This maybe the most real and authentic Christmas season!
It’s inconvenient, somewhat disappointing, socially restrictive, and tiresome. Who would have dared to imagine what lay ahead while eating turkey last Christmas? We had plans, dreams, ambitions, and expectations for 2020. And then, crash!
Sounds similar to what it must have been like for Joseph and a heavily pregnant Mary trudging up to Jerusalem for a census. The religious leaders made demands and the Roman occupiers demanded compliance. Adding to that were their plans to marry as per family tradition. Dreams and agreements were turned scandalously upside down by no other than God! If God wanted his son to be born on earth, why now? It’s never convenient.
“Mary, you’ll be pregnant with no human father. Joseph you’d better believe it!”
“Joseph, I never cheated on you.”
“Mary, I had a dream.”
“Mum and dad, please believe us, we weren’t fooling around in the haystack.”
Just when we think we have life figured out we’re flat on our faces wondering what happened? When we conclude nothing is working out the sun breaks through and the path ahead is crystal clear. Between flashing moments of trauma and exhilarating ecstasy are long seasons of mundane, everyday, unseen living – by faith.
Perhaps the challenge (more than the problem) is that we tend to equate happiness with certainty, security, and predictability. When I pray, I expect God to answer within my unspoken list of expectations, my sense of reasonableness, safety, and of course my talents and giftings. And when it doesn’t quite roll out as I might have hoped I have a crisis of faith, my inner angst rises, and I shake my head in confusion. When it does work out I ‘am blessed’.
Perhaps I’m not alone in this unpredictable journey. The problem with such an approach is that our faith tends to reside in our perceptions and mindsets as we come to God. We actually call the shots and explain to him how things should unfold, “If you really love me and I am your much loved son/daughter then you will…” How many times have I shaken my fist in his face and protested…
As the years have gone by, many years, there have been a wide variety of life experiences of every shade. It has become increasingly complicated to attempt to second guess the ways of God. So much that’s transpired has not linked dots as expected, has taken unanticipated turns, and has on many occasions been confounding and confusing. Here’s the paradox. God’s faithfulness, his love, his kindness, and his truth have never changed. But my perceptions have often stumbled, lost focus, and required reconfiguring. My conclusion eventually? His ways are not my ways and his thoughts are not my thoughts. No matter what is happening around me it’s much easier to not lean on my own understanding. Because when I try and overthink God I invariably chase the wrong rabbit, draw the wrong conclusion, and exaggerate a fabricated explanation.
Faith is real when I choose to place myself in his hands, whatever my circumstances, and to trust him anyway; Mary and Joseph are a great example.
Which leads me to woodcarving. The process helps me with faith.
How often does our prayer go something like this?
“Lord, I pray (for me of someone else) please send me/them a wooden spoon so that I/they can….”
What happens? I/we find ourselves holding a log. Yes, it’s wooden, but I asked for a spoon! I asked for a messiah and you sent a baby. I begged for a Douglas fir and you sent a seed?
If we could hear God speaking perhaps it would be: “The spoon is in your hands within the log. Remove the excess and you will find it. Nurture the child. Plant and water the seed.”
I want God to give me the fully formed answer to my prayer, preferably now. Like the Hebrews wanted condos and supermarkets on arrival in the Promised Land rather than boots, picks and shovels.
It appears that God often prefers to provide the tools and processes to enable me to mature and grow in order to handle the spoon well when it’s finally within my grasp. Most of us neglect or reject the process. We prefer God to be a sugar-daddy rather than a coach, a teacher, a mentor, or a woodcarver.
We’re like the cherry log in the hands of the carver demanding this and that. It may be wiser and more exciting to place ourselves in the carver’s hands and ask, “What do you see within, what would you like to carve in me today? I’m so grateful that I can trust you with me.”
The carver begins to cut away the excess material, first to a rough outline of the final object and then with increasingly fine attention to detail. Reflect on carving, removing what is not needed, exposing what lies within. How would that look and feel in real life? How often would I desire to have the carver halt the process? Stop, it hurts!
Whatever is in the mind and heart of the carver eventually is revealed in the form taking shape in the wood. We marvel at the spoon and forget the process to transform the log into the eating utensil. That yieldedness is called faith. Believing for what I cannot yet see, or comprehend.
The carver utilizes a variety of tools during the process of forming the spoon. God’s tools for shaping a life include circumstances, time, people, struggles, patience, learning, practicing, risking, believing, and multiple variations of those elements.
Christmas in Bethlehem is a window into God’s process. Consider how he responded to Mary and his son.
People were praying for the arrival of a messiah to save them and to fulfil the promises of old. Instead they were given a baby in a manger with peasant parents rather than kings and queens. The baby couldn’t talk or teach, he messed his diapers, nursed at his mother’s breast, and gurgled – for months on end. It took thirty years for the messiah to reveal himself. Then people wanted miracles and John the Baptist was beheaded. They wanted a revolution and the man called messiah was crucified. There was news of his resurrection. Hope rose only to be dashed with persecution and bloodshed. It took nearly 400 years for the Romans to lose their tyrannical grip; and as it slipped the Christian church exploded worldwide like a dove released.
The process is repeated in every generation – and each of our lives, again and again.
During this strange, yet perhaps not as new as we might think, Christmas season we could ponder Mary’s words. The night when she received a revelation from an angel that changed her life forever. Ahead of her lay years of uncertainty, mountains of unexpected joy, and valleys of the most excruciating sorrow.
First came the question that all of us ask, repeatedly. “How will this be? How can you transform this log, this circumstance, this Covid, this failure, this track record, into something useful and beautiful?”
No answer was forthcoming to her question. God often seems equally silent to mine. But the answer to the young Mary is the same as he gives to you and to me. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and you, and you….. to make possible in you and through you what you lack. Power to go forward is given, explanation and understanding may or may not follow. Trust me anyway.”
Mary’s response to her unanswered question, and her frightening commission?
“I am the Lord’s servant. may your word to me be fulfilled.”
God the Father, as revealed through Jesus his Son, brought to life in us through the Holy Spirit is certainly, unpredictably reliable. Me, not so much.
That’s why Christmas is good news. It brings me joy, hope, assurance, and a place to hang my hat and heart, always, no matter what. And of that I’m sure.
May the same God of Mary and Joseph speak to each of us this Season with dreams, revelations, people, chisels, and sandpaper as our transformation continues. There’s much more still to be revealed.