Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Cardboard Box Manger Scene

I love Christmas. While I enjoy giving and receiving gifts, my favorite part of the holiday is spending quiet time just being with my family. For me, Christmas is not complete without many evenings spent watching the tree, playing music with my mom, and gathering as a family to hear the Christmas record.

Now that I've moved out on my own, some of that will change. Instead of enjoying an entire month of light and music and togetherness, our family time will likely be confined to a few hours of dinner and conversation. I considered decorating my makeshift apartment with a tiny tree, but I fear it would only sharpen my sense of being alone since my family wouldn't be there to enjoy it with me.

But winter is dreary enough without missing out on an entire month of lights and festivities. As I contemplated the best way to decorate without increasing my loneliness, I realized my focus has been all wrong. Important as family is, it's not what Christmas is about. Christmas is about Jesus coming. How could I have forgotten Him?

I dug through my storage boxes until I located my cheap glass manger scene. I'd never paid much attention to the manger set my mom put up every year, but now, as I studied the simple figures in my hand, I felt inspired.

Jesus was born in a stable. Nothing fancy or expensive there. For my stable, I chose a cardboard box turned on its side. I left the flaps on. It seemed a fitting choice to represent the kind of place Jesus was born.

Joseph must have scraped up hay to cushion the newborn baby in the manger. He had to be resourceful and use what he had, which wasn't much. I laid an old towel on the floor of my stable, covering it with dry pine needles I gathered in the yard.

Close-up of my manger scene

A few animals may have witnessed Jesus' birth. I nestled an antique brass chicken and a ceramic lamb behind my glass figures.

A special star lit the sky, marking the place Jesus was born. I tacked a tiny string of colored lights around the ceiling of my stable.

The stable was an incredibly humble, dirty, makeshift place. As I constructed mine, I wondered where Jesus would have been born had He come in modern times. Would He have been born under a bridge or in a car parked at a rest stop? I know this much: it would have been a place so lowly it was embarrassing. That didn't matter a bit to the mighty angelic beings who attended and sang at His birth. So I hung three sparkling angel cutouts at the doorway of my stable.

Putting together my manger scene took less than an hour. It was fun, but to my surprise, it was also an emotional journey as I realized anew how completely Jesus humbled Himself at Christmas.

I still feel alone sometimes, but when I plug in my manger scene, I'm at peace. For inside my cardboard box is everything that really matters.

Yup, it's all in a box!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Bowl Dilemma

House sitting is fun, but it did bring a few unwelcome surprises. I detest folksy decorations, particularly snowmen; but when I walked through the door, there they were. Dozens of them, grinning at me from the tables, the corners, the window sills, the kitchen towels, the plates and pillows and coffee mugs. Talk about infuriating!

But that wasn't the biggest surprise. I discovered there were no bowls in the house. No bowls! Does the lady have something personal against bowls? Bowls are part of every china set; yet she has no bowls even in her fancy collections. How on earth does she serve cereal or soup?

Trying to be flexible, I ladled my oatmeal into the most bowl-like object I could fine, a squarish white dish that was probably marketed as a bowl but is too small to bear the name. When I attempted to stir in milk and granola, the oatmeal slopped over the sides. How could I keep myself properly fed with that going on?

So the next morning, while the oatmeal bubbled, I scoured the cupboards and cabinets for bowls as thoroughly as an addict searching for misplaced pills. I even climbed on chairs to check the upper shelves. The search was fruitless. Not a single bowl.

Disgusted and incredulous (how can someone hate bowls that much?) I dug through the Tupperware and came up with a glass Pyrex dish which will serve as my bowl for the time being. It's a little big, but I can deal with that. At least I can stir my cereal without slopping.

I did gain one thing from my search. I discovered  some nice white plates on the shelf above the ugly snowman plates. Goodbye, ugly snowman plates... I really didn't want to eat off of you every day until April.

Author's Note: 
This piece is an excerpt from a February journal entry which I recently condensed so I could share it with my writer's guild. My intent is not to complain, but to find humor in the difficulties that invariably crop up anytime a person tries to live in someone else's home. I truly appreciate these people for letting me house sit for six weeks; it was a blessing. And the snowmen? After I threatened to host a snowman eradication party, they got scared and stopped taunting me. We parted on tolerable terms.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Are You Buckled in the Back Seat, or Riding on the Running Boards?

Recently I talked with a lady in jail who says it wasn't her idea to become a Christian. In fact, she was opposed to the idea. But then God came and found her, and she seems pretty happy about it.

Her testimony reminds me of things the pastors at church say. Things I haven't quite known what to do with. They testify that God chose them before they even wanted to be His, while they still wanted their sin. And that God worked and bent their will to line up with His, and that now, as His chosen children, they have nothing to worry about ever again, because God is taking care of every detail of their lives just like Jesus said He would. And they say that God has chosen each one of His people, despite there being nothing good in them to make Him choose them, and we can know that He loves us because of it.

It sounds good. It makes me feel like God loves me a lot, but it doesn't agree with what I have been taught all my life. So lately, I've been meditating on the question of whether we choose God, or He chooses us. I'm not a theology expert and may never work out the finer points of this question. Chances are they would keep the best theologians arguing all night. But I'd like to present you with a simple illustration.

Imagine there's a toddler in an orphanage who decides he needs a new daddy. So he comes running out into the parking lot and jumps on the running board of a pickup truck and hollers to the driver, who just happens to be Jesus: "I'm going home with you, like it or not!" And he spends the rest of the journey clinging for dear life, hoping he doesn't fall off, trying desperately to believe that Jesus loves him and is taking care of him.

