Monday, December 23, 2013

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. (Oscar Wilde)

During the Christmas season, we are told by our churches and our families and Macy’s to BELIEVE—in Jesus and in Santa and in holiday cheer, and for some of us, it’s easy.  I am surrounded by the “faithful,” joyful and triumphant, ready to behold the King of Angels.  We will adore him in our Christmas Eve services with candles lit during “Silent Night,” our children acting out the Nativity at an altar built for a baby in a manger.

I count myself in that number because I really do BELIEVE in capital letters the gospel message of Christmas.  If you asked most people who know me well, they would undoubtedly call me a Christian.  But if I’m honest about my faith (and I don’t have time or energy for a dishonest faith) when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the Christmas story, I am a doubter.  Reading the Bible and theological commentaries jumbles things for me.  Add to that the ugliness that parades around as Christianity in our time, and I want to hide in my Hobbit hole with my fingers in my ears and cry.  I just have so many questions—and a lot of heartache and pain.  Luckily, I have in the last decade been part of two faith communities where my questions were welcomed, and in some instances, answered.  One of my favorite blogger/author/moms, Jen Hatmaker, gave me words to describe my faith when she blogged at A Deeper Story: I am comfortable letting my mind suffer, yet letting my spirit rest.

I’ve thought more and more about this kind of thinking faith that relies heavily on resting in love and grace, while struggling to reconcile reality with the narrative my faith provides.  I’m reminded of the importance of living this out transparently with the people around me when I get messages from new friends that say, “I liked your post today. For the actual story and also because I now know you at least won’t judge me for not being Christian…I am glad to know you will still accept me even though I have no idea what I believe…”

If this Christmas, you are a doubter or a going-to-church-to-keep-the-peace-with-my-motherer or a I-don’t-know-what-I-believer, this post is for you.  BECAUSE YOU ARE MY PEOPLE.  Even though I’ve labeled myself a Christian, a truly life-long Christ follower, my faith is a process.  Contrary to what some of my counterparts preach, I don’t have the answers to a lot of your questions (or mine), but I CAN tell you why at the end of the day, even when I’m angry about how my faith is portrayed in the media or by other Christians, I have not thrown in the towel.

One of the Christmas songs that rarely gets played on the radio but has been stuck in my head this season is “We Three Kings,” a song about the quest of the Magi to bring gifts for the Baby Jesus.  In essence, here are some smart people (who by the way were not kings, but pagan astrologers by most theological accounts) who leave on a journey to find salvation—from a hostile world, from eternal meaninglessness, from themselves.  Through the song, the chorus repeats:

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.

The Magi were literally following a star, a medium with which they were all too familiar as astrologers.  We as Christians look for the star of wonder, the perfect light in Jesus.  When I say I am following Christ, this is what I mean: Jesus Christ is a shining star on a dark night.  My dark night looks like fear and doubt, like anger and depression, like disappointment and fatigue.  The Christ child represents love and confidence, happiness and perspective, encouragement and energy.  A guiding light in the dark.  
One of my favorite TV characters is Sue Heck from ABC’s The Middle, a lovable if clumsy high school sophomore, whose less than fashionable clothes and braces get in the way of her popularity.  She is the epitome of everything that was painful about high school, but she remains an eternal optimist, an idealist who believes the best about others and herself, despite what the rest of the world might be trying to tell her.  In a recent episode, Sue had some friends over for a sleepover and long story short, she experienced a supernatural experience in which she believed the ghost of Christopher Columbus had spoken to her through a shadow shaped like the Santa Maria.  (I know, it sounds stupid, but like most things, you’d have to see it for it to make sense—just go with me on this and keep in mind that she believed she’d had this supernatural experience.)

Afterward, her parents were horrified that she’d been telling her friends and teachers.  Worried about what other people might think, they sat her down to talk some sense into her.  Despite their best efforts, Sue responded with this:

There are so many beautiful, amazing things that happen every day that sound crazy.  Think about it.  If I had to explain the miracle of how babies are born to someone who didn’t know, wouldn’t I sound insane?  And stars!  I read somewhere that when a star explodes, the dust they find is the same thing that makes up humans, animals, the entire universe.  How amazing is that?  The same stardust is in everything and everyone—me, you, even Christopher Columbus.  You know, in his day, some people still thought the world was flat.  Columbus said it was round, and people thought he was crazy.  Look—I know there’s always going to be doubters, but it just takes someone who thinks, “Why can’t it be true?” to truly change the world, and I am one of those people, so how can you sit there on this planet made of stardust that was once thought to be flat and still not think anything is possible?

The heart of the Christmas message is this: Jesus was the star of wonder lighting the way for people who believed in the possibility of redemption, that when hope is lost, there might be a better way.  When Jesus spoke to his followers later in life, he told them to be the light of the world.  The star of the Magi, Christ himself, me, you—we are all made of stardust.  Later, in Christ’s last days, he says that we will know his disciples because of their love for one another.  At the end of the day, when all the stardust settles, I believe that we belong to each other, that we need each other, and that when we love each other, we are whole.

Last year, I wrote a piece for our church’s Advent devotional about a Walt Whitman poem that illustrates how I feel about my evolving faith: 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Like Whitman, I’ve listened to all the experts, the God-monopolizers, the unshakable-faith-havers, and all the charts and diagrams started to make me tired and sick.  When I take a moment to glide out of the lecture-room and look up, the way those wandering kings might have, I am awed into perfect silence at the stars.

Merry Christmas, friends.  For unto us a star is born.  Amen.

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