Holy Everything: The greatest gift? To let you be yourself
What are the most important gifts you've received over the years? I received a beloved gift 10 years ago but it wasn't until the last couple months that I began to appreciate it more fully.
As part of the journey toward becoming a Lutheran pastor, there's a process called candidacy that coincides with a graduate school experience called seminary. One of the initial phases of candidacy is that all potential pastors are required to receive a psychological exam.
It's a valuable step in the process and a way to ensure that prospective pastors have worked through their own life journeys to the point where it is safe for them to accompany others along the way. I was 22 at the time of my psychological exam and a few months into seminary class work in Chicago.
I was fairly convinced I had it all together and would forever and ever have it all together. I imagined I'd spend a quick Saturday going through the psychological exam and be on my merry way. A few standardized tests, a visit with a counselor … end of story.
Then the day arrived. The Minneapolis-area counselor and his intern invited me to share a bit about myself, and so I did. He asked questions, and I answered them all with a smile and some version of, "But it all worked out for the best, and I learned so much along the way."
And then he paused and with a softened smile offered a generous, life-changing gift, "Emily, you don't have to prove anything to me. You don't have to be anything other than who you are. I know that there must be at least some hurt behind these life experiences, and that's OK. I have no expectations of you."
I cried for two days.
I hadn't ever received a present like that before.
It has taken these last 10 years to understand the depth of the gift that counselor gave me during the one and only time I ever saw him. He was offering me a particular kind of freedom. A freedom to just be myself. To feel what I feel. To stop trying to prove my worth to anyone and everyone by being as palatable as possible.
As I glanced through the initial chapters of the Gospel of Luke a few days ago in preparation for the week ahead, I noticed that God offers a similar kind of freedom to people. Everyone in the Christmas story arrives by a different path. Joseph, Mary, the shepherds. They all come with different feelings and experiences.
Mary starts out "perplexed" (see 1:29). The shepherds see an angel and are initially "terrified" (see 2:9). When the shepherds arrive to find Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, they are totally elated and end up "glorifying and praising" God (see 2:20).
Mary expresses her emotional state differently, and she has the freedom to do so. We're told she spends time "pondering" it all in her heart (see 2:19). People get to feel how they feel. God doesn't posit a list of requirements and expectations to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds. God gives them freedom to authentically soak it all in.
As we approach the manger in the days ahead, may we, too, remember that freedom. Freedom to come as we are and be who we are and release the weight of unnecessary expectations. Oh come, let us adore him. Loudly or quietly. With bold joy or reflective contemplation. By candlelight or Christmas tree lights. Gift eternal. Christ the Lord.