A Christmas Meditation

Ten years have passed since I wrote the following post. Much has changed, yet some things seem like they haven't changed at all except that I'm a decade older. My words back then were written from the heart; I knew them to be true and felt their depth. Today that depth has deepened further through struggle, through growth, through loss, through gain; by God's grace, which has carried me when I could not carry myself; and through his love, which has remained constant for me when I wondered whether he was even there, and if he was, whether I mattered to him at all.

My hope—particularly if this Christmas is not an easy one for you—is that this meditation will speak to your own heart, encourage you, and help you to see Christmas in a different light.

JESUS

Christmas Eve. As an older single male, I'm spending it alone. I would like to say that in reality, I am not alone—and really, that is the case. My Lord is with me. Jesus. But when it comes to polishing off a large bowl of chili (heated to a well-seasoned glow by a sub-lethal dose of Dave's Insanity Sauce), followed by a generous helping of spaghetti, all designed to take the edge off a bottle of 9 percent ABV old ale and another bottle of 11.5 percent Trappist ale . . . well, the work has been strictly mine. No one sits with me in my humble, though comfortable, apartment to make supper and the partaking of craft brew a shared effort. I am by myself—as are many who will read these words.

Yet, as I have said, He is here. Here in these modest digs of a solitary, middle-aged male. And because He is here with me, I trust He is also there with you, wherever you are, whatever your circumstances may be.

Some of you are grieving the loss of a loved one. Others are simply experiencing, like me, another "single" Christmas Eve by yourself. You have friends, and if you're fortunate, you have family, and you're thankful. But there's still something missing, isn't there?

It's all right. He is here with you and me. Emmanuel, "God with us." And in a strange way, those of us who feel sorrow, or loneliness, or a poignant emptiness in this Season of Light, may be closest of all to the heart and soul of what Christmas is truly about.

For you see, that little baby who was born into the lowliest of circumstances two thousand years ago didn't come for the sake of inspiring cozy traditions, or warm exchanges of gifts by the fireside, or happy family meals. No. Those things are wonderful, and I wouldn't detract from them for anything. But their absence in the lives of so many of us lies closer to the reason Jesus was born.

He came not because this world is so wonderful, but because it was, and is, so broken. He came for those of us who long for a place called "home." He came for the lonely, for the disenfranchised, for less-than-perfect you and me who know firsthand the meaning of loss, and tears, and struggle; who long for something more in life. He came to give us that "something more." He came because he knows how deeply we long—and need—to be truly, safely, securely, and lastingly loved.

I write with all the freedom that a couple bottles of high-potency ale can inspire, tempered by my editorial instincts and guided by my heart, which is consumed with Him. But who is He? In this day of well-publicized "new discoveries" of the same tired old heresies that have sought for centuries to recreate a more convenient Jesus, the marketplace of ideas abounds with options. I just Googled the name "Jesus," and on the first page of search results I find the following:

    * three full-color graphic images of Jesus

    * a "Christmas Jesus Dress Up"

    * a YouTube clip of Jesus singing "I Will Survive"

    * an online Catholic encyclopedia article on Jesus

    * a BBC news article that begins, "A statue of the infant Jesus on display near Miami in Florida is being fitted with a Global Positioning System device after the original figurine was stolen."
Clever, all very clever. But when you're alone on Christmas Eve, cleverness doesn't really cut it, does it? For so many of us who are by ourselves tonight, the one thing we long to know is that we're really not alone. The older we get, the more that matters.

So perhaps, after we've wearied our clever minds exploring all the alternatives, the Jesus of the Bible really is what we're looking for after all—because of all the gods available in today's spiritual shopping mall, He is the only one who has come looking for us in a way that is consistent with someone who cares not about religion, but about us. To be born in our midst and commit a lifetime to experiencing everything about the human condition, from inglorious start to brutal finish, certainly smacks of a genuine and very personal investment.

Christmas is God's way of acknowledging what all of us instinctively know (though we try so hard to argue otherwise): that this world is fractured, splintered. That we are lonely. That we are lost. That we long for something more. Christmas is God's way of saying, "My loved ones have lost me, and I have lost them. And that is unacceptable to me."

