No matter if we grew up in a secular home or a home where faith of a religion other than Christianity was taught, we are likely familiar with the basic elements of the story of the birth of Christ. The Crèche Scene: animals, angels, shepherds and wise men. There are swaddling clothes, and a great big star, and sometimes in the re-telling of the story a little drummer boy is in the picture as well.
I could write for pages about the back story of that scene, starting with the prophecies that appear in the book of Isaiah about the Messiah who would save the people of God, or we could walk through Jesus’ lineage and hear the stories of all the colorful people listed who would be included in the house of David from which Jesus would emerge. We could even spend a few hours just detailing how the conception, birth and ultimate death of John the Baptist was so intriguingly linked to Jesus every step of the way.
We might examine Jesus’ mother and discuss the courage and bravery she had to exhibit to bring him to life. If you are experiencing the unique tensions of a blended family you might enjoy focusing on Joseph, the stepfather. We could step back further and see what was happening in the world around the stable on that night: oppression of entire swaths of classes and races and greedy, power-hungry world leaders looking out only for themselves.
The broader story of Jesus’ birth offers as many Christmas Eve homily ideas as there are priests to deliver them. I hope each of us – no matter our faith – has time to find a place to listen to any clergy give a Christmas-related sermon. It’s always interesting to hear which perspective and entry point to the story is used.
I am stuck on one such entry point, recorded in the book of Luke. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, and then –
She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
I used to be in charge of a Christmas Pageant and the youngest kids would dress as stable animals, and would say things like Moo and Baa on cue, and the next-to-the-youngest would often get the roles of Inn Keepers. The seven and eight-year-old Mary and Joseph would approach several Inn Keepers who would hold up signs reading, No Vacancy and if the kids had the courage they would shout out “NO VACANCY!” And the audience always laughed.
I don’t know how many accommodations Joseph tried to find that night, only to be re-buffed. Even the place that ultimately let them in could only offer them the animals’ stable. The town was overcrowded with the hustle and bustle of people coming home to register. Probably families were reuniting, and I bet there was a lot of cooking and housecleaning going on to prepare for all the guests that would descend on the town. I imagine the shop keepers were lining the shelves with extra goods to sell and maybe even increasing their prices a bit thinking, this would be the opportunity to cash in. The streets would have been crowded – even parking the donkey may have been difficult.
The scene sounds like it could be 2012 here in my neighborhood just before any holiday. And the message Joseph and Mary were hearing was, There is no room for you here. We are all too busy preparing for and taking advantage of the census, reuniting with our families, dreading our families’ visit, preparing our homes, or dashing back out to the store. You are an unexpected visitor and we simply have no bandwidth to deal with you.
If you are friends with me on Facebook, you already know that my tree fell down last Sunday night. One minute it was standing tall and stable in its stand and the next minute we heard a crash and ran in to find water flooding the floorboards, broken ornaments covering the carpet and the tree prone on the ground. If my husband hadn’t been home I would have carefully picked off the unbroken ornaments, packed them away and dragged that tree to the curb. But by Brad’s grace we managed to right the tree, dry the water, and re-hang what wasn’t broken – and the Christmas spirit lived on in the house on Baker Street.
Earlier in the weekend we had tooooootally overdone it. Brad landed late on Friday night and was flying out again first thing on Monday morning. We were cramming in things like birthday party planning, Christmas photo shots, Christmas card ordering and gift buying and, of course, buying the tree from Home Depot at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. Our children were exhausted, behind on homework and one of them was not being particularly nice to the other one.
To say that we had no room in our inn for the tree to fall down was evident in the way we handled it. We yelled at each other. As I dashed up the stairs to get towels he yelled from downstairs, “Would somebody puh-leeeaze get me a towel?” I scrambled to put shoes on my bare feet and screamed down to him, “What do you think I am dooooooing?” I dried the floor around the base and demanded that he lift up the tree – base and all – so I could dry under it. “Just try harder,” I screamed into the bottom branches. “There is no way I can do it,” He yelled into the middle branches his face was buried in. Once we got the floor dry, we decided we needed some string to tie the tree to something – what, we still hadn’t figured out, but the kids and I went on a hunt for string. And I tell you, it’s like we entered the twilight zone.
Brad stood waiting in the living room holding the tree upright. We were in the garage numbly looking around in random areas for string. Perhaps we’d lost some brain cells on the way down the steps. I fought the urge to suddenly straighten up and maybe even catalogue all the board games. I saw one of my kids reach out for a ball and then catch himself. We looked in all the dark corners, and on all the shelves and I even gave the ceiling a quick glance to see if by some sort of magic there might be a ball of string hanging from it. But no… not a single length of string to be found. Meanwhile he was upstairs bellowing, “I am waiting on some striiiiiinnnggg.” Eventually – even in my stupor – I found the staircase up to the living room again, and switched places with him. He reappeared in thirty seconds with a large bundle of twine and tied the tree to the window shade and then we began vacuuming up needles and glass. We couldn’t leave it alone, though. Even while cleaning up, we were at each other, the stress of this ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ nearly causing us to come to verbal blows.
Eventually we restored peace, the children finished enough homework to go to bed and he caught a few hours of sleep before he left for the airport. Honestly, some weekends we just need to congratulate ourselves that they’re over. The trophy goes to anyone who makes it to Monday morning.
