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May you have struggle…

I take my birthday greetings – wishes – blessings – prayers seriously.

It may not always appear that way since I use the same birthday wish-prayer for everyone each year, but it’s true.

Each February (for my wish-prayer year begins with the birthday of Josiah in February, not on January 1st), I prayerfully sit down to consider and write out the next year’s birthday blessing. I let the images of hundreds of friends and family scroll through my mind as I reflect upon what God has been showing me recently and seek Him for words with which bless folks in the coming year.

Some years these wish-prayers are more poetic than others.

Some are longer and some are shorter.

Some come slowly to me and some seem to flow with ease.

This past year the words seemed to flow.

But when I reached the last word and read back over it, I cringed a bit.

May you have enough
so that want does not make you bitter.

May you lack enough
so that abundance does not cause you pride.

May you have peace
so that despair does not overtake you.

May you have struggle
so that you learn to rely on Jesus.

Everyday
may you have eyes to see what is at hand
and the graces which are all around.

Really? That is my wish-prayer for my loved ones?

And yet somehow I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the words written were meant to be.

And meant to stay.

Still, every morning as I got on Facebook to post my wish-prayer to that day’s recipient(s), I hesitated.

Would I want someone to wish and pray this for me?

May you lack enough?

May you have struggle?

Yet I did push send day after day.

And I prayed that my birthday greeting would be well-received.

And over the months I began to realize something:

“May you have struggle” does not mean “may you suffer”.

 

15 years ago this past August I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Common phrases that I heard went from “you don’t look sick” and “it’s all in your head” to  “fibro-what?!” and “you’re too young for that”. Doctors put me on various medicines to try and help different symptoms, which, of course, had different side effects. I was in my sophomore year of college, had gotten a part-time job at a florist shop and was leading a mime team of fellow classmates. My journal of the semester shows ups and downs with decreasing highs and increasing lows which felt (and reads) like a downward spiral of poor sleep, nightmares, deadening fatigue, depression, weight gain, poor concentration, brain fog, biting off more than I could chew and pushing myself when I should have been listening to my body better as I tried to deal with my new diagnosis in the midst of college life.

To put it simply, it was a struggle.

Because my brain and body were so impacted and I was having a hard time keeping up with schoolwork, I talked to each of my professors – more than once – to keep them abreast of what was happening and seek some aid in discerning and completing the most vital readings and assignments. Some of my professors were more than understanding, lenient with time and helpful in making needed adjustments. A couple of my professors came off a little harsher, not giving extra time and telling me that “in the real world” no one would give me a break because of bad days or bad health. (I’ve since discovered these were both right and wrong…)

But then I had one professor who basically said to me, “I’m glad you are struggling.”

Now, I don’t remember his exact wording. And looking back now, I wish I did. But that was the gist of it.

And I was insulted.

Now perhaps I should inform you that I attended a wonderful little Christian liberal arts college and this professor was in the Educational Ministries department wherein I was majoring. And though it was my first official class with him, I knew him well enough to know he had a love for Jesus and for students (teens and young adults) and desired to see them know Jesus and follow Him whole-heartedly. And I knew he had nothing against me.

So somewhere in my head I knew that his words were more wisdom than evil. He was not cursing me.

But I was still insulted.

And I’m pretty sure there were tears after I left his office.

See the thing is, for most of my life I have equated struggle with suffering.

And I equated suffering with sin. Not in the way that the disciples did in John 9 thinking the man was born blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents. I’d fallen in love with that story long before.

Sure, suffering comes sometimes as a direct result of our sin.

And suffering can come as a direct result of the sin of others.

Suffering can also come as an indirect result of the sin of others.

But sometimes suffering comes simply because we live in a broken world. A world broken by sin.

And because I equated struggle with suffering and suffering with sin and sin with evil, I felt that struggle was evil and someone being happy that I was struggling was… well… horrendous! 

Suffering is a struggle.

But struggling is not always suffering.

Struggle can be edifying.

Struggle can even be part of intended design.

Like the oft-used butterfly illustration. It is the work, the struggle of the newly reborn butterfly against the cocoon which strengthen it to fly. If you stop to help a butterfly’s struggle and release it from its cocoon, not only will it not be able to fly, but it will perish.

