A Mother Receives Her King

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Breasts are a scandal because they shatter the border between motherhood and sexuality. 

― Iris Marion Young

All three of the babies destroyed my breasts. During the early days of nursing I had to Lamaze-breathe through their latching-on to withstand the pain. My nipples blistered and scabbed, their suckling a violent and terrifying act. Soaked teabags relieved some of the pain, but the true remedy was for me to toughen up.

The work of birthing, nursing and growing infants is demanding and exhausting. The most exhilarating of experiences, while also reducing parents to shells of their former selves – better shells, but shells nonetheless. In this land of extremes, I found myself alternating between the profoundest joy and the deepest grief, my predictable existence flipped upside down by eight pounds. The cry of infant dictators a grave threat to my expectation of personal entitlement.

Once a mother arrives to the other side of childbirth, she’s been poked, prodded, splayed for the world to see. The body is reduced to function, to instinct, devoid of personal dignity. The early days are not about discretion, they are about function and nourishment and care for the tiny human. A good mother’s tantamount goal – to grow babies, to bond and keep them alive and fed and warm.

At this 2016 year-end, we have witnessed more tragedy, more corruption, more disappointment than a single year should offer. We need relief, we need rest, we need freedom from fear. Peace feels distant, but few things are more peaceful than providing witness to a nursing mother and her baby. And so, I sidle up to Mary, the nursing mother and her infant Christ. I gaze upon the fresh baby as I rest my weary, tear-stained cheek against her soft shoulder. Afraid to interrupt, I remain motionless as the baby gulps, pulling long for nourishment, for comfort. Jesus, the Christ, Emmanuel – fed by humanity, nurtured by humanity, held by humanity, bonded with humanity. Mary’s body, soft and supple, ready to receive her king.

I imagine Mary spent the nursing hours reflecting upon Jesus’s features. She and Joseph may have had a running commentary: Hey Joseph, are these my eyes or God’s? Whose nostrils are these? And what about that cowlick? I wonder if she trimmed his lengthening nails with her teeth, or breathed in his sweet, fresh infant breath. I suspect so.

I deposit my fear and worry before I rest beside her. I approach ready, willing, longing. My troubles, anger and confusion are immediately replaced by wonder, awe, and expectation. I shudder with chill when I remember this is no ordinary scene. THIS is the dawning of my King, Our King, Our Savior, the Messiah.

Now.

Shepherds start to trickle in, sheep in tow. They are unsure of proper protocol, this woman, reclined, feeding. This scene is foreign to them, uncomfortable. But babies must eat and Mary knows the urgency of his cry. She hesitates to share the Christ child, but she knows the work before her, the responsibility she bears. While she relishes the opportunity to bond, to reflect and ponder, to keep the baby for her own, she knows. She knows her road as a mother is long.

The shepherds really smell, no modern day hospital would let them in, their stench indicates unsanitary, unclean. But Mary knows. She knows God preferred a stench. She knows God prefers strangers and dirt and unrefined. And so, she knows what she must do.

Her bent finger breaks the seal between babe and breast. She covers herself and offers the baby to Joseph. Joseph cradles his head with great care while tucking Jesus against his robe, craving the physical bond, also. But he knows this is not about him right now, so he steps toward the shepherds and displays before them the Christ. One tentative, grimy finger outlines the infant cheek, while another holds the infant hand, running his thumb across the dimpled knuckles. Another asks to hold Jesus, his scratchy robe an offense but not one that  seems to bother the Christ. The man lowers his nose to the soft, downy head and takes a long and lingering inhale.

My body and mind have fought hard this year to make sense of events, to anticipate elections, to provide relief and understanding in my circles. I cannot fight anymore, it is the time for rest, for renewal, for my full presence with loved ones. And so, I seek the baby. I seek to nuzzle my nose, to imagine the circumstances of his birth, while remembering the births of my three.  I imagine studying his delicate and beautiful features, hoping for a glimpse of God’s own. I imagine the bonding between mother and babe, hoping for a hit of calm in the midst of chaos. You can’t rush infants and you can’t rush feeding, and you certainly can’t rush love. And so I wait, watching, expectant.

