December 9, 2021 • De Pree Journal
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.
We’re in the middle of Advent, and Christmas is just around the corner. It’s a season full of celebration but also of reflection as we close out a year and anticipate the one to come.
For many of us, it’s been another year for the books, hasn’t it? I’m thinking of those of you who have started new ventures or lost jobs this year, had a falling out with colleagues, or finally found your sweet spot in your work. There have been ups and there have been downs. I’ve heard a common theme from so many of you: change. Change in the world and change in your work. Often both at exactly the same time.
At the end of 2020, when we had no idea if or when we would emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, I wrote an article for De Pree Center called: What is God Birthing in You? In it, I invited you into what has become a yearly practice for me: writing letters…to myself. And, at the end of this piece, I will invite you to do the same. In that piece, I wondered aloud about what the altogether unusual year that was 2020 was readying us for in 2021. I suspected that in the pain and distance of peak pandemic life, God might have been readying us for something new in and among us. I wrote:
The tension between loud and quiet, between what we know now versus what we knew then, is held in the story of Christmas. Christmas is loud as the promise of God is made good through Jesus—quiet because it happens round back of an inn. Loud because of the sweat and pain of a mother in labor. Quiet because of who emerges — a tiny, fluid covered, perhaps even hungry messiah.
Now I wonder what God has birthed in us this past year. Some of us may have had actual babies this year, and others of us may have wrestled with the pain of loss around children or potential children. But what about other types of births?
I’ll be honest, my brain can feel a little foggy when I try to answer this question for myself, What did God birth in me this year? Sometimes I don’t immediately have an answer. Does writing a new book count? What about starting a new job or moving to a new city? What about sending a child to Kindergarten? Would I call those births? Maybe. I’m not sure. There were certainly a couple of things I hoped would come alive this year that never did.
Regardless, birth is weighty and mysterious. Painful yet also good. But the question I have for you is the same question posed in Isaiah 43:19. When birth happens, do you notice it?
Let’s break down this idea of birthing a bit more. Here’s what I’ve learned about birthing:
1. There’s a sense of anticipation.
Before birthing happens, tension builds, things swell, and we are marked by a sense of anticipation, of longing, and of hope. Sometimes this anticipation is full of happy cheering and warm fuzzies. Other times it’s filled with pain from what isn’t and what might not be. This latter reality feels all the more relevant in our current season of Advent.
When I think about anticipation, I am struck by Mary’s song in Luke 1. In the opening bit, Mary sings “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” This is Mary’s song of gratitude after she’s come to visit Elizabeth and the two women have shared in the knowing that Mary is pregnant with the Savior. But, it’s also a song of anticipation—excitement and hope about what she trusts is and will be.
2. There are signs of new life.
In Make Work Matter, I talk about a concept that has been really important for my husband and me—the small “r” resurrection. This is the idea that because we believe wholeheartedly in the Resurrection, we expect that rhythm to show up in our everyday lives and work. Often we can identify when we sense God at work resurrecting something when we feel new life burst on the scene—new relationships, new project prospects, and new opportunities. I think these same things are true when we’ve birthed something. In my experience, there’s one big difference. When the small “r” resurrection moments play out, it’s often subtle, like sprigs of a plant shooting up from the ground. When we’ve birthed something, new life comes almost bursting out. Sometimes it’s on the heels of loss, other times it’s not, but we can feel when new life makes its presence known. Lots to do, new relationships, sales, and putting something out there are all signs of the new life that comes with birth.
3. It’s messy and hard.
Birthing something is not easy. It’s messy. It’s hard. It often does not go as planned. Sometimes there’s pain and effort and tears.
For a long time I have held my peace,
I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor,
I will gasp and pant.
Reflecting on the Book of Isaiah, theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “The imagery of God panting in labor is a fresh datum for Israel’s faith. Something is about to be birthed; Israel has cause for exuberance.” For me, the visual of the God of Israel gasping and panting like a woman in labor is quite vivid, especially when paired with the picture of young Mary laying on the ground, laboring through contractions as Jesus makes his way into the world. Her breathing is most difficult when the pain is most intense. Her pain is most intense as birth draws near. And then, eventually, when she is utterly exhausted, perhaps even panting and out of energy, a little baby boy is born.
If we extend this metaphor of birth to our work and leadership, consider the effort it takes to move from idea to product or to lead a flourishing team. It’s likely not without labor.
4. What comes requires active tending.
When we birth something, be it an idea or a project, or even a new relationship, what has been birthed requires special care. Much like a new baby in the world, we’ve got to tend carefully to that which is new. Eventually, what has been birthed will grow up and require less hands-on care. But when things are new, they are fragile.
Much like a new baby in the world, we’ve got to tend carefully to that which is new. Eventually, what has been birthed will grow up and require less hands-on care. But when things are new, they are fragile.
At this time of year, as we wait for the birth of Jesus, consider what might have happened after the birth. Who knows exactly what that it looked like, but Jesus likely required a lot of tending to—the very ordinary kind of parenting tasks any baby needs. It’s easy to be drawn to the incredible nature of Mary’s birth, but I’m drawn to this story for all the ordinariness that plays out afterward.
So, given that framework, what has God birthed in and around you this year? You might think of an actual project or product you put into the world. You might think about new relationships that God birthed in your midst. Or about something that’s happening within you as a leader. Here’s an exercise to help you think about this question more deeply.
Write two letters.
First, write a letter to your last year’s self, the one that’s a year younger. Detail all that’s happened in your life, work, and leadership over the past year. Pay special attention to anything that you’ve birthed this year or that you sense is on the horizon.
Then, write an encouraging letter from your next year’s self, the one that’s another year older, to your current self. Describe what the next year looks like in your life and leadership, and how what God’s birthing in you is taking shape.
There’s no wrong way to write these letters. Do what works for you.
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Dr. Michaela O’Donnell is the executive director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership where she oversees the center’s vision, strategy, program, and team, all with the goal of helping leaders like you respond faithfully to God in all seasons of your life and leadership.
Michaela is the author of Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World. It’s gotten rave reviews from folks such as Dave Evans, Mark Labberton, Missy Wallace, Luke Bobo, Dee Ann Tuner, Kara Powell, and more. This book is a reflection of Michaela’s heart as both an entrepreneur and a practical theologian. Drawn to the real life working out of big issues, it is a how to for anyone walking the road of calling in a changing world.
Click here to view Michaela’s profile.