Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Embracing Our Christmas Stains

I have been reading a book called Christmas is Not Your Birthday recently. One of the points that author Mike Slaughter makes is that we try so hard to sanitize Christmas. Every year, we engage in a futile quest to clean up and create the perfect Christmas.

As I was reflecting on this idea recently, I thought of the line below from a 1973 episode of Sanford and Son. It’s an exchange between “entrepreneur” (a.k.a., junk dealer) Fred Sanford (played by Redd Foxx), and his bible-thumping, purse-slinging sister-in-law, Esther Anderson (played by Lawanda Page) that takes place when she comes to bail Fred out of jail.[1]

Esther: Fred Sanford, I’m glad my sister didn’t live to see the stain you’ve bought on this family.

Fred: Esther, I didn’t put no stain on your family. Your family was stained when I met y’all... Every time a baby was born, they had that ugly stain on them. That’s right! That ugly stain! Even AJAX couldn’t do nothing for it.

It struck me that Fred’s sentiment, while somewhat irreverent, could be describing our annual preparations for Christmas. This time of year we get out our “AJAX” (whether literal or figurative) and “scrub and scrub” and try to get everything looking pristine and perfect for Christmas. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t attain the perfection we seek. By the end of the season we are exhausted in every way.

We even do this in our churches. Nativity scenes are ubiquitous this time of year. They seek to create the perfect Kodak moment at the end of the Christmas pageant. We “clean up” the Christmas story and present a perfect image of Christmas. All of the characters are neatly arranged around the manger. Everyone is well-groomed and smiling. But the fact is, if you study the details of the actual stories (contained in the first two chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels) you realize the Christmas story is a whole lot more grittier, messier and complex than what we present on stage on Christmas Eve—it sounds much more like real life.

The fact is, we can “scrub and scrub”, but we can never get all the stains out of the real Christmas story—nor, I would argue, should we.

It’s been said: The perfect is the enemy of the good; I think it’s true. If we get caught up in trying to make something perfect we might very well miss out on something that has the potential to be good. For example, we can become consumed with trying to have a perfect Christmas and fail to appreciate what is so good about the Christmas story. If we try too hard to scrub Christmas clean, we might end up scrubbing Christ out of the holiday that bears his name.

What if the whole point God is trying to make in having the Christmas Story unfold precisely the way it did is that things don’t have to be perfect for them to turn out very good? What if the presence of a few stains in our lives or our dwelling places doesn’t bother God nearly as much as they bother us?

There is an old hymn called There is a Fountain Filled With Blood whose chorus says: “sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains”. This line of theological thinking maintains Jesus’ blood does what no amount of our own scrubbing can do. Because of what Jesus did on the cross—and only because of that—we are now cleansed of our stains and made perfect before God.

But I’m not sure I believe that exactly. I’ve been a follower of Christ my whole life (41 years) and there are some stains that are just as stubborn as ever! I think perhaps reality is actually closer to Fred Sanford’s “theology”: “You can scrub and scrub but even AJAX won’t get rid of those stains.” That is to say, I think maybe we’re meant to keep some of our stains for eternity. (If that sounds strange, consider that Jesus, after the resurrection, still bore the marks of the nails that held him to the cross. Why weren’t those wounds healed?)

What if the blood of Jesus doesn’t remove our guilty stains altogether, but rather redeems them? What if the real Christmas story—not the sanitized nativity scene version—is meant to remind us that stains are an inescapable part of life on Earth—and that’s actually a good thing. What if stains are actually the flipside of giftedness[2]? What if the only way we can become all that God created us to be is to fully accept and embrace our stains?

No, you and I aren’t perfect people, and we never will be; but the good news we celebrate at Christmas is that by God’s grace, we are good people! We are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of our Creator and there is much good God can accomplish through us if we will simply follow Mary’s example and say, “Yes,” to God’s initiative in our lives. If we open ourselves, God can use us—stains and all—to “birth” our own unique Christmas miracle just like he did with Mary.


[1] For those unfamiliar, this YouTube video gives some context .

[2] Thanks to Parker Palmer for this idea—see Let Your Life Speak, Josey–Bass (2000).

Friday, November 4, 2011

Remembering Hope: Three-and-a-half Years Later

Today is exactly 3.5 years since we lost our daughter Hope Marie. Sometimes "anniversaries" make you stop and think about things.

Hope is certainly still—and always will be—part of us. We never want to forget her precious life that was so short this side of eternity. We want the children to know they had a sibling. But, although I suppose it can sound cliché, it does seem true that time really does have the capacity to heal wounds. Memories still surface and when they come, they sting... but life and living goes on... and I think I can say it has for the Wards.

There is a kind of "separation" as Becca grows into a very vibrant and spirited little girl and we remember Hope as a two-day old infant slipping away into God's arms. You can almost forget for a while that she was "supposed" to be here. (I'm sure most outside our family have mostly forgotten about her accept when someone or something reminds them; it's only natural to focus most on those actually physically present with us.) We have our two children and we love them dearly. We live our life together and the family seems "complete". But then we'll be doing something together, maybe I am struggling to handle the two children, and it will hit me -- "There were supposed to be three...", or I will see Becca doing something and think that Hope isn't here to experience it.

To this day, when I see a set of twins, I confess it's difficult—and sometimes it seems like those darn double strollers are everywhere! I want to ask parents of twins: "So what's it like to raise them?" (Once in a play area at the mall I am pretty sure that there were two sets of identical twins present at the same time. I'm like, "Okay God, enough already! Oy veh?!")

The grief I feel the most is the sense of our family being "robbed" of experience—and there's nothing I as dad could do about it. Laurie and I missed out on in knowing Hope in this life, raising our first-born daughter (Hope was born first), and getting to be parents of twins. Likewise, Brady and Becca also suffered loss, even if they didn't know it -- they may feel it more as time goes on. They both lost the opportunity to have another sibling in this earthly life, and Becca lost the unique experience not just of having a sister, but an identical twin sister. I'll always wonder how the two girls personalities would have been similar or different? (I suspect they would have looked the same but had different personalities, but I will never know...) What kind of special bond would the two of them would have had? What kind of bond would I as father have had with Hope? (I know I have a special one with Becca.) What does Becca sense she is "missing"?

The kids know about their sister, "Baby Hope." From time-to-time they ask questions and we pull out a memory box with what few things we have left from her brief life. We visit the cemetery at my parent’s church in Calvert County where she is buried occasionally but we certainly don't go often. (I suppose it helps that she is buried over an hour away.) We know Hope is not there... but it is a place where we can pause to intentionally remember that she was real, mattered very much to us, and we miss her presence with us.

Keep us in prayer on this day. This Sunday they have a memorial service at Franklin Square Hospital (where the girls were born) for those who have lost a child. We go to this every year and it is a good thing. Laurie is actually giving the short “meditation” this year—she felt ready to do it this year. The kids always enjoy going outside and releasing a " balloon to Jesus” for Hope at the end of the service.