This Christmas . . . you are not alone. I am not alone. Jesus came for us. If you've screwed up your relationships, Jesus came for you. If you've been sexually abused, Jesus came to clothe you with dignity and hope. If you're lonely, He came to give you a place at the family table. If you've been betrayed or abandoned, if your heart is filled with pain and anger from the lashes of an unjust, uncaring world, He came to hold you gently with arms that will not be removed. If you're_______, He came to fill in the blank with something better than emptiness.

This Christmas . . . we are deeply loved.

So to you, my friends, however you may believe and whatever your circumstances may be . . . may He fill this time with the reality, the glory, and the comfort of Himself. Have a blessed Christmas.

—Bob

Forgiveness: Paying the Cost

Forgiveness can be as swift and easy as accepting a friend's apology for being ten minutes late for lunch at the restaurant. Or it can be as grueling, as costly, as seemingly impossible, as forgiving a divorce or a business betrayal. What makes the latter kind of forgiveness particularly difficult is this: the other person may not care in the least. They may feel utterly justified in their mistreatment of you. They may even take pleasure at the injury they've caused you--or they may take no thought at all. Whether you forgive them or not means nothing to them because you yourself are of no consequence.

That's the kind of forgiveness reflected in Jesus's words "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23:34). Father, they just don't have a clue. No idea whatsoever. They're prisoners of their ignorance, blinder than beggars and twice as poor.

Mercy and compassion toward those who showed him neither: that's the extreme brand of forgiveness Jesus showed toward those who were killing him. Jesus didn't pray "Father, forgive them" in order to set a lofty example; he prayed those words because he meant them. In his heart he longed for something far better for his persecutors than vengeance; he longed for them to one day see, and understand, and live.

What's particularly important to note is, forgiving his executioners didn't change Jesus's immediate circumstances. The black iron spikes remained in his wrists and feet. The agony of crucifixion wasn't relieved. Jesus still died a torturous, shameful death hanging naked on a post for all Jerusalem to see.

What changed was that the back of hatred was broken. It lost its self-perpetuating power--because the One who did know exactly what he was doing absorbed its worst blow and countered it with love for those who inflicted it.

Sometimes today we hear stories of that radical brand of forgiveness: The father who adopts his child's murderer and raises him as a son. The college woman who, without minimizing the violence perpetrated on her, refuses to harbor bitterness against her rapist. The prisoner wrongly convicted who, when the truth is finally revealed, forgives those who took fifteen years of his life from him and far more besides.

For such people, forgiveness is no glib thing. It is big-ticket, and those who have been wronged are the ones who must foot the bill. Doing so may begin simply with this thought: "If I had the power to send those who have hurt me to hell...I would not."

Forgiveness desires life, God-life, for the offender. It desires vision for the spiritually blind. It chooses--often against the forgiver's own conflicting emotions--to pray for the release of those held captive by their own hate or sheer, selfish unconcern for the pain of others.

Forgiveness is not trite. It is not easy. It may even be miraculous. It is one choice followed by as many more choices as it takes.

If--no, when--we are deeply injured, may Jesus grant us his eyes to see clearly what the other person cannot see at all. May he give us the grace to pray from our heart, "Father, forgive them. Help them to see. Help them to know your love for them and for others. And grant them what you have so graciously given me: life--true, deep, powerful life."

Saint Patrick’s Day 2017

Saint Patrick’s Day morning brushed the sky an hour ago with a red caress, dimming to a gentle rose, then to a waning, creamy yellow. That too faded, leaving only gray stratus stealing overhead from the west. Snow and rain are in the forecast for today, March 17, 2017. Somewhere up there, up above the clouds, the sun is shining, but I cannot see it.

Today Lisa is leaving. Her Ford Explorer is already packed. In a while, her oldest daughter, son-in-law, and their toddler will arrive to load her larger belongings into a trailer and accompany her, along with her beloved cat, Siam, back to Missouri.

It is good. It is God. My prayers of more than eight years for Lisa are being answered—not in a way I had anticipated, but in the way that is best. For Lisa will once again, at long last, be with her four children, and now with her grandbabies as well. A mother whose heart was broken is being reunited with those she loves most, now grown, who ten years ago were ripped away from her in the most unjust and painful circumstances. For all of them, the long journey apart is about to end. It is time for the restoration of hearts—above all, of Lisa’s heart. No one except Lisa herself knows better than I the importance of this season of new beginnings. For I have seen, I have seen with my eyes and with my own heart, the great love and the terrible, deep longing Lisa has borne within her every day for her three daughters and her son—for Sophia, Olivia, Shannan, and Jeffrey. Now at last they will be together again. It is wonderful, and beautiful, and so very, very right.

