Advent, Fence-Sitting, and Words

I’m a words gal. I like to play with how they look on paper adjacent others, and how they roll off the tongue when read aloud. I like words that sound pretty and mean something. Words that evoke thought and feeling. And maybe that’s how Christmas saved me two Advent seasons ago when nothing meant anything and the Bible’s words sat like sawdust on my tongue. Cause I mean, come on. Have you read the Magnificat?

Growing up I went to Lutheran elementary school- not Catholic school, not Christian school, but Lutheran school. There’s a difference. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had the very tangible faith experiences that I did as a child in school. I experienced a Seder meal and read the Shema in Hebrew when I was ten. Our entire school created a mockup of what a Jewish bazaar would have been like in Jesus’ time when I was in third grade, and actually created things to sell to our family members. I can still see what it looked like for our gym to be filled with colorful canopied structures, with all of my classmates dressed the part. But I think my favorite part of my elementary school experience were the twice-a-year musicals that we put on. So much singing and dancing and my little performer heart couldn’t get enough. As a child I got to experience faith in a living breathing, noisy, textured way, and I’ve realized what a backdrop that has been to my experience with the Christian story. But our childhoods cannot prevent us from growing up and reaching the very tall fence of recognition that the faith of our youth, no matter how beautiful, cannot live in the grownup world without examination. There was a song in one of those musicals we learned and performed that I now look back on with chagrin. The lyrics went “sitting on the fence, is so relaxing. Why take action when you could just as easily fall? Why do today what can wait until tomorrow? Or better yet, let’s sit and do nothing at all”. Yes, I sang that when I was nine, and yes, I still have it memorized. Bible propaganda at its finest. The song was about not being “lukewarm”, which is Christianese for not being 100% on fire for God. I knew that at nine. I fully got it. And in my thirties, when like I said, the Bible was as palatable as sawdust, can you guess what song played on repeat in my mind as I questioned and cast off the belief structures of my youth? Yup. You guessed it. I was a fence-sitter.

Two Advent seasons ago I was in the thick of my faith quandary. I was solidly in a bowl of pea soup-like fog about every detail of theology, prayer, who and what I thought God was…all of it. November arrived and I got to “enjoy” my first Thanksgiving in deconstruction and the decolonization of the faith. That was fun. And then Christmas. I remember thinking “I should read an Advent devotional”, but not really having any interest. I remember thinking “maybe I’ll just read some of the Christmas story from the Gospels every morning”, and that lasting two days. I couldn’t muster the energy or the heart to fake something. But I wanted to care. I wanted to connect. I ached with the need to experience God that Christmas, and the loneliness and the void of that waiting period was becoming unbearable. And then, I remembered Israel. I remembered Isaiah. I remembered a prophesy, and a time of so much agonizing, painstaking, lonely, fearful waiting. And just like that, I had a direction for my energy. I sought out books and essays written specifically about the waiting period of Advent, and the miraculous, messy birth that Advent culminates in, and I found a new home for my heart in that very dark night. I found holiness and kinship in the held breath, and in the not yet. I found sacrament in the nearness I experienced of bearing a woman’s body and in being a life-bearer. And I found all of that hope in words. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor in the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46-49). Or from Saint Andrew of Crete, “Today humanity, in all the radiance of her immaculate nobility, receives its ancient beauty”. In short, “Let earth receive her King”.

My younger years were marked by knowing Jesus with my tastebuds and my sight. I sang and spoke and practiced what I knew.  That was foundational and formative, and so very important for who and what I am today. But it stopped being enough. From what it sounds like now being on the other side of a faith deconstruction, it’s also normal. Words aren’t magic, but they hold power. Specifically, words that evoke memory and play at our hearts. When I realized that I couldn’t read out loud to my kids from Luke without crying, or sing the phrase, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices” without a lump rising in my throat, I knew that something within me was still shockingly aflame. I might be a “fence-sitter” who waffles from side to side about my beliefs on eschatology, or the doctrine of salvation, but I love God. And I believe that a young, scared, headstrong, brown-skinned girl delivered a baby thousands of years ago whose teachings revolutionized the world and fulfilled the hope of a world who needed him. If the only reason I believe that is because I tasted vinegar and bitter herbs while reciting words in Hebrew as a child, then so be it. If the only reason I believe that is because of the poetry and the nostalgia of beautiful words, well ok then. It’s something. It’s hope. And hope, I believe, is everything.

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