in this suffocating bog of quick-sand sin we wade through each day.  The truth is, even on my best days, when all is shiny outside and my heart is at peace, I struggle with joy, to possess it, claim it as part of my spiritual heritage.  Like an egg white, it slips through my fingers every time I try to pin it down.  I can feel it, but can’t contain it.  And here I sit, at a point where I need to write about the thing I can’t seem to capture in my heart, much less in words. 

So I do what I always do when I reach the end of myself.  My prayers knock at the Father’s door and He calls out, “I’ll meet you in the Word,” and I go there while my heart is still heavy and dark and wait for Him to flip on the floodlights.  And while I’m waiting I flip through verses and make my list of questions and think of my arguments and counter-responses.  And soon He arrives and He illumines and I rail and He listens while I rage and sometimes because the bus is coming I get up and walk away and He follows me with a song on the radio that makes me hungry for more of His love.  And little by little, I see where I got off track or I discover a path I’ve never taken before and the clouds begin to thin and He knows I’m itching to set my candle back on the lampstand so He 
switches off the floodlight til the next time.

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!  (Philippians 4:4)  This verse has always been a hangnail for me, something I pick at from time to time.   Like the torn skin, it bothers me.  How can we be expected to ever-joy when a quick glance around makes it clear that this world is quickly splitting at the seams?  What cause for joy is there when even the smallest delights of life, like the visit to Santa or the cookie baking, only lead to cynicism and calloused vexation?  The answer, I think, lies in the fact that we so often take a Biblical precept and view it through a worldly lens.  I learned the danger of doing this with the precept of hope.  Once I had my vision clarified, I realized that hope wasn’t a futile burden but rather a thrilling expectancy.  The same vision loss happens with joy.  I’m guilty of losing sight myself so these last few days in the Word have been so edifying in my walk with the Lord as I’ve remembered what joy is all about.

The world is all about optics.  How something looks.  What message it sends to our senses.  What emotions we can experience.  What control can be asserted over us.  But God is about the hidden.  The unseen.  The known before the felt.  The truth before the sensed.  Giving us freedom to submit.  So when the dirty underbelly of the world comes crashing into us, whether it be the stress of getting Christmas cards out on time or the anguish of seeing parents with 2 fewer little hands to hold, we flail and gasp and protest that there’s no way we can lift our own hands in joy with such heaviness upon our shoulders.   But the truth is, the enemy has carried out a cunning switcheroo and like my children in line to see Santa, we haven’t detected the swap.  What we should be saying as we flail and protest is, “There no way I can be happy with such heaviness on my shoulders.”  This is true and honest.  Like the waxing and waning of the moon, happiness fills us and empties us.  It’s event-based, dependent on what is happening in our lives from day to day.  Also important is the fact that happiness is tied to others in our life; they cause it and can take it away and so we never have sure footing when it comes to being happy. 

Joy, on the other hand, is not a synonym for happiness.  It’s not a feeling that ebbs and flows, but rather is like the sun, constantly blazing no matter if the sky is clear or covered by clouds.  And because it’s a gift given not by man, but by God who is fixed like the North Star, we don’t have to worry that something can come and snatch it away.  It rises above our fluctuating senses and cements our footing on the solid truth of God’s unwavering, unending, unrelenting love for us.  Joy, therefore, is an undercurrent that runs through both the wonderful and the wicked and keeps our hearts pinned to the truth that Jesus did not remain in the grave.  The enemy plotted against our only Hope and lost.  Nothing remains that can undo that victory.  This is the essence of joy.  Knowing this, understanding this, can we now go forward with Amen when we read the passage in Phillipians?  In the midst of ordinary stress and disappointment?  Or in the throes of incalculable destruction?  If we believe that God is who He says He is, then our answer is a fearless "Yes". 

