Sunday, December 31, 2017

What 2017 Can Keep, For Real

Our nativity set is nothing nice. I bought most of it years ago: in Plant City, if I recall correctly, on a trip to visit my friend Erin. I picked up several other characters, this year, at a yard sale. Most of the pieces look old as the hills, but Joseph and an angel in garish pink are made of plastic or rubber or some such, so how old can they possibly be? Also, given that Joseph is made of a nonbreakable material, how did he come to lose a hand?

One of the wise men is a gentleman of color, and another looks Asian, and I'm thankful for that little bit of diversity in our nativity set but am well aware that the other characters need not be quite so white-looking. The third wise man is a dead ringer for Santa Claus: if Santa ever wore purple, that is. (I guess we all know the wise men didn't actually visit Jesus while he was a baby?) Then there's this one guy who just sits there like Buddha. He has neither gift nor staff, so I'm not sure what his deal is. He looks like a listener and reminds me, therefore, of Mary of Bethany; I like him.

There are lots of animals. The three sheep spent the holiday season in the loft, this year. One of them has some patchy fuzz on its ceramic back. A cow and donkey have chipped ears. My kids play with our nativity set, which goes to the fact that it's nothing nice, also to the fact that it means something to me.

It doesn't mean something to me because it's nice (it's not) or historically accurate (it's not) but because my kids have played with it: because they have placed Baby Jesus in the center and marched all the other pieces to Him over and over, not to mention other random characters; one year, there was an elephant, a tin man, and a police officer.

But what I really want to tell you about our nativity set is that--this year, when we decorated for Christmas on December 4th--Baby Jesus was missing. This immediately took me back to a Christmas in Dallas when I was married to Cade's dad and before I had children. I don't remember anything about that nativity set, which would've been different than the current one. I do remember telling my dad over the phone that Baby Jesus was missing, and I remember his saying something like: "Well, if you think about it, Baby Jesus shouldn't be in there before Christmas morning, anyway," which is such a quintessential Carl Shafer response (and made me feel so much better in the moment) that it stuck with me.

Anyway, Baby Jesus's cardboard cradle was empty, this year, and the funny thing is that my sister-cousin Andrea was here while we were decorating, and she said: "Brandee Renee, you're not going to believe this, but I have a Baby Jesus--only a Baby Jesus--at my place, and He looks like He goes with your set, and you can have Him; do you think He was yours at one point?" (We kicked this around and determined that her Baby Jesus was never mine, but she eventually sent Him anyway, and she was right: He fit in perfectly.)

Then, over the next few days, my whole world pretty much exploded. I'm sure that sounds melodramatic, and maybe it is, but I was absolutely cast into the sort of crisis that had me thanking God for every terrible thing that had ever happened to me because I truly believed that--if this were the first terrible thing--I wouldn't be surviving it. I would drive for an hour, listing aloud old horrors through which God had sustained me in the past. It was one of very few things that made me feel better.

Our Christmas plans were in many ways jacked (the perfect adjective for several reasons). Jim and I did what we needed to do for the little kids, and things would've been worse were it not for Christmas Eve service at church and the dear friends who took it upon themselves to distract us two nights in a row; still, I was hanging on by a thread. I cancelled our big annual trip to Tennessee and surprisingly had nary a feeling about it, which (trust me) was not me.

The other thing I should mention is that we experienced a sudden infestation of mice in our log cabin. I kid you not: while we were in the middle of a true, family crisis, Jim trapped seven mice in our house. Seven. One morning, Jim videoed a mouse playing with a marker underneath the sink. ("What was that about?" my friend Christy asked. "Arts and crafts time for mice?") I'd never in my life seen anything like it, but the even crazier thing is that--while I would've told you before that moment that I was musophobic--I didn't have a feeling about the mice at all. I just...truly...couldn't care about anything other than the bigger crisis. I thought the mouse in the video was kind of cute. I wondered if Jim had killed the Christmas mouse; I felt a little guilty about it. (I should mention that Jim found and filled a hole in our pantry, so we think the problem has been solved.)

If you're still here, this is what I want to tell you. This is what I laid down over these holidays, and this is what 2017 can keep. 1) I laid down my fear of mice. 2) I laid down my expectations of Christmas traditions. All my life, I'd been caught up in how Christmas should be, and now I finally get it: none of that matters.

