The December rain was cold as we walked from the neurosurgeon’s office to our Mazda minivan. I would have run to avoid getting soaked, but running was not an option for Mark, so we walked as quickly as his nerve-damaged leg would allow. The sun had already started to set, and Christmas lights twinkled as we drove from the medical center to gather our kids from a friend’s home. I was trying to absorb the words, “It is highly possible you will lose bladder and bowel control in the next 36 hours, and you will have permanent nerve damage at this point.” I was 32 years old and felt too young for this to be the story.
The rain turned to snow as we drove, and Mark said, “Everything about today feels unbelievable.” And it did. Mark had surgery three days later, and that Christmas I remember feeling like I needed to find a way to jump over my anxious, fearful feelings and land in the miracle of the Christmas story and the “joy good Christians feel in all circumstances.”
Twenty five years have passed, and this year we found ourselves once again navigating a story we didn’t choose. As I stepped off the elevator, and turned the corner towards room 468, the sign on the wall by the nurses station greeted me, “Oncology Floor.” Not the words anyone wants to see. I felt the tears come, took a deep breath in, and then exhaled.
The life lived over the past two decades has changed me. The young mom of three living inside a pressurized, obedience-driven Christianity has been transformed by life’s reality and a gospel that starts in a dirty stable with two teenagers also living a story they didn’t choose. Acknowledging that Mary was 13 to 14 years old, likely just a year into having her period, and Joseph was also a teenager doesn’t make the story less miraculous. Sinking down into how innocent and immature her brain and body would have been draws my heart deeper into the story and stirs more gratitude and tenderness for what her naive “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” response to Gabriel provided for us all.
What do you think she imagined the unfolding of Gabriel’s words would look like?
She may have had some sense of the potential shame she would bear as an unwed, pregnant girl. She probably had some fear about being “put away” or even stoned. I imagine she trusted that God would protect her from that somehow. But she couldn’t have imagined walking the ninety miles to Bethlehem at nine months pregnant. I bet she had pictured her mother, aunts, and cousins helping her through the birthing process. Wiser women holding her head, talking her through the contractions, helping her breathe, stretching her cervix like only an experienced midwife can. She certainly didn’t think she would give birth with only her husband to tend to her. A young man who in all likelihood had never seen a baby born. And the location? Surely she thought the son of God would be born in a safer, more protected space. And there is no way she planned on a rag-tag collection of shepherds arriving shortly after she delivered her baby to check things out.
The raw, unsanitized nativity story is a comfort to me. The miracle is in Jesus coming, not in Mary and Joseph being special, or incredibly wise, or extraordinarily obedient. I imagine them both being pretty normal, and their agreement with Gabriel’s words was just like our yeses to embracing the gospel, the good news. Just like them, we had no idea what would come…the unexpected challenges and the moments that would prompt the words, “Surely God can do better than this.” What I have come to know is that Jesus comes, again and again, to be with us. He doesn’t save us from life’s circumstances. He saves us from a life of separation, a life where evil gets the last word.
I still have so many questions for God; His plan and His ways are mysterious and sometimes very confusing to me. But my unanswered questions haven’t had the power to extinguish the felt presence of God that progressively stretches into all the corners of my story. Advent reminds me that the good news of great joy came in the midst of unideal, disappointing, and likely frightening circumstances for Mary and Joseph.
For me, what was then is now. The gospel, the good news, finds me inside what is disappointing, frightening, and so often not the story I would choose or write for myself. I pray that the same is true for each of you, dear ones. May you be found by God in the places where your anxious, fearful self most needs to know the comfort and goodness of God’s withness.
*Grateful to share the post surgical pathology report showed clean margins for Mark. Best gift and Good News!
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer, and the founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 35 years, she is mother to five kids, two son in laws and is a pastor’s wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations, and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.