Or like the man-pushing-a-rock illustration (a version of which is illustrated here by mime artist Todd Farley).

 

I am slowly learning to remove the word struggle from its tightly-wound association with suffering and evil in my head.

Struggle is more closely related to discipline than to suffering.

And after months of posting this “may you have struggle” birthday wish-prayer, I am finally not hesitating as I tap the “post” button.

 

My own birthday is quickly approaching.

And I’ve come to know that should someone greet me with my own wish-prayer, I would not walk away with tears as I did 15 years ago.

I find it easier to see the wisdom.

And the grace.

The day after April posted about her girls' nativity, another friend with a new baby boy shared this picture saying, "I have a feeling this will be our house in a few years"

The day after April posted about her girls’ nativity, another friend with a new baby boy shared this picture saying, “I have a feeling this will be our house in a few years”

I don’t have any children. But most of my friends do.

In recent days it has become apparent to me that children can make for some great theological insights at Christmas time.

Take my friend Lydia, for example.

Lydia has 5 boys. Under 8. The other day she posted to Facebook:

Though I’d love to have those flawless, beautifully crafted porcelain nativity figures to arrange and display (up high; up very high), with their smooth, painted faces just beaming the glory of Jesus’ birth, a Fisher-Price version is what we’ve got right now. This morning I sat here feeding Levi and watching the boys play war with the little plastic shepherds and the angel (WWIII happened in the stable this morning) and something occurred to me… this plastic set is more realistic- more what it really was like that first Christmas morning… There was no hoity-toity fanciness; there was no “hands off” sign hung above the manger. Jesus made himself accessible, reachable, hands-on to all people– lowly farm-hands, kings, thieves, prostitutes, politicians, the rich, the poor, the clean, the dirty, and most definitely- the children! He is for everyone. So yes, kids; play with this nativity set. Play war, play house, play the donkey pooping on the shepherd- but play knowing He is accessible to you!

Her children’s play reminded her that God put on flesh, this baby-child-man was Immanuel, God with us.

The Message paraphrase of John 1:14 goes begins with this:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.

And in story after story in the gospels he was indeed making himself accessible. He stretched forth his hand and gave the blind sight and touched the untouchables. The sickly, unclean woman knew that she could reach out and touch him.

Indeed, Lydia said it well, “There was no hoity-toity fanciness; there was no “hands off” sign hung above the manger. Jesus made himself accessible, reachable, hands-on to all people… He is for everyone.”

And not only is Jesus for everyone, he is always here, even when we don’t see him. Which is what Lydia was reminded of as they began to clean up after their play, trying to “find all the pieces after they’d exploded all over the living room”…

“Where’s Baby Jesus?” someone asked.

Of course no one knew, so the search was on. And you know, sometimes it’s that way in real life… you can’t see Him; you know Jesus is there, but you have to look for Him.

Gabe hollered out, “I found a wise person!”

Yep, you need those along the way, too, kid.

The funny thing was, you know where I found Baby Jesus?? I was sitting on Him. He was right under the edge of the rug. He was right there all along.

He was right there all along.

 

So I have another friend, April, who has 3 girls and a baby boy. The day after Lydia’s post, April was amused at her children’s Nativity set…

So baby Jesus has some interesting visitors at our house; the girls’ nativity currently has 4 dwarfs, rapunzel, minnie, cookie monster, big bird, and 4 little people in cars (along w/ the ‘normal’ characters)…

And judging by the comments on her post, we adults were cluing in on what the children do so naturally – allow anyone to come and worship the Baby Jesus.

One friend’s daughter helped a 2 ft dinosaur come to worship at their nativity.

Another friend was enamored by the scene, “Surely everyone is welcome at the manger!”

And as for me, it reminded me of a poem I’d read in college. It is found in a book of “Uncle Handsome’s Redneck Poetry” which was introduced to me by none other than April’s husband when we were in undergrad together.

