The Jesus-thing

On Saturday I read a blog post* about the nativity story. The description of Mary and the animals and the blood and the baby is fleshy. Funny. Real. And sharp. I’m drawn in by the wit and candor of the author and keep reading until the end, where I am surprised at the wrap-up. There are no claims of deity. No religious hooks. No message of Emmanuel, God-with-us. It’s just a story of a teenage mother and father, bumbling around in a dirty stable trying to figure out this thing called parenthood and what it means to love and be a family. (Which, let’s admit, is about as spiritual as it gets, figuring out how to love the people we live with.)

I scroll down and see someone’s appreciative comment. I read it three times over: We don’t do the Jesus-thing but we want to embrace the meaning of Christmas. I sense her gratitude for the re-telling devoid of religious agenda, making it palatable and accessible.

I also feel a bit sick to the stomach. Which seems overly-dramatic. Even writing it here now, makes me self-conscious. The comment is understandable. Many of my dearest friends could easily write the same. We don’t do the Jesus thing.

I don’t blame the people I love and respect for feeling uncomfortable with the Jesus story. It can lead to all kinds of trouble, like trying to explain who God is to your children when you’re not even sure yourself. Like the problem of Christianity and it’s sordid history. Like questions about the priorities of churches today, and heaven forbid, politics that make your hair stand up on the back of your neck. Like exclusion and gate-keeping and pointing at who’s right and who’s wrong. Who’s in and who’s out.

I also don’t blame my friends who are indifferent about the whole thing altogether. Who don’t mind hearing the Christmas story once or twice and then moving on with their lives. The story hasn’t made much of a difference in the Christians they know or work with, so what does it matter? It’s easier to let people believe what they want without getting too worked up about theology and fundamentals. To try and get along without making a big deal about a controversial man who had a penchant for stirring the pot.

And yet, somehow, it breaks me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been reading Luci Shaw poems of the incarnation** every night before bed, or because the comment followed such a visceral description of the birth, or why, exactly. It’s not like I’m surprised that someone out there isn’t all Jesus-y. Most people aren’t. But still, it sticks with me.

On Sunday morning we are scrambling to get to church. Stan and I are in the Christmas pageant as Mary and Joseph, and the girls are part of the children’s choir. We should be in the vehicle already and are yelling at each other to get out the door. Stan can’t find the tuner. Vivi doesn’t want to wear her cute black boots and is coughing and snotty. Susanna is still out of breath and fatigued from her bout with pneumonia. Belén’s throat is sore and swollen and my voice is raspy too. The guitar bangs out the door and into the cold air. When we finally get to church and Stan is pulling the striped Joseph-costume over his head, he’s still asking why we have to do this. None of it feels very spiritual. Or meaningful. Or transcendent. Obligatory would be a more accurate description.

Then Stephanie hands me her newborn daughter, the one cast as baby Jesus. Ah yes, the baby. She’s fast asleep and I tense my shoulders to make a nest for her that’s as cozy as her mother’s. We need something to wrap her in. “Hey,” I yell at Jennifer, while the kids are bouncing around us like popcorn in hot oil. “I forgot we need swaddling clothes!” She shushes the children and hands me an old scarf. Now we are ready to start.

The kids tromp onto the stage; the sheep with their floppy ears, the wise-men with their dollar-store crowns, the shepherds in their terry cloth and an assortment of barn animals. Verna starts playing the piano, which is our cue to come in. I sit in my chair beside the manger and hold baby Jesus, whose tiny rib cage presses in and out against mine. I look down at her scalp and study her hair-line, her pursed lips, the nose that is just as perfect as every other baby nose, and all I want to do is cry.

I feel like I need to warn Stan. “I’m feeling really emotional” I whisper sideways. He looks at me and doesn’t say anything. The children continue singing their song about the stranger in the straw.

Soon it’s our turn. Stan grabs his guitar, Susie her violin, and Belén takes the mike. We mess up right away and have to start over again. When I come in on the chorus I feel like I’m barely making a sound. My voice is hoarse and my harmony line is wobbly. All the while I’m holding the baby, the stranger the barn animals want to know more about.

