Family Joy at Christmas! That’s what the ad in the church supply magazine promised if I purchased their lovely nativity set with stable. I was so excited when the UPS driver delivered it to the church office that chilly November afternoon that I went home early to start decorating. 

I took care to place everything on its proper mark there on our newly designated nativity stage.  Sheep at the foot of the shepherd boy. Baby Jesus in the manger between Joseph and Mary.  Angel hovering over the stable thanks to a teacher’s best friend: Sticky Tac. The three wise men (and they were clearly men in this set) along with their frankincense, gold and myrrh.

Starting that first night we owned the beautiful nativity, I held evening vespers as we stood on what must have been holy ground there in our living room. Living in a multigenerational household, Nanny, my mother, along with Ken and our daughters worshiped together every night before bedtime. 

It was – so far – the perfect Advent!

A couple of weeks later, Katy arrived home on a Friday with a gift she had made for me in school. She was so excited about her creation and insisted I needed to open it immediately so that we could enjoy it during the holiday season. 

As I opened the hand-decorated gift bag, I was totally unprepared for what was inside: a HUGE, hand-made donkey she had sculpted in clay and painted dark grey. 

“Mommy, it’s another piece for your nativity set!”

Surely not.  Surely, she doesn’t expect me to put Godzilla, the ugly donkey out with my Family Joy at Christmas nativity! And before I could say anything, she grabbed her creation and placed it prominently beside the Three Wise Men.

Now, I’m the mom that wears home-made kid jewelry quite often.  My refrigerator art gallery was full.  I am an early childhood professional that understands deeply how to affirm children’s creations. 

But there was something about that HUGE, ugly donkey that I couldn’t imagine being part of this perfect Family Joy at Christmas nativity set.  Besides, I had a couple of parties for different church groups happening at my home the next week and there was NO PLACE for that monstrosity at my church parties! 

In the hectic moments before the first church party, Katy failed to notice that donkey had taken a side trip to Mama and Daddy’s bedroom.  But in the midst of our decking the halls and fa-la-la-ing, she noticed his absence…and she was heartbroken.  Didn’t I like her gift she created for me?  Did something happen to the donkey?  Did someone break into our house and steal it? 

I re-learned a very important lesson that night. It doesn’t matter if you are a HUGE, ugly donkey; all are invited to come to the manger. It doesn’t matter if you look different from all those others gathered ‘round the Christ Child; God sent Jesus to earth for those of us who look different.

Donkey found his way back to our nativity stage. When the angel, wise men and baby Jesus were packed away that year after Epiphany, donkey stayed out of the box and was prominently displayed in Nanny’s knickknack shelf. He would come to play an important role as reminder-in-chief for our little family of God’s call to love all of our neighbors.

As we make our way toward Bethlehem in the year of our Lord 2020, we must be intentional in loving our neighbors – all of them – in ways that may be different from years past.  And if you find yourself doubting that call to love, I’ve got a HUGE, dark grey, ugly donkey I can loan you.

Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete. 1 John 4:11-12 The Message.

Rev. Jill Daniel is the Director of We Love All God’s Children at the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas. Most Sunday’s Rev. Daniel and her family can be found worshipping at First United Methodist Church Pearland. Join them in person any Sunday or check them out on their on-line service at the same link above.

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