The work of Love is slow, not to be forced or hurried. Love takes time and risk and patience. May we find our rest and renewal sidled up against the breast of Jesus, as his disciples did at the Last Supper. May we envision a world awaiting wonder with expectation. May we imagine the coming of Jesus as the lowliest of creatures, the lowliest of humans.  And may we usher Jesus into our own lives through knowing the lowliness that lives in us, too. May we be humble and restful enough to receive Her King.

Merry Christmas, friends. I pray we find our rest and our peace.

A Child Will Lead Us.

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The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.  -Albert Einstein

When the kids were tiny I procured a Little People Nativity Set. I’m not sure now how hard they are to come by, but twelve years ago it was a chore to obtain our plastic little gathering of happy players. Over the years Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, farm animals and wisemen have ridden on a bus with Mr. Potato Head, they’ve been fed countless treats, and traveled to places I will not mention. My children, now teens, no longer play with these toys, but I display them each year as a reminder to seek and protect childlike wonder.

As many of us know, this year the wonder is hard to find. Christmas feels like an obligation and a trudge rather than a time of celebration. I go through the motions, attending parties, buying gifts, decorating but the wonder is distant, disposed.

My brother Jeremy came to town last week. He brought two of his three boys, Zack and Sam, to Colorado for a long weekend visit. Both are wonderful nephews. I love being an auntie. I love knowing I can rile them up and hand them back. Zack (8) is gregarious and brilliant, filled with exuberance and questions. Sam is a thoughtful four-year-old who sits attentively while playing Legos. His spirit is peace-filled and kind, a curious child with remarkable demonstrations of love, his hugs could soften the harshest of humans. As the observant middle brother of three boys, it might behoove us to pay close attention to Sam someday. He is going to have things to say that we will want to hear.

Upon arrival, Sam made a beeline for the plastic Nativity. My careful display included Mary and Joseph attending to baby Jesus, with the barn animals and wisemen arranged neatly in a semicircle. The angel held his post above, keeping watch over the scene below.

Sam didn’t care for my adult neuroses. He took every figure, one by one, except the baby, and lined them up with toes touching the plastic edge of the manger. Each shared a front row view of Jesus, feet and bodies pressed together, shoulder to shoulder, straight and perfect and equal.

As I write this, news is flooding out of Aleppo, the city decimated by Assad’s forces, bombs pummeling, women and children dead and dismembered in the streets. I check my USA Today App to learn more. The lead headline under “Top Stories” is: “Dow Closes at Record but Doesn’t Top 20,000 Yet,” followed by additional headlines about the wildlife refuge occupiers, and Trump trying to run his businesses alongside a nation, and a preacher ranting to kids at a mall that Santa doesn’t exist. I scroll through two pages to find any mention of Aleppo.

The baby has to be enough. The baby has to be the answer. The baby has to be the hope, the healing, the rest for the world’s weary souls. The baby has to deliver on this promise, because it seems darkness bleeds as light dims. Suffering tries to win.

In the violence of birth, darkness precedes light. The terror and the wretched pain generate blood pumping through veins, cries piercing the nighttime chill. Life wins, Love wins. This baby, this boy, teenager and man. The Savior, our Savior  –  birthed into this world. Light grows and darkness wanes. Love beams down.

And I stumble upon remarkable things that display a generous hope, that reignite my wonder:

The moon this morning, framed by leafless trees, sinking downward absorbed by mountains.

A run with my friend, hashing out the difficulties of life and how far we have to go and how far we have come. A pride and grace flowing from our sweaty heads and pounding feet.

An early morning conversation with Eric over coffee, the room lit only by the tree, random ornaments from Christmases past reminding us of childlike and wonder-ful times.

Jesus’s arrival to earth, God in skin, is not for my benefit alone, but for the world. Jesus’s birth and life and death is so we have something to hang onto, when the weight of the burden is too great to bear, when the pain of the suffering doubles us over, when the fear threatens to close in and we cannot breathe. Jesus is the weight, the depth, and we get to line up, toe to toe, in front of his precious body and proclaim our worship, our adoration, our need.