The poem is entitled “Flamingos in the Manger Scene” and it goes like this:

There’s flamingos in our manger scene
We put ‘em there this year
Leavin’ ‘em standin’ off by themselves
Just seemed a little queer
With them other critters all gathered ’round
A-worshippin’ the baby Jesus
Them flamingos stayin’ across the lawn
Just somehow didn’t please us
So we pulled ‘em up and set ‘em there
‘Tween the wise men and the manger
Some folks think it’s a little strange
But I’ve seen a whole lot stranger
I reckon they do stand out a bit
Bein’ so pink and all
But the way they sway on one leg in the hay
They look so handsome and tall
Folks from town’ll come drivin’ around
And they’ll slow way down and grin
At them flamingos there with the camels ‘n donkeys
And them three fancied up wise men
And every now and then folks’ll stop their cars
And come stand by our white tire fence
And take pictures and laugh at our pink flamingos
But to us it just makes sense
For all of God’s critters to gather together
And worship at this time of year
And now that I stop to think about it
We left out the plastic deer!

Sometimes it takes those who see the world a little differently, like children, to help remind us of what we celebrate at Christmas:

Immanuel.

God with us.

Present. Touchable. Available to all.

 


 

(And, by the way, if you liked “Uncle Handsome’s” poem, you can find more funny, witty and poignant Redneck poems in The Road Less Graveled by Brent Holmes.)

 

Elephant Musings and Grace

My "Elephant Graveyard" (the mug) surrounded by the remaining elephants.

My “Elephant Graveyard” (the mug) surrounded by the remaining elephants.

This is my Year Of The Elephant.

I set out in January reflecting and praying over the “elephants in the room” of my life. I even blogged about what it was, why it was and how I thought it would look.

Of course, it hasn’t turned out quite like I had planned.

I think it has turned out better.

Not that it would appear that way at first glance…

I began with 66 elephants.

I now have 36.

Less than half are gone.

I need to remember, however, that probably close to a dozen more elephants were added throughout the year.  And I can be grateful, of course, that as many got done as did. And there was that massive project that was initially not planned for this year but came to be and overall worked towards my greater “purge and create margin” goal. And there was unexpected oral surgery and an unusually long and severe fibro cycle. And two great trips that I’d not foreseen in January…

Still, when November 1st arrived, I freaked out.

I panicked.

Way too many elephants left for the few and shortening days left of the year.

So I panicked. And then I prayed. And God began to remind me of a few of the things He’d been teaching me this year…

And then He taught me some more.

Early on in the year I realized that elephants:

  • Begat elephants. They multiply like rabbits. Once you have so many in your life, anything and everything else can become an elephant.
  • Keep me from living in Quadrant 2 (Covey reference). Everything is screaming “urgent!” and “important!” and overwhelming me and to escape the guilt I hide out in Quadrant 4 with unimportant, non-urgent time-wasters.
  • Impact my social life. I avoid going out and doing things because I feel I “don’t have the time” and then when I do go I end up arriving late, leaving early and/or being distracted. Elephants keep me from being present in the present.
  • Affect my relationships. Again, I am rushed and distracted. I don’t make time to enjoy time and be present with people. I have a poor response time on communications and commitments. I am both short on time and emotional energy. I am moody and anxious.

Elephants in the “room of my life” and “taking up headspace” is a much more serious matter than I thought when I started.

Within the first few months I was also learning that:

  • Not every idea that I have needs to be done now.
  • Not every idea that I have needs to be done by me.
  • Not every idea that I have actually needs to be done at all.
  • I have a fear of “missed opportunities” and I need to be aware and proactive to not allow that to create more elephants, pressure and stress in my life.
  • I have to “feed the good wolf.” There are different versions of the good dog/bad dog or good wolf/bad wolf story (here’s just one), but the point of them all is that whichever one you feed is the stronger. With every decision, small and large, you are either strengthening or weakening your will, character, etc.
  • There’s a monkey living in my brain who likes instant gratification. Tim Urban wrote a post regarding procrastination on his Wait But Why blog and when I came across it (as well as the follow-up post on how to beat procrastination), I was able to make so much more sense out of how my brain has been working and how I ended up with so many elephants up there!
  • It’s really all about continual progression. I’ve made note of this idea before (here and here), but I still need reminded of it quite often. Not everything is instant. It happens step by step and I must keep going forward. It’s true of defeating elephants, it’s true of of taming monkeys and not only is it true of feeding “the good wolf”, it is also how that feeding/strengthening happens.

