I’m not really thinking about Christmas much right now. There are too many pieces of life still unresolved this December. I can’t see very far ahead–this is driving in fog with my low beams on, not knowing when I’ll arrive where I’m going. But I’m still walking forward, or trying to.

This past weekend I spent most of my free time revisiting my undergrad thesis on Derrida and T.S. Eliot, immersing myself in that headspace after years of absence. I’d forgotten about pieces of it, absorbed them so thoroughly into my thinking that the origin of the parts had become obscured. One of these pieces that became so much a part of me is Derrida’s concept of à venir.

I spent last year’s Advent season meditating on the idea of it being a penitential season. It was for me, a time of preparing the self, stripping the distractions, waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. It was a time of soul-stripping, and I had no idea how few things I’d be holding in my hands by the time it was over. The year before was much the same — feeling pressed in, pressed down, holding my breath as I let things go and slapping God’s name on it to make sense of it all.

There is so much brokenness. My brain is on overdrive, filled with stories. The pain of the people dear to me is a loud white noise in my head, keeping me awake at night. The idea of Advent being a time for introspection and penitence is still true, but it doesn’t fit this year. This year I can’t “God’s sovereignty!” myself out of the questions I carry, all balled up in my pocket.

Revisiting that thesis for my applications made me laugh. I’d tied up the loose ends in pretty bows at the end — I had succumbed to the internal pressure of working with Derrida at a Presbyterian college, leaned a little too hard on the Christianity-fixes-this-tension conclusion. Derrida didn’t go for answers, for tidy bows. That’s the whole point — he saw how uncontainable language and ideas and belief were, and talked about it. And the moderns couldn’t cope with the tension he embraced.

So now to explain: à venir. It’s Derrida’s term used to describe the space of tension between the idea of a thing and it’s actualization. It’s that time when you’ve had an idea for a recipe, pulled together your ingredients, and you’re waiting for the timer to take it out of the oven and see if it turned out how you hoped. It’s the moment between when you, a poet, have an idea for a poem and sit down to write, and when you give it to someone to read for the first time, and wait breathlessly to see their face and know whether or not you succeeded at yanking them into that first moment when inspiration struck.

À venir means “to come” or “forthcoming.” It’s the same root from which we name this time of year Advent. And Advent is about this, the tension of anticipation. That which is to come — we have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but we know it’s coming, and we wait, fully present.

I chuckle, because it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the anticipatory discomfort this year. Cara blogged yesterday, saying

I’m sitting here, in the present tense, realizing that I’m breathing somewhere between has come and will come, between Advent and Adventure.

Sarah wrote on it, too.

Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent. Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.

Advent is perhaps for the ones who know longing.

Two parts of the same à venir tension: adventure and longing; hope and grief. Advent, the penitential season. Advent, the season of tidings of great joy. Advent, the birth of the one who is to die. Advent, the birth of the King who will reign forever.

Advent, the messy season of the soul at its most human and most holy — when we don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know what we need, and we’re waiting and getting so antsy for something to change that we half don’t care what it is.

Maybe that’s why all my favorite Advent hymns are in minor keys? It’s a season of being unresolved. We may have a great hope, a great faith, a Messiah we watch for, but the beauty of à venir is in the surprise.

I like to hope I’m a lot more open to the surprises that may come this season, after a year full of them. But I know I’m not, not really. I love creature comforts, tidy endings, white hat/black hat thinking. Yet, that’s just not real. Real is nuance. Real is discomfort AND extravagant beauty mashed together in the same day. Real is unresolved melodies that are left unfinished.

And real is our very human, very beautiful innate ability to hope in the midst of crap. Even if it’s just the anticipation of sleep at the end of the day, or a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or a hot shower when it’s all over. We hope. That’s what we do. We look forward to things. And that’s the heart of being human, the heart of à venir. It’s the unquenchable spirit of Advent, and ideally of Christianity. Hope without ceasing, right? A God who cares, intimately. A God who took on flesh, who took on our tension and our humanity, our existence of nobility of soul and thought plus farting and tears.

