So, it was Thanksgiving weekend and externally all the trimmings were as should be. We went to my mother-in-law’s home in another town and brought the well-prepared side dish and our cheery holiday faces. We were calm enough getting ready to go and had an uneventful and pleasant time with the extended family all Thanksgiving day. Something else was rumbling in my heart.
We came home late that night after two hours on the road, boys already in PJs, teeth brushed and completely asleep in the back seat. We carried them to their beds and 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 to get more just in time for Christmas. We didn’t go that route. My husband went to work and I was home with the boys catching up on our work and preparing for Advent. We met friends at the park mid-day. By Friday evening I was surely out of sorts despite the externally uneventful and pleasant enough day.
Something had been nibbling at my heart since Thanksgiving. Something was disturbing me and I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. 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 as planned we began getting ready to take the boxes down from the attic to get the house decorated for Christmas. I lay in bed before the preparations began and practiced my morning routine of praying before I do anything at all. I committed the day to God and 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. I could sense the potential hot spot in my own self and I wanted to protect this day. I wanted the day, the season, our lives to be full of all that is good and I didn’t want to spoil the day with any of what was looming over me and in me. I was keenly aware of this dull sense of slight depression which I could not shake.
Worse yet was the fact that a dear friend has been so disciplined as to fast for an extended period of time and she is experiencing great fruit from this discipline. I couldn’t help but compare my inner feelings to the joy and freedom and peace she is experiencing. I am glad for her, but feel all the more aware of my own vacuous soul simultaneously. The contrast feels bleak. I am feeling like God is so real to me and I can easily see evidence of His existence and His personal care for me and for others all over the place, yet I can’t feel Him at all. Does that make sense? I can look out the window and see birds filling our yard and trees, sun streaming through and making patterns across the grass and want to burst open with thanksgiving. This is all from Him! But when I retreat to my silent places, I feel numb. I feel distant. I can’t achieve a sense of connection. It is like someone wrapped me in muslin and then tickled me with a feather. I can see them tickling, but I have no sensation — or only the faintest sensation — and it is 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. This is not what I wanted. I wanted the picture. I wanted what I think makes people whole. I wanted a Christian extended family who support our faith. I wanted my little traditions to be embraced by my immediate family so that they would grow up to embrace God and we would be bonded together more completely. I wanted 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 feel edgy and disconnected and the whole thing feels more like a chore than a celebration. My youngest wants to hang all the ornaments and doesn’t want to wait to put the lights on the tree first. My eldest is asking about when he can go play with friends. Boxes are scattered everywhere and our home feels like a moving day more than a movement of God on earth — shaking our reality and our hearts wide open with His love.
I pass through Saturday morning a bit grumpy, but less so after my tear-stained prayer retreat into my bedroom. I repent to my family and God and hope that they will be able to make memories that matter despite my moodiness. We are scheduled to sing worship at the homeless ministry downtown Saturday afternoon. I feel so blah I can’t imagine pulling myself together to go serve. I beg God 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 finding abiding and letting fruit flow from relationship. I long for the relationship, but remain numb.
We get to the canopied area off the community center in a part of town which is not known to most people who live where we do. The park is host to people whose whole life is contained in a shopping cart and whose skin resembles a leather shoe. We love these people. We know many of them by name. I get busy setting up music stands and testing mikes. We sing. Praise songs come out of a heart recently numb. I look at familiar faces, at faces of children in their midst — children who live on streets or welfare with one parent and clothes threadbare and mismatched. I look at eyes bleary from seeing too much of life’s underbelly. And I see smiles and hands lifted to our God. Our God. He is ours and we are His. We end 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 am beaming now. I am shining from the inside out.
We pray for many as we distribute groceries gathered in our congregation to give a little something to those who need so much more. We touch as we pray. We lift our requests to God and we are made small as we look on our brothers and sisters in these conditions. My heart can hardly hold the joy of this serving. I sit 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 has made me laugh in places numb.
Sometimes expectations and hopes crowd in around these holidays. Sometimes we allow them to drag us low. We want to feel and know and secure and ensure. But what we need is to be undone. We need to let life be what it is and trust that God is with us and He will not leave nor forsake us — and even this — He will use all of it for good. He knew I would be in a funk and that it would come to a crescendo in the middle of Saturday and then He knew He would burst through with mercy and goodness in the unexpected moments of praise and service. It wasn’t the praise that broke me. It wasn’t the service. It was the reaching regardless of results. I reached to Him and He met me there and in my imperfect holiday and my very numb heart He entered in — like the babe in the manger, quiet and yet so powerful. Where He is there is always light in darkness. So my “manger heart” is home to Him because He doesn’t inhabit Pinterest-perfect living. He still meets us in unexpected and lowly places and because He is there they are holy ground.