Friday, December 25, 2009

An "Alphabet" of Christmas Gifts

Like most of us, I love Christmas! If anyone ever asks me what my favorite holiday is, that is always my response. The lights, the songs, the decorations, even the snow...they all combine to make me happy. Maybe it's the child in me...or maybe it's because I love to give gifts, but Christmas is simply a wonderful time of the year.

I was thinking the other day about the "first" Christmas...the day that a child was born in a humble manger in a podunk town in the Middle East. Essential in that first Christmas was the presence of gifts.

"They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." (Mt 2:11 NLT)

This passage of Scripture made me reflect on four "key" gifts that are present in the story and an alphabetic relationship to four "other" incredible gifts that God has given the world.

The first gift in the story is actually a "Daughter" (D). While we don't know his name, we know that Mary had a father somewhere. God probably (without doubt, actually) could have brought Christ into the world completely supernaturally, but He chose to use a young women and I think there is great significance to that. God's first daughter was also a Adam. And down through the ages, fathers have consistently given their daughters as a gift to a young man in marriage. For centuries, a financial price was attached to the bride by the father, thus enhancing the value that he placed on her.

The second gift mentioned comes from one of the wise men..."Gold" (G). We all know that gold is considered to be one of the most valuable objects on earth…and to give it away is certainly a sacrifice. We don’t really know that much about the wise men of the Christmas story. In some translations they are called Magi…in others, Kings. Nevertheless, to give away this precious mineral would be a sacrifice – perhaps even to the point of having to go without.

“Frankincense” (F) was also offered as a gift to the small child…this King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This fragrant resin was used in ancient days for several purposes. It was dried and ground and used as incense by the priests in religious ceremonies. In addition, it had medicinal qualities and has been used to treat digestive ailments.

The final gift presented to the Christ child was “Myrrh” (M) and is actually related to Frankincense. The sap of this plant was infused into oil and was used as an embalming ointment in funerals and cremations. It is believed that the spices that were in the linen wrappings that Nicodemus used to bind Jesus for his burial contained Myrrh.

All of the gifts given to Jesus by the Magi are thought to have spiritual significance. The gold is said to represent virtue, or kingship on earth. Frankincense is a symbol of prayer and of priestship. And myrrh is a representation of death and suffering. However, the gifts have allowed me to extend the passage of scripture and focus on the initial “letter” of each word, and examine four other incredible gifts that God has given the world. As I reflected on these four letters, I was amazed at the correlation of the gifts in the Christmas story…and these gifts as I see them.

It all begins with the letter “D” and the daughter it represents. In my life, the “D” is my sister Debbie. Like many people, she had her “daughterhood” stolen from her. The man that she believed was her father for most of her life was not. The picture of her Heavenly Father that was portrayed to her as little girl was skewed. As a young woman in search of redemption and acceptance from her mother, she was given the message over and over that she was unworthy and that her life choices would prevent her from ever being loved and completely forgiven by God. In discovering who her biological father was, she discovered that she was unwanted.

But fortunately for my sister…and for all of us, we have a God who is so much bigger and better than the one she had learned about. Her willingness to examine her past, explore her wounds, forgive those who wronged her, and share her story with others (notably me) has moved her along the path to healing. It has also allowed me to get to know her and love her at a depth that I had never known before. Without question, God loves His children…all of them!

My little brother Geoff is the “G” in my life. The symbolism of gold makes me chuckle a little because as we were growing up, it seemed he was the “golden child”… the youngest, and the spoiled one. From my perspective at the time, it seemed he got everything he wanted. But unlike gold, he was tarnished like all of us. Growing up in the shadow of three older siblings is not easy and comparisons were easy to make…and difficult to live up to. But Geoff had, and still has, his unique gifts. He can solve problems, create things and bring a perspective to a situation that none of the rest of us can.

But the relationship of the letter “G” with Geoff and the gift of gold to the baby Jesus can also be drawn. When he and Lynn were called to create a ministry through a coffee shop more than five years ago, after prayer and meditation he moved ahead. Over the course of these past years, he has literally given all of his wealth to that ministry. Like the wise man in the Christmas story, his gift has been a sacrifice… but a sacrifice that brings glory to the God he loves.

“F” in my life is represented by my older brother Frank. Two years older than me, he is the one that I spent most of my life looking up to. We have much in common…from our physical appearance to the universities we graduated from. Identical high school football jersey numbers, weight classes wrestled and newspaper positions held mark other similarities. But as the oldest brother, there were certain “unspoken” expectations that he was burdened with that neither Geoff nor I bore. And as the oldest son…a father that he could never seem to please.

As I follow the gifts of the Magi and correlate them to the “alphabet” of my family, I find it no coincidence that Frank is a doctor. Like the gift of frankincense which was used as a healing agent, Frank has dedicated his life to bringing healing to others. And like the gift of the Magi represented by the letter “F”, he is a specialist in digestive medicine. But like the rest of us, he carries wounds and scars from a life lived in “the world”, but through prayer and commitment to God, he has found restoration and reconciliation that is found only in a relationship to his Heavenly Father.

