Don’t let my name fool you. One of my most redeeming qualities is being a realist, often named by others as pessimist. In the spirit of that title, or misplaced naming, I am unsure how I will stomach Christmas this year. What could possibly save it?
There is much to despair about this Christmas. The holiday season is known for bringing about good tidings and better vibes. But how can we celebrate while neighbors are being bused and flown back to unsafe places? How can we celebrate as war wages and death surrounds us? How can feel bright and merry while people go hungry and wonder if the food pantry will have enough for them this week? How can we celebrate in the face of gun violence against children and the murder of our LGBTQ siblings?
The uncertainty of the past few years has become a part of our national psyche and is a pervasive feeling for those who still grapple with the effects of COVID-19. Families have been torn apart at our borders while others have not been able to recover from divisive political misinformation and deepening party lines. Hopes for 2022 were crushed by medical emergencies, and failed attempts only hardened the blow.
Lots of churches are in decline and have been unable to recover despite attempts to livestream, Zoom or become relevant. Historic buildings need new roofs, and congregations that cannot afford to replace them sell the facility.
If anything, we have been trying to navigate these despairing situations, at least, I have. This year has been arduous and too long. But there has been one constant in my life: the sound of an oxygen machine.
One of the members of our praise team uses oxygen. In fact, she is our untitled worship leader. She not only leads our congregation in song but has stepped in to serve. Her kind disposition and willingness to participate has made this year better while encouraging the congregation.
The Holy Spirit sounds like an oxygen machine to me.
“Each time I hear it, I can feel the whisper or hiss of the Holy Spirit.”
The sharp intake of room air to the compression of the oxygen to the hiss of the nitrogen being released has been what I can count on during worship, Bible study and ministry opportunities. The consistency of the once foreign sound has bred familiarity and comfort. Each time I hear it, I can feel the whisper or hiss of the Holy Spirit.
Throughout the narrative of Scripture, the Holy Spirit has been likened to wind or breath (ruah). It is believed that even the divine name for God, Yahweh, sounds like breathing in and out. The very presence of God made manifest in the abiding nature of the Paraclete/Comforter/Advocation.
In the Gospel according to John, Jesus breathed on the disciples so they would receive the Holy Spirit. It is the predictability and fierceness of breath that reminds us that we serve a God who not only creates but willingly comes to abide with humanity.
This season of Advent and Christmastide, we speak extensively all about the embracing of Emmanuel, God with us. So I cannot help but consider the Spirit’s lingering in First Baptist Church made audible through Mary’s portable oxygen machine. It invites me to reconsider my frustrations with the small number of people situated in a building that seats 600 people. It asks me to look for God in the ordinary and mundane to find sacredness. It calls my attention back to God as my mind drifts while on stage before the sermon. It yells for me to hope for more. To hope that there can be goodness, justice, new life and that all this longing is not met with displeasure but love.
If we cannot dare to hope in the season marked by awaiting, longing and anticipation, then we will miss the opportunity to find the Spirit’s presence in reflecting on Christ’s birth and promise to return.
It was the Spirit that came upon Mary and overshadowed her to conceive.
The Spirit filled Elizabeth as she proclaimed, “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Simeon was guided by the Spirit to rejoice.
Anna was empowered to speak the truth of who the child is in the redemption of Jerusalem.
It must be that the same Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation, empowered the judges, prophets and the unexpected persons of the birth narrative and those present at Pentecost.
“The truth is the Spirit has been moving among our 35 regular attenders even if I am unaware.”
In the testimony of that Spirit, I find comfort and sustainability even if it sounds a little different. As cynical as I am about flying drummers at Christmas programs and the prevalence of Christian nationalism among my Baptist brothers and sisters, the sound of an oxygen machine invites me to hope. It demands that I do. When I feel like I cannot bear to preach another 23-minute sermon, the sound taunts, “There is still hope for even you.”
What I can tell you is that during our Christmas Eve service this year when we ring in Christmas as a church family, I will be eager to hear the calming release of oxygen. If possible, I will attempt to see God’s presence in the lighting of candles older than me and in the singing of “Silent Night.” I long to find solace.
The truth is the Spirit has been moving among our 35 regular attenders even if I am unaware. She has invited us to serve our community in new ways through sack lunches and a Little Free Library. She has reminded me that the kingdom or kin-dom of God reigns no matter our view of the Nebraska Capitol Building across the street. She was there when one of our middle-aged members started seminary, when others struggled with addiction, when the roof disagreements occurred, when the Christmas tree was put up and when the pastor went on too long.
The whooshing and hissing have been my companion and sustainer. I will hold on to the little bit (maybe 10%) of hope I can muster this year. I will try to be content with the foolish truth that God is with us. God has not forgotten us. God will not abandon us. God is present. God is at work. God invites us to come and hear. God offers us healing and hope even in the Year of Our Lord 2022.
On a good day, God offers us oxygen even from a machine. Christmas might be safe after all from a pessimist like me.
Joy Martinez-Marshall serves as pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln, Neb. She shares in ministry with two other congregations that call 1340 K Street their home. As pastor, Joy helps lead K Street Lunch (a sack lunch ministry in partnership with FBCL’s sibling congregations), other nonprofits and a local retirement community. She is vice president of the Faith Coalition of Lancaster County, an interfaith group that seeks to educate and support faith communities. She holds a bachelor’s degree in religion from Baylor University and a master of divinity degree from George W. Truett Theological Seminary. As a native Texan, she loves to cook and knows the value of the perfect game day snack. You can find her reading on her tablet while drinking a cold Dr Pepper or cheering on Liverpool FC, the Dallas Mavericks and Cowboys alongside her husband, Austin.