There’s one more thing about joy that I’m lead to delve into. I wasn’t sure how to write about it until this morning when my devotional time took me to an obscure and seemingly unrelated passage in Jeremiah.  Chapters 37-40 record how the prophet tried to convince King Zedekiah of Judah that God wanted him to lay down arms and willingly go into Babylonian captivity.  It seemed treasonous, to suggest that the army protecting Jerusalem surrender and allow a pagan nation to overrun the holy city of God.  But Jeremiah refused to speak otherwise and, as a result, was imprisoned in order to keep him from discouraging the soldiers who were charged with protecting the people against the Babylonians. 

Some time later, the King brought Jeremiah to counsel and asked if he was absolutely sure God would spare the Jewish people if they went willingly into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands.  The Babylonians were known as brutal captors and he was surely fearful that waving the white flag would also herald the draping of his funeral shroud.  Jeremiah confirmed that the only way for the king to save himself, his family, the city and the nation was to follow this illogical plan.  In the end, Zedekiah could not bring himself to submit to the Lord.  He continued to mount resistance and month after month, the people of Jerusalem endured every imaginable woe that a city under siege could fathom.  Finally, the Babylonians broke through the walls and destroyed Solomon’s temple, razed the city’s structures and took the ruling elite into captivity.  King Zedekiah himself was captured as he attempted to flee.  After watching his sons be executed, he was blinded and taken in chains to Babylon where he remained a prisoner until his death. 

This is heavy reflection and what could it possibly have to do with joy?  As I explore these Advent candles and the ways to keep their light shining through the pall of our darkened world, I’m finding that the Lord is leading me to the unexpected topic of weaponry.  I choose that word carefully, fully aware that the subject is like a match to gasoline in the days following the horror of last week.  But the armaments of God have nothing to do with the weapons we see brandished by the law and the lawless.  Instead, they have everything to do with the ones we acquire as we deepen our walk with the Lord. 

In 2nd Corinthians 10, Paul speaks of living in the world, but waging war in the heavens.  He describes weapons that have power to pull down the strongholds that Satan sets against us.  And in Ephesians 6, he explains the armor of God which we are given to wear into daily battle.  How does the Lord equip us?  With arrows?  Bombs?  Knives or pistols?  No.  As always, He moves in the unseen, in ways that never mirror man’s.  God has provided everything we need to walk boldly right through the middle of the darkest day.  But do we recognize the provision, or like Zedekiah, scoff at the thought that victory would be found by turning our footsteps toward the enemy’s camp? 

Do we have the discernment to see that a resting mind is a smashing club against the wall of worry?  That a peaceful heart is a wrecking ball to the bricks of fear?  That forgiveness is a pair of shears to the slavemaster’s chains?  That prayer rolls like a tank over the enemy’s encampment?  And that our rejoicing, especially in the midst of anguish and distress, is a volley of arrows that pierces Satan’s hide and sends him fleeing for cover?  The enemy works hard to cloud these truths, keeping us occupied with what we can see and feel, sowing seeds of doubt and distrust, weakening our sure footing as a hatchet to timber.  He was successful in Zedekiah’s time and in far too many homes today, he triumphs yet. 

The third candle of joy has been straining to stay lit these last many days.  A bitter wind has been snaking and swirling through the pitch and has made its way into our hearts.  Many are despairing of life itself.  What can be done to protect ourselves?  To guard our homes, schools, lives?  How can we keep the flame to the wick when such an awful Cimmerian shade presses against us?  The answer is the same as it was during the time of Jeremiah.  Believe the Word of the Lord.  Discern the weapons we are given for the war that starts in the heavens and unfolds upon the earth.  Learn from Him the art of greater battle, even though it makes no sense to the rest of the world.  The Lord cautioned us that we would appear foolish as we followed His plan for triumph, just as it seemed foolish for the King of Judah to lay down arms before the heathen Nebuchadnezzar.  And at all costs, we must teach our children, the future broadcasters of Light, that no dark gale can tremble their flame when it’s held to the wick by the Almighty’s faithful hand.  We must teach them the secret of light, that darkness can do nothing but flee before its beam.  That light’s power comes from being flung into the dark, not set behind the wall under siege.  It’s imperative that we not raise another generation of Zedekiahs, bending reeds who hear the Word but have no courage to submit and take the Light of life into Babylon.  Those in the dark are crying out for rescue and it is profound grace to bear the Light they seek.  May our entire families rejoice as we reject fear and shine His love into a trembling world.  

