A Modern Take on the Nativity

IMG_4341I recently saw this nativity display in the home of young newlyweds. I’m not sure how they intended it, and knowing the playful husband, I’m pretty sure it’s his doing, but it got me thinking.

It’s an interesting assortment of people and creatures. The bride and groom stand gazing into one another’s eyes, although they are beside the cradle of the Son of God. I wonder how often I miss the opportunity to kneel at Jesus’ feet because I’m too absorbed with my own agenda, and don’t even notice his presence. The medieval soldier bears a defiant expression, his eyes fixed on something distant. He, too, misses the opportunity to kneel before this tiny babe, God’s miraculous Christmas Gift. He reminds me that often my focus is distant and detached, while God’s miracles happen all around me.

The animals have a better focus on the unique manger scene than anyone else in the stable except Mary. They look toward the Christ Child, but perhaps they simply wonder at this unusual event – a human baby sleeping on their food. Do they wonder where their next meal will come from? Ah, but I know something they do not. These animals gaze on the Bread of Life.

Then there is Mary. Mary, favored of God. Mary, blessed to bear God’s Son. She knew his birth was miraculous. The angel talked to her and told her things these others do not yet know. She looks at her child with the love of a mother for her newborn baby and the knowledge that this child has come from God in a special way. She cannot know in this moment the amazing things that God will do through Jesus. Mary smiles into the face of her Savior.

Finally, and most important, there is Jesus. Jesus, God’s Unique Son, who set aside glory and majesty for our sakes. Jesus who will go to the cross on our behalf and shed his blood to wash us sin clean in the red flow. Jesus invites each one of us to kneel before his manger and his cross. “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly,” he said.

I like this manger scene. It reminds me that we are each invited to worship the Messiah. God held us in his heart when he came to earth. I am challenged to keep my eyes focused on Jesus, the Living Word of God.

Happy Birthday, Jesus!



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Eyes to See


The larvae that fell from the hearth.

My sons, their wives and I were recently gathered at the younger one’s house to watch a favorite college’s football game. Suddenly, a worm-like creature dropped onto the floor in front of the fireplace. We girls screamed appropriately while the guys took a closer look and decided it was a larvae stage of something, probably a moth. It was brown with stripes, a bulbous head, and odd eyes on the big end. Honestly, it looked like an ugly little monster. I snapped a cell phone picture before my son scooped it up and unceremoniously deposited it outdoors. We turned our attention back to the TV to watch our team lose yet another game.

Version 2

A butterfly visits my garden.

The next day, I went on an internet search and discovered that the “little monster” was probably the last stage of a swallowtail butterfly. His eyes were actually decoy markings to protect him from predators. I was heartbroken. If only I had known what a beauty he would become, I would have tried to keep him so he could spin his cocoon in the safety of my house. If only I’d had eyes to see what he would become.

And that got me thinking. I wonder how often I judge a person by what shows on the surface, rather than the beautiful creature God is making them, inside and out. I wonder how often I write myself off as an ugly brown worm instead of looking for the Creator’s redemptive work in process. And I wonder how often I, in the midst of messy circumstances, forget that God has an end product in mind, and it will be good. “Behold, I make all things new,” He says. (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5)

Lord, help me remember the butterfly when all I can see is a wormy little monster. Give me eyes to see your good plans.”

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Don’t Call Me “Young Lady”– Please!

In the past couple of years, I have become increasingly annoyed by the way strangers and even some acquaintances address me. I’m talking about that annoying term young lady. An acquaintance recently elevated that greeting to a new level of irritation when he approached my husband and me with this line “Well, hello, young couple. How are you today?” The irony is that the person who uttered these words is pretty close to us in age and knows us well enough to call us by our first names. Not to be Slide1outdone in the equal-opportunity-age-insulting-comments arena, a smiling airline employee recently handed us boarding passes with these words “Here you go. You kids have a great time!” I know she meant to be friendly, but kids!? Really? Last time I checked, kids is a term for children and teens. It is sometimes used by parents referring to their young adult children. But the only other definition for kids is baby goats. I’m not a young person or a baby goat. I try to treat others, including strangers, with respect and I appreciate the same treatment.

