I remember a Thanksgiving weekend about five years ago. Externally all the trimmings were as they should be. We went to my mother-in-law’s home, bringing the well-prepared side dish and our cheery holiday faces. The uneventful day passed pleasantly with our extended family. Something else was rumbling in my heart.
We came home late that night after two hours on the road, boys already in PJs, completely asleep in the back seat. After carrying them to their beds, we promptly went to sleep ourselves. The following day most of the world is off work. Black Friday is what we call it now, where we shift from gratitude for all we have to a frenzied rush of acquiring more just in time for Christmas. We didn’t go that route. My husband went to work while I stayed home with the boys catching up and preparing for Advent. We met friends at the park mid-day.
All is not Calm, All is not Bright
By Friday evening I was surely out of sorts despite the external goodness all around me. Something had been nibbling at my heart since Thanksgiving. I couldn’t get my unsettled heart to agree with my thankful mind. I felt a sense of sadness and even some loss of hope — all this in the face of a perfectly wonderful holiday weekend.
Saturday we woke and began getting ready to take the boxes down from the attic to decorate the house for Christmas. I lay in bed before the preparations, practicing my morning routine of praying before I do anything at all. Committing the day to God, I asked Him to reign in me and in our home. I asked Him to help us keep our eyes on Him while we went about decorating.
Sensing the potential hot spot in my own self, I wanted so very badly to protect this day. I wanted the day, the holiday season, our lives to be full of all that is good. I didn’t want to spoil the moments with any of what was looming over me and in me. A dull sense of slight depression which I could not shake sent a shadow across my mind.
A Cavernous Ache
Worse yet was the fact that a dear friend had been so disciplined as to fast for an extended period of time, and she was experiencing great fruit from this discipline. I found myself comparing my inner feelings to the joy, freedom, and peace she was obviously experiencing. Though I was glad for her, I couldn’t help simultaneously feeling all the more aware of my own vacuous soul. The contrast felt bleak.
I easily acknowledged evidence of God’s existence and His personal care for me and for others, yet I couldn’t feel Him at all. I looked out the window and saw birds filling our yard and trees, sun streaming through, making patterns across the grass, and I wanted to burst open with thanksgiving. This was all from Him!
In silent and intimate places, I felt numb and distant. I couldn’t achieve a sense of connection. It was as though someone wrapped me in muslin and then tickled me with a feather. I could see them tickling, but I had no sensation — or only the faintest perception — and that was so unnerving.
We set up Christmas and had a few moments of tension between us all. Moods were edgy at times and the more they were, the worse I felt. I finally retreated into my room and cried out to God, “This is not what I wanted.” I had tears with my prayer. “I wanted the picture of what a holiday should be – not this!” More than anything, I wanted what I thought makes people whole.
Hoping in all the Trimmings
I wanted my little holiday traditions to be embraced by my family so that they would grow up to love and serve God, and we would be bonded together more completely. I longed to be a cheery mom with a tray full of goodies and a heart full of unending warmth that just oozes Christmas joy. What did I get instead? I felt edgy and disconnected and the whole thing felt more like a chore than a celebration. My youngest wanted to hang all the ornaments without waiting to put the lights on the tree first. My eldest kept asking about when he could go play with friends. Boxes were scattered everywhere and our home felt like a moving day more than a movement of God on earth.
As I sat in my room, crying out to God, I realized I had hung my hope and joy in all the wrong places. I trusted in an image of how Christmas should be instead of leaning on the One who makes Christmas all it is meant to be.
Stepping into the Numbness
That day we were scheduled to sing worship at the homeless ministry downtown. I felt so blah I couldn’t imagine pulling myself together to go serve. My prayers rose to God as I asked Him to help me go through the motions without losing Him in the midst. I am all too familiar with serving out of duty and diligence rather than abiding and letting fruit flow from relationship. Despite the numbness in my heart, I got in the car with my family.
We arrived at the canopied area in a park full of people whose whole life is contained in a shopping cart and whose skin resembles a leather shoe. We love these people, and know many of them by name. I got busy setting up music stands and testing mikes. Praise songs came out of a heart recently numb. I looked at familiar faces — even children in their midst — children who lived on streets or welfare with one parent, whose clothes were threadbare and mismatched. I looked at eyes bleary from seeing too much of life’s underbelly. All around me I absorbed smiles and hands lifted to our God. Our God. He is ours and we are His.
The Joy of Serving
We ended with “I’ll Fly Away.” I’ll fly away, Oh glory. I’ll fly away. Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away. To a land where joy will never end. I’ll fly away.” I was beaming — shining from the inside out.
We prayed for many as we distributed groceries gathered in our congregation to give a little something to those who needed so much more. Like Jesus, we touched as we prayed. As we lifted our requests to God and we were made small as we looked on our brothers and sisters in these conditions. My heart could hardly hold the joy of this serving. I sat with a woman who was in bondage to drugs. Her children were taken and now, seven years sober, she leads others out of darkness — her daughters restored to her serve alongside me in this ministry. This is Jesus. The muslin loosens and I feel the feather. He made me laugh in places numb.
Meeting Jesus in the Manger
Sometimes expectations and hopes crowd in around the holiday season. Sometimes we allow them to drag us low. We want to feel and know. To be secure and to ensure future goodness. What we really need is to be undone. We need to let life be what it is, and to trust that God is with us. He will not leave nor forsake us — and even the brokenness will be used for good in His loving hands.
He knew I would be in a funk that year at Thanksgiving time. Jesus wasn’t blindsided. He anticipated the crescendo in the middle of Saturday. He burst through with mercy and goodness in the unexpected moments of praise and service in an obscure park on the other side of town.
I reached to Him and He met me in my imperfect holiday and my very numb heart. He entered in — like the babe in the manger, quietly and yet so powerfully. Where He is, there is always light in darkness. He still meets us in unexpected and lowly places and awakens us to sing.