This Christmas was different. We did all the traditional family stuff: put up our tree and the family momentos, made gingerbread houses and sugar cookies, and drove around to look at Christmas lights. It’s always been one of my favorite times of year, and it was again this year. But it was still different, with a whole new layer of meaning I hadn’t experienced before in my 50 years.
You see, I’ve never really understood Christmas. I can recite the familiar story about as well as anyone can. I understand its theological meaning: that God Himself chose to walk among us, suffer for us, and in so doing, save us from ourselves. I understand all of that, but I still feel like I don’t really understand. It’s always been just a story to me, no different than other stories unrelatable by the great distance of time and an element of the miraculous. I’ve long understood the story only with my head, but never my heart.
But this year was different. For a lot of reasons, this year I came into Christmas needing hope. I needed to believe, that in spite of all of the dark and pain and ugliness, there will be a happy ending. I desperately needed hope…I was looking for it. But the funny thing is that the Bible says that that’s all we really have to do: to look for it. There’s no magic key to life or to peace, only to have the desire to seek God. This year, simply by seeking Hope, I actually found it, and in so doing, I also began to understand the true meaning of Christmas.
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh shall receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.” –Matthew 7:7-8
One of the faith questions I’ve struggled with the most is the belief of so many that there is only one true religion. I was born into a Christian family in a Christian country, and so that is my faith. I believe in it strongly, particularly in its messages of love, inclusion, and redemption which resonate with me. But in spite of my own deep belief, I struggle with the notion of Christianity as the only path to God. I have friends of many faiths from all over the world and have adopted two girls from Buddhist China. When Megan was critically ill, prayers for her were sent up to heaven by Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. I simply cannot accept that the God of Love that I believe in so strongly would doom my friends and billions more to separation from Him, simply because they were born in a non-Christian country…a choice that was His, and not theirs.
However, John 14:6 seems to definitively state that Jesus is the only path to God, that “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That seems pretty clear. Yet I recently read a perspective pointing out that this passage says only that Jesus is the gatekeeper to God. What the passage does not say is what filter Jesus will use to decide who will pass through to God. It’s a critical point. Neither that passage, nor the rest of the chapter, says that Jesus will only pass Christians through. Jesus as gatekeeper to God is probably a strange notion to non-Christians, but to me it reassuringly aligns to a possibility that we’re all worshipping one God after all.
I’ll never understand why human nature inherently creates ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Why must we be right and everyone else wrong? Science has proven that there are no genetic differences between races. I also see no evidence that a different God created my Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist friends…it seems to me that we all come from the same place. The Bible consistently depicts a God of Love; I believe simply that He loves all of His wonderful people from a wide variety of faith backgrounds. Including me, a Christian from America.
“I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit.” –Khalil Gibran
I’ve always had lots of questions. How do things work the way they do? Why did you just act that way? What’s over that next hill? Why are we here? I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid: books, magazines, at age 12 my mother’s set of childhood encyclopedias. I loved the magazine Science that we subscribed to when I was a teenager; it made me want to be a theoretical physicist. After all, what better job could there be than answering the really big question of how the universe works?
While I’m grateful to now having a world of Google answers at my fingertips, I’ve resigned myself that many of my questions won’t be answered in this life. Some of them are random: what is the purpose of dreams, and why will we die if we’re prevented from having them? Is there life on other planets, and what is it like? Does God love dogs as much as we do, enough to have them in heaven (I’m thinking yes)? But some of my unanswerable questions are more profound: why is there suffering? What should I be doing with my life? Why must innocent children die? It’s part of the human condition to find ourselves in circumstances which force us to wrestle with questions like these.
My deep belief is that heaven will be a place where I will get all of the answers to my questions, plus many more I didn’t think of. I don’t believe in the vision of a harp-playing heaven in the clouds. In his book Heaven, Randy Alcorn lays out a biblical case that heaven will be our own renewed Earth. While I find some of his points a bit of a stretch, the overall idea feels right. Why wouldn’t God–who made us in His image to live in this Earth home–give us a glimpse of our future home to prepare us for when we share it with Him? I believe we will work and play, and enjoy art and music and each other for all eternity. And there will be plenty of time…and patience…for me to finally get answers to all of my questions.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” –Voltaire
Everyone in my immediate family has surgical scars. It’s one of the things I’ve always pointed to when highlighting ways we’re alike, even though we don’t all share DNA. When the girls were little, our new puppy “played with” a beloved stuffed Tigger, requiring surgery to repair; even Tigger was proud of the scar which made him one of us. While I’ve pointed to our scars to help us focus on what makes us family, I also wanted the girls to be proud of the scars from the heart surgeries which saved their lives. Little did I realize this lesson would come back to teach me one day.
Megan and I were passing time recently on one of the long drives to Little Rock, retelling family folklore. It comforts us both, somehow, to process our past as we face a somewhat scary future. I was sharing the story of adopting her kid sister when I realized, for the first time and with the full clarity of hindsight, how much fate intervened so that our youngest would end up a McCleary.