                      ~ Candle 4: The love  ~

It’s been a wild ride these last few days.  Not only am I juggling the usual last minute Christmas prepping, but 2 of the kids were home from school for the entire week with stubborn head colds.  Thankfully, neither of them developed ear or lung infections, but I can’t remember dealing with a 5-day fever before and the coughing was enough to drive me up the wall.  When I started this series of posts at the beginning of December and decided to title them “The House of Highly Infectious Kids”, I had no idea that the literal would tag along with the metaphorical.  Lauren has been quite concerned that our germy state might cause Santa to eschew us altogether, but this morning I heard Josh reassuring her that he certainly wouldn’t pass over our house, though they might find their red-wrapped gifts on the front porch instead of under the tree.  The grace is that we’ll be healthy again for Christmas morning, and all of the past days’ chaos and upheaval will be forgotten once we’re in the midst of wrapping paper and delighted squeals.  

As the fourth candle of Advent is lit, I’m reminded that in so many ways, the manner in which we respond to our children is the way God responds to us.  I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, as we are created in His image and as Luke writes in the book of Acts, “In Him we live and move and have our being…”  When the nurse called to say that Lauren had a fever and needed to come home, I dropped everything I was doing even though I was relishing the quiet time, and went to her side.  When one of my children is sick and separated from me, even the drive to pick them up is trying.  I’m pained at the thought of them being without my comfort.  If I feel this way in my fragmented human capacity to love, how much more distressing must it be for God, who loves perfectly and is Love itself, to watch His beloved stagger and fall as they search for the place where their deep aches and wounds can be allayed.  We come to rescue our children and, of course, He sent rescue as well.  But it wasn’t in the form of a prescribed medicine.  Or even a soft place to land after a rough day.  He sent a light in the form of His own perfect Son because people trapped in darkness need nothing else.  A ray that pushes back against the black.  A beacon that shows the way out. 

One of the greatest privations the body of Christ suffers today is the loss of Romans 8:15.  “You have not received a spirit that again makes you fearful slaves.  Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children.  And now you can call him ‘Abba, Father.’”  Abba isn’t just the name of a musical group from the ‘70s.  It’s also the Aramaic word for “Daddy.”  I remember the first time I heard someone refer to God as “Daddy”.  It was very uncomfortable to me and sounded very inappropriate.  I bristled at the thought of speaking so casually about the Creator of the universe.  It would be much later in my faith journey before the lightbulb went on and I realized that this is exactly the relationship we now have with God.  Just as a child, totally dependent and trusting, cries out for help when she falls and scrapes her knees or exclaims when he sees that his father is home from work, so too are we given the birthright of calling out “Daddy!” when we are in need or in delight.  I see now that it pleases His heart to walk that closely with us, hand in hand.

Most of the attention today, however, is given to the other aspects of God’s character.  The righteously angry judge.  The forceful creator.  The distant sovereign.  The bewildering enigma.  While the Lord does have shades of all these features, none of them communicate the role which He revealed at our rescue; only Abba does.  After all, would a judge be silly with you and stick his finger up his nose or make up funny bedtime stories while he tucks you in?  Daddy would.  Would a powerful creator draw near to help with homework or teach you how to change a flat?  Papa would.  Would a far away sovereign lower himself to the task of doing laundry to help lighten the load of a busy week?  Dad would.  Would an enigmatic higher power be able to comfort you during your lowest moment or hold you close and make you feel like you’re the only thing that matters in the universe?  Yes, Abba would.  Jesus himself always referred to God as “Father” with one exception.  At the cross, drawing his last breaths, he called out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  In the only instance when the Father withdrew from the Son, the full wrath of the judge, creator, sovereign and enigma was allowed to fall upon Jesus so no sin might be left unpunished.  And because Jesus also declared the work of forgiveness “finished”, we have no cause to fear that Abba will one day again remove Himself and become the distant overlord of our lives.  Once adopted, we are forever secure in our new family and all that we need for navigating through this darkened world is found in Him. 

