Giving Up on Perfect - 12/16/12 - Spirit of Joy UMC
How many of you have special memories of the perfect Christmas? Let me see – raise your hands if you have memories of a Christmas that is sort of a litmus test for all your Christmases since? Now, if you don’t have a memory like that – how many of you have an idea what the perfect Christmas would be like for you – your dream Christmas, perhaps?
I have to say that I have a dream Christmas, because what comes to mind when I ask myself this question is not a memory. It’s actually a conglomeration of memories. Some of them have been captured in snapshots, so when I think of them, I see them fading in before me like Polariod pictures and remaining in my mind in brilliant color – a bright Kodak moment, frozen in time.
My dream Christmas has so many textures. It’s filled with cold winds and warm hearths; long stockings and short sleeves; scents of turkey, ham, and an array of delightful pies; the flavors of cocoa and peppermint, eggnog and apple cider; my mother’s homemade glass candy, fudge, divinity and sugar cookies carefully rolled out, cut into circles, stars and trees, and decorated with bright sugars in reds and greens. I was born in Minnesota, where “White Christmas” is more than a song. We made snow angels and snow men, bundled up in one-piece snowsuits and mittens connected together on a string laced through the sleeves or down jackets and snow boots pulled over penny loafers and opaque tights.
Looking back, I see myself in a picture I’ve seen in my parents’ photo album. I was about seven years old, wearing all these layers of childhood in winter. I wore long green tights under a pleated plaid skirt with suspenders and a long sleeved, turtleneck shirt. There I am, standing on the oval braided rug in front of the fireplace next to my Great Grandma Otter’s rocking chair in my Grandma Ostlund’s basement holding a ball or something in my hand. I remember another Christmas – or it could have been the same one - in another photograph. My mother is beautifully dressed in a soft red velvet dress with a pencil skirt and three-quarter length sleeves and bright, shiny black spike heeled pumps. She’s leaning forward, looking over at a gift that one of us children had received. She smells like her “Intimate” perfume and is the most beautiful woman in the world. As I think of these two frozen moments, I remember my father, sitting on the living room floor in his rough black-and-white checked chef pants putting together presents for one of my four siblings. It could have been a bicycle or a dollhouse, or maybe the shiny metal pedal-driven car my brother got one year – remember those? It was a long time ago.
There are so many other memories wrapped up into my perfect Christmas. I’m old enough to remember having Christmas concerts and coloring pages filled with Santa, elves, decorated trees, bright stars and baubles, and even Joseph and Mary in school. One year, my class sang The Chipmunks’ song, “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” Music is very much a part of the perfect Christmas for me. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a part of yours, too. I loved singing, though I made sure my voice was drowned by the waves of beauty of others. Nothing has changed in that arena – I still can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Still, the best singing of all at Christmas happened at church. We moved around a lot when I was a child, and we were rarely at the same church for two Christmases in a row. Wherever we were, though, if there was a children’s choir, my siblings and I were a part of it. We sang Christmas pageants. The younger ones got to be sheep or shepherds. I was always in the chorus. My favorite Christmas songs to sing back then were “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
Of course, Christmas Eve was the time we learned about The Baby Jesus and talked about The Virgin Mary. When we were in the church children’s choirs, I loved everything about those Christmas Eve services, but the part I loved most was the moment when the lights were turned low and we shared candle light, one to one until all the candles were lit. I can recall Christmas Eve at a church where we walked slowly and reverently up the aisles toward the door, carrying our little flames out into world, softly singing “Silent Night.”
After church, like so many other children in America, we went to bed to await Santa Claus. It was always hard to fall asleep, but we always woke up really, really early. We weren’t allowed to go into the living room until Mom and Dad were up. Once the coffee was on, the day was all about gifts and food and family; and when the wrappings were thrown away, the dinner dishes washed and put away and the company gone home, it was over.
My childhood Christmas was probably not so different from that of many children in the United States. The particulars might differ. Some families were more focused on church, others more focused on the secular celebrations. But, when we think about all of this, let’s be honest. How much of our money, time, and energy do we put into trying to create our “perfect” Christmas? How many times do we fall short?
