Friday, December 2, 2011

Repost: Comfort

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40.1-2)
A Deep Breath

The 40-day period between the Resurrection and Ascension intrigues me. The Gospels and Acts report several interactions between Jesus and His disciples, but we don’t observe Him doing much beyond issuing last-minute instructions. While Paul asserts one of these encounters involves 500 people (1 Corinthians 15.6), neither the Gospels nor Acts chronicle it. He spends His final days on Earth behind the scenes, preparing His closest followers to continue His ministry after He leaves. And there’s no record anywhere of a major public appearance where He announces He’s risen to life to the masses. This strikes us as a bit surprising, since Christianity hinges on faith in Jesus’s resurrection. We might think He’d seize every chance to be seen by as many as possible—until it occurs to us if His resurrection were a verifiable fact, faith would be irrelevant. Jesus stays out of the public eye because His mission centers on ending our reliance on what we know by requiring us to trust what God says. “Whoever believes shall have eternal life,” He says in John 3.16.

Instead of an historically definitive event, the pivotal moment comes in John 20.21-22: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” He uses a fairly innocuous gesture to transfer power to the disciples. He inspires them exactly as God first inspired humanity. With one breath, He fills them with His presence, His gifts, nature, and authority. Jesus explains they’re receiving the Holy Spirit—the Comforter Who, as He promised, “will guide you into all truth.” (John 16.13) Yet note why He breathes the Holy Spirit into them: “I am sending you.” The Spirit’s comfort and counsel aren’t only for the disciples’ edification. Henceforth, they carry It with them wherever they go and express It in calm assurance conveyed in their demeanor and words. They’re now able to bring Christ’s presence to any situation and change the atmosphere around it with no more than a deep breath.

A Most Unusual Message

When God directs Isaiah to “comfort My people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” He’s invoking the prophet’s capacity to bring solace and clarity to Israel’s turmoil. Repeatedly God has pressed God's people to obey and repeatedly they’ve failed. By the time Isaiah comes on the scene, their stubbornness has pummeled them with sorrow. Recovering from 70 years of exile and hardship, they’re punch-drunk, exhausted, and despondent as they see their hope, like Jerusalem itself, lay in ruins. In times past, prophets predicted doom and destruction if Israel didn’t mend its ways. But God calls Isaiah to restore the nation’s faith and ease its worries. God commands the prophet to proclaim their troubles are ending, their sins are forgiven, and God's repaying their repentance twice over with God's love and mercy. This is a most unusual message delivered by a most unusual prophet who views his responsibilities in a most unusual manner.

Isaiah describes his mission this way: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (61.1) His compassion is so remarkable Jesus quotes him verbatim to define His ministry in Luke 4.18. And He essentially condenses it when He breathes on the disciples. He endows them with the Holy Spirit and sends them into the world to preach, to heal, to liberate people in distress. “Comfort my people; speak tenderly to them,” God tells Isaiah. Jesus vests the disciples with the Comforter so they can do the same.


We too have drawn the breath of Christ into our beings. We’ve also received the Holy Spirit and been sent into the world. We too can provide solace and clarity to troubled lives. Because the Comforter dwells in us, we have the capacity to make Its presence felt in every situation we enter. The confidence expressed in our behavior and the words we speak—words carried on inspired breath—have the ability to change the atmosphere around us. Yet if we limit our perceptions of what the Spirit within us can do and how we manifest Its power to our problems alone, we negate Jesus’s purpose for giving It to us.

We’ve received a most unusual message that must be delivered in a most unusual way. Our faith in Christ’s resurrection convinces us of His power to restore life. We’ve experienced it in our own lives. Thus, there are no lost causes and no one is beyond redemption. It’s our privilege to comfort God’s people—to assure them God has their problems in hand, God's forgiven them and will repay the costs of their mistakes twice over. Though much of their anxiety results from stubborn disregard for God, others, and themselves, we honor our calling to comfort them by resisting urges to confront or condemn them. “Brutal honesty” is an oxymoron; since it justifies wounding someone’s spirit as a method of healing, it’s patently dishonest. It’s best we leave that sort of “comfort” to self-deluded haters and old-school prophets. We provide comfort in a manner that pleases our Maker and reflects the Comforter’s presence in us—in a word, tenderly.

God of tender, loving kindness, make the Comforter's presence in us vividly known to us. May words of compassion, mercy, and healing come as naturally to us as our breath. Impress on us Your will that we comfort Your people. Amen.

