PRONE TO PONDER

PRONE TO PONDER

I am prone to ponder more than most men. Most of my sex—gender is sophistry I prefer not to use—are action-oriented, more likely to take up a task than contemplate its meaning. I’m just bent a little different. It’s probably a good thing, as pondering is a professional necessity for preachers. And it’s one thing I have in common with the mother of Jesus, who “gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”[1]

The word translated “ponder” means meditate. The literal translation is to converse or confer with someone. So, Mary had a conversation with herself about the things that happened to her.

One of the best ways to prepare for Christmas is to do what Mary did, to ponder the imponderables. Let’s do that with her.

First, there was the angelic visit. Abraham received angelic visitors, Jacob wrestled with one, Moses heard the angel speak, Joshua saw an angel, Gideon too and David, and Elijah and Isaiah and Daniel.  Samson’s mother, the wife of Manoah, saw and spoke with an angel. All these people of great fame and impact in Israel had seen an angel and heard one speak. Now, Mary, too, had seen and heard one of the flaming messengers. And his word to her had come true. It wasn’t a dream.

She pondered this. And it was good.

Then there was the angelic description of her son: “You are to give him the name Jesus.” Names mean little to us, just labels we use to identify each other. Names meant much more in ancient times. They designated the character and calling of a person. They were as much prayers and prophecies as they were labels. For you to call your son, Jesus was to make his name a form of praise and testimony. For an angel to give your son the name, Jesus was to make a prophecy about his life.

Calling someone a son of God wasn’t completely unheard of in those days. Caesar was considered divine. Pharaoh was called divine. Antiochus, who conquered Israel between the testaments, adopted the name Epiphanes—”the god who reveals himself.” But the angel called Jesus, the “son of the Most High,” who is lifted far above all gods and men. He is also the heir to David’s throne, the eternal King, Messiah. He comes to be a nursing infant in a peasant girl’s arms.

Mary pondered long, meditating on the meaning of all these things. And they were good.

Where would you least like to spend Christmas? I would not want to spend it in Syria or Sudan or Venezuela or several other war-torn and poverty-stricken places right now.  But multiply the distance between here and there by 1,000 or 1,000,000, and you will not come close to the distance Jesus traveled and the deprivation he endured to become Emmanuel. Meditate on that, and you will find it good.

Finally, the supernatural conception: Every mother knows her baby is special. We often call the whole process of birth a miracle. It is wondrous and beautiful, but it isn’t miraculous. It’s part of our nature, the system God created. In Jesus, God bypassed the system. Mary knew her baby was more than special. Her baby truly was a miracle.

C.S. Lewis wrote beautifully on the incarnation. Read and ponder. “Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.”

“In the Christian story, God descends to re-ascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He had created. But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift; he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through the increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay, and then back up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting until suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover.”[2]

That dripping, precious thing is you, and I. Christmas is when we celebrate his coming down to us. Ponder all of that, and you will find it good.

[1] Luke 2:19

[2] The Joyful Christian, Readings from C. S. Lewis pgs. 54-55.

SON OF THE MOST LOW

She’s going to break my fingers! But I can’t tell her to stop!

That debate ran through the back of my mind while the front tried, and failed, to help my dear young wife face the panic and pain of her first birth. She was holding the fingers of my left hand all in a bunch, sitting on the sofa of our little apartment, and squeezing the daylights out of them with every contraction. We had already been to the hospital once and sent home. “She’s not ready. Come back tomorrow morning.” That had been hours ago. I thought she might pass out. Heck, I thought I might pass out. But the nerves, and the pain, and the anticipation kept us up all night. By the time the doc decided on a C-section, she’d been in labor seventy-two hours, but that’s another story.

I think about that when I think about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Like many of our contemporaries, we were having our first baby in a brand-new birthing center, with all the latest science, and comforts at our disposal, supervised by an obstetrician with decades of experience. Of course first century mothers had none of that, but Mary had reasons to expect better than she was getting.

Remember what the angel had told her? “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

With that kind of information about the child in her womb, it would be understandable for Mary to have high expectations. What kind of birth arrangements would God engineer for His Son? How would the Son of the Most High make his entrance?

But the birth of Jesus was a true worst case scenario for Mary and Joseph.

It came at the most difficult of times. The census had the whole country in upheaval. Roads were jammed with travelers; the price of 90-octane donkey fuel went through the roof. Tempers were short and lines were long. Everybody was stressed to the max and they had no choice about making the trip. Their son’s first day on earth would be a day marked by an act of oppression. He was born with a Roman boot on his neck.

It came at the end of a draining day. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is only sixty miles as the crow flies. Maybe two hours by car. But it was a three-day journey for them–Joseph on foot, Mary at full term on a swaying donkey’s back, camping out under the stars, eating sparse meals. Even if Mary was a teenager, she was no doubt extremely tired and sore. They probably traveled alone as well, because by now it was known that Mary’s condition was not a result of her marriage to Joseph. Both must have felt a sense of isolation. There would be no joyous family celebration like the one at John the Baptist’s birth.

Finally, the baby came in the most desperate of circumstances. Joseph was still searching for a room when Mary’s labor pains began. The inns in Bethlehem were full of other census pilgrims who had traveled faster than an expecting mother could manage. As a last resort they took shelter in a stable, filled with the pungent smells of pack animals. The first air that would fill the nostrils of the Son of God was the air that peasants breathe.

I wonder what Mary must have thought of all this as she remembered the Angel’s words, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” I know what I think. The Son of the Most High came to Earth as the “son of the most low.” God engineered the birth of His Son so that all who believe, from the lowest to the highest, could come to Him without fear, and experience the best gift He has for man, a life giving relationship with Himself.

