That Broken, Beautiful Jesse Tree

Georges DelatourWe light a candle, turn on the twinkle lights, and open up the Bible. This isn’t a usual thing at my house; I’m the one obsessed with the Word, inclined to spill all these words about it. But during Advent, it’s somehow different. We have this tradition of the Jesse tree, Jesus’s family tree. We read about prophets and patriarchs and promises and wayward Gentile women and other weird relatives of the coming King of Kings. We remember that the Christmas story is actually part of a much bigger story.

Sometimes she asks questions that just floor me, like why God didn’t send Jesus before the flood. If Jesus was around in the beginning, was always part of the master plan, why the waiting? Why not send him right away and save all those people and animals from drowning?

Like lots of people, she wonders about Abraham and Isaac. Why would God ask a man to sacrifice his only son? And what man would try to do it? What in the world is such a story trying to tell us?

But the story that really sticks in her craw is Rahab. What is she doing on this Jesse tree? It seems she saved her family but doomed her town by cooperating with the Israelites. How could she sleep at night?

We talk it over, around and around. I argue that Rahab was doing the best she could, that she was positive the Israelites were going to sack the city anyway, that she was not a powerful player, couldn’t escape the game being played by the men around her.

Across the table, in the candlelight, my loved one shakes her head. My words do nothing to quench the fire of anger in her, anger at all this needless violence. And I have to say I respect that in her, her utter intolerance for all this war surrounding the newborn Prince of Peace. She raves about it like a prophet. I wish injustice shook me up that much.

Maybe I find it easier to reconcile all this ugly stuff in the Jesse tree because it’s a lot like my own family tree. People I love, people who did unspeakable things, people who suffered unspeakable things: they’re the same people. Even my little nuclear family was full of genuine love and twisted love, love that helped and love that hurt. My parents tried their best, but they weren’t good for each other. I can’t say I regret they’ve parted ways, but how could I wish they’d never met? Out of that twistedness and brokenness and yes, real love, I was born.

I’m almost comforted by it, actually, the fact that Jesus wasn’t born into perfection. He was born into a war-torn world, a people and a family that did crazy things to keep themselves from getting torn apart.

But I can’t find anything to censure about Jesus in these pages. Not a single thing. And the grace Jesus gave extends backward too, back to all the dubious ancestors who helped bring him into the world.

We read the story of Joseph back in Genesis every year, and there’s one phrase that sums it all up for me. At the end of Joseph’s story, his brothers, who sold him as a slave and faked his death back at the beginning, are worried he’s going to take vengeance now that he’s in power and their father has died. They send him this nervous message, like Guess what? Before he died, Dad definitely said you should forgive us for all the stuff we did. Really.

Joseph starts crying when he hears this, which freaks them out even more. They throw themselves at his feet and beg for mercy. And then Joseph says this to them:

It’s okay. You tried to hurt me, but God meant it for good…

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past. And I know, from what I’ve gone through with my own family, that you can get to this place. The place where you realize God can do anything with anything, can take the stupidest things you’ve ever done and the cruelest things people have ever done to you and work it all out for good. Just like with Jesus, out of the twisted stump of your past can sprout – of all things – a new life.

It takes a long time for the story to get there, of course. And I can’t explain why suddenly Jesus bursts on the scene after all that carnage and darkness, any more than I can tell you why one day I could call my mom after not speaking to her for over a year. But I need to wrestle with the why. I love when she asks me these questions, because I need to remember what the questions mean. When you can ask questions, it means you feel safe, you feel loved, you love enough to want to get to the bottom of things. Her questions remind me this is not some Sunday school story: it’s real and messy, just like mine.

So we keep reading in our tiny circle of light, unable to see the whole room, unable to see the whole story yet, our own or anyone else’s. But in the questions, in the long, dark shadows cast by the candle as it lights up our faces, there is beauty too.

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This Year, I Really Do Want World Peace

Candles

Photo credit: magnuscanis

Reposted from December 17, 2012. Let’s not forget to pray for peace this Christmas – for hearts that are brave enough to be truly nonviolent, and for a peaceful world.

My partner and I light a candle and read together from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

We take a walk to look at Christmas lights in our favorite neighborhood. The sidewalk is a river of families and children, and I find myself praying for their safety. I come home and turn on the Yo-Yo Ma holiday album, Songs of Joy and Peace, on which no fewer than five tracks are versions of “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I’m glad to have it repeating, filling my ears and my mind.

I’ve never felt such a desire for peace at Christmas, such an urgent hope for light. The events of the last few weeks have made the darkness seem so great. Not just the darkness of death, but also the darkness of not knowing why. With the shooters dead, there is no way we can really know what was going through their minds when they brought death and terror to so many. We analyze, hypothesize, call for change, and so we should, but deeper questions remain. Why does such darkness exist in our hearts? Why such a thirst for violence? What is wrong with this world?

