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An Imperfect Christmas

Updated: Feb 22, 2020

My Dear One,

My post-Christmas plans this year are a bit unusual and they are making me appreciate the gift of Christmas all the more.

On December 26th, while many families will be sleeping off their Christmas hangovers, or rushing off to another houseful of extended family, or heading to the store to return the stuff they got that’s a size too small, I will be heading to a church camp to spend a few days with a bunch of high schoolers I have never met. This isn’t my usual Christmas routine. But they needed a priest and the college students who are leading the weekend know me and asked if I would fill the bill. And since I’m not serving in a church this Christmas I said I would do it. (Other clergy - you’re welcome.)

It was only after I agreed to do this that I learned the theme of the retreat: “Love Never Fails.” I immediately bristled. Their focus scripture is, of course, 1 Corinthians 13. You know it. It’s the one that includes these words:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

It was probably read at your wedding or a dozen other weddings you have attended. It was read at mine … a marriage that eventually “failed" if by failure we mean that it ends.

Now I am supposed to be preparing an hour-long talk on how “Love Never Fails” to be given three different times to different groups and then help lead a final worship service at the end of the three days. All this in the shadow of a Christmas absent the usual family gathered around a tree on Christmas morning. What, I asked myself, does a middle-aged, divorced, spiritual director, mystic/poet/priest say to a bunch of 17 year olds about love never failing?

I don’t have to start from scratch. They already know something of love. They are real human beings. They may have already experienced their first love, their first heartbreak, their first taste of the mystery - but nothing, and I mean nothing, I can say could prepare them for all that lies ahead. They will have to stumble upon, into, through, and in some cases out of love for themselves. Love is fully known only in the living (and occasionally the losing) of it.

How do you explain to them that the deepest form of love isn’t what they’ve been told? That it isn’t what they’ve experienced, as real and wonderful and difficult as that was. How do you tell them anything about love when no words can ever be enough? That’s why so much of the poetry and music and prose and theatre humankind has ever crafted is about love, because we are all still searching for a way to comprehend the incomprehensible, a way to make sense of the nonsensical, a way to express the inexpressible.

How do I tell them that love is a joyous mystery that forces you into a vulnerability you would likely never have consciously chosen and yet your heart or your soul (or sometimes your pelvis) forces you into caring about another person in a way that defeats your own inclination towards self-preservation, self-protection. Don’t do it! we might counsel them. To love is to open yourself to the possibility (or rather the certainty) of pain, of disappointment, of learning you aren’t who you hoped you were and the other person certainly isn’t who you thought they were either. And the same holds true regardless of the nature of the relationship - be it your partner, your child, your mentor, your pastor, your friend, or pretty much anyone else other than your dog … and sometimes even them!

What does it distill down to? In one hour? To a group of 17 year olds in the middle of the woods in the middle of winter in the middle of Texas still buzzing from the cookies and candy and brandy they snuck while no one was watching after Christmas dinner?

And that’s when it struck me. The answer is lying there in the manger. The gift of love exemplified there holds the difference between love and LOVE - and it isn’t about white-winged angels, and cuddling newlyweds, and picturesque pilgrimages of shepherds and wise men. No, it isn’t about that at all. It’s about something much more demanding that lies at the heart of love.

How do I tell them that the secret ingredient of a full and mature love is … imperfection?

As much as I love the song and as nice as it may feel to sing “silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright” … it wasn’t. “Holy infant so tender and mild”? Not likely. That baby bawled like any other. His mother and father struggled with what to do. Their anxiety probably wasn’t alleviated by the intrusion of a bunch of smelly sheepherding strangers upon this “stable of rejection” from anyplace that may have been more suitable for a young first-time pregnant teenager far from her home, her mother, her cousin Elizabeth, or any other woman who might have known what to do. Joseph was a woodworker, not even a farmer experienced in birthing cattle. Oh, and then there came word that Herod was looking to kill the kid.

“Sleep in heavenly peace…”

Perfect? Anything but. And that’s what makes the difference when it comes to love. It’s at its fullest when it is born in the midst of imperfection. Love requires an inclusion and welcome space for that which would seem to not belong there. Like a baby lying in a feed trough.

That God looked at this broken, messed up, disaster of a creation so full of imperfection and still loved us so much that God would send us this child as love’s great gift … that requires a God who knows how to fully and faithfully love the less than perfect about us. The Christ Child is a gift to a humanity which God has loved from the very beginning, has chosen to love through every disappointment, every broken attempt, every Adam, Eve, Moses, and David we had to throw at God, each of us deeply imperfect and yet beloved. God loves Adam and Eve who betrayed God’s trust. God loves Moses who couldn’t quite get God’s people to cross into the place God prepared as their home. God loves David whose lust for Bathsheba led him to do some dastardly deeds. God loves me in all my imperfection too. And God loves you.

And that is the image we have of a love that never fails.

Perfect love doesn’t require or even expect perfection. What is it about the other person you do not love about them, you think you cannot love, you think you should not be expected to learn to love - can you decide to love them anyway? If you can, then you are getting at the heart of love. If you cannot, then it may well be a form of love, an image, a reflection, an experience of love but it is yet lacking. There is something more to come if it is to become complete and full.

That’s what 1 Corinthians 13 is telling us. Listen to it again:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

So what do we make of the fact that love can at times be impatient, envious, boastful, proud, dishonoring of the other, keeping record of wrongs, isn’t always trustful or hopeful or persevering? What do we make of love that fails?

Is it that it wasn’t ever love, that it doesn’t count? No, of course not. Love can be less than perfect and still be love. In fact, that’s mostly what we will experience in this lifetime. And it’s mostly what we will be able to offer, let’s be honest and humble about this. Only the most fortunate among us experience a truly patient, enduring, never-failing form of love in our lives. It is only possible when both people are seeking to be mature, forgiving, humble, giving, and holy, and even then it will fail and need to be repaired on occasion.

What happened that night was in fact rather ordinary. That’s the main point of the story. The king of all creation was born in the middle of the most ordinary of places. In a pen not a palace. To a kid not a queen. Among the rejected not the rejoiced. Revealed to shepherds not to saints. With gifts from foreigners not from family. And yet, it was done with extraordinary love.

Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s perfect love as a gift to an imperfect world - brought forth into the midst of utter brokenness. Our God is the image of one who is patient and kind, hopeful and persevering. And those of us who proclaim him as our king on Christmas must also be ready to proclaim him king on the Cross, where we will again reject him shouting that not only is there no room for him in Bethlehem but there’s no room for him in all the world.

And there, even in the midst of that pain, despair, and utter hopelessness he loved us and was, thankfully, still loved by at least one of us. At the foot of his cross stood one person who never did abandon him, who saw him take both his first breath and his last, who didn’t need him to become a king to know he ruled the world, Mary, mother of our Lord.

“Round yon’ virgin, mother and child…”

I take it back. Maybe there is such a thing as love that never fails.

And I take it back about Silent Night as well. It was composed at the last minute on Christmas Eve in 1818 by a young priest named Joseph Mohr and his organist friend Franz Gruber. The organ, they discovered that day, had been destroyed by mice and, facing the possibility of a Christmas Mass without music, they needed a song that could be sung with a simple guitar accompaniment. So they took a poem Joseph had written a while back, set it to tune, and sang it as a duet for everyone that night. It was their gift of love to the people they served.

Silent Night, with all its images of perfection, is a song about love that was created because something was broken.

Maybe it is the perfect Christmas hymn after all.

following The Way,



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