See, I'm not sure how much the angels knew. Some knew more than others, that at least seems obvious-- think Gabriel, for instance, announcing to Mary the coming of her unborn child, a king whose name would be JESUS, who would be great, who'd be called the Son of the Highest and whose reign would never end. So... he knew a little bit, I guess. But what about the others?-- I think they longed to look into these things. I picture them waiting, excitedly waiting like kids for Christmas morning, looking at a gift that's been wrapped and set under the tree, speculating to pass the time, guessing at what's in it, wishing they could shake it, test its weight, peek inside it, wondering at what grace the Almighty may have in store for little planet earth this time. But I doubt they saw this coming.
A friend of mine told me the other day that the most beautiful word in the whole world is 'Daddy.' Being a dad myself, I knew where he was coming from, but just for the sake of fun I told him a story about a recent time when hearing it wasn't so beautiful.
My 8-year-old son, Nathan, just isn't listening. And I am done yelling.
"Nathan," I say quietly, "I'm going to walk out of this room, and when I come back in a few minutes, I want to see you cleaning up like I've asked you to do three times already-- or you'll get no stories tonight. This is your last chance." And with that, I walk out of the room.
Now there's something you need to understand about story time-- I probably like it just as much as Nathan. It's one of the few guilt-free times I can read a novel, just for fun, and still call it 'bonding.' Together, he and I have worked our way through Gary Paulsen's Hatchet books, C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, three of the books in Madalene L'Engle's Wrinkle In Time Quintet and countless others. At the time of this exchange, we had just begun reading the first of my Dad's four books, On Call. The point is, my ultimatum was a real threat to a time we both enjoyed. And still, he blew it.
I walk back into the room to see him having a pillow fight with one of his brothers. My heart sinks.
"I'm sorry, Bud," I say, "no stories tonight." Shock. Disbelief. Anger. In 2.5 seconds his freckled face registers all 12 stages of grief and then starts over.
"But Daddy--! DAAAAD!!" he wails dramatically, "I didn't hear you!" I hate that one.
"That's my point," I counter-- "you're not listening when Mom and I tell you something. You need to learn to follow directions the first time."
"But that's so mean! It's not fair! why do you have to pick that punishment? Why can't it be something else? Anything else?!"
"Well, Bud, exactly because it's a punishment that hurts," I say. "I'm hoping that tomorrow night, when I ask you to clean up, you'll remember the pain of not getting to read stories and choose to obey the first time." And that's when I tag on the words that lead to the greatest moment in our entire exchange-- "This hurts me too, Bud," I finish truthfully-- "you know I love reading with you. I'm really sorry."
His face contorts, turns red, eyes bulging with an expression of incredulity--
"What in the world are you doing?" he shrieks with beseeching hands-- "That doesn't make any kind of sense! Why would you choose something that hurts you, too?-- Why would you punish yourself?!"
My friend and I shared a good belly laugh at his precocious little insight, but when I stopped to think about it later, his question was actually pretty profound-- why indeed? I hadn't done anything, I wasn't guilty of wrong-- so why subject myself to pain along with him?
He sprints out of the room with another wail of despair, vanishing down the hallway until I can no longer hear his moans. I leave him be for a while before deciding to seek him out.
Remember, I'm hurting too.
I finally find him in our bedroom, hiding behind the bed.
"Leave me alone," comes a muffled sob from the floor.
I climb up onto the bed and lay down on my back, looking up at the ceiling.
"Come up here, Nate," I say in a kind voice.
"No. I don't want to."
"Nathan... come up here."
Reluctantly he stands, climbs onto the bed and lays down woodenly beside me on his stomach, burying his face in his arms. I leave him alone for a moment, still unsure what to say, before finally deciding just to scratch his back. Within minutes, he begins to relax. It seems like the right time to talk, so I venture a tender comment.
"I'm really sorry you don't get to have story time, Buddy," I say again. "I really wish I could read with you tonight. I love you so much."
"I'm sorry..." comes the trembling reply-- "I love you too." His little shoulders shake as he says it.
"Can I give you a hug?" I ask hopefully. In response, he nearly tackles me. It's a sweet resolution to a difficult lesson; humility, repentance, forgiveness and love, all wrapped up in a hug. But it isn't the way all our 'lessons' turn out. Not by a long shot.
So what made the difference?
I yell at my kids sometimes. Angrily. I can lose it. I'm not proud of it, but still, all the same, there it is-- it happens. Here's the thing-- it doesn't usually help much. I mean, I may get the short-term result I'm after-- a quiet room, a cleaned up floor, a chastised child. But in the long run I've noticed there's a distance that seems to form between us when I yell, that my children stop making eye-contact with me when I correct them angrily, that a certain, dismissive reaction begins to form like a callous between their little hearts and the sound of my voice. After all, as the saying goes-- if it thunders all the time, people stop noticing. So, back to my son's question-- In the process that is parenting, why would I punish myself? Why would I want to share in his pain? The reason, as I've thought about it, is actually pretty simple-- because it makes my love more believable. And something about that kind of love can melt even his stubborn heart.
On that silent night in Bethlehem, as the Father's gift was opened and continued to unfold over the next 33 years, I have to think the angels gasped. For there, lying in the manger, was God the Father's only Son. He was so small, so weak, so exposed to the pain of our world.
What in the world is He doing?! they must have wondered about Abba, about the Father-- this doesn't make any kind of sense! Doesn't He know this will hurt? Why couldn't he send other messengers, more prophets? Why not send more of us? Why would he punish Himself to reach these hard-hearing, childish people?
The reason, as I've thought about it, is actually pretty simple-- because it made His love more believable. And something about that kind of love can melt even this stubborn heart.
I have a lot of Christmas shopping left to do, and maybe so do you. There's lots of food to eat this month, lots of music to listen to, parties to attend, lots of decorating and friends and family to enjoy. But somewhere along the way, somehow, in the hustle and bustle that is this Christmas season, may each of you find the time to stop and join the angels around a tiny child in a crib, around a dying man on a cross, and watch, in wondering love.
Surrounded By Grace,