December 16, 2020 • De Pree Journal
If you’re anything like me, this particular holiday season has felt both quieter and also somehow louder. Quieter because there’s not as much to do, not as many places to go, and not as many people to see. I’ll be honest, I do NOT miss the mall. Louder because all that blankets our lives and makes the quiet inevitable, is well…a lot.
I mean, can you imagine trying to explain 2020 Christmas to your 2019 self? What would you even say? I’d probably say something like, “You’re not going see family on Christmas for the first time in your life. All your favorite annual celebrations will be on Zoom. There will be no seeing Santa at the mall (actually, the kids won’t mind that one!) The school program will be cute. I mean you won’t be allowed to be there, and the teachers will be in masks, but the video will be adorable! Oh, and buy stock in UPS. Because alongside FedEx, they’re going to have the highest volume Christmas ever, not to mention that twelve days before Christmas, they’ll start shipping The Vaccine.”
The Vaccine?? I mean, hello. Goodbye. No thank you.
Ok, all kidding aside, in a weird way this unbelievable year has helped me get in touch with some of the harder-to-imagine aspects of our Christian faith. It feels like 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.
God is no stranger to birth. In fact, there’s an image rich section of Isaiah that depicts God as a laboring mother. In the midst of the Israelites’ exile and longing, the book of Isaiah captures an active God like this:
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.
About Israel, theologian Walter Brueggemann writes this, “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.
Stay with me here, but I wonder if many of us are pregnant in some way in this season—or have been at some point this year. I’m not talking about with literal babies. Though some of us are or have been or have even experienced sadness and loss around pregnancy this year. Here, I’m talking about being pregnant in a not-so-literal way.
What if out of this unusual year, God wants to birth something new in and among us? What if the pain of 2020 and the promise of Jesus orients us for what’s next in our own lives and in our work together in the coming year? What if this sad, hard year has primed us for whatever is to come?
One of the reasons we are able to freely hope in what might come and trust in God’s ongoing promise of restoration is because God has already made good on the promise of Jesus. What has already happened helps us trust that no matter what is happening now and what will continue to happen in the future—God is at work. The fulfilled promise of Jesus helps us pin even our most desperate of hopes on God. That Jesus came in the form of a baby, to a laboring mother, helps us remember how hard fought and wonder-filled new life truly is.
And, so we hope. We hope in our work and our leadership, our relationships and in the world. We hope for what might be, even when we can’t quite see it. The Christmas Carol, O Holy Night frames hope like this:
Long lay the world in sin and error, pining
‘Til He appeared and the soul felt it’s worth
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn’
It all sounds fairly bleak and desperate, right? That’s exactly the point. The world is desperate for Christ. And, it’s only when we embrace how much we need God that we feel so relieved at the signs of hope and the fulfilment in progress.
So, what if your 2021 self could speak to you right now? What will you know then that you don’t know now? Of course it’s hard to know exactly what God is birthing in and among us in this season. It’s hard to know how what we’ve endured and the ways we’ve lived and led this year will shape the next. Consider this, would your future self tell you to hold onto the thrill of hope, because even if it doesn’t come as you expect, God will make good on the promise of a new and glorious morn?
Write two letters.
First, write a reflective letter to your 2019 self, detailing all that’s happened in your life, work, and leadership this year. Reflect on what you’ve been carrying and learning.
Then, write an encouraging letter from your 2021 self to your current self. Describe what 2021 looks like in your life and leadership, and how what God’s birthing in you is coming to fruition.
There’s no wrong way to write these letters, do what works for you.
 Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Pres, 1998), 47.
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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’s first book, Make Work Matter: Your Guide to Meaningful Work in a Changing World is due out in October with Baker Books. It’s already getting 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.