Contrast that with another scenario. Jesus comes into the orphanage and finds this little kid and bends down and says, "Guess what? I'm going to be your new daddy." Whether the kid loves Him or hates Him at that moment doesn't make a difference. Jesus signs the papers, picks him up and buckles him in the back seat and drives home. The kid has done nothing. But he need never worry again, because he has the best daddy ever, and that daddy has chosen him to be his son and is committed to doing whatever it takes to raise him and care for him and love him. The kid can't fall out of the truck, and he doesn't need to ever wonder whether Jesus loves him, because Jesus went out of His way to choose him and adopt him as His own.

Like I said, I'm not a theology expert. (Just in case you couldn't tell that from my illustration of Jesus driving a pickup truck.) I don't know exactly what's taught in strict Calvinism or Arminianism. I'll let those who do, carry on the centuries-old debate between free choice and divine choice. For me, the question boils down to this: Either God initiates my relationship with Him, and God keeps that relationship going, and God directs and powers the changes in my life, and God upholds and protects and provides and keeps me secure in that relationship with Him as His child, or else I initiate the relationship. I keep it going. I direct and power the changes in my life, and I uphold and protect and provide and keep myself secure in my relationship with God. I ask you, which scenario makes more sense? In which scenario is God being the father and I the child?

Growing up, I believed it was all up to me. It was up to me to lay aside my beloved sins and get myself cleaned up and do good deeds (which I hated) and build a relationship with Jesus. It was up to me to repent, to seek Him, to choose Him, to keep myself on the straight and narrow every day. I never felt secure, and I could never trust God or rest in the knowledge that He loved me. I felt like that little kid, clinging on the outside of the truck, afraid I was going to fall off, telling Jesus I was going home with Him when I didn't even know Him.

It was painful, it was difficult, and it didn't work. Even though I had asked Jesus into my heart as a child, I did not love God. Sin and fear controlled my life. Somewhere in my mid-teens, I concluded I was not truly born again.

At that point I might not have cared, except that I was hungry for love. Starved might be a more accurate word. My Christian upbringing caused me to believe that if I got saved, I would experience God's love. The dilemma was how to make that happen. Especially since I could not stop sinning and didn't even want to. Since (as I believed) it was all up to me, it looked impossible.

But I tried. I made promises to stop sinning which I could not keep. I did more and worse sins, hoping to earn the compassionate mercy of God. I read tracts and prayed dozens of sinner's prayers, hoping the words held some magic to change my heart and quicken my spirit. I read a book which said if I prayed for salvation, God would hear me and I would be saved. All I had to do was believe and hold onto what the Bible said about that. So I prayed again and tried hard to believe. But afterward I was still the same person, insecure and afraid because I knew maintaining the relationship I had supposedly initiated with Jesus was all up to me. I still wanted to sin. I still needed to sin. I knew there was no way I could deny myself and perform all the good deeds I deemed necessary to keep myself in good standing with God every day. I was scared because I knew that five minutes down the road, I was going to lose my tenuous grip on the side of Jesus' truck and that would be it.

Being stubborn, I kept on trying. I was determined to do the impossible and get myself saved. My most memorable attempt involved a crazy plan to make myself get tired of sinning so I would quit. Whether this was intended to bring about my salvation, or only to improve my health, I don't recall. I made a strict rule that increased how much I had to sin to the point that it was a burden to do it. If I broke the rule and failed to perform the required deed for even one day, I promised to give up this sin I loved so much.

In retrospect, my rule was not only foolish and dangerous, but it also held no power to change my heart. I know I would not have given up my sin as I had promised, for that was where I derived my self-worth. But at the time, it seemed to work; for a little over three weeks later, my heart changed quite suddenly. I spent that evening praying instead of pursuing sin. God opened my heart and mind to hear and understand the gospel through a tract. I prayed, an extremely simple prayer which I never finished because Jesus came into my heart and I KNEW He was there. I also knew I was never going to be the same person again.

Because of my belief that it was up to me to choose God, I of course concluded that my rule forcing me to sin more was what led me to find Christ. Sounds a bit weird, doesn't it? I can't recommend anyone else try it, that's for sure. In light of what I've learned recently, here's what I believe actually happened.

I made a new rule that I had to sin more. I had a few miserable experiences but kept stubbornly on, because I really wanted to keep sinning. (Despite the unpleasant consequences, it was actually easier to follow the rule and sin more than it was to quit.) In the middle of this sick experiment, God stepped in and said, "Enough!" In His mercy, He changed my heart, opened my mind to understand and believe the gospel, and saved me. HE did it, not me. Jesus chose me that night. He lifted me out of my sin, the sin I had wanted so badly, and gave me a new life... and I was pretty happy about it.

This new version makes WAY more sense. I'm relieved to finally know the real story of what happened to me. And I'm very happy to know that God did choose me. Because if He didn't -- if my belonging to Him was my idea, not His -- then I would be on shaky ground. Because then perhaps He doesn't really want me, and He's only permitting me to stay... if I behave well. And if that were true, I am right back to where everything is up to me, because I have attached myself to a God who hasn't promised to be my Father. I'm an illegitimate child. And I can't trust Him to provide for me; I have to worry and beg Him for stuff and hope He agrees to give it to me. Or else go out and try to find my own provisions. I have lived this way for too many years.

I am so glad God chose me and picked me up and buckled me into the back seat of His truck. I am safe. I can't fall out of the truck, and I don't have to wonder whether God really wants me or loves me enough to handle my bad attitudes. God chose me because He wants me and He loves me. Knowing that, I can dare to relax and learn trust Him.