But it comes at a great cost. This apartment, infused with Lisa’s presence, will be empty without her. Most of whatever she leaves behind will serve only as memories. Even her glasses that remain in the cupboard—stout, solid glasses whose functionality I appreciate as a man—will have her name on them in my heart. Our relationship has been so odd, so utterly out of the norm in today’s time and culture. It has never been the stuff of a romance novel. But it is most certainly a great love story that the Lord has written on the pages of our lives.

This is enough for now. Lisa is finishing with packing her vehicle, and her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson will be arriving soon.

* * *

Facebook post, about 1:30 p.m.

She is gone. My dear Lisa. My heart goes with her. I stood by the roadside at the end of the parking lot and watched her white Ford Explorer head down the road behind her daughter and son-in-law's car, turn right, and disappear, bound for her long journey to Missouri to be with her children and grandchildren. It is very painful, but it is also wonderful, and good, and so very much the Lord's heart and the answer to prayer. The restoration of a mother with her children, and the healing of hearts, is worth the price of loss and tears. God bless you, Lisa, my dear one, and Shannan, Olivia, Jeffrey, and Sophia. Your mama is on her way home at last.

So it is that my eight-year journey with Lisa comes to an end. I sit now in my usual spot in the couch in the living room, from which vantage point nothing seems to have changed. Across the room from me, my work station looks the same, and to the right, the dining room table is in its usual place. Outside the sliding door, the bird traffic remains constant at the feeder, and from the kitchen comes the familiar hum of the refrigerator.

But at the end of the hall, the door to Lisa’s room is open and the room is empty.

Lisa is probably somewhere near Chicago by now. The same stratus deck that coats the sky overhead with a uniform pale gray also covers eastern Illinois. But not far to its west, according to the satellite, Lisa will break out swiftly into the sunlight and enjoy clear skies for the rest of her trip to her new home. Here it will remain cloudy and cold. Oddly, though, a while ago a single roll of thunder rumbled gently over Hastings. I liked that, and Lisa would have too.

It is strange that I can grieve and yet feel such peace. It is the Lord’s peace. He is with me here, as surely as he is with Lisa, and I sense his care for me. I am brokenhearted but not broken, for there is a wholeness and grace that comes from knowing I have fulfilled his will, a blessing that comes from dying that life may spring forth. It is what Jesus did for us; it is what Lisa did for her children; it is what I have done for her; it is what all of us who love him must do, in whatever ways he has uniquely ordained for each of us, if we are ever to love powerfully and redemptively. It is part of the fellowship of his suffering, and it is a great, great honor. To love another person as Jesus loves them, however imperfect a job we make of it, is worth everything—because that person is worth everything to Jesus. Everything. That is how he sees them, and he has a way of causing us to see them that same way.

Lisa, pearl of great price.

I will reorganize this apartment, now mine entirely to do with as I will. I will move things into Lisa’s room, and I will transfer the clutter out of the side room into the large walk-in closet, and my life will go on. Last I knew, the world didn’t stop revolving at 1:30 this afternoon. Seems like it should have, at least for a couple of seconds—that would have been appropriate—but when I check my email, I see that I’m still getting the usual idiot spam advertising “Toe nail fungus removal . . . by tonight!” (exactly what I’ve been craving; how do they read my mind?) and “Mark Cuban Q&A on the habits that made him so rich” (like I care a rodent’s rectum).

Yes, I will move on, for that is how this kind of thing is done. For now, though, I will let things be. What’s the hurry? There is no hurry, none at all. I will finish writing this piece and publish it in my blog, and then I will go get something to eat, for I am famished. I will think of Lisa, so dear to my heart, and of her children, so dear to hers, and I will pray for her and for them. Later this evening I will head over to my close friend Ed’s house and watch Fringe episodes on DVD. (Thank you, Lord, for good friends who know me and love me). And finally, I will return home, and hopefully sleep well, and this momentous Saint Patrick’s Day will end very different from when it dawned.