It’s easy for people like me to forget that every Christmas comes to a dark world. Thousands of children die daily around the globe. Some are killed, while others die from hunger or disease, and few of us outside their communities or families notice or care. Jesus was born, too, into a world of senseless violence, especially against children. The Gospel of Matthew reports that, threatened by the birth of a baby King, Herod arranged a massacre of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. While scholars disagree on the historicity of this story, it doesn’t seem out of character for Herod, who famously killed his own sons.

Not a part of the Christmas story most of us think about.

So, yeah, it’s pretty much always been dark out there. It’s dark in here too, in my heart, behind my eyes. That’s harder for me to forget than the outer darkness, but I believe it’s all connected. I used to think I wasn’t a violent person. Little old five-foot-three, skinnybones, Prince-of-Peace-believing me? I’ve never laid a punch in my life, and I’m even gun-shy in video games. Yet when I sleep easy while nations war on my behalf, can I really say my hands are clean? And there are those who know me well enough to give a list of the damage I’ve done in a single moment of stupid rage. Mostly words are my weapon of choice, but who’s to say that in a different situation, I might not make a worse choice? Am I not capable of just as much as anyone else?

So I pray for light to flood the world and illuminate the shameful places in me. I pray for peace on earth, as audacious and crazy as that sometimes feels. But that’s the very beauty of Christmas, the way it calls us to believe six impossible things before breakfast, starting with the idea that a virgin can give birth. That this could be the birth of a person fully God and fully human, the unknowable Divine suddenly with fingerprints and a heartbeat. That God would stoop to sneak into our world one dark night, let himself be shoved into a stable for heaven’s sake, and take the shape of one more fragile little child. That he would grow up to teach enemy-love and the blessedness of peacemakers, then become the ultimate innocent victim of violence. That his horrific death would transform into abundant life for all the world. And that he himself would be Light for us.

Against all reason, even while I mourn the dark, I will cling to that Light this Christmas. Like so many before me, I will pray with all my heart:

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Amen.

P.S. Here is another prayer I like for peace, a peace that starts with me.

10 Counter-cultural Ways to Rejoice This Christmas Season

“Sorry, I just can’t enjoy Christmas. I feel like I’m not good enough, like I don’t have enough to give.”

“Aww, we don’t care about that. That’s not what it’s about. Can’t you try to relax, forget about the things that stress you, and enjoy being with us? Can’t that be your gift to us?”

I asked these questions of my dad when I was home for Christmas from college several years ago, and now my own family members ask them of me. It’s weird to realize that my first instinct during the Christmas season is not to rejoice, but to worry, stress, and focus on my flaws and failures.

And when I do that, I tend to panic and buy stuff in a desperate attempt to look shiny, perfect, and put-together. This plays right into the hands of the consumer culture that wants to rule my heart and mind.

But like Jesus said, you can only obsess over one thing at a time. I can either go into a Charlie Brown-style monologue (“I know nobody likes me… why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize that fact?”) or I can praise God for making me exactly the way I am and invading my messy world with holiness. I can either worry or praise; I can’t do both.

So as Christmas draws nearer, here are some ways I’ll try to keep my focus on what really matters.

1. Rather than focusing on feelings that I don’t have enough to give, I can thank God for all that I have been given. The fact that I can share, even in a humble, imperfect way, is itself a gift.

2. Rather than focusing on buying stuff, I can remember to ask for the best gifts of all, things only God can give: a peaceful heart, family, world.

3. Rather than berating myself when I do inevitably get stressed, I can ask for the gifts of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. God, who gave himself to us in Jesus, would surely love to give me those things as well.

4. Rather than absently bumping into other people in stores as I cruise for bargains, I can look up, meet their eyes, and smile.

5. Rather than filling my life with activities that leave no time left over for the people around me, I can realize what a lasting gift it is to slow down, listen to my loved ones, and strengthen my connections with them.

6. Rather than turning a blind eye to the injustice around me, I can choose to look it head-on, all the crazy brokenness of our world, do what I can to change it, and keep on rejoicing, knowing that everything is being made new.

7. Rather than feeling anxious that I’ll be given a gift far better than the one I give in return, I can choose to remember how little I deserve all I’ve been given anyway. Then I can accept the gift with overflowing joy and thanksgiving that will bless the giver too!

8. Rather than feeling like there’s not time enough for everything I “need” to get done, I can give thanks that I get to experience Christmas another year and look for the gifts of the moment.

