My brother’s dear friend, whom he’s known since he was a child, died this weekend. He was 38 years old.
That sort of thing makes you stop and ask some big questions. It makes you sad and mad and confused and thankful, in waves. Like a spotlight, it reveals all that’s good and bad in glaring, brilliant relief. And for me, it makes Christmas, surrounded by family and pointing to a man who loved in total sacrifice, an even more welcome celebration of hope.
This fall I’ve been reading through the Old Testament in a Bible study. And let me be real here: I’ve been confused. I’ve read the Bible before (yep, the whole thing, more than once), but this year I’m looking at it through a more questioning lens. There are many reasons for this, but one is the simple belief that if my faith can’t stand up to questioning, to a deep, thoughtful wrestling match, it’s not very strong at all. I’m not interested in faith that ignores the mess of life. That puts up a wall against uncomfortable uncertainties. I want to meet those questions head-on.
As I’ve read this telling of the God of the Hebrews and pushed and pulled with my understanding of it, I’ve had to throw some things into the simmering pot of pondering. Stuff that needs more time to reveal it’s true flavor and depth. One fabulous take-away I’ve had is that God is not worried about right-this-second as much as eventually. He is not rushed, he is not restrained by our sense of time. So I’m trusting in the process and in eventually. I’m trusting that I’ll understand those simmering questions when I need to, rather than today. A friend recently said that my writing is like a crock pot – I have to throw ingredients in my brain and let it cook for a long while before the timer goes off and the dish (the essay in my case) is ready. So I suppose this idea of simmering is fine with me, by nature. I like it, in fact.
As the books of the Old Testament have simmered on the stove, they’ve given off an aroma of despair. If you have not read, say, the book of Judges before, it is full to the brim of sadness and scandal and bad choice upon bad choice. There’s a reason you don’t see inspirational verses on Facebook from Judges. It chronicles a pretty terrible stretch of time, and it, along with so many other books of the OT make you long for a reprieve from the violence and misery. And then comes Isaiah, the prophet, like a spark in the deep darkness, promising light. After hundreds of pages of human dysfunction, you actually sigh with relief to read “…for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” Finally. Your shoulders drop, your back loosens and you feel the goodness of this news.
The questions remain, but even in the questioning over what exactly is meant by certain passages, even in the confusion about how the God of the Old Testament meshes with the God of the New, I’m left with something I do know with certainty. And that is my experience. These lines from a song by Housefires whittle it down to what I do not question:
Oh, I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like
But I’ve heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
And you tell me that you’re pleased
And that I’m never alone
You’re a Good, Good Father
It’s who you are, it’s who you are, it’s who you are
And I’m loved by you
It’s who I am, it’s who I am, it’s who I am
I do not doubt this. No matter if I view the Bible from a Calvinist perspective, or a Wesleyan one, or from the point of view of the mystics, I know what I’ve heard in the dead of night (both metaphorically and in real-time). And this Christmas I celebrate that. It is more than enough.
Krista Tippett, the host of the radio show and podcast On Being, wrote something recently that felt like the crock pot timer going off, with a megaphone attached. An excellent summation of the glory and beauty of what we happen to celebrate on the 25th…
There is something audacious and mysterious and reality-affirming in the assertion that has stayed alive for two thousand years that God took on eyes and ears and hands and feet, hunger and tears and laughter and the flu, joy and pain and gratitude and our terrible, redemptive human need for each other. It’s not provable, but it’s profoundly humanizing and concretely and spiritually exacting.
She does not buy in to the gift-giving and capitalization of Christmas. I, on the other hand, love the gift-giving and all the hubub leading up to the birthday celebration of this God-become-man. So on this we differ. In fact, I’m about to drop everything non-essential to life (Do we need to eat? Yes. Do we need clean clothes? Pretty much. Do I need to blog? Nope.) to prepare for my favorite holiday. But we agree on this: that our celebration is not silly. It is not about Santa. It is not even about bubble bread, though that is a staple of Christmas morning at the Havener house. It is about the creator of the universe (the multi-verse, whatever we discover in time) sending love to the world in human form and all that means for us. It does not erase the sadness over loss of life. It does not answer all my questions in an instant or “fix” all the world’s ills today. But it points to eventually. The hope of eventually, which makes today better.
Merry Christmas, readers. Here’s to wrestling with questions, simmering pots of uncertainty, finally and hopefully and eventually. May they all bring you joy this holiday.