Nothing else works.

Bodies bent and broken, minds filled with fear, hearts yearning for relief – this is where Jesus does his best work. This is where we find our wonder. Waiting, yearning, hoping, praying, seeking.

The Child will lead us.

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”

Matthew 5:1-12, The Message

God is for you, full stop.

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I was saved eleven times. As a kid growing up in an Evangelical denomination, I was invited to ask Jesus into my heart at every camp, revival, special youth retreat. I did ask Jesus into my heart but remained terrified. In order to insure my salvation, I had to pray the prayer, examine my spirit, return to a life of repentance, because, apparently I was a horrible sinner and incapable of discovering redemption without the constant and consistent revisitation to upgrade my heavenly insurance policy. My obedient trips to the altar were real, complete with quaking legs, pooling sweat, eyes closed and hands raised, in order to earn me Eternal life in Heaven, or more accurately, eternal life out of Hell.

I had the terrifying narrative of Hell drilled into me from the A Thief in the Night movies to warnings of Satanic conversations in backwards-playing records. My faith, no matter how hard I worked, could not guarantee that I would stay out of Hell, much less get into Heaven. The game was one I would never win, nor was it possible to do enough to appease this angry god, this god of the Old Testament who demanded blood for my wretched sins, my horrible failures.

It wasn’t until college, at a leadership retreat. While everyone was weeping over their transgressions and selfishness, I had nothing. No emotion. I could not conjure even one tear. I was bereft. What was wrong with me? I was the best of them, the most guilty, the most sorry, the most devastated over my human sin. After a conversation with a wiser and older mentor, I saw the new place I had come. My place in God’s order of things had nothing to do with what I couldn’t feel, but what I knew. I knew I was accepted. I knew I was good.

After all the years of confusion and misbelief, trying to be holy enough to placate this god, I have found rest, I have found Love. The God of mercy, cherishes all humanity and loves us through the transforming communion between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are invited into this generous union, celebrating the beauty of complete relationship. The need for self-flagellation, for sacrificing ourselves on the altar of perfection to satisfy a wrath-filled, vengeful god is false. No! We are cherished and adored with full and abundant mercy. Relief and compassion flood over us like a lifted weight, as a dream come true. The relief is palpable because the relief is real, because we know.

The words of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese come to mind:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

I created a terrible god in my image because I believed I was terrible and undeserving of love. In my quest for perfection, in my harboring of resentment and shame I could not know. I could not know how very loved I was. I am.

Until we love ourselves, until we step away from the shame, we cannot know the freedom Ms. Oliver discusses. We cannot. The leap into surrender, responding to the beckoning of a remarkable, desiring God will forever be one good deed removed.

I am not loved because I’ve been saved or because I have a great smile or well-behaved kids or because I’ve stayed married or I go to church or because I’ve been baptized. All of this is irrelevant. I am loved by God because I am. Full stop. Nothing added, nothing removed. When I add conditions, I create a lie.

You are loved by God because you are,

Full Stop.

No conditions, no demands, no crawling on your knees for a hundred miles repenting.

Our God is love and generous mercy. Our God died to understand our suffering, to undergo the travails of the human condition, to shine light and bring relief. Our God came to this world in a treacherous age, as an infant, the most vulnerable of creatures. In a world that hated him, that was already out for his blood, our God, in bodily form, healed and loved and ate and communed with the destitute.

Us.

Because aren’t we all the destitute? Aren’t we all beat up, battered?

The Baby signifies our entitlement to the heart of God. The Baby proves this to our hope-weary souls.

You can go to church every day for the rest of your life. God isn’t going to love you any more than God loves you right now. You cannot make God love you any less, either – not an ounce less. Do the most terrible thing – steal and pillage, cheat and lie – and God wouldn’t love you less. You cannot change the Divine mind about you. The flow is constant, total and 100% toward your life. God is for you.

-Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance.