Holy Week Part 2: Citizenship

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Philippians 3:20

My boys are 2, 5, 7 and 9, which means the days here are filled with a lot of whining and bickering. Even when they’re playing well together, because of their ages and maturity, it’s a fact that at some point people will end up in time out.  It’s one of the most difficult things for me to tolerate as a mother, I used to think Jesus was incredibly harsh when he said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”(Matthew 17:17), but when all four of them are fighting over something as common as a single Lego piece, I totally get it.

It’s weird how the concept of time as a child is both fleeting and eternal. If I ask them to share a toy for 5 minutes they’ll pout and cry because it’s too long. It’s as if in 5 minutes, the whole world will have ended and their chance to play with it will be gone forever. But they also feel like they’ll be kids forever; they can’t imagine a day when they’ll be grown and fully responsible for themselves.  When the squabbling gets to the the point of parental intervention I try to explain to them how their perspective is too narrow; that in 10 years that Lego will be in the trash but their brother will still be here, so share…value the lasting relationship over the trash. They hear what I’m saying, and I think they even recognize it as truth, but their understanding of time won’t allow them to fully believe this wisdom.

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When I look at the kids, I see that they’re actually lucky to be fighting over something as unimportant as toys; I wish my conflicts were as petty as pee on the toilet seat or laundry on the floor.  As an adult,  I’m more capable to fulfill my desires, and far more severe to people who would stand in my way.  I can even make it look admirable, like if I’m fighting for something for my kids, or more time to pursue my dreams, or a fun vacation I worked hard for.  Armed with a good argument, I dare you to get in my way.

The constant debate throughout the whole country proves that no one is immune.  Between the political battles and the incessant media coverage, even the most peaceful people let somebody else piss them off last year.  Many people had excellent points, and were fighting for good things- high moral standards, peace, prosperity, justice, etc. Don’t we all desire these things? What sane person wouldn’t fight to make that happen? But through all the angry carnage, only stronger division was accomplished.

 

Today in the gospel reading (John 12:20-26) Jesus makes one of his harshest statements of all, but apparently of the greatest importance since he repeats it several times and all four gospel authors made note of it.  “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25) It’s verses like this that made a lot of people throughout history think Jesus was crazy.  It’s no wonder that by the time He got to the cross He was all alone.

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It has become so ingrained in our culture to love life, to seek the pleasure that it offers, that it’s become cliche- “live life to the fullest,” “seize the day,” “stop and smell the roses,” “live for the moment!”  It’s not that we should stop doing these things necessarily, I still believe time on earth shouldn’t be wasted. But maybe if we really understood how this world is not our citizenship, if we understood that we have an obligation to servant-hood and a life eternal, maybe we could rise above the petty conflict.

Like my kids, I know heaven is what the future promises, but I don’t understand it, nor can I fully imagine the promise that it brings.  When I deal with conflicts, I see them here and now, and if they don’t get solved I feel like I will surely die a miserable and unhappy death. Maybe even in the next 5 minutes.  And yet, at the same time, I also feel like I will be here on this earth forever and therefore ensuring my place in it must be a top priority.

People tell you all the time how fast parenting goes, and it’s true. When I look back to the beginning, I’m stunned that I’ve been at this for almost a whole decade. But the actual day in and day out feels like an eternity. Like they’re never going to grow up and be responsible and move out. Even though I’ve moved a lot, I still always have the feeling like these friends, these relatives, and this place will always be my home.  It’s this very human perspective of time that makes us cling so hard to the bits of joy when we find them and make us so ferocious toward anyone and anything that would try to rob us of it.  It’s hard to remember that there is joy eternal when your neighbor’s dog is barking outside your bedroom window all night long. Or that someday the dog will die, and there will just be you, not getting along with the person you were commanded to love.

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On this second day of Holy Week, remember your citizenship is in heaven, because too many people have lost their way to the cross by being caught in a petty argument over their citizenship here.   We’re following something eternal, and in ten years, or twenty, or once you’ve truly died and are hanging out with Jesus, will you still be glad that you fought so hard to get  your way? Maybe, in the light of what’s coming, it will be more important to be loving than to be right.  Maybe today it will be okay to lose out on the piece of this earth you’ve been clinging to, because He promised, whoever hates these things gets to keep following.

Peace and Preparation

     Last week our family lit the second candle of Advent, which was the Candle of Peace. Depending on your church’s traditions it’s also called the Candle of Preparation, and the scriptures that week were all about the journey to Bethlehem or people preparing for Jesus’ arrival. When I think about preparing for something, I usually feel stress, so how did these two concepts get linked at Christmas?

     I adore all of the traditions of Christmas, and I have some pretty high expectations for how much good cheer I should be exuding. I work hard to give lovely, meaningful gifts to everyone I can afford. I want to sing, and feel joyful, and share God’s love with my family and neighbors. But trying to maintain a cheerful glow through the pushy shoppers and counters of overworked sales clerks requires the peace that passes all understanding. That peace is of course a supernatural gift, and it is hard to receive it when you’re stressing out over a long to-do list… And travelling to see family…And still managing every other responsibility in your life.

