One Christmas, a young, unwed mother named Mercy showed up at the church where I served. She was 17 and had just had a baby a few weeks before. Mercy traveled with a community of modern gypsies called the Sunshine group whose only job was to wander America from campground to campground.
She entered the church one Sunday just after worship and asked for help. She needed a bath. No money for diapers, no money for food and a baby who needed a roof over her head. I asked the pastor at the time if we should help her, and he said, “Brent, there’s no way that we’re going to turn away an unwed mother with no place to stay at Christmas.”
So the church paid for an apartment. My wife and I let her borrow our microwave and gave her some food. We made sure that the baby got to her doctor’s visits. We let her know that she wasn’t alone and that God was a God of mercy and blessing. She attended worship a few times. Then Mercy moved on. She took our microwave.
We romanticize the Christmas story. It was probably a little better and a little worse than we think it was. Joseph and Mary were likely not alone as they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. They had family. Rather than an “inn,” the word for where the couple was turned away is oikos, which simply means house, probably Joseph’s ancestral home. They had people to greet them when they arrived.
But there was no room. Everyone was in town. Some slept on the couch; some made a pallet on the floor. Joseph and Mary were offered the only place available, the cave where the animals were kept.
Maybe there’s a hint of scandal there. Could they have been relegated to the animal stalls because of the questions surrounding Mary’s pregnancy? As far as we know, she never wavered from claiming the baby was from the Holy Spirit. Joseph stayed by her side because he had a dream where God said to love her and not to run away.
The Christmas story is untidy. Perhaps that’s why a certain glow surrounds it. It’s real life, but somehow blessed and holy and filled with a message for us. The message is: Someone is with you. You’ve got family. God sees you in the hardness of life. A light has dawned. You can stop trying to be perfect. You can find a peaceful place in this world.
Some people only know bitterness. Christmas is hard for them.
That was true of one of my family members. When Christmas came around, she began to complain and sulk. Bad memories marked the holiday for her. She didn't want to buy presents, didn't want to come over on Christmas Day, and didn't want to talk about it. I will never forget how my father cared for her during those years. He just kept showing grace and mercy. He kept inviting. He stayed positive and loved her. He waited patiently.
It was like a light in her darkness. And most years my family member was eventually drawn into the light, smiling and celebrating with us before it was over.
In the busyness of Christmas, make some room for mercy. Just about everyone is wandering a hard road. Give what you have. It’s more blessed to give than to receive. Visit someone who is lonely. Make some room in your home for the one who needs family. Say a prayer for the little ones whose lives carry the smell of scandal. Bless the animals. They’re part of the story, too.
Be gentle with yourself. You have a place in this weary world.