Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yearning for Joy: An Advent Story-Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Beth sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the 9-foot-tall Douglas fir, a tiny plastic angel in her hand. Actually, the tiny plastic angel was literally in her hand: she was squeezing it so hard, a tiny, pointy wing had stabbed her, just a bit, and she had started to bleed. She sighed and tossed the angel into the bin containing the jumble of ornaments. This was not good. This was not the way it was supposed to be.

Beth knew how it was supposed to be. She had seen the commercials. Even though everyone else fast-forwarded through them now… she kept watching, like those rubber-neckers fascinated by a car crash on the highway. She watched even though, by every possible measure of what the whole world seemed to think was necessary for a perfect and joyful Christmas, she was lacking.

She mentally checked off the list of things she DIDN’T have: a family with two parents. Check. Not in this household. The two-point-seven children. Check. (How could ANYONE have 2.7 children? A blatant impossibility!) The dog! There was no dog. Beth frowned. She was the reason there was no dog. Her dad has asked her, would she like one? He thought it would be good for her, get her outside herself a little bit. No dog, Beth had said. She’d claimed it would be cruel to the animal, that it would be alone all day while she was in school and her dad was working. But the truth was, Beth just didn’t have it in her to worry about one more living thing. Worrying about her dad was pretty much a full-time job.

Since Eric had left, her dad had begun to sink into a depression. Beth knew the symptoms as well as any board certified psychiatrist. Change of appetite—her dad had dropped about twenty pounds, without even trying. Flat affect—that scarily empty look he had in his eyes sometimes, even though she could see he was trying to care. Inability to concentrate—she’d watched him sit with a book in his lap, open to the same page for more than an hour. Change in sleeping patterns—her dad, who used to be up at six to go running, would now sleep in on Saturdays and Sundays until noon, 1 PM, rousing himself occasionally to ask her if she needed anything, and then returning to bed. She’d started getting rides to church from other kids in the youth group, telling them her dad had to work Sundays. That was a less scary thought than her dad not being able to summon the energy to engage with her, with a community he loved, maybe even with God.

Beth had watched her dad’s long, slow slide into the dark pit, and she realized with a feeling that bordered on panic that she was powerless to stop it. With the coming of the Christmas season, suddenly, she had hit on what she needed to do: she needed to make her dad smile. She needed to bring joy back into their house. She needed… to feel like she could have some impact, make something happen. She needed to give her dad the perfect Christmas. She would start on Saturday.

But today had gone all wrong. First, the tree. It was tall, but it was scrawny. Just this side of “Charlie Brown Christmas tree” scrawny. Scrawny and expensive…as she’d dragged it more than a dozen blocks through the snowy streets, Beth calculated what she had left for presents. By the time she’d gotten home, her shoulders were aching, and her hands were cut and bleeding, and she was fretting about the measly amount of money in her pocket. Then there was the matter of the Christmas tree stand…

Three hours later, as the light was fading and her stomach was growling for having missed lunch, she had finally wrestled the monster into a stand and given it some water. She’d run to the attic to get the ornaments, and had begun the slow, painstaking process of sorting them out. She’d put on a CD of Christmas music she’d bought just for the occasion, and begun to untangle several strands of lights. Somewhere in the house her dad slept.

As the sky darkened outside, Beth had become aware of a tension in her neck and shoulders and jaw. The music, instead of soothing her, had jangled her nerves, and she abruptly snapped it off. The first strand of lights she plugged in didn’t work. The second did, but it was all blue. Did she want a tree with all blue lights? Something about it seemed almost too painfully appropriate… blue lights for her dad’s blue Christmas. The third strand of lights didn’t work. That was when she had plopped down on the floor, and absently picked up the tiny plastic angel with the sharp little wings.

O come O come Emmanuel. The lyrics to that melancholy hymn floated into her consciousness.

Beth was aware of a feeling of desperation growing in her. In the kitchen there was a sink full of dishes. In the refrigerator there was nothing for dinner except a couple of dried out pieces of pizza. And the tree was an abject failure. Tears began to sting her eyes.

Beth’s cell phone startled her out of her anxiety. Her ring tone was a song by Linkin Park:

I dreamed I was missing; You were so scared
But no one would listen, ‘Cause no one else cared…

It was Chelsea, one of the girls from church. “Hey Bethy, what are you doing?”

“Hi Chels, I’m, um, decorating a very lame, very unfortunate Christmas tree.” Beth hesitated, then she added, “My dad’s… working, so I was trying to have it done by the time he gets home.”

Chelsea crooned sympathetically. “Well, we were wondering where you were. Did you remember… we were going caroling tonight, to all the homebound people and stuff? We were meeting at the church at 5:30, cookies and hot chocolate later?”