9. Rather than worrying that I’ll do something wrong and ruin other people’s holiday, I can celebrate the fact that I have people in my life who love me and forgive me my flaws, mirroring God’s grace to me.

10. Rather than focusing on some shiny idol of perfection, I can remember that Jesus was born into this very dark, messy world, in a barn for heaven’s sake. Through all our imperfections, he loved us perfectly.

And he still does. Now that’s something to celebrate.

My Plan for a Red Letter Year

Happy Advent, everyone! Hard to believe it’s here already. It’s the beginning of a new year for the Church, a new cycle through the liturgical seasons, and the perfect time to discern where Jesus is calling me to go this year.

So I’m listening, trying to figure out how to follow him more closely. Lately, it’s become clear to me that there are a lot of voices easier for me to hear than his. I’ve been conforming to the ways of the world instead of being transformed by the renewing of my mind. I need to listen to the Spirit, a still small voice which is often so hard to hear, and not harden my heart to it.

I’m feeling called to do a few simple things intensely this year. I was just reading another wonderful book by Henri Nouwen called Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. The book gives guidelines for building a spiritual life that can move you from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer. The basic elements of spiritual life, according to Nouwen, are three:

1. Reading of the Word/Scripture

2. Silent prayer

3. Spiritual guidance/direction

Something clicked when I read Nouwen’s words. I’m being called to focus on all of these things right now, things that may seem basic but which I still struggle to embrace consistently and prayerfully. I want to form small, sustainable good habits this year (15 minutes of prayer, a psalm before bed, a letter written to a spiritual mentor) that can grow and invade my whole life like a mustard tree from a tiny seed, like swelling dough from invisible yeast.

I don’t want these guidelines to be burdensome for me. My New Year’s resolutions often are, often have a subtle tone of Be better this time! No, listening to Jesus in the Word, in silence, in the voices of respected teachers, should help me lay down my burdens and be healed.

Even as I work on basics, the small things, I’m also feeling called to stretch myself. Doing things that scare me is the true test of my faith, and I want to be engaged with the world, like Jesus was. So in addition to my more personal, internal efforts, I’m also going to try this year to engage issues of justice in a peaceful, respectful, caring way that embodies my Christian values.

To guide my thoughts and actions and writings about justice, I plan to use the lovely little book Common Prayer: Pocket Edition. Every month, this book gives a value of the New Monastic movement to focus on, to read about, and practical ways to put faith into action (as the book puts it, “becoming the answer to our prayers”). The value for December is “living in the abandoned places of empire” – a pretty appropriate meditation, I think, as we go deeper into that Empire-led season of consumerism.

Again, my aim in all this shouldn’t be political correctness or alleviated feelings of guilt, but rather a commitment to listen more closely to those red-letter words of the Bible, the teachings of Jesus, and not just to listen, but also to act.

I hope you’ll enjoy the ride this year, and as always, thank you for journeying with me as I seek to fall ever more in love with Jesus.

As we enter the season of Advent, do you have any thoughts about how you want to grow spiritually in the coming year?

The Mother: A Story Retold

Mother and Child

Mother and Child (Photo credit: Forever Wiser)

Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope you enjoy this humble story (more of a poem, almost) inspired by Christmas Eve meditations on what it meant for God to come alongside us, to be truly one of us.

*****

The waves of pain kept bringing her back to the inescapable moment. She could no longer think about the strangeness of it all, the small dirty alien place where she was giving birth. Only intermittently was she aware of more than her own body, her own breathing: the smells and sounds of the animals, the pressure of her husband’s hand, the circle of light from a single lamp, the dark closing in all around them.

Those months ago, she’d quivered in the angel’s shadow, hesitated before saying yes, knowing once she did there was no turning back. If there ever was a choice, there was none now: her whole body strove for Yes, the moment of birth, first breath, first cry.

It was not her Yes alone. It was Yes to everyone she knew and all their ancestors, her entire people who had waited so long. It was Yes to all the promises she grew up hearing, as much a part of her as blood. It was Yes to the unknown future, the as-yet unimagined, a family more numerous than the stars. She felt full of meaning and empty as a clay jar. She felt like nobody and everybody.

She groaned and knew the universe groaned along with her, embracing salvation’s crowning moment with both pain and joy. Somewhere above her in the sky, she felt the birth of her son’s twin: in the cold void, a bright star blazing.

This Year, I Really Do Want World Peace

Candles

Photo credit: magnuscanis

My partner and I light a candle and read together from Isaiah: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

We take a walk to look at Christmas lights in our favorite neighborhood. The sidewalk is a river of families and children, and I find myself praying for their safety. I come home and turn on the Yo-Yo Ma holiday album, Songs of Joy and Peace, on which no fewer than five tracks are versions of “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I’m glad to have it repeating, filling my ears and my mind.

