I have had a VERY long drive for Thinking All The Thoughts. Among the things I’ve been musing on is the New Testament reading for this Sunday—Hebrews 10.
The unnamed author of Hebrews (I like to agree with those who have suggested that it was penned by Paul’s companion Priscilla) begins the chapter by noting that all scripture is merely a shadow of the good things to come. She admonishes us for sticking with scripture and ritual sacrifice when the coming of Christ IS the good thing the scripture foretells. Christ, not the rituals, brings forgiveness and redemption.
She’s calling us out for CHOOSING TO STAY IN THE DARK when the Light of the World is here.
Well, dang. That sheds a whole different sort of light on things. (See what I just did there?)
I am certain that some of my struggles are real battles with darkness. They are. Still, there is something for me to poke at here.
Where in my life am I clinging to promises that have already been fulfilled? Are my rituals ineffectual? Worse, are they an affront to the Creator? Am I stubbornly refusing to step into the light? Preferring instead to stick to the dark places I have come to know?
I remember playing this game as a kid. It’s typically a pool game; part of the point is that there is only so much area to cover with your eyes closed. You can cling to the wall, the concrete under your bare toes is solid and gently sloped, and you remember exactly how deep the water gets because it was marked in giant black stenciled numbers along the edge.
We didn’t have a pool, so we played in the lake. In a lake, the boundaries are too distant for young legs to measure. There are slimy-smooth weeds, nibbly fish, leeches, sudden drop-offs, sharp stones and shells, trippy driftwood, and occasional rusty bottle caps. Voices all sound small and distant, competing with wind and waves and wildlife, no comforting concrete to assist with a feeble human version of echolocation. In a lake, Marco Polo can easily lead to doom.
“Do you just want me to move these boxes back out to the garage?”
The question was gentle, not accusatory. My husband was trying to alleviate some of the guilt he could see I was feeling for all of my not-doing. Typically I have the house completely decorated by the first day of Advent, and I have a plan for all of the baking. So. Much. Baking. But here we are, a week before Christmas, and not so much as a shepherd has made it from the Christmas storage boxes to the mantle.
I am not seeing the light.
We’ve had great Christmases, and difficult ones. We’ve had sleepless Christmases, and a few that felt care-free (before kids). But I’ve never experienced one when I really, truly couldn’t see the light.
My eyes work. I can see the candles aflame in the Advent wreath—three of them now, the glow growing stronger. The tree has been up since late November (thanks to my husband and kids), and my husband hung string lights all through the kitchen, living room, and dining room. I see them; they’re beautiful. But I don’t see the light.
As if the universe itself needed to drive the point home, earlier this month I posted a picture of my parents kissing on their wedding day. My sister-in-law messaged me quickly, “I think it was February 7th?”
I glanced at my calendar to confirm, then sighed, thinking how exhausted she must be from her recent move, and messaged back, “Today is February 7.” I briefly pictured her forehead-slapping at her error when it dawned on me. I was sitting near the lit-up Christmas tree. My phone was resting on a bright red tablecloth with snowflakes all over it. The calendar I just checked says DECEMBER at the top, with a picture of Scotty dogs and wrapped presents. In my foggy head, I had skipped two months. Two months which include Christmas with all of my kids under the same roof (a rare treat), and our own upcoming anniversary.
A week earlier I’d been sitting on an ornate couch in a small, quiet office.
“So, looking at your symptoms, I would give you a diagnosis of clinical depression.”
There is a long pause. It doesn’t even occur to me that I’m supposed to react at this point.
I wasn’t failing to respond because I was shocked. I was just weighing whether the therapist would want to hear either of the things going through my head:
What kind of asshole gets diagnosed with depression during Advent? (Answer: me.
Hearing the words out loud sounded like an official Naming of Things in the Room, like a sick, fallen parody of Adam sizing up Eden. “Lamb. Lion. Fig tree. Serpent. Couch. Depression.”
It seems both contrary and fitting in this season of light to finally give a name to the darkness. I’m sure it’s a first step, or something like that. I’ve gone through this for others, sitting by them on similar couches, many times. I could write myself a how-to pamphlet: It will take time. It will take effort. Therapy plus maybe meds plus hard work plus time will make it better, though it may never go away. Be patient. Keep going. Etc., etc. Yes, I know.
I’m lucky; I have tremendous support, and access to doctors. There are many who do not. In my head I keep going back to those games of Marco Polo, and to my family’s habit of changing the rules of any given game when we got bored. I’m picturing myself back in the Giant Lake with Questionable Motives, calling out “Marco.” But instead of swimming off behind weeds and rocks, reveling in their ability to see hiding places while I fumble around blind, my family and friends answer “Polo” by swimming close, holding my hand, and staying near until I’m able to open my eyes again.
It’s not a bright shining star leading me to a manger, but I trust that those things are still there too because my “Polos” say they are. It will do for now.
Among the efforts I have been making this Advent has been reading through Suzanne M. Lewis’ Living In Joyful Hope Advent and Christmas Meditations. I was familiar with her writing, and even participated in an online advent retreat of sorts with her last year, that used readings from this book. Then I got to meet Suzanne, spending the weekend with her at Convivium’s Terra Incognita literary conference last month. Immediately, I found myself drawn to her. She is a beautiful, deeply kind soul who seems comfortable in the dark, because she is sure of the light of the spirit that illuminates her way.
I want that surety.
I have spent too much of my life cursing the dark. I have exhausted myself trying to open more windows, light more candles, illuminate every corner. I wanted my life lit up. I had never even considered that maybe being in the dark could be okay.
I want what Suzanne has. I want to be able to stand in the dark, confident that even a tiny flicker of light is sufficient to guide me along.