Beth listened, squeezing her eyes shut. She had remembered. But she just couldn’t imagine leaving her dad alone in the house with the tree undone.

“Yeah, Chelsea, I don’t think I’m going to make it.” Her voice carried a ring of finality that anyone who knew her recognized as the signal to back off.

“Alright then. Hey, listen, we’ll see you tomorrow in church. Um… we’re giving you a ride, right?”

Beth got off the phone just as quickly as she could without being rude. She jumped to her feet. This was ridiculous. The only thing to do was get the stupid lights on the stupid tree and make it look halfway decent.

A few minutes later the small blue lights were shining through the fragrant branches of the Douglas fir. Beth wondered: did the lights make the tree smell even better? She thought so, but had no, you know, scientific proof of it. It was just a hunch. Then, for some weird reason, she felt guilty.

A hunger pang reminded her that lunch was now four hours overdue, so she went to the kitchen to grab a protein bar out of the cabinet. She pulled out two empty boxes and threw them in the recycling bin; well, if that’s what her dad was living on, she wasn’t going to have a fit about it. But she was still hungry. She opened the refrigerator and pulled out the least objectionable piece of pizza and threw it into the microwave. She leaned against the counter. Weariness overwhelmed her. Were 16-year-olds supposed to be this tired? She suspected not. But her life was made up of an impossibly long list of demands, most of which she put on herself, none of which she felt were within her power to actually accomplish. Tears started surfacing again, which only made her mad.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel; the lyrics kept worrying at her, playing at the back of her mind. “Captive.” Well, that was appropriate. She felt like a captive, a captive of a life she wasn’t sure she knew how to handle, had no idea how to get out of. She immediately felt a surge of guilt. She didn’t want to “get out of” her life. She just wondered… where was the joy? For her or for her dad? What was that next part of the song? Something about exiles, or people dying, Then, the part that confused her: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. So, with things so bad and mournful, how was anyone supposed to rejoice? Beth, frankly, didn’t get it. It made no sense.

She took the pizza back into the living room, and sat under the tree, chewing without tasting. She thought of her dad sleeping somewhere in the house—this had to be a world record of sleeping in, even for him. What was it, 4:30? She heard the strains of “Joy to the World,” and wondered… hadn’t she turned off that CD? Then she looked at the window, and realized… it was coming from outside. A flush began to rise in her cheeks. The caroling. They were here.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her king!
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing…

Beth stood and parted the filmy curtains covering the dining room picture window. There they were… about a dozen, mostly teenagers, some older, some younger, and two youth advisors. As Beth’s face appeared in the window, it was met with the splat of a snowball.

She laughed. She laughed, even though she didn’t really have anything to laugh about. She laughed because, she was, truly, Charlie Brown, and this was, truly, the worst Christmas tree she’d ever seen. And she laughed because she knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Her friends tumbling in the house, tracking muddy snow from their boots and leaving an avalanche of coats, scarves, hats and mittens by the door. Their descending on the box of Christmas ornaments like the proverbial plague of locusts, and finding the absolutely worst, most embarrassing items in there—the one made with a frozen juice can lid and macaroni, from second grade. Check. The one with her picture on it, complete with the haircut she hated and missing front teeth. Check. The one where she misspelled both “Merry” and “Christmas,” but managed to get “Daddy” right. Check. Out they all came, and onto the tree they all went, just like she knew it would happen. The pile of dishes from three days getting done as if by magic. Check. Even the two minute long conversation with Chelsea in which she said some things which kind of made sense:

You know you’re not responsible to make your dad happy, right?


And you know that everybody’s like praying for him and all, and he’s going to be ok, right?

Yeah (through the third bout of tears of the day).

And you know… you’re allowed to have some fun, even when things are hard, right?

Yeah. She knew. Just like she knew that these friends… they told her something about God and Christmas that had nothing to do with getting everything perfect and right, but had everything to do with unexpected love busting down your door and invading your house at just the right moment. Eventually the racket woke her dad—someone had put the CD back on at high volume, and a pizza guy had appeared at the door with two large cheese and one large half-pepperoni, half-sausage. And her dad stood around chatting with the youth group advisors in his sweats and rumpled t-shirt, looking halfway normal, despite all evidence to the contrary. “Thanks,” she breathed to herself, and then realized… it was a prayer. It all happened just like she knew it would, even her, bundling up at last in her own coat and hat and scarf and mittens, kissing her dad on the cheek, and going out into the frigid night to help sing some joy into someone else’s life.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. ~ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Thanks be to God. Amen.


KnittinPreacher said...

wow and please pass the kleenex....

Anonymous said...

Very nice. Thank you.