O, Little Town…

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I come from a small town and the above is a familiar site. Roads like this pepper my county. And because it’s Christmas time, I can’t help but think of another small town…

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. Micah 5:2

What wondrous things come from small towns…

https://pamandersonblog.com/2013/12/06/o-little-town-of-bethlehem/

His First Christmas Card

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I suffer from a disease… I call it perfectionism. According to Wikipedia, psychologists call perfectionism a personality trait… but to me, it feels more like a sickness.

Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations… perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal, and their adaptive perfectionism can sometimes motivate them to reach their goals. In the end, they derive pleasure from doing so. When perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression.

Hmmm… sounds about right to me. And the recent decorating of our tree fully underscores all points above. I set the bar high one evening fully expecting perfection. I anticipated closing out the night by sitting on the couch with my loved ones, sipping cocoa, and admiring the beautiful creation all the while being filled with the Spirit of Christmas. However, rather than the success I fully envisioned, I was met with frustration, disillusionment, and by the end of the evening… depression. And so, today I ask myself a question. Why perfectionism? Why do I feel this incessant need to excel in what I do? Like with the tree. Why did the appearance of a dead conifer matter so much to me? And the answer, I believe, lies in the definition above. Because in truth, it wasn’t really about creating a wonderful memory with my family in celebration of the Christ child. No, it had more to do with the end result. And more accurately, it had everything to do with others’ evaluations. Because if other people loved my tree, then I would be a success, right? Perfection attained.

You know, it seems to me that I have a choice to make this season. I can either have a Christmas that looks perfect from the outside, or, I can have a real Christmas on the inside. Because I won’t have it both ways. For in reading God’s word, I see Christmas came to only one type of person. And He who knows the hearts of all men knew exactly who would receive His message. And so, He sent forth His first Christmas card, by means of an angel and heavenly host. And the most unlikely group of recipients received His word… shepherds. And in others’ evaluations, this must have seemed ludicrous. For shepherds were far from perfect. Such a filthy and smelly lot who lived with animals… why, they were unclean. Surely they were not even allowed to step foot inside a synagogue. Not unless they scrubbed themselves ritually clean. For they were shepherds… utterly imperfect, completely lowly, and so untrustworthy. Ironically, (according to what I read this morning), their testimony was not even accepted in Court. And this is to whom God sent His first Christmas card?

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Luke 2:8-14

Why shepherds? Perhaps because they didn’t really care about what other people thought of them. Or maybe it was because this group of imperfect men kept their expectations low… for others didn’t expect much of them. Or maybe, it was simply that they were still… their attention not pulled in more than one direction. And so, as God peeled back the envelope of His card… His glory shown forth. And when the shepherds saw, they trembled in fear. But then, God revealed a miracle. And because these men were not perfectionists, setting the bar so unattainably high, they were able to listen. But more importantly, they acted on what they heard. For after God’s messenger spoke, they were moved

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Luke 2:15

Why shepherds? Because they were not befuddled with worldly things, mindless traditions and others’ evaluations.  A humble folk not highly esteemed by others, they had nothing to lose. Not even a reputation, for theirs was already stained. And so, they hurried toward a Savior…

It’s called perfectionism, and it hinders so much. See, as my high standards escalated over the years to outrageous heights, the more important things seemed to have fallen away one by one. Specifically, the tradition of Christmas cards. But you know… among the myriad traditions out there, could there be anything more lovely than a tradition originated by God? His good news sent forth by the herald to imperfect souls. A tradition that has been perpetuated for over two thousand years. At first, by word of mouth. But then… cards. Christmas cards in order to bring forth good tidings of great joy to all people.

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of the herald,
who proclaims peace,
who brings news of good things,
who proclaims salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7

In closing, I want to share about the two church services I attended on Sunday. One was nearly perfect, and the other… well, it was fraught with human error. Both provided lovely music and God’s word was peppered throughout. However, I felt God’s presence only once… through the imperfect. And it was towards the end of the night that one song in particular touched my soul. It was as if God were peeling back the envelope of His Christmas card, revealing His glory to me. And I felt Him. A tingling inside. And my hand began to rise on its own accord, in worship of Him. But I stopped it. As my arm hurried upward toward the Savior, I hastily pulled it back. Because what would those around me think? I didn’t want others’ evaluations of me to lessen. And so, after obeying the command of inner perfectionism rather than the Spirit of Him who moved me, His presence diminished…

I suffer from a disease. I call it perfectionism, and it hinders so much. But this year, I realize I have a choice. I can either have a Christmas that appears perfect from the outside, or, I can experience true Christmas on the inside. Absolutely perfect in its imperfection…

 http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=while+shepherds+watched+their+sheep+song&qpvt=while+shepherds+watched+their+sheep+song&FORM=VDRE#view=detail&mid=FE8663E17ECE662C253AFE8663E17ECE662C253A

The Stable

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While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. Then she gave birth to her firstborn Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough – because there was no room for them at the inn. Luke 2:6-7

Why the stable? And a manger? Could a more unlikely place exist for the Savior of the world to make His entrance? Because we have some chickens out back, and if I were to stick my nose in their coop, I would find it smells. Bad.

