Recently when I was driving our son Tim to school, he started a conversation with me about something from last year’s school experience when he was in first grade. It reminded me of something from the year before when he was in kindergarten at Clissold Elementary in Chicago. I brought up the kindergarten experience and asked him if he remembered it. “No,” he said. “Do you remember your kindergarten teacher’s name?” “Um, lemme see … um … no, I don’t remember.” What? I thought to myself. You don’t remember her name! That awesome teacher?! I tried to help him remember, but he could not. When I recalled her name for him, then Tim exclaimed, “Oh, now I remember!”
At the age of seven, Tim lives his life just beyond the event horizon of the black hole of his young childhood memories. As with all of us, those memories will exert unconscious power and presence on his life throughout the years and decades to come. Those of you who currently have children five and younger presently know how to savor sweet and tender moments with them as they marvel at snowfall and the twinkling of stars and how to see the bright side of their silliness in singing the same songs over and over again, even though their endless repetition may annoy you time-to-time … or even most of the time! Time with children is so precious, and it goes by all too quickly.
There is no one “perfect” way to raise children as there are numerous challenges, developmental differences, and diverse needs for each unique child. There is no one experience we can manufacture for our children to help them develop into mature, responsible, nurturing adults. But there is one critical early life experience we all have in common that does shape and even determine how we will grow up: our birth. All factors and circumstances surrounding our birth are completely beyond our control. And in our birth the stage is set for our lives: our financial status, our place in racialized schemes of dominance and hierarchy, our political views, and even our religious identity. According to the 2007 Pew Forum “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” of more than 36,000 Americans, only 16% of adult Protestants changed from a childhood religious affiliation outside of Protestantism, namely Roman Catholicism. Changing from childhood affiliation with one major world religion to a different one in adulthood is extremely rare, and a majority of those who do change major religious affiliation from childhood do so through marriage.
Considered collectively, the circumstances of our birth is the number one factor determining our place in society. And here is a confounding truth about our birth: we don’t remember our birth. We may have later learned about the circumstances of our birth, but we do not remember our birth. Even if we could remember our birth, memory is a process so constantly in flux and under re-construction that our memory of our birth would bear little to no resemblance to the reality of that day.
We universally share the birth experience; we enter the world of blinding light and noise from a world of relative darkness and calm; we have no control over and no memory of our birth. Could it be that such an experience as birth is universal not solely because of its biological realities but also because of its theological realities? Could it be that the helpless and transitory nature of the birth experience make it a great blessing of God?
Because of birth’s determinative power on one’s life, perhaps it is truly a blessing beyond comprehension that we don’t have control over it or memory of it. Don’t we have enough in our lives over which we feel guilt, shame, and helplessness? We should not worry: If only I was born to so-and-so, with such-and-such wealth, in a different, better time, in a different, better place, then I would be happy, then things would be perfect.
How quickly we grow up and how easily we forget the miracle of Jesus’s birth … and the miracles of our own births. Recently I heard on the radio a medical researcher of the human microbiome share with the public astonishing scientific knowledge about our bodies. The current medical paradigm is that we are sterile in the womb but through birth we are introduced to billions of organisms that colonize us, and several such organisms provide us life-giving benefits, such as enabling us to digest milk. These non-human colonies of organisms–for good or for ill–become part of “us.” In fact, by cell count, these non-human organisms outnumber our human cells ten-to-one; there are tens of trillions of them on us and in us, and they make up about two-to-three pounds of our adult weight. I imagine many people are be freaked out by these bizarre biological realities … but they–the non-human organisms– are beyond our control. In my opinion, knowledge of the human microbiome only reinforces what the psalmist says in Psalm 139, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.
