The fog was billowing all around us and the piercing sound was surrounding everyone in the room.
It was a Christmas Eve service and the woman with the microphone was mesmerizing us all with her rendition of O Holy Night. The fog machine was on full blast and people seemed altogether enchanted with stars in their eyes, as most are this time of year during a Christmas performance.
Except the girl next to me.
Her long, acrylic black nails were clicking away at her iPhone screen. The lengthy blonde locks flowed down, grazing the glowing rectangle in her hand, blocking her field of vision. She’d toss it back so she could see her phone again and elbow me every time in the process.
We’ll call her Tara. Tara the Texter.
Every few minutes Tara would interrupt her (I think?) bestie sitting beside—we’ll call her Brittany the Bestie—and show her the newest, most entertaining text. They couldn’t have been older than 16.
For a few moments, every now and then, she’d stop and look up at the singer, or pastor, or whomever was on the tree-filled stage at the time. Then she’d look back down at her phone, type in the password and open what could have only been Snap Chat, pulling Brittany into the picture and screen-shotting their most flattering angles from above. Then she used the glowing box to survey the room and all its decorations.
I’d fight to pay attention to the sermon and sing the songs, trying to concentrate on the best part of both—the words.
But we all know just how large the iPhone 6 Plus is, and all the glowy clicking from below was seriously distracting. It seems she was focused on words too, but not the ones projected at the front of the church.
I know ritualistic, yearly sit-ins like the one we were in seem boring to some people. They did for me, too, for a great number of years.
But lately, I really like listening to these sorts of things. I wanted to hear the singer. I wanted to see the hard work she had put in. I wanted to hear the preacher’s message he had toiled over and prayed for and thought about for some time.
I wanted to be a part of everything Tara apparently did not, apart from the fog machine. We both unspokenly agreed on that part at least—all that fog was a little much.
For the first third of the entire service, my soul ever-increasingly simmered against Tara. Well, that’s a nice way to put it.
The honest thing to say is that I was judging her.
How can her parents not rein this in? This isn’t a concert. It’s a Christmas service. These people have worked really hard to pull this off. Even if it’s not your cup of tea, the right thing to do is just sit for half an hour and be respectful towards other people’s work, no matter what it is.
The clicking ramped up to a tiny machine gun speed. She was conversing at an impressively furious pace now. Either she was in a varsity-level lover’s-quarrel-text-fight (which happens on the weekly for a 16-year old) or Brittany was secretly holding her at gunpoint to achieve the world record for words-per-minute. Whatever the reason, Tara was clearly caught up in some sort of exchange, some kind of story that eclipsed everything going on around her.
Five or six people noticed the clicking. Tara was oblivious and in the worst moment possible, when the preacher man looked directly at our row, she laughingly held up her phone for another selfie.
My judgment was on the front burner now, boiling up a storm.
Man alive, Tara, put the phone down! Can you not restrain your hands and your mouth for 30 seconds? Can you not press pause long enough to hear someone else for a second? Can’t you get it togeth—
I froze. I knew that voice.
It seemed Tara wasn’t the only one distracted and unable to pause long enough to hear Someone else.
See, it’s hard to communicate what a moment of conviction from the Lord feels like. But let’s just say sometimes it’s a soft word, and other times it jolts you out of your inner (and usually self-righteous) monologue.
I was so busy judging Tara for not paying attention that I forgot that I wasn’t paying attention. Granted, my attention was being diverted by her glowing box, for sure, but still—why was I so angry with her? Why did I assume I had the moral highground above her?
Was I really all that better?
I asked the Lord to speak to me in this moment. To correct me. To offer me a word that would dissolve my blood-boiling judgment.
The Lord pulled Luke 18:11 out of my long-term memory and sunk it straight into my soul.
Just switch out Pharisee for Ashley and replace tax-collector with text-collector, and God had me pegged.
In my judgment, I was thanking God that I was so much better than Tara.
In essence, I was saying, “Thank you God, that I’m not like this text-collecting Tara. That I pay attention in church. That I take notes. That I sing the songs and do the rituals. Thanks for making me so ever-blessed holy.”
Jesus has an ending to this story, and it doesn’t end well for the religious guy. It actually ends well for the “sinner.” Jesus ends up saying that when the one who is considered “less than” actually cries out for mercy, he is considered more righteous than the person who keeps all the rules. The remaining verses in Luke 18:13-14 tell us that the humble one, the one looked down on, the one who calls out for God’s favor walks away on higher ground in God’s eyes.
So I did just that—I called out to the Lord. I said those very words to Him—
“Would you offer me mercy, in my stupid, judgmental moments? Have mercy on me, the one who is the true sinner in this situation, and create in me a humble heart. Relieve me of my pride and infuse in me compassion.”
So here’s the truth about both Tara and myself— we were both caught up in the wrong story.
We were both stuck in a story that stole our attention while a better story was happening all around us. Hers was some story I’ll never know, unfolding in the glowing box, text by text. Mine was caught up in how strange this 16-year old seemed to be acting. Regardless, when it comes to a Christmas service, we were both focused on the wrong person.
The story of Christmas is both global and gorgeous and much better than a blonde sitting next to you in church or the text-fight you really want to engage in.
And isn’t that what we all struggle with, even outside of church services? Don’t we all get side tracked in the wrong stories?
The big story is about a God who knew we couldn’t work out way to Him, so he came to us instead. It’s about a Creator that wants to reconcile His creation back to harmony and love and peace through His own effort, not ours. It’s about the Divine ear that not only leans into the cry of one calling for mercy, but does something about it.
Christmas is about a God who sees. He sees the condition we are all in.
It’s about a God who hears. He hears when we call out to Him about all of it.
And it’s about a God who moves. He moves, acts, and does something about our condition, as he is fittingly named not only the God who happens to see your story from afar, but “the God who bursts through” it, and meets you in it.
And how does he burst through to us?
He comes to us instead of making us come to him— for the annoying churchgoer and the texting-fiend alike.
See, he saw the story of humanity’s condition and bursted into the story Himself, in the form of a human. He couldn’t help but come to us, to become one of us, identify with our experience, to be able to say “I know. I’ve been there, too. And I overcame it all. For you.”
There’s no other God like that, and I worship him for bringing me back in moment of (stupid and judgmental) weakness to His incredible story.
Merry Christmas everyone, and a word of advice: love your neighbor, even when they over-text. And avoid fog machines.
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