When did condescending, sarcastic age related references become an acceptable way to greet people of a certain age? Granted, I’m no spring chicken, and some people may think of me as an old goat, but I don’t need to be reminded of that. I know how old I am. I don’t appreciate these identifiers any more than an overweight person enjoys being called “Tiny.” For most of my life,  the term “young lady” had described female children or young teens. Occasionally, this tag may be used by an irate mom, as in “Young lady, if you don’t straighten up right now, you are going to spend time in your room—alone!” But addressing me, an adult woman with grown children of my own, as young lady or kid is insulting – and rude.

I have a name, and it is Carolyn or Mrs. Mustian. If those terms aren’t known, “Ma’am” will do nicely. Or just look me in the eye and say, “Good morning, How are you?” I don’t need to be addressed by title. The plane we boarded the morning we were called kids took us to Jamaica, our first trip to that beautiful country. Granted, we were staying in a nice resort, but the beautiful Jamaicans whom we met were people of refined manners with lovely accents that hinted of the British heritage in that region. Not once was I called “young lady” or “kid” during my time there. What was I called? “My lady,” as in “May I get you a drink, my lady?” or “Yes, my lady, I’m happy to call a taxi for you.” The first time I heard myself called my lady, I thought immediately of one of my favorite TV shows, Downton Abby, a show that depicts a refined era  in history.

In Jamaica, my lady was not said in jest or sarcasm, nor with a condescending tone of voice. It was used the way we use Ma’am in the USA — or used to use it. It’s the respectful way Jamaicans addressed ladies whose names they do not know. And I loved them for letting me feel respected rather than insulted. Now I don’t want to be called my lady in the USA. That would be as frivolous as young lady. And I know that the majority of people who use these terms mean no harm. They are trying to be friendly, but it doesn’t feel friendly to me on the receiving end of such tags.

When we returned to the USA, I was reliving our trip with a friend. I told him how refreshing it was to be called my lady rather than young lady, kid or the almost equally irritating sweetie, or honey. “Yes,” he replied, “They are a very civilized culture down there.” I like that term – civilized. I wish we could recapture a bit of civility in this country, especially in regards to how older Americans are addressed. Is that too much to ask?

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When the Quiet Time Model Doesn’t Fit

Prayer is a crucial part of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Prayer is one of the first disciplines that new Christians are encouraged to practice. The word prayer in it’s simplest definition means “plea, petition, or request.” Expanded definitions include the concepts of reverence, worship, or thanks. Often when teaching someone to pray, we use acronyms – Like ACTS … Adoration, Confession, Thanks, and Supplication.

When I was a young single woman and new Christian, I was taught the Quiet Time Model and it went something like this: Arise early in the morning, get away alone and have a Quiet Time before you do anything else. Read some scripture, read a daily entry in a devotional book, pull out your prayer journal and pray down the list of requests. Record answers. Then go about your day, confident that you have communicated with God.

It was a model that worked well for me as a new Christian. I loved those Quiet Times with God. I saw prayers answered, grew in my relationship with Jesus, wrote him letters and love notes in my prayer journal. I noted things he was teaching me from scripture. It was a time of great spiritual growth.

Fast forward a few years, I was married to a man who worked long hours and the mother of two baby boys born 13 months apart. I really wanted to have a traditional quiet time like I had done when I was single and childless, but I couldn’t seem to make it work. No matter how early I awoke and tiptoed down the stairs, one or both babies would awake and need attention — and Quiet time didn’t happen. I felt guilty and frustrated that I couldn’t maintain the same level of structure and consistency in my devotional life that I had enjoyed in earlier years.

