“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2.7
Today I want to talk about those moments when things don’t work out the way we thought they would. I’ll never forget the first time in our marriage Caroline went shopping for clothes. Her mom, sister and she made a day of it. Caroline burst into our living room with two shopping bags and rushed into our bedroom. I was sitting on the couch watching TV when she blew by me talking a mile a minute about all the great deals she’d found on clothes that were “actually really cool.” Eventually, she stopped. Unbeknownst to me, this was the moment of anticipation. “Are you ready?” she said. “I think so.” She emerged from behind the door with a new outfit and asked what I thought. “It’s great,” I said. “Really?” “Sure. Yeah. I like it.” Back behind the door she went only to emerge moments later with another outfit. Beaming, she asked, “What do you think?” “Nice. I like that one better than the first.” Her smile began to dim now. Back again she went to emerge with yet another outfit. “What about this one?” “It’s great,” I said. Her shoulders began to slump a little as she retreated behind the door. As more and more time passed without Caroline emerging, I started to think that must have been the last outfit. Then, I heard sniffling. “Are you upset?” I asked as I went into our bedroom. “I think I’m having to come to grips with how different my life is now. Ever since I was little, whenever I would come home from shopping, my dad would turn off all the lights down stairs and do a fashion show. He, of course, didn’t care really about the clothes, but he would wave flashlights around like spotlights to make me feel special. You didn’t wave any flashlights.” To which I responded with the tact only a new husband in his first year of marriage can, saying, “I’m not your dad.”
How often do disconnects like this one happen? How often does our notion of the ideal husband, parent, or friend prevent us from seeing the person actually in front of us? In an attempt to preserve the way we think things should be we miss the way things are. Today we’re looking at the birth of Christ, who was born in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn. I want to examine the way we crowd out Jesus and others by holding onto our ideals. Then, I want to explore the ways we can make room for him.
We are confronted with our ideals when something or someone doesn’t measure up. Sometimes, like I was in comparison to Caroline’s father, another person is less-than-ideal. Sometimes it’s circumstances that are less-than-ideal. One fear I have to combat, is that after years of trying to “make a change” in this neighborhood, we will look around and feel like we haven’t made a bit of difference. I worry we’ll work hard and it won’t look like we’ve made a dent. Making a change in the neighborhood will seem like a futile effort, and maybe we’ll decide this less-than-ideal neighborhood needs to be replaced with another neighborhood that more closely resembles our ideal.
Sometimes we are the one that’s less-than-ideal. This is the moment that flies below the radar more easily than other people and circumstances. I was a part of a conversation in a small group once about prayer. The conversation started after we opened the meeting with prayer. Everyone was invited to pray. Half the group prayed out loud. Half the group didn’t. After the prayer time, the leader asked those who didn’t pray out loud why they chose not to. Looking back on it, I honestly don’t think it was a leading or accusatory question. I do think the leader was looking for an opportunity to provoke some conversation. He succeeded. One after the other, each person who hadn’t prayed out loud gave basically the same reason. They were conflicted about their motivations. One wasn’t sure he could pray without trying to impress the others in the group. One worried he might pray the wrong thing. One said he had a lot going on in his mind making it hard to figure out what was a prayer and what was just something he was thinking about. Suffice it to say, each one refused to pray because he felt something was wrong or impure about him.
What’s wrong with wanting an ideal like pure motives? Nothing except when we confuse a desire for purity as synonymous with having the power to produce it. What irony. We want purity so we can speak with God, and it’s in reveling in the realization that we aren’t pure that we prevent ourselves from doing so. We miss the Ideal, God, in pursuit of our ideal, purity.
What if instead of hoping and waiting on the moment when we are finally pure enough to speak with God, we confessed that we weren’t as pure as we want to be. In confessing our inconsistency or our lack of integrity, we make room for Christ. That’s the proper paradox. We speak with God about our failure to be who we think he wants us to be. We draw near to him as we confess how far away we feel.
Today’s Gospel shows us that Jesus shows up in precisely these less-than-ideal circumstances. It is in the midst of our sin, confusion and brokenness that Jesus shows up. In our pursuit of an ideal, it is Jesus we are actually looking for, not the ideal. But how does he show up? In this way: Inevitably our ideals collide with reality. The ideal version of “wife” I have in my head will collide with my actual wife, Caroline. I have 2 options in that moment: (1) See her as an obstacle to be removed in an attempt to take one step closer to my version of an ideal marriage, or (2) Confess and repent from my attempt to live in an unreality. The first results in another’s death through murder or the destruction of the relationship (i.e. divorce, affairs etc.). The second option results in my death or the death of my ideal. My wife, on the other hand, and, subsequently, our marriage lives. When my wife collides with the version of “wife” in my head, what is exposed is not the ideal but an idol. My wife does not need to be removed at that moment. It is the idol that needs to be removed. Caroline is not the obstruction to reaching my ideal in that moment. She is actually the medium through which God is going to bring me closer to the ideal, himself. In that collision moment (which, if yours is anything like ours, is the very picture of patience, humility, truth and love!) I am confronted with my lie. I am invited to examine the ideals I hold, and a greater possibility is created for me to see what thing other than God I think I need. To stubbornly hold onto our ideals in that moment is to not make room for Christ.
Thankfully, God makes his way into these very dark, stubborn, misguided places of our lives. For example, when I see that Caroline has put the toilet paper on the roll the “wrong” way, yet again, I can ask in that moment why I need the toilet paper facing a certain direction. When I ask, I find out that I hang the toilet paper the way I do because I think it tears more easily. So, to hang it the other way is to make life difficult, and the only reason someone would deliberately make life difficult is because he or she doesn’t care about me. I, therefore, need Caroline to hang the toilet paper my way because I need to know I’m loved. In that collision, I can be reminded that I don’t need my wife to reassure me that she loves me based on the way she hangs toilet paper. I can remember God loves me, and judging the amount of love poured out for me based on a toilet paper roll is settling for far less.
In a moment we will go to the Table. Talk about a moment for collision. How in the world am I worthy to approach such a holy moment? God has poured out his love on me by sending his own Son to die that I might have life. How can I be anything but presumptuous to even think about going to this Table? In the moment of these questions we are very close to reality, and we’re very close to shutting Jesus out. This isn’t just the case at the moment of receiving the Lord’s Supper, though. Learning to live in these questions in preparation to go to the Table is actually teaching us how to live the rest of our life. The truth is we are always enjoying an abundant love we don’t deserve. And it is living in that reality, with that ideal, that enables us to more readily give up all other ideals.
The truth is we are not worthy to go to this Table. Therefore, we approach this moment in humility and gratitude. We humbly let go of our ideals; that my community, my family or I will be strong, good or pure enough. In letting them go, we hope instead to receive the Ideal, Christ. This meal is called the Eucharist, which in Greek means, thanksgiving. It is a gift to be received by those who are empty handed. Resist scraping something together in an attempt to show how hard you’ve tried to be appreciative, responsible or good. It will be nothing more than a representation of your sloppy pursuit of an ideal version of yourself. And all that you bring is taking up room that could otherwise be occupied by Christ. Come instead saying you’ve tried and yet you still have nothing. Go humbly to receive the love God has graciously poured out on us in the gift of his Son, whose birth we celebrate today. His birth tells the Gospel story, and shows God’s character. Surely a manger is not ideal for the Son of God. Yet, God, the pure, the Ideal, drew near to us, who had no room for him except in the darkest, manure-infested, back room of our lives. Make room for Christ. Don’t persist any longer in the pursuit of your ideals. Let them go. To hold onto them is to settle for far less than the gift God has for you.