As I flick on the switch, the tiny bulb meant to act as the star casts a warm glow over the scene below. “You have a lot of nativity sets, Mom,” my son comments after he helps set up the wooden, ceramic, hand-carved, and clay sets next to the snow globe manger scene and the stitched Kantha magi picture. I stopped counting how many baby Jesus figures adorn our living room come Advent-time every year. They have captivated me since I was a little girl, even before I knew who this baby in the creche even was. I just knew there was something strange and beautiful about this helpless babe that people revered.
What was attractive about a wriggling bundle of flesh? What power was there in this helplessness? It’s a mystery I still wrestle to answer every year as I gaze upon these nativity sets I have collected from around the world.
In the church, most of the year we contemplate the cross, what we more often see as the symbol of our redemption. But I find myself drawn more to the cradle than to the cross. We view the coming of the Messiah as a culmination of our salvation, but I think it’s just the beginning. The enigma of the life we live in and through the fully God, fully human Savior is something we work out with fear and trembling our whole lives.
The week before we unboxed our mangers, I sat at the computer for hours pondering all I had learned in the last three months during my final trimester of studies for my master’s degree in Practical Theology. We were tasked with writing a statement of faith, detailing what we believed about important doctrines like the nature of God, creation, and our eternal destinies. One question I spent more time on others is what the Imago Dei really means, what it says about us that we were created in the image and likeness of God.
Is it something about our physical bodies? Our capacity to reason? Our freedom to choose or to love? Our eternal nature? I read arguments from theologians and early church fathers arguing for each of these.
But the words I kept coming back to were ones I had heard months before when I spent a day hiking and praying at the Ignatius House in Atlanta. A quiet Jesuit priest spoke to a handful of us retreatants throughout the day about the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.
What stuck with me from that day is he didn’t speak about becoming more spiritual through these contemplative exercises but becoming more human. “We become human on our journey through this life and so become what God is like,” he said. It felt scandalous, blasphemous. I grew up hearing that our humanity was nothing more than fallen and sinful from birth, taught we should try to be more like God, less like us. Instead, he was telling us to live more fully into who God created us to be.
“In Your mercy confer on me a conversation pleasing to You, the patience to wait for You, and the perseverance to long for You. Grant me a perfect end, Your holy presence.”
– Saint Benedict of Nursia
He intimidated me on that first day I met him. He must have all the answers, I thought. Surely he knows the secret things of God, learns them in his five daily prayers.
I sat in the back of the room as the Trappist monk spoke about how his free-form writing had helped him encounter the dark spaces of his own soul. He’d stroke his chest-length white beard as he laughed. He seemed so casual and approachable at that moment. I imagined if I were to see him out in regular clothes, I might wonder if he was a biker. Yet here in this place, he seemed otherworldly.
Brother Mark is one of the dwindling number of Cistercians that make their home at the monastery I visit a couple of times a year. It’s less than an hour from my home and yet when you enter the sprawling grounds, you feel like you are entering an inherently sacred space. From the Abbey Church’s towering ceiling to the rolling lawn and lake nestled between massive Georgia pines, you truly feel minuscule against the backdrop of the testament that the monastery is to God’s majesty.
I had come for a retreat in which several of the brothers taught about writing and journaling. Brother Mark shared with our small group about his struggles with anger and the temptation to squabble with the men he chose to live his life among.
What—monks arguing? Of course, deep inside I knew this must be true. They are only human, after all. And yet, I had this image in my mind of the holiness that must set them apart, the pedestal these men must belong on for having chosen this life. My mind couldn’t wrap itself around the paradoxes of Brother Mark.
That evening my mother, sister, and I sat in the common room of the retreat guest house. It was the period of “the Great Silence,” the time after compline—the last prayers of the day—when the brothers retreat to their cells until the bells again call them to prayer well before dawn. Yet Brother Mark sat chatting with us about writing, faith, miracles, and dreams. I don’t know what all we discussed; I just know it was the night my illusions shattered...
As the soaking rains seeped through our thick hiking socks, our boots felt heavier the longer we splashed through the South Missouri mud. We had been in the wilderness two days at this point but the stabbing cold made it feel much longer as we continued towards an unknown destination. We followed behind leaders who silently guided us, topographic map and compass in hand. As we slipped through the brush, not able to avoid the briars, we knew we weren't just off the trail. We were lost.
We had only gone a few feet off the trail, feet slipping in the mud, when we stopped as a team to discuss our best direction. Dark was quickly closing in and we weren't sure which ridge we were actually on. We needed to find somewhere to camp soon after hiking all day in the pouring rain. Packs that were already heavy grew in weight by the moment and none of us had dry clothes left. Empty stomachs were grumbling and our spirits were as drenched as the Ozark Trail we couldn't seem to find.
We backtracked up to the last place we saw the trail, decided to follow it until we could better determine where we were. One teammate stooped down to pull our anxious eight-year-old daughter close as we prayed. We asked God to stop the rain, to heal our littlest team members' aching backs and ankles, to continue to heal my husband, Lee, who had been unable to keep any food down in two days, to show us where to camp. We cried out—lost, wet, desperate.
We followed the trail until we saw a clearing, hopeful that it was the valley we were looking for but unsure we were willing to let down our guard yet and hope. As I tried to hold it together for the kids, my son's cries growing louder, another sound broke through my prayers for relief.
"I will not be shaken. I will not be shaken." Her tiny ankles were quaking and the rain wasn't subsiding. There was no end in sight. But as we walked through that clearing, my daughter was speaking the Truth out loud, holding onto His promises to be with her. Barely a whisper, she was clinging to them like they were her very life. As we walked we were memorizing Psalm 62:5-8 and the words we had repeated throughout the day were sinking deep into her heart: "He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I will not be shaken."
I wiped away my tears as I straightened my pack and kept walking. The two weakest and tiniest members of our group of twelve were teaching us what it meant to have the faith of a child, to cling to the truth and to trust that He will not let us down. As we rounded a corner in the forest trail, we heard the sounds of the river and the crunching of rocks under our feet. We turned our headlamps towards the sounds, sobs catching in our throats as we saw the fire ring on the beach. We were at our destination at last.
This is a tiny glimpse into the lessons I am still meditating on that I learned in the wilderness this Spring. We intentionally placed ourselves in a place of total unknown as we entered a two-week cross-cultural training that would help prepare us for the international move we've been working towards for over a year now. The first part of the training consisted of a multi-day (of undetermined length so that we were always wading through the unknown) period backpacking through the Ozarks with eight other people on similar journeys as us.
We were also unintentionally placed in another wilderness when our plans to move to one location in South Asia fell through and we were completely in limbo, trusting God to show us just the next step. The kids were talking about what they learned following our five days of hiking over 20 miles up mountains and across swift flowing rivers, building our shelters, building a fire and cooking over it, and so many more physically and emotionally stretching moments. Our daughter who saw God answer every prayer for healing, for the rain to stop, for guidance, said it made her want to pray more. "God provides even in the wilderness," she said. She won't understand the full impact of the seed that was planted in her little life for many years. But the courage her words of complete trust in His goodness are growing deeper places of faith in my own soul.
We are about out of the unknown. We have a new destination in South Asia and a goal to get there by fall. But we know there is still much wilderness ahead. We set out on the next leg of our trek knowing it is on solid ground that we step, declaring boldly, "we will not be shaken!"
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