That brings me to the letter “M”. There’s only one of us left…and that’s me, Mark. The middle child, I learned to survive by hiding. My hiding places were my books, or my fantasies or my accomplishments. But rarely did I allow anyone to see who I was or let them know what I might be thinking. Also the bearer of many scars, they too were well concealed from even a discerning eye and eventually even invisible in my own sight.

And there is only one gift left…myrrh. It is interesting that myrrh was used as an ointment when burying the dead. Because of choices that I’ve made in my life, I believed that my life was over…at least any ability to be productive in any way. However, that is part of the miracle of the Christmas story. Jesus came to give all of us (including me) life! It is no coincidence that one of His gifts on that December morning was myrrh. And it was no coincidence that His body was anointed with that precious spice when he was placed in the tomb. And it is no coincidence that my life is not over. His love can, and will, restore all things! It certainly has in my life.

My prayer during this Christmas season is that we all continue to turn to Him and recognize and accept the love that He offers us. Without Him, we are all lost in our wounds and our circumstances…and complete healing is forever out of our reach.

“And I will be your Father, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty”
(2 Cor 6:19 NLT)

Merry Christmas
Photos from Flickr

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

As I stood in front of the polished sheet of stainless steel that served as our mirror, an overwhelming urge to smash my fist into the image staring back at me rose from deep within me. I had seen that face thousands of times before...but today, I hated and despised it. It appeared horrendously ugly to me. Not only the image itself, but all that it represented. I just wanted it gone.

I was reminded of that memory over the weekend as I talked with my sister. She had come to visit and attend a Christmas musical performance at my church and extended her visit by a day so we could spend some time together. And as we always do...we talk.

I'm not certain what prompted the conversational track that we were on, but she made a comment that really caught me off guard. She told me that of all of us kids (there were four of us), that growing up I was the cutest. She went on to say that she has most of the family albums that contain the photographs of our youth and that she goes through them on a regular basis, and sees those images of our childhood looking back at her.

I was a bit shocked by her statement because all throughout my life (at least from around age 10 and beyond), I didn't like my appearance at all. I considered myself the least attractive by far in our family. My sister is a very pretty woman, and always has been. My older brother was well dressed and attractive as a boy with perfect features...bright eyes and curly brown hair. My little brother was the baby of the family...cute with expressive eyes and a button nose. I, on the hand, had big ears that were only magnified by buzz cuts that I regularly wore compliments of dad. Perhaps the constant teasing by my little brother about my ears also served as a powerful reminder of their size.

Even as an adult, there were reminders of the "auditory sails" that were mounted on either side of my head. The comment of "I see you got your ears lowered" meant something to me that others wouldn't consider. For me, it meant my huge ears were even more pronounced. When my niece was a little girl, I remember someone making the comment that she inherited "the Lyons' ears"...and I cringed inside because I heard "your uncle Mark's ears" and understood the burden and pain that it would cause her.

My wife and daughter unconsciously contributed to the pain as well. One evening when we were first married we watched an episode of "The Newlywed Game" and one of the contestants commented that one of his physical features was his "Dumbo ears" (only he pronounced it "Dooombo" which gave all of us a laugh). However, the "Dooombo ears" moniker was attached to me. And while I was able to laugh about it (after all, I was married to a beautiful woman who must have found me somewhat attractive), there was still a little stab of pain when I heard those words.

It wasn't until after I was arrested and had lost everything that I was finally able to see a "clear" reflection of who I was when I stood before a mirror. It was shortly before I was to go to prison and my wife was visiting me at the condo. I had been packing my belongings to put them in storage and was carefully placing all of my suits and dress shirts and ties into the storage boxes. I told her that I wasn't sure why I was packing them away because I didn't know if I would ever have the opportunity to wear them again when I got out. She looked at me with her beautiful blue eyes and said, "you know 'made' the clothes, they didn't make you."

As I looked back into the mirror, for the first time that I could remember, the reflection looking back wasn't an ugly man with big ears. In fact, I didn't even notice my ears. A lie that I had held on to from my youth was finally shattered. My perceptions of what made me ugly or attractive were gone in an instant. The "image" that I was created in by God had always been perfect in His eyes and I was now beginning to see beyond the flaws.

Relaxing my clenched fists, I reminded myself that the stainless steel image was not what God saw. Yes, I had made some terrible choices to be in federal prison. Yes, I had caused a great deal of pain and suffering to those that I loved...and those who loved me. And yes, the man in the reflection had aged dramatically in the past year...the stress and strain of life catching up with him. But, the man in the mirror was also a man who was healing. The ugliness wasn't from big ears, or a baby tooth that had never fallen out or the remnants of scars acquired in the process of growing up. The ugliness had been the reminder of the sin in my life...replaced now by the beauty of God within me.
Photo from Flickr