Advent Light on Narrow Places

Whether or not there are more than three dimensions–like the sixth dimension I read about recently, hypothesized to be tightly wrapped up and invisible to our senses, but right here with us always–what we can know for certain is that by the time we are ripe into adulthood, we have patterns of perceiving our lives and the world that are very hard to shake–patterns that can obscure life-giving truths for us.

How often have you sensed that most of us recognize wisdom when we see it, but are far still from letting the truth of that wisdom convert us deeply–alter our patterns of perception and action? Clearly prayer with the psalms works away at us, giving us vistas whose Spirit-filled gifts may lie less in their visualizable content (of thrones and temples and such), and more in our honest and open grappling with the images and words of scripture.

By mid-life, some of the places in us most in need of conversion might very well have to do with perspectives on our lives we established as young adults, coming into our own as persons.  Those perspectives might be shaped by our best gifts, and by all we had to wrestle in order to give those gifts a chance in this world, in this particular life.  But in the course of becoming ourselves, especially if we’ve had to work against a lot of social and family expectations in order to do so, we can create barriers between ourselves and all those we imagine to represent those expecations we had to resist.

Today I hosted a Christmas party for a group of women whom I can easily imagine to represent all the expectations I was determined to flee when I left home for college.  Today’s party was quite different from the baby shower I threw last December, for a lesbian couple–though others singing while I played the piano happened in both cases.  This year’s party was for the women of my church.  I’d responded to a request for someone to open their home for the annual “WELCA” (Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church”) party, and about twenty women came.  The organizer had asked everyone to bring a Christmas ornament or gift that had been important to them, and to share why.  I led a brief devotion.  There were refreshments.  And there were lots of women wearing some sort of shade of red.

I’m not sure I needed to have taken down the abstract nude self-portrait done by my old housemate’s last girlfriend (I’d bought it from her after her senior art show and before she returned to Japan), but since it was hanging right over the futon in the study where all the coats were to be piled, I judged it best to hide it away in another room for a few hours.  (And I definitely didn’t want the coats in my bedroom, lest everyone see the humorous lesbian pulp lightswitch plate my old girlfriend gave me; perhaps fewer would have cared than I thought.)  I definitely knew it was a good idea to take the statue of a dancing Shiva off the fireplace mantle because I figured it would offend at least one woman in particular.  I left up the brightly colored, somewhat grotesque abstract art done by my old housemate Will and his friend Mason–because both are sons of families of the congregation, and I could talk about the art and know it would mean something to them.  (Both young men are also schizophrenic–or so diagnosed–and neither is active in a church today. )  And I put up Christmas decorations, some of them homemade by one woman or another in my family.

After the party, a woman my age, Julie Ann, stayed for tea and we talked for three hours.  She is from Britain, and has children in high school, and a husband in Afghanistan.  We spoke of many many things, but one thing she shared struck me.  Her husband’s brother is gay, and Julie Ann said that for years he assumed that no one knew, and that his brother, being a military man, would not approve.  When he found out that no one cared that he was gay, his relationships with everyone changed; he was less on edge.  Julie Ann said that she wondered how much it had been so part of his identity, to feel different, that he couldn’t see at first that it wasn’t warranted–at least to the degree he felt it.

In my own life, when I am outside of a comfortable professional environment and outside of my circle of friends made there, I feel very slow to be able to feel my way past being perceived by many women (especially) as someone slightly unnerving, as someone around whom others are not sure to respond.  I’ve had many experiences that reinforce this perception.  For many women in small towns, it’s hard to know what to make of a woman who is for all practical purposes single (though I’m usually dating a man or a woman of some sort), and more oddly, a woman with no children.  Perhaps it’s just that I still feel deep in my bones that sense that I rejected what the women of my hometown raised me to be, so I expect I’ll be rejected in turn by women for whom family and children and grandchildren are central reasons to be.  Or I expect my acceptance is conditioned upon my hiding many truths about my life, talking about what I imagine to be of interest to them.

In any case, I am slowly coming to see that a narrow place in my soul that is in need of the light of Christ’s advent has very much to do with my own instinctive prejudice about those who are socially conservative and in traditional families.  The wisdom I know–but do not yet know–is that hearing the actual stories of other human beings breaks apart all these sortings out among us, or at least renders them more fragile and fluid.

I confess that I am comfortable immediately among artists, writers, activists, intellectuals, those who cherish the absurd, those who don’t fit the model of heterosexual nuclear family, those who do not fit in the mainstream in one way or another–and with all those who are comfortable being on the edge.  I wish that churches in small towns more often felt like safe places for us.  But this Advent I am trying to hold open in prayer the question:  how much have I contributed to the cycle of anticipated prejudice that keeps me wanting to segregate to be with people around whom more immediately I feel at home?

Actually, that’s not quite my Advent prayer–for Advent has always seemed to me to be less a penitential season than a time to orient everything–every question in us–to the light of Christ.  Even when that light has only the distance intensity of starlight, it is right to place everything in us and in our world beneath it.  And watch, and listen.

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