One Christmas Eve soon after I’d become a pastor and was serving a swanky large congregation in West Los Angeles (and you know who you are!), I was (not surprisingly) in my office 15 minutes before the start of the candlelight service racing around in a tizzy because 1) I had a lot that I still needed to get done for the service; 2) my office was a mess so it was hard to find the stuff I needed in order to do what needed to get done; 3) I was increasingly mad at myself for not being a better person and getting things together beforehand; and 4) I still had to put on my black robe that was beautiful but had buttons all the way up the front which were going to take time to fasten.
Needless to say, I was in a sour, cranky mood, which at that moment I could get away with because I was in the privacy of my office.
That is, until there was a knock on my door. It was one of my parishioners. She had a little something from the newspaper she wanted to show me. Ugh, this was the last thing I needed to deal with at that moment; I didn’t even have the time or energy to tell her to come back later.
Instead, Automatic Pilot set in and out of my mouth came, “Okay, but I just have a moment” which, even though quite brusque, shocked me at how nice it sounded compared to what I was feeling. With furrowed brow and a growly exhale I stormed over the the door and flung it open as she quickly popped a small clipping from the LA Times in my palm. It was an article from the Associated Press.
I was about to perfunctorily drop it on top of one of my messy piles to deal with later (a lot later) when I noticed the title had the words “Des Moines” and “Jell-o” in it. What? I stopped moving and decided, since the article was only three very short paragraphs, I could cop a brief read.
The first paragraph told how Des Moines had become the Jell-o Capital of America, having recently seized the prize from Salt Lake City. I laughed and warmly told my parishioner (who was still standing there, clearly undaunted by my attempts to communicate I had no time for her) that this was quite ironic news. Even though I’d been away from Des Moines and Iowa in general for 20 years I’d recently experienced a spate of artistic energy to create a series of fairly acclaimed “Jell-o sculptures,” and perhaps Des Moines' ascendency to the top of the list explained my inspiration. I totally wasn’t kidding!
I glanced at the second paragraph, which offered a short explanation as to why Des Moines had taken the number one spot in the ratings: an growing elderly population and many churches that offered functions for the elderly. I knowingly smiled as I glanced over that paragraph, too.
Then my eyes got as big as saucers and my jaw dropped. I may have stopped breathing for a moment, too.
The third and final paragraph was but one short sentence. A quote from the pastor of one of those Des Moines churches, affirming the fact that they indeed had many functions that served jell-o.
AND IT WAS THE PASTOR OF THE CHURCH I’D GROWN UP IN. PASTOR RICHARD REHFELDT OF WINDSOR HEIGHTS LUTHERAN CHURCH WAS IN THE NATIONAL PRESS TALKING ABOUT JELL-O AND ON CHRISTMAS EVE!
My cup suddenly overflowed with…something….a combination of hilarious irony, coincidence, surprising delight and amazing weirdness. Aliveness beyond language!!!
I gave my parishioner the biggest, happiest hug - very quick because now I needed to fly out of my office and tell the rest of the staff getting ready for worship that my pastor was quoted about jello in the paper and then I had to go into the narthex and tell folks there, too, as I hugged them -- both those I knew and visitors who found my visibly-aglow glow inviting. I would have launched into the sanctuary, too, disrupted the meditative Christmas Eve organ prelude and everything, but I did need to get back to the office to put on my robe and find the readings that were under some pile of paper, or just forget it and improvise.
Everything was different now. Anything was possible. Even though it was 11pm I never felt more alive. I couldn’t wait for the service to be over so I could tell more people. And call those who weren’t there - those back in the Midwest where it was 2 hours later. Who cares? This was just too amazing and too hilarious to wait till the morning
Now I think I know what the excitement and joy of that first Christmas was like, and why the shepherds were bursting at the seams to share their good news (and cause all those who heard it to be amazed).
After all, Bethlehem was a relatively nondescript, unimportant town in the grander scheme of things. Sort of like Des Moines (when it's not caucus or State Fair season, of course). It could easily have been considered the "Shepherd Capital," however, as this is the region for much sheep-herding; and the great King David, himself starting out as a shepherd, hailed from there.
And, as I've discussed previously (see blog "The Lord is My Garbage Collector" 4/27/15), shepherding, while a most practical profession, was also considered lowbrow and often laughable. Sort of like Jell-o, yes?
For the Angel of the Lord to come to Bethlehem to say the Savior of the World was born in Bethlehem and could be found in a manger (the trough from which shepherds and all herders feed their herds), it was essentially proclaiming the good news that God's salvation indeed had come and would be most definitely found... on the salad table at the church potluck.
While that may be the wackiest divine pronouncement you've ever heard, perhaps you know this is true. Spiritual life brings awareness that God is often most present, or at least most deeply experienced, in the weirdest of places and situations.
And when this remarkable truth makes itself known can't help but make you want to unrelentingly share it with others. Both the content of the revelation and the bursting joy that unrelentingly accompanies it. This is the coolest thing about the way God works, I think.
If we look, we will see examples of God's goofy wonderful hand even. Today.
Here's something that showed up on my FB feed yesterday, and it is my favorite snapshot of Christmas so far. God working in mysterious, beautiful wacky ways creating Beloved Community that far transcend our assumptions of God's intentions.
May this Christmas bring us all discoveries of wonderful weirdnesses that we can't help but share. The world needs this good news - and your bursting seams - more than ever.