I’ve said it many times before, but “losing your faith”—or at least your faith as you knew it—doesn’t happen all at once. It happens slowly, like the Colorado River carving the Grand Canyon out over time, bit by bit through erosion, until one day you wake up and you realize that you don’t actually believe anything that you used to believe anymore but you can’t quite place when or how that happened. It’s disorienting and often startling. The whole world of new possibilities lays itself out in front of you and yet you find it difficult to take a single step forward.
I feel this more at Christmas, I’m realizing. Maybe it’s the increased opportunities for engagement in theological reflection but it seems like everything I used to find comforting or beautiful before I now find problematic at best and repugnant at worst. That’s not to say I don’t find any of it beautiful, or inspiring, or comforting. I do. But my enjoyment swirls in a strange cocktail mix of doubt and anger that makes me dizzy if I think about it too long.
I think of those who will hold hands with their family this Christmas and read the gospel nativity narrative and pray, and thank God for sending baby Jesus to save us from our sins, and turn around and elect Mary’s accusers to the White House and to Congress. Those who have empty seats at their Christmas table not because of death or distance but because their bastardized version of that same baby Jesus demands that they hate others in his name and consign them to hell on earth. Those who celebrate a story about a poor young refugee family all the while pretending that the very land they are sitting on wasn’t stolen from people who were here long before King Herod ruled in the Middle East.
In the din of my own spiraling thoughts one question rings out clearly: “Surely, this can’t be what it’s all about?”
I don’t know the answer. I don’t know many answers. I know that I have spent nearly a month holding virtual space for stories of abuse within churches, my own included, and the very churches implicated in these many threads are as we speak greening the vestibule and practicing their carols and preparing for Christmas pageants that tell a story that is, at its heart, about believing women. Yet when women cry out to be believed in their midst their only recourse is a hashtag. It’s as though the universe is giving them infinite opportunities to prove which characters in the story they are playing.
And yet. Yet.
If you come to my house, you might at first wonder if you haven’t stepped into a Winter Wonderland. Fairy lights wrap around the living room. 3D snowflakes I’ve spent hours cutting out and assembling hang from twine on the ceiling. The Christmas tree, which already has about fifteen presents under it, is weighed down almost beyond what its $30 Walmart frame can bear with candy canes and glittery bulbs and ornaments my grandmother has been giving me every year since I was born. A homemade cardboard cutout of Beyoncé sits at the top of the tree because—and hear me out on this—Beyoncé is both a star and an angel. On the television you’ll see the Netflix Yule Log burning, and through the kitchen under the mistletoe you’ll smell vegan hot chocolate and mulled wine. I celebrate Christmas HARD.
I can’t tell if this is a genuine love for kitsch or a coping mechanism, and frankly, I don’t care.
What I know is this. Both of these things are within me. The anger, the doubt, the cynicism, the disbelief. And the wide-eyed childlike wonder, the reckless abandon, the ridiculous joy beyond all reason. I cannot save the world, but I can surround myself with the family I have chosen and love them and love myself well. I can tell my doubt to hold on a minute, I will come back to you, I haven’t forgotten about you, but right now I am going to go look at 8 million lights at the mall and you cannot stop me. I can force all my friends to watch Eloise at Christmastime because that movie contains the truest distillation of the real story of Christmas that I have found:
It is a difficult season for the unsure among us when every other Christmas card we get in the mail is painted with glittery letters reading: BELIEVE. Believe what? Who? Why? They don’t make a Hallmark card for when you grew up thinking baby Jesus had to be born at Christmas to save only certain people who said the right prayer from burning in a literal hell forever and now you don’t believe that anymore and you don’t know what you believe but you still want to participate in the festivities. (BTW Hallmark if you are listening there is a very large and untapped ex-evangelical market for those cards.)
But even if you don’t know what you believe this Christmas, might I gently suggest you take a page out of my book and believe Eloise. Because the real message of Christmas is that it’s time for justice, that’s what.