I lost my faith yesterday while driving to the grocery store. It happened while the sun shone on sparkling snow and my favorite Christmas music filled the car. While hearing songs about the Jewish Messiah, long awaited, and at last come, I realized how much I wanted it to be true. I longed for this messiah. And, strangely, in the face of my need and longing, my faith faltered. I saw my heart, so small and needy, and I thought I must just be imagining that it’s true. Suddenly, Christmas was just a story. Just a porcelain nativity set with fake gold trim.
My mind has done the work of belief. It’s researched and studied. It’s questioned and sought answers. As answer after answer after deeper answer has come, I’ve started to trust with my intellect that the Bible is true. That Christianity, with its explanations and historical accounts, is factual. My mind doesn’t cause me to doubt.
But it’s my heart. It’s my little heart that wants so much to believe that causes me to lose faith.
So yesterday, as an agnostic, I walked into the grocery store to buy the last of my Christmas supplies. Somewhere, I thought, there’s something higher. There’s another world around and mingled with this one, with spirits and powers and things I can’t see. But, I can’t know it. It’s impossible to know what’s true. We’re too small to hold it. We’re all just needy guessers.
And, I walked through the aisles with other souls around me filling their carts. There was the mother with tired eyes. The baby in a car seat was sleeping, a knitted hat circling the little head that I could just see through the quilted cover. The mother studied with hurried and tired exactness the fruits and vegetables. An elderly couple smiled back at me as they moved slowly and took their time, choosing their holiday foods and scratching things from their list. I stood in line next to a well-dressed middle aged man. He had a bachelor cart, filled with some locally brewed beer, a rotisserie chicken and some items from the salad bar. I wondered if he had children, even though his cart had nothing to indicate he’d be feeding any, and if so, if he’d be seeing them this Christmas. I hoped that the sweet lady that bagged my groceries, as she managed the busy day shift, would be spending Christmas at home. She has a new baby boy, just a few months old. I know that while she smiles and places my eggs and bread so carefully in bags, that her heart is somewhere else.
I left this store that’s always full of hungry people, and I drove again through the white world. And, I wondered. What is true? I see beauty and brokenness everywhere, all mixed together and shaken up. I know that there’s love and hate and anger and sadness and laughter and joy and self-sacrifice and selfishness and it’s all contained in each one of us. Ancient, orthodox Christian doctrines would also tell me that this is true. We were created by God in His image… we have the fingerprints of the divine on our souls that make us valuable and beautiful beings full of worth. The people in the grocery store are so beautiful. I see that. And yet, there’s something wrong. I can feel it when I’m doing something as simple as standing in line to pay for my groceries. There’s something heavy weighing on us and it’s not just when we’re watching the latest heartbreaking crisis on the news that we know it. Even in the mundane, or celebratory moments, there’s an ache in our humanity. Weeds have sprung up in the garden of our hearts and pain has poured into the labor of our relationships. In smallness we toil. In the shadows of Eden, there’s an ache for an old glory. A restoration. For something to make it all better.
Once, I stood in my farm kitchen with some ladies who’d come to save my soul. I looked into their eyes and I saw their sincerity. But, when I told them that we could never agree because of this one thing that I believe, that Jesus is God, they admitted it. They pleaded their case with me and, looking aghast at each other, exclaimed, “Why! If Jesus was God that would mean that God would have had to sleep and eat just like us. God would have even had to use the bathroom! Don’t you see? God could never do that! He’s too holy, too majestic.”
And, as they spoke, the truth of what they said came washing over me. If Jesus was God that would mean God would have had to … be just like us.
…Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8
God. Emptied, in the form of a servant, in the likeness of men. In human form, humbled, hanging on a cross. God in the smallness of human life and the humiliation of death.
Christmas is hard to take in.
It’s so much easier to imagine a God that is far away. He’s somewhere in the sky separate from us. He set things in motion and then took a hands-off approach. He might be keeping tabs on what we’re doing, and he might hear our prayers sometimes, but he’s big and we’re small. He could never be one of us.
But, Christmas says differently. It says God doesn’t think the way we do. His story is so big that he can enter our smallness.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12
This year, my thoughts turned to Christmas early. My very first Christmas card came in October. The dear friend sent it before Halloween, not knowing if she would be alive this week before Christmas. I spoke to Tamie a few days ago, from her hospice room in a nursing home, and she sounded embarrassed about sending her cards so early. She said, “I just didn’t know…” and her voice trailed off. My heart ached with that familiar pain of knowing that my friend is going to leave us soon.
In October, she had already decorated her room for Christmas. The nurses called it ‘Christmas village’ and paused by her bedside a little longer to stand by the small lit tree and listen to Christmas music. Tamie told me, “I know it’s early but I’m going to enjoy Christmas. And, I’m going to leave everything just the way it is until I’m gone. I won’t pack everything in boxes. It’s going to stay Christmas.”
I want it to stay Christmas, too. I want Christmas to sweep over this hurting world and to make it all better. And I want it to stay. I want it so much that I feel like I’m asking for a fairy tale ending. I’m begging for a ‘happily ever after’ but this broken down world tells us over and over again that those don’t exist.
As a child, it used to be so easy to believe in Santa and to hang my empty stocking for him to fill. I wasn’t cynical. I didn’t think about my smallness in the face of a big world of empty stockings on Christmas Eve. I went to sleep with faith. I rested, knowing that in the morning I’d see my hopes fulfilled. And, without fail, my stocking was near bursting when I woke. Do I dare to hope that there’s a real version of this story?
Can I bring my small and needy heart to be filled at Christmastime?
Maybe we’re not just imagining because we’re weak and needy, but our weakness and our needs point us to something real. We long because we are made to long. Maybe in our smallness He’s seeking us.
Driving home from the grocery store, with all these thoughts going through my mind, I started to pray. I prayed like it was all true. I prayed like there is a God who became man and understands our weakness. I prayed like He cares about me and my children and my husband and my hurting friends and family and the strangers I saw in the grocery store.
And, as I prayed, belief came sweeping back in. I took Christmas in my hands, held it tight and let it be mine. And the God who doesn’t despise smallness was there. One holy night, He took the hope of the world, wrapped it in swaddling clothes and placed it in a manger. This was the sign he gave to the humble shepherds and it’s still the sign he gives to us if we believe it. He’s willing to enter into a stable or a car full of groceries and He’s even willing to fill up a human heart. What makes it so hard to believe is the very thing that makes it genuine. It’s the longed for true ending of every story we’ve ever hoped to believe.
May our hearts be full of the smallness of Christmas, friends.
Grace to you and peace~