When God Shows Up
Several Orthodox churches/countries celebrate Christmas on January 7, which is fitting for me, since, though not Orthodox, I’m still in Christmas mode. But not the festive celebratory Christmas mode. It’s a bleak mid-wintery contemplative mode. A brooding mode. I almost feel like it’s a war-on-Christmas mode. Yes, I, a devout Christian, am part of the war on Christmas.
Because I’m starting to feel like Christmas itself is a war on Christ. The other day, when the sun was shining with rare warmth, I took a walk around my neighborhood to get some fresh air. And I saw an inflatable Jesus. And I saw a glitter tinsel Jesus. A wooden Jesus. A plastic Jesus. And these might have warmed my heart with Christian observance, had not we just come out of the pandemic election year of 2020… where I saw so very little real Jesus.
This is not going to be a social commentary or judgment – there is plenty of that going around, plenty to be said, plenty to be considered and debated until the end of time. Nor is it a theological argument – I don’t even know what I believe anymore (I simply call him “Jesus”, inflatable notwithstanding). Rather, it is a personal reflection, initiated long before we ever heard of COVID-19. Last year, as I finally let the Christmas magic – and stress and exhaustion – succumb to Lyme Disease and depression, I began to realize that Christmas is not a fairytale story. It’s not jolly! It’s not celebratory! It’s not twinkling and inflatable! It’s the story of poverty, oppression, scandal, murder, politics, and disease (come to think of it, perhaps 2020 was the granting of the perpetual wish for Christmas the whole year through!) Christmas is the story of deeply hurting people, in a deeply hurting time, being deeply hurt… by the coming of God to Earth. Yes, there’s hope, and love, and rejoicing, and miracles. But we so so so often ignore the fact that they came wrapped in really ugly packages.
So I’ve begun to identify with Christmas more and more, even as I lost the “magic.” My Christmas looks nothing like what modern Americans call Christmas, it looks nothing like my childhood, or even like my church. It looks like me. As I am. Hurting. Waiting. Holding onto faith.
Lyme is a devastating experience. I’ve been surviving on faith and hope and joy, reading about God’s faithfulness and goodness through suffering, and taking comfort in the witness of martyrs. But COVID left this bruised reed dangling by thread. I am not doing well. The wilderness has become wilder. The desert more deserted.
I’m a little tired of reading about the “peace that passes understanding.” I have rarely felt that peace. More often I find myself with the despair that defies understanding. I am doing all the right things – physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I get through the day on glimpses of hope, and yes, moments of peace. But they are a small spotlight in the darkness, only good for the immediate moment, and gone in the big picture. Or an umbrella, sheltering this time and place from the storm, but not coming with me as I move, and doing nothing to part the clouds. Fleeting at best.
What am I doing wrong?
I got distracted by the inflatable Jesus. I took my eyes off the real one, because someone told me the material one was good enough. I am looking for divine answers among fallen humans. I listen to Christians more than I listen to Christ. I read more commentary on the Bible than the actual Bible.
What do I find in the Bible? Ironic comfort in its unfiltered despair.
Religion has given me this romanticized version of God, not just in the Christmas story, but in all scripture, and all our literature on martyrdom and sainthood. While I appreciate the testimony of suffering people, the only ones that get published are the ones with happy endings. The ones that arrive at that “peace that passes understanding.” The sprouts from the buried seed. The butterfly out of the cocoon. Maybe not in the subject’s lifetime, but that someone cared to tell the story and carry on the legacy years later is a testimony to being seen and heard. I’ve been trying to do it myself – promote the joy in the suffering, encourage the hurting, find the message in the mess. Yet I feel so unseen. So unheard. So insignificant. Where is my Prince Charming Jesus who comes to make me new, and give me joy, and heal my diseases? Not here. When is my happy ending, my moment of triumph? Not today.
What am I doing wrong?
If I read my Bible, I find two truths:
1. Patience is non-negotiable. Sometimes God’s promises take decades, or even hundreds of years to be fulfilled. Waiting itself is a godly life.
2. When God shows up, it’s terrifying. The command to “fear not” is given because the natural response of all people ever called by God for great purposes was terror.
So what am I doing wrong when I don’t have answers yet, I feel abandoned in the wilderness, and my life becomes shrouded in terrifying darkness?
In fact, I’m starting to think that not only am I doing everything right, but I’m walking with God closer than any happy Christian could ever quote in a brush script.
I hear the words of Jesus over and over in my mind: blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the persecuted. Blessed are the miserable. #blessed am I.
I wrote this thought in my journal: “Job healed when God showed up. And when God showed up, it was terrifying.” If I want to heal, know God, and be restored sevenfold, what should I expect but a whirlwind? The storm isn’t just what I have to endure to find God. Sometimes it is God!
The calming of the wind and waves only happened when Jesus showed up like a ghost and scared the wits out of his disciples (John 6:16-20). So shouldn’t I take comfort when I’m scared out of my wits? Jesus is there.
God made his covenant with Abraham when a “thick and dreadful darkness” came over him (Gen. 15:12). So shouldn’t I take comfort in my thick and dreadful darkness? God is making his promises.
Jacob became Israel, father of God’s chosen nation, after wrestling with and being maimed by God (Gen. 32:24-32). So shouldn’t I take comfort in my stubborn struggle and disability? God gives me a name.
When God spoke to Moses, there was thunder, lightning, smoke and violent shaking (Ex. 19:16-19). So shouldn’t I take comfort in the trembling foundations? God speaks. When he set Moses and his people free from slavery in Egypt, it was with devastating plagues (Ex. 7-11). So shouldn't I take comfort in my plague? God is setting me free.
Mary became the blessed mother of Jesus Christ in a humiliating scandal that troubled her greatly (Luke 1:29, Matt. 1:18-19). So shouldn’t I take comfort in my humiliating scandals? God blesses me with His presence.
If I want healing, if I want God’s covenant, if I want to be a new person, if I want to be set free, if I want to be victorious, if I want a divine purpose, if I want my life to change, if I want wisdom and foresight, if I want my demons to flee… what can I ask for but a storm, darkness, struggle, plague, collapse, trouble, disability, terror, and violence?
If I want the blessings of the Bible, I must meet the God of the Bible. And He is terrifying. Not against me, but for me. Against the limitations of this fallen world and my finite mind. He pops Jesus, His own son, like an inflatable and sends him into the ground. Then He raises the true One beyond comprehension.
We are taught to think that in our darkest moments of terrifying despair, God will come to rescue us and calm the storm. But sometimes God is the storm. So I will fall on my face and let Him pass, protected, humbled, and blessed (Exodus 12:23, 33:19-23).