We hear it every year. Often more than once. It’s the Christmas story. The story of God in a manger. It’s angelic announcements and hard decisions and awed obedience and virgin mother and brave father and lowly shepherds and traveling wise men and smelly stables and brilliant stars.
We hear it in song and in story and in scriptures read. We see it on television specials and in movies and by live dramatic productions.
And there are so many ways to come at it. So many perspectives from which to see the story… so many considerations we could take… To see it from Mary’s perspective or to try and understand how Joseph made sense of it all… To focus on the shepherds and why they received an angelic birth announcement or to zoom in on the wise men and their deeply symbolic gifts. Max Lucado wrote a fascinating story book from the angel Gabriel’s point of view. We compare the bustle of Bethlehem with the bustle of our lives and how easy it is to miss the miracle, to miss Jesus. We can contrast the power of Rome with the humble circumstances surrounding the birth of the Lord of all.
And we do this because we want to connect to the story.
Because we need to connect to the story.
After all, if the seed falls by the wayside, falls on soil which does not receive it, it does not grow.
The birds come and eat it.
That was the lesson I taught last time I taught my Sunday School class.
The seed needs to grow roots, to connect to the soil, to dig in so it can grow. And produce.
So we also must connect.
And isn’t that the point of the Incarnation?
To reconnect what was disconnected?
“The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.”
That’s how The Message phrases John 1:14.
God became human. Put on flesh. Flesh is of the earth. Dirt.
Oh and how we have dirtied up the world!
What a mess we have made of our own lives and of the world!
But God came into our mess.
God got messy with us.
She unmarried and with child. Them ostracized by the community. Living in an oppressed nation. Forced on a long, harsh and inconvenient journey. Taking shelter in a stable. Sharing it with animals. Making do with a feeding trough for a crib. Dirty. Smelly. Messy.
And yet that is how God chose to enter the world. To connect with us. To ultimately save us and restore relationship with us. A relationship we had broken.
I had intended to send Christmas cards this year. I was going to do my own design and on the front it was going to say “Have Yourself A Messy Little Christmas.”
Because life is messy. And Christmas is no exception. Oh, we try. We try to make it shiny and bright and neat and clean and pretty and joyful and special and… for the most part it often is. And yet… yet there is the chaos of traffic and overcommitting and busyness and frustrations. And trees topple and ornaments break and cookies burn and families fight. And sometimes the “Christmas miracles” we hope for don’t come through. Even at Christmas time diagnoses come and people leave and crime happens and loved ones die and jobs are lost and people give up on their lives.
Life is messy.
Even at Christmas.
But the beauty of the Christmas story and the grace of God is that Immanuel has come. God is with us. God is present even in our mess.
And more than anything else, what I really want for all my friends and family this Christmas is to experience the presence of God in new and deeper ways. I can say “Have yourself a messy little Christmas” because life is already messy and the grace is that God is present and can do incredible things with our mess.
God did incredible things with my mess yesterday.
Because the reason my friends and family won’t receive any “Have yourself a messy little Christmas” cards is that I have yet again tried to do too many things and have overcommitted myself and overwhelmed myself with ideas and desires of things to make and do and give. And because I constantly overestimate the time I have and underestimate how long things will take to accomplish. And because I have a chronic illness that flares up at random and makes me more vulnerable to colds and bugs and doesn’t respond well to stress.
And let’s just say that a tendency to overcommit and overdo and a body that has significant limitations and physically reacts to stress is not a good combination.
And for the past two years God has been telling me to slow down. To let go.
And I’ll let go of something for a bit, but I keep acting like I can do it all.
Which is how I got to my current mess.
I got sick last Sunday and I was good to my body and I rested and even took Monday off to rest. And it helped and Tuesday was good and Wednesday and Thursday were better. And I thought I was being smart by only having a goal of getting two things done on Friday and two things on Saturday… But Friday I was time crunched to finish things at work because of the upcoming short week and so I was there very late and had a nasty headache and was nauseated and though I tried to get at least one of my tasks done that evening (and stayed up an hour later than I should trying), nothing got done and I went to bed in lots of pain.
My nights have been rough with wakings and tossing and turning and pain and bizarre frantic nightmares and Friday night was no exception. I awoke Saturday morning with the headache still present and a greater soreness and stiffness than usual.
And that was just the physical.
My heart was hurting, too. Within the past few days my cousin lost a good friend, one dear friend lost her beloved companion kitty and another dear young friend is facing a terrifying and likely debilitating diagnosis.
In fact, finding out that the kitty who had so suddenly become sick had to be put down was one of the first things I saw when I woke up yesterday morning.
So as I sat doing my “Stretching for Seniors” Saturday daily stretch video and hurting in body and heart I thought to myself, “I don’t feel like dancing.”
Because each morning I do the daily stretch video (which lasts anywhere from 3-6 minutes depending on the day) and then I put on some music, usually praise and worship, and do some combination of aerobic dance and stretching and mime and ballet tech so that I end up with ten minutes of stretching and movement each morning.
