Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Caught in the Christmas Rush

Even though I know a full year in advance that the Christmas holidays are coming, I am inevitably caught off-guard.

Getting behind with Christmas decorating, shopping and baking is one thing. Poor planning for the birth of a child, however, is an entirely different matter. Ordinarily, expectant parents are obsessed with preparations—Lamaze classes, nursery furnishings and trial runs to the hospital.

So why did that first Christmas—an event God scheduled before Creation—have all the marks of poor planning? Did God get caught in the Christmas rush too?

One might easily think so, when the timing of this long-awaited event coincided with a major census, putting Joseph and a very pregnant Mary on the road. Worse yet, Bethlehemites from other parts of the country were pouring into town to register, filling all the inns so there was no place for them to stay. It boggles the mind to think the holy couple took refuge in a stable devoid of basic amenities—heat, water or blankets—not to mention minimum levels of cleanliness or the calming presence and skilled hands of a midwife.

To top it off, a rag-tag band of shepherds (who probably hadn't bathed in weeks) formed the official welcoming committee. They learned the news in the dead of night, when most people were asleep. No doubt in shock from the terrifying appearance of the angels, yet grasping some sense of the magnitude of what was happening, they at least dropped what they were doing and rushed to see the infant Jesus for themselves.

We would take a dim view of such circumstances if they happened to us. Judging from our Christmas cards, we've reconfigured their story into a scene of cozy perfection, complete with "sweet smelling" hay. As a hay fever sufferer, I have a hard time believing in the pleasantness of hay—sweet smelling or not. I wonder if Mary and Joseph would even recognize Christmas, the way we've dressed it up.

We may successfully camouflage the misery of that first Christmas. We have a harder time doing that for our own. For a lot of people, the holidays are rough. Depression rates go up along with Christmas decorations. A heavy heart often lies beneath our jolly season's greetings, and we enter the holiday season with a tinge of dread.

For many of us, this year's Christmas brings the same old challenge of producing a normal, happy day—some semblance of the life and family we always wanted. Our best efforts are undermined by loneliness, loss, regrets, and dysfunction. No matter how hard we try to be merry, we can't escape our own brokenness and the imperfections of this fallen world. Not even for Christmas.

In a way, it is fitting for even that first Christmas wasn't immune to brokenness and sorrow. The joy at Jesus' birth was mingled with disappointment and isolation. Was this how Mary and Joseph expected events to unfold?

But God is intentional. He makes plans and carries them out. We can be sure that every single aspect of that first Christmas was more carefully thought through and fulfilled than our most perfectly executed Christmas celebration.

We mute the Christmas message when we sugarcoat the raw misery of it all. There's purpose behind the details, right down to the "No Vacancy" sign at the inn.

Take those shepherds, for example. A lot of Christians think God chose them to demonstrate that Jesus came to the poor and the lowly, which goes to show how clueless we can be about the monumental step down Jesus took to come and live among us. Wouldn't Jesus have humbled himself just as much and still have come to the poor and lowly if he had been born in Buckingham Palace? After all, we are all impoverished and lowly before God, whether we belong to the House of Windsor or suffer the poverty of Calcutta. So why the shepherds?

As I studied their story, I learned that these weren't just ordinary shepherds. The flocks pasturing near Bethlehem were destined for temple sacrifices. Shepherds tending the temple flocks were experts in determining the suitability of a lamb for sacrifice. They knew how to spot defects. Nothing was more appropriate than to summon these shepherds to be the first witnesses of the perfect Lamb who would lay down His life for the sins of the world.

The cross was in view, even from the Bethlehem stable. The baby Jesus had come to die—to rescue us from the very brokenness that prevents us from enjoying a perfect Christmas. The words of John the Baptist could have easily come from the lips of the shepherds, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

My experience with stables is limited, I’ll admit. But from what little I do know, I’m still convinced a stable is no place to give birth to a baby.

It is, however, the perfect birthplace for a lamb.