So as my year progressed, it felt as though I had a whole analogous zoo in my head – elephants and wolves and a very ornery monkey. And when November 1st hit and I began to panic, the first thing God whispered to me was, “one day at a time.”

One day at a time.

One elephant at a time.

Every day on(ward).

In the four weeks since then, I’ve made some new discoveries…

  • Getting rid of all the elephants should not be my end goal. Of course I want the elephants gone. But it’s not simply to be “free” of elephants. It is to create margin, opening up a new way of living to achieve other purposes (and prevent future elephants).
  • Prayerfully creating a tangible list of why I want the elephants gone and why margin is important to me will help me to refocus and regain momentum I gradually lost in the tediousness and magnitude of my elephant-slaying tasks. I’m still working on that one…
  • It’s really okay that all the elephants won’t get defeated this year.

Actually, maybe they will…

No, I don’t mean I’m going to get 36 projects done in the next month. I’m not even going to try.

But just because a task or project is yet undone doesn’t mean the elephant hasn’t been defeated.

See, as I spent time again today in prayer over these remaining elephants, reviewing and sorting them again, I realized that a half dozen of them are part of the reasons why I’m working towards margin. They aren’t really elephants anymore so much as end goals and priorities. Nearly another half dozen began as elephants because of the head and heart space and “do it now/soon!” pressure they had in my life but now I have them recorded into my tea dreams notebook and they no longer carry that urgency or weight.

The remaining elephants have been divided into three categories:

  • Tasks I’d like to get done before Christmas. There are 6 of these, most of which are directly related to Christmas gifts (which are still going to be white elephant gifts this year).
  • Tasks I’d like to get done before Epiphany. (I’d say the New Year, but that’s a tight squeeze and the extra days off will help.) Another half dozen, these are “clean up” tasks mostly related to all the purging I’ve been doing of my things this year and preparing for next year (like a budget for 2015, though that was never an elephant to begin with)…
  • Projects to tackle this winter and with spring cleaning. 2015 may be the “Year of Completion” but I won’t think on that too much yet. The point is, I’m at a place where these elephants are looking more like simple projects again and they don’t all have to be done at once. The bulk of them (which are the oldest and most head-space weighty of my elephants) are something I can work on in the winter months and that is what I plan to do.

So it’s not really that the “Year of the Elephant” saw me valiantly defeating six dozen or more elephants.

Because I didn’t.

There’s still stuff yet to do on this path of creating margin and space to live and breathe in my life.


 

The Year of the Elephant hasn’t been successful because of all the work I was doing, but because of all the work which God has been doing in me.

So much more of hearing my Father’s voice.

So much more of turning to Him a little more, a little faster.

So much more of hearing Him a little more readily, a little more clearly.

So much grace.

For my good?

Sitting here listening to Jesus Culture’s “Your Love Never Fails” (not to be confused with “One Thing Remains”) and the bridge repeats over and over,

“You make all things work together for my good.”

Over and over and over.
My good.
My good.

And suddenly I’m struck by the thought, “but that’s not what the scripture says.”

Romans 8:28 says,

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

It’s a popular verse.

Quoted often.

I’ve read it. I’ve used it. I’ve studied it.

I had an entire paper in one of my seminary classes based off of an interpretation of this verse.

 

But for all my reading and studying and discussing this verse, I never thought of the aspect that now perplexed me.

Because I am all at once aware that for most of my life, I (and those around me) have typically understood this to mean that if I love God then God works all things together for my good.

Like the song says.

 

I find such assumptions prevalent in our current American culture. Perhaps even Western culture in general.

We tend to read the Bible’s verses as individual promises.

We do this almost always.

Especially with verses like this one. And Jeremiah 29:11. (But that’s a whole other conversation!)

 

So what if that assumption is wrong?

God does indeed work good.

Out of our bad. Our pain. Our hurts. Our losses. Our messes.

