Monday, December 14, 2009

The Meaning of Christmas

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
-- Isaiah 9:2

The worst Christmas I can remember occurred sometime in the mid-1970s. I don’t recall the precise year. I was home from college for Christmas break. My younger sisters were in early adolescence. My mother was in late alcoholism. My father may or may not have been around. I can never recall him being around during those years.

The presents were unwrapped. There was a turkey thawing in the kitchen sink. My mother was passed out on the living room couch. There would be no Christmas dinner, or, at best, there would be an evening trip to whatever burger joint had managed to stay open on December 25th. I didn’t really care about the presents. Or maybe I did, because I also recall that I hadn’t received the only present I really wanted. I wanted the new Pink Floyd album. My parents bought me Joni Mitchell instead. It was already a long afternoon, and it promised to be a much longer evening, so I retreated to the relative safety of my bedroom and slapped on Joni’s Blue album. I didn’t know the music, but some of it seemed to resonate. “I wish I had a river I could skate away on,” Joni sang, and I wished I had one too.

At some point during the evening there were shouts and curses and broken plates, carving knives that never touched a turkey, but which attempted to touch human flesh. My mother wasn’t just a drunk; she was an angry drunk. And she sported by chasing people around the house with knives. Shortly before she would have stabbed my sister I slugged her. I hit her as hard as I could, right under the jaw. I’m not a boxer. I don’t know how to deliver an uppercut. But it stunned her long enough for me to round up my sisters and get them in the car. We drove off to a motel. I didn’t have any money. I was a poor college student. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for any of this. We didn’t pack. We didn’t have any underwear, or toothbrushes. But we had ourselves, and that was enough.

I became a Christian right around that time. “Became” is really a euphemistic term because I’m still becoming a Christian, and there’s so much I still get wrong. But if “became” meant surrendering, flying the white flag of incompetence and sorrow and utter, overwhelming terror, then that’s what I did. Here God, please fix this. It’s too fucked up for me.

And God didn’t fix it. It got worse. My father’s absences and marital infidelities continued. My mother’s alcoholism and violence escalated. My sisters endured abuse. And in a results-driven world, I was sorely tempted to give up on God. What good are you? I mean it. Literally. What good are you? What good do you do? I’ve asked those questions again and again during my life. There’s a nice theological term that encapsulates the groaning: theodicy. Basically it comes down to this: If God is good, and all powerful, then why do the human beings He supposedly loves have to deal with such overwhelming shitstorms? In personal terms, behold your beloved child, delivering an uppercut to the woman from whom he suckled, so that she wouldn’t commit murder. Why? How is this evidence of overwhelming good and power?

I know Christians who tell me they don’t doubt. They are as alien to me as four-headed, purple Martians. I can’t imagine a life of faith without doubt. I can’t even envision what that would look like. And if you haven’t yet experienced the utter disconnect between an all-loving, all-powerful God and the unfathomable sorrow of a completely broken world and your completely broken life, I have only three words for you: just you wait. You will. You’ve just been lucky up to now.

Why not just give up, then? Why not throw in the Motel 6 towel, or wherever the hell you spent that wretched Christmas night? The only answer that I can give, the only rationale that makes sense to me, is that in the midst of the unanswered questions, in the midst of the real pain that I have experienced and that I have inflicted on others, there is some evidence that God is in the business of fixing me. And even the path toward wholeness is confusing. It’s full of sidetracks and detours, two-steps-forward-and-three-steps-back days and months and years, stupid choices, regrettable words, pompous declarations and arrogant pronouncements, and, sometimes, a greater inclination to get outside the Kingdom of Me and really care about others, a movement toward what is good and true and life affirming, a rejection of escape and numbness in favor of life in all its prickly, scary, glorious in-your-faceness, a greater awareness that all of it – this whole beautiful, fucked up planet and all the people on it – is a gift, a source of pain, yes, and a source of great joy.

Lord have mercy. Literally. What good am I without Him?

There’s been a fair amount of academic debate about the actual time of the year when Jesus was born. Most scholars seem to favor the early spring, perhaps some time in late March or early April. But we celebrate his birth in late December. If you prefer, you can hold on to the view that the date was changed to rope in the pagans with their winter solstice celebrations. I’ll hold on to the notion that the light dawns at the very peak of darkness and desperation. At the darkest time of year, Christ comes.

According to the liturgical calendar, this time of year is called Advent. It is a time of waiting in darkness, waiting for the light to dawn. We are not good at waiting. I am not good at waiting. God hasn’t fixed everything. I look back at my life, and there are some real sorrows there. Some of them I had no control over. They just happened. And some of them are my own doing, and some of them were done in the process of becoming a Christian. During Advent we sing the carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It is a song of yearning, of longing. Come fix this. Emmanuel means God with us. And because God is with us, with me, the old, tawdry life must and will change. I believe that more than ever. I am becoming.


Jake said...

This is a very thoughtful and moving consideration of the meaning of Christmas, and what it means to be a Christian at all. Thanks so much for posting it . . . I'll be sharing it with many people I know this Christmas.

Cindy Steffen said...

You inspire me....

Anonymous said...

I am becoming, too. This year, more than most, my whole family is becoming. Thanks.


Denise said...

Wow. That's the best Advent meditation I've read in years.

Thank you for writing. Thanks to Jeffrey for pointing out your post.

Anonymous said...

I am not of the generation that uses this term lightly: Awesome. I'm subdued.

lbotta said...

Andy, as always, you move me with your transparency and honesty. If only we all could live to become and not just to be. I too will be sharing your post on "The Meaning of Christmas.

Love and Blessings to your family.

Anonymous said...

You nailed it. This is so right. I don't even know what to say. I wish I lived next door to you. Sorry, that was creepy.

Seriously though, I could hear God speaking to me through this piece. It is so reassuring when a brother steps up and says I don't always have it together, but I am pushing through just the same. Like in Mark where the Dad of the posessed boy says "I believe! Lord help my unbelief!"

You made my Christmas dude!


Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Thanks for these words, Andy. Made my day . . . er, my advent.

Mark M

Caroline said...

Apart from some of the particulars, this sounds very much like my life...though I'm younger in age and probably my process of becoming! Thank you so much for your words and your honesty, they shot right into my heart. May God continue to shine His light through you and may He bless this coming Christmas for you and your family!

All the best,
A sister in Christ

mg said...

i didn't read this until today.
really great thoughts andy; truly.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this honest sharing of your life with the world. I did NOT share a similar experience, but I DID experience a life-altering nervous breakdown in the midst of being "Wonder Mom" for God - trusting in Him for grace and strength and the ability to "do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I still believe in Jesus, in a much more basic, guarded way. I don't really know what the rest of my life will bring on my journey of faith, but I DO believe.
I'm sorry for that awful Christmas, and all the ones before it and those that came after. One thing I DO know...suffering, however unfair it seems, DOES create change in us.
Thanks again!

Suzanna said...

I needed to read this today. Thank you!

Andy Whitman said...

Thank you all for your words of encouragement.

One thing that has been made abundantly clear to me over the years is that we all have our stories to tell. Mine isn't yours, but that doesn't make yours any less important or any less potentially tragic and heartbreaking. The miracle -- and it is a miracle -- is that good can come out of such wretched brokenness. I believe that. I hope you (all) can find the faith and hope to believe it too.

Living the Biblios said...

Amidst the pain and disappointment, what keeps me coming back is Peter's words in John 6:68, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

I empathize with David Bazan's struggles and complaints, but when the heart chooses to leave, where in the wasteland of life can it possibly find solace?