Emmanuel…God with us….
Are you? Where?
The sweet baby across the street….the one with the dark wisps of hair that curl at the ends; the one who can light up the entire room with one enthusiastic grin; the one who just took his first steps a couple months ago; the one with whom our whole church has fallen head-over-heels in love….he’s flown in a life-support airplane to a hospital three hours away. The specialists talk of his weak heart, the layers of scar tissue, that his pace maker is just pacing way too frequently for anyone’s comfort. His poor momma buried her first baby five years ago in October. She sits in his pediatric hospital room, the same hospital where she painfully survived the dying breaths of her first child, holding his hand, reeling from blow after blow, holding her shattered heart in her other hand.
Emmanuel…God with us….
We ache. We scream. We write lists of questions for you, and we have excruciatingly few answers.
We come back, as the calendar reminds us, to the Holy time, the sacred time, and we expect a vision, a touch, or maybe just a brush from you. We would settle for an inkling of your presence. Just a slight nod from the Creator of the universe to know that we aren’t abandoned on the careening ball of grief, chaos, and disaster.
The lights twinkle in the windows of their house, as if they are awaiting the sounds of a toddler’s squeals. Our lights twinkle back in salute to the pain and emptiness of the fallow emblem of Christmas celebration.
The wind whistles through the unused fireplace as we all camp out on the couch watching our favorite Christmas movies. Our family hunkers down for another sick Saturday at Christmastime. The stomach flu has entered our house, and we brace ourselves for a wave of illness to sweep us off our feet for the week leading into Christmas. I scour over an almost-complete knitting project and unravel an entire skein of yarn to find a mistake that I made 24 rows ago, and I shudder with defeat. My life feels like the unraveling blanket in my lap, as I search desperately, trying to locate the source of my malfunction. Where in the world did I go wrong? How in heaven’s name can we fix it?
The kid with the stomach bug perks up enough to slap her brother on the head, and our cozy movie-watching morning turns into germ-infested wrestling match on the living room floor. I helplessly watch the violence, raise my voice to a pitch that matches the chaos of the moment, and throw up my hands at a loss for how to remedy any of these broken situations….
I glance out the window, and my brain keeps bumping into the reminder of that fragile life that hangs in the balance. That sweet baby should be cuddling on his couch with his mommy but instead is trying to keep his little heart in rhythm in a hospital room three hours away. Turns out he is throwing up today too.
I glance in my lap at this blanket that I have been working on for months that seems to manifest all of my brokenness and inadequacies in the pattern of knits and purls that feels entirely out of rhythm with my ultimate goal of a seersucker pattern made of perfect diamonds of royal blue, cranberry red and charcoal grey. This is not turning out like I had hoped it would.
I glance over at my children smacking each other on the couch next to me. They just can’t seem to be friends no matter how many strategies I use to bring peace to our home.
My poor brain, trying to balance life and illness, working endlessly to cope with chronic pain and lack of blood flow, trying to bounce back from the destructive rhythm of anaphylaxis and epinephrine shock, mixed with the constant passing out as my heart rate doubles when I stand up. Doubles. I just can’t stay conscious, no matter how many pills I choke down morning, noon, and night. My doctor says that I am the sickest, most treatment-resistant patient she has ever treated.
And peace teases us, like a distant concept on the horizon, maybe present in the houses down the road, but not in our two little houses, blinking SOS signals out for someone to decipher, for anyone to give us answers, solutions, peace. We need it now.
Our desperate situations feel like painful juxtapositions to the week of peace that presents itself before us. Peace? As we try to balance life and death, malfunctioning brains, dislocated joints, broken hearts, faulty lungs, heaving stomachs, and faltering knitting projects, we shudder at the foreign concept of peace.
If only we were residing in ordinary time, one that doesn’t tease us so painfully as we hang in the balance, dangling willy-nilly between life and death, hope and despair. If only the lights didn’t twinkle so brightly, offending us with what feels like machine-gun fire of tiny slaps in the face as we cling to sanity in the midst of critically insane situations.
Emmanuel….God with us….Prince of peace?
We try to create a Neiman Marcuesque Christmas, with a perfectly vertical tree, the star at the top twinkling with pristine clarity and color coordinated ornaments. We decorate the piano, the mantle, and the ridges of our roof, and we convey to the rest of the world that we “have it all together.” Full disclosure? We are missing Joseph in our nativity. Joseph–the adopted father of Jesus; the one who also spoke with the angel Gabriel; who sacrificially allowed his name and identity to be slandered for the sake of obedience to the call of God. He’s GONE. Our Christmas tree has crashed to the floor three times in the past week, assaulted by disorderly, brawling preschoolers. My head feels like it is going to explode with all of the pressure of Christmas activities and the over-stimulation of seizure-inducting blinking lights. Peace? Where?
Maybe we are looking in the wrong places. This Spirit of the Lord whispers, look inside.
Then I see a peace that doesn’t depend on what is happening to me.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. John 14:26
The world is broken and shattered, and some lives manifest the dissonance more convincingly than others. We see the chaos more clearly in mental illness, physical illness, senseless tragedy, financial hardship, abuse, and broken families. Here we are, in this world of chaos, uncertainty, unraveling lives, infant and child death, debilitation chronic illness, divorce, sex slavery, injustice, and poverty. And yet there is this truth imprinted on our hearts: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you: and it is true. John’s not just trying to appeal to our warm, fuzzy emotions at Christmas. He is telling us a vital fact regarding the presence of the Spirit, which is the direct result of Christ’s Advent, sacrifice on the cross, and defeat of death.
There is peace. There is this deposit given to us: The deposit of the Spirit. This Spirit of God wraps us in indestructible peace as we go through the most brutal, deepest, darkest valleys of the shadow of death. This is the peace that rules our hearts as we navigate a world that aches, yearns, and screams for the second coming of Jesus. This is the peace that keeps our hearts pumping as they feel like they are being ripped out of our chests by betrayal, loss, abuse, or confusion. This is the peace that allows us to laugh after a night of weeping.
I glance out the window again, and my heart resonates with the longing and pain as our lights twinkle with our neighbor’s, boldly shining in defiance against chaos. I imagine a twinkle of the secret that is housed in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit of peace resides. Whatever happens, however chaotic our lives, we will rest in the peace that rules our hearts and long for total restored order where there is no death, no pain, no suffering, and complete world peace.