Where Is God in this Mess?

One of my most precious memories that returns every Christmas is the catastrophe that resulted from recruiting my then young children to join me at the kitchen table to help assemble a cardboard do-it-yourself crèche. Christians have been recreating the Bethlehem birth tableaux, mother and child, dutiful father, barn animals, shepherds and wise men , ever since Francis organized a life-size creche for the people of Assisi in the 13th century. It has been done literally millions of times and among the beloved Christmas traditions in my home is retrieving the crèches from storage in early December: elegant crystal, hand carved olive wood from Palestine, miniaturized figures resting in a sheltering hand of God from Guatemala. And, of course, the annual children’s Christmas pageant which, in some churches is presented with professional sophistication, with angels suspended from wires flying overhead, live sheep and camels, elegant costuming and staging. In the churches I have been affiliated with the children’s pageant was intentionally simple with the emphasis on full, inclusive participation. Once the major, starring roles of Mary and Joseph were assigned  – we once had two Virgin Marys due to a bit of high voltage competitiveness – and an appropriate Baby Jesus, mostly Mary’s favorite doll, a real infant on special occasions, there is an almost infinite number of potential supporting roles. The cast can expand or contract as necessary. I have witnessed an entire aisle full of sheep on hands and knees, huge throngs of angels, one year a particularly creative director organized an entire flock of hawks, apparently roosting for the night in the rafters of the stable. That year, our youngest, the minister’s son and a minor celebrity in the second grade class was “Head Hawk” and proudly led the rest of the flock down the aisle.

There is something about Jesus’ birth that invites us in, compels us to try to recreate it in order to be part of it – in gorgeous art, elegant statuary, and humble children’s pageants.

And so it seemed like a good idea, years ago, to sit down at the kitchen table with our children and assemble a modest cardboard nativity. I assigned each one – camel, sheep, cow, Mary and Joseph, the stable and manger. What ensued was a disaster. As is the case with most “easy to assemble” projects, I have found, nothing – nothing – worked the way the instructions assured me it would. “Fold on dotted line. Insert tab A into slot B. Tuck corners C and D beneath flaps E and G.” Ha! Nothing worked. The stable refused to remain upright, the sheep all listed to port side, Joseph’s neck somehow became bent and his head rested on his chest, the cow’s leg was torn and the manger, itself, so tiny, ended up a crumpled pile of cardboard. It was the five year old who finally stepped back, observed the chaos on the table and said, “Daddy, where is God in this mess?”

It was a luminous question out of the mouth of a child and it contains the radical assertion and meaning of Christmas. God came into human history at its messiest, in the middle of political oppression, poverty, to a homeless refugee couple who would soon be immigrants, fleeing for their lives and the life of their child, from a cruel tyrant.

Human history is messy. I don’t know if the world is messier this year than usual but some days it certainly feels like it: cruelty, aggression, racism, persecution, violence and more violence dominate daily news. This morning I need, as never before, the quiet, hopeful announcement that the God of creation, the Lord of all, has come precisely into human messiness with infinite, patient love and grace and the promise of peace.

Where is God in this mess? Right there, right here, in the very middle of it, in a manger.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us… The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.


  1. Thank you for this post. I needed this reminder of God’s Amazing Grace.

  2. Beth Lodge-Rigal says:

    Thank you for this, John. Your words are a gift this morning. This promise of peace in the midst of so much messiness. Sending love and light to all of you today. Beth Lodge-Rigal

  3. A favorite memory is BSPC Sat a.m. rehearsal of Handel’s Messiah. Looking in the back of the sanctuary and you were standing there. It was like we were singing for you – performing only for you – because of your caring appreciation. “Hallelujah”. Merry Christmas and God Bless All You Buchanans….

  4. Susan Schaefer says:

    What a lovely essay, John. I am going to print it out and put it in my advent book (“Goodness and LIght” this year). This is an entry for your next book! Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  5. Cheryl Humleker says:

    Merry Christmas, Dr. Buchanan! Though I live in Appleton, WI (G.B. Packer territory) through the years, wonderful weekends in Chicago brought us to your beloved “4th Pres.” on Sunday morning. The very first time, Dr. Davies was still there and the ushers et al. wore morning dress! After reading this lovely blog post of yours, I wanted you to have a peek inside our church’s “pageant” last Sunday. The animals all brought the baby Jesus a gift of their making, and, the cow, living not far from Green Bay, brought, not cheese, but a Green Bay Packer cheesehead! I thought you might enjoy the symbolism. With best wishes for a very happy Christmas weekend to you and all you hold dear (especially Rachel), Best regards, Cheryl Humleker

  6. Thank you. May we all hold to this.

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