Thursday, November 29, 2012
What Were you Thinking?
So how does one write a book about the Nativity, from a first-person perspective? What sort of inspiration is the genesis of a book that places Bible characters, grandparents, and patron saints in the same space and time as the birth of our Savior? How does one imagine what Joseph and Mary's reaction would be to tasting popcorn for the first time? Or when they watch a murderer and his victims worshiping their son together, for reasons neither Joseph or Mary can't nearly grasp?
It starts with being a dad.
I always wanted to be a dad. For as long as I can remember. Maybe I hoped it would soothe the ache in my heart for my own father, or maybe it would fulfill the promise of a real family as it was supposed to be, not as it was in my childhood. Or maybe it was just the way God built me. In reality it was all of those things.
But it started years before I ever became a dad. It started when I read a book by Brennan Manning entitled "The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus". It's a series of essays and 3 or 4 of them are about Christmas. In the stories, Brennan emphasizes how human Christ was. How He entered this world just like we did and how He felt the same crushing humanity we carry around with us every day. How He was born the same way we all were.
There are things about the birth of Jesus that we forget. Things that we mostly never consider, unless something brings them into focus for us. And it was when I became a dad in May 1998 I started to consider these things.
When I became a dad I started to grasp what the birth of Jesus really meant. What it must surely have been like for Joseph as a poor carpenter, who was stepfather to the son of God and who probably didn't really understand any of that. What it must have felt like for Mary...to be a teenager and pregnant while a virgin. A story not a soul would believe. In fact, had God's angel not appeared to Joseph in a dream, he had planned to divorce her quietly, and move on with his life, because even he didn't believe her a first.
It's the humanity of Jesus, and his embarrassingly humble birth that draws me to Christmas...and that inspired me to write this book.
I started writing the book in late November 2009. I was homeless. It was the second Christmas I was in this situation. There would be two more before the ordeal ended. My daughter was 10 years old and she was worried about her daddy. She lived with her mom and so she was alright. But Christmas had always been our time together. She has the same Christmas-loving soul that I have and she loved being with me for the Holiday. This particular year it was not going to be like before and I guess we both knew it.
We had always done an advent calender together during the Holiday season, but for whatever reason that year she didn't want to have one. I was devastated. To me it was another thing that the loss of my career had chewed up from my life. It broke my heart.
During a very early morning walk one day in late November of that year, I prayed that God would do something special for me. That He would save Christmas for me somehow. On that walk I started thinking about what it would be like to experience Jesus as a baby. Perhaps I had come to realize that I had allowed life to distance me from the Nativity. With all that was going on I needed to make the trip back.
I walked and walked and as I did I started to process over again, the amazing truth of Jesus birth. How he was a baby just like my daughter was. How he was approachable. How he was gentle and unassuming. How poor his birth was. How he was born amidst the scandalous whispers of illegitimacy...just like I was. I thought about how he was vulnerable...and I stopped in my tracks. It was here that I made a connection I will never forget. Jesus was vulnerable. All of those things we worry about with our newborns were at play with Jesus too. And in my family it was something we never took for granted.
My father is one of fifteen children. The firstborn was my uncle Angelo. My grandparents were immigrants and all the children were born at home except the last two. I guess that's how they did it in Italy and so that's how they did it here. Uncle Angelo was delivered without a hitch apparently. Everything went as everything was supposed to and my grandparents had their first child. They had a midwife for the process and she delivered the baby boy, did the post-partum work she was supposed to do, showed him to his momma and at some point, she headed across the room to clean him up and put the silver nitrate on his eyes and dress him.
Somewhere in the trip, he wiggled and she dropped him.
She apparently didn't think it was a big deal, she picked him up, took him to the dressing table, cleaned him up as planned, put him in his little gown and brought him to my grandmother. When Uncle Angelo opened his mouth to nurse, there was blood trickling out. About three hours later he was gone.
