This post comes to you after being offered as a meditation at my municipality’s mayoral Christmas prayer breakfast last week. Lansing, IL police and fire, village officials, school leadership, and other public servants shared that breakfast with a collection of area Christians. We met together in one of the associated churches and enjoyed bacon, eggs, fruit, and donuts before praying for the various groups within our community. It was my turn this year to try to turn again our attentions to Christ. My approach wasn’t novel, it was just highly contextualized to Lansing, IL. With that as background, you’ll better understand what follows…
Merry Christmas. Today, I bring you a message from the other side of Christmas, or perhaps the under-side.
A few days ago, I made a visit to the Lansing motel zone. Along one of the driveways, I couldn’t help but notice the dead possum suggestively lying next to the bag of last night’s fast food. Cause of death? Heart attack, it would seem. But I was hoping to find a bit more life.
Somewhere among the broken down cars and broken-down humanity, real life was there. I would find it in the midst of people on their way to somewhere or nowhere, or does it really matter where. I would find it underneath the steady roar of the highway. I would find it even among the transient who are at the HoJo just for this week, but then again, people who have nothing to do but survive might not really be living life, either.
The woman at the front desk of the United Motel, $39.99 per night, had been working there for 18 years. For 18 years, she had been evaluating what might be about to happen on the property and judging when to duck behind the plexiglass windows at the desk. For 18 years, she had survived the drug deals, the prostitute sales, and every other reason not to try to live there like so many weeds clinging to gritty parking lots.
But she and the housekeeping staff somehow clean things up again, normalizing the risk with a little bit of bleach and a lot of numbing habit. The day I dropped in, she was watching one man moping around the premises, popping from security feed 1 to 44 for no apparent purpose, which was probably a bad sign. But the bills always come, the kids always need to feel provided for, and 18 years pass.
But then she told me something unusual that the night manager said had happened the previous night. I don’t know if he called Lansing’s finest for help, but I also don’t know if anyone knew what was supposed to happen, given the situation.
In the middle of the previous night, she said, a couple of the truckers who had parked in the next lot over came staggering into the lobby of the United. They were clearly confused, drugged maybe, on a stimulant of some kind, who could tell? So the night manager had his hand half on the phone’s number 9 before the truckers could collect themselves. They all started talking at once, some about fear, some about being excited, and about the only thing they could agree on was their urgent need to find a rusted white starcraft van behind one of the motels.
Then they launched into some wild story about seeing lights in the sky over their trucks. It wasn’t anything like the usual Motel 6 “we’ll leave the light on for you” lights, nor the intermittent headlights of semis. It was a light, as they described it, that kind of crackled in the air and made their hair stand on end.
At this point in the story, the woman at the desk hesitated, as if trying not to say something that would make things sound too ridiculous. I encouraged her to go on – I’m a pastor, I hear all kinds of strange things on a regular basis. Then she said, “The truckers said they saw angels. I don’t believe in them myself.” Another pause. “They found the van, though. It’s still parked back there until I decide whether to tow it. I should bring you back there.”
So we walked outside into the wind and past the door after door of the motel line and there it was: a rusted white starcraft van. The worn tires rested in defeat on the grit and gravel. “Ok,” I said, “so this is the van the truckers had to see – what about it?”
“It’s not about the van,” she said, “it’s about the people who were inside it.” I looked a little too eagerly through the windows, but there was no one there now.
The woman folded her arms, still evaluating what to make of the second-hand story. But she went on. “My guy said there was a mom and a dad, and a baby, a boy. Crazy, this world. Why didn’t they just go to the hospital? Or at least get a room? I think the Red Roof had a vacancy, even if we didn’t. Probably blew all their money on drugs.”
Well, for all of her 18 years at that desk, a happening like that had been a new one. We went on making small talk in between the rushing of highway cars about the way the world was going, what with lost people with babies spending nights in vans. As we turned back to the motel lobby, I noticed a housekeeping rag stuck against the wheel of the van. It had what looked like blood on it.
So, as I said, I had come to the motels to find real life. I had talked to the innkeeper, who had heard from the manager, who had handled the truckers watching over their trucks by night, and I had gone to see the van. But I had just missed the family, the glory, the life. But He had been there.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
I’ve told two stories. The first was more true than you should find comfortable, though it held plenty of fiction. The second is also more true than you should find comfortable, very much because there is no fiction at all. Now before I leave you too puzzled to start your day, I’ll just tell you the point, because otherwise, we could buzz right by on our I-80 lives and never know what it was about. Maybe we’d hear, but it would pass out of our news feed and public gossip and life would go on.
I’ve always felt funny about the disconnect between my role in Christmas celebrations and what Christmas really is.
As a pastor, I enjoy dignity and influence in the community. And I have been given the honor to stand here and speak to you – you who have deep roots and deep investments in this community. We’ve been sharing a fine Christmas breakfast in a well-managed church facility. After this, some of you will go and let your social circles know what a nice meal you had with the mayor. Or after work today, we’ll go home to decorations, lights, warmth, and our neat lives. How dignified. And we will forget that the invitation that brought us to this breakfast is actually very unlike the real invitation of Christmas.
That invitation is to a stable, to wedge ourselves in alongside animals and see a poor family with their newborn son in a seedy part of town. That invitation is not to honor nor power nor dignity. Because in a rusted starcraft van, whose inhabitants’ lives I could easily and superficially judge as being the product of bad choices, I would have met a squabbling child whose name alone would tell me that I am a sinner and that He is my salvation. That truth and His life, should I accept the gracious invitation of Christmas, will strip away my pretensions, my pride, even perhaps my clinging to community respect. That truth will bend me away from the clean niceness of Christmas and His life will bend me to my knees because His own humble birth makes a mockery of my pride and power. The invitation of Christmas will wring humility from my heart, and if, oh please if, I learn to live humbly, I will better understand the one in whom God has made Himself known.
Out there still, in the motel zone, the high-tension power lines are buzzing. The fence-grown trees, weeds, and desiccated reeds are waving. The truckers are rolling in or pulling out. And the glory of God was announced. Jesus, who was born in a stable behind the motel. On earth peace to all on whom His favor rests. Amen.