And I wasn’t the only mother of young children who struggled in this area. When I talked with other women, they often had the same struggles and guilt. I suspected that “How to Pray” books were written by men, or single women or mothers of grown children. What mother of young children had time to write anyway!? I decided the Quiet Time Model lacked something for this stage of my life. What was I missing, I wondered? I began to look in the Bible for guidance. What did Jesus’ prayer life look like?

Devotional teachers nearly always emphasized that Quiet time should happen early in the morning, alone and privately, and writers referenced scriptures about Jesus rising early and going into the wilderness to pray. The closest I ever got to the wilderness was the toy jungle in the playroom. I discovered that those scriptures only told part of the story. Jesus also prayed at night, sometimes all night long. He prayed when he was in crowds and he prayed alone. He prayed before doing miracles – and after. He prayed for people and situations as they presented themselves through his day. He prayed for himself, seeking God’s direction and guidance. He prayed prayers of thanksgiving and petition. He prayed as the needs arose. He didn’t keep a prayer journal or list of requests; he prayed immediately, in crowds, with his disciples, and alone. His prayers included words of petition, worship, direction, and deliverance from trials and evil. He prayed for food, for life, for healing. He prayed with thanksgiving. But his recorded prayers rarely included all these elements at once.

I began to recognize the danger of using the quiet time model like a check list to measure my faithfulness. Do the task, mark it off, move on to the next task. To be sure, God honored my efforts, answered prayers, taught me many things during those early morning meetings, but that still left 23 or so other hours in the day when I wasn’t necessarily interacting with God.

 I Thessalonians 5:17 says: “Pray without ceasing.” (NIV 1984)
Colossians 4:3 reads:Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (NIV 1984)

I discovered that I could pray without ceasing and devote myself to prayer throughout the day if I modeled Jesus’ prayer life. Some days the boys took long naps at the same time and I would have a luxurious hour or two of prayer, bible study, mediating on God’s word. Other days I might grab a moment to read a short devotional while they played. I listened to praise songs in my kitchen, in my car. If someone shared a prayer concern, I prayed with them right then – no prayer list needed. If I sensed they would be embarrassed with public prayer, I prayed silently as they talked. God didn’t need a fancy, longwinded prayer from me. I just spoke a few words on another’s behalf, confident that God knew the details of the need. And the next time I saw the person, I often learned how God had answered the prayer they didn’t know I’d prayed for them.


Prayers answered — and more prayers offered.

I began to recognize that to pray without ceasing and to be devoted to prayer simply meant to practice the presence of God throughout each day, recognizing the opportunities God placed in my pathways moment by moment. When a crying baby awoke in the middle of the night, I seized those times to rock and pray for the precious baby in my arms. I prayed God’s protection over little arms and legs –and lives. I prayed down the years of their lives for careers and wives and grandchildren and their relationships to God. I realized I didn’t have to pray and read the Bible and read a devotional all in one setting. These things could happen throughout the varied structure of my days.

Prayer is simply communicating with God. Sometimes, I’ve learned, we just need to sit quietly and listen for his still small voice after the raging storm has passed. Sometimes we hear his voice over the roar of our days as we rush and tumble through the craziness of 21st century life. Our prayer life, our devotional time spent in the presence of Creator God is a variety-filled relationship with our Heavenly Father. He can’t be contained in a box and He didn’t create us for a one size fits all prayer life either. We can talk to and with Him as we go through our days, sing to him, listen to him, read his word and hear his word read and taught to us. We can praise him with our words, our behaviors, our lifestyle choices, our thought processes.

We pray without ceasing and remain devoted to prayer when we keep the lines of communication open with God all day long. Prayer is our awesome opportunity to interact with our loving, caring Heavenly Father. We can do that any time of day or night, whether we are in a crowd or in a closet. He always hears – and answers.

Thank you, Father, for creating a variety of ways for us to interact with you, from structured to unstructured models to match the variety of people you created. Thank you for always being by our side, ears attuned to the prayers of our hearts, day and night, throughout the seasons of our lives.    Amen.