Some days I don’t know if I believe, or if I do, what I know. But it’s human to hope, and it’s Christian to hope, and the messianic impulse of expectancy is strong. Things can get better. Things should get better. Love is real, and it is healing. The Incarnation is mystifying and surprising and good and I expect no less of final redemption. I don’t want a bow. I want a minor chord, I want the slice of surprise of the unresolved, the unknown. It’s more true.

À venir. God is with us. And it’s uncomfortable and surprising.


Update: We’ve hit $1,087!

THANK YOU! I’ve sent the full amount to her sister, and they’re setting it aside for either a tablet or a laptop, once she knows what exactly she’ll need.

Any additional gifts will be put in a separate fund for Jennifer’s college tuition in the fall.

-h

Today something amazing happened. We raised $490 (so far) for Jennifer.

But I’ve been thinking, and talking with her sister about what exactly she plans to do with art, and apparently she wants to do concept design for creatures for video games. After seeing her sketchbook on Sunday, I think she’s got a really good shot at doing that if she gets the right training and tools.

The plan to raise $500 for a computer was intended to get her a base model PC laptop, but if she’s going to do design and art like she hopes to do, she’s going to need an Adobe suite subscription and probably a Mac.

If you haven’t chipped in yet, would you consider doing that? I would really love to see Jennifer given the opportunities she needs and not be set back financially (like so many of us were when we “got out”).


[This is one of the promised posts about why I chose the name “Wine & Marble.” Communion has been a huge part of my spiritual life and binds me to Christianity in a way I can’t really understand or explain. I’ll tell my story and perhaps begin to work it out.]

Sometimes I wish I could shut off the part of myself that subconsciously breathes in and out scripture verses memorized long ago, the part of myself that is perpetually mulling over questions of faith, the part of myself that is bound to the idea of Jesus. For some reason, it’s indelibly part of who I am. I can turn most of that part of me and my experience off if I need to (it’s right there next to the “pretend you weren’t homeschooled/aren’t ignorant about pop culture” switch in my head), but the sacrament of communion has made leaving or forgetting my faith complicated and impossible. If it weren’t for this, I think I might have left the Church for good, long ago. But the offering up of the Body and Blood every week for my crooked self’s physical and spiritual renewal is stronger than my apathy and I am transfixed by it.

When I was a small child, my desire to “be right with Jesus” (the idea was vague, but I understood that it was essential to ending nightmares and live without fear) was united and inextricably joined with a craving need to take communion. I wanted to take the cup and eat the bread with a desire that is still the deepest of any I have yet experienced. I was only four or five, but I had a powerful need to be right with Jesus (which is a whole other topic–in the evangelical culture there’s a lot of fear-based pressure on little children to say the sinner’s prayer) which was centered on this assumption: I couldn’t take communion until I understood and could explain to my parents what it meant and had said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus “into my heart.” Conversion and accepting Jesus was a way to get to communion and there was nothing I craved more than to participate in that ceremony.

Every Sunday I watched the communion ritual with awe and desire. I wanted that and everything it seemed to be about.

When I was maybe 5 or 6, I remember visiting my grandmother’s Episcopal church for the first time. The candles, the hush and reverence, the prayers and the kneeling–these were new elements of my church experience, and I felt both delighted and annoyed. I liked the loud praise band and worship dance of our Vineyard church, but this new mood was better suited to communion, and the beauty of it enchanted me. I remember how tender the priest was with the elderly parishioners  bringing the chalice and the wafers to their seats, blessing them right where they were. The body of Christ was brought to his people, and it was fitting.

Shortly thereafter, communion was served at our own church one Sunday. I don’t remember if they did it once a month there, or twice a year, but it was infrequent. And it was a big deal in my mind, though [obviously] not in the minds of those leading that church. I asked my mom if I could take part, and she pulled dad and me out of the service into the foyer. Dad told me that I couldn’t take communion until I could tell him what it’s significance was and why it was part of the church practices. [The thought of this amuses me now.] I told them what I could grasp: it was representing Jesus’s body  and blood after the cross and we took it to eat and drink because it reminded us of how he saved us. This was satisfactory, and I took communion for the first time that Sunday. I was baptized about a year later. [Again, how odd.]

***

A few years later, I was in Awana and was inundated with Baptist guilt-trips that caused me to fear for my salvation over and over again. I told myself that I had first believed that day I took communion for the first time, but fearful of my own anger with my younger siblings and losing my salvation over it, I walked the aisle again. Twice I prayed in fear, ashamed and wondering if God would be angry at me for trying so many times to “get saved.” Once was at a Billy Graham crusade event–my dad was with me.

