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December 31, 2013

a glimpse of God

They fell in love because they liked dancing together. "Not the best reason to marry someone," she admits, "but we did it anyway. We sure loved dancing!"

She waves a wrinkled hand and retells stories from years gone by. When she and her husband reached retirement, she wanted to give herself to important things, like a street-corner truth-sharing, or volunteer work with orphans. But her plans changed when she got stuck caring for her ailing husband, who is eight years her senior. Well, "stuck" is how she felt, until it occurred to her that she wasn't being held back from ministry, this was her ministry—caring for her dance partner. So, care she has.

On the wall in their bedroom three pictures hang: one from their wedding, one from their twenty-fifth anniversary, and one from their fiftieth anniversary. The changes that fifty years wrought on their faces and bodies are dramatic. Now, it's been eight years since that last portrait.

The man she married was a handsome, capable man who took her on cruises to the Far East. The man she's married to today is voiceless and withered, staring up at pictures of cartoons above his bed, contained by a crib-like railing. When he needs her, he squeezes a small squeaky toy.

This is how they're celebrating Christmas: she stays within earshot of the squeak. This is how they're celebrating love.

In the dining room, there's another couple. Well actually, now she's in the kitchen and he's in the entry way greeting guests. But on the dining room wall, they are pictured in a faded 8x10, cracking big smiles only 30 years ago.

They're greyer than 30 years ago, but the wide smiles and happy eyes remain. Tonight he's enthusiastically organizing games; she's managing multiple pots on the stove...and they both make it look so easy. She tells me that they had a family dinner in the afternoon; this evening's Christmas dinner is an "extra" meal. "Just" a meal for about fifteen people who don't have family around this Christmas. Just the way these two do life—they are given to hospitality.

The love I see between these two is demonstrates itself as like-mindedness. He asks for testimonies; she always has one to share. He leads the study; she contributes her insight. He invites a friend over; she makes her famous cake. He brings home the proverbial bacon; she graciously cares for his aging parents. They both glow when they talk about the good news. Their lives are one, split as by a semicolon: two related thoughts, flowing in the same direction, with the same idea in mind. Their love is evidenced by kind interaction and teamwork.

This is how they're celebrating Christmas; with a stirring spoon in one hand, straws for group games in the other. This is how they're celebrating love.

In the living room there are a dozen young adults playing games, laughing, and being extra-friendly. It's easy, when you're young and your skin is tight and your teeth are straight, to look for a love that is all jitters and woo-woo and lightening.

I don't have much to say about the youngsters, because they don't have much history yet. They're exploring. Giggling. Flirting a little. And probably giving no thought to the dining room, or the back room.

This is how the young are celebrating Christmas; smiles and nervous butterflies and glances. This is how they're celebrating love. 

I leave the back bedroom with a certain heaviness, and this is why:
I don't think that kind of love is in me.

Living room love? Yes.
Dining room love? Maybe.
Back room love? No.

What young soul doesn't want the woo-woo of the living room? It's heady; it's fun. It's a gift of God when it's guided by wisdom and truth. But friend, it's the cotton candy version of more enduring love—it's good but you can't live on it.

A young person could even value of the agreeableness of the dining room. Cooking dinner, taking care of the inlaws, steadily performing our duties day-in and day-out. It's a bit boring, but it's the stuff of life: potbellies and three square meals. This dinner, that outing. Haircuts and hassles, cancer and curry. Sunrise, sunset. We can see the value in their faithfulness.

But the door between me and the back room is closed. There's something in me that doesn't want the reality-check of that stubbly jaw or rumpled pajamas,
...where the pictures on the wall show decline,
...where look on his face reminds me that
"death will soon disrobe us all",
...where I see a still-capable wife dying to other dreams.

No, I don't think that back room love is in me.

Slowly, two thoughts come to mind.

First of all, love is of God. I could never conjure it up myself. And this is my hope: He who loves is born of God and knows God. He can produce this love-fruit in me, if I abide in Him. This is a miracle of His grace. That back room love is not in me yet, but He can produce it in me.

Secondly, old, enduring love can only come from people who are old and enduring. I've often wondered at the wisdom of God in making pregnancy a nine-month period. It gives a couple time to adjust, to dream, to plan, to prepare for a new little life. Except for those tabloid-like tales of women who give birth unexpectedly, there's really no such thing as a pregnancy that is still a surprise by the time the baby arrives.

In the same way, God never calls us to be elderly before we have first been young, and then middle-aged. In this I see His wisdom, too. He gives us time to discover what love is, at all its stages. At my age, it's no wonder that back room love seems beyond me. My call is not to serve an old husband, but it is to build a good wisdom-foundation for enduring love. To mediate on what true love looks like. To follow godly older examples.

So that someday, that back room love will be in me, too.