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Tribute to Hannah the Cheetah

She was a seven-month-old cheetah cub when she died. I’d never actually met her, face to face, fingertips to fur. But I’d logged countless hours on the computer watching her and her four siblings grow up in front of a webcam. They made their camera debut at four weeks old, on my birthday. I sat glued to my computer in a beautiful resort where my husband had taken me to celebrate. I couldn’t pull myself away from the webcam scene!

Those little cheetah cubs were so cute, and I called them my kittens! They were the miracle cubs that the Metro Richmond Zoo bred and thousands of viewers like me doted on their every move! We worried about them if something didn’t look quite right, and probably drove the real zoo people crazy with our obsessions posted on Facebook, of course! I remember worrying more than once because the mother cat kept pacing with a little one in her mouth, swinging back and forth, back and forth for several minutes. I was sure the mother was going to kill the poor baby. Of course she didn’t. She knew what she was doing, but I just wanted her to put the baby down and let it sleep.

Breakfast at the Cheetah cam, under Mom Lana's watchful eye.

Breakfast at the Cheetah cam, under Mom Lana’s watchful eye.

Months passed and the cheetah cam was shut down a few days before the charming family moved to their new public location. Like other people smitten with these creatures, I hardly knew what to do with myself when the camera went dark. I had drunk my morning coffee with these cats for months, and checked in on their mealtimes as often as I could. Sometimes in the evening, I watched them sleep. It was better than any show on TV! I never tired of the view! I still catch myself missing them some days and wishing the camera was still on.

Cheetah family viewed through a chain link fence

Cheetah family viewed through a chain link fence

Actually, I did see Hannah once in real life, from a distance. It was the day she and her mom and litter mates went on display after they moved from the breeding center  to their permanent zoo home. It was their first day before their adoring crowds and I had a morning commitment so I didn’t arrive until about 3 PM. Most visitors were gone by then, but she and the little furry family frolicked, and mostly rested, near the back fence of the large compound. Thus, I saw them only from a distant hazy view through the chain link fence that kept them safe.

A sky ride's eye view of some of the cheetah family.

A sky ride’s eye view of some of the cheetah family.

I took a bunch of pictures with my phone and even rode the sky lift that passed over the corner of their enclosure. There I got an unobstructed view of them, but sill far away. I regretted that I did not bring a camera with a telephoto lens. But I had been so eager to see them that I forgot all about cameras and such.

Then a few weeks ago, I was awakened to this morning news: “Hannah, one of two female cheetah cubs, was found dead …” The announcer continued with the details known at that time, but I was numb, heartbroken. I cried. I cried for a little animal that was not mine, dead much younger than she should have been in a protected environment. And as I learned long ago, tears of grief are often not just for the creature – or human—who has passed that moment, but for all the tears of all the years, losses that by our definition of time and events should not have happened. But they do happen in a broken world. I also cried for a little boy killed in our town around that same time; a child I did not know personally, a child senselessly killed – aren’t all children’s murders senseless? I cried because a friend had just that week tried to save an orphaned nest of baby birds. The hatchlings died while he hand fed and waited for a wildlife rescuer to take them. I grieved for dear ones gone, remembered, loved. Heartbreaks on a crippled planet.

And so, I turned to an old Bible I’ve had since the seventies. Inside the front cover, I had pasted a poem clipped from a magazine. It was written by Amy Carmichael, a missionary and writer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She worked with rescued temple prostitute children in India. Her poem spoke to me in 1977, and it speaks to me today when grief is heavy and death and pain stun and sting. She wrote:

……….Because of little children soiled,
……….And disinherited, despoiled,

          Because of hurt things, feathered, furred,
……….Tormented beast, imprisoned bird,

……….Because of many-folded grief,
……….Beyond redress, beyond belief,

……….Because the word is true that saith,
……….The whole creation travaileth—

         Of all our prayers this is the sum:
         “O come, Lord Jesus, come.”