To put a fine point on it, I finally understand that the purpose of Christmas isn't a family gathering. It. just. isn't.

My kids are going to grow up, and I'm not going to be that mother or grandmother who insists that certain things happen at certain times. My parents have been good role models in this.

What's important about Christmas is that Jesus came...and why He came. (I guess we all know He didn't actually come on December 25th?) If we find ourselves wrecked on December 25th, well, that's why He came. He came because we're poor and brokenhearted and blind and bruised...and lost. He came because we need Him, and our need of Him is always great, but I saw it more than ever, this Christmas, because I was terrified, and all my hope--every little bit of my hope--was in Him.

We found our Baby Jesus after Christmas; He was in one of the girls' dresser drawers. I texted Andrea to tell her she could have her Baby Jesus back; she said she doesn't want Him without all the others, so best that we consider Him a little sibling or something. That's silly, but it doesn't matter. So many things don't.

He can't not come, Jesus, because He already has. And that's what's important about Christmas: that it's already happened...that it can't be undone...that, in Jesus, we always win in the end.

Friday, December 29, 2017

What Happens When You Get Lost

My Oldest. Almost eighteen.

Years ago, I attended the memorial service of a man who had changed my life and the lives of many others. He had been a sage: someone to whom individuals in crisis had turned for words of wisdom and encouragement. He had been among the most powerful representatives of Jesus I had ever known, and the day of his memorial service, I was devastated, knowing the future would hold many occasions in which I would miss his counsel and his love.

I considered that same day, however, the possibility that members of his family hadn't experienced him in the way I had. Some of them seemed puzzled--surprised, even--by anecdotes and testimonials shared about him. I surmised that they hadn't been able to forget and/or entirely forgive the younger, foolhardy version of this man about whom I'd heard but whom I'd never encountered...and by whom I'd never been wounded.

As years passed, I came to understand that my parents are that man. They, too, have active relationships with Jesus and are being sanctified, i.e., they are learning, growing, and becoming more Christlike all the time. Despite the fact that I live states away, sometimes I witness their ministering to others in a way that feels puzzling and surprising (among other adjectives). This is not to imply that they were bad people or parents years ago, but like everyone else, they had their share of shortcomings, and--over the years of our being physically separated--they have changed. 

It can be challenging to try to see people for who they are (who they have become) as opposed to who they once were. This is especially true, I think, when there are unresolved issues or when there is hidden/lingering emotional pain.

On some level, I've known for awhile that I'm no different or better than my friend or my parents. I've shared Stafford's "What Happens When You Get Lost" with literature students and talked about the poem specifically in the context of parenting. Even older parents are relatively young, I've posited; by the time they start to figure things out, their children are grown and either repeating the parents' mistakes or overcorrecting from them. This is why it's so hard to break negative, behavioral patterns in families. Stafford says: "Some things cannot be redeemed in a hurry," and: "Mistakes have consequences that do not just disappear," and: "If evil could be canceled easily it would not be very evil." I believed Stafford from the moment I first read his poem, but

I've come to believe him on a different level over the past few weeks. I can't really write about it, yet (or ever), but I've truly had the most terrifying experience of my life. The insides of my bones hurt. The insides of my eyeballs hurt, and I don't mean the pupils; I mean the cores of my eyeballs: a new sensation. I've been on my knees in a hospital; I've been on my knees in the altar of my church; I've had panic attacks in a hallway, my bathtub, a parking lot, my minivan, a restaurant. I've had a panic attack in front of medical and legal professionals.

And I've taken a good, hard look at the years I've spent in the figurative mountains, ill-equipped, trying to survive and making a tremendous mess of so many things. It's been so painful to look at this situation as a consequence, in part, of my sins and shortcomings.

I called my dad at the outset of this crisis. I only called him because my mom didn't pick up, as he had been a miserable failure in crises of this nature all my life. But there he was, my dad, on the other end of the line. We were both in so much pain. I was crying hysterically, and he was coughing incessantly, which is what he does when he's upset or anxious. It was terrible but also beautiful: I expected him to run for the hills, and he didn't. He absolutely did not. He chose, instead, to sit in the tension and be the dad I needed.

So? Jesus. And may He redeem, even if not in a hurry.

May He see us. May He watch us. May He know our names even and especially if we don't deserve it. Amen.