Next week we begin Advent, which is almost impossible to believe. This has been the longest shortest year I think I’ve ever lived. With so much lost and gained this year and Advent upon us, I’ve felt very introspective.
…if you come in touch with the experience of being used or the experience of being useless, you might in fact be close to a true Christian experience, or closer than you sought.Henri Nouwen
I read this Henri Nouwen quote the other day and began to ponder being used.
As a mother, it’s easy to feel used. Used for sustenance from the moment of conception all the way up to the current demand for another snack. Used for entertainment and education. Used as a bandaid, comforter, referee, and umpire. Used as personal assistant, personal chef, personal trainer, laundry service, life coach, and living jungle gym. Much of motherhood and parenthood is thankless. I’m told that I’ll get my thanks later, when their own children give them a taste of their own medicine, but that’s certainly not guaranteed. I know I have plenty to thank my own parents for that I haven’t ever mentioned to them.
Regardless of promised future gratitude, parenthood is thankless and selfless in a way that I had never experienced before my first baby was placed at my breast to tear my nipple to shreds, to make me blister and bleed, all the while demanding more and more and more of me until I almost broke.
You don’t have to be a parent to understand this deep feeling of being used. I have a dear friend who has no children of her own due to infertility and life being stupidly unfair. She may not be a parent, but she knows the profound experience of being used in equally deep and nuanced ways. A recent employment experience in education has left her stripped the same way I’ve been stripped by mothering. Used by students, taken advantage of by faculty, abused by administration, dismissed and disrespected, she’s poured herself out over and over and over again for a mission she deeply loves, only to have her work labeled unnecessary or expendable by the higher ups who clearly have a different set of priorities. I cannot speak for my friend, but I think it’s safe to say her soul feels as raw and ripped as my breastfeeding nipples. I realize how weird a metaphor that is, but I stand by it.
I read that Henri Nouwen quote and began to ponder what it means to be useless.
Which of us has not deeply felt smallness this year? Who among us has not felt useless to some extent? Unable to affect change, weak, powerless, unable to understand or regulate our own emotions let alone those of others, we’ve all floundered a bit with uselessness. Perhaps we’ve lost jobs, lost elections, lost followers, lost hope that our little lives are able to make much difference in this big world of hunger, hurt, and hate.
I believe deeply in the power of the human soul, that each of us does truly matter, that little actions have huge repercussions…but these feelings of uselessness are real and valid. Part of the human experience, the feelings of uselessness are side effects of living in a society that values productivity over people. If we are not of some use to others, what good are we? If we have nothing of value to offer, do we even matter? This explains our willingness to ignore the unborn, the alien, the elderly, the ill. They cannot contribute in the world’s valuable currency of usefulness, so we turn away and leave them to fend for themselves.
But what does Jesus tell us of being used? Of being useless?
Surely Christ was used by many. How many people were healed in scripture who never returned to offer their thanks? I can imagine that there were many more healings besides those mentioned in the gospels that went unnoticed by anyone other than the Lord and the one he healed.
And on the subject of uselessness, there’s nothing more “useless” in the view of the world than a baby. Babies have nothing to offer, no contributions to make. They just take what they need and scream when they’re uncomfortable. (Could it be that we are more like babies than we’d care to admit?)
Perhaps the only thing more quantifiably useless than a baby is having claimed to be God and then being unwilling to remove oneself from a cross. What use is being the Son of God if you refuse to use that power when it counts?
For Jesus, this uselessness is everything. For us, it should be everything.
Being useless in the presence of the Lord strips us of everything we think we bring to the table: all the skills, talents, gifts, all the accolades and lessons we’ve collected from the School of Hard Knocks that we think make us valuable, all empty. Being useless in our relationship with Jesus requires us to acknowledge that everything we’ve placed our hope and personhood in is nothing compared to the man clinging uselessly to the cross that costs him everything and grants us eternity.
Allowing ourselves to be emptied out, to become useless and used is the crux of the Christian experience. We must learn to accept that there is nothing we can do or bring forward, nothing we can lean on of our own creation that will make us more valuable. There is nothing we can make, do, or offer that will make us more lovable. Just like a baby who does nothing to earn the love offered it, we are cradled against the eternal breast of a God who willingly breaks himself open for us again, and again, and again.
When we recognize this inherent value in ourselves, we are better able to empty ourselves for the other. When we pour out from the truth of our identity, we are free to be used by others, not expecting anything in return, not requiring thanks, praise, affirmation, or acceptance to confirm our worthiness.
Let me be clear. I’m not advocating for us to stay in situations and relationships that are abusive or that don’t honor our innate dignity. Knowing our identity in Christ allows us to recognize those times when others don’t. Accepting our identity in Christ grants us the ability to set boundaries and walk away when necessary. The distinction I want to make is that so often we cling to the thanks, we cling to the affirmation, and the comments, and the likes holding them up to the light and admiring them as jewels that define our goodness, but they don’t define a thing. They turn to dust in our hands and leave us feeling emptier than before. We’ve twisted our identity so that we think we are useless without these jewels the world offers us, but in reality it is our uselessness that makes us worth loving.
My friend and I both recently gained a new nephew and niece within days of each other. We’ve been sharing news of our sisters, showing off the new babies to one another. They are two of the most beautiful babies that have ever been born and we are not biased at all, thankyouverymuch.
As I’ve walked through days of heaviness and worry, these strings of baby texts have been a joy. Sharing pictures of new little humans smirking in their bassinets, speculating on their long term hair color, and which parent they favor most has been such a precious way for me to escape my own glum days and be overjoyed with new life.
As conversations usually go with this particular friend, our texts rambled through the agreement that gosh we’ve needed these babies: “babies are exactly what this world needs,” wandered through sharing our current struggles and worries about upcoming holidays, and ultimately circled back to Jesus.
At the end of our conversation about holiday worries and postponed family plans my friend said, “Jesus is born no matter what. What this world needs is babies, and one specific baby most of all.”
Babies are exactly what this world needs.
We need the weight of them against our chests to remind us of the heaviness of Love that leans into us, just longing to be close not because of what we can do but because of who we are.
We need babies screaming in the night, reminding us to cry out for our Father, reminding us to keep calling on him with persistence, screaming into the darkness until we are held in the strength of his embrace.
We need babies in our lives to remind us that we can love someone simply because they exist.
We need babies to remind us of our own uselessness, of our own dependence, our own frailty. We’re all just one diaper change away from sitting in our own mess again, aren’t we?
We need babies to remind us that time is irrelevant and, in the big scheme of things, schedules are unimportant. Degrees, trophies, books sold, career goals met, cakes baked, toilets cleaned, spreadsheets balanced…none of it impacts a baby.
You know what impacts a baby? Being held skin to skin against the heart of the one who protects them. That’s what impacts a baby. Babies gain security from being swaddled up and held tight by the ones who broke themselves open, body and soul, to deliver them into the world.
As we enter into Advent, we need babies.
We especially need one baby.
We need the baby to remind us of our uselessness, of what it means to be used. We need him to point us back to dependence and humility, to sacrifice and surrender. And in the great paradox of our faith, we need this baby to save us from ourselves.
We must become like the baby Savior in order to love and be loved in this wild and wicked world. We must find ourselves worthy in our uselessness, offering ourselves to be completely used up, wasted, and poured out for love of a King who comes to us as an impractical infant in a no-name town, born to an unassuming family that became little and lonely, unremarkable and undistinguished in order to change the world through far-reaching, radically humble love.
Used and useless is the space where we must dwell this Advent, swaddled in the paradoxical love of a weak and useless baby in a manger, resting there until he is completely used up for us all.