Thursday, December 10, 2015

Stinky Stables: Lessons Learned From the Real Mary

By Danetta Kellar

I journaled the words below several years ago at Christmastime when we lived in a country far away. I was expecting our third child, and my sense of smell was working overtime. I was nauseated and homesick, and my attitude was anything but joyful. I was pretty sure I was inadequate for the tasks in front of me at that time in my life, and a sick pregnancy was not helping me feel courageous or motivated. A walk by a dirty, smelly stable one afternoon opened my eyes to a side of Christmas I had never before encountered, changing my perspective.

We are spending these few days before Christmas in a small native village in the mountains.  Sheep are baaing, dogs barking, chickens clucking and donkeys braying.  Horses neigh down the road and country girls carry bread to the outdoor ovens for baking.  Things are generally dirty in the way things are in the country where pavement is unnecessary.  I passed the stables on my walk today.  They were damp, dirty, and foul-smelling.  I was bundled in a scarf, a coat, a hat and gloves, and I was still cold.   
The thought of going there into that stable, at night, without anyone preparing it for me, at least cleaning it up a bit, and lying down to give birth to my first baby just made me cringe inside.  This is reality! I thought to myself.  Bethlehem wasn’t warm and clean and neat 2000 years ago!  Stables were stinking and dark.  It was cold too!  And it could very well have been damp.  And there were fleas and what other manner of vermin in such a place!  ( I saw a rat the size of a small cat run out of the stable just now!) Did Mary cringe inside or was she the angelic, virginal picture of acceptance depicted in all the Renaissance paintings?  Did God choose her because He knew she would not complain?  Or did He choose someone with all the works... someone who felt everything fully and still obeyed? 
Painting her into an image of submission and purity takes her somehow out of the realm of reality for me.  It makes her unattainable, unreachable, unable to encourage a woman like me.  It makes her deity-like.  I think she birthed Deity but was human.   I think she noticed the smell of the stables and the prick of the hay on her backside as she labored to deliver her baby.  And I think fear was real in her throat.  But she looked up, and so can I.

Being a woman is a tough job. My questions that afternoon drove me to look deeper into Luke chapter 1, the story of Mary. There I was surprised to find a Mary I had not met before. A real Mary that this real woman could relate to. Here are some of the lessons I learned from her. 

It’s Normal to Be Troubled and Ask Questions

When the angel appeared to Mary and proclaimed his grandiose greeting, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28), Mary did not smile and think smugly, “Yep, that’s me. Awesome. Empowered. Overcomer. World Changer.”

Instead, we are told in verse 29 that “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” 

First clue to Mary’s humanity: she was troubled and questioning, even when on the verge of her greatest life accomplishment. 

I am so glad God included this tidbit of insight into Mary’s normalcy. Doing big things takes courage, and in my experience, God chooses smallness to accomplish greatness. It is normal to feel inadequate and small in the face of a great God asking us to do things beyond ourselves. 

It’s Okay to Need More Details

Mary’s next question makes me chuckle. I am a detail junkie. Her question came after the angel told her the Big Task God was calling her to do. Note He did not say, “Would you like to do it?” Rather, He said, “You will be with child and give birth to a son…you are going to give him the name Jesus.” In my daughter’s grammar book, we call this a declarative sentence. Not a question.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” (v. 34)

(Real Woman’s) Translation: From what I know to be true about myself, what you just asked me is impossible. I need more details.

I think it is safe to say that the most important things in my life God has asked me to do have looked impossible at first glance. Impossible because of what I know about myself.  Paul stated it so perfectly in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28:

…think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are. 

Yep, it looks like God is in the business of taking impossibilities and making them possible, of taking the things that are not to create what really is.  

A child found in the bottom of a latrine in East Africa is rescued by missionaries and later becomes a preacher to his tribe. A woman trafficked across the United States for sex becomes a baptized believer and is given a safe home in which to live.  A woman devastated by the death of her husband is given new life and new love in a godly man who accepts her, scars and all. 

This is grace, and it is okay to ask God for the details to help us build up the courage to step out and trust his Impossible Plan.

Yielding to God’s Plan Leads to Peace

The Lord graciously and willingly gave Mary the details she requested. He knew the quiet unspoken thought of her heart as she listened; this is impossible. But God…? His final statement to her was, “For nothing is impossible with God” (v. 37).

Hearing this, her heart was convinced. Convinced that no matter how crazy and never-happened-ever-before-in-history the plan sounded, its source could be trusted. And she yielded. 

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (v. 38)

The peace of Christmas began right there. 

Peace, the peace we long for and sing about, the peace we wage wars for and pray for, can be found right there in that first glimpse of Christmas. May it be to me as you have said.

Yielding to God’s plan for our lives is the Place of Peace we all long for. Trusting that even if the plan seems nuts, impossible, He is able. After all, He declares it. Not a question. He knows the plans he has for you and for me. (Jeremiah 29:11)

It has been a long time since my stroll past the stinky stable. But the thoughts I had that Christmas have stayed with me through the seasons since of real life and its real challenges. I am grateful for Mary and the honest questions she asked the Lord at the beginning of all we call Christmas.  She reminds us to be honest with our troubled thoughts, to ask for the details, and to yield our hearts to His plan for us. We know the rest of her story, and it truly changed the world.

What real lessons have you learned from the story of the first Christmas? 


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