Until we understand this new relationship that begins when we accept Jesus’ payment on our behalf, we can never walk in pure love.  We touch it at the breathtaking moments of life; our wedding day when all is bliss or at the birth of a child when we feel our hearts must surely burst.  But it’s not long til we’re muttering about socks left on the bathroom floor or the endless fussing of teething gums.  We promise to love them forever but find that it’s more truthful to say that we’ll like them forever and we’ll love them when we can manage it.  Peter struggled with this in the hours after Jesus’ resurrection.  Just days before, he had promised to sacrificially love Jesus and defend him to the death if necessary.  In the span of one night, he broke his promise three times and was nowhere to be found at the foot of the cross.  The guilt he felt must have been unbearable and Jesus knew that Peter needed to be released from his shame.  On Easter morning, Jesus met Peter at the place where he had first called him, the fishing docks of Galilee.  Back to the beginning to set things straight. 

I always thought it strange that Jesus asked Peter 3 times, “Do you love me?”  Peter answered emphatically “Yes, Lord, you know that I do” after the first question.  So why the need to ask twice more?  A look at the original Greek reveals that Jesus was not only lifting the burden of shame from Peter, but also the burden of pure love.  In the first two questions, Jesus used the Greek “agape” to ask of Peter’s love for him.  This is the kind of love that God shows us, perfect, pure, sacrificial.  Peter, responds with, “Yes, Jesus, I love you” and he used the word “phileo” which is the friendship or brotherly kind of love.  Jesus asked a second time if Peter ‘agaped’ him and again Peter responded with ‘I phileo you.’  When Jesus asked a third time, he lowered the bar and used the term “phileo”.  Peter was hurt by Jesus’ seeming doubt, but what he didn’t see was that Jesus was giving Peter the chance to redeem his three denials and also escape from anxiety and fear at not being able to muster agape love for His Savior and friend. 

Do you see the gift here?  Jesus knew that flawed human nature was incapable of moving in pure love.  Even with the noose of sin removed from our necks, we still live in a fallen world and cannot achieve our desire to love without condition, with total abandon.  And God tells us through this passage that it’s OK.  He knows that we can only phileo on our best days.  He lifts the weight of condemnation and fear and puts the burden on His beloved son who bore it willingly from earth to hell and then back to heaven.  As the light of this gift breaks through, we find ourselves infected with Abba’s love for us, sans the guilt of trying to always show our love for Him.  As we rest and allow ourselves to be filled with His agape love, we start to become infectious ourselves.  And before long, we’re anxious to be found along the dark alleys, in the gloomy gatherings, amongst the hanging heads because we see that our infection is meant for those lives, too. 

This is the infection we strive to promote in our home.  First, the understanding about sin and our complete inability to do anything about it.  And then the understanding about phileo love, that humans do their best to phileo at bedtime and homework time and through thankless chores and during times when comfort is needed.  But the children need to know there’s one thing we would never do out of phileo love for them.  We would never send them off knowingly into harm’s way, allowing their lives to purposefully cross paths with the machinations of the enemy.  Even limited, imperfect phileo love protects those that it cherishes and it’s a parent’s greatest grief when they are unable to provide that sanctuary.  Finally, the understanding about agape love and our heavenly Daddy who couldn’t bear to leave us in our wretched state.  And how agape means doing the one thing phileo can’t do…sending a beloved child into the gnashing darkness, knowing full well what awaits them on the other side of the sending.  Abba sent His son, His only child, into the hands of death because it was the only way to provide sanctuary for our lives.  This is the highest love of all.

Once the infection of agape love sets in, a bright light is lit, one that cannot be hidden.  It simply must be passed along, and so it spreads, pressing back the shadows of resistance and warming homes in preparation…consuming fears that foster doubt and igniting hope…devastating despair and kindling joy.  Abba’s love does it all and all we have to do is receive it.  My Christmas prayer for you is that you relish the holidays with family and friends, you enjoy health and prosperity the whole year through and you find your home growing ever infectious as you bend your wick toward the 5th candle, the agape flame of Christ.