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Annual Christmas Nervous Breakdown or Dirty Socks Under the Tree

Jesus loves you, but I’m His favorite. NOT!

I do have stories about making good choices. And I will tell some of them as I blog along. But, it seems more important to share about God staying involved in our lives when we are screwing up; to remind myself and others that God loves us, not because of who we are, but because of who God is.

My mother always made Christmas extraordinary, even when money was in short supply. She polished and decorated every square inch of our apartment. The presents may not have cost a lot, but they were wrapped beautifully. There was a constant flow of guests, often widows without family near-by or young families without parents and grandparents around. There were special treats to eat, but also even the plain old potted meat sandwiches were trimmed and cut into triangles with parsley sprigs around them on silver trays.
So, when she became a widow and passed the Christmas torch to me, I tried to do the same. And I added being active at church in teaching classes, decorating the social hall, and organizing Christmas pageants. My five children and I spent weeks making presents for all their teachers and for all my students. I never thought about the fact that mom had two children and a small apartment and I had five children and a large house, which was a home away from home for a constant flow of college age house guests involved in Christian ministry. Mom set the bar very high, but without realizing it, I had raised it.
Pretty much every year, sometime close to Christmas, I would reach my annual Christmas overload, yell that I hated Christmas, and slam my way into my bedroom to collapse for a day or night. One year after retreating to curl up in a fetal position and figuratively suck my thumb, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning, remembering that I was scheduled in a few hours to give a talk to another denomination’s women’s group on The Spirit of Christmas.
I seriously considered calling and saying I had broken my leg, but decided that might be asking for it literally.                                                                                                                                         As I prayed for help, it seemed like God was telling me that although I was doing many truly good things, I was missing the point of Christmas. Christmas wasn’t about how much we could do or how perfect we could make it. Christmas was about the joy of needing and receiving a Savior, the tangible expression of God’s perfect love for us imperfect human beings. And sharing that joy with others. So, I ended up simply sharing the whole story, my pattern of Christmas breakdowns and my panic the night before. It seemed like everyone there could relate very well to my experience. Then, for reasons unknown to me, I ended by saying, “No matter what it takes, even leaving dirty socks under the Christmas tree, I’m going to keep my focus on the meaning of Christmas.”

Now, really! Dirty socks under the tree?

Of course, mother arrived, guests arrived, children were freed from school, and Christmas Eve arrived with stress building and me once again rushing tensely around. As I was putting laundry away in a bedroom close to the great room, I heard my mother ask, “Eileen, why is there a dirty sock under the Christmas tree?”
I got goose bumps. I could feel Jesus standing there with His hand on my shoulder. I dropped the laundry on the bed and stopped my mother from removing the sock.
“Mom, let’s leave it there and stop right now to have a cup of coffee and read the Christmas scriptures, so we’ll remember what we’re celebrating.”
For several years afterwards, I would put a sock under the tree, whenever I began to forget the meaning of Christmas from the overload of my good intentions.

Come, Lord Jesus

Christmas trees, decorations, Christmas music, even in stores pushing the season earlier and earlier for their own purposes, all fill me with wonderful memories, anticipation and joy. I’ve learned over my seventy-nine years, that what puts the focus on Christ at Christmas is my own hunger for his presence.

Advent is the traditional pre-Christmas season of preparing our hearts for his coming.
Those four weeks were arbitrarily set centuries ago to reflect the four thousand years that the world waited in darkness, longing for his coming. Many years ago, I began on the first Sunday of Advent to pray each day, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Then I watch expectantly for him to become present in small, but recognizable ways in my heart and life.

And some years my heart and mind are actually attentive enough to recognize his coming.

One Christmas Eve, our children and grandchildren were all at our home, surrounded by the friendly reds and greens of Christmas and delicious smells teasing from the kitchen. In one bedroom, a grand-baby snuggled into sleep, while in others whispering parents wrapped and ribbonned Santa secrets. Only Granddad was missing, out doing his traditional Christmas Eve shopping.

As excited older grandchildren were setting out to explore the woods and creek, I was making a clean up sweep through the holiday chaos. (Having ended up the “cleaner upper” by default, I was grumbling to myself a little.)

And one preschooler, too young for exploring and too old for a nap, went from room to room knocking on doors only to be told that he couldn’t come in. When I found little David sobbing forlornly in the middle of all the Christmas glitter, I decided to console him(and me) with an outing to feed the ducks that winter over on the lake in town.

When we arrived at the lake, the hungry ducks gobbled up our bread crusts so quickly
and ferociously, that we began to fear we would soon become part of their Christmas Eve
menu.

As we took refuge in the car, I heard our parish church bells ringing for the special Christmas Eve children’s service, The Mass of the Bells. Since the children get to sing all their favorite carols and even ring bells to celebrate the birth of Christ, it seemed like a Christmas serendipity for David. Looking at our faded jeans and muddy tennis shoes, I hesitated, but remembering the ragged shepherds at the first Christmas, I headed on to church anyway.

For lack of having his own bell, David rang my key chain as he sang with off key gusto. Then, as all the children gathered around our parish priest on the floor of the sanctuary to talk about the Christmas Story, David somehow managed to squirm all the way to the front of the group. When Father asked what happened when Mary and Joseph
knocked on the door of the Inn, David’s response rang out, “They wouldn’t let them in.”
Then, with a sudden rush of outraged feeling, he shouted louder, “They wouldn’t open the door!”

It seemed like he remembered his feelings about closed doors earlier at home and identified with the Holy Family.

And then when Father asked how they would respond to Jesus knocking at the door of their hearts right now, David sang out with conviction,

“Come in Jesus. Come right on in!”

On our way home, David joyfully assured me that even if others sometimes didn’t let children in, he and Jesus always would.  At his own level he made the connection between his life and the Gospel story, even realizing that opening his heart to Jesus, also meant opening his heart to others.

And my heart was filled with the joy of Christmas, of seeing Jesus being born once more
in the heart of a child.

As a post script I’d like to share more about David. When he was a college junior he and several other college students took cold water and hamburgers down town in the Memphis August heat to share with the hungry and homeless. As they did this, one man asked for them to pray over him (David said that they needed God’s grace for that). But as they prayed, others began coming forward asking, not for money, or even food, but for prayer. Since then, David has taught in schools in Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Bolivia.

Whenever the stores start Christmas music, August or October, let it be our cue to start praying the prayer of our hearts, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come.”

Re-posted for the Christmas season 2013 and 2016.