……………………………………..Amy Carmichael

I read the poem aloud for Hannah, and the baby birds who no longer chirp, and the little boy who will not run and play on earth this summer. I read the poem for all my loved ones gone too soon. And I read the poem for me.

“Oh come, Lord Jesus, come.”


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Keeping Count

Keepings score can be a recipe for disaster in a relationship!

Keepings score can be a recipe for disaster in a relationship!

“It’s all about me. This is what I want.”
“He never empties the trash, and it’s his job.”
“Why do I have to write all the Christmas cards every year? It’s his friends, too.”
“This is the third time I’ve vacuumed the family room. I’m not the only one who uses it!”
“I work harder than you do.”

In a thousand ways, I’ve heard these words or similar ones — sometimes in my own family or job, sometimes out of my own mouth. It’s what I call the Counting Game, only it’s not a game. In fact, if played often enough in a marriage, in a career, in a relationship, it can become dangerous or even deadly. And yet, many of us fall victim to this destructive contest. It begins innocently enough, as we determine what we think is fair.

Perhaps we have an idea that everything should be equal in a marriage, the housework distributed equally, all social obligations divided down the middle – everything a 50-50 split. Then we notice that he doesn’t empty the trash very often – or ever. We focus on the overflowing trash cans and fail to notice that he often stacks the dishwasher and always mows the lawn. But we expected a fifty-fifty split on each item, then focus on a particular item that bugs us, like overflowing trash cans. We start to resent the unfair workload in the trash department. We begin to count.

We started a new job and were delighted to land the position, thought the pay was good, liked the benefits. Then after a few months, we noticed that some of our co-workers didn’t work as hard as we did. We heard disgruntled complains about the boss, the working conditions, the new compensation package. We start comparing our production to the gal in the next cubicle. We resented the new benefits package because, although it was better than what we had, we heard that the company down the street offered its employees more than we got. We begin to count.

I watch TV bridal shows, a habit that developed as I battled breast cancer. When chemo sapped my last bit of energy or the fear of germs caused me to cling to the solitude of my home, I turned to the flat-screened companion and met lots of bride-zillas. “This is my day, I’m the star. I should have everything I want.” I’ve watched brides bully their parents into buying a dress beyond their budget. I’ve seen shows where each bride strives to have a more elaborate/unique/exotic wedding than the other bride-competitors. Guests criticize the dresses, the food, the decorations, the venue.

In all the above settings, keeping count can lead to discontent and destruction. But it’s especially lethal for marriage. We fall victim to dangerous thinking when we put ourselves first in importance in our minds and define fairness according to our personal standards. Americans have a sense of fairness and equality that may work in theory in the public arena, but it can be a disaster in relationships. As soon as we develop rules to protect our fear that we might do more, give more, work harder than our fifty percent, we’re in big trouble. As soon as we think marriage or any personal relationship is “all about me getting my fair share,” we no longer have a relationship, we have a business deal. Marriage is not a 50-50 partnership. That turns it into a constant negotiation to be sure we get our due and don’t do more than our part.

Individuals who recognize their spouse’s strengths, abilities and weaknesses – and love them anyway — build strong marriages. True love sees one’s spouse with the wide-open awareness that his or her partner is not perfect and there will never be 50-50 equality in all things. To look for that sort of parity leads to a counting game and we humans are notoriously poor counters of the items that fall in our own weaknesses category. When we count, we usually count their faults, their weaknesses, their short-comings, with little thought about how we may fall short ourselves.

Instead, our focus must be on what strengths we can bring to the relationship, what gifts we can give to our partner, how often we can put their needs, interests, dreams at the same level as we hold ours. Instead of counting how seldom they have performed a task compared to us, we should focus on how often they have done something to contribute to the relationship – and thank them. People want to be thanked for the good they do rather than criticized for their inadequacies. Appreciation multiplies good behavior just as criticism and discontent often produces more of the very behavior we wish to extinguish. Counting faults and failures is like kids playing a game in which they  are hopelessly behind. There are only two choices: keep playing until the other person wins, or upend the board, and end the game abruptly. Either way, the person with fewer points still loses.

