Myth busting the Nativity

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There are so many traditions and embellishments that over the years we have added to the Biblical account. Many are lovely, they can help us imagine the scene, some draw us in and bring it to life. Some however can give us the wrong idea about the story altogether. It’s really useful for us to have clarity about what’s there in the Bible, what we know and to separate out the add ons – not necessarily to ‘banish’ them but to know them as extras.

My girls need that clarity. It’s hard to have to unlearn something later and have to build trust again with the story itself, and the people who told it. Far better to be clear from the beginning (great with hindsight I know!).

Little Donkey is unfortunately never mentioned in the Biblical accounts. It’s true that we know with some certainty that having a donkey with you when you traveled at that time, in that place was common – if you were well off enough to have one. But the donkey would probably have been used to carry things not people routinely. So yes, it is lovely to imagine Mary having the assistance of a donkey for the really long journey on foot to Bethlehem whilst heavily pregnant – but we are having an educated guess. We don’t know for certain they had one with them.

Three Kings are a neatening up of the story. The Bible describes simply ‘some wise men from the East’. We have made the logical step of assuming they had wealth and social standing to be able to abandon what they were doing and set out on the long journey of discovery, and because of the expensive presents they brought. We’ve also neatly assumed three when writing carols and nativity plays – easy, one for each present. But it could have been a group all coming together to bring the three presents. They could have had an entourage of servants with them, there could have just been two out on an adventure together… we’re simply not told.

Stable round the back of the Inn Now this is a tricky one. Almost all Christmas cards show the nativity scene in a wooden stable that we in the west would recognize. It’s usually either at a small distance from the town or like a lean to against the Inn. Also I think we have translated the word ‘Inn’ looking at the story through western eyes, imagining perhaps an old fashioned public house taking in weary travelers with rooms for hire upstairs – and it’s full to bursting. In fact that kind of Inn was not the norm in the Middle East at that time. The culture had at it’s heart the expectation of hospitality. Every home would be ready to give it. Those who could afford to had a guest room set slightly apart from the busyness of their family life, maybe up on the flat roof, or perhaps just separated by a wall from the family living area which would most likely have been one room, bringing the precious animals in for the night to give warmth and security, and all sleeping within that family space with the animals. So it was probably not a wooden stable building that Mary and Joseph were offered for the night, but the chance to squeeze into someone’s family space – animals and all because all the guest rooms were already full. Not secluded, not quiet, not private as we perhaps have got used to picturing it. But yes, he was placed in the manger and yes he was born in with the animals that belonged to that household and I expect they were very glad of the warmth.

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Shepherds and wise men visit. We are used to telling the story all in one go – especially for children, and so we have grown accustomed to imagining the shepherds and wise men all arriving on that first night. But actually the Bible says that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem much later, perhaps months later. We know Jesus was still young because Herod (otherwise known as Herod the Great – there were a few Herod’s in Biblical times) ordered all babies 2 years and under to be killed in the hope that he would remove this ‘new king’ the wise men had come to see but he was described as a ‘child with his mother’ when they saw him, not as a baby lying in a manger.

Another thing that can so easily get muddled is stars and angels – angels came to the shepherds and the star led the wise men.

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‘No crying he makes’ – no chance!!! How worrying would that have been for Mary. Babies need to cry, to take in that first big breath and to get fed when they are hungry and cleaned when they are dirty. It’s true Jesus was perfect, the Bible tells us he was without sin. But babies crying is not sinful it is necessary (Don’t ask me why we say ‘oh they were such a good baby’ when we mean they didn’t cry too much more than was convenient!! Maybe it harks back to the Victorian adage ‘children should be seen and not heard’). Yes, Mary would have been relieved to hear baby Jesus crying. And just to clarify he would have been a beautifully ordinary Bethlehem baby; olive skin, deep brown eyes, really dark hair – just like his Jewish, Middle Eastern Mum & Dad – he was really, truly human.