BLUE CHRISTMAS Rx

Depending on whom you ask Christmas is either the best or worst time of the year. For some, “it’s those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call!” For others it’s anything but.

True, the oft-quoted myth that suicides peak during Christmas is just that, a myth. The rates actually go down.

On the other hand, WebMD reports that “Holiday blues are a pretty common problem despite the fact that as a society, we see the holidays as a joyous time,” says Rakesh Jain, MD, director of psychiatric drug research at the R/D Clinical Research Center in Lake Jackson, Texas.

In other words, we’re less likely to do ourselves in, but perhaps more likely to think about it.

Those of us who have lost family members, or been through the trauma of divorce are most prone to the Christmas blues. Reminders of loved ones gone come in as many colors as gift wrap, and the complications of conflicts with step-families and feuding parents are well documented sources of holiday unhappiness. Add to that the amped up expectations for joy, the stress of preparations, travel, shopping, lack of exercise and extra eating and it’s no wonder some of us get grumpy and sad.

So if Blue Christmas is your holiday hymn, here are a few ideas to help you change your tune.

Change your geography. We humans are creatures of habit and highly sensitive to our environments. When we do the same things the same ways in the same places year after year it can be difficult to associate Christmas with joy, especially if the people who were part of that joy are no longer present. Change your geography. Do Christmas in a new location, the beach, the mountains, any place, so long as it’s a different place that you enjoy.

Change your traditions for the same reason. Change the routine. Drop some old traditions and build some new ones. Never baked Christmas cookies? Try it. Tired of baking? Stow your cookie sheets, send the kids to the store and tell them to be creative.

Change your attitude, about grief that is. Grief is like the tide; it comes in and goes out on its own schedule, unpredictable for us. We don’t think it’s appropriate for the holidays so we try to restrain it, but that’s the worst thing we can do. Like an ocean wave, grief has energy and that energy will find an outlet, even if we try to suppress it. Anger, bitterness, resentment, depression can be the results. Better to adopt a new paradigm for dealing with grief, to ride the wave rather than stand against it. When we do that it can take us to new places of healing and yes, joy. “Blessed are those who mourn,” Jesus said, “for they will be comforted.” We can’t be comforted if we refuse to mourn.

Finally, change your theology. Remember that the first Christmas wasn’t all angels singing, shepherds kneeling and Magi giving gifts. It was also Joseph doubting, Mary wondering, Rachel weeping, and the family fleeing into Egypt. They were stressed out by Christmas too.

And while you’re remembering that, remember this: The true joy of Christmas can’t be found in the food, the gifts, the family and friends. These are only the celebrants and the elements of the celebration. The true joy is in the Christ child who came to “save his people from their sins,” and in the knowledge that God on high has declared “peace on earth to men on whom his favor rests.”

BEST CHRISTMAS TRIP EVER

In late December 1983 I was a newly engaged, newly minted seminary student, living in a rented room in Memphis, Tennessee, four hundred miles away from family and fiancé. The semester was over, but I had to stay a couple of days to teach a Wednesday night Bible study down in Batesville, Mississippi, about an hour south. I was living on $400 a month and saving up for a honeymoon, which being translated means I was hungry most of the time, and lonesome all the time in that pre-cellphone, pre-internet era. I planned to drive home to Atlanta the next day.

Rain was falling and the temperature with it as I finished the study, fired up my decrepit 1971 Fiat 128 and headed up I-55 North, fiddling with the radio as I drove. “A major winter storm will be on us by mid-night,” said the weather man, “with up to 12 inches of snow and ice accumulation.”

No way am I hanging around for that! I thought, and pushed the car to its top speed, 65 mph (62 uphill), and roared into town around 9:00 PM. I grabbed my stuff, waved goodbye to my landlady, and headed southeast on 78, the old, two-lane Arkadelphia highway, toward Birmingham, I-20 East, and home.

I cannot remember a colder, wetter, nastier night of driving. And did I mention I was hungry? But I couldn’t stop to eat, not only because I was broke, but the storm, according to the radio, was moving faster than the Fiat. By the time I reached the Alabama line Memphis was icing up and my windshield was trying to, the defroster barely staying ahead of the rapidly freezing rain. Visibility was less than fifty yards as the rain iced up the windshield wipers too, which fluttered every time a big rig passed in the opposite direction, scattering ice as the little car buffeted in the wake. If I can just make it to Birmingham, I kept saying to myself, I can make it all the way.

Every Christmas we relive the journey another man took to his hometown, pursued, not by ice storms, but by tyranny and doubts, accompanied not by a radio in a poorly heated car, but by an oddly-pregnant wife on an unheated donkey. And while Bethlehem was his hometown, no one would be waiting on him with hot food and warm beds. Quite the contrary, the best he could get was an animal shed for his wife and newborn son. Not much, but enough in his obedience, for God to turn the world upside down.

Makes us think, does it not, about how we treat others forced to flee from tyranny and about what our obedience might do.

The drive from Memphis to Atlanta usually took eight hours in that little car. That night it was closer to ten, but none of it mattered when the front door of Mom’s house opened before I reached it, and instead of Mom, my beautiful wife-to-be kissed me and hugged me tight, as the smell of frying bacon wafted out the door behind her.

“Surprise!” she said. “We knew you wouldn’t stay in Memphis, so I came down and spent the night with Mom!”

“Merry Christmas,” I said. It was the best Christmas trip ever.