What Remains

The stars of a thousand Christmas lights spill their warm glow over floor, the ceiling, me.  An opera, playing on the television, fills every speck of air with soprano and tenor, cello and flute.  The house is warm and quiet, the children tucked snug in their beds, visions of sugarplums, Lego sets, and baby dolls dancing in their heads.

And I weep.

Up Go the Lights III

I weep for the small beds not so far away that lie empty tonight.  I weep for those children, shattered parents, and lionhearted teachers.  I weep for the school, this community, our nation.  I weep for minds we don’t understand and actions we understand less.  I weep for injustice and depravity; for all that is wrong in this world and all its heartbreak, I weep.

For even our ability to numb ourselves, I weep, numb ourselves with things that are good, things that are not, and things indifferent, but numb all the same, until something unfathomable happens and we all sit up and take notice, shaken from our slumber, asking why?

Why, God?

The question is nearly as old as time.  This senselessness has always been.  I was reminded of this today as I was reading in Isaiah and happened to come across the prophet’s foretelling of Babylon’s destruction and the depths to which it would sink.  “Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children,” it says in chapter 13.

And I weep.

This utter degradation, this violence that threatens to empty the stomach of its contents, this absolute evil- it’s nothing new.  As Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  You need only to read the pages of Scripture and remember: an Old Testament Pharaoh orders his soldiers and Israel’s midwives, to throw Israelite baby boys into the Nile; a New Testament Herod delivers an edict to kill every male child under the age of two.

Recent history is no different lest we forget the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the genocide that we so easily avert our eyes to which goes on to this day in countries like Darfur, Congo, Uganda.

None of these matter to us in this moment, now that we are full of our own pain.

Today, America weeps.

In these last few days we see, with open eyes, the face of evil.  This face isn’t necessarily that of a twenty year old boy in black.  The details remain hazy, the motives, unclear.  It could well be the face of sickly mind in a creation that has been wasting away since a rebellious bite of apple in a paradisal garden. It could be a many-visaged monster of indifference, entertainment, and greed.  It could yet be the face of a callous heart, so hard it thought nothing of a nightmare in the corridors of an elementary school.  Whatever the face, we don’t deny that it’s evil.

It’s a face that the rest of the world has seen time and again.  It’s the face of sweaty hatred that looks with unseeing eyes for its next target, its next rape, torture, or murder victim in the barren wasteland of Africa.  It’s the countenance of stony-faced detachment squinting out from under the brim of a Swastika-emblazoned cap, as Jew after Jew lines up for their execution in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.  It’s the face of a hijacker aiming for a tower.

It’s a face we as Americans have often been insulated and protected from.  It’s a face we see daily in international headlines, but never truly see.  And when we do find it within our borders, we shake our heads for a moment, shed a tear or two, and turn back to our regularly scheduled programs.

Until this.  Until it’s too much to bear.

We let the courts and politicians handle it because that’s their job.  We let the doctors diagnose it because, surely, that’s illness.  And yet, whole countries, entire terrorist armies, don’t get prosecuted for their crimes-  just a handful.  No pill can fix hatred; no therapy is guaranteed.

We need something more.

And in the meantime, all we can do is weep and ask, “Why?”

Sometimes there are no answers save one:  we live in a fallen world.  This world is not as it was created and that is why.  It was never intended for such pain, such senselessness.  It was created perfect in every way, created in love- the very antithesis of this.

So I weep.

Until I remember…

Another face.  One that peers up from the stink of moldy hay.  A face like any other newborn that brings with it the hope of new life, the joy of new birth, and the quiet peace of innocence.  A face freshly wiped clean of fluid, His mother’s blood; a face kissed and wondered over like any infant face.  A small face that peers into the din of a cave.  So too does the wide blinking eyes of the cow standing near.  In the straw, a burrow slumbers deeply- the journey had been long.  A virgin, asleep, holds tight to a baby; an adoptive father snores from his seat.  Strange starlight from outside gently gleams into the dark as the Light of the World takes up residence in this little face. One face in a quiet Bethlehem night- and all the world is different.

Immanuel.  God with us.

That we live in a fallen world was not enough for a God whose name is Love.

Immanuel, God with us.

With us in our suffering, with us in our pain.  With us in confusion, with us in this shame.  He dwells here with us in our fear, in our failures, entered into our lives -our very tangible worlds- with all their unrest, their raging, their trials and tears.  Knowing the pull of temptation, the sting of betrayal, the loneliness of imprisonment, He entered.  How He entered!

And when all the world’s turned upside down and when words, laws, diagnoses, fail us, we sit under the shadow of two timber beams and try to make sense in the presence of another senseless crime- where the face of peace and joyful infancy became the face of Love on a cross.

On a hill, battered and torn, he entered into it all.  This same face, dripping of blood, and sweat, and his mocker’s spit, looked out over all and willingly entered in.  With swollen eyes and ever more swollen heart, He watched faces fueled with hatred as they whipped His skin to rags and rent nails into His hands and feet.  And this unlikely King, peering out now, not from the pungent straw but from beneath a crown of thorns, saw these and all those after and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

He entered, not as accuser, but as Savior.  He entered despair so there might be hope.  He entered hell so there might be peace.  He entered death so there might be life.

He entered hate so that Love might conquer all.

So that when the world and everything in it has passed away, Love remains.  So that despite the mess we make of this world, hope remains.

So that when chaos rages in a quiet little school and the pain remains for a lifetime after, peace, also, can remain.  The peace in knowing that twenty beautiful, smiling little faces play ring-around-the-rosy tonight, with the God of the universe Himself.

And though we want them here, there they will remain, but there- without pain, without sorrow, and with Love Himself.  Lives cut short in the whisper that is this life here on earth, but that live ever on, in a world more real that the one we see with these, our unseeing eyes, looking for answers with tear-stained faces.

I weep still.

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Adeste fidelis. That is the only answer I know for people who want to find out whether or not this is true.  Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light.  Have faith enough, hope enough, despair enough, foolishness enough at least to draw near to see for yourselves…

Adeste fidelis.  Come and behold him, born the king of angels.  Speak to him or be silent before him.  In whatever way seems right to you and at whatever time, come to him with your empty hands.  The great promise is that to come to him who was born at Bethlehem is to find coming to birth within ourselves something stronger and braver, gladder and kinder and holier, than ever we knew before or than ever we could have known without him.

Dear God, in the darkness of the virgin’s womb the holy child grows.  In the darkness of the world’s pain, the blessed light begins to kindle.  In the darkness of our own doubting of thee and of ourselves, the great hope begins to rise again like a lump in the throat: the hope that thou wilt come to us truly, that the child will be born again in our midst, the Prince of Peace in a world at war, the hope that thou wilt ransom us and our world from the darkness that seeks to destroy us.

O Lord, the gift of new life, new light, can be a gift truly only if we open ourselves to receive it.  So this is our prayer, Lord:  that thou wilt open our ears to hear the angels’ hymn in the stirring within us of joy at the coming of the child, open our hearts to the transforming power of thy love as it comes to us through the love of all those who hold us most dear and have sacrificed most for us.

Be born among us that we may ourselves be born.  Be born in us that by words and deeds of love we may bear the tidings of thy birth to a world that dies for lack of love.  We ask for it in the child’s name.  Amen.

-Frederick Buechner

 

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Immanuel, God with Us in our Christmas Tree Fiascos

Last year, on a cold afternoon, my little family bought our very first real Christmas tree. And as I sit back and admire this year’s model I can’t help but giggle at what a story it was.

The fake tree was in disrepair. Its base had been obliterated the year before by the boys’ yearly tree-tipping. It was either buy another plastic and metal version or begin the tradition of chopping down one’s tree. Since part of a proper upbringing includes such memory-making, it was decided that we would indeed, chop.

A game plan was in place. After church, we’d come home to gather a handful of Christmas CDs, some hot chocolate and the camera which we would use to take some color-coordinated “candids” of our merriment for Christmas cards. Multi-tasking is, after all, what mamas do best.

It didn’t start out well. Before church, Honey Bun had to do the necessary research that any Consumer-Reports-believing family requires. This of course meant finding all tree farms within a 20-mile radius, price-matching, and building a spreadsheet depicting the types of trees sold alongside their corresponding qualities- lengthy needle-retention, ample branch strength, and the presence of just the right pine-y scent- or lack thereof. This, while I readied the 3 cherubs for church.

Needless to say, we were already running late when the Strawberry decided she’d need a two-man clean-up and thorough bath, if you get my drift. In a flash of zippers, buttons, wipes and water, she was quickly crammed back into her outerwear, red hair still damp and baby-sweet.

Honey Bun suggested skipping church. But I, still steaming about his 10-page research paper on pine trees, was not about to let all my hard work getting 3 kids out the door be for naught. We piled in the van and sped away only to arrive in the church parking lot 40 minutes late. Now 40 minutes is a little extreme, even for the serially-tardy-families-with-small-children like ourselves. Better to leave and let everyone think we were still away for Thanksgiving.

“WE’RE GOING HOME!” I hollered, never one to take defeat easily.

And around we turned. Back home and bickering all the way. Maybe we should’ve stayed. Maybe we should’ve gotten our heads on straight and our hearts made right. But hours later, with tempers cooled, bellies filled and research in hand, we made our way out to get our tree.

Our first stop was down the road at an enormous tree farm. For $50 you could get a pint-sized beauty. We passed. But before driving 20 minutes to the next place on our list we decided to follow a few small signs advertising their Christmas offerings.

After a few twists and turns we pulled up to a small house whose yard was studded with pines and firs, spruces and stumps. Honey Bun got out to ask a few questions.

Price? 25 bucks.
Molecular biology of these particular deciduous trees? Acceptable.

We tumbled out of the van and began our small trek around the land. The difficulties of the morning faded away with our inspection of each potential tree. We settled on a jolly, fat tree and proceeded to make the nice man selling it take a hundred pictures of our happy little family beneath its branches.

Before long, it was cut down and brought home. While I brought up and organized the 7 tubs and boxes of Christmas adornments for this our first and quite lovely real tree, Honey Bun researched how to keep it alive until the middle of summer.

We tag-teamed the tree raising. Bring it in. Plunk it down. Hold. A little to the left. Tighten. Hold. Take off the 2 lower branches. Turn it. Stand back? Just right.

I flurried about for the next few hours stringing up hundreds of white lights and spools of ribbon. On went the 200 ornaments, berry branches and squiggly twigs, evenly spaced and color-coordinated in red and gold.

It was dark outside as I picked through the last few mostly unappealing ornaments I had left while listening to the family romp around in the next room. Sitting on the floor gazing at my triumph of holiday resplendence, all of a sudden there came a large, POP!

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” I wailed as in slow motion (I kid you not), the tree, in all its grandeur, fell and landed in my lap.

Honey Bun ran in from the boy’s room and together we dragged the now disheveled tree to a corner, leaving a wake of ornaments and needles behind us and then began the arduous process of soaking up the gallon of water now seeped into the rug. Upon close inspection of our Salvation-Army-bought tree stand, we found an ominous hole that our not-so-jolly tree had made. So at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night we began to, yes, research tree stands.

We resorted to a combination of website-gazing and phone-calling. The nearest Wal-mart was called and we were assured that they did indeed have a heavy-duty, hard-to-lift plastic stand that would surely do the trick. I made my way out into the darkness down the 13 country miles only to find one stand, the very same, 3 oz. piece of cheap craftsmanship we just massacred. You can imagine my joy at that moment.

Back in the car I flew, to drive another 18 miles to reach the nearest home improvement store before it closed its doors. I made it, ticket-less yet defeated, plunked $50 down to buy the largest iron monstrosity of a tree stand I could find, and began the 20 minute trip home.

The next few hours were spent putting the tree back in its place, re-decorating it and cleaning up the glorious mess it had made. Honey Bun and I sat back to gaze upon our holiday feat. He, being the very spiritual and discerning man that he is, began to pray out loud, in hopes of quelling my still-simmering anger.

“Lord, thank you so much for your Son. Thank you for sending Him so many years ago, to live here on earth. Thank you that He understands and can relate to our problems….”

At this very moment, being the very spiritual and discerning woman that I am, I thought,

“Yeah? Well He never had a Christmas tree fall on top of Him!”

I quickly repented for fear that God would strike my tree down.

But it got me thinking.

So often I take it for granted that Jesus left the awesome splendor and comfort of heaven and came to earth to live as a man. Fully God and fully man. That means that though he may not have wrestled with a Christmas tree, He dealt with the same annoying, frustrating, maddening things that I do. The things that irritate, bite and make me want to curse under my breath.

He was a carpenter. I’m sure he hit His thumb with a hammer more than a few times. He had siblings who probably annoyed the heck out of him. I imagine He found it hard to obey His mother and step-father when He knew they were wrong. God as infant, child and man.

I find myself wondering what He felt when He tripped over his sandal laces or had a bout with the stomach bug and all its intestinal ailments. That’s not sacrilegious. It’s being fully man.

He was tempted by Satan himself, wept over the deaths of His closest friends and sweated blood in the anxious hours before His death. He was beaten, He was mocked, He was misunderstood and used. He was Immanuel. God with us. God with us in our labor and toil, our relationships and heartaches. He took on this earthly body and all its limitations, emotions and pain. He does understand. It’s the whole reason He was sent in the first place, to bear our burdens, to take our shame, to live a human yet sinless life and die a sinless yet punishing death…for us. To take the sin of the world and pay the price, so I don’t have to.

Immanuel…God is with us.