Originally posted 12/12/09.

We speak tender words that neither confront nor condemn. We comfort.

Postscript: "Comfort Ye My People"
Possibly my favorite piece from the Messiah. Other than that "Hallelujah" tune, of course, and "Lift Up Your Heads," and "Surely He Hath Borne Our Grief," and... Oh, never mind.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Our Children and Their Children

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. (Deuteronomy 4.9)

The Photo That Brought AIDS Home

About a year ago, I crossed paths with Therese Frare, a staggeringly gifted photographer in the Pacific Northwest. I was part of a team working on a new HIV product launch to occur less than a month before the 30th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnoses. The serendipitous timing opened the door to include a retrospective of the extraordinary leaps in HIV/AIDS treatment and reaffirm our client's contributions as a major leader in the field. We wanted Therese to photograph the event for a number of reasons. Her talent spoke for itself, and when we approached her about taking the job, the conversations revealed her to be an ebullient, sharp-minded person—someone we’d enjoy working with. Her role on this particular job would be particularly significant, though, as she holds a unique position in HIV/AIDS history.

In 1990, during graduate studies in photography at Ohio University, Therese volunteered at Pater Noster House, an AIDS hospice in nearby Columbus. An assignment for a visual storytelling class led her to ask one of the patients, David Kirby, and his caregiver, Peta—an AIDS patient himself—if she could document their experiences with the affliction. After some justifiable resistance from the hospice (due to patient privacy concerns), Therese was cleared to shoot David and Peta’s interactions. David was in end-stage, meaning Peta’s main concern was making his final days as comfortable as possible. On one occasion, Therese was at the hospice when Peta was called to the young man’s bedside. Seeing his parents there, she discretely waited in the hall. His mother asked Therese to come in, telling her, “We’d like you to photograph the family saying their final goodbyes to David.” As the heart-wrenching scene played out, Therese stood in a corner, capturing it moment-by-moment. While proximity to the event muted her appreciation of her photographs’ power, David’s expressed desire that his story be told inspired Therese to mail copies of one shot to the World Press and Life magazine. Life immediately picked it up and published the picture in its November 1990 issue. It’s now known the world over as “the face of AIDS” and “the photo that brought AIDS home.”

Dark Shadows

When Therese’s photograph appeared, we were ending the AIDS crisis’s first decade. We’d seen a multitude of images of the virus’s emaciated victims—from iconic celebrities like Rock Hudson to nameless African children—and heard hundreds of agonizing stories. Those of us cursed to witness AIDS’ ravages up-close and personal were emotionally depleted, but for seething anger at how little concern was shown for the lives devastated by the disease. Like every other catastrophic illness, an AIDS diagnosis triggered a ripple effect that emanated from the patient to loved ones nearest him/her, then on to more casual friends and acquaintances, and finally into her/his various professional and social circles. Because its first US targets were gay men—many with long histories of casual promiscuity—it was all too easy to minimize AIDS suffering as a minority issue. The public at large felt safely insulated from its threat and, therefore, not responsible for its treatment, containment, or cure. This false sense of security was further enhanced when the virus began surfacing in other specific populations: blood-transfusion patients, IV drug abusers, sex workers, and so on. AIDS was a “not-us” sickness, and hence “not our problem.” Therese’s photograph changed that.

For the first time, people removed from AIDS’ realities stepped into its dark shadows. Fathers felt Mr. Kirby’s anguish, as he cradled his son's gaunt face and clung to his rail-thin arm. Mothers perceived the stormy emotions raging behind Mrs. Kirby’s stoic expression, while she pulled David’s kid sister—confused, frightened, a child too young to know such sorrow—to her bosom. The emptiness in David’s eyes led one to imagine, for all practical purposes, he was already gone before this final farewell. It pierced the heart of every mother’s child. The anonymous hand reaching into the scene softly spoke of someone outside the family with compassion and courage to touch the dying man—of someone who chose to be there. Above them, the outstretched, nail-scarred hands of Jesus beckoned David into His eternal care, promising to hold the wounded hearts he left behind. This was too real—too personalto ignore. Therese’s photograph allowed millions around the world to see what we who’d had sat at far too many bedsides had seen. Never again would they look on AIDS in any other way.