The God of all creation entered this world through humble circumstances. God choose way less than perfect circumstances to enter history in the baby Jesus. And yet, in the stories of Jesus, in the Bible, we encounter storytellers re-fashioning the way less than perfect realities of Jesus’s arrival on the world’s stage by fitting him into the grand expectations of the people of Israel for a messiah. Enter the references to empire and the leaders of empire. Enter the prophetic pronouncements about the “messenger” coming before the messiah to prepare the “way of the Lord.” Enter the crowds, the miracles and the healings, the political intrigue and the zealotry for overthrowing empire’s domination of the homeland. So many high human expectations for all sorts of problems to be solved and salvation to be dispensed by Jesus. So much yearning for divine perfection from the ministry of Jesus. So much consternation with his teaching about the happiness of the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek. So much arguing about who is the greatest. So much denial and betrayal. So much for one person to fulfill. So much much noise in a short life bookended by a humble birth and a humiliating execution as a common rebel. Where is the Good News among all the noise?
The Christian New Testament re-fashions Old Testament texts to describe the circumstances of Jesus’s birth and ministry. The early Jewish followers of Jesus re-fashioned Jewish scriptures to tell the story of Jesus as the messiah because prophets and sages for centuries re-told the theological stories of their people and their struggles and successes in obeying Torah instruction from their God. In those stories the main character was God, Israel collectively, or possibly a future messiah, which for Jesus’s followers was Jesus.
In today’s scriptures we heard about prophetic messengers calling out to prepare the way of the Lord at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. We hear of Malachi’s “refiner’s fire” and the “refiner and purifier of silver” and via Luke of Isaiah’s making “paths straight,” raising “valleys,” and lowering “mountains.” We may hear these scriptures summarized as this: “Make the way of the Lord perfect!” For Christians this kind of talk is about the preparation of the circumstances for the birth of God into human history as one of us. God is at work preparing the circumstances of Jesus’s birth into the world. This is the one exception to my earlier dogmatic claim that we don’t control the circumstances of our own birth. God is at work preparing the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, and since Jesus is God-with-us, Immanuel, God is in control of God’s own birth into the world. And how did God choose to be born into this world? As the son of a king, with vast wealth and armies? As the son of a great prophet with masterful oratory and the attention of the ears of royalty? As the son of a mighty military leader, strong and victorious in battle? No, instead God violated common selfish human desires to have been born to a higher station in life by choosing to be born to an unwed teenage commoner and placed in a feeding trough because there was no private room made available for the birth.
In our culture full of noise and distraction, full of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on ourselves for Christmas, we should stop in the midst of it all, quiet our minds, and ask some difficult questions. Does our culture attune its desires for prestige, power, and wealth to classical notions of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present God?
Or is it the other way around? Do we attune our conceptions of God to the lives of people with immense prestige, power, and wealth over/against the lives of common people?
Are we trying through all of the trappings of Christmas to perfect the birth narrative of Jesus, born in Bethlehem, Immanuel, God-with-us to a narrative of material blessing and popularity?
Through all the hoopla, hustle, and bustle of Christmas, with all of its decorating, party-going, and gift-giving, are we trying to perfect our own personal narratives, which started in helpless transit at birth, to narratives of material blessing and popularity?
This Advent season let us give up on “perfect.” Let us give up on perfect personal narratives. So much of who we are came from our birth, in which we had no control. Let us give up on perfect conceptions of God. God came to be human with us in the vulnerable baby Jesus. Let us give up on perfect conceptions of human bodies. We have now learned to be human is also to be part non-human. Let us give up on pursuing perfect Christmas gifts to give. Some of the best gifts are simply time together, a reassuring word, a warm hug. Let us give up on the world’s understanding of “perfect.”
I want to close by asking you to do one practical thing this Christmas season to give up on “perfect.” Consider the most expensive gift you may have already bought or are planning to buy for one person who likely already has everything they need. Return that gift and get a refund or don’t buy it in the first place, and instead craft a handmade card to that person telling them how much you love them and that you gave the amount you saved to a worthwhile charity in their honor. By doing so you will give up a little bit on the world’s perfection and gain more the perfection of Christ who gave everything so that you may have eternal life. Amen.