“Let’s go down,” I said.
“You’ve already been saved!” he said.
“I need to do it again,” I said, and started walking, not looking back to see if he was following me.
“She’s rededicating her life to the Lord,” the older woman whispered to him when he joined us on the football field a few minutes later, as Crystal Lewis began to sing over us.

***

In the middle of these years of fear and shame and walking the aisle again, as I questioned my salvation nearly weekly, I found myself becoming callous to the ceremony of communion. I needed it, and it happened once a month at the church we attended at the time, and I was glad to participate and receive it. But the bread was a sweet, eggy bread made by some dear soul in the church, and I was always stuck late after the service while my family helped take down the sound equipment. My friends and I were all at that rowdy age where you’d catch us sneaking down forbidden hallways, climbing onto roofs, hanging upside down from trees, begging the teenage boys to let us play chicken on their shoulders, etc. And we were hungry after a long 11am service.

So we stole the bread, bit by bit. Nibbled it under the bleachers, giggling in the streams of dust-filtered light. “It’s for us, anyway!” we said. “And we’re hungry–Jesus wouldn’t mind.”

After several weeks of doing this, we got caught and reprimanded by the pastor. He spoke of eating and drinking wrath upon ourselves and told us to ask our parents for snacks, instead. So we stopped.

But maybe we were right, after all. It was for us.

***

Later we moved across the country for a church, and I was 12 and lonely and hungry to understand more about the faith I professed. I wanted to make it my own and I read and talked and asked questions.

At this church, they did little different from the others–communion once a month or less frequently, little cups of white grape juice passed in trays (white to prevent stains in clothing), little pieces of matzo or water crackers, broken in a basket on a napkin.

More organizational structure at this church and fewer spirit-led moments or maybe just the absence of California chill caused me to feel stifled, and communion began to hold no power. It was something that happened, and when it did we were prompted to meditate on the gore of the cross, on the agony of Jesus and his separation from the angry Father. Mood lighting was introduced, synthesizers were played. The first year or so I was truly moved by these things–they were new then. But month after month with no script change and no shift in focus away from the cross the rest of the time, and soon the potency of the moment was drained. The cross, the cross, the cross, the cross. Pull your chairs in circles, meditate on your sin. Pray for forgiveness with each other. Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Raise the lights. Sing about how you love the cross.

There was no resurrection hope, no advent, no saints rejoicing in new life. Only your sin, the cross, his death, your fault. Meditate on your sin.

Not knowing better, I found myself attending a similar sort of church for the first two years at college. Communion was every week there, and while it felt more genuine as we went through a corporate confession and received a pastoral benediction and sang hymns that celebrated new life, I was still numb. My Sin and The Cross were my blinders and I was only moved when I felt particularly filthy or like I had something truly awful to pray about during the confession.

***

And then. And then. 

I found myself caught up in a different church through my social group. It was an Anglican church with communion every week and grace preached from the pulpit like a relentless storm.  The sermons alone were the perfect antidote to the legalistic naval-gazing of SGM teachings, but the communion was really what brought me back every week. I couldn’t resist it. It called to me, I needed it. Like when I was small, this was a source of life and I found myself craving it all week long. It wasn’t particularly remarkable–wine in a chalice, pita bread torn to bits, lining up pew by pew and walking forward to receive it, recessing to a hymn led by some barefoot student playing guitar.

But the mood was set by the fixation on grace, on healing, on acceptance. And I felt little shards of healing tear me to pieces every time I processed and accepted the gifts of Jesus given for me. Grace was being made real by the physical act, and it knew my name.

Shortly thereafter I went to England for a short class trip in January, with the rector of that church and a professor and an armful of books on the Inklings. Our focus was on Epiphany–the season, the writings on it by these authors, and the Anglican church teachings focused on it. Our study took us to an evensong service almost every evening, and we were immersed in the Book of Common Prayer every day. We visited Salisbury, Ely, Canturbury, St. Paul’s, Westminister, St. Mary’s, Christchurch, and Little Gidding. We took communion every day. It was sustaining and beautiful and holy, and I let the rhythm and art of the BoCP prayers become part of me, journaling them, twisting them into my poems every night. And despite the daily ritual of it, I found myself shaken by it every time. The Eucharist was breaking me, healing me, stripping me of old lies and fears and letting me relearn how to open up and welcome the burning love of Jesus.