Sacred Duty to Remember

Twenty years later, our hearts overflow with gratitude for God’s mercy and provision. Medical breakthroughs have diminished AIDS’ savagery. How thankful we are that horrific scenes like David Kirby’s are rare exceptions and no longer the rule. We no longer speak of an “AIDS holocaust” and rarely do we see images of AIDS-related suffering. Yet in our rejoicing, we must not confuse AIDS’ disarmament with decisive defeat. Its status as a treatable condition on par with hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses introduces the peril of assuming AIDS is no longer a grave disease to be avoided at all costs—that it can be “lived with” and its threat has decreased. Worst of all, we can never conclude that its relative invisibility in the media and our daily environment means AIDS has “gone away.” It is present to the point of prevalence. It is very real and, until it’s completely destroyed, it’s not going away.

We who survived AIDS’ initial onslaught have a sacred duty to remember, honoring the thousands of precious souls prematurely torn from our midst. Yet our sacred duty to remember extends to never forgetting our children—and, now, their children—have not seen, felt, or known what we experienced. We’re fools to expect they'll independently ascertain the gravity of what they’re playing with when they put themselves at risk of contracting the virus. As Therese did, we must reveal to them AIDS in all of its heartbreaking ugliness. We must tell them stories of its unbearable suffering and sorrow. We must keep it before them, even though they look away. In Deuteronomy 4.9, God commands, “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” May hearts of compassion and desire to please our Creator compel us to obey.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The More They Stay the Same

In the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all thing things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (2 Peter 3.4-5)


At last night’s Bible study, we were handed four questions to help center our thoughts in these early days of Advent. More or less, they asked us to identify what comes easiest to us while contemplating Christ’s imminent birth and what we find most difficult about it. After pondering the questions silently, we paired up to exchange responses. I didn’t have much. I mentioned the Black Friday shopper who pepper-sprayed 20 people in a crazed lunge to get her mitts on a videogame, and wondered how the proverbial “we” failed her, so that she’d ever think such behavior was justifiable. I couldn’t get my arms around what it had to do with Advent, other than its challenge to maintain one’s sense of proportion. The distance between the Nativity’s irrevocably world-changing magnitude and its intimate humanity boggles the mind. Year after year I stare across that expanse with no idea how to bridge it.

Walking home, I realized my high-minded thesis wedged itself between the real answer and me. I’m most exasperated by Advent’s sense of futility. The season’s grandiose rhetoric about hope and salvation doesn’t square with stumbling through darkness, brushing against any number of monsters—within and without—that fit Yeats’s ominous portrait in “The Second Coming” (1919):

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There is (for me, at least) an inarticulate dread lurking beneath Advent’s longing for light and deliverance. Each year brings us no nearer to awakening the dormant possibilities wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. We could spend from now to Christmas rehearsing woes we visit on the weak, defenseless, and, ultimately, ourselves. The more things change, the more they stay the same—only there’s more of it because less changes. While we’re stranded in our quagmire, Advent rolls around, urging us to hold out for light. “Salvation is coming!” it cries. One hand clutches the promise. The other unfurls an open palm to signal, “Enough."

God Isn’t Slow

Doubts and cynicism that pock our Advent road have tripped many before us, going back to first-century believers beleaguered by the same sense of futility we often feel. Fully persuaded he’s writing in “the last days,” Peter addresses increasingly prevalent fatigue and resignation in the Early Church—and he’s not very kind to those affected by it. “In the last days scoffers will come,” he writes in 2 Peter 3.4-5, “scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all thing things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’” He blasts those who confess pangs of futility for using them to excuse not doing the hard work of God’s kingdom. Clearly many have quit their faith and reverted to carnal living. But one suspects more than a few are just plain weary. The bloom is off the rose; the promise has lost its luster. They’re wondering, “What’s the use?”

Peter’s frustration with disillusioned believers comes from being on the Movement’s front line, where he witnesses progress daily. He mingles with higher-ups and preaches to huge crowds, whose lives are radically changed by the Gospel. From where he sits, everything’s happening too fast; for those far removed from Christianity’s epicenter, it appears that nothing’s happening. Thus, Peter stresses we’re not equipped to gauge what’s going on, as we have no measure for God’s timing. “With the Lord one day is like a millennium, and vice-versa,” he says. (v8) “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness,” he explains, “but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” What feels like futility is, in fact, impatience. Human timing shoves us way out in front of God. Hearing God say, “I’m coming,” we yell back, “What’s taking so long?” But God isn’t slow. We simply think so, based how little we know. Our mistake.

