December 18, 2022 What Really Matters by Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

The pressure’s on to prepare for the best celebrations possible of family and friends as we gather together to feast, share gifts and enjoy this season of light and love. Nancy & I have company arriving this Friday to stay with us for a couple of weeks. We’re preparing for all kinds of meals and outings to introduce our Peruvian friends to a Winnipeg Christmas. So I’m with you in the pressure cooker of preparations.

Allow me to tap the steam valve and release some of that pressure with an assurance that something will go wrong. We can count on it—or at least I can. So when something does go off track, we might more easily say, “Ok. There goes perfection.” And just watch it go with a shrug and a grin. My train of imperfection left the station early this season. Last Sunday, some of you may have noticed that, as I was walking into the sanctuary with arms full, five minutes before the service was to start, I dropped a bag on the chapel floor.

It has been my practice for 10 years to give gifts of my homemade nuts & bolts to staff every Christmas. I was carrying three containers to give to some staff immediately after the service before they left. I therefore had both gifts and service materials in my arms. When one of the bags fell to the floor, it exploded with nuts & bolts making their escape. Olwyn, Dave and Nancy all dropped to the floor and helped gather the escaped goodies. I’m sure I heard a comment about mice beginning to drool. We wrapped the broken bag with its remaining contents in foil, assuring its recipient that nothing still within the bag had escaped. So I’m off to a good start for an imperfect Christmas.

The gift of imperfection is that it helps us focus on what really matters. This is particularly helpful when big dreams are dashed. Joseph was tossing and turning, wondering how things had gone so wrong in such a short time. What could he do to save this disastrous turn of events? He was compassionate by nature—he was the meek and mild one. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, he fell asleep. He was awoken by a vivid dream of fantastic proportions. An angel gently soothed him, saying, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Now—Joseph had no idea what the Freudian interpretation of that dream was. But he did find a deep peace inside—an answer to his desperate prayers. Things would be different, but not necessarily disastrous—at least not yet. Although his dreams of a perfect family were dashed, he realized that he had to focus not on what others might think, not on strict religious protocols, but on Mary and the baby. That’s what really mattered.

Maybe that’s what a perfect family is. Not a Hallmark picture of perfection, but real families with all of their differences. Step children, birth children, adopted children, children with differing physical and mental abilities. Multi-racial families, intergenerational families, families with two dads or two moms or a single parent. Families dealing with mental health or addictions or chronic illness. Joseph would want to say to each of us—whatever kind of family you end up with is the perfect family because it’s simply who you are. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t try to make your family fit the Hallmark mold because it will just be too squishy and tight. You won’t be able to breathe. You might want to lower your expectations and just focus on loving who you and your loved ones are.

Joseph awakened to a new reality. He saw things in a new light. What he had never noticed before began to shine. He could no longer take life for granted. He was learning to live in the present and appreciate what is, instead of what could be.

Although the angel hinted at a very important future for the baby, no details were given. Joseph needed to stay in the moment—that was more than enough. Who knows what Joseph would have done had he known what was ahead of Jesus.

When we’ve been jolted by a seismic event—could be a birth, could be something tragic—we often have this type of awakening. Buddhists understand awakening as “touching the ultimate dimension”. When we are awakened, we can sense what really matters. More often than not, it is what is around us right now, in the present. We can hope, we can dream, but if we’re not awake to those we love, our hopes and dreams will be merely distractions.

Our fears and anxieties for what might lie before our children and grandchildren can rob us of the pure joy of the present moment. There will be tough times ahead of us and there will be wonderful moments of celebration. But for now, let’s try to stay in the present and be as available as we can to one another this Christmas.

That’s what Joseph learned. I think he gives us the best example of how to prepare for Christmas. It’s to tap into Emmanuel, God with us, love incarnate, teaching us how to be love incarnate to one another. Connecting with this naked, vulnerable love of the baby Jesus allows us to really see, really hear, really be there for our families, even if some of our family members dash our dre ams for them. Being love incarnate is the best way we can prepare our hearths and hearts for Christmas, for that’s what really matters.