Giving Up on Perfect

What’s your vision of the perfect Christmas?  Is it this?

Merry Christmas Grandma...We Came in Our New Plymouth!, Norman Rockwell, for a 1949 advertisement

Or maybe this?  Ok, this one is actually Thanksgiving, but you get the idea.

From Freedom to Want, Norman Rockwelll, 1943

From Freedom to Want, Norman Rockwelll, 1943

For me, it’s having the tree decorated with ornaments and twinkle lights.  With presents underneath.  The family is gathered around the table eating our traditional Christmas Eve meal of my mom’s famous broccoli soup and steamed shrimp.  Then we all go to a late church service complete with Christmas carols and the singing of “Silent Night” by the light of the little candles they hand you when you walk through the door.  Then we all go home to sit in the living room and sip a glass of wine by the light of the Christmas tree as snow quietly falls on the ground outside the window.

Ahhh…Perfection.

But when is life really like this?  When is life ever really perfect?  Will we get our perfect Christmases this year?  I know I won’t.  My mom and her husband are visiting us this year, but the rest of my family will be 1500 miles away.  We might make the broccoli soup, but will probably be too tired to stay up for a late service on Christmas Eve.  We might sip wine, but there will most definitely NOT be snow falling quietly anywhere near me.  I do live in Texas, after all!

Life is full of imperfections.  And messiness.  And challenges.  But do these things keep us from celebrating Christmas fully?  Do they keep us from pondering the wonder of the virgin birth or the amazement of the Incarnation?

The first Christmas was pretty messy.  I mean, think about it.  Neither Mary nor Joseph – or either of their families – had planned to have a new baby join the family so soon.

But God showed up.

Lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling cloths.

Immanuel.

Born in a stable.

Bringing with him a message of hope.  God will be with us.

Our lives today are pretty messy.  But again, God shows up.  Right in the middle of our mess.  And brings us a message of hope…that God is with us.

Immanuel.

Before the angel appeared to Mary in the beginning of Luke she was walking along an arranged path for her life.  Her father had chosen a man for her to marry, a carpenter named Joseph and they were engaged.  She was probably looking forward to being a wife.  Weren’t you when you were engaged?  Life was going swimmingly, right according to plan.  And then the angel showed up and everything got messy real fast.  Devastating, even.  Pregnancy out of wedlock was a terrible crime in those days.  And she knew that.  And you can understand why her response to the angel was cautious.  I can just imagine her saying to this glowing being in the middle of the night, “Um…How can this be?  I’m a virgin,” she says.  If it were me, I don’t think I would have been as polite…

The Annuciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

The Annuciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Are we like Mary?

Are we willing to give up the safe and comfortable path of life for a messy one?  Will we let the Holy One burst into our world, into our midst?  Will we let God bring us the message of hope to us?  Will we allow God to say to us that we don’t have to be perfect – to have it all together – to be able to receive the message of hope?  We have the opportunity to open ourselves up to the unexpected and unimaginable.  Will we let it happen?  Will we give up on perfect?

What happens if that’s ok?

If life isn’t perfect?

Isn’t going to be perfect?

That perfection isn’t what we’re striving for anymore?  Now what?

Do we keep on going?  Keep trudging along?

No.

We give up.

GIVE UP.

Let it go.

Give up on perfect and dive headlong into the messiness that is faith and hope and love and grace.  Humble ourselves in front of the manger and at the foot of the cross.

Thankfully, God doesn’t want us to go it alone.  God wants us to do it together – in community.  Churches really are made up of messy people with messy lives who are clinging to the truth that God will show up.

We expect God to show up.

And God will show up.

Immanuel.

 

Mandi Richey, Community Minister, Faith United Methodist Church, Austin

Be a Miracle Worker

Me & Santa 1959

Me & Santa 1959

Who gets top billing in your Christmas celebrations: Santa Claus or Jesus?  Here’s a picture from 1959 taken at Montgomery Wards department store, Ft. Worth, Texas.  I’m six and already I’m beginning to wonder who God really is.  Is God really making a list and checking it twice.  Am I on the nice list or the naughty?  I already know what my Father would say.  Most importantly, what will I get for Christmas?  I gave him an excellent list.  I’m expecting a miracle.