The Real Story

Insane though it sounds, the good news of Advent is there’s no news. Things will always change and always stay the same. Our inability to fix us defines the human condition. It confirms why we need a Savior—why Advent’s renewed hope in Christ is our surest means of never losing hope. If we could cure hatred, violence, greed, and every other self-destructive urge splashed across our front pages, of course we’d have done it. Meanwhile, what’s not reported is the real story. Right now, tens of millions of believers travel this Advent road with us, reaching for the same promise, stubbornly living it day and night, refuting every base instinct that captures the media’s morbid fascination.

We’ll never measure the light Christ brings to the world. We’ll never tally the lives Christ enables us to rescue, hearts we mend, nor the violence, poverty, and tragedies we prevent. But this we know: our hope and faith in Christ empowers us to do what we’d never even attempt without it. We resolve Advent’s tension between futility and hope by removing our shortsighted blinders and changing our tune from “Give Up” to “Hold On!” Our sense of timing, not purpose, is what’s off. Could it be what we’re waiting for is already happening, has always been and always will be happening? As long as God’s with us, whether or not things change, that will stay the same.

God Whose promises are true and Whose timing eludes us, disabuse us of impatience masked as futility. Expand our vision to discern Your will and presence alive and active wherever faith abides. Restore the drive and assurance we’ve lost to world-weariness. Lead us home. Amen.

Our hope for the world is secure because we’re in the world, and our hope in Christ refutes every base instinct seeking to destroy hope. That story will never make the front pages. Nonetheless, it’s real, and it will never change.

Postscript: “Only Hope”

Always the last to show up for the parade, I only recently found this powerful Mandy Moore recording (from the film, “A Walk to Remember”). When I feel myself sinking into futility and impatience, I pull it out: “So I lay my head back down/And I lift my hands and pray…”

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. (Ephesians 3.16-17)

A Very Real Nerve

It would verge on dishonesty to say Walt and I have ever seriously considered having children. Our temperaments and professions predispose us to a rather freewheeling manner of life incompatible with sound parenting. For the sake of all concerned, we leave the most important task any human can undertake to those better equipped to succeed. Still, the question pops up now and then, posed by friends who insist we’d be great parents. We ceased trying to debunk that myth long ago. Now we deflect the suggestion by admitting this much: the nursery would be spectacular. We’re both remarkably adept at short-sprint projects, and we can envision throwing our entire energy (and a hefty chunk of our resources) into creating a lavishly outfitted home for a newborn. But a child isn’t a design accessory; it’s a lifetime commitment, which neither of us is convinced we have stamina or tenacity to fulfill.

Lack of parental experience—and, I suppose, instinct—narrows my access to the Nativity. While those who’ve brought life into the world intuitively project their experiences onto the story, we who’ve not known what that’s like can only objectify its joys and uncertainties. We see them, but we don’t quite feel them. On the other hand, Advent’s anticipation and preparation for a forthcoming event touches a very real nerve in all of us. Each of us has looked down a long road, pinpointed a destination, and met with pleasure and frustration in getting there. For me, Advent invariably brings to mind nursery building—not from having done it, but from knowing what it entails. Most of all, I find it to be a powerful metaphor. For what is Advent if not the time to contemplate and construct a home in which the newborn Christ can dwell?

In Us

The Christ Child enters the human narrative from multiple angles. By divine right, He assumes His role in history as its most dominant figure. He also takes His place in His immediate world, where His birth summons the attention of shepherds and kings. In terms of Israel’s Messianic scheme, the nature of His nativity secures His prophetic bona fides—ultimately qualifying Him to redefine the Messiah not as a Deliverer Who founds an earthly kingdom, but as the Door through which we usher God’s kingdom on Earth. Regarding our relationship with God, He is the Word made flesh, the mortal manifestation of the forever Divine, Who stands where our consistent failure intersects with God’s constant grace.

On these levels, Jesus’s birth is a singular achievement; it happens through none of our doing. Our participation emerges in faith that Jesus comes to make His home in us. And it’s impossible to overstate how crucial this aspect of God’s great plan is. Without our involvement as vessels that house Christ’s presence, the Nativity’s historic, prophetic, and theological import retains little significance—and no relevance whatsoever. Without us, it’s another myth construed to explain human behavior in a cosmic context. Without us, the Christmas miracle we marvel at is neither miraculous nor marvelous. Jesus comes to make His home in us. That’s what takes our breath away.

