I've been feeling funny this year. Funny bad. Unsettled. It took Advent to show me what it was. To reveal my heart to me.
Something's been going on in me, something I don't like. It seems absurd to say so: in many ways it's been one of the best and most privileged years of my life. Who am I to say something's wrong? All I know is, a life is a big place, a human heart a complex one, and things can be great and not so great all at the same time. And underneath the fertile landscape of my life this year there's been running something subterranean, an underground stream of... Of what? Unease? A groundwater of disquiet?
When I was a kid we moved to a house on what was then the bare and distant outskirts of Calgary, shoebox houses clad in black tarpaper and wire mesh awaiting stucco. To the south, a dirt track that eventually evolved into Southland Drive; beyond that, open fields and gophers; beyond that, eventually, Montana. Our yard was made of the same stuff as the road: dirt, dry and hard-packed. Clay, I suppose.
But in the mind of my do-it-yourself father, a vision of oasis in that prairie wilderness, green shoots springing forth from a dry and dusty land where there was no water. Suburban Eden. But first, topsoil. But before topsoil...
I got paid twenty-five cents an hour – might not sound like much, but that was two DC comics and a Double Bubble every hour on the hour! – to stand outside, in faith, garden hose in hand, and water the lawn-to-be. To soak that clay until it gave way. Run the water over a patch of back yard for long enough and, wonder of wonders, it would begin to sink! To settle. To cave in, opening sometimes vast Grand Canyons of khaki-brown clay. Run water around the edges for long enough, and layer after layer of cliffside would sheer off and plummet to the muddy depths below.
Some of those crevasses were more than a mile deep, if I remember correctly. Of course, it was hard to get an accurate perspective, being only seven years old and finding myself piloting a helicopter above the Grand Canyon, the last hope in the universe to bring destruction upon invading hordes of giant ants, blood-crazed apaches and Nazi invaders, battling against time itself to bring to naught their nefarious plans by utilizing the only weapons available to me, my wits, my dedication, and deft and omnipowerful command of rivers and floods.
The best part? Sometimes, somehow the water would move under the earth, two or three feet below the surface, until another hole would begin to collapse on the other side of the yard. The earth would seem less firm, there would be an almost imperceptible depression, a pucker, and eventually that satisfying implosion.
Under the clay were air pockets. Caves, caverns, vast and empty chambers of subterranean darkness. How my dad knew of the hard earth and its secrets I've no idea, but he knew. He was an adult: in those days, grown-ups knew these things. That there was unsoundness there, a lack of integrity, and that if we didn't flush it out now, it would subvert us later: our fresh green lawn would suddenly open at our feet some day after a prairie downpour, or maybe Dianne and Bradley would be frolicking in the sprinkler when the earth would swallow them whole, Woolco bathing suits, bucolic innocence and all, a terrible swift judgement on the cheap grace of an over-hasty foliation. Sure the wilderness break forth, but only in due time: it is a foolish builder who neglects the earthy foundation on which he builds his Kentucky bluegrass dreams.
What's true of the earth is true of us who are made of it, spit and clay, and in these latter days I begin to wonder how badly I've neglected the ground of my soul, which lately seems to fall out from under my feet every once in a while. I find myself in a sudden muddy caved-in hole, peering out befuddled at fresh green grass all around, maybe some lovely pansies and prairie snapdragons at eye level, and my head peering up from a cold clay bunker that wasn't there ten seconds ago. "What on earth?" I'm going along fine, cheerfully cutting the grass or sipping sodas in a lazy lawnchair, then I'm in this hole. Guess I left the water running.
Crawling out of the fissures, I could dig up reasons for even for such unreasonable, unexpected, precipitous pitfalls. I spent four months straight this summer writing, I'm not used to the isolation, I got twisted in on myself. I was doing a new thing, an uncertain thing, and old dogs can panic when they can't rely on their old tricks. I would begin to count words and look at lists of films unwritten about and begin to realize I wouldn't have a book at the end of my time, and that such times are hard to come by, and so I'd never have a book, and it was all futile. (Paranoid writers....)
Once I'd lose my footing for those perfectly good reasons, I'd find myself plummeting into something yet deeper, hollowed out by the fact that my eldest daughter was on the antipodean other side of the planet, YWAMming her heart out downunder and I wouldn't see her again until Christmas. I knew it was for a limited time, but I was living what I'd dreaded since she was born: the day one of my girls would move away and leave a terrible gaping hole in me.
And that wasn't all. Those caves opened into caverns, the ground underfoot kept on sinking away. Because all this year, ever since that bloody HOTEL RWANDA, I've been thinking about Africa, an entire continent twisted in agony like a prisoner under torture. My other daughter went to South Africa and came back with the story of a twelve-year-old girl being raped because the only way to get rid of AIDS is to have sex with a virgin, and then not being able to walk far enough to get the treatment she can't afford to stave off the flesh-eating, dignity-collapsing disease that now lives inside her. And I'm hearing this from my seventeen-year-old daughter, who ought to be thinking about grad dresses and boyfriends and shopping. And I can't even be bothered to fax off the occasional Amnesty Internation letter.
It's gotten to the point where I don't even dare look Jesus in the eye anymore. Ever since I met the guy as a teenager - I was the teenager - I've known He loves me regardless, Jesus doesn't expect me to measure up to any basic required levels of excellence for entry into his seminar, He knows that He's God and I'm not and He's not going to set Himself up for disappointment by expecting me to be the first human to walk on His green earth who deserves to.