"Look, the Lamb of God,
who takes away the sin of the world!"
—John 1:29

Monday, December 5, 2005

The Return of the Ezer

The LORD God said,
"It is not good for the man to be
I will make an ezer
(helper) suitable for him."
—Genesis 2:18

Three A.M., and my life was about to change forever. I was wide-awake. No, I wasn’t tossing and turning in my bed. Bed was the furthest thing from my mind. Oddly enough, I was pouring over books, smuggling volumes out of my husband’s study, searching for answers. I felt like a detective and I knew I was onto something.

For years I’d been troubled by interpretations of Eve that left me (and a lot of other women) out in the cold. I could relate to what one single woman confided, as she tried to fit in, “I don’t mind being called a helpmeet. I like helping people. But helpmeet doesn’t encompass everything about me.” Little did I realize that the “helpmeet” version of Eve was about to topple and something better—for all of us—would take her place.

Is God's Blueprint Too Small?

My attention zeroed in on the word God used to describe the woman when he created her. “Ezer” (usually translated “helper”) has historically been defined in terms of marriage, motherhood and domesticity. According to this line of thinking, a woman fulfills her highest calling when she marries, bears children and manages the home.

Wonderful and significant as marriage and motherhood can be, this definition creates serious problems for all women.

When we are little girls, God’s purposes for us are pushed out into the distant future, to the day we don a wedding veil and head for the marriage altar. It intensifies the difficulties of singleness and the heartache of childlessness. Elderly women are troubled by the thought that God’s purpose for them has expired. Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, we end up trying to squeeze ourselves into a creation blueprint that simply doesn’t fit us all.

As I studied through the night, my curiosity was fueled by a deep longing to know if God’s blueprint included me. Is God’s blueprint for us really too small?

A Warrior For God’s Purposes

The word ezer appears in the Old Testament twenty-one times—twice for the woman in Genesis 2:18 and 20, three times for nations Israel turned to for military assistance when they were under attack, and sixteen times for God. This information resulted in upgrading the ezer from “helper” to “strong helper” and led to a divided (and at times heated) discussion over the word strong. How strong is strong, after all?

I decided to look up the references. To my surprise, I discovered powerful military language in every passage. Whenever ezer appeared—for the three nations, obviously, but also for God—it was always within a military context. God is His people’s helper, defender, deliverer, sword and shield. He is better than chariots and horses. He keeps sentry watch over his people and with His strong arm overthrows their foes. Based on the Old Testament’s consistent usage of this term, it only makes sense to conclude that God created the woman to be a warrior.

Further reading uncovered additional evidence of the strength and significance of the ezer. I discovered that the original inventory was off. Ezer shows up more than twenty-one times and in the most unexpected places. You just have to look more closely to find it.

Reading through one of those tedious genealogies (the passages we tend to skim when reading through the Bible) I spotted ezer again—in men’s names. Ezer was one of Judah’s male descendants. Moses named his son Eli-ezer. Abi-ezer belonged to the elite band of David’s mightiest warriors. Samuel raised a monument to God’s glorious deliverance and named it Eben-ezer.

Even today, the name Ezer still carries a lot of weight. Ezer Weizman was an Israeli military hero, a world leader who served as Israel’s seventh president. I doubt if anyone made fun of a man like that because his parents named him Ezer.

Ezer represents the strength and valor of a warrior. God created women to be warriors. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Our brothers need us, and God calls us to join forces with them in advancing His kingdom wherever we are.

The Perfect Fit

That night, while the rest of the world slept, my identity changed forever. I couldn’t think of a single moment, situation or relationship in my life where my calling as an ezer-warrior for God’s purposes didn’t apply.

My three little nieces are just starting out in life, but they are ezers too. I regularly hear from moms engaged in fierce battles for their kids. A young single is battling for the souls of women in Ghana, as another woman launches a new consulting business on the home front. A friend of mine faces huge challenges in his business and is stronger and wiser in his own battles because of his ezer-warrior wife. A ezer in her nineties ministers actively to lost souls in her extended care facility.

We are all ezers—from our first breath to our last. We follow Jesus, and He calls us to advance His kingdom no matter where He puts us.

I agree with the single woman who didn’t quite fit the “helpmeet” mold, but found the ezer fit her perfectly. “Warrior covers all of who I am.”