Several years ago I got an idea for a biblical novel; placing myself in the world of Mary the mother of Jesus’, I would write in her voice — a diary spanning thirty years and titled Mary’s Journal.
Once my editor gave the go-ahead, I started at the beginning of the Gospel story. I filled a page, then two, giving Mary’s account of the angel’s announcement: “Rejoice. Don’t be afraid. You are favored. You will have a son ... the Son of the Most High.” And Mary’s quick response to the gift she’d been offered: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be as He says.” Amen.
By page four of Mary’s Journal, she had traveled south and been welcomed by Aunt Elizabeth who had confirmed the angel’s blessing. Mary could not contain her joy: “My soul praises the Lord. My spirit rejoices in my Savior, who has seen the willing heart of His servant....” Allelujah.
I paused in my writing. “Yes, Lord, and I thank You — for planting this book idea in my mind. For giving me a willing heart.”
But at this point on page six of the manuscript I had a hard time finding words. What was next? I had a vague vision of, and even a contract for, a one hundred eighty-page book. In five pages I had covered the great amen — so be it and the great allelujah that have traditionally defined Mary’s life of faith. Now what?
Now it was time to face the fact that in one significant aspect Mary’s life was amazingly similar to mine. She, the most favored of all women, living in primitive Palestine, and I, an “ordinary” twentieth-century believer starting out on a “mission,” shared common ground. We had been graced with the faith to say “yes” to a seed-gift. Now we had to rise to the challenge by making the hard daily choices required if the entrusted gift was to grow to full maturity in our care.
The Gift Becomes the Work
The angel had given Mary precious few details. She had the promise that her son would grow up to be a king who would rule Jacob’s house, but in the meantime what did she do when she got up the next morning?
I recently read an old German saying, “The gift becomes the work.” I wanted to protest: no, unfair. Then I thought of the Tinkertoys I got for Christmas as a young child. “Just what I’d wanted. Thank you, Mom and Dad.” After receiving the gift, I could have spent Christmas afternoon admiring them, but as soon as we’d eaten the turkey dinner, the work began. My brother and I read the directions, fit together sticks and spools — building a windmill that actually spun.
The German paradox mirrors the truth of Paul’s writings. While in Ephesians 2:8 he makes it clear that salvation is a gift of God, in Philippians 2:12 he tells Christians to “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Yes, in a mysterious way, God’s gift to us becomes our work for Him, even as He works in us.
In his book Laugh Again. Charles Swindoll illustrates the work involved in the nurturing and maturing of a seed-gift. “When a musician has a fine composition placed before her, that music is not the musician’s masterpiece; it is the composer’s gift to the musician. But it then becomes the task of the musician to work it out, to give it sound and expression and beauty as she applies her skills to the composition. When she does, the composition reaches its completed purpose and thrills the hearts of her listeners.”
An aspiring writer asked me for advice. He had a great idea for a play, but he just hadn’t been able to get anything down on paper. “Do you think it would be helpful if I got a group of people together to flesh out the idea?”
I thought a second before I answered: “Well, yes — maybe. It might give you some clarity. But ultimately a committee isn’t going to write your play. Someday you’ll have to sit down and stare at an empty sheet of paper or an empty computer screen and fill it with words.” Like the Rich Young Ruler, this man’s face fell. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear. He wanted a gift. He was willing to organize a support group but the gift itself would require a personal struggle he didn’t want to face.
But think. The gift of a child — even the unique child Jesus—required of Mary thirty years of motherly chores: serving meals, weaving cloth, laundering swaddling rags and then tunics, keeping a fit house.
Waiting Is Part of the Work
Mary’s tangible actions were preceded by and accompanied by an internal work that was no less difficult for her. Even in an uncomplicated pregnancy the wait is hard; the physical and emotional weight can be overwhelming. The Hasidic Jews have a saying: “When you discover a new way of serving the Lord, cany it around for nine months, under your heart.”
I grew up in the home of a gardener who took great pride in the perfectly ripe tomatoes served at our table. The pale force-ripened fruits I now see in the grocery store may be shaped like tomatoes, but they do not satisfy my sensory expectations — color, texture, and taste — of the real thing. Similarly, your seeking God’s direction and God working in your spirit, that quiet, solitary work that brings seed-gifts to maturity, cannot be rushed.
After Mary’s amen and allelujah, she faced nine months of waiting before she heard the first lusty cries of an infant. I imagine some of those months as days and nights of confusion, perplexity, even pleadings that an angel might return and fill in missing details.
All of a sudden my future is a haze. What was I thinking? A real baby delivered in real time will cause real complications.... Elizabeth may believe my story — because she’s received a miracle of her own. But who else is going to believe it?