 

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peace, not necessarily peacefulness

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Goodness it’s been quite a half term in the Porter house! A new school for T, college for the first time for B, and the beginning of the exam years for A. Plus new chaplaincy work for Andrew alongside church, and all the usual responsibilities. Of course, for me this has brought yet more steep learning curves and the challenges of stepping up to the new ways support from me is needed for everyone. Trying to understand and navigate the Further Ed support systems, beginning to build partnership and communication with new tutors and teachers. Reading and re-reading policies and guidelines, law and recommendations to try and work out what adjustments and support it is reasonable to ask for, what I need to find independently and what simply isn’t out there that I’m going to need to creatively put in place myself. One of my friends reminds me that I once said to her that chaos is chaos – no matter how much more you put into the mix, but my goodness it feels as if we have chaos full to bursting at the moment!

Yesterday the secondary school where I’m on the chaplaincy team had a service all about peace. At the end there was a time of reflection with beautiful music being played. In between the boys behind me asking me what different questions on the reflection sheet meant (which I loved chatting about) I sat and read, and re-read ‘my peace I give to you… do not be troubled, do not be upset’. And I sat there and heard Jesus say these words into all of the above and more, and I became aware of my aching painful permanently stressed out shoulders and neck, and I pondered this gift of peace. Given into the midst of the storms of life.

“I’m telling you these things while I’m still living with you. The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.” (John 14:27, MSG)

We rarely have ‘peaceful’ times in our family life together. And when we do it’s short lived. We work hard to find ‘peacefulness’ and rest for each of us – we each find it in different ways and places. A good book, quiet, dancing to loud music, gardening, walking, animals, being alone, being with others, baking, drawing and painting, playing, minecraft, SIMS… But it’s elusive and fleeting, the ‘peace’ we can find for ourselves in those ways. It’s needed respite but it doesn’t come close to the deep seated, welling up, strong, protecting all around me kind of peace that I sense Jesus is talking about.

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I think I began learning what this Jesus peace might be like when I was only a child. Words from a song we played on a record over and over, and sang along to have stayed with me through the years and pop into my mind to remind me of the truth I grabbed hold of as a child listening to ‘the music machine’: ‘peace is holding Jesus’ hand’. It is active, holding onto him, trusting in who he is. It is a gift, he stands next to me with his hand stretching out to be held onto, giving himself. He is our peace. We are accepted, loved, understood. We are safe and held through every storm of life. We are not defined and restricted by the systems we have to navigate but defined by and in this belonging with Jesus. Our well being and purposefulness rests in our belonging with him.

My belonging in him can give me the courage I need. I can lean into his love for me when worries yet again try to overwhelm me. When everything feels as if I am wading through treacle I can be sure I am with the one who can speak to howling wind and dangerous waves – and put them in their place! The troubles, worries, concerns, mountains we face do not disappear but we are not bereft or alone. We are ‘holding Jesus’ hand’.

 ‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33 NIV)

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Knowing God’s voice

‘God answers our prayers’

‘God is always with you’

‘He will help you’

‘God will guide us’

2012-05-13 12.29.31These are all phrases we often use when trying to put words to our faith and hope in God as Christians. At the moment they are often met by T with questions and doubts: ‘how?’, ‘I can’t see him!’, ‘he doesn’t talk to me’. The thing is our words and phrases express our experience of mystery. Our faith is in a concrete, true, eternal God but our experience of Him is not tangible in the same way as a hug with a friend or parent. We don’t hear answers to prayer audibly (very often!) in the same way as a teacher answering our question. The way God’s presence faithfully stays with us as we trust Him is not visible to our eyes in the same way as we see and hold onto our comfort teddy throughout the day. We experience glimpses, senses of these intangible realities through faith and God’s grace (his free gift).

 For now [in this time of imperfection] we see in a mirror dimly [a blurred reflection, a riddle, an enigma], but then [when the time of perfection comes we will see reality] face to face. Now I know in part [just in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God]. (1 Cor 13:12 AMP)

We learn to see with eyes of faith rather than physical eyes, and to hear with our listening, quietened soul – our inner self reaching out for God. We learn to feel his real presence with us. We learn to recognize the physical markers as our bodies and spirit respond to spiritual realities we cannot see or touch physically. A quickened heart beat; the unexpected calm flooding our body and feelings quite independent of our circumstances; a beyond-our-own-courage; an inexplicable warmth; a moment when our own inner monologue is at rest and a new word drops in; goosebumps; when our body and spirit feels the same relief as it does when it can slump into the lap of home – our favourite sofa, in our favourite safe space where we belong and know we are unconditionally loved. We learn the sounds, and touch, the tastes and smells of the mystery that is our living God coming near and walking alongside us unseen and intangible. This is a lifelong adventure of love, of being known and getting to know.

