“For unto us a child is born…”
My husband’s family live near and on the Tennessee River in a very rural part of southwest Tennessee. This is where they are from and it is as far from the kind of place I grew up and spent much of my adult life as any place I could find in the USA. It’s a gorgeous area, full of rolling earth, horses running through fields, large old white-painted farmhouses with wraparound porches, trailers and cars and trucks and trailers and confederate flags and UT flags and peace signs. It’s not just one of anything and it would be wrong to make it one thing, to decide what it is and what the people are as they are all of everything. They have guns and go deer and duck hunting and go to church and poor and wealthy and high school dropouts and highly educated and paranoid and compassionate. They vote Republican and Democrat. They have lost their jobs and started businesses and they live close to extended families. They are all of everything.
Jamey, my husband, showed me the house where his great-grandmother raised his grandmother, right down the road from where his brother now lives, down the road from where his PaPaw still lives, which is right near where Buford Pusser played out his legendary life. PaPaw even has a few of Buford’s guns. I love this area. If I could make a living without needing to be near a major city, I’d live out here, on this wide, wide river, near the fields of Shiloh. Most of his family are Church of Christ, a religion I hadn’t even heard of before meeting him. I grew up Catholic with a father who I knew wasn’t, who had been Baptist and had tried out many different protestant churches, but mostly stayed home while we all went to church, so as not to confuse us. Once we all left home, he found his way to the Methodist Church. But growing up in a religion where every Sunday you say the Apostles Creed – “the one true, catholic and apostolic church” – you can develop a judgment that all other religions are just, um, wrong. At least not “one” and “true”. (It wasn’t until college that I realized in the Creed that the word “catholic” uncapitalized didn’t necessarily refer to my own religion) Until I walked away from the Catholic Church in a feminist huff in my late teens, I had thought every other Christian faith was just watered down.
This Sunday morning, Christmas Eve, my Church of Christ in-law family decided to go to a United Methodist Service, which took us all by surprise, most especially my husband, as they are all devout Church of Christ go-ers. It was a tiny church, walking distance from their home, boasting a community of about 8. I, swollen belly, almost 7 months pregnant and meditating almost every day as I try to connect to my son and this whole mysterious process of creating life inside my own body in a spiritual way, searching for guidance outside my own meandering flawed brain, was thrilled at the chance to experience this service. I love going to all sorts of religious services, to see how the practice unfolds in different states, regions, communities. I challenge myself to find the similarities and try to not judge anything, even if my belief system may not match exactly. I have had such strong disdain for religion and thrown the baby out with the bathwater for so many years, that my new practice is to just stay open, breathe and meditate through a service, and notice what words and phrases move me. To find connection. And to celebrate the Eve of the birth of Jesus, the son of God to Christians, with my own first son in my belly, surrounded by my new family who may or may not know what I personally believe was a gift. Even if I hesitate to call myself anything in particular in terms of religion. I’m not worried about my everlasting soul even if perhaps anyone else out there is.
The church was tiny. One room. Jamey and I walked in and the preacher, a woman in a white and purple robe, called out a welcome to us and the four people in the room turned to shake our hands. One came up directly to us and said, “You are Jamey and Amy and we are so happy to have you. I have a request,” and asked us if we’d sing a carol for the service. Jamey turned to me, saying “I won’t but she can” and it’s at this point, I usually stammer a polite decline with some excuse of false humility: it’s too early, I wouldn’t want to intrude, I don’t know any, etc. This time, I just said Yes, of course and saw the piano and said, “I can do Silent Night” and her face lit up. Behind us, walked in the rest of my husband’s family and we easily tripled the size of the congregation. The minister was a white-haired older woman, grandmotherly with a wide warm smile and she introduced herself as a doctor and I was immediately charmed by her. The service began with a carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High” and a welcome and then I was invited to do my part. I sat at the piano and played “Silent Night”, grateful that I’d just played it for my own holiday shows over the past month, and remembering that protestants, unlike Catholics, sing ALL of the verses, and glad I knew them. I also hoped my early morning voice would hold out, a bit shaky, honestly from nerves. It’s easier for me to sing for hundreds than a handful. It felt to me like an offering. Less than an hour earlier I had done my morning meditation and asked my own version of God/Goddess/HigherPower to help me get out of my self and into service. This was something I could do. Just lead one song for a few people, family and strangers, in an unfamiliar church far away from where I grew up.
A few readings and then Dr. Preacher-Lady gave the sermon. It was a long history lesson on Luke and the politics of the Christmas Story – contextualizing that stable and that couple. She spoke of taxes and governance and war. She painted for us the picture that we all hold of that night, a crisp, clean, cold night of beatific smiles, Mary in a clean blue cowled dress, a clean baby in white cloth, white fluffy sheep, gold gilded robes of the wise men. Then she blew a hole in that myth: the sheep would have smelled badly, the shepherds would have been dirty, Mary’s garment was probably caked with mud, the birth would have been very messy. The Christmas Story is not clean as we hold it in our hearts. It is a story of a big huge mess. A child is born into a messy messy world, coming into the world as he comes into our lives, not easy, orderly and clean, but like a wrecking ball, rearranging the furniture, taking our well-controlled plans and jostling them. When we invite spirit to enter, it’s not clean. It’s a disorderly chaos that shakes our white knuckled fists from the wheel of our comfort zones, throwing us from our well-managed storms, and finally, curates selfless mission and purpose. And ease.
Tears were streaming down my cheeks as I listened. Just a few months ago, my writing teacher Suzanne had channeled for me and written me a beautifully poetic charge, that my baby is coming to crash through my well-laid-out plans, to bring light and that I must write through this confusion. My father once told me, when I was at my darkest confusion, barely even able to drop to my knees in submission to anything, that I lacked Spirituality. He didn’t say religion. He didn’t say God. He said Spirit. He was right. I was lost in a darkness of ego. I was trying to manage all the chaos myself, hide the truth from everyone I knew, I was so full of fear but I was also snowed by it. Fear was independence masked. I had used up my flight and fight and I was smack at the bottom of frozen. Into that winter cold came Spirit. It took work, it took surrender, it took doing things a different way, but a light cracked through and I stopped being angry at God, I stopped being judgmental of religion, I just stopped Not Listening and started Listening.
And this preacher in front of me, quoting the Bible, a book I’ve barely read, had my grandmother’s bright eyes, her intelligence, her kindness. I heard her laughter through this woman’s voice.
I saw my father growing up in his one room Baptist church in Elkton, Maryland, sitting in his good suit next to his twin brother Will, with his leather Bible, embossed with his name on the front. I saw my Nana, raising 5 children alone on a small farm, poor and widowed too early. I saw my Dad riding a spotted horse watching the day grew dark when the planes from Dover covered the sky on their way across the ocean to D-Day.
I saw my father-in-law on his first Christmas without his own mother, a sturdy, intelligent man of great depth and wit and deep love for his family, my husband so much like his father, and I felt my son move inside me, flip around, kick the wall of my tight belly. And I let the tears fall, feeling grace move inside and all around me, and I thought how funny and mysterious Spirit works through and among us and how sometimes the Christmas Story in it’s messy perfection becomes manifest in the most unlikely places.