I’ve never felt such a desire for peace at Christmas, such an urgent hope for light. The events of the last few weeks have made the darkness seem so great. Not just the darkness of death, but also the darkness of not knowing why. With the shooters dead, there is no way we can really know what was going through their minds when they brought death and terror to so many. We analyze, hypothesize, call for change, and so we should, but deeper questions remain. Why does such darkness exist in our hearts? Why such a thirst for violence? What is wrong with this world?

It’s easy for people like me to forget that every Christmas comes to a dark world. Thousands of children die daily around the globe. Some are killed, while others die from hunger or disease, and few of us outside their communities or families notice or care. Jesus was born, too, into a world of senseless violence, especially against children. The Gospel of Matthew reports that, threatened by the birth of a baby King, Herod arranged a massacre of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. While scholars disagree on the historicity of this story, it doesn’t seem out of character for Herod, who famously killed his own sons.

Not a part of the Christmas story most of us think about.

So, yeah, it’s pretty much always been dark out there. It’s dark in here too, in my heart, behind my eyes. That’s harder for me to forget than the outer darkness, but I believe it’s all connected. I used to think I wasn’t a violent person. Little old five-foot-three, skinnybones, Prince-of-Peace-believing me? I’ve never laid a punch in my life, and I’m even gun-shy in video games. Yet when I sleep easy while nations war on my behalf, can I really say my hands are clean? And there are those who know me well enough to give a list of the damage I’ve done in a single moment of stupid rage. Mostly words are my weapon of choice, but who’s to say that in a different situation, I might not make a worse choice? Am I not capable of just as much as anyone else?

So I pray for light to flood the world and illuminate the shameful places in me. I pray for peace on earth, as audacious and crazy as that sometimes feels. But that’s the very beauty of Christmas, the way it calls us to believe six impossible things before breakfast, starting with the idea that a virgin can give birth. That this could be the birth of a person fully God and fully human, the unknowable Divine suddenly with fingerprints and a heartbeat. That God would stoop to sneak into our world one dark night, let himself be shoved into a stable for heaven’s sake, and take the shape of one more fragile little child. That he would grow up to teach enemy-love and the blessedness of peacemakers, then become the ultimate innocent victim of violence. That his horrific death would transform into abundant life for all the world. And that he himself would be Light for us.

Against all reason, even while I mourn the dark, I will cling to that Light this Christmas. Like so many before me, I will pray with all my heart:

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. Amen.

P.S. Here is another prayer I like for peace, a peace that starts with me.

The One Gift We Really Need

Shiny!

Shiny! (Photo credit: jazzijava)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:17

Well, it’s that Schroedinger’s cat time of the year: simultaneously the Christmas season and not. Advent doesn’t officially start until Sunday, but you’d never know from the ubiquitous carols, commercials, and gift guides.

Me? I’ve had Christmas on the brain since September. In my extended family, gifts tend to be lovingly homemade. This is good because handmade gifts are beautiful, personal, and require zero time standing in line on Black Friday, but it can be a little intimidating to those of us who are less craftily gifted. Sometimes I worry about my gifts being good enough. When someone spends hours if not days of their life hand making you a quilt, a pair of socks, or 1,000 paper cranes (yes, these are real examples), you want to make sure they won’t receive something lame in return.

The only thing is, even if I started the previous January, there would be a limit to the kind of gifts I could give. Not to say that the gifts we exchange are worthless, but they won’t last forever. At best, they are mere tokens of our love, physical symbols of something much deeper.

What I really wish I could give my friends and family is, simply, peace. Not peace as in the absence of conflict (although in some cases that would be a great first step), but true security, hope, and freedom. This isn’t something I can make with my hands, but it’s the only thing worth having. So on behalf of those I love, I’m going to ask for the real gift.

For my friends who endure physical suffering, sickness, and disability, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are the primary source of unconditional love and support for children and others who need care, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends whose holidays are defined by painful memories or loneliness, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are nearing retirement age and are worried about the security of their future, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are struggling with finding their life’s calling or starting a family as their hearts desire, I pray for peace from above.

For my friends who are bearing financial burdens this holiday season, as well as those who feel burdened by their own and other people’s expectations, I pray for peace from above.

And I pray for myself, that God would make me willing, able, and ready at any moment to be present for my friends with a compassionate heart. That he would give me eyes to see and ears to hear those who find themselves in need this season. Most of all, that my prayers would not be empty words, but that God would give me a spirit of powerful love and self-discipline to help make peace happen.

What are your needs and wishes this holiday season? Could you use some peace? I know I could…