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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Annual Identity Crisis

I've been in a bit of a melt-down mode.

Not to worry. It happens every time about this year.

See, it's like this: I'm not sure who I am, or even who I'm supposed to be at this point in the 'holiday festivities'.

I suspect it may be happening to you, too.

Am I a mom who is scurrying around, tending to the gift wrapping and the meal preparation for her beloved children and family?

Am I a priest who is tending to the pastoral needs of the people God has sent her to care for, love and serve?

Am I an activist, writing letters to arrogant evangelical pastors, railing against injustice?

Am I a preacher, struggling to be certain that the words I preach to a church half-filled with people I've never met before or only see once or twice a year will hear the "good news of great joy" that unto us a child is born?

Am I a liturgical coordinator, walking around with my 'to do list': Service bulletins in baskets? Check. Candle tapers? Check. Someone to dim the lights at the end of the service when we sing, "Silent Night"? Check.

Am I a social worker, listening to stories of tragedy and loss, and trying to find the resources so that the children of 'the working poor' - right here in Chatham - and those of desperate poverty in the inner cities which are less than 10 or 12 miles from this veritable lap of luxury, know something of the wonder and miracle of Christmas?

Yesterday, one of the grandmothers of one of the families came to pick up the Christmas presents we had assembled for her son and grandsons, age three, six and eight. Her son has been out of work for the past three months. A single parent, he lost his apartment about six weeks ago and moved in with her.

There is good news: A blue-collar worker, he found himself another job in a factory which begins on New Year's Day. When I asked him what he needed for himself, he said, "Nothing. Really. If my boys are happy, I'm happy."

I pressed him a bit further and he finally admitted that he didn't have a pair of good work boots. "What size?" I asked. He hesitated before answering, "Nine."

Done. I also included $100 worth of Shop Rite gift cards so he and his family might enjoy a good holiday meal.

His mother called me last night. "When I picked up the gifts, I think I might have been a little rude and I want to apologize and explain," she said.

"My son didn't want to pick up the presents. He's a proud man and this embarrassed him. But, the last thing I needed to do was to come over here and pick up presents, you know?. But, I'm a mom," she sighed. "I think you might understand."

"Yes," I said softly, "but you don't have to apologize, honest."

"Oh, yes I do," she insisted. "I was a little annoyed at my son until I saw all the presents, and then . . .," she sniffled, "I was just overwhelmed."

"I don't think these boys have ever had a Christmas like this," she cried. "Ever."

There was a long silence and then she whispered through the knot of emotion that had caught in her throat, "Thank you. Thank you so much."

I had no sooner recovered from that call when another call came in. A priest from an inner city parish who had requested some assistance for a family in his congregation.

They are Haitian immigrants. Mom and dad both work as personal care attendants. They have three children - an 18 month old, a 3 year old and a 6 year old.

When I asked him what they needed, he said, "Furniture."

"Yes, well, I understand," I said, remembering my time in the city, "but this is for the children. We can work on the furniture later, but right now, let's work on Christmas for the kiddos."

Again came a long silence. "They don't have beds," he said softly. "The baby doesn't have a crib. The boys sleep on newspapers that have been crumpled up to cushion them from the floor, covered over by a sheet."

"And food," he said, "they could use some food because most of their income goes to pay for the rent and transportation costs to get them to and from work."

Oh, God, I thought. Oh, God.

"Look," I said, trying to regain my focus. "Let me do this: I'll give you some gift certificates to Shop Rite so they can get their own food, and I'll leave a check for you and you can do with it what they want. If buying beds for the boys and a crib for the baby will make them happy, then that will be Christmas enough."

I know what he's going to do. He's going to get some beds and bedding for the kids. I understand. So, I called a friend to helps to coordinate a local "Toys for Tots" and got him to set aside three presents for the kiddos.

He called earlier this morning. He's going to deliver them to the church himself around 10 AM.

Food, toys and a place for these little babies to lay their sweet heads away in a shabby inner city tenement apartment owned by a heartless man who lives in Brooklyn.

Merry Christmas, Jesus. When we do things for the least of these, we do them for you.

So now it's back to my own personal 'to do' lists. I'm going to start the Baked Ziti for tonight and begin to marinate the meat for tomorrow. I've got a chocolate cream pie to make and tonight's sermon to finish (one of five I will have written in less than a week's time).

Somewhere in the midst of it all, a miracle will happen. I will remember my true identity: I am a child of God, a new creation in Christ Jesus, born again by the power of the Spirit in the humility of the ministry God sends me.

This happens every year. I lose myself and find my true self again as I kneel before the newborn Jesus I see in others. I am all those things that define me and some things I have yet to discover about myself.

I know my true identity will unfold and be revealed to me in the midst of the frenetic pace of the holiday, but it is always a surprise and a miracle when it happens.

It's not so much about what we get, but what we can give.

It's the paradox of Christmas: It's not about you, but it can't happen without you.

It's about the incredible privilege of having God working through us, flawed and faulted as we are. It's not about us, but it is in knowing that it can't happen without us.

We are, each one of us, God's Christmas present to the world. We are just waiting to be unwrapped and discovered with the great joy of the miracle of life and the true humility which can bring lasting peace to the world.

It's the most amazing gift of Christmas.

You are. I am. Because Jesus is.

Merry Christmas, dear friends. Merry Christmas.


Muthah+ said...

Thanks--your ability to be self-reflective gives me such a boost. It doesn't come naturally to me but it is something that I need to be for myself and for others.

You are a such a gift to me and the church, Lizbeth. Be mom, priest, social worker, pastor and prophet all at the same time knowing that it will all be gift to your friends.

May your Christmas be holy and that yearly reminder of how precious you are to God and all of us.

Anonymous said...

God and you are amazing! Merry Christmas, Elizabeth!

David@Montreal said...

Beloved sister
you and I both know it's when Life catches us up such that we're out-living all the labels/identities that we're most unconditionally alive in & to the Divine.

more alive than alive
in the sacrament of God's now

tell Ms. Conroy not to be alarmed if she notices wings sprouting- they're just to match her own.

Happy, Blessed Christmas, you living blessing,you wonder!


Fran said...

Oh Elizabeth... Elizabeth. This is so rich.

You amaze me woman, you truly do.

God bless you and all of yours. I thought of you during liturgy last night and prayed for you and yours.

This was so moving.

I have worked at a church for two weeks now and have seen so much of the need. And gratefully have been able to facilitate a small portion of help.

Oh to the God who shows up as a baby - needy, vulnerable and filled with love.

Christmas peace to you and great love.

Brian R said...

May God Bless you and those you serve at this time

Frair John said...

Merry Christmas Ama.
The cat is wondering why I'm crying.