Keeping score of our “wins” in a conflict is a terrible way to ruin a relationship. Instead, focus on the good parts. Keep count of the other person’s contributions, offerings, efforts on behalf of the relationship, and celebrate them enthusiastically. Marriage isn’t a 50-50 partnership. It’s a commitment that’s 100% on each side, all in on every issue. Marriage is not “What can I get out of this relationship? What does my partner owe me?” A healthy marriage between two stable people is much stronger when these are the driving questions: “What do I bring to the relationship? How can I be a blessing to my spouse? What can I do to make his/her life better?” A friend of mine once said, “A marriage gets fifty-percent better when one person makes an effort to work on it wholeheartedly.”

I Cor. 13:5 "Love keeps no record of wrongs." It should not keep other negative counts, either!

I Cor. 13:5 “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” It should not keep other negative counts, either!

Now I’m going to post this and go empty the trash! My husband empties it more often than me — not that I’m counting! But won’t he be surprised? Let me know what you think. Have you applied this perspective to a relationship? How’d it work?

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Lord of Lunch Crumbs and Dust Bunnies

Easter weekend is over, chocolate bunnies are eaten, and our Easter finery is now shoved to the back closet to await another event. Pastors preached sermons some worked on for months and special Easter worship effects sleep tucked away for another year. Last week, Christians celebrated Christ’s resurrection. Even unbelievers loaded Easter baskets with trinkets and candy to delight their children, young or grown. My question now is this: Did Easter Sunday make a difference in my life? Am I more aware of God’s Amazing Grace this week because last weekend I celebrated his great sacrifice on my behalf? Will I truly live the transformed life he purchased for me, or will I move back into that robotic, complacent dance where families clamor for hot dinners and clean clothes and other ordinary human needs? Do I want life to be different this week? Do I want to carry the Resurrection Celebration all throughout the year, or is one weekend enough?

In one sense, I’ve celebrated Jesus’ resurrection since I was twenty-five. That’s when he scooped up my life’s broken pieces and set me on a surprising path of redemption and spiritual healing. I wasn’t looking for a religious experience when I met Jesus, and I didn’t get one. What I got was a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning, and an everlasting relationship with God who set me on a path of unexpected twists and turns. Sometimes, that journey provided blessings and joy, but life has also included disappointments, heartaches and grief. Between the pitfalls and the trials, between the mountaintops and blessings, dwell the everyday, ordinary minutes wrapped in daily routines, repetitive and sometimes boring. Does Jesus’ resurrection make a difference in those humdrum moments?

Dust bins and lunch time

Dust bins and lunch time

I think these are exactly the moments Jesus treasures with us – those everyday times when we are not clamoring for his attention because we are in pain, or shouting his name from the rooftops as we celebrate a special blessing. In the quiet, ordinary moments of corralling dust bunnies for the trash bin and cleaning crumbs off the countertops, Jesus says, “Celebrate the ordinary. Be thankful that your hand can hold the dustpan, your hungry family gathers at the kitchen counter for lunch, and you have the opportunity to feed them sandwiches and fruit. Talk with me while you stack dishes in the dishwasher and be grateful that you have the pleasure of serving in this moment, in this place. Not every woman knows this blessing.”

Jesus is alive, not only on Easter Sunday, but also on the other 364 days of the year. In that sense, there are no ordinary moments. Each day we live, each breath we breathe is an opportunity to celebrate his lessons and blessings poured on our days because Jesus rose that first Easter Sunday. In Jesus, every moment is an occasion to communicate with him; every encounter with another human is an opportunity to be his instrument of blessing and grace. Extraordinary Lord of Dust Bunnies and Lunch Crumbs, let me be your faithful servant on this Easter journey called life. Keep me mindful that you are my Resurrection Lord every day, and not just on Easter Weekend.

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