I wanted to stop each family and person--or maybe wear a helpful explanatory sign--to say that this wasn't Vanna White schtick. I wasn't being paid to stand here in the cold fog and be happy. My "Welcome" and "Merry Christmas" and "Come on in" were genuine, were meant, were whole-hearted. This glowing place behind me, through this open door, is my home and church, and you--if you call this family or you've only stepped into churches for weddings and funerals--are welcome, just as you are.
(See, even here, I need the sign. No schtick! This is who I am, who we are: an open arm, welcoming but also giving you your own space to see, test, experience.)
But as I stood there on Christmas Eve, unable (or maybe just unwilling) to tone down my smile, I couldn't help but let the Dickensian fog float me into past Christmas Eves: the present, and the last two.
Two years ago was joyful--I had hit my thirties in full-joy mode as I found a true Place for Me among my friends-made-family, my church and ministry, and my job. I knew all I needed to know, and I looked expectantly to the next year as one of growth and new things, opportunities to stretch even further in my own strength and in faith. "Giddy" is the word that comes to mind--I was ebullient with hope and eagerness for where we were going.
One Christmas ago, life had changed, had upturned and uprooted. Up was down, black was white. The things I had been thrilled by were now causes of pain. I had watched, powerless and slack-jawed, as great divorces rippled across my community, and with God communicating some things clearly, I was still not allowed to react, to break things and yell and lecture as I wanted to. (God is smart, and knows that that strategy hardly ever works, I suppose, as good as it might feel.) And in other places--namely, What Am I Supposed to Do Now?, He had remained silent until just a couple weeks earlier, when He had begun to confirm things with me--but remind me also of commitments I had made, and my inability to act immediately and still keep my word, so on the eve of Christmas I sat looking down a tunnel of waiting, months long and lonely and dark. I was mournful. I sat in my mother's church, and looked at that growing and joyful community with ache and woundedness--intellectually I remembered how that felt, but it was like that year of pain had taken away my ability to feel that. Glimmers and moments, but nothing secure. Nothing real.
And then there is this Christmas Eve. And in some ways, it's hard to make sense of this, because the woman you saw last year, from the outside, should be more complete than this one. She'd had hair, for one thing. By any human accounting, I should be bitter this Christmas; sad, exhausted, weak. But that human accounting does not take that Sunday last spring into account, stepping into a new church and knowing it was being given to me as mine, as a gift. Having a seizure this summer, yes, but never knowing a moment of it or the diagnosis that followed on its heels without my friends-made-family with me, first holding my hand and then making a bed for me so I wouldn't go home to silence. Living under this new life-redefining thing this fall, and watching God use it to strengthen relationships and solder my dependence on Him all the more and lead me to bring Him into conversations and relationships where I'd never allowed Him before. Being so wrapped up into this new church, not because of what I can bring it, not because of this headlining story, but because the family of Jesus draws people in for the outliers' sakes. With an open arm, welcoming but also giving space.
And so I stand in this present, and am still, continually, amazed to see God very steadily and at times literally turn my mourning into dancing.
You did it: you changed wild lament into whirling dance;
You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers.
I’m about to burst with song; I can’t keep quiet about you.
God, my God, I can’t thank you enough.
Psalm 30:11-12, The Message
And so tonight, this Christmas Eve, it's with a degree of authority that I welcome you, stranger. You stepped gingerly from your car, you checked your phone twice as you walked toward the building, and I saw as every doubt rolled around you: your fear that walking through this door won't fix what's wrong. And I'm not here to argue with you--it won't. Few of us ever trade mourning for dancing overnight, let alone in one service. But you take each singular step. "Come back next week," Eric advised as he spoke.
Come back--to our church or another, that's not the point. But come back. Because staying away may numb the pain but it doesn't heal it. The only thing that heals is handing it over to a King who was so eager to reach us that He didn't come to royals on a throne but to shepherds--regarded as unclean and unworthy in their culture--and a shamed, rumor-covered couple.
I stood greeting again for the third service, and greeted the last of roughly a thousand people, and wondered, out there in the fog, about that Christmas Future. While I don't see some dark skeletal specter, Ebeneezer, it is certainly unknowable. In a year when a brain tumor was part of a wave of joy, what on earth could 2016 bring to surprise me? And yet, I have no doubt that surprise is on the docket. And so I take another half-step into the arms of that King who came into my life like He did that first time: with subtlety, with quiet, unwilling to scare me, but instead asking, over and over and over again, to be brought in, to be able to remake me not only each Christmas but every morning (and maybe more often than that). He doesn't tell me the future--as one of my favorite verses says, I wouldn't believe Him if He did (Habakkuk 1:5). But He knows it, and the closer I am to Him, the more my eyes are on Him, the less those winds and waves rock me--or more accurately, the more stable I feel regardless of them. "Lift your head," sings Amanda Cook on the album I haven't stopped listening to since August. "Now the wind and waves don't matter."