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Say “Yes” to the Mess

By Lisa Lohenry Gilligan, who has served in parish ministry within the Diocese of Joliet for over 25 years. She is wife to Jim, mom to Sadie and daughter to Chuck and Sue.

Say “Yes” to the Mess

As my family anticipates yet another holiday in 2020 requiring painful, loving sacrifices to protect the health of our elderly parents, I am nudged toward acceptance and surrender, both of which God has been trying to teach me my whole life.

By nature, I am strong-willed. God has certainly had His work cut out for Him to tame this stubborn streak in me. His gift of my magnificent, complicated daughter, who has suffered much in her 20 years of life, has probably been the greatest catalyst to my spiritual growth. Surrendering to how life is, instead of how I imagine it should be, is an ongoing battle. Yet when I yield toward acceptance of what is, God seems nearest.

Though 2020 is unlike any time we’ve lived, it possesses some elements that seem familiar.

A few years ago, in December, my girl’s mental health was unstable and worrisome. Everything felt messy, chaotic, out of control and nothing like I thought it should be. Utterly exhausted, I begrudgingly opened my clenched fist and let go of self-imposed pressure to create a perfect Advent and Christmas. Instead I embraced reality. Turned out it may have been the best Advent ever.

Here’s the background on how Advent unfolded that year. As one who works in ministry, I am ever aware of the dichotomy that exists between what I am called to embrace and my life as it is. Oftentimes, as it is, it can be labeled as utter turmoil and a mess. So that year, in a feeble attempt to prepare for Christmas, I dug out an Advent reflection book written by a Franciscan priest, Father Richard Rohr, Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent.

I figured I would try my hardest to prepare my heart for Jesus’ birth like I did my house during the time when my daughter was born. I would make everything neat and clean and perfect and ready. The very first page I read reminded me that my ways are NOT God’s ways, my thoughts are NOT God’s thoughts. It read:

"Advent is not about a sentimental waiting for the Baby Jesus. Advent is a time to focus our expectation and anticipation on ‘the adult Christ, the Cosmic Christ’ who challenges us to empty ourselves, to lose ourselves and to surrender.”  

Ugh. This is exactly why I both love and hate reading Father Rohr’s writings. His insights serve to cut to the core and reveal a smattering of my most prevalent character defects: Perfectionism. Need for control. Frustration with others’ disruptions of my plans. And the list goes on.

The question that followed that reflection led to a realization that still challenges me today. Deep within, I struggle to believe that God is to be found in the unrest, the disorder, the chaos, the emotional outbursts, the discord, the anxiety, the late arrivals, the overwhelmingly uncontrollable and messy moments that pepper my life. I am very uncomfortable emptying myself, losing myself and surrendering.

This time of prayer awakened me to the realization Jesus wasn’t born into serenity and sweet peace. I had conveniently forgotten about some of those little parts of the Gospel, such as when Mary was visited by an angel and she was greatly troubled, and she was told she was going to give birth to the Son of God.

And that small part about the fact that she wasn’t yet married, but was pregnant, which 2,000-plus years ago was kind of a big deal — a you-deserve-to-be-stoned-to-death big deal. I forgot that Joseph and Mary didn’t get their house ready for Jesus with a fresh paint job, new furniture from Ikea and soft bedding. Nope.

They were rushing around last minute, like my crazy family does, looking for a place to give birth to Him and all they could find was a stable. He was born into unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, late arrivals, and an overwhelmingly uncontrollable, messy life.

I vowed right then to try to surrender to my life as it was, and I asked God that somehow in the midst of our messiness, at the very least, would He please provide us an opportunity as a family to serve someone in need this Christmas? From that day forward, my Advent mantra became, “Help me to find You in the mess,” and as particularly stressful moments arose daily, “Into this mess I say, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

We have a tradition of cutting down and bringing home our Christmas tree each year at a local farm. That year, when we arrived, it was already 3 p.m. With the winter solstice drawing near, our window of daylight was quickly waning. As we trudged through the wet and muddy fields, my daughter was the first to come upon a young family whose minivan had become lodged in the thick, deep sludge.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she offered our help and summoned us to assist her in gathering dry grasses and occasional evergreen branches abandoned in the field. These were placed under the wheels of the vehicle and accomplished the goal of dislodging it from ensnarement.

Her inventive solution worked. We were proud of her and grateful to get back to the task at hand. When we had whittled down our search for that year’s Christmas tree to the last two contenders, our plans were again disrupted. The young family had been unable to find higher ground in the direction they had driven. When they turned around, they had become entrenched again.

The evening was growing darker; our patience was wearing thinner. Our solutions weren’t as effective in this subsequent round of attempts. But my girl, she didn’t give up.

Undeterred by the frustration, she kept gathering dry materials, bringing them to the minivan. Time after time, the wheels spun. As we tried to push from behind, we slid backwards, and, subsequently, I fell into the mess, catching myself just short of receiving a full mud bath.

At that moment, it was clear to me. This was the answer to my prayer. God showed up and gave us an opportunity to serve someone in need. I wanted to laugh and cry. I couldn’t have even imagined a more disruptive, unplanned and utterly messy opportunity to serve than this.

With one final push, the van was freed for a second time and the family fled for dry land. The sun had set; we could no longer see well enough to pick a tree. We were covered in mud and exhausted. My girl’s big and generous heart was quickly overcome with the crashing wave of realization that plans changed, nothing was like it usually was, and we weren’t bringing home a tree.

All this unrest, disorder, chaos, discord, overwhelmingly uncontrollable and messy life continued as we made our way out of the fields. We stopped to try and comfort her as she collapsed on the ground, wailing in grief over unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams.

As I stood in the glow of the orange sunset on the horizon, waiting for her to gather her strength to carry on, I whispered into the cold night air, “I surrender Lord. I say ‘yes’ to this mess.” Deep in the quiet of my heart I heard a still, small voice whisper, “I AM in this mess; it is to be with you in this mess that I come.” I responded, “Though everything is imperfect, I am ready. O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Chances are this Advent won’t be the best ever, but maybe it doesn’t have to be the worst either. What if we dare to yield to an acceptance of life as it is right now, with its pain and sadness, challenges and obstacles? What if we choose to look beyond how we want things to be and remember that Love Incarnate was Himself born into unrest, disorder, chaos and discord? What if we summon the courage to whisper into the bitter darkness, “I surrender, Lord”? What if we quiet ourselves to listen to the still, small voice drawing near to assure us, “I AM in this mess; it is to be with you in this mess that I come”?

Though everything is imperfect, may we ready the way. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.