Sometimes you have to go without something to appreciate it – at least, I do.
Last weekend, we held a sleepover at church for the 8-11 year olds in our Boys’ Brigade Company. They played pool and table tennis, made chocolate pizzas, did a quiz, and watched a film late into the night. Finally, it was time to settle down for some actual sleep, the boys in the church hall, the leaders each in a side room.
I retired to our Rainbow Room, used throughout the week for meetings, U3A sessions, and small youth group activities. It also had the advantage over the hall of having carpet tiles. And I had come well prepared – after all, I’ve done this before. I had my husband’s new, thick exercise mat; my cosy, brushed cotton lined sleeping bag; a pillow; and my long fleece dressing gown for an extra layer if needed. I even had my Kindle just in case I couldn’t sleep.
I wasn’t expecting any difficulties. I’ve slept in more uncomfortable surroundings, even fully clothed (complete with hat) when camping outdoors in November. I’ve slept in this room for previous indoor camps before.
But I was wrong. It was one of the worst night’s sleep I’d had in a long time. Carpet and mat seemed to make no difference as I struggled to find a position that didn’t dig into my hips or thighs or shoulders. My pillow instantly shrank to half its thickness and seemed determined to spend the night escaping from under my head. The light in the corridor (which we’d left on for the boys to find the toilet) flooded my room with unwelcome brightness, fooling my brain into thinking it was daytime. Unfamiliar noises, even though I told myself they were just the pipes after the heating had been turned off, kept bringing me to a state of alertness.
I was glad of my Kindle. I read a lot of my John le Carre book before finally dosing off.
But it wasn’t to last. Around 3am, I woke for no obvious reason. I went to the loo, snuggled back into my sleeping bag (which I’d moved into a darker corner away from the intruding light, simultaneously trapping my pillow against the wall), and once again returned to the saga of no comfortable position, disturbing sounds, and a brain that had switched off sleep mode. Surrendering to wakefulness, out came the Kindle again as I followed the exploits of George Smiley for another two hours before finally falling asleep again for the last thirty minutes or so before my alarm went off.
The following night, I was back in the comfort of my own capacious double bed with its elegant brass frame. Two fluffy pillows moulded perfectly to my neck and head. The mattress and topper gave just the right level of support to my curves. A double layer duvet wrapped me in a cocoon of warmth. The bed linen was freshly laundered, soft and scented against my skin. Only the faint outline of the closed door pierced the sleep inducing darkness. And the comfort of that familiar body next to mine filled me with reassurance and security. Bliss.
This was a bed full of memories: where my youngest was nursed as a baby; where both children found refuge when sick; where I was woken early by the phone to be told of my mother’s death; where everyone’s Christmas stockings and birthday presents are always opened first thing in the morning. Its history, our family’s history, wraps around me like an old, well loved dressing gown.
Such a welcome difference.
And I realised how often I take it for granted or don’t appreciate it at all. Even if insomnia attacks at home, I can decamp to a generous and very comfortable sofa with plenty of warm bedding. I considered my bed and my home with renewed gratitude.
With Advent about to begin, I also started to think about what it was really like for Mary and Joseph, trying to sleep in an unfamiliar environment with a brand new baby. How cold and hard was the floor of an animal enclosure? What about the noise, let alone the smell? How many disturbances from sleep by that child who needed feeding or changing? How many disturbances when the animals needed feeding or mucking out, let alone strange visitors?
No pillows or sleeping bags or camping mats for extra comfort for them. No Kindle for distraction.
The trouble is we have romanticised the story, sprinkled the stable with tinsel and glitter, and turned the whole thing into a pastoral idyll. We have magnified Mary and Joseph into saints or reduced them to characters in a children’s play. We have ignored the reality of it, turned away from the cold and the dirt and the smell, forgotten the fatigue and fears of new parenthood.
What if we try to imagine the modern equivalent – giving birth and making do in a garage?
I gave birth in the safety of a local hospital, then within a few hours brought my infant son back to our lovely brass bed and our warm centrally heated house and our fridge full of food and my parents staying for a few weeks to support us. No such comforts for Mary and Joseph.
And no such comforts for a lot of people in the modern world.
We’re trying a new tradition this Advent, a Reverse Advent Calendar. It’s a simple cardboard box, to which we will add one item per day, and give the finished result to our local Foodbank. It’s not much. But it’s an attempt to celebrate the truth of this season, to remember the God who didn’t just come for a sleepover but who moved into the neighbourhood, and to do something for others as a means of serving Him. I might not be able to give Mary and Joseph a bed for the night but I can make sure Jesus, in the form of someone else, has enough to eat and the toiletries He needs.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25.34-36 & 40)