***

After college, after getting married, I was at a small church. My husband was obligated to attend as part of his job in the church office, and I went with him. But the observation of communion there was as bad as the soulless communion experiences I had in the nondenominational churches I grew up in. They did it infrequently, saying things that seemed like they were trying to remember how the Anglican service went, but not really sure of the right order or phrases. There was a lot of emphasis on the death of Jesus, a lot of emphasis on remembering. But it all turned from harmless to sour for me when the pastor said that communion was a memorial service for Jesus, like a memorial service we might have after the death of a friend. Nothing more. Just: he has died, let us remember him.

That’s when I took my Harry Potter books to read outside in the sunshine during communion Sundays thereafter. Sometimes we squeezed in an early morning service at a friend’s Episcopal church. “So we can have real communion before we go to our church,” my husband said. When he left that job and we were free to find our own church, I was very glad.

Since then, we’ve been at an Episcopal church near home, where the Eucharist is celebrated with reverence and joy. The priests exude tenderness and love for the congregation, and I am again finding myself soothed and healed each week by confession, communion, absolution, and the washing of the Word.

Last Sunday I came to church emotionally drained and fragile. It had been a rough week and painful things were raw and in my face. The words of joy in the hymns (Advent hymns are almost all about promises of hope and joy) were biting, rubbing the hurt. And when I realized that this service was lessons and carols (which doesn’t usually involve the Eucharist), I fell to pieces and had to leave.

Why? I’m not entirely sure. But I know this: a church service should not be about a teacher or a leader (the focus should not be on the sermon, meaty though it may be). The heart of the gospel is fully encapsulated in the Eucharist, and this should be the focal point. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh, healing us where we’re at, sustaining us in his love and self. I need the physicality of it. I need the mystery and the healing of Emmanuel. It’s everything.

[and it won’t let me go]



This year, because of our tiny apartment space, we can’t have a Christmas tree. It’s not really a big deal, but we’re just babies at this marriage thing, and we don’t own Christmas decorations or a good Christmas music collection, and I haven’t even gotten around to buying cookie cutters for Christmas cookie exchanges. Last year, our bitty little fake tree on the end table was our sole Christmas decoration, and I loved it for existing and proving to me that we are indeed our own little family, and that our apartment counted as a home, etc. Those silly newlywed sentiments really mean a lot when you’re away from your hometown and family for Christmas and have to create that reverent, beautiful atmosphere for yourself.

So, it’s silly, but I feel so blah in general this season, and I think I’m in denial about even trying to make our little place cheery or festive. And I’ll admit, I’m mostly excusing it because there’s no space to put even a miniature, child-sized tree anywhere in our apartment. (Until we get a dresser, I’m lucky if there’s a place for me to sit on the floor to stretch, even! I’m really going through a laundry basket phase in my decorating. Books are out, folks. Laundry is in.)

We’re less exhausted this year–Kevin’s job with normal hours makes me thankful, especially now that he’s passed the initial probation period and is a full-fledged employee! But other circumstances are colliding and some nights I feel really happy with myself if I manage to have cheese and crackers for dinner and write or read for an hour before succumbing to exhaustion and watching Doctor Who until one or both of us dozes off.

I’ve been in this season of “deconstruction” for about three years now. I’ve been processing my experiences in a spiritually abusive church, working through my turbulent transition from assuming courtship was The Way To Go to realizing how unhealthy and harmful that whole mindset is,  and trying to reorient myself with a healthier understanding of key doctrines relating to grace and works, sanctification, personal holiness, fellowship, the purpose of church, gender roles, etc. It’s been a nonstop freight-train ride of uncovering stifled emotions and memories and questioning many, many things.

But I think I’m starting to burn out. Recovery is hard, and processing the sheer volume of assumptions that I needed to re-evaluated and reconstruct has been exhausting. I’ve been highly analytical, and have ended up neglecting the emotional healing I needed just as badly.