“His name is Jesus. I can’t believe God chose me to be his mother,” I whisper into the mike after we are done singing. It doesn’t feel so much like acting now. Or cliché script material. I really can’t believe it. God chose a human mother for himself. God chose human skin. With cradle cap. God chose tiny ribs. God chose colic and gas and indigestion. God chose the frustrations of toddler-hood. God chose to be a refugee. God chose “to be acquainted with our grief.”**

“His name is Jesus,” I repeat, trying to keep my voice steady. “He will be called Counsellor.” I look down at the infant chest, heaving up and down in my arms with vulnerability. I am mute with emotion. This is ridiculous, I pep-talk myself, it’s just a puny little line. But nothing makes it past the gigantic lump in my throat.

Stan says my next words for me. “Almighty God…”

Almighty God!

And I join in on the final, “Everlasting Father.”

The play continues and I keep holding Jesus. I don’t want to stop being Mary. I don’t want to stop being so near to Christmas.

Later that afternoon, when everything is over and we’re at home, I go back to the blog post I can’t stop thinking about. I read the comment again–the one about not being into the Jesus-thing. All of a sudden something is different. I feel bubbly and light. The comment doesn’t seem disturbing, in fact, it’s more comedic than anything. I want to shout and laugh. “It’s okay if you don’t do the Jesus-thing! God’s got it! He’s way ahead of you!” He’s made a gigantic swoop-turn out of history, like a hockey player who changes directions in the blink of an eye and dekes out the defense. The move makes me want to clap big mitts together, stomp on the bleachers and clang cowbells.

Yes, yes, yes! God came down. IT doesn’t matter if you’re into the Jesus thing or not. Even if you don’t do Jesus, Jesus does you. That’s the craziness of the whole story.  That’s why we get into bath robes and show our bare feet and pale hairy legs in front of the church, two-thousand years later.

A baby was born and turned the cosmos around. Even if you’re not into Jesus, even if you have religious baggage or find it all politically uncomfortable or you don’t know how to tell your kids the bible story, it doesn’t matter. Indeed, it’s precisely because of this indifference or confusion, that Jesus came. This is the bizarre news. This is the hilarity of Christmas. That God put on flesh to be with us whether we recognize him or not.

SAMSUNG

With love and cowbells,

Tricia

If none of this resonates with you, or if you think I’m dead wrong, thanks for making it this far. I’m honoured you’re here and am interested in your comments.

*see Liz James Writes

**I know at least three of you who will love BC poet, Luci Shaw (if you’re not already reading her)! I used the phrase “acquainted with our grief” because I’d just read her poem, A Blessing for the New Baby.

 

 

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Eating My Words

When my oldest daughter was a toddler she was always impeccably dressed. Her wardrobe, full of cute shoes, colourful tights, adorable tunics and matching vests, was the result of our family and friends’ generosity. When Stan and I returned from years of volunteer service in Bolivia, expecting a child, we were showered with more clothes than we knew what to do with. And Belén wore them all.

As I paraded Belén around I felt sorry for other mothers who didn’t have the wherewithal or resources to properly clothe their children. One friend, in particular, puzzled me in this regard. Although they had enough money, her youngest daughter always looked disheveled. Unkempt, even. I wondered why she wouldn’t take a little more care with her child. Did she know how sloppy she looked? How haphazard her daughter’s outfits were; sweatpants stuffed into scuffed cowboy boots, scrappy t-shirts layered with gauze blouses, and most of it faded, stained or ripped? Was there no one in charge of dressing her?

I remember getting Belén ready, before an outing with this family, thinking the parents might take note of my daughter’s coordinated outfits and be inspired to try a little harder…

Wince.

That was over a decade ago.

Things have changed.

I now eat my (unsaid) words daily, one crazy ensemble at a time.

Yesterday my three-year-old wore a pair of pants, sized at 6 months, with holes all over them. “I’m just like Belén,” she said, comparing herself to her 13-year-old sister whose brand new jeans are perfectly ripped and torn. To a birthday party last weekend she wore a summer dress (this, in December) with mud stains and a pair of dirty tights. And I let her.

When Vivian wears her pink-stripped sundress with the too-big sparkly skirt and ripped tights with mismatching socks I look at her and wonder how it happened. Did my older daughters put up such a fight when it came to getting dressed? Did they have the same sensitivities and opinions on fabric and design? And if so, did I simply plow ahead to get them into appropriate clothing? All I know is that whatever energy and resolve it took to get the job done then is gone now.

One morning before we head out–after Vivian is finally dressed, after our daily fight and her daily victory–she looks at me and smiles.

“Mommy, am I perfect?” she asks, showing her little teeth and gums, while she twirls around.

I eye her warily. I’m annoyed and still sweaty from trying to get the brand new jeans on her that she hasn’t ever worn. Is this a test? How do I answer and still hold on to any shred of power?

