Post Author: Margaret Webb
Right before Christmas, my daughter fed the baby Jesus to our dog. We have a long-suffering boxer mix, Gary, who will do anything my 16-month-old daughter asks. I was working on plans for a Christmas event, and my daughter was across the room playing with our wooden nativity set which I thought was indestructible. I never imagined my daughter could possibly get into trouble while I worked no more than five feet away. I was wrong. She fed the wooden figure to Gary—and Gary, ever obedient, ate the baby Jesus like a dog biscuit.
This messy and absurd event was the holiest moment of Advent for me. While I was hard at work planning for Christmas, my toddler was (literally!) offering Christ to another living being. It was a powerful reminder of what my ministry should be and of what I believe as a Quaker. Quakers believe that each person carries ‘that of God within’ or the ‘Light within’ and is therefore a minister. My official title at my Meeting (the word we use for ‘church’ in Quaker speak) is ‘pastoral minister’ which suggests that I am only one type of minister in that community. I am a pastoral minister because the ministry I am called to is pastoral, but there are as many ministers at my Meeting as there are members and attenders.
My daughter is a minister. She ministered to me as she fed the nativity baby Jesus to our dog, reminding me with her joy and holy play that our faith is an embodied faith and that nothing can separate me from God. She and the other youngest members of our community minister to our Meeting each week, reminding us that we carry the ‘Light Within’ or the ‘Christ Within,’ that the Spirit is a Living Spirit, and that we each cradle within us the Divine spark.
I need the reminder. As a pastoral minister, I find that work that is Holy easily becomes routine. I get lost in my elaborate checklists, my committee meetings, my community commitments. Somewhere between an ecumenical gathering on racialized policing and a pastoral visit with a parishioner, I find myself desperately praying to God that I will have enough time to stop for Starbucks—and forgetting that the Living Presence is never absent from me or my work. More importantly, I forget that I am not responsible for God living among us.
While it may seem like I have serious ego issues, I think many of us clergy fall into this trap. Because we care so much and work so hard, we start to see ourselves as the creators of spiritually nourishing experiences. We begin to think that we are responsible for making sure that worship is holy and sacred and appropriately solemn. We begin to feel that if we do not work diligently and creatively, the people we are sent to serve will not feel the presence of God.
When we buy into this way of thinking, we forget that our role is not to create spiritually nourishing experiences, but instead to point out the manna that lies thick upon the ground. We are to guide and serve the community and to follow the Spirit’s movement in that gathered body—to offer the Christ we have freely received to the person (or dog!) who happens to be in front of us.
The Good News proclaimed by my daughter’s squeal of delight as she fed the baby Jesus to Gary was that the Living Spirit dwells among us and with us at all times: with us when we are going about the routine of doing God’s work and with us when we are reminded to stop and notice the Holy One in our midst.
A doll from another dollhouse set now fills in for the baby Jesus in our manger scene. The substitute doll is twice the size of the other figures and is obviously not part of the original wooden set. The part of me that insists that spiritual and religious things be done correctly and with appropriate solemnity cringes as I think about this mismatched and awkward nativity scene. The part of me connected with the Living Christ remembers that a messy nativity is perfect for our messy world.
Our nativity has been packed away for several months now, and I am focused these days on continuing to proclaim the hope and joy of the Easter story. But that moment from mid-December still lingers with me. My daughter’s ministry and the ministry of my son and the other young members of my Meeting provide the heartbeat of my work—one that I hope beats in time with the heartbeat of God. Their messy and unpretentious engagement with the world is a fitting reminder that I am not responsible for God’s presence. I am not the bringer of God. I am not responsible for the Living Spirit or for God’s presence among us on Sundays or even for spiritually nourishing our Meeting. My role, and the role of everyone who participates in our Meeting, is to point out the ways the Spirit is moving, because neither death nor Gary could swallow up Jesus forever. The Living Christ is with us still.
Margaret Webb serves as the pastoral minister of the New Garden Friends Meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. She and her husband thrive in the joyful chaos of life with a 3-year-old son, a 16-month-old daughter, and a boxer-mix named Gary.
Image by: Margaret Webb
Used with permission