Jesus said, “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. No one gets to the Father apart from me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him. You’ve even seen him!” (Jn 14:7 MSG)

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These are things I hope I can model and articulate as Mum to B, A & T. Finding ways to explain the mystery takes me out of the box. We have talked about how we get to know a voice to the extent that we recognize and respond to it even when we don’t see the person. The game where you have to close your eyes and listen with your whole body to be ready to spot someone coming to steal the keys or bells, or a game where we are blindfolded and have to identify the person by voice or smell can remind us of how our body feels when someone is familiar, how our bodies can recognize and respond to someone’s presence. They also remind us how difficult it can all be! That’s quite useful to throw into this discussion. We have spent time talking about the vast number of things we trust are real that we cannot see with our physical eyes, or hear with our physical ears – when you stop and think about it there’s so much we take for granted as real that we cannot see and hear. Germs; wind; atoms; electricity; energy; love. Believing that these things are real is something we do already. Talking about, and living out, spiritual things as real and living rather than just ideas on paper or in a book invites discussion and exploration.

Practicing being in God’s presence together – in prayer, in worship, in questioning, in praise and thanks, in quiet, reading the Bible  – needs to be intentional for us, it’s the thing that so easily takes second place to everything else life throws at us. It’s difficult. Mealtimes, bedtimes and mornings are already a battle ground full of demands. I don’t want activities that invite us to draw close to God to feel like another demand, or another chore on the long list that has to be done at certain times of day. As I have said before, I try to simply be ready! There are bibles on every shelf and I love to read from them when they are picked for bedtime stories. We pray together when we can, in ways that we can – and try not to get worked up when we can’t or when things really don’t go well. We listen to worship songs in the car, and sing them out in the garden and as we walk. We say our arrow prayers and arrow bursts of thankfulness out loud. We name it when we feel God’s presence or guidance, or when God gives us peace or courage. I don’t ever worry about doubts – they open discussion, and invite exploration together. I don’t need all the answers for I speak about mystery and point to our living God who is already drawing close to our children.

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Role models

Growing up in a Christian home, a manse with many people coming and going, a faith filled extended family, and being at the heart of church family life meant I had many followers of Jesus as role models. I can sit here and think of a number of really significant people whose life of faith has encouraged, strengthened and challenged mine as I grew (and continue growing!). From Sunday school teachers and youth house-group hosts to honorary church grannies who listened and shared life with us, from Bible college tutors and fellow ordinands to Mums like me living out their faith I have been shaped and inspired by other Christians.

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It was Paul who said rather challengingly:

Follow my example, just as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Cor 11:1)

It wasn’t just people alongside me either. As a child I loved reading biographies (still do given half a chance!) of Christians doing extraordinary things with God. Books like ‘Through gates of Splendour’, the story of the Elizabeth Elliot; the writings of Corrie Ten Boom; or the story of Mary Jones walking to find a Bible shaped me and inspired me – they still do.

One of the youth sessions at the New Wine summer conference that A came away talking about was an evening when a woman from North Korea came to give some of her testimony. She had become a Christian, had escaped, found a Bible and written it out in its entirety committing much of it to memory. Later whilst in Prison for her faith and escape, she had shared her faith despite the dangers and had started a church that met in the prison toilets which was so very dirty that guards never went near, and they prayed and recited scripture in whispers. She spoke of the reality of living as a secret Christian, of people burying Bibles to keep them hidden and going at night to dig them up read them, of the danger of being known as a Christian and yet how faith is being shared. For A it was I think one of those encounters that will shape him. We have certainly all come back less complacent about how easy it is for us to reach for a Bible and to read God’s words to us.

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Hearing testimonies like this from Christians whose experience is so different from ours is so challenging, and so needed in our growth in faith and belonging in the church. These are the testimonies that have made me courageous (terrified yet stepping out with God) in my life of faith.