I hear lots of people advising Christians to be still, to take time to feel the peace God has given them, to free themselves from the worldly stress that Christmas brings. I dont feel that this is wrong, its just seems so impossible. Christmas preparations are completed with limited time and money. As the day approaches and both things begin to run out, its inevitably stressful.

Strangely enough to me, the times when I have most successfully maintained attitudes of peace and joy were when I was 9 months pregnant. No one expected much of me. Other moms knew that I was too tired and my feet were too swollen to go shopping. The doctor forbid me to travel and I didn’t even send a Christmas card. Most people were just pleased that my pregnant brain fog cleared enough to remember to wish them a Merry Christmas instead of a Happy Halloween.wp-1481778438609.jpg

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My physical situation forced me to be more still than I was comfortable with at Christmas time, but having less to do gave me more time to relate to the beauty of the birth story. I couldn’t listen to Silent Night without sobbing, because rocking even an ordinary infant in the still of night is a holy experience. I could feel promises of hope and a future stirring in my own belly, but what would it be like to be visited by angels? And to be promised a baby who is not only a savior, but also the son of God? There is always a celebration when a newborn arrives, but how could Mary even begin to process the heavenly host singing, kings from distant lands coming to visit, and strangers proclaiming her newborn was the long awaited Messiah? More than all these things I would wonder, how could God love her, love all of us humans, enough to send us His own son? Especially since we habitually deny His authority over us.  Like Mary, I too, would sit up late at night, pondering these things in my heart.

Now that I’m done (God willing) having babies, it’s hard to continue the pondering. I remember the promises and the excitement, but I don’t feel them the same way. Was Mary like that too? Perhaps she struggled with worry and fear just like I do. I know she cried after Jesus had been lost for days, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously,”(Luke 2:48).  The least peaceful noise in my life is listening to my children bicker, but Jesus had siblings, too. Considering his brothers showed up 30 years later telling people he was insane (Mark 3:21), I think Mary’s other children probably bickered too.  I imagine Mary followed the tradition of many good mothers by forcing all of her children outside, just so she could have the peace of that Holy night for only a few minutes.  Did she too remember those promises of peace, joy, hope and love, but struggle to still feel their power?

My husband and I are raising 4 boys, between the ages of 2 and 8. We’re training a needy puppy not chew on the furniture, and a toddler to pee in the potty at the same time. This Christmas I’m behind on just about everything, including sleep. Hearing there’s a promise to bring peace to my life seems almost as laughable as promising a virgin peasant she’s going to give birth to a king. But I think feeling like life is stressful and chaotic is truly more of a blessing than being pregnant at Christmas time. It makes me relate less to the beauty of the birth story, and the more to the purpose of it. I relate to the rest of the imperfect people that needed saving in Israel.  Like  Zaccheus, Matthew, Peter, Paul, and all the others who were living in the land of deep darkness. The ones on whom the light shined so brilliantly (Isaiah 9:2).    

Real preparation is stressful and the world we live in is not a peaceful place! But the best gifts are ones that the recipient has a great need for, and cannot acquire for themself. The stress of life and of Christmas preparation makes us know how desperate we are for a savior. The ones most elated about Jesus’ arrival are the ones who know how hopeless they are without him.  Jesus said, “…It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
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     God sent John the Baptist to prepare us. His father prophesied,

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest;

For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways,

To give knowledge of salvation to His people

By the remission of their sins,

Through the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us;

To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace.” Lu 1:76‭-‬79 NKJV

And years later, when the people asked John himself how they should prepare, he said,

“Therefore, bear fruits worthy of repentance…He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”  Lu 3:8‭, ‬11 NKJV

    So as Christmas approaches and the chaos of finishing the preparations increases, I will listen to John. My inability to finish the to-do list and constantly spread joy will make me acnowledge my need for salvation.  Snapping at my children while shopping and baking will impress upon me my great need for forgiveness.  Receiving that tender mercy will relieve me from every burden, and like the wise men, I will “rejoice with exceedingly great joy.” (Matt 2:10)

And like Mary, sing, “For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name,” Luke 1:49
And like Elizabeth, Zacharia, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and everyone else throughout history who had that light shining on them, guiding them into the way of peace.

But I won’t forget John’s instructions, to bear fruit worthy of repentance no matter how stressful it is, because that is the true essence of spreading God’s love at Christmas. To not only prepares ourselves, but also our neighbors.

It is good to search for God’s presence, and be still during Christmas. Jesus already came and granted us access to the peace of his presence. But its also okay to embrace the stress of preparation, and to let it remind you how desperately dark and chaotic  Israel was when Jesus arrived. Let it remind you how badly you need his peace and how utterly incapable you are of finding it for without him.

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Lord Jesus,
   Master of both the light and the darkness, send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
   We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear your voice each day.
   We who are anxious over many things look forward to your coming among us.
   We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
   We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of your presence.
   We are your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
   To you we say, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
   Amen.

             -Henri Nouwen