A few weeks ago, I was hurrying out the front door, car keys in hand, ready to go to the gym. When I got to the garage (after a quick side trip to the compost bin), the keys were gone. I muttered in annoyance and hurried to the front, expecting to retrieve them quickly, but the keys had vanished.
Over the next two weeks, Lyle and I became amateur detectives, spending literally hours shoveling and digging in the deep snow and in the compost bin, hoping to spot the keys. Every time we walk past the area, we squint at the snow, hoping to make them materialize by our concentrated effort like some crazed magicians. We even borrowed a friend’s metal detector but as of today, the earth has still swallowed them. We keep looking, but it’s all in vain. The keys may just have to wait until spring to be discovered.
I have observed an increasing tendency to lose things, so much that my students have begun to notice. The other day, when I was rummaging for something or other, one of them said, “It’s because you’re old Mrs. Penner.” Another student came to my defense, saying, “She’s not old, she’s just medium-old.”
I had to laugh at both assessments, but I wasn’t laughing the week I lost my keys. How could anyone lose something so thoroughly in such a small area? Despite knowing this is definitely a “first world problem”, I couldn’t shake the feeling of franticness that made me realize I’d lost not just my keys, but my perspective.
I got a text in the days following the key loss from our friend Cal. “Remember Lydia,” he wrote regarding the keys, “God is in the mess.” I knew it was the sermon topic for the coming Sunday, but it hadn’t occurred to me that God meant even this mess.
His message stopped me in my tracks and totally changed my feelings of frantic frustration. In all my Christmas rushing around, my imagination had once again become smaller. I had my eyes on what was right in front of me, and forgot the bigger picture – that God can appear anywhere, especially in the messes. Not only had I lost my keys, I’d lost my perspective, but thanks to God working in Cal’s text to me, I was nudged back to the Kingdom.
The passage in our Sunday homily was about Joseph, the father of Jesus. He too was reeling from a mess. He was engaged to Mary when she became pregnant with Jesus, allegedly by the Holy Spirit. He wanted to “dismiss her quietly” to save her the public shame, but an angel assured him to trust in God despite the ambiguous circumstances. When Joseph cried out to God, God
showed up with unexpected assurance that all would be well.
In the days of Jesus, the people had specific expectations of what the Messiah would look like. They expected a King who looked more like a superhero, not a baby whose parents were too poor to find a decent hotel for the night. Not a baby whose genealogy in the gospel of Matthew included 4 women of ill repute! The people’s expectations were shattered by how God showed up. We were reminded through this story that God is always bigger than we can conceive, and that God can show up in all our outlandish situations.
I had to think through this again for this blogpost. What exactly does it mean that God is with us in the mess? I was reminded of what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that the messes are necessarily cleaned up. It didn’t happen for Joseph and Mary. In fact, their mess just got bigger! It wasn’t long before they were a fugitive family, on the run from a murderous king.
But it does mean that God’s friendship changes everything, like how we see things. Joseph received a dream on how to navigate his difficult circumstances. Wise people came, affirming that God was with them on their path.
And God has been with me, both “in weal and in woe”, as Julia of Norwich so famously said. I was grateful how my frantic feeling vanished with the reminder that God was with me in my imperfections, not once I’d figured things out. And I have seen God’s bounty in so many other places lately:
- I have seen God’s presence in our community’s Christmas celebration and in our lively singing. There seemed to be a palpable presence of joy with us.
- In the gift of faithful friends who help me feel more myself so regularly, by always pointing me to my deepest values.
- In the Christmas concert at school when everyone banded together and our best came out despite many challenges.
- In stories of amazing generosity and love poured into the lives of those who are in difficult situations in our community and beyond.
I hope I can always remember the lesson of my keys – that God is with me in every ambiguous circumstance, providing in ways I can’t even imagine. Here’s one of my favorite Christmas poems, where Madeline L’Engle says it much better than I could.
The risk of birth
That was no time for a child to be born.
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by greed and pride the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.