It's Christmas in this house, and the common areas are packed with people. But the real romance is in that back room. When a little squeak sends two loving, ever-available feet pattering over to see what's wrong. When a woman of integrity stands by her promise. When love, which is of God, appears in human fleshhere we catch a glimpse of God.

No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, 
God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 
—John, in 1 John 4:12  

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; 
and every one that loves is born of God, and knows God.
 —John, in 1 John 4:7 

"‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: 
this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. 
It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run:
being in love was the explosion that started it."
 —C. S. Lewis on Chr!stian Marriage

December 22, 2013

i found Christmas

It doesn't look like Christmas in our dusty Asian city. It's just like any other day: cows meander in the streets, a traditionally-dressed woman carries a bundle of sticks on her head, puppies yip and yap, and security guards chew betel-nut and stroll along the borders of my complex. The temperature is a comfortable +26°C and the air smells faintly of smoke, though it's not coming from fireplaces with stocking-adorned mantels. I hear a pounding hammer and cooking vessels clanging. On Friday, I asked an employee: "Have you ever celebrated Christmas before?" He shook his head and didn't really look like he cared whether he ever would. Christmas is no biggie here.

Canadian friends were visiting me for a few weeks, and together we found gangly plastic Christmas trees available in three heights: 3', 5', and 7'. We rustled through kitschy gold plastic bells to find a few lights and star garlands with which to decorate my tree of choice—the 5'. Later in the week, we picked bugs out of the flour and ground coarse sugar to make it slightly finer, for some Christmas baking. I'm hoarding bits of mail that come and putting them under the tree to open on Christmas morning. Sitting alone in the office on Saturday, I chomped my one imported candy cane and listened to Mary, Did You Know? and I'll Be Home for Christmas. And so it goes; I'm pulling together bits of Christmas, Asia-style.

A few nights ago, my roommates had a heated argument during supper. I tentatively dipped my chapati into my greenish-black moong dal and then escaped to my room as soon as possible to avoid the clatter and conflict. When I resurfaced, still a bit tired by their fighting, the conversation with the remaining roommate was still about house business and roommate matters. Should we have a grocery purchasing schedule? Why does so-and-so do such-and-such? We stood meters away from my Christmas decorations, discussing things that seemed so far from peace on earth, on this December 21.

But then, the conversation took a turn toward grace. Toward talk of relationships and forgiving before the sun goes down. "Your Book says that? My dad used to teach me to not go to bed angry, but I didn't know it was from the Book." I commended her for the apology she'd texted to the other roommate about the argument they'd had. Suddenly, my roommate said, "You know, it's been a long time since we've had a Book study together on a Sunday. How about tomorrow, we have breakfast and a study?"

And just like that, I remembered that Christmas is right here, because Christmas happens wherever incarnation happens. Living with roommates of such different backgrounds, worldviews and cultures is challenging. But the Christ Who lives in my body has a chance to incarnate over moong dal, at the dining room table, or next to the Christmas tree. He has the chance to shine through in the elevator, in the way I speak to an employee or boss, or in the love I show to a neighbour. And that is the essence of Christmas: incarnation.

When He lives in me, I live Christmas. And for all the cozy descriptors we use for this season, true Christmas is as bundled with tears, frustrations and struggle as it is with joy, peace and goodwill. Didn't the need for Christmas start with a power struggle, that of Adam's race seeking to overthrow God's authority? Haven't the forces of evil battled his coming ever since, seeking to eliminate the royal line? The fact of the baby's divinity didn't minimize the severity of the contractions that throbbed through Mary's abdomen on Christmas night, or eliminate Joseph's struggle to keep pure and obedient until Mary was his. When the incarnation was approaching its culmination, Christ was sweating blood. Don't think Christmas is missing because you don't have warm fuzzies. The incarnation of which we speak at Christmas often comes on the heels of hardship.

When that word which we heard from the beginning (1 Jn 2:5) is in us (1:10), and we keep His word (2:5) and let it abide in us (2:24), we are applying the theology of Christmas. He came among us so that the truth could be in us (1 Jn 1:8). Our eyes, mouths, hands, and feet can be used to physically represent truth; to give flesh and bones to spiritual concepts like grace and truth. "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked" (1 Jn 2:6). J'esus can walk the earth again, through me, through you.

Christmas is "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."
Christmas is "Let it be to me according to your word."
Christmas is "Not my will but Yours be done."
Christmas is five hundred bowls of dal in exchange for fifteen good conversations.
Christmas does whatever it takes to minister reconciliation.

So this morning, we lived Christmas. We sat next to my scrawny tree with a candle burning, but that had nothing to do with it, really. Between breakfast and our Sunday tasks, we talked through John 1, about light and life and incarnation. And here, in my dusty corner, I found Christmas.