“Yes,” I sigh. “Yes, you are perfect.” Then I think of the other mom, the one I didn’t understand years ago, the one I pitied and hoped to enlighten with my own fashion sense. I send my silent apology for all my ignorance out to the universe and tremble. What ridiculous ideas do I have now that will be laughable in 10 years?

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Waiting and Watching; Advent 2017

It feels like we’ve been celebrating advent for awhile around here. The waiting part, that is. Susanna has been battling a lung infection for the last two weeks and we’ve all spent many hours rubbing her back, wiping her brow, giving her medicine, serving her orange juice, and waiting, waiting, waiting for her to get better.

A friend stopped by yesterday and when she saw Susie laying on the couch she exclaimed, “I knew something was wrong! I barely recognized her voice on the phone because it sounded so normal!” Instead of the usual fake accent and you’ve-reached-the-pizza-parlour, or some other crazy response, it was only a weak “Hello” that threw our friend off.

Waiting for Susanna to return to her exuberant self is a little like the waiting we do before Christmas. During advent we are waiting for Jesus, waiting for the Light to pierce the darkness, waiting for brokenness to be made whole, waiting for the restoration promised us by a baby born centuries ago. But advent (meaning a coming or approach)  is also about celebrating the arrival; that Divinity, indeed, has already come and is here with us.

I draw up a new chalkboard sign to remind me of all this, but I’m not sure it helps. I’m still trying to figure out presents and am worried I don’t have enough. I stress about coordinating holiday plans and dates and traveling. But I see a glimmer of hope. I don’t worry about the baking (we all know I’ve given up on that one) and I notice things. Like this…

*

I’m washing dishes when I overhear Vivian playing “refugees” for a second time this week. I dry my hands on a towel and walk over to watch her where she can’t see me.

“We have to go. Pack up every-fing” she says herding plastic figurines into a toy van. Ernie, Bert, Polly-Pocket and a pony, or two, are fleeing together. “It’s a new country,” she murmurs to herself and her toys. “You’ll be safe here,” she reassures them.

*

I’ve had a bad day and feel like crying. I call Stan to see when he’ll be home and if I have time to go for a walk. “I’ll be there in 15 minutes,” he says.  I decide to stay home so we can eat as soon as he arrives. A moment later he calls me back. “Don’t wait,” he says. “Go for a walk now. The sun is setting and you’ll like it.”

*

I take Belén home after a midnight pool party with the youth group. Instead of going straight to bed, we plug in the kettle and brew some tea. She looks at my literary magazine on the table, the one with the weird poetry that neither of us understand, and makes fun of it. Then she tells me about an image from her day that she wishes she could capture.

“Why don’t you write about it in your journal?” I suggest.

“Ugh! No way! That’s too much work. Besides, it’s frustrating. It’s like I’ve got all these words, but when I put them together they don’t hold anything. Like an empty box.”

“Mmm,” I say while sipping my tea, glad she’s not journaling after all. Glad she’s talking to me.

*

The Cree drummer and pow-wow singer invites everyone from the bleachers onto the gymnasium floor. He tells us to hold hands and dance in a circle. Slowly people get out of their seats and reach for other hands. The singer beats his drum and wails his foreign melody while we step in time. I see the Nigerian obstetrician, whose clinic is just down the street, and the Jamaican lady who works at McDonald’s. The politicians, who came to deliver their obligatory speeches, are now holding hands with mothers who have babies on their hips. The Indian dancers, dressed in white turbans and tunics, slide along beside old men with stiff legs and cowboy boots.

*

I’m not sure how, or why, but in these moments I feel Advent. I feel His coming. These random, mostly-normal moments in my mostly-normal week are reminders for me. God is here… in my three-year-old’s empathy, in my husband’s prompt to watch the sunset, in late-night conversations with my teenager, in a round dance, and in the waiting for Susanna to get better.

Let’s keep waiting and watching together.

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Resources: We watched this 2-minute video in church this last week and it got me thinking about advent again. Also, this post by Rachel Held Evans gave me some ideas that we will use this season.

 

Failure #11: No advice

“You know how there are good mornings and bad mornings?” she asks me.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I say. “Why? Was this one good or bad?”

My friend goes on to tell me about the horrible start to her day. How her child refused to eat breakfast, refused to get dressed, refused to put on her jacket–when she did it was backwards, and then left for school hungry. How she pushed and pushed and pushed all morning long just to get her kids out of the house and how, at the very end, she lost it. How rage simmers and then suddenly erupts. How anger twists faces and voices into something we don’t want to recognize in ourselves. At the end of her explanation she looks at me for advice with tears in her eyes.