And if I were to walk through their pen, I would definitely come out with poop on the soles of my shoes. And these are just chickens. What about horse and cow manure? Or worse yet, a pig pen. Can anything smell worse than pigs?

So, in contemplating the nativity sets, I wonder if they perhaps give a false idea of what it was really like on the night of our Savior’s birth. Because the treasured scenes we place around our homes make our hearts glad… but they leave all the ugliness out.

Come December, you won’t find any little cow pies as you unbox your stable, manger, shepherds, and cows. And so, we have this nice, sterile image of what it was like the night of Christ’s birth.

And carols enhance the image.

Like Silent Night.

Oh, it’s one of my favorites. Absolutely beautiful. But was it really silent? And calm? For a young, virgin gave birth. No, I’d venture to say it was not silent at all. Loud, no doubt.

But see, an idea forms as I contemplate who may have been present at the birth of Jesus. There was Joseph and Mary and some lowly animals. But were there others? I just don’t know. I don’t think any of us can really know.

Surely when Mary’s time came, Joseph went to find a woman to help. Maybe even a couple. But I don’t find this in Scripture. The 2nd chapter of Luke simply states, “she gave birth to her first Son, and she wrapped Him snugly in cloth and laid Him in a feeding trough…”

Because there was no room for them at the inn. No, it mattered naught who Mary was. Or more importantly, who she was carrying. Plainly, there just was no room.

And so my theory is this. Perhaps the stable was the very best location for Christ’s birth. Because there, everything was silent that should be silent. Oh, there were likely groans and cries coming from the young virgin. And words of comfort surely slipped from Joseph’s terse mouth.

And the animals? Oh, the animals had to have lowed and neighed and brayed. So likely, it wasn’t silent at all. BUT, the voices and sounds that went forth on that first Christmas long ago were authentic. Sincere. For there was no room for pomp and circumstance in a stable.

Naturally, my next thought is this…

Where were all the religious people of the day? God’s select? Because God had come near. Immanuel.  And the elect had been waiting for this very moment.

But they were nowhere in sight.

God didn’t orchestrate Christ’s birth to take place amongst the priests and Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes even though they were the ones who knew the most about Him. And were looking forward to Him. Yet, not one little figurine we pull out of our nativity boxes depicts a Pharisee.

So I deduce the following. The religious leaders of the day must have been too busy. Their tight schedules were intricately woven with feasts, and traditions, and ritual washings. Quite simply, they left no room for the unexpected. Not another thing could be squeezed into their hectic schedules.

But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments. They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, “Rabbi, Rabbi.” Matthew 23:5-6

Pharisees were of the strictest order and every single thing had its place. And sadly, all the rules and regulations left no room for something out of the ordinary…

Not even if it were extraordinary.

Like a miracle to behold. Something grand to see. Thus, when God graced the earth with His very presence in the form of a newborn infant, the ultra-religious folks missed the whole thing.

Despite all their knowledge and religion, they missed the first Christmas.

And Jesus.

They just didn’t see Him.

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.” Isaiah 57:15

I’ll tell you what I know. Knowledge puffs up. And good deeds can do the same. In fact, a girl can become downright prideful regarding the things she knows and the things she does. So activity drives her. And saturates her schedule. And acknowledgement only fuels the fire.

Hear what I say.

And see what I do.

Acknowledge me.

But inevitably, the downfall comes. Just like with the religious leaders of old who missed it all. Because they didn’t even see the miracle of that first Christmas. And because her schedule is so crammed full, she does the same.

Every year.

For she simply has no room.

Her intricately woven schedule cannot allow for one more thing. Not even when it’s something extraordinary. Like a miracle to behold.

Because for a girl become Pharisee, silent nights are few and far in between. Calmness evasive. And it’s just too darn hard to hear God above the din of her own stuff. No, when a girl is overflowing with her own noise, she can’t hear when He speaks.

Not even when He’s near. If He comes near. For the uncomfortable truth is God does not reside with the proud. For His dwelling place is with the humble.

And this is what I know to be true. Personally.

See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God with us.” Matthew 1:23

Why the stable for the birth of our Savior? Perhaps it’s because within the walls of a humble cow shed there was no pomp and circumstance. And only the pure of heart were there. Those are the ones who see God, anyway.

The pure of heart…

As for the ultra religious folks bound by their mile long to-do lists, they were absent that day. Nowhere near the Nativity. As such, God’s Spirit wasn’t hindered by rules and tradition and the noise of a thousand voices.

And because only a hand-full of people were present, and some animals, the most beautiful thing happened…

There was silence.

And calm.

Oh, there may have been moans accompanying Mary’s labor. And Joseph may have spoken softly. But noisy, knowledgeable souls busy about a thousand tasks were no where to be found.

So, in its own way, I guess it was a silent night after all.

And the blessed silence allowed the one most crucial sound to be heard. For in the calmness of a holy hush, God’s voice was magnified. Those present heard it…

It was a newborn babe’s cry.