A Useful Prototype

Thus, Advent presses us to soberly consider the home we’ll provide the nascent Christ born to live in us. What will our nurseries be like? What must we clear to ensure the Infant’s safekeeping and wellness? What must we add to nurture His growth and development? What will we need to heighten our attentiveness to His demands and cement our bond with Him? These aren’t easy questions with obvious answers. They can only be resolved by prayerful self-honesty (and the pain that often accompanies it), as well as sincere application of Scripture’s counsel as to what housing Christ’s presence requires.

Paul submits an extremely useful prototype in Ephesians 3.16-17: “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” We replace the clutter of human logic and personal doubts by drawing on God’s infinite wealth of inexplicable grace, goodness, and steadfast favor. We partner with the Holy Spirit, Whose comfort and guidance provide inner strength with power to forego codependency on nagging fears and weaknesses. We furnish the Infant’s nursery with faith in Christ as the transformative Agent Who endows our capacity to be His home.

Lastly, Paul informs us while we plan and construct our nurseries—and every day thereafter—we’re being rooted and grounded in love. This dynamic process becomes the defining attribute that identifies us as Christ’s dwelling. First Corinthians 13.4-7 exquisitely portrays love’s behavior, saying it’s patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It doesn’t insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful. It doesn’t praise wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Being rooted and grounded in these traits guarantees the Christ Child will abide in an authentically loving, trusting, disciplined environment.

Advent’s Mystery

And therein lies Advent’s mystery. It primes us for innumerable contradictions the Christ Child brings to us by seeding contradiction in our preparation to welcome Him. We make a home for Him so He can make His home in us. Inviting Him to dwell in us is how we dwell in Him. We welcome, nurture, and sustain His presence by drawing from it. We defeat dark fears and doubts with transparent trust. We obtain power to believe in Christ through faith in Christ’s power. We open our hearts to ready love by confessing how unready we are to love with open hearts. Nothing about our nurseries makes sense—yet all of it makes sense, starting with the imponderable reality that the unsurpassed possibilities born in Bethlehem remain impossible until they're alive in us. May your nurseries be as glorious as the Child Who dwells in them.

Eternal, Incarnate God, we’d be fools to say we understand any of this. Yet somehow we get it. May Advent fire our passion to make ready a home for You so You may make Your home in us. Inspire us to enlarge on what we’ve already done. Endow us with new courage and creativity to exceed our earlier efforts. Amen.

Advent prepares us to make a home for Christ so that Christ might make a home in us.

Postscript: "Into My Heart"

This sumptuous rendition of the classic children’s hymn says it all.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Martha Syndrome

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10.41-42)


Sherry Peyton’s comment on the previous post (see below) opened a wealth of insight regarding a concern that troubles many of us at this time of year. Remarking how easily we’re sucked into the holiday frenzy, she cited the famous episode in Luke 10.38-42, where Jesus visits His disciple, Martha. Luke all but says He arrives without warning. Martha welcomes Him to her house. But once she’s got Him situated, she gets preoccupied with proving she’s a worthy host. (Her theme song could be “If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked a Cake”.) While she’s making dinner, pulling out china, changing linens, and—if she’s like a lot of us—hiding clutter she’d rather Jesus not see, her sister, Mary, shows up.

Finding Martha’s left Jesus alone, Mary takes a seat beside Him on the floor, never offering to help her sister. The longer she and Jesus talk the more agitated Martha gets. It takes little imagination to read the thoughts stewing in Martha’s brain while she stirs her pots. Mary knows I’m devoted to Jesus and how humiliated I’ll be if everything’s not perfect… She wouldn’t even be here if He weren’t here—and He’s here because I’m here… If she were any kind of sister, she’d take over so I could visit with Him… Listen to her! Finally, she snaps. She storms out of the kitchen and does that nasty thing we’ve all done—or, at least, thought of doing—when family or friends get under our skin: she tries to shame Mary in front of her Guest. But Martha’s so addled she overshoots and embarrasses Jesus. “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me,” she wails. (v40)