“You’re further along this journey than I am. Surely, you must have something? Some tips or wisdom?” she trails off hopefully.

I’ve been murmuring “I know” all along. I hate the rush, I hate it when kids don’t listen, I hate how I feel when kids don’t listen, but when she asks me her question I don’t have any solution. I am empty-handed. All I have are the tears to match hers. “We’ve tried everything at our house; charts, schedules, you name it. None of it works… nothing lasts for more than a couple days or so, and then it’s back to square one,” I say. It’s a pessimistic response but it’s also true. “I’m sorry,” I add.

Studies show that it takes 10 years of practise to master a subject. I’m 13 years in on parenting, and when faced with a simple question like How do I motivate my child to get ready in the morning? I fail the test.

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*I’m curious about failure. This post is part of an experiment where I observe moments I experience failure (in a broad sense) and record scenes without adding further explanation or perspective.  Read more in the introduction to the series here.

 

 

 

Failure #10: Writing, laundry, email, Facebook and everything else but prayer

I wake up early. I’ll pray later, when the kids are awake and busy getting ready, I tell myself. Right now the house is quiet and it’s the perfect time to write.

After Belén and Susanna leave for school, two other little girls knock on our door and fill their place. Ill sit down and meditate later, I think, when the girls are playing. Soon they set up Peppa Pig and all three kids are happily engaged with their figurines. I decide to fold laundry and catch up on e-mail.

At 3 pm, when we are back from getting groceries, Vivi settles in with the ipad. I have a few minutes to myself to pause and reflect on who God is and my place in the universe. Instead, I check Facebook.

This cycle of wanting to pray, but never doing it, continues until supper. All 6 of us are in our seats (including Saron). “Wait, don’t touch the sausage,” I warn no one in particular. “We are going to pray before we eat. The least we can do is be thankful.” The normal fighting ensues between Saron and Vivi as to whose turn it is to say grace and Saron wins. Everyone is quiet. “Go Saron,” someone prompts her. “It’s your turn tonight,” another one says. We wait.

She starts in on a song, fumbles, then stops. Again she tries a tune I don’t recognize and soon quits. The food smells good and my appetite scrapes at my stomach. Finally Saron launches into a prayer and keeps at it. The words are indecipherable. It doesn’t sound like English, French, or Amharic–the three plausible options–but I keep my eyes closed and head bowed. The melody wavers and words run together in one long streak. Finally she stops.

“Thank you, Jesus,” I add.

“Amen,” says Stan.

“It’s over!” declares Saron.

“That was interesting,” says Susanna. “I think she was trying to sing the clean-up song from school, in French; It is time to clean up, clean up, clean up...”

Does that count?

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*I’m curious about failure. This post is part of an experiment where I observe moments I experience failure (in a broad sense) and record scenes without adding further explanation or perspective.  Read more in the introduction to the series here.

Failure #9: Buying plastic

I’m standing in a corner, one of many in the huge bookstore, when she approaches me. It’s a friend I haven’t seen for years and both of us are firing questions at each other. How are you? What are you up to? How are the kids? And then… What are you buying? Immediately I’m embarrassed. In my hand is a cheap plastic microphone. It requires batteries. It has buttons to push. It flashes. It amplifies and records voices. It is also on sale for 60% off.

When she asks me the question I wish I were holding a copy of War and Peace, or even some beautifully crafted wooden toy. But not this. “Oh nothing really,” I laugh. “Well, just this thing, um, I know it’s a piece of junk but we have this girl who is over a lot… (How do I explain who Saron is to us–not exactly family, but more than a friend)… I’m buying it for her.”

I think of all the educational videos I’ve seen of machines pushing mountains of plastic, and the environmental repercussions of our consumer society. I think of the islands of garbage polluting our oceans and I am sure my friend is the kind of person who would not buy a mike to add to the floating piles.

Still, after our conversation, even after my embarrassment and fleeting guilt, I take the cheap toy to the till. I imagine Saron belting out Annie songs at the top of her lungs and dancing like crazy. She will love it! At least until the batteries go dead or it falls apart.

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*I’m curious about failure. This post is part of an experiment where I observe moments I experience failure (in a broad sense) and record scenes without adding further explanation or perspective.  Read more in the introduction to the series here.