Last Sunday afternoon, in a quiet moment between events, I read a message from a friend whose family has, in the last month, moved to a Greek island to help with the refugee crisis.
Two nights ago, as a little inflatable raft was crossing the sea, a young mother and her baby somehow fell overboard. Another passenger, who couldn’t swim, risked his life to rescue the mother but her precious baby was lost at sea. Today, this young mother sits in camp in shock and grief with no baby to suckle at her breast. [My daughter] sat with the passenger who rescued her and listened to his story, feeling so helpless as he shared his pain.
I wanted to crumple into a heap and wail at this awfulness but I had other obligations. I went early to a choral Christmas program where my friends were singing. I chatted and laughed in the front row with my cousins, taking in the ambience of candles, greenery, and lots of friends gathering around us. I was in my happy place.
But between the beautiful songs and poetry, my mind’s eye saw the black, choppy Aegean Sea and a baby falling from his mother’s arms and a rescue team unable to make everything ok.
I don’t have energy or space here to unpack the concept of paradox, but for now in this Advent, all I can say is: I’m riding a wild, rocky wave of both/and AND either/or. These days are deep and dark but I’ve discovered a level of peace and stability in storms when I identify my current situation and decide whether to name it paradox or promise. When I know which one is washing over me, I’m ok, and I know I won’t drown.
On Sunday, I was living in paradox. Basically, I always live in paradox.
- Mothers and babies all over the world are crying from things that should never ever happen AND right now joy and beauty surrounds me.
- I carry heavy griefs that I name only to those closest to me AND I’m living my best life now.
- People are broken and damaged and hurtful AND people are beautiful and breathtakingly exquisite and splendid.
I also always live in promise. This is a binary, either/or frame of reference where I can rest my whole soul. Because one option is untenable and unbelievable, I have only one option to hold, and this grounds me.
- Either God is with me here or He’s not.
- Either God will keep me every moment (like Psalm 121 repeats three times) or He won’t.
- God either loves me or He doesn’t.
This is not a spin of positive thinking or a mantra, even though sometimes breathing short lines in and out helps, like little breath prayers. Inhale: I’m weak. Exhale: He’s strong. Sometimes I find beautiful breath prayers in @blackliturgies on Instagram, like this one: Inhale: God, I do not know the way. Exhale: Go before me in the dark.
Every Advent season, I’m always chagrined at how Advent series seep out of every author’s pen, and my inbox and social media feed overflows with offers for this or that Advent reading series, and I have no time to read them all. The little quotes and nuggets that writers highlight to make their words sound empathetic and thoughtful only weary me. It’s like everyone is trying to wring out something original and winsome and it all overwhelms me.
This year, Advent for me is darkness that knows light will come–a crashing chaos of paradox and promise, and I can recognize/name both, which keeps me from sinking. When I don’t know what is true, or I have trouble naming what IS, it’s time to talk with someone who can help me define the promises and the paradoxes. Some of those conversations this month sounded noisy and shouty and ugly, but it’s part of the process of naming what is.
For now, I’m reading Malcom Guite’s beautiful reflections in Waiting on the Word, which is like breathing in rich fresh air every morning. Beyond that, I’m not following all the Advent series out there. I’m listening to a lot of music, walking, reading multiple books, and making art. I’m limiting sugar, and prioritizing sleep. I feel like a racoon going into a hibernation, knowing spring will come.
It’ll be a long time coming, but it’s a promise.