A few days later I was planning to spend the morning poring over seasonal poems, Scriptures and inspirational readings in preparation for a little talk I was facilitating about the meaning of Christmas. I had put off planning for an entire week. (Those Law and Order episodes weren’t going to watch themselves, you know.) And after the crazy weekend I needed to use Monday to get my nails done with a girlfriend, and so Tuesday was the day.
All I needed to do first was drop off a box at the post office, and then I could come home and plan, research and write and just relax into the spirit of Christmas. But as I checked one and then another post office and found each not yet open and with lines forming outside ten people deep, I decided to drive into the Presidio and see if that post office was any better. And that’s when my car broke down. I got to sit in my car with the hazard lights blinking and cars honking at me for eighty minutes while waiting on a tow truck.
I couldn’t find pen or paper in the car to at least jot down my thoughts, but decided to use the time wisely in other ways. I went through my phone and deleted or answered 262 unattended emails. I called my Mom who jokingly said “Oh, now I see where I fit into your priorities. When you have nothing else to do but sit on the side of the road in a broken down car, then you call me.” I returned the calls of three friends and heard all about what they are going through right now. One is dealing with financial stress like you wouldn’t believe, another is frustrated and down about her job, and the other is worried about both of her kids for different reasons. None of them has any room in their inns for one more thing to go wrong.
I’ve heard all about the grand idea of Margin. To me, “margin” means leaving some room around the edges of our lives – in our calendars, in our sleep schedules, or in the time we allot to get places. We hear a lot about how we need to protect margin and how easily it can slip away from us. Even though I need to embrace it, sometimes I just get so sick of hearing any sort of modern-day wisdom. I feel impatient and claustrophobic with mumbo-jumbo like just let go or remain open. As much as I want to say Margin Smargin, I do realize that margin is what makes it ok when the tree falls and the power steering fails. When the kid sends you that text that makes your heart break or your spine chill, or when you count the pennies and realize there is no way you will make it to the next month without missing some of the due dates on those utility bills. Margin, space, room – extra – is what we need.
Even though we only have a limited amount of room, there is no end to all the things we can use to fill us. Right now, there are amazing events to attend (I went to two fabulous holiday parties before the tree fell), sparkly clothes to wear and decorations to hang. There is food to enjoy and as many obsessive thoughts as you’ll welcome about eating or not. There are songs, music and concerts, and shopping, buying and spending and worrying about reactions to what we bought and worrying about how to pay the credit card bills we just ran up. But what we don’t seem to have a lot of is extra room.
We’re not too different from the people in that crowded Bethlehem all those years ago, with all the busyness and distraction that envelops us. We have to learn to say no and establish boundaries or we’ll get overrun with good things.
But I wonder, especially at this time of the year, what we might be missing by not leaving just a little room in the inn of our hearts? Those people way back in Bethlehem, they’d been told from the time they were in the cradle that a savior would be born to their people. They had been raised with hope in their hearts and expectation on their breath, yet there was no room for Him when He finally showed up. They were too preoccupied.
When I have no room in my inn for things to go wrong, I let criticism, anger, blame and defensiveness take over. Those are my knee-jerk reactions when I am stretched and tired. I miss what could be a memory-making funny moment, or a moment to help a child or spouse and be a support.
When I am around extended family tension, something that is common and perhaps predictable around the holidays, there is no room in me for grace and forgiveness. I allow judgment and superiority to reign instead of opening the door to humility and compassion.
Here is a kicker: Around this time of year we might come face-to-face with spiritual and faith-related crossroads. Perhaps we will be on the tipping point of diving in, rejecting or cautiously dipping the tip of our big toe nail into the pool of faith. If the opportunity presents itself, will there be room in the inn of our hearts? Will there be too much suspicion, disappointment or general numbness to allow a quickening or movement in our souls?
What steps can we take when we are faced with so much pressure and work right now?
I wish I could give us a plan to follow. I would entitle it How to create Holy Margin during Christmastime. But, because we are unique and on our own paths, each of us probably needs to take an inventory and feel the answer specific to our own lives. Where I might need to turn off the Law and Order and instead turn to my husband and ask about his day, you might need to stop cleaning the kitchen and come watch a football game with yours. While I might need to invite my kids to take a walk and get away from their screens, you might need to allow yours some more screen time and stop being such a taskmaster. Where I need to make and hold eye contact with family members and actually listen to their hearts, you might need to protect yourself from certain members of your extended family who do not have your best interests at heart. Where I might need to reiterate my spiritual values to myself – actually note where I am and where I am headed, you might simply need to throw your hands up and shout out, I have no idea what I believe.
You may be alone this Christmas and your heart might be filled with sadness and loneliness. Perhaps you need to leave room for hope and joy to return as well.
Thinking back to Bethlehem, I want to sneak in at night before Mary and Joseph trudge into town and knock on the doors to give a heads up.
I would whisper through the closed doors, He’s coming tomorrow. Be ready. He’ll be here and He is not what you are expecting. Be on the lookout for a total shocker. Try not to plan how it will be and how you will react. Guess what? The world will be changed forever tomorrow and I don’t want you to be too busy, too angry, too numb, too disappointed, too worried, too suspicious, or too distracted to notice. Keep your door ajar and leave some room in your inn in case He comes here. Tomorrow there will definitely be a Holy moment and I hope you don’t miss it.
I need to take time to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and imagine my margin growing bigger. As thoughts creep in and worries return, I’ll no doubt notice them, but I won’t let them stay long enough to take root. Instead, with however much margin I have built up in my heart, I ask, What Holy Moment is waiting for me?