Pastor Becca Ehrlich
Sending Christmas cards is a pretty big tradition this time of year. How many of you send Christmas cards…? And there’s always a smaller group of people who are over-achievers who also write a yearly Christmas letter, that chronicles the family’s adventures over the past year. Anyone want to admit that they do that…? I think that’s great. I’m just too lazy to do it!
So I was chilling on the couch and playing around on the internet a few nights ago, when I came across something someone posted on their blog. And it was their family’s Christmas letter.
But this Christmas letter was different. The title: “The Brutally Honest Christmas Card.” (http://www.dlmayfield.com/dl-mayfield/2015/12/9/the-brutally-honest-christmas-card?fb_action_ids=10156316290120603&fb_action_types=og.likes) This is just part of what they wrote:
Hello! Greetings from the Mayfields. This was our hardest year ever, and we still haven't recovered!
In the past year we:
Left our mission organization. I experienced a traumatizing pregnancy and birth and nearly died. Our baby was born a month early and had to be hospitalized for several scary days at 6 weeks old. We moved across the country and said goodbye to amazing friends and jobs. We put our daughter through a hell of a lot of transition. Our baby never did learn to sleep very good. Our van broke down never to be resurrected. We moved to the outer edges of Portland, a food-and-culture desert. We moved into a cramped, loud, chaotic apartment complex. Our upstairs neighbors drove their car into my daughter's bedroom. My husband got a job but it is taking forever to get back on our feet financially. Every month we hope that this time we won't qualify for food stamps, but it hasn't happened yet. My anxiety got so bad my body decided to get depressed in order to "fix things." I wrestled with my book manuscript, but it's hard to edit when you are sad and aren't sleeping and have little people to care for. We became very isolated, partly on purpose, partly because we didn't have the energy to reach out to old friends.
It was the year of hard things. Temper tantrums, anxiety disorders, strange fevers, panic attacks, shut-down souls. We have been in survival mode since April, we are shocked that we are still not out. We grit our teeth as we agonize over every purchase, every stomp from above that keeps us up at night, as we stick close to our apartment complex due to lack of money and a baby who doesn't like to be out too long. Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity. It doesn't really help.
I have to say, my first reaction when I read this extremely truthful letter was feeling uncomfortable. Usually in Christmas letters, even if something sad happened, the letter tends to still have an upbeat tone, right? This one, however, didn’t even try to sugar-coat what had happened to them. They just very matter-of-factly said what had been going on, and how hard it’s been.
And this letter got me thinking. We are typically taught, starting when we’re young, to keep our problems to ourselves. We aren’t supposed to share those things that we struggle with in life, because we think other people will be burdened with our stuff, and they’ll know that we aren’t perfect, that we don’t have it all together.
This carries over into our usual small talk with people. “How are you?” someone will ask. And what do we usually say…? Yeah, something like “good” or “fine”. And sometimes that is true, we are doing well or fine. But those responses tend to be automatic. Even if we aren’t fine, we still say we are, because we don’t want to tell people what we are dealing with.
So when we come across something like this “Brutally Honest Christmas Card,” we can feel incredibly uncomfortable. Very rarely are we this honest with our lives.
But here’s the thing. By being so honest, the Mayfields show us that it’s OK to struggle and not have it all together. We are all dealing with stuff. When we think of healing, we usually think of physical healing, in our bodies. And sometimes we need that—I know that I do. But all of us have things we struggle with in our lives that are in need of healing.
We may have family stuff, relationship stuff, financial issues, job stuff, emotional stuff, mental illness, physical illness, spiritual doubts, sinfulness, friend stuff… we all have something in our lives that needs the healing touch of God. Our lives are never perfect.
And Paul knew this. We read in our passage from his second letter to the Corinthians in verse 7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
Clay jars. Not concrete jars, or steel jars. Clay jars. And anything made of clay can be broken pretty easily. Paul is saying that WE are the clay jars. WE break easily. WE are broken.
But Paul also says that although we are breakable, we hold God’s treasure in us. Because we are broken, it’s clear to us and others that all those good things that we have and are able to do come from God, not from us.
Remember the “Brutally Honest Christmas Card” from the Mayfields? Well, there’s more to the letter. Let me read the rest of it to you:
But the other day we came home after being at my parent's house for a few days (they were fixing my daughter's wall, due to the aforementioned car) and as we walked in I said I missed this place. Just a tiny, pleasant, normal thought. It felt like our place. It didn't feel like a huge mistake. I wasn't resentful, or despondent. I missed our apartment. That was a pretty big deal.
And I do, I see glimmers of our new normal. I cut all my hair off. Neighbors dropped by Afghan food and we ate it standing up in my kitchen, wanting to cry with how good it tasted, how lovely it felt. My husband wears ties and listens to problems from people on a wide spectrum of mental health and resources. The baby giggles at everyone, baring his dimples. My daughter taught herself to read this year, she is friends with blonde boys named Lucas and black-haired boys named Mohammed, and now she gets to spend every holiday with cherished cousins and grandparents who dote on her. I'm going to start an English class in January. My baby is going to start crawling. We are going to have a savings account again. We are going to have to keep learning to be generous, vulnerable, hopeful, grateful. We might go to church more Sundays than not.
But perhaps the most significant thing is that Jesus is no longer an abstract person, a walking theology, a list of do's and dont's to me. This is the year I recognized him as my battered, bruised brother, and I see how he never once left my side.
Every year I think now this year, this is the year I finally *get* Advent. The sadness, the waiting, the longing for all things to be made new. And every year I do understand it a little bit better. This does not show any sign of stopping.
It's been our hardest year yet my husband said. He paused for a minute. But our kids sure are great. We don't have the energy to pretend we are OK, because we aren't really. But the light around us remains, we take our mercies as we get them, we see a new year just around the corner. Maybe, just maybe, this one will be a little bit easier.
Even though they had their worst year ever, the Mayfields could see Jesus with them. Jesus, God in human flesh, who suffered and died, for us. Our God knows suffering, knows pain. He felt it himself, struggled with it himself. Jesus is with us in our pain and struggles, in our messes, in those things that need healing.
When Jesus walked this earth as a man, one of the major parts of his ministry was healing others. He healed physical ailments, but also spiritual ailments, emotional ailments, and social ailments. His healing work showed people that the power of God can break into our world in surprising ways. He did not heal everyone on the planet, and we don’t know why. But we do know that Jesus is always with us, healing us in ways we would never expect.
And knowing that Jesus’ healing presence is with us in all of this means that we have hope. Paul continues in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”
Being a Christian doesn’t mean that everything will go the way we want. It doesn’t mean that our lives will be perfect, that everything will be fixed all the time. But it does mean that we know who is with us, and who we will be with forever when we die. We know that our savior Jesus Christ is the one who saves us.
Our struggles in this life are not the end of the story. We are not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed, because we know that we are always loved by Jesus and that his love transcends the trials we are dealing with. We know that he is healing us, sometimes in different ways than we would expect or want. And we know that when we finally meet Jesus face to face in heaven, none of this will matter anymore, because we will be whole.
Tonight, at our healing service, I’d like you to think about one or two things, and/or people in your own life that are in need of healing. And during the time that we’ve set aside after the prayers, you are invited to come forward and receive prayer for those things.
It says in James, chapter 5: “3 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
And so, we will pray today. You are also encouraged to pray on your own during this time as well. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
Let’s pray. Gracious Father, we thank you for sending your son Jesus to heal the sick and to die for us on the cross. May the Holy Spirit be powerfully present tonight as we pray for healing and restoration in our lives. In Jesus’ name, amen.