We were a few months into the adoption process when we discovered that I had a stomach tumor. We spent the next six weeks on a cancer roller coaster, which included a major and unpleasant surgery. By the time we got the all clear, we needed time to recover from some pretty deep scars, both physical and emotional. When we eventually restarted the adoption process a year later, our little peanut with the million dollar smile joined our family.
I now realize that without that unwelcome interruption, we would have ended up with the wrong daughter. While I’ve long been grateful for the gifts of perspective that specific trauma gave me, it hadn’t dawned on me that I owe the very makeup of my family to those scars. But I suppose that’s often the case, isn’t it? Our scars make us who we are, not just shaping us inside and out, but acting as serendipitous detours which help get us where we end up. Thank heavens I was never really in charge of shaping my life after all…if so, I’d have gotten it very wrong.
“Scars show toughness: that you’ve been through it, and you’re still standing.” –Theo Rossi
My earliest memories are from when I was less than two years old. They say we don’t have memories at that early an age, but they are wrong. I was hospitalized with pneumonia at 18 months. I have only two snippet memories from that stay: they are few, and they are short, but they are vivid.
My old-fashioned hospital room was straight out of Curious George Goes to the Hospital…a large room with 4-6 cribs and a play area. My very first memory is of my parents, grandparents, and aunt in that room bringing me an amazing gift–a stuffed bear as big as me! I loved that bear all through my childhood. I still have him, packed away in a plastic tote in the garage. He’s much smaller than I remember him, and he’s threadbare from love. Getting that bear, in that strange room surrounded by my family, is vivid memory number one.
The next thing I remember was waking at night in my crib in that strange room. My family was gone, and I was alone among the other sleeping children. I was scared and began to cry…I just wanted to go home. Except I wasn’t alone. A man was there, sitting in a chair beside a sleeping girl. He heard me cry and brought his chair over next to my bed. I remember him talking gently to me, though I don’t remember what he said. I only remember that him sitting there talking to me made me feel better. The memory then stops. I don’t remember waking the next morning, or leaving the hospital, or anything else until I was three. Just the bear and the man, both small comforts at a child’s time of fear.
I always tear up a little when I remember the man; this stranger’s kindness has stayed with me for nearly 50 years. I’ve since wondered if his daughter was ok…I’ve certainly hoped so. I now know that a parent doesn’t sit in a chair in a hospital through the night when everything is ok. I’ve also wondered if he remembers that night, whether he knows that his small gesture is remembered and appreciated. It’s a reminder that we all have the ability to make a difference in the life of another. But it’s also a reminder that even when we feel alone, Someone is always sitting next to us, ready to bring us comfort. We are never really alone.
“As a body everyone is single, as a soul never.” –Hermann Hesse
After the time change last week, my morning commute now begins in the dark. I don’t much like it…my drive is on curvy country roads, and I have to concentrate more in the dark. But as the sky began to brighten one morning this week, I remember feeling grateful, not just for that day’s daybreak, but that we can count on them coming every day.
When I was younger, I took the cycles of life for granted. As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate these repetitive rituals which come like clockwork. It’s actually pretty amazing if you think about it: the cycles of our world are so predictable that ancient peoples could learn them and pass them down to future generations with only the tools of observation and language.
I’m specifically grateful that the Earth’s daily rotation on its axis–a trait not every planet in our solar system possesses–gives us the gift of daily rest. I’m grateful for the cheer of watching the world reawaken from its annual slumber. The daffodils, now fading by the thousands in ditches along my daily commute, were the first bright sign amidst the brown grass of the hope of spring. They have been replaced by the exploding purple of the red bud trees and the majestic white of the Bradford pears, the new stars of this Great Show. I find myself spontaneously smiling as I drive…anybody who spots me, driving alone to work and grinning like a Cheshire Cat might be suspicious of my mental state. But the rhythms of life make me happy, they make me smile. And they make life reassuring and comforting, reminding me that Someone great and good has always been in charge.
“There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope.” –Bernard Williams
A friend recently shared an old joke with me that if you ever want to make God laugh, tell Him that you have a plan. I love that, because that’s exactly who I am. I’ve always been a planner, which is just my face-saving euphemism for control freak. I’ve recently faced a big decision that removed much of my control through the process. It has proven a wonderful, frustrating growth opportunity in which to learn to trust God.
Learning to trust God–that sounds simple, and it is. But just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’ve had to tell myself over and over again that God’s plan is perfect. Every time I found myself getting stressed out over it, I realized that I had tried to take back control of the decision, to figure it out on my own. And every time I recognized this and gave it all back to God, a strong sense of peace immediately followed. Why did it take me this long to discover this amazing secret to managing stress? Of course I know why…I’m stubborn and thick-headed and fiercely independent. These are all assets which can serve me well in some aspects of my life, but not in my relationships, including with God.
So I have learned another valuable life lesson, better late than never. I am thankful for the peace this lesson has brought me. And I am especially grateful for a God who does not give up on me.
“The most important lesson that I have learned is to trust God in every circumstance. Lots of times we go through different trials, and following God’s plan seems like it doesn’t make any sense at all. God is always in control, and He will never leave us.” –Allyson Felix