Joseph’s Nativity

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And Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. Luke 2:4-5

I’m currently on a journey to my spiritual Bethlehem. And my prayer is that I’ll stay off the well-worn path of consumerism and busyness, in hope of finding something deeper along the path less traveled. And to my surprise, I find I won’t have to wander far. For I’ve discovered my spiritual Bethlehem, or House of Bread, is where I least expected to find it. For it’s right here. My Bethlehem is the same small town in which I was born and raised.

It was the nativity that opened my eyes to this truth. Literally. See, if you look closely, you’ll see one of mine actually spells it out… N – A – T – I – V – I – T – Y. And recently, the word captured my gaze for more than a mere second or two. So, I pondered it. I wondered what does it really mean?

Thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that nativity is derived from a Latin word meaning birth. So quite rightly, the nativity depicts just this…

The birth of Jesus Christ.

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I wanted to go deeper, though, and through a Bible concordance I unearthed that something deeper for which I longed. Because in Hebrew, nativity encompasses not only the birth, but also family, relatives, children; land of birth, native land, kindred. And honestly, this put me in my rightful place today.

See, I was outraged by a national figure’s description of Christmas in a magazine not so long ago. She said, “To me, it’s about time with family…” And me being me, I was filled with ire that the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of our Lord and Savior, was omitted from the article. And me being me on a journey to a more spirit filled Christmas, this woman’s quote set me off.

But today, I am set in my place. Here in my home-place. For the truth is, although Jesus is the reason for the season, perhaps some small part of Christmas is in fact about family. Because Scripture tells the story. And before Christmas was even Christmas, Joseph took Mary to his native land. The land of his fathers.

And so, Mary and Joseph were among the very first holiday travelers, journeying home that first Noel.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Agustus that the whole empire should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. Luke 2:1-2

By immersing myself in the Christmas story, I find myself wanting to know everything. All of it. And though I’ve simmered in Mary, I’ve not really stewed on Joseph. Jesus’ earthly father. So that’s what I do this day…

Scripture tells me Joseph was of the line of David so Bethlehem was his home-place. The land of his ancestors. The book of Matthew invites me to take a closer look into his lineage and through his rich heritage, I gain a glimpse of what kind of man Joseph really was. For he came from good stock.

Yes,the pages of Scripture give testimony of Joseph’s forefathers’ proven character. First, there was Father Abraham, a man made righteous by his faith in God. And there was Jacob, who fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. And further down the line, I find Boaz… a man of strength and honor. He redeemed the woman Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. And of course, there’s King David, the once shepherd boy.

And down the line we go until…

… and Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations; and from David until the exile to Babylon, 14 generations; and from the exile to Babylon until the Messiah, 14 generations. Matthew 1:16

Joseph came from good stock, indeed. He was hand selected by Father God to rear God’s own Son. A good man was Joseph, but surely he wasn’t perfect. Surely, his faith was shaken once or twice.

For he was betrothed to Mary, a virgin. Oh, what he must have thought when she told him her news. That she was with child. He was a man so he must have felt the sting of pain. And a moment of rage. Did sorrow turn to utter disbelief? And shock? For he loved his betrothed… did he fear Mary had betrayed him?

Joseph must have endured those moments because he was only human. I’m sure I would have. I would have gone through every stage. The quick fury settling into the slow burn of anger. Sadness to confusion. And then, fear would have set in. Oh, I would have thought the worst of my beloved. For a time, at least. And from Scripture, I believe Joseph felt it all, too. At least for a time…

So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly. But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew 1:19-21

Perhaps the above passage provides the most information about Joseph’s character. He was righteous. He was caring. Despite his hurt, he wouldn’t think of publicly disgracing Mary. No, he’d handle matters privately. Quietly.

But then, lo, an angel appeared with good news. Words of encouragement. Just when he needed it the most, Joseph received a personal word from God. And because he was nourished through that morsel of spiritual food, Joseph took courage and did what he knew he had to do. He acted in faith.

Joseph decided to walk forward with Mary despite how dire the circumstances appeared. He extended mercy instead of outrage. And he swallowed down his pride as he took Mary on as his bride.

Surely the road ahead was a rough one. For people talk, right? Rumors abound. And Joseph was likely to endure whispers, nudges, and laughter at his expense. However, right here I find Joseph’s greatest trait. And perhaps it’s the very reason God selected Joseph to be the father of Jesus. For Joseph was a humble man.

Humility before pride…

His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. He has done a mighty deed with His arm; He has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, mindful of His mercy, just as He spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever. Song of Mary, Luke 1:50-55

The father of Jesus came from good stock. His home-place was a little town called Bethlehem and it was small among the clans of Judah. And Joseph, a carpenter, probably seemed small to people of a certain stature.

But God looks beyond the exterior. He sees the heart. And within Joseph, God found what He was looking for in Jesus’ earthly father. God looked deep and found righteousness and courage. He found compassion and mercy. And perhaps most importantly, He found humility.

And this was Jesus’ father. The one depicted in nativity sets everywhere. His name was Joseph.

When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him Jesus. Matthew 1:24-25