Messy Advent

written by Kat Bair
12 · 11 · 23

I wonder where we got the expectation that things going well equated to things going smoothly. That a successful event or program meant one that had no hiccups, reschedules, unexpected challenges, or even catastrophic failures. When we are asked how our holiday went, how our service went, we tend to respond with “Well, the organ was out of tune, and we didn’t have enough cheese and crackers and Jimmy almost set the building on fire, but other than that, it was good.” 

As though those things are aberrations from the success, derivations from an event’s overall goodness, and not an inextricable part of it. 

As a new youth pastor, I had a mentor who I met with weekly and would just ramble on and on about all the little things that had already gone wrong and all of my anxieties around new things going wrong. He graciously took it all in stride, with empathetic head nods and follow-up questions, but never seemed nearly as concerned as I was. At some point I asked him why there never seemed to be this much chaos in his ministry, and he responded,

“I think as you’re in this work longer, you raise the bar of what constitutes an emergency.” 

My mentor had this perspective from decades of ministry experience that allowed him to understand that the little fires that mark so many of our ministries aren’t distractions from the work, but part of what gives it its shape. 

As we spend this season reflecting on the incarnation of Jesus, I wonder if the story of the first Christmas can give us some frame of reference. The story of the birth of Jesus is full of moments where things are not going to plan. Jesus is born far away from home, in a barn, to an unwed woman. The Christ child’s visitors are shepherds working in a field and foreign philosophers who have to dodge government investigators on the way back. Surely these are things that we would have considered problems if had been our event to execute.

How did the incarnation go? Oh well, we had to do it in Bethlehem because of this census thing so none of Mary’s family was there, and then the actual birth was in a barn because of housing issues, and then there was drama with some of the visitors and the king, but other than that I guess it was good.

But with the perspective of 2000 years, we can see that those elements are not aberrations but part of what shapes the story of Christmas. That God reveals God’s presence in the barn, and the shepherds, and the wise men’s treacherous return journey as much as God would have if everything had gone a bit more smoothly. They aren’t signs that God isn’t present, or that anyone made a mistake, but that God works in ways we don’t expect. 

Things going off the rails doesn’t mean that you’re not where you’re supposed to be. This can be bad news for some of us that prefer a bit more order, because it means that even if we do everything perfectly, and hear God’s will perfectly, we are not assured smooth sailing. But this can also be good news. Because if we are doing the work of innovation, things will assuredly go off the rails at some point. There will be flops and mistakes and failures, and it can be easy to believe that those failures mean that you aren’t on the right path. 

But if the manger and shepherds were avenues for God’s holy work, why can’t our unsent emails and missing volunteers be? God is at work in our world, God is with us in our pursuit of the Kingdom of God. And if scripture can show us anything, it’s that that doesn’t mean we should have any expectation that things will go smoothly, or that God isn’t close, even when things are kind of a mess. 

Many of our Ministry Incubators staff, myself included, are located in the Nashville area, and our hearts and prayers are with our neighbors and friends who have had their holidays interrupted by totally out-of-season, destructive, deadly tornadoes. Here’s a list of ways you can support victims, no matter where you are, and be part of God’s closeness to some of those who need to feel it most this week.  


Kat Bair

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