“What’s your favorite song to play?” asked the man sitting next to me at the Central Eleuthera Christmas Concert. All of the primary schools and secondary schools in this part of the island had gathered, and each was sharing their gifts with those of us who had gathered. We had been told to arrive at 9:00 am, but when we came, they told us they’d changed it to 10:00. That is how things usually work here on Eleuthera, but we don’t mind. Making awkward small talk with the man sitting beside me, I reply, “Hallelujah. By Leonard Cohen.”
Truth be told, I had been spending much more time lately playing Christmas songs than anything else. After FaceTiming with my entire family, while they gathered back in Pennsylvania for the Thanksgiving holiday, I couldn’t help but begin to anticipate being with them at Christmas. And so in this season of Advent, this waiting and preparing, I began to prepare myself for a time of celebration with them. Picturing my nieces and nephews gathered around me to sing carols, I decided that if that image was going to be a reality, then I had better learn some carols to play for them. And so it began. Away in the Manger. Walking in a Winter Wonderland. Carol of the Bells. And finally Silent Night.
A funny thing happened to me though, while I was looking out over the sea and strumming the chords of Silent Night. I began to sing the words, and when I got to the last verse I began to do something that I had been longing to do for weeks. “Silent Night, Holy Night, Son of God, Love’s Pure Light. Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redee.. redee…” – and there my voice cracked – “…redeeming grace” I finished, and