Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Four Christmases

At my Minnesota college, the biggest event of the year was neither homecoming football nor even graduation. It was Christmas Festival, a four-day musical celebration during which ten thousand people descended upon campus to wear Norwegian sweaters, to eat lutefisk  and lefse in the cafeteria and listen to the spectacle put on by St. Olaf College’s five auditioned choirs and its orchestra. That is (in part) why I chose to study there, to immerse myself year after year in perfectly blended anthems to baby Jesus.

I did not know that each November, five rehearsals per week would spin lyrics and melodies into my bones, and that those songs, like a scale, would measure out for me the contents of my heart. Christmas has a funny way of making us aware.


My first year, I signed up to give the devotional before our first concert. I signed up because I thought I was spiritually deep and had so much to say and not because I love speaking. That afternoon I ripped up paper after tear-stained paper trying to figure out what to say to 100 of my peers who were cooler than I.

So I showed up with scribbled notes and told the choir that our music, which was about Light and Grace being born within us, had something to teach us about grace. We didn’t have to be perfect. We just had to be present and recognize the holy before us.

My words were ahead of my heart. The whole concert through, my mind babbled. I thought I had worried too much what others would think of my talk; I thought about how it sounded; I thought about my brother and godparents visiting and how I could get my work done in time to go out to dinner with them after the last concert; I thought about how I was not really thinking about Jesus, how I was unrelentingly focused on myself, how therefore I was not good enough for this beauty and this moment and this Savior.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, I sang at the end of each night. I was unsettled.


I was a sophomore, and something was shifting in me. I was hurting. I had become entangled in painful new experiences. I didn’t know how to make sense of people, or myself. I was tired. The worst of “faith crisis” was yet to come, but the wondering and wandering were beginning.

O why should I wander an alien from thee, or cry in the desert thy face to see?
My comfort and joy my soul’s delight—O Jesus my savior, my song in the night.

I sang the words over and over, harder and harder each time, trying to mean them, trying will Jesus to comfort me. What reached back to me was silence.

In the middle of our Saturday night performance, I thought, How absurd we are, singing to this baby who was born 2000 years ago, calling him God. It seemed absurd in the way that if you look at the letter “h” long enough, you no longer recognize its shape or connections or meaning. It becomes only a collection black lines constructed haphazardly on a page.

Were the rocky friendships and faltering prayers just haphazard elements of my life now? Or was there a pattern? Stay with us, Lord Jesus, stay with us; it soon is evening and night is falling, we sang. I wondered if I believed this, or only hoped for it. I wondered if there was a difference.


Junior year: I was broken and small and lonely and full of an overwhelming sense of loss. For two weeks now I had been crying daily. I had ended a relationship that was good and affirming and simply not right. The innocent faith of my childhood was gone, being replaced with something that was still growing, still feeble, still slow. I had lost even my sense of myself.

I had not, however, lost God. I could not quite name it, but I had not lost my belovedness, nor my chance for a dazzling new beginning. Along with my sadness, there was in those nights an almost imperceptible sense of possibility. God so loved the world, we sang, and the conductor told us that the whole song was in the word “so.”

In just a few weeks I would travel to East Africa, and I would love its people and its land and its language and its version of me. I would meet, in great humility and sadness, some wonderful friends and my future husband and a sense of the miraculous that would pull me back to a lasting kind of joy. My friends back in Minnesota would chart their own new paths, some joyful, some more painful than ever before. In all of this, we would be so loved.


In every Christmas Festival, there is a magical moment—the choir has taken our places in a great circle around the audience. We are ready to sing our first two songs in the round before processing to the stage. The lights dim to black; the conductor raises his arm; there is a split-second of darkness, silence; the room is pregnant. Then the first lovely aching note of the strings is played, and perhaps a chime is struck, and we have begun.

What I don’t realize until much later is that we hold that empty moment in a tiny cavern inside us and we carry it with us for the rest of the night and it is the hope and expectation from which all our music springs.


We were seniors now, and we could scarcely believe it, in the way that twenty-two year olds think time goes by so fast. Before our final performance, Sunday evening, the other senior girls droned on about how they would be sobbing when it was all over, how their voices would crack and they would not be able to sing the last chorus. I, ever slow to process, was sure I would not cry.

After the last cutoff, the audience stood in ovation and I looked out over that crowd one final time. That’s when I spotted the woman, with newly graying hair and a wrinkle or two and a Norwegian sweater like everyone else. Her eyes were shiny with tears and she just kept clapping and clapping, and I could feel the depth of what this music meant to her. Perhaps she had once sung on this stage; perhaps she had been divorced or lost a job or her mother had cancer; perhaps her daughter, who had never quite found a niche in high school, was singing in the front row of the freshman choir; perhaps she hadn’t really heard, for a very long time, that God dwells among us in love.

For the first time in four years of singing, I imagined the life of the audience along with my own. I noticed that we were all there, together, wondering and worrying and over-analyzing and zoning out and then suddenly being caught up all together in the beauty of it—inexplicable, unreasonable, hard-to-believe but absolutely-rock-bottom-still-there. 

The palpable sense of God's love surrounded us all. Tears were streaming down my face.

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