“As parents we are the main spiritual influence in our children’s lives. And as we discover more abut what it means to ‘abide in him’, we have an amazing opportunity on the roller-coaster ride of family life to model to them what seeking to live in a real relationship with God actually looks like.” (p47, ‘Raising Faith’ Katharine Hill & Andy Frost)

It is a daunting thought that I am a role model of a life of faith in my children’s life. I certainly don’t want my life to be the only one they look at to see what a life of faith looks like. I want to enable them to encounter many others too who will inspire them and show them in different ways, and through different experiences what following after God can be like. Being regularly part of church family is great, and opening the doors of our home to others as often as we can is good too. RE projects (Gladys Aylward is now very well known to B & I), talks, films, you tube, family and books (10 girls who changed the world, by Irene Howat is good – there’s a boys one too) – the opportunities for introducing our children and young people to other Christian role models are many and so very interesting and inspiring. Helping my three to hear other’s stories of faith feeds me too.

 

 

Free printables: Scrap-booking with God

A while ago T & I got started on a scrap book all about the Bible. We love the cutting, sticking and doodling process of scrap-booking. It’s something we do on some holidays (something I did on holidays as a child – in fact I also used to doodle and put together diaries or activity books for my younger sisters too when we went away which probably annoyed them intensely!), and if we are busy finding out about a particular topic. So for us it is perhaps the most natural thing in the world to do scrap-booking with God.

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I don’t chat with T about scrap-booking about God, but with him. What we doodle, cut & stick is all part of our conversation with him. Sometimes our pages become conversation starters between God & us; sometimes they are a response to what we experienced in being with God that day; sometimes in writing a verse out or colouring or drawing about a bible verse we are better able to listen. Just the same as a spiritual journal but with much more glue, stickers and felt tips!

Anyway, I have been busy drawing some more printables that can be coloured, cut out and used in your scrap-booking with God. Because T is still enjoying exploring the facts about the Bible the most recent page is full of fascinating facts about the Bible alongside the picture-language the Bible uses to describe God’s word in our lives. These will need a bit of explanation for my literal thinker – though I look forward to learning from her take on them too –

  • light for my path – picture language that gets us remembering how difficult and scary it can be walking on a path in pitch darkness. We find it easier and safer when there is a good streetlight, or a powerful torch showing us the path and where we can walk. God’s word is like a light that makes it safe to walk forward in life, helping us see where to go next and the dangers to avoid.

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  • honey on my lips – a comparison between God’s words when we hear them and honey when we eat some. Honey not only tastes amazing it also has superpowers and can help heal because it has antibacterial properties, and is soothing, and eating local honey can genuinely help hay fever. Honey is also very precious, looking back to when this comparison was used granulated sugar did not exist, nor did artificial sweetners. Honey was beautifully sweet in cooking, so over time in many cultures people began to keep bees and collect the honey despite the risks.
  • my guide/map – if we are going somewhere we need to know the way. If we don’t we feel lost, and become lost very easily without a map or a guide to show us the directions. In life there are so many choices every day – little ones and big ones, and without directions and help it can feel very difficult – we may even feel lost (sometimes people even describe someone who has made bad choices as having ‘lost their way’). God’s word can be our guide (just like having someone with us to show us the way) and our map that we can work out the best choices from.

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  • every day bread – Jesus said we can’t live just on bread, we need the word of God too. Thinking about God’s word being like every day bread reminds us how much we need it. We would get hungry, then weak and ill if we gave up on eating what we need to each day. It is as important for our health and well-being that we hear God’s word every day and let it’s goodness give us what we need to live.
  • sword of the Spirit – from the picture Paul describes about the Christian dressed in protective armour so they can be strong in their living out of the faith. The ‘sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ is the only weapon Paul talks about when he describes living as a Christian in this way. God’s word can battle with our worries and doubts, they can tell us what is true when lies come at us. The Holy Spirit reminds us of God’s word at all the important moments in our living for God, always reminding us of who God is and how loved we are.

click here to download free printables 

I really hope you enjoy using these pages in your scrap-booking with God. If you want to take a picture I would love to see. Tag me on instagram, @clearlynurturing.