Now that I have met her, I find that when I am reading Suzanne’s meditations, I hear them in her soft, but passionate voice. What a difference that has made for me! The traditional Advent scriptures that I have read dozens, if not hundreds, of times have taken on a new shine. I find that I am seeking a lens angle shift, so that I can see the prophecies, the experiences of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary’s story through the eyes of wonder and love.
This weekend, I realized that something in me is beginning to shift.
Inspired by Suzanne’s meditations, and my own spiritual needs, all Advent I have been musing on the precept “God is love.” I have long thought of myself as a loving person. I am sure of the love I have for my children, and for my husband. I know I love my other family members, and that they love me, but it’s complicated. A big part of my spiritual trouble is that I wrestle with whether or not I can honestly say I love Jesus. I have most definitely struggled lately with believing that God is a loving god.
It just occurred to me that I think of these different relationships as different kinds of love. That I carry different definitions and different expectations from these relationships. What if I have it wrong?
This is not yet a fully formed thought, but I have a post deadline, so you are getting what I have so far, which is this: Presume that “God is Love” is true. Then all love is holy. All love is of God. All love IS God.
My love for my three children is the manifestation of God on earth. My love for my husband is the manifestation of God on earth. My love for my students, my love for my co-teachers, my love for my friends, my love for their children, my love for my parents, aunts, uncles, brother, in-laws… all God on earth.
I already told you that I do not have this all thought through yet. I am falling down a rabbit hole of contemplation here. I have so many more questions to think and pray about.
What I have always thought of as my love for animals, and flowers, and mountains, and trees, and oceans, rivers, and lakes–that’s God, too? My love for music and dance and painting and poetry and film? God?
If God is eternal and God is love, then love, as the scripture says, is everlasting, yes? What about the romantic relationships I had that ended? The friendships that were betrayed and broken? The people I came to love through my work in social services, but haven’t stayed in my life? The people who loved me, but I didn’t stay in their lives?
What about my LGBTQ+ friends? Isn’t God there, too?
What about the really messy bits? What about the complicated relationships with folks I love, and love me, but can’t express it well, so that it doesn’t always look like or feel like love? What about the abuses in our families, in our communities, in our churches, in our government? How can a perfect God manifest love so imperfectly?
So. Many. Questions.
I’m fumbling around in the dark here. It’s not completely dark, though, and I find that I am not afraid.
In the wondrous, mysterious way these things work, I kept finding myself in situations this weekend where I was confronted with challenges to my understanding of love and of God, pointing me towards viewing God as love. There were several things I did this weekend out of a sense of duty. I was dreading them. To my great surprise, they ended up being wonderful, and it was entirely because I was able to love and be loved, however imperfectly, by the people involved. The engagements I had that I expected to be good, like a long overdue dinner with old friends, baking cookies with my cousins’ sons, and filling a stocking with gifts for a child I never met, were joy-filled, divine encounters. I wasn’t even surprised that my best friend was home when I dropped by unannounced. Of course she was, arms open to wrap me in a bear hug. By the time I crossed paths with a former colleague this afternoon, my heart was full to overflowing. I feel like I am aglow from the inside out with love.
This still isn’t a Cable Network Holiday Movie. I haven’t found The Answer. This isn’t the Happy Ending. I am still struggling to find my way through the dark of the messy bits of my relationships. I am still unable to bring myself to a church service on a Sunday morning. I am still soul sick from watching the evening news. These different experiences of love this weekend have acted like a flashlight helping me see my way along some of the rough section of dark trail.
I think I am stumbling along in the right direction.
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When my oldest began college at Rochester Institute of Technology, she quickly picked up some sign language. RIT is home for NTID, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and boasts a large deaf and hard-of-hearing population. All students are encouraged to learn as much sign language as possible, so when my daughter came home for Thanksgiving she taught us some of what she learned. Her little brothers were eager to learn how to say “scarf,” “cornucopia,” “dinosaur,” “please,” “thank you,” and “more.”
My favorite sign is likely colloquial to RIT. You take the sign for “no”—sort of snapping your first two fingers down onto your thumb, almost like an aggressive bird beak. But for this sign, you draw a circle in the air around the face of someone you’re signing to, and then snap your fingers down in the “no.” It means, roughly, “shut your whole face.”
Whenever I read this scripture about Zechariah and the angel, I picture the angel making this sign around Zechariah’s face. And, because Gabriel is an angel and not just a feisty old mama crone, it actually had power behind it. Zechariah shut his whole face, for roughly nine months. When Mary came to greet Elizabeth, and John leapt in Elizabeth’s womb for joy, and they embraced and cried and exclaimed and got all magnificatty in their saintly holy chatty wisdom, Zechariah could just stand there (or maybe lie there in the other room trying to sleep—I always picture Mary’s arrival in the dead of night), mute. Quiet.
All shut up.
Kristen invited me—and you—to find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate. We talk about these challenges ahead of time, and when she suggested it to me it seemed like a good and fitting idea for Advent. But I admit that since December began, those bits of light feel distant and blurry. The holidays are always challenging in a family like ours that relies heavily on routine, and this year we have had a good deal of loss weighing us down as well. Add to that my current feelings of religious homelessness, and I’m not feeling saintly, holy, chatty, or wise.
In previous sessions of Lectio Divina I’ve enjoyed picturing myself as Elizabeth, or Mary, or the old family hound lying by the fire when Mary enters. Women are rarely the center of positive attention in the Bible, so I like to linger on the scene when I can. This year, though? This year I’m feeling very Zechariah. I think if I’m going to find those points of light in the dark, if I’m going to be able to find wonder in new life, in revelations spoken by angels, in stars in the sky, I’m first going to have to shut my whole face–and listen.