It’s this time of year where I feel the deepest sense of pride for Milwaukee. I drive to work in a warm car and watch people trudge along in poorly-insulated clothing, pick their way on sidewalks that are slick with the lack of consideration for people who use them. The people who wait at the bus stops smelling of stale cigarette smoke and urine, hoping the bus will come around the corner and block the wind that howls around the meager enclosures. They are students and workers, mothers and fathers and children and grandmothers alike. I often think that, if I had lots of money and nothing better to do, I would give people rides in my warm car for free. But I am finite, I am limited. I cannot shelter all of my city, could never hit every bus stop on the coldest days.
And yet my city endures. It continues functioning, even as it limps along in the cold. And we are braver and stronger because we keep going when it’s difficult. The idea that people in poverty are lazy stems from detached groups who have likely never observed people in poverty, in my opinion. Waiting in the cold for a late bus to make it to your job that probably doesn’t pay you enough to support your family is not easy.
But that’s not what I wanted to think about today. As we drove to work, I was thinking of God being near. This time of year is a joke, even in the church world. The glowing images of a clean white baby in a cozy stable surrounded by his white, beautiful parents, the fuzziness of nativity scenes and the blissful ignorance of blending Santa with the Baby Jesus narrative. The perfectly pitched songs of Gloria, the well-rehearsed Christmas Eve candlelight services. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate tradition. I enjoy the lights poking through the blankets of snow just as much as the next person. I like to maintain a sense of wonder that I can’t fully define, and I think that’s important in the realm of faith.
But there is a tension and a balance that is beautiful to behold; wonder and the grimness of reality. How many of my gifts were made by an underpaid worker in a foreign country, or even worse, by an enslaved child? How much did I feed into a culture of greed, of materialism, of too much “stuff”? How many things did I do to make an impression instead of to be authentic about who I am?
And I think again of God being near. God coming to earth. God coming and being one of us, waiting at bus stops and stretching paychecks and maybe even God as a child in India being forced to make glittery ornaments for American Christmas trees in terrible conditions. The God of the poor, the God of the oppressed. The God who we believe was born to a migrant, unwed teenager in filthy conditions, who spent much of his life without a home.
I can endure Christmas songs well enough, but I do have a favorite. Or, more specifically, I do have a favorite verse of a Christmas song. It’s the second verse of “O Holy Night”, the one that talks about justice and the slave being our brother. And honestly, I’m kind of a crybaby about it. I can’t really sing it without tearing up and choking on the words. Because so much of the prophesies about Jesus’ coming talked about breaking oppression, about restoring justice. Yet there are so few Christmas songs that even mention this.
Yes, there is a holiness to the story. There is sacredness in the idea that God came as baby in poverty, came to be near to us who, to some degree, all walk around in our own degree of poverty. The slave is our brother. Redemption is not just a dialog about the cross, redemption includes the intentional nearness that Jesus’ time on earth encompassed.
And so I drive to work and I see God at the bus stop every day, especially on winter days. I readjust the lens of family to cover my city, my friends, my church – we belong to God, and therefore we owe love to one another.
And he came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to you who were near;for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
I will be intentional this Christmas. I will hold my husband close and know that we have grown in our love for one another because we have better learned to love ourselves as God loves us. I will breathe prayers of thankfulness for my friends and all of the safety and community I find when we hold church together. I will look out across the land that we have been graciously given and remember that I was cared for even in the wilderness. I will remember that when I sing, “Silent night, Holy night” I am singing about the peace that was brought by birth, life and death.