 

But what if the good worked isn’t for my benefit,

or isn’t solely for my benefit,

but instead for the benefit of others?

For the benefit of the Body of Christ. The Church.

“for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”

Plural.

So what if I never see the good?

 

I think it’s possible.

I think I need to stop thinking that this verse is for my personal benefit.

I think I need new eyes to see the bigger picture.

Because God does work good.

But it’s not all about me.

 

A new song indeed…

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things…

I usually read the Psalms from my present day viewpoint

… reading it from my own circumstances

… and viewing terms like “salvation” in light of Jesus sacrifice, death and resurrection

Or else I read the Psalms trying to grasp the viewpoint of the original writer

… trying to understand his circumstances

… and viewing terms like “salvation” in light of physical enemies and ailments, sin and the sacrificial system and the Exodus, pre-Jesus

 

I do this because I live in the twenty-first century and all my life has been framed by what Jesus already accomplished and hundreds of years of understanding that and how the Hebrew scriptures pointed to it and how it was fulfilled.

And I do this because I have been ingrained since sometime in my youth (plus years of Bible, ministry and seminary training) to look at scripture in context and to try and understand things like original audience and context and meaning.

But something new happened today.

Something unexpected.

I didn’t plan it.

I didn’t control it.

It was a gift.

And it was beautiful.

 

I was reading Psalm 98.

Verse 3 contains chesed (aka “lovingkindness” in the NASB) and since February I have been making my way through all the appearances of chesed in the Bible.

There are 248 occurrences.

So I was simply reading Psalm 98.

 

But as my eyes moved across the words on the page, I was suddenly seeing the Psalm as though through the eyes of the disciples shortly after Jesus’ resurrection.

Perhaps even just after Pentecost when people from all over the “ends of the earth” were in Jerusalem and witness to the outpouring of the Spirit and first hearing the good news of Jesus and salvation.

Because the Psalms were used in worship.

And for as long as they were able the disciples and new believers continued to go to the temple (or synagogue) for worship.

And can you imagine?

In Luke 24 Jesus begins to open their eyes to how the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies pointed to him and must be fulfilled.

But surely, just as we make new discoveries and connections, they continued to do so as well.

So one day in worship at the temple Psalm 98 is being read or recited or sung and they suddenly see it in a new view.

A view I take for granted here two thousand years later.

 

Oh the beauty and the joy and the grace!

Can you see it?!

This Psalm they probably knew well and heard a thousand times… and it now holds more meaning and beauty than ever.

Step with me back into the days just after Jesus’ resurrection.

Remember the wonder and excitement of Easter.

Walk with the disciples to worship at the temple.

And glimpse through their eyes the reading of this Psalm.

O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar and all it contains,
The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.

The Year of the Elephant

The 60+ little origami elephant heads which represent the "elephants in my room."

The 60+ little origami elephant heads which represent the “elephants in my room.”

This is the Year of the Elephant.

Not for the Chinese. For them it’s the Year of the Horse.
But for me.

There are elephants in my room.

More than 60 of them in varying sizes and substances and temperaments. You see, an elephant in the room is an obvious truth or problem which is going unaddressed or outright being ignored. But elephants – even invisible ones – take up space. Head space. Life space. And so when there are elephants in your room there is little room to move and little room to breathe.

And there is guilt. Because while some elephants are simply things I’ve wanted to do or projects I’ve wanted to get to some day, most of them are tasks and projects and commitments that were started and never finished. And more of them than I prefer to admit are things I agreed to do or take care of for others which have yet to actually get done. Guilt. And guilt is as hungry as an elephant, eating away at me…

I’ve been avoiding most of these elephants for awhile now. For the past couple of years God has been asking me to let go of some things. To be a good steward of my body and time and head space. To allow margin in my life. And you may remember how over the past few years I have purged and cleaned material possessions and even set aside periods of time where I said “no” to new commitments. The other year I even drew a nice flow chart to help me to say no. But those periods never ended well. God was saying “let go” and my response was “okay. that sounds good. i should do that.” But I never did. I never even bothered to ask, “let go of what?” – mostly because I feared He would ask me to let go of something I didn’t want to.

