Well, we’re heading into the strangest Christmas in many of our lifetimes!
Mind you, that’s not as bad as those who have endured wars, famines, tsunamis, earthquakes and the like. Perspective always helps, methinks, when challenges arise.
So how are things unfolding through this time for you? I wonder? Brave face? Gritting teeth? Loving the solitude? Want to scream? Rolling with the process? Basking in the light at end of tunnel? Claustrophobic in the bloody tunnel? Light ahead is a train?
Some people seem to effortlessly find the silver lining in every dark cloud. Others of us just see the cloud. And others never even look up. Whoever we are there’s no point in beating ourselves up that we’re not someone ‘like that’. But, speaking as a pragmatic struggling pessimist, “Haven’t had a negative thought for three hours,” taking a page from AA recovery. “But a relapse is probably pending.” There I go again…. heading in wrong direction.
For most in difficult times, taking the next step is so much more manageable than constantly trying to conquer the big picture. When I was in a very long dark tunnel of depression many years ago I learned to do that. Keep busy. Do whatever is at hand. Have small victories. Write down negative phrases that keep recurring – then speak to yourself in the opposite spirit. “What would Jesus say to that? How would you respond to someone else saying those things?” These exercises do work, or at least help.
It’s an attitude that we can build in ourselves, even if it doesn’t flow easily and naturally. Rather like getting on an exercise bike and slowly increasing time and intensity. Repeat every day for a week and see how far I’ve come! Eating the elephant, one bite at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The longest journey begins with a first step. Want an oak tree, plant, and nurture the acorn.
I wonder how Joseph and Mary made it through their first Christmas? It can’t have been easy. A long arduous journey for Mary, probably on the back of a donkey. Mary nearly nine months pregnant. What if the baby comes early? Birth on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere? Gawking pilgrims passing by? Crowded streets on arrival, everyone after the same thing, a place to stay. How will we cope?
How do you handle your faith in God if you’re Mary, or Joseph (perhaps even more of a challenge for him)? God’s spoken nine months ago via angels and a dream. And through cousin Elizabeth about John, who’s already been born. His word for you, about being pregnant, has materialized. You obediently carry this mystery child.
As you wander the streets of Bethlehem, tired and probably cold, your thoughts? Might you be tempted to think, “God, where are you? Couldn’t you help us out? Give someone a dream to meet us and provide at least a place to stay in Bethlehem?” Instead there appeared to be nothing extraordinary. Mary and Joseph fumbled their way forward, struggled like everyone else. This birth had no perks from heaven, other than a distant protection of the vaguest kind. No word of knowledge like Ananias would later receive to “go to the the house where Saul is blind on Straight street and say this”. Nothing. The parents of the son of God had to take their journey step by step, no special treatment, knock on doors.
They had no idea that they were living out the world’s most powerful revelation ever! That God’s son was coming to earth, born, lived, tempted, just like us; except without ‘sin’. ‘Just like us’ was the whole point. And God was with them, sometimes obvious, often hidden. Later he would speak in a dream encouraging them to flee to Egypt. He would send shepherds, Wise Men, prayerful men and women, to reassure them that in the midst of the struggle he was present and working. But for much of the time, just like us, it’s a step at a time, through challenging circumstances with no obvious resolution. Trust me, trust the process, peace be with you. Those words will sustain, if like Mary, we treasure them in our hearts.
Then Joseph knocks on the door of the 14th Innkeeper. Probably more like a guest house. Some rooms raised above a lower level at the front or back where the animals were kept. In Luke’s account Mary and Joseph may have even been in Bethlehem a few days before Jesus’ birth. This Innkeeper, or guest house owner, saw the young couple in desperate circumstances and didn’t turn them away, “Sorry, full up, wish I could help, good luck, try Derek down the road.” Full up, no rooms – there’s nothing I can do? That’s a natural and truthful response, and one that many of us would make without malice.
But the thing that strikes me, impresses me, and challenges me is this. It’s not a difficult position to be ‘unable to help because we’re full, no time, limited resources. or whatever’. What teases and beckons me is the Innkeeper who takes another step beyond the rational and convenient. True, he’s full up, but he also knows the whole town is crawling with pilgrims and the likelihood of this couple finding a place to stay is small. He keeps the door open and scratches his head to dig deeper. I can’t give you a room, but what can I give you? Much like the little boy with a sandwich that Jesus would later use to feed five thousand. I haven’t got much, but here, take it.
This Innkeeper is innovative and kind. They can see it in his face and hear his concern in his voice. “I don’t have a bed or a room, but if you’d like to make space in my stable with the animals you’re welcome to camp there. It will be warm and safe. We can throw down some clean straw. How about that?”
It doesn’t take much to imagine their relief. At this stage anything will do. Maybe Mary loves animals anyway and finds their company soothing. We don’t know. Perhaps Joseph gets to work and tidies up a small area where Mary can be comfortable? I wonder what their conversation was like? “Damn it, why are we stuck in this hell hole? Couldn’t God do better for the birth of his own kid? Who does he think we are? He’s already blown our wedding plans, our reputation, and what our friends are saying behind our backs. Is that a rat? What about my allergies!”
I don’t think so.
The person who uttered Mary’s prayer, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled,” didn’t carry such a mindset. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” She had already sorted it out in her mind and heart. Her circumstances were no indication whatsoever of God’s faithfulness, pleasure, or presence – one way or the other. Many people wrongly conclude the physical and circumstantial indicates God’s approval and blessing. That mindset is not sustained with even a cursory study of history.
The Innkeeper had a generous compassionate spirit that made room for Mary and Joseph, even when his house was full. I love that! As we navigate these challenging times that of course are frustrating, inconvenient, and far less that what we would have hoped for. So what! Let’s make room for others, perhaps even for those with whom we’ve been confined for way too long. Let’s get to work with Joseph and make the best of our confining Christmas stable. At the end of the day, if it was good enough for Jesus and his Father, it’s good enough for me.
It’s all about perspective, attitude, hope, light, and joy in the midst of the inconvenient. Because for most of us this doesn’t come naturally, God offers to breath life into our weakness – supernaturally. How? No magic, nor the power of positive thinking. Simply looking around, finding a new perspective, and being thankful. Mary may have whispered, “Thank you that we arrived safely. Thank you for the kindness of the Innkeeper. Thank you that the baby feels safe. Thank you for Joseph, trying so hard to make me comfortable, he must be exhausted. Thank you for the warmth of these animals, I love the sound they make, soothing and contented. From now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.”
May we know and experience contentment, peace, hope, and joy this Christmas. That even in these most strange and challenging of seasons we will sing in chorus with Mary contemplating the birth of Jesus: “He has lifted up the humble, and filled the hungry with good things… my soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices within me.”
Here are two songs to give these sentiments musical wings to fly – and bless 🙂