But today the three minute stretching video hurt and I was listless, having not the energy nor desire to spend another seven in movement.
“Dance a prayer.”
I pondered the thought that entered my mind. Dance a prayer. I could do it slow. I wouldn’t have to think of specific movements like I typically do. I could just move. Pour my soul out with gesture and movement rather than words.
Since the beginning of Advent I’ve been doing my movement times to Christmas music. But I didn’t want just any Christmas music. So I went to my Advent playlist. These are longing songs. The one closest to seven minutes was a Celtic version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Eden’s Bridge. Perfect.
The music began and I began to move. I couldn’t tell you now what I did but it involved a lot of longing and a lot of reaching and even a lot of statues and movements of despair. And even as the words spoke of mourning and lonely exile and tyranny and the grave and misery, my movements became prayers for my scared and hurting friends. Prayers for God to be tangibly present in their lives. Prayers for Emmanuel to come and comfort and work in their lives.
And as I got to the verse about the Dayspring and dispersing gloom and putting to flight death’s dark shadows I found myself slowly collapsing to the ground and suddenly weeping. And the chorus sang, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel” and I lifted my hands, reaching for Emmanuel.
And I suddenly thought of the Hebrew “yadah” which is translated “praise” but connotes a raising of the hands. Like in Psalm 42’s “Why are you downcast O my soul, why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God for I will yet praise (yadah) Him, my Savior and my God.”
And oh how reaching is like praising.
Or is that praising is like reaching?
That dance-prayer. That time of pouring out through movement and of crying out to God on behalf of friends. That time of weeping.
I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
It was grace.
Grace in the mess.
And I continued to get ready for my day and I sat down to do my Lectio Divina and my prayer and I talked with God about all I had to do and how I was already running late because I’d gotten up an hour late and I had those two things to do that I hadn’t gotten to the night before but I still had to bide my time to leave for my errands because I was meeting someone else and the lists weren’t even made yet and I had to eat yet and…
And God tried to get me to let go.
And I stubbornly refused.
After all, all those things needed to get done. Now!
But it was quite after 8 when I actually sat down to eat breakfast and I had wanted to leave at 8 and my mind raced and raced and I pushed and struggled to figure out how to get it all done and when I got up to take my dishes out to the sink a wave of wooziness and nausea hit and I thought, “No! Not today! I have too much to do!”
And I sat down at my computer and sipped on my ginger tisane and looked around me at the things I’d wanted to get down and… I let them go. The two things I had found it so important to get done yesterday – in the morning before I left – I relinquished to another day. I messaged some of the friends my decision would impact and it didn’t bother them nearly as much as I had made out in my mind that it should.
Then I turned to Saturday’s tasks. Groceries and errands and gift shopping. And I made my list and organized it and I looked at the clock and it was 10 and I had told the lady I was going to meet that I’d be in the shopping area between 9 and 10:30 and I was really pushing that so I hurried out to my car and got in and sent her a message that I was on my way and then I started the car and proceeded to back out.
My neighbor started across the street, waving to flag me down.
“Where are you headed? Are you going by your chiropractor’s?”
Well, not exactly, but I could take that route to where I was headed…
Turns out, she had lost her car keys and had an appointment with the chiropractor in 10 minutes and could I drop her off? Of course. But how would she get home? Her husband (who was at work) had an appointment with the chiropractor an hour later. So she could wait for him. I had a lot of errands to run but if I got done early, then…
And isn’t it funny how she was there needing to leave and discovering that she needed a ride just when I was pulling out of my driveway?
Two hours later than I was “supposed to”?
And I told her how messy my morning had been but if I had been running on time I wouldn’t have been there to give her a ride.
And we agreed that God makes good of our messes.
Then partway down the road a thought occurred to me. I forgot the check!
You see, Dad and I had ordered a gift for Mom from someone and I was to meet her in at the shopping center to exchange payment for product. But the check was still on my desk at home. If I turned back then, my neighbor would miss her appointment.
So I called Dad. He retrieved the check and headed in to meet me at the shopping center to give me the check so I could get the gift. Then as I continued on with my errands, Dad headed home. But first he stopped by the chiropractor to pick up the neighbor lady who was done and grateful to get home sooner so she could look again for her keys and finish packing and preparations for the trip they leave for today.
And you know, if I hadn’t have forgotten the check, she would have been stuck at the chiropractor’s longer.
God makes good out of our messes.
Because God is present in our mess.
And you know what? That’s what Christmas is all about.
And it’s real.
And it’s tangible.
And it can be seen all around us.
We can hear the Christmas story every year until the day we die. We can look at it from every angle, we can study it like some academic scholar, we can dissect every song, movie or drama about it.
But unless it connects…
Unless it takes on flesh…
Unless we realize the presence of God with us… It’s just a story.
I didn’t go through the standard lesson because I don’t want it to be just a story.
I wanted to help you see how the story can connect.
How God is still Emmanuel… present with us.
Even in our mess.
So have yourself a messy little Christmas.
Have a Christmas where you see and experience – tangibly and deeply – the presence of God in your life.
The angel said, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
That includes you.