I’m broken [there is a tender Savior who walks with me].
I’m emotionally stunted [he sends his Spirit to fill and renew].

I’m starting to come to a place where I think I’ve got a good understanding of what went wrong and why there are so many of us hurting in these same ways. But it’s exhausting to keep up with the constant critique of materials put out by the teachers and writers who influenced and hurt me, who hurt so many like me. It’s worth it, still, for those just starting to see hope and who are coming into grace and freedom in Jesus from legalism and manipulation and fear. But it can be too much to constantly wallow in it all.

So I’m going to admit that I can’t and shouldn’t do it all. That I need to step away and breathe deep and look around me. That I need to concentrate on finding and making beauty, rather than constantly analyzing.

I’m going to try to enjoy my little home, not avoid or deny that it is where I live this Christmas. I’m going to try to rest and enjoy being with my husband, rather than letting myself be overwhelmed and OCD about our time and money and relationships. I’m going to pull out my sketch book again. I’m going to listen to music again. I’m going to cook if I feel like it.

This is my Advent fast: I’m going to stop reading blogs and articles and essays and books. I’m going to rest my mind. I might read fairy tales or short stories or poetry, but that’s it. Nothing analytical. I’m not going to indulge in a Thomas Kinkade fantasy world, but I have been persuaded that my mind and heart need a break from thinking overtime.

Tonight I went for a walk with my sister-in-law, had pho with my brother, and went to church and made an Advent wreath. We lit the first candle and Kevin read the collect for the first Sunday in Advent. I hid all the wonderful deep-thinking books I’ve been working on reading, and I’m going to take this holy season to acknowledge my humanness and frailty and re-learn how to rest, to appreciate people and beauty, and worship by quieting my mind.

For Jesus is coming, and this is a holy time.

 


We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”

Last year, I started writing this post. But life swallowed me up and my job was difficult and my husband started working at a restaurant, and suddenly our life was stretched too thin for me to think real words anymore.

I was having a discussion with a friend (who is now a new sister!) and she asked me something or other about how I felt about Christmas coming. I paused. I felt strange answering her question honestly, because she probably expected something about how happy I felt about decorating or making Christmas desserts, or how good it would be to spend the holiday with family. But I was weary and emotionally drained, and I told her that I liked the season of Advent, anticipating Christmas, because it is a penitential season. I said that I always feel more like fasting than feasting while I wait for Christmas.

She asked me to explain what I meant and got me thinking on this. Since I still feel this way a year later, returning to the Advent season, I think I will return and finish my thought.

Advent is a season of anticipating God’s arrival in the flesh, of waiting and watching. It is much like Lent in this yearning and anticipation. But Lent is a time when Jesus was on earth with his disciples, and I feel it’s more appropriate to be meditating on mortality, penitence, and abstinence during the time leading up to the incarnation, while we prepare for his arrival. The time leading up to Jesus’ birth was a time of silence among the prophets, and the Spirit had left the temple, I’m told. Everything was centered on keeping the feasts and waiting for the Messiah, not unlike the Jews still do today. There was an absence of God’s presence among his people.

Likewise, during Advent, we wait and we watch. We hunger for the coming of Christ the baby like we hunger for heaven or for his eventual return, because it parallels that scene so well–the common yearning for God with us. We speak of heaven: Jesus is coming. But not yet. Reflect and watch and pray.

Advent is a picture of where we are now, everyday. We don’t find Jesus in the plenty–though we can. Instead, he more often comes to us in the silence, in the waiting. We anticipate him and grow tired. But then he comes and finds us in the aches and pains and weariness.
And then he dies. And Easter has so much power and might and life and joy, but we know the promise of heaven best in Jesus incarnate. So we wait for the “second death” when we live with him, like the Eliot poem says.

The magi saw the Christ, they rejoice, and then they go home, tired and weary. And they wait for death with quiet reverence and anticipation of the promise fulfilled in death by the baby king. And like them, we wait for his arrival at Christmas just as we wait for death to unite us with him in the flesh.

This Advent (which starts on Sunday), I’m going to be meditating on the incarnation and on mortality. I’m going to be choosing something to fast from in the spirit of Lent, and I will break my fast at Epiphany in the spirit of the resurrection promise made in the incarnation of Christ. Join me?