When I was 22 years old I made a list of all the things I hoped to do before I was 30. It said:
Live on Orkney for a year
Live in Dublin for a year
Become fluent in French
Write a novel
Do something of significance and meaning in the world
Visit New York in the autumn
Let’s just say, by the time I turned 30, I’d made it to New York, but not much else.
We all have hopes and plans, ideas about who we’d like to be and what we’d hope our lives will be like, expectations of our jobs, of our earning power, of where we’ll live, of the kind of parent we’ll be. Some of us carry the expectations of others too – the hopes of our parents or partners or children to be a particular way. Maybe you were named in honour of someone and you feel a sense of having to live up to their reputation or their memory.
Like it was with my list, life doesn’t always run along like the fairytale we dream it will. Sometimes you find yourself in a job you dislike, or in no job at all. Sometimes you end up living somewhere you don't want to. Some of us won’t be parents, or discover parenthood isn’t what we imagined it would be like. Some of us struggle with the expectations our families put onto us. Some of us can’t live up to who others want or need us to be.
Joseph might have struggled with any or all of these things – trying to live up to the meaning of his name ‘He gives sons’, to his parents’ hopes for him, to his own dreams for his life with Mary, to what people in the community expected of him, to his own reputation for being ‘just’.
There is nothing wrong with having aspirations, hopes and dreams, of looking at people we admire and trying to emulate those things in our own lives. But at some point, we all have to deal with the reality of our lives as they are, rather than as we’d like them to be.
It’s easy when we look at the lives of people who we think have everything we’d want for ourselves to see them as ‘blessed’, and to look at our own lives and feel like they’re lacking in some way. God is smiling on them, but maybe not so much at me.
But what the story of the coming of Jesus tells us, is that the truth is very different. Those who looked favoured to our eyes are not the ones who hear God’s voice. It’s not the kings or the wealthy or the acclaimed who we recognise as blessed in this story. It’s a young girl from an obscure Palestinian village. It’s the man who chose to marry her and ruin his own reputation in the process. It’s the people for whom it looked like everything was going wrong.
God is present in reality. As it is. And God comes to us as we are. When Joseph finds the dreams and aspirations he had for his life in tatters, that is exactly the moment where he hears God’s voice.
It’s not that Joseph’s life miraculously became everything he’d ever dreamed of. Far from it. But he became the person he was made to be, in the reality of what his life actually was.
As Joseph honestly confronted the reality of his life, he found that God was right there with him. And he knew himself to be blessed.
It can be a hard thing to accept that God is with us in the very unblessed-looking-ness of our lives. That God is there in the unanswered prayers, in the calls for healing that never comes, in the plans that go awry, in the broken relationships, and the shattered dreams. That God is there when we don’t feel blessed.
Yet that is exactly where God is most present. In the tatters and the ruins, close to the brokenhearted.
May you, when you stand in the ashes of what could have been, find God standing with you, speaking your name.
Johanna Derry Hall