It’s hot outside. There are birds perched on the telephone wire that is in line with the view from my window. It’s bright and blue outside, and evidence of summer rests on the back of my neck and the place where my skin meets my hair. A matted mess. It’s nowhere near Christmas time. But a baby in a manger, surrounded by animal dung, smelly and squealy and bloody, is what’s on my mind. A couple with blistered feet from a long journey, one of them a young woman about to give birth, come to a place expecting welcome and respite and are met with rejection and degradation. There was no place for people like them but with the animals. And so they go, with no other option, to the shed with the hay, the pigs, the dirt and the dung, to wait for the promise that came nine months before. There in the dirt Joseph sits where Mary kneels, jaw clenched, eyes shut, hair drenched with the cursed pain that labor brings — the pain that no other women are around to counsel her, guide her, encourage her through. With weary breath, caked in grime, they bring Him into the world, the one who would change it all. How she must have looked into his eyes, the grit of the backdrop fading away into the sweetest love. How Joseph must have embraced her. How the peace of God must have filled that manger.
And then a cow mooed.
Why it’s this scene that the world chooses to glamorize over Christmas, I’m unsure. It seemed it was anything but glamorous, anything but ideal. And yet we string lights around it. Baby Jesus is rosy cheeked and comfily swaddled. Mary is fresh and peaceful, not looking at all like she just labored a baby out of her womb or walked across a desert. And Joseph is supportive, clean, and confident, not a bit moved by what he and his young wife just endured. Don’t even get me started on the wise men.
The truth is, they weren’t perfect, sparkly circumstances. And I wonder if Mary expected as much. I wonder if she thought she was owed some sort of honor, some sort of special treatment since she was carrying the long-anticipated Messiah. Surely if people didn’t give her credit, God would. He did, after all, interrupt her life, her engagement, her reputation by impregnating her with a child she didn’t ask for. It’s speculation, is all. I’m sure Mary was much more open to God’s mysterious, odd ways than I would have been.
I would have demanded more, better, cleaner. If not special circumstances at least … normal … socially acceptable ones? Like a clean bed to lay in while I brought the baby into the world or a knowledgeable midwife to be by my side.
I haven’t been open to his mysterious, odd ways. I’m only beginning to, by grace, recognize that his ways are not my ways, his thoughts, not my thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Our wrestling has looked like him sweetly pursuing me and me bitterly turning my back on him, looking back at all I’d lost, all that had fallen through. I felt he wanted me. Felt him reach after me in the forms of the world around me. Friends reached out in prayer. Neighbors noticed downward slumping shoulders and gave gifts, brought coffee. Encouraging words poured out. But our situation did not change. In fact, it just kept getting more complicated.
We’re about to deliver our second baby and I had expectations. I expected to be in America. I expected to shyly ask for a McDonald’s burger post delivery, to go to the beach as many times as my recovery process demanded (which would be a lot). I expected to be post-partum slap happy, sore and smiling watching my mama rock her newest grand babe, her heart swollen with joy. I expected my body to work the way it should, to grow a baby and bring her into the world. I expected all of this pandemic-ness to be over and done with. None of these things have come to pass. It’s been a complicated ride from the start and a bitter process of letting go and trusting a God who sees and works beyond imperfect circumstances.
He’s obviously doing something, wants to teach me something of his character, his strength, his goodness. Because this is a mess I can’t sort out, can’t work my way through on my own. I’ve tried. I’ve tried to muscle my way around the options. I’ve tried to skip right to the joy. To plaster a deceiving smile across my tired face and seem blessed and thriving to every “how are you holding up?” I’ve tried to muster peace into being while still holding on to all the frustration that things haven’t gone my way.
Neither are his ways our ways.
No one would blame me for having these expectations, these desires. No one has. It’s normal and real to have such things, to long and wish and hope. It’s a sign of the heaven that lacks in us, the sign of the heaven we were made for. This isn’t it. This is a process of getting there. And to get where we were meant to go means enduring the climb before us. But sometimes I stand with my feet stubbornly planted at the bottom, staring up at the place I need to go and refuse to move. It will be too hard, it will be too messy, there are too many unknowns, too many steep cliffs.
But the pages of scripture tell me there are good things to be found in the hard places, in steep climbs and less than ideal circumstances. Such things produce perseverance that produces faith that produces … somehow … joy. (James 1:2-4
The journey for Mary and Joseph and their baby savior was far from ideal. Far from their expectations. Far from normal. But their journey through the desert to Bethlehem, their journey through labor in a smelly, dirty barn, paved the way for a savior for whom nothing would come easily. But who would encounter it all with joy.
Hebrews 12:2 says “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Joy, Paul? Are you sure?
It was Christ’s joy to endure the cross for the sake of his Father’s glory, for the sake of my own, your own, security with him at the right hand of the father. The cross was not easy because he was God, the cross was hard, painful, terrifying because he was human.
Though they pale in comparison, these days are my crosses. Every difficult moment, every unmet expectation, every toe stepped on, every injustice inflicted can be faced with joy because of him who endured it all for me. And I can take the blows. I can make the call and be told over and over again it is not going to work the way I want or plan and I can rest.
I’m still learning what this joy looks like. I don’t imagine it is a broad smile or a cheery demeanor. I imagine it is something much deeper within us. Something we must ask God to begin in us, something we must ask to replace bitterness. I imagine it is a rested heart in times of tumult, a peaceful soul in the midst of chaos. I imagine it is hard work and trying again and again. For me, today, joy looked like weeping with a friend, getting all of the mess out of the way so that I could hear her clearly say, “God is not surprised, and He is in this.” Which is the truth, every single time. And every hard thing, every steep climb we face is another opportunity to relearn that truth, and to grow in the trust of Him.
So friends, here’s to surrendering safety nets, plans b – z. Here’s to laying it all at the foot of the cross and letting go of what we can’t control so that we can take hold of the only one who can.