A day will come when I’ve turned sixteen, when I’ll walk out into the cold night air a day or two after Christmas and all of that Christmas feeling will be gone.  I’ll be angry about the things I didn’t get, especially since I gave Him a very specific list.  I’ll scoff at the whole charade: “people were so nice two days ago, but now they’ve gone back to their same old selfish ways; anyway, it’s all so commercialized, and now it’s all on sale, cheap.  Christmas is all a big lie!”

Maybe so.  But that year, at the age of six, I simply sat in his lap, at peace, with the faith of a child, excited and filled with expectation.  I expected a miracle.

How about you?  Do you expect a miracle at Christmas time?  Christmas is a miracle, always has been, always will.  But that miracle is not what most people expect.  Here’s Jesus quoting Isaiah.  Luke 4.18-21: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.  The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.  Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In the Bible “hearing” was more than an auditory experience; hearing meant doing.  When Jesus said things like “all those who have ears to hear, let them hear” he wasn’t just referring to sound waves registering on eardrums.  Hearing meant doing.

Jesus was not the Messiah most people were expecting or hoping for.  I bet no one put Jesus on his or her Santa list.  Jesus rejected human obsessions with wealth, power, and recognition.  He identified with the weak and powerless, the widow and the orphan.  He did not condemn sinners, like a lot of “Christians” do; Jesus defended sinners.  In the words of Isaiah and in the life of Jesus we see into the heart of the real Christmas miracle.  Want to know what God is really like?  Look at Jesus.  Want to know what we should be like?  Look at Jesus.

In the Christmas story, especially in the experience of Mary, we discover that miracles don’t just happen, they’re born; and that involves pain.  How does God change the world?  By using you and me.  So let’s expect a miracle this Christmas.  And let’s be miracle workers ourselves.  I know our world is full of trouble; this December will be no different.  But I also believe that our world is wonder full.  And just as trying-to-be-Christian people have done for 2,000 years, let’s do our bit to change the world this year, to add our own bit of color and good cheer, hospitality and laughter, lovely music, kindness and compassion.

This Advent season how about making a list of 1, 2, 3 things you could do to produce a miracle in someone’s life this Christmas.  God changes the world one person at a time.  Want to join in?

Take Time

Elizabeth Canham, in a 1993 article in Weavings, tells of a time in her life filled with “feverish activity” during which a colleague, a complete stranger, asked her if she had some spare time.  She writes,

Expecting to be asked for something I waited, tense, ready to respond.  Instead the silence grew and I began to sense a loving, prayerful presence as this priest wordlessly invited me into a resting place….  Tears began to flow.  In this period of intense activity I had forgotten to stop, to wait, and to be open to the renewing power of restful presence….  (Weavings, Vol VIII, No 2, p.27.)

How about you?  Have you got time to stop, wait, even rest?  Will you?

This week is Thanksgiving, that time each year when we all slow down, rest, relax, feel thankful.  (LOL)  Sunday, December 2, is the Christian New Year’s Day, the starting point for four weeks of preparation (Advent) for the celebration of Christ’s birth and the Twelve Days of Christmas which conclude on Epiphany, January 6.  Our culture often misses this: Christians do—or should—think about time differently.  I’m reminded of something a teacher said when I was in 6th grade: if you don’t learn to tell time, time will tell you.  We can choose to live in time guided by a spiritual rule of life; or we can let the culture, the Mad Men, the world shape our lives for us.

I invite you, in the words of the old hymn, to take time to be holy.  Starting now, before you get too caught up in Black Friday and the feverish activity hurtling toward Christmas Eve, make an intentional plan for yourself to honor Advent and Christmas in a way that honors God and honors your life.  Write it on your To Do list every day “Take Time.”  Take time to rest into God in personal prayer, resting into the divinity of just what is.  Take time for church and the community of prayer this December.  Slow down, stop, wait, and open your heart and mind and soul to the renewing power and the restful presence of God.

Truly, madly, deeply, may the peace of God be with you.

david gilliam, priest of rest, faith united methodist church, austin.  for more about faith church, click here.