Seeking Attention

Let’s leave Martha’s head and slip into Jesus’s shoes. What would we say to a host so wound up about impressing us that she completely loses it and blurts out, “Can’t you see the pressure I’m under because you dropped in out of the blue?” Surely Martha doesn’t mean that. Still, it’s what we’d hear. We’d reach for a tactful exit speech: “We’re so sorry. Why don’t we do this another time, when you’ve had a chance to prepare and we can all enjoy ourselves?” Jesus isn’t so quick to let Martha off the hook, however. He came to her house, she welcomed Him, and He wants to stay. He’s seeking attention, not looking to be impressed. We watch Jesus sympathetically shake His head as He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (v41-42)

Before Sherry mentioned it, I never perceived this story as an incisive Advent allegory. Yet now that I think about it, I’m not sure the Gospels provide a better example of how readily we get caught up with the details of Christmas—spending all of our time in the kitchen, if you will, making sure everything’s perfect, and smoothing over our preoccupations by insisting the Christ Child deserves our very best. While we rush though more errands than one day can comfortably contain, juggle more to-do lists than we can manage, thumb through recipes, write menus, hang lights and tinsel, move furniture to make room for the tree and all that goes with it, our Guest sits in a corner, waiting for us to give Him what He values most and most deserves—our attention.

What must He think, as we subject ourselves to unbearable stress, ostensibly to prove our worthiness and devotion? What does He hear, when we say our excessive doing and giving and getting is “what Christmas is all about”? How does He respond, after feeling pushed beyond the breaking point turns our carols into complaints? We know what we’d do. We’d politely take our leave and postpone future visits to a vague “later,” which we may hope will never come. Not Jesus. He came to us, we invited Him in, and He wants to stay.

The Better Part

Listen to what He says: “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” The commercialization of Jesus’s birth—feeding off the unfortunate marriage of Christ’s Mass to winter solstice rituals and symbols—preys on our desire to exalt this holy day above all others. We talk endlessly about “the meaning of Christmas” and “Christmas memories.” We break our backs to serve the most fabulous feast ever. Then we clear it away, wash the dishes, and give thanks we’ve got a year before having to do it all over again. We photograph our festivities, hanging on to every moment. Then we store our videos and pictures with past Christmases and, but for rare occasions when we pull them out, forget they’re there. Meanwhile, the better part of Christmas—the truly meaningful, memorable part—is lost because we’ve not given it attention it deserves. Yet when we pry our focus from the feast and its trimmings and attend to our Guest, what we receive stays with us for life.

If deciding how best to celebrate Christmas were as simple as either/or, we’d be immune to Martha Syndrome. We’d turn off the oven, put the credit cards away, and ignore the clock in order to spend more time with Jesus. Realistically, though, Christmas is a yes-and proposition. Yes, first and foremost, we must see that Jesus is given the attention He seeks. And we must take care to show Him the honor He rightfully deserves. We go wrong where Martha goes wrong. The unexpected privilege of welcoming Christ into our homes and lives throws us off kilter. The occasion stops being about Him to become all about us. Sure, we’re aware He’s there—and surely He’s aware that we’ll get to Him as soon as we’re finished with fine things we want to do because He’s there. Nonetheless, we should be clear-headed about our choices during this, the most sacred of all seasons. Displaying devotion to Christ is secondary to what Christ seeks. “I need only one thing,” He says, “and that’s the better part.” Not the whole part, the better part. Ever the gracious Guest, Jesus realizes how thrilled we are to have Him with us. He understands our compulsion to go beyond the ordinary because of how much He means to us. No matter how crazy we get, He wants to stay. But He also wants us to learn the “us” part isn’t the better part of Christmas. The “Him” part is.

Cherished Guest, forgive our vulnerability to frivolous worries and distractions. Cure us of Martha Syndrome. Help us to see the better part of Christmas is the only thing You need; the rest can wait while we honor You with our attention. We welcome You and pray You find us worthy of Your presence. Amen.

It’s the classic Christmas dilemma: we mean well, but the season’s high spirits carry us away. While we’re stressing over every little detail, our Guest is left waiting for us to provide the only thing He needs.

Postscript: The Antidote for Martha Syndrome

We don’t need to make everything pretty and perfect for Jesus. All we have to do is throw open the door and say, “What a marvelous surprise! The place is a mess, but let’s not worry about that. Make Yourself at home. Tell me what You need and I’ll be a most attentive host.” Few songs capture that Christmas spirit better than Bob Bennett’s “You’re Welcome Here”.