But all that is changing this year.

It started with stress at Christmas over gifts. And I got this idea that in 2014 for Christmas I’m giving out white elephant gifts. Seriously. Instead of buying gifts, I’m going to give that money to help others. Like buying a water buffalo for a poor family in Asia. 

And I had that in mind the morning of January 2nd as I was thinking over “the new year” and resolutions.  And I was once again  thinking about my student debt and being awed and intimidated by 2 sets of friends who’d hunkered down and paid theirs off early. One set of those friends created a chart of sorts to fill in to encourage them towards their goal. You know how many fundraisers use a thermometer shape to fill up? Except theirs was a rhino. And I’d thought about making mine a teapot because I have no intention of opening a tea room until my student debt is paid. But my debt amount compared to my yearly income is intimidating… except the morning of January 2nd it occurred to me that I could have one just for this year. A smaller interim goal. And it occurred to me that I could use an elephant.

So with these two things on my mind, God pointed out how each year He asks me to “let go” and I avoid it. Which is when I realized it: there are elephants in my room. So I decided then and there that this year is going to be The Year of the Elephant. No more avoiding them. They need named and prayed over and taken care of…

Later that evening – and this completely confirmed my morning thoughts – I went to do my new Page-A-Day (Calendar) Origami for the day and that day’s project was no other than an elephant head!

So the other week I spent a Saturday morning with a pot of tea and a stack of little origami squares and I folded elephant heads and I named the elephants in my room. If something was screaming for attention in my head or demanding to get done or causing guilt or a tightness in my jaw or kept coming to mind over and over (especially at inopportune times) yet I found myself ignoring it, I wrote it down. All 66 of them. And I spent time praying over them. Did I miss any? Which ones made the most noise? Which ones could be relinquished? Which needed taken care of first? 

I ended up putting them into 10 categories of theme or response. I used mini-clothespins to attach them to strings on either side of the mirror in my room.

  • Elephants that are overdue. These are mostly correspondence and completing projects that I had promised to others
  • Elephants that need taken care of as soon as possible. Many of these have actual deadlines, but are ones which don’t involve promises to others.
  • Elephants that are recurring. Not that the elephants themselves recur so much as the task recurs (meal planning, housecleaning, bill paying) and because of my time constraints and stress levels even they have morphed into elephants which I find myself avoiding.
  • Elephants that I will relinquish. This string began with one. It ended up with three. So far…
  • Elephants that I may yet relinquish but I’m still praying over. This string currently holds one elephant.
  • Elephants which are on “indefinite hold.” Most of these are writing/teaching projects that I can file into an idea folder (so I don’t lose the notes I’ve already taken on them) in case they ever come up again. But at least at this point they will be purposefully put to rest.
  • Elephants which are really photo projects. I have unsorted photos (prints and digital) going all the way back to 2001 along with an incomplete scrapbook of my college internship. Even if I relinquish my original “ideals” for what to do with all those, I still have to do something with all the physical and digital photo stuff that is crowding my life.
  • Elephants which are tea or “career” related. This is a crazy category with started projects, proposals, ideas and figuring out what it is I’m supposed to be doing (including that Venn diagram I’d mentioned so many months ago).
  • Elephants which are projects that don’t fit into the previous two categories. Most of these are purging and cleaning projects…
  • Elephants which don’t fit into any other category or are bigger than can be dealt with in a short time. Like that student debt. Or my desire to read more.
Since then a few more elephants have come to mind and been named. Some have been relinquished completely and some have been completed.
But there are still more.
And I’m still praying over them. This was not a one day or even a one month task.

Hence why I’m calling it the Year of the Elephant.

Best part is, I’m not doing it alone. Getting over that initial avoidance -that hesitation- and actually bringing this all to God and being willing to listen (and let go where needed) has been perhaps the best part and is already freeing. So much has been learned already. And perhaps over the next few months I’ll be able to share some of that with you in more detail.

Because as of now, the elephant labeled “Tauta Logizomai” has not made the relinquish string!

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.

Okay.

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.

It’s grace.

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.

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