Has a day ever passed that I have not prayed — that my womb would be blessed to bear the anointed one? Now my eyes, my spirit, my body — all agree that I have been favored of all women.
Yet in these secret pages and before the Name I admit that this, a wombed child claimed by no man, is not the answer I had in mind.
God of favor grant me favor with Joseph. Prepare his ears and his heart as You did mine ... and Elizabeth’s.
Will a child conceived of heaven be born of earth — in blood and pain? Or might I be spared? The messenger promised a son, nothing more about travail or its absence. If I think of the worst scenario, he did not say that I would live to know the joy of counting fingers and toes.
So now I must wait— and pray that I am delivered from the depths of Eve’s curse.
But what do I have to give this child?
When I first asked myself the question my mind went blank There will always be a demand for Joseph’s carpentry. I expect there’ll always be food on our table. But aside from the bare essentials, what do I have to give this child?
I’ll start a list and add to it as I think of things. What was it that my mother gave me ? I can give him: my womb my arms my years my example my laughter my song That’s it, I’ll give him my song.
The Birth is Just the Beginning of the Active Work
Luke poetically records die nativity account, “The days were accomplished that she should be delivered.”
A friend recently told me that the hardest week of his marriage immediately followed the birth of their first child. The “big event” for which they’d been waiting, taking classes, reading books, had turned out to be the invasion of a squirming creature that didn’t speak English, dirtied diapers, and cried day and night. The birth was just the beginning of their larger mission — to raise this child to adulthood.
His story took me back twenty years. As an attendant in a wedding party, I accompanied the bride as she left the reception to change into street clothes and steal away with her true love. With the break up of the party, she lamented, “I can’t believe it’s over,” as if the wedding itself— the gift of a ring and a husband — were the end of the story, not the first milestone and most public aspect of the day-in-day-out venture. (I must admit the marriage was not long-lived.)
I woke this morning from a dream: washing rags. What makes the duties of a day echo loud through a night?
This holy one grows up here in Nazareth studying with our rabbis of no acclaim, eating bread kneaded by my palm, learning how to earn an honest living —joining corners of hewn wood.
King David grew up in a sheepfield, as did prophet Amos. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and even Moses felt unprepared and were, except for the anointing of the Spirit. Alt this I know and yet I wonder still: Are we doing enough? Should we send him away to school, as the rabbi advises?
I can ask the question here in these private papers, but actual good-byes... that I am not ready to face.
Jesus, thirteen, beardless, yet counted among the bearded men reading, praying, teaching at the synagogue. He read on the Sabbath and gave his commentary, quite extraordinary for a youth.
But I’m his mother, so maybe this warrants an outside opinion.
To send him to Jerusalem or not to send him? We make no decision and yet no decision is itself a decision.
Joseph wonders why God seems so silent in recent years. Will we be given no more clear instruction?
Amazed by Grace
Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “The greatest gift of the writer is patience.” For one long winter (I call it “Mary’s winter”) I made a conscious choice every morning—to write and rewrite as much as a work-day would allow. Some days that meant paragraphs. On better days it meant pages.
I actively studied Scripture and researched early Jewish culture, but then I also spent hours waiting for words, searching for subjects, praying for predicates, sweating out sentences (write a sentence; delete it; think a while; write half a sentence; delete half of it...). Getting one sentence down made way for another, until I had not only filled the requisite number of pages, but I had finished the story I had set out to write.
The time also came for Mary when her mission was complete. Returning home to Nazareth after witnessing Jesus’ first miracle at a marriage in the village of Cana, Mary let go of her son — as much as a mother ever lets go. Realizing her work was finished — as much as the work of a mother can be complete if a son or daughter still breathes — she knew she’d been favored to nurture a seed-gift she would never fully comprehend.
And now at the end of my winter of waiting and work, it was time for me to let go. After I had finished my manuscript, I set it aside a few days until I was ready. Ready to sit down with a pot of coffee and read, start to finish. Ready to make some subjective judgment as to whether or not my months of work “held together.”
At the time I had no reasoned explanation for what happened when I got to the last word of the last page. I sobbed, overcome with what I later defined as amazing grace. All those words lined up in a row were an illustration of the mystery of Philippians 2:12: God’s gift to me had become my work for Him, as His Spirit worked through me.
Fanning Your Gift Into Flame
God gives all His children gifts and asks that we use them, not simply admire them. Paul wrote to young Timothy: “I remind you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave you.”
And Paul’s very next verse to Timothy is still about God’s gift, saying that it is not “a spirit of timidity or fear, but a spirit of power, of love and of a sound mind.”
So God says to us: “Here’s a gift. Now you have a choice whether or not you will fan it into a bright, warm flame.”
God’s gift. Our choice: Whether we are in a season marked by waiting, birthing, working, or letting go, will we accept God’s gift and use it in the spirit God has given us?