What about that first Christmas? Was it perfect? In today’s Gospel scripture, Mary, a young girl, is visited by an angel and told that she is going to have God’s son! Tradition has it that Mary was between twelve and sixteen when she was visited by an angel. Today a girl under eighteen is still considered a child, yet it has not been so long since girls were able to be legally married by that age in some parts of the United States.
Even in today’s world, when it seems that nothing can shock a teenager, a young person still living with her parents can find that the world outside holds both fear and excitement. Moments alone can hold terrors beyond imagining. In the Bible, whenever the angels appear to a human of any age, they first caution them as Gabriel does Mary, “Do not be afraid.” What fear young Mary must have felt when she first perceived the visitor who had come to her when she was alone! When we think about Christmas, we don’t usually think of fear as being a part of it. Yet there are many who live in a constant state of fear now and throughout the year.
The pregnancy that started with an angel’s message to a young girl came to an end in a pretty messy manner. Joseph and Mary had walked a long way from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. Luke tells us that that it was a dark night and the city was filled with strangers - Aliens. The inns were full and the innkeepers were turning away latecomers. Each year, when we hear this story, we imagine that Joseph and Mary were the only couple seeking shelter that night. We picture them walking door to door along lonely streets, searching for one place where they could stop for the night. “Silent Night,” we call it. But, I wonder…was it really silent? Were the streets really empty of all but this one couple? Who else had been turned away?
Scripture is clear that Mary and Joseph were turned away from the inn because “there was no room.” There was no room because “All the world” was called to the homes of their ancestors to be counted. Generations of children of Bethlehem were returning because of the decree for a census. Certainly others were left without a place to stay that night. I can imagine Joseph and Mary walking by entire families camped along the road, gathered around fires or huddled together in bedrolls to keep warm on a cold desert night. When it came time for Mary to give birth to Jesus, they had found their place among the animals, bedding upon straw. Oh, what a messy place to bear a child, much less the child of God!
But, it really doesn’t matter that the Holy Family was relegated to a barn or a cave in the backyard of the inn. What matters is that Joseph found a space for his wife to give birth in relative quiet. In spite of the cacophony of complaints and the inevitable noises of families gathered against their will Joseph and Mary brought Jesus into the world. In spite of the sounds of children crying, adults bickering, animals braying, Mary gave birth to Jesus on a star-bright night, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in an animals’ feeding trough upon a bed of straw.
As we grew into adults, perhaps we may have become more focused on Jesus, but do we really understand the depth of the Advent Season? Why do we spend so much money for the holidays? What purpose does it serve? Where better could we use our funds? Are there messy places in our community and in the world, where we can better share our money and our time? Can we move beyond the hustle and bustle of the commercial holiday and find the heart of God?
In these past few days, we have seen horrific tragedy in the US and throughout the world. Children and adults shot at a Connecticut school; twenty two children and an adult stabbed in China. Terrible tragedies have been happening since the beginning of time. Every day, children and adults are killed in accidents, war, and at the hands of loved ones. Every single night, thousands of adults and children lay their heads to sleep upon the cold ground. Each morning, thousands greet the sunrise with hungry bellies. In some countries, people – including children – work in horrendous conditions for wages that amount to slavery. What perfect Christmas do they dream of?
We can’t attain a perfect Christmas – reality is never equal to our dreams, our memories are inevitably imperfect representations of what actually happened. We all face imperfect circumstances. And yet, Mike Slaughter reminds us that even in the midst of the unexpected, the messy, and the devastating, we can always expect God to show up. Life is not about staying safe. It’s not about living comfortably.
Christmas is a call to follow Jesus – and that call is a call to give our lives to him, and to join God’s mission in healing the souls of the world. It is a call to align our dreams with God’s dream. We can never be too imperfect to follow our dreams, when our dreams are the dreams of God. God can use us no matter who we are, no matter how tall, short, young, old…whatever. We can begin by remembering that Love is at the center of God’s purpose for us. Even though Our Lord Jesus was born in the most humble of surroundings, he was born to a couple who loved God, who loved one another, and who loved this Son, who was the perfect reflection of the Image of God.