When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
-Luke 2:15-20 (bolded words mine)
My son found an old bag of leftover party balloons from a birthday shindig sometime last year. He pulled out an empty blue one and began to fill it with the air form his lungs.
The balloon grew and grew, and with the ever-expanding girth of the giant blue orb, my son’s smile became more mischievous and delighted. The color of the balloon shifted as it filled from deep blue to medium and then to a translucent bluish tint as the latex thinned out enough for me to see that cocky grin behind the massive ball.
Then it popped.
The dog ran under a bed to find refuge from the loud explosion. The boy laughed with triumph. After all, who had accomplished such a feat before in our family? No one, that’s who.
The anticipation leading up to the final blast reminded me of the muscular men who visited our campus bible study two decades ago when I was just a girl in college. If you graced the world of campus ministry in the mid-1990s, then you probably saw these men perform feats of strength as life/faith illustrations. Some bent bars of iron, others ripped giant phone books in half from top to bottom. This balloon my son blew up reminded me of the man who held unopened soda cans in his hands and squeezed them until they exploded.
“Once the pressure on the outside exceeds the pressure on the inside, this can will explode,” the very large man said, just before the contents of the cans exploded all over the front two rows of cringing students. “That’s why it’s important what’s inside you. Your character must withstand all the external pressure of our culture.”
But the memory makes me wonder, all these years later, what’s inside me? What’s inside you? What fills us up and makes us stronger than our circumstances, pressing back on the pressures of life that would love to see us burst and fail to grow and fill more?
Ever since I wore my baggy Ralph Lauren overalls and Steve Madden black slides to Biology 101, I have been silently filling up with stories. Stories of failure and of accomplishment, stories of hope and faith, stories that weigh me down, and some that lift me up. All sorts of people have emptied their stories into my life, just by being my friends and roommates, by choosing to let me see their wounds and their trophies.
It has been easy to fill up with tales of couples who choose to love each other for a lifetime, victories over cancer, prayers that have availed, and adventures of epic beauty. Prayers of thanksgiving and glorious delight in God’s kindness are not hard to find on days when His love and favor seem to bloom everywhere we look.
But I have had to grow and expand to make space for stories of women who lose babies, men who battle addiction, and children who should not have been abused. Prayers come slowly then, our timid faith and hope running scared under the wing of the God whose name is a refuge when darkness seems to be winning.
The stories must turn to prayers, as this filling is the crux of the paper-thin life that church and ministry and Jesus lead us into as the years roll by us. We could explode all over the front two rows of the people closest to us if we don’t let our weakness become God’s strength, as we expand by praying what we hear and feel.
Leading and loving in the Kingdom of God requires that we carry the stories of God’s people- even when the stories are messy and have not found their happy ending yet. Even when we don’t understand how to find light and order in the dark chaos.
A thousand longing prayers swirl through the breath of our stories mixed with God’s own breath within us. Once we give them a voice, they make us strong as we all cry the same words:
“Anything for our King, everything for our Lord! Beauty form ashes. Life rises from death. What have we to fear, what can we ever lose that could compare to the promise of eternal love as our destiny?”
Like Mary, we must treasure in our hearts the stories and prayers of our people. Yes, they will thin us out, making us transparent and possibly even cause us to appear weak and in danger of bursting.
But this filling up is how we grow into the mature Bride of Christ who can stand beside her groom, confident that God is not a mischievous boy or a man of great muscular strength delighting in the frightening end to his plan.
God placed an ocean of light and love inside us, an endless expanse capable of holding every story- no matter how happy or sad the words may make us feel.
Tell me your story. Offer up your prayers for mine. We are the Church, and we are full of the God in whom we abide. Let’s go and make known all that God has done, and all that we long to see Him do.
We will not fail or burst, for His story has made us strong.