“The Lord Is With You”
Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
It was a Sunday morning – the last Sunday before Christmas, actually – and Sharon Christopher was sitting in worship with her husband Brian, their twin girls back in Sunday School, likely putting the finishing touches on the children’s pageant they would perform that evening at church. It was a busy time of year, and Sharon felt a degree of relief that all the cards were sent, gifts were purchased and wrapped, and their Christmas day, including a visit from both of her divorced parents, seemed under control.
The readings for the morning were the story of Mary, and Sharon smiled as she listened again to the narrative. She imagined the angel Gabriel appearing to this young teenage girl, announcing to her that she was “highly favored” by God, and that she was to give birth to the Messiah, God’s Son.
Sure, it was the same old story that she heard every year, but for some reason this year it was resonating with Sharon in a different way than in any year past. Perhaps it was her vocational shift of this past year. She had been working with DCFS – the Department of Children and Family Services, a state of Illinois agency that worked with abused or neglected children – for 12 years. Her own troubled years had led her to it as a vocation, in a round about way. Originally she had been working to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, with an intent to work to prosecute and punish those who injured children. But events in her life, and in her growing Christian faith, as a college student led her to re-think her career choice, and she finally opted to pursue a degree in social work, to focus more on helping those who were hurt then on those who had caused the pain.
As a case worker for DCFS she had been with thousands of children over the years, helping them shift from destructive and hurtful environments into safe ones. This past year, though, had seen a marked shift in her focus; her supervisor had requested that she move into a specialty focusing on adolescent girls. As a result, she had seen her share of pregnant teenagers over the last twelve months. She was still called for other situations, such as the case of two abused siblings just the previous week, but her supervisor and the agency recognized her strength relating to teenage moms.
The pastor read Mary’s startled reaction to Gabriel’s announcement: “How can this be?” Sharon had sat with so many different girls over the years, sometimes abused, often neglected. She knew their hurt and longing. But this year she had seen more soon-to-be young moms struggling with understanding how their choices were going to impact the rest of their lives. They often asked similar questions, “How can this be?” although, in their cases, there wasn’t an angelic announcement to explain the events of their lives, there wasn’t an explanation that the child was to be born of the Holy Spirit.
Although, Sharon believed, every child was, in some way, born of the Holy Spirit. Over her life she had come to realize the truth of Jesus’ image of God as a Heavenly Father, one who through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection – according to Paul, anyway – had adopted all of humanity as his children, forgiving their sin and offering them eternal life. God was Father, and even Mother, to all; and regardless of the situations we might find ourselves in, Sharon firmly believed in God’s grace and love.
As the pastor began to talk about Mary’s encounter with the Holy Spirit, Sharon’s mind wandered to her decision to change from criminal justice to social work. She had entered college with a passion, to seek justice for the hurt and abused of the world. She wanted to be a part of something big, perhaps a seismic cultural shift, that saw to the protection of children. She wanted to make a real different, to help children who had been victimized experience justice and to find ways to stop and prevent all forms of abuse.
Early on in her studies she began to suspect that she couldn’t bring the kind of justice she wanted, not on the scale that she wanted. By her third year in school she was disillusioned about pursuing justice, frustrated with the end of her perceived dream, and even angry at her own mother because of abuse she had suffered as a child. Looking back, Sharon could see how things sometimes have a way of bubbling up to the surface, and then, suddenly, God stirs the water, and something new emerges.
What happened to Sharon was that, during a mission trip at a local homeless shelter, she had encountered her father. It was the first time in twelve years she had seen him, but it became the genesis of a restored relationship with him. And as she began to reconcile with her father, Sharon’s understanding of what she really wanted to offer children began to change.
By the time she began her fourth year of college, Sharon knew that she couldn’t bring justice on her own, but that she could work alongside others in helping children know peace and, hopefully, justice. More importantly, she discovered that God worked in all situations, and she began to trust that the Holy Spirit was even at work with, and through, her.
She got more active in her campus ministry that year, and even in a local church, and learned so much about God and the Holy Spirit that encouraged her as she shifted her major and, as a result, enrolled for an extra year of college. She heard stories about God’s Spirit at work: hovering over the chaotic waters and bringing forth creation, breathing life into Adam, animating Ezekial’s valley of dry bones. At the same time, over those final two years of college, she felt the Spirit at work in helping her to rebuild a relationship with her estranged father, and leading her from paths of justice for vengeance’ sake to a path of justice for love’s sake. A big distinction.
Pastor Kent was sharing about how Mary likely felt. Sharon could identify with the fear Mary must have known, having to tell her betrothed husband, Joseph – not to mention her own family – that she was pregnant. It was a different society then, but even with two millennia separating the two women, Sharon could imagine that some in Mary’s family rolled their eyes when she described Gabriel’s description of the Holy Spirit’s role. Although her cousin Elizabeth seemed to truly understand. Sharon found comfort in that thought, and recognized that sometimes in her own experience with neglected girls, there was a family member somewhere who truly understood what the girl was going through, and was able to offer help and support.
The Spirit can bring new birth to our lives, and it can be unexpected, unsettling, even painful.
Pastor Kent reminded the congregation that David, Mary’s most well known ancestor, was also a known adulterer. But God had spoken to him, before his sin, with the assertion, “I have been with you wherever you have gone.” And even after his sin, God made clear that there is no mistake that is beyond his forgiving power. God made clear that redemption, a second chance, is always a possibility. More importantly, God made clear that one could trust in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to be with us, to help us in all things. The angel Gabriel’s greeting to Mary echoed this promise to her ancestor David, “The Lord is with you.”
As Pastor Kent ended his sermon, Sharon reflected on how, over the years, she had truly come to trust that the Lord is with us. In this season of Christmas, we celebrate His birth anew: Emmanuel, God with us. Sharon knew that God was with us, day by day, in the living Lord, and in the living, breathing, life-transforming presence of the Holy Spirit.
Sharon suddenly realized with a start that the pastor’s message was over, and the ushers were coming forward to receive the offering. She reached into her purse to grab the check she had written the day before, and also found yesterday’s mail still in there, unopened. As she listened to the special music and dropped her offering into the plate, she thumbed through the stack of bills and envelopes, and saw a couple cards. There was one in particular that caught her eye.
She recognized the return address as a group home for girls in Evanston, a north suburb of Chicago. Above the street address were three girls’ names: Amber, Bridget, and Nicky. She quietly opened the envelope and pulled out the card. It was a nice, but generic, Christmas card; a star above a manger scene, the famous line from Luke, “for unto us a child is born.” She opened the card and read the message inside:
We are all doing well. Marilyn and the staff here take good care of us, and although it isn’t the same as living with family, it is a nice place where we understand one another. The three of us knew that we had all met you, because each of us has one of your bracelets! So we all wanted to send you a card to thank you for your help. Have a merry Christmas.
Sharon looked down at her wrist, where a small cross hung from a silver bracelet. She had received it years before from her father, and had, in the last few years, begun to give small, inexpensive charm bracelets to the girls she worked with. Her own bracelet served as a reminder that she wasn’t alone, that God was with her, that the Holy Spirit was at work in and through her. She gave them away to the girls in the hope that they, too, might find it a way of remembering that they weren’t alone.
That, Sharon thought, is the promise of Christmas. Emmanuel; God is with us. And as the girls finished their special music, Sharon lifted her voice with others in saying, “Amen.”
[Thanks for reading!]