I don't know how my grandmother reacted or how my grandfather reacted. But walking that early November morning I started thinking about how I would have reacted. And I suddenly realized how Jesus could have easily met the same fate. Because he was just like us.
He could have been dropped, he could have caught some terrible infection from the filth of the sheep-pen. Mary could have had complications. What would they have done? They were a carpenter and his teenaged bride in a cave cut into the side of a hill. Nobody even knew they were there except some smelly shepherds who had heard the angels and came to see what the fuss was all about.
I started thinking about the way babies touch us. How it was when I took Morgan out for the first time in public. How everyone looked, smiled, asked if she was a she or a he. Asked her name. Tried to make her smile. ...how they were all touched by the mere presence of a baby.
That's when I got it. That's why I understood why God went to the trouble of telling us in two of the 3 synoptic Gospels, the details about the birth of His son. Because there would be many images and many portraits of Jesus painted in Scripture and the baby was an important one. It was important to see Jesus as a baby in the light of babies we know because for some...that's the only image of God they can feel safe in approaching. We grow up hearing sermons about judgment and justice and righteousness and sin and punishment. We watch "The Ten Commandments" and see an awe-inspiring, powerful, Holy, consuming God. Then we see ourselves and think we could never approach that God. We watch "the Passion of the Christ and see a brutalized, tortured, beaten and bloodied Christ attached to a cross the way you would nail a "No Trespassing" sign to a tree on your property and we feel so guilty, so broken and sad that He had to die like this for us. After a few years and a few blows in life maybe we feel so much guilt and shame and we carry so much brokenness around with us that we are afraid to approach these images of God. The Holy God might hate me and reject me and the crucified God reminds me how bad I really am that He would have to do this. Maybe for some of us we permit this thinking...often coupled with bad preaching that reminds us even more just how terrible we are...to drive us irretrievably from God altogether. We build a wall of shame and fear and embarrassment and pain and we hide from God behind it.
So God sent a baby.
My daughter was a magnet for my soul. I was 34, illegitimate myself, like my own Savior was. I was a scared husband and a scared daddy and I felt like I was all alone in the world with a wife and a child to take care of. I was unsure of myself.
And then I held her...
And whatever I felt by way of doubt and fear and shame was overcome by enormous love and tenderness and hope. My mouth told her "I Love You" probably 500 times that first night. And somewhere in my soul I heard her say "I love you too daddy". Something told me it was okay. That this baby was going to love me unconditionally where others had failed. I could relax and drop my guard and allow my love to flow toward her in ways that frightened me with anyone else. Babies do that.
Walking that frozen November morning, with the shame of failure and homelessness and hopelessness blistering my heart...I remembered that night and the way my little baby made me feel. And I began to understand the reason God wanted us to know so much about Jesus as a baby.
Because all the safety of my daughter love was present in my newborn Savior too. This was an image of God I didn't have to fear and I couldn't misconstrue. He came as a baby...to knock down my walls and thaw out my heart. He didn't care how I'd failed or what baggage I carried. He even had the shame of illegitimacy in common with me. All He wanted was for me to hold him and whisper "I love you" thousands of times.
...Just like my own baby did.
From there it was easy to imagine a cast of unlikely characters visiting the manger. Brennan Manning has said that he sees Christmas as the most Holy of the Holidays. Even more special than Good Friday or Easter. Because, as he says; "The only thing more wondrous than the fact that He would die for me is that He would ever come for me in the first place". I agree. And that he did it as a baby...to catch me off guard and knock down my walls, was just a wink from a knowing God. A whisper that says "I knew this was what it would take...you can come to me now"
The book places Jesus in the arms of some very colorful characters. And the magic of the book is seeing what the baby does to each heart.
The 24 day period in which I wrote the original manuscript was a true advent for me. Each story really was an anticipation of His arrival, memorialized in each amazing interaction between a ragamuffin and a baby.
Over the course of the writing I became one of those ragamuffins too. It redefined Christmas for me.
And that, is what I was thinking when this story came to be.