But still. This year I've entered a time where that just doesn't wash any more. It's the foundation I've built on, it's always been the solid earth beneath my feet, this inescapable, ineluctible, unconditional grace. But lately my constant refrain of grace, grace, grace is starting to ring tinny, to sound cheap: that familiar ground doesn't always feel like it'll hold me up. Because where's that grace in the gospels? I can hardly read the damn things any more. If gentle Jesus meek and mild is in there someplace, I can't find him: I start to read and all I find is this tough bastard who figures the dead can bury their own dead, who despises comfort and prosperity, who throws in his lot with sick people and hookers. When's the last time I healed anybody, or even helped them die? How many streetwalkers have I hung with, or street people in general? What's any of that got to do with my middle class cosiness? In what single way does this life I've built for myself resemble the one that Jesus lived? If I met him face to face out on my driveway, What Would Jesus Do? He'd puke.
So I stand on one side of my green suburban lawn and way over on the other side stands the fifteen-year-old me who stumbled onto the gospels and found something more radical than Abbie Hoffman or Chairman Mao, he gazes across at me and shakes his head. Between us, this great, yawning chasm, a muddy clay pit where the bottom dropped out beneath my sweet-smelling, fresh-mown lawn, and off to the side the eight year old me, holding the garden hose and watching the satisfying muddy collapse of all that clay.
I'm not sure I would have connected any of this up together – the writing angst, the loneliness of a half-empty nest, the guilt about middle-aged compromise, this sudden personality change in my old buddy Jesus – if it weren't for Christmas, which is coming. (Like Jesus. "And boy is he pissed!")
I love Christmas with all my heart, I throw myself into it with a full and hungry heart year after year. The Spirit of the season strides out onto the stage of the year as a holy hypnotist, and I'm scrambling out of my seat to volunteer, and he always picks me: he can tell I'm one of the suggestible ones, a snap of his fingers and I'll be hanging stockings on chimneys and gorging myself on chocolates and turkey and over-priced oranges and planting trees in my living room.
This year there was an edge on it. Knowing about the subterranean sloshings of my soul that came before, I'm sure you can see why. Something mysterious and dark deep inside me knows I need Christmas this year. Not just want it, but really need it. Really really. Because of that mysterious thing going on way down inside there that I can't really name.
Except that Advent named it for me.
A few weeks back I'm driving down the road listening to a Christmas CD a friend made for me, and there's this one tune, more Advent than Christmas, an ear-catching and off-kilter Over The Rhinish rearrangement of "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." Fact is, I'd begun to obsess on it, as if something in me knew there was something in there for me. Simple resonant guitar sound and the gorgeous, healing directness of this woman's voice, and then my eyes are stinging and my throat's tight and I wonder if I should pull over. "Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee..." And then the Fender Rhodes spashes in something like bells, Rick's brushes breathe into the song like a whispered "Amen," and I know the angel's in the car with me, giving me a name for what's been eroding the earth beneath my feet.
Somehow this year I got scared. Oh, my nerve held out – you'd never know on the surface, hell, I never knew. But fear got hold of me somehow, and it's been eating holes in me way down inside there. Fear that my daughter is gone forever, fear that her sister will be gone soon, too. Fear that I write in vain, fear that I live in vain. Fear for the people in Africa who live in dark, dark fear. Fear of the darkness in men's hearts that inflicts that fear, and fear that it lives in my own. Fear that my Jesus looks at me in disgust, or at the very least disappointment. Fear that the ground will fall out from under my feet.
It's a dangerous world, and I'm afraid.
And then comes Carolyn Arends' inspired, divinely inspired, song. With that refrain, over and over like it is in the narratives of Jesus' birth, "Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, Love has found its way to you, do not be afraid."
Why not, I wonder? But it's not a question there's an answer for, or it's not the right question, or it's already been answered. And I know I don't need it answered: I need only hear what I'm being told, and to try to heed. "Do not be afraid, do not be afraid, Love have found its way to you, do not be afraid."
And in my mind's ear I hear Carolyn's voice, winsome, confident, wise and confiding, winking through that childlike, quasi-goofy little rhyme;
"Shepherds watch their flocks by night guarding against danger
Suddenly there was a blinding light and then things got even stranger..."
And then the shock of that next rhyme that trips you up because it isn't one;
"Angels in the sky far as the eye could see
Singing "Christ is born, oh and one more thing...
Do not be afraid..."
The angels spoke, and I intend to obey.
It doesn't give me answers to my questions. Is it just fine that my comfy middle class life bears no discernible resemblance to the one Jesus led, or do things have to change? I don't know. Is it enough that I write my book, put on my little plays, paint my icons while fearsome Tartar hordes burn it all down around me? I don't know. What are those holes in me that lately seem to want to cave in? What's the water that caves them? I don't know. Will my book ever be finished? Will anyone publish it, will anyone read it, does it matter at all? I don't know. How will I go on when my daughters go? Will all the rest of it seem like ash, and mud pits? I don't know.
But this much I do know. God sent an angel to speak to my fear, a choir of them to sing it to me, that much I do know. I'm not supposed to be afraid.
So for now, I'm going to just sit here for a while beside this manger and watch the little baby they put in it. Maybe when Christmas is over, something in me needs to change, or to continue the changing that's begun: maybe a baby Jesus faith has to grow up into a man Jesus faith: maybe there's a costlier discipleship ahead. Or maybe nothing needs to change, that was just fear speaking. It may well be that all grace after all. I just don't know.
But what I do know is, tonight, in this barn here, I'm not supposed to be afraid. The angel came – to Mary, to the hillside, into my car – to announce that perfect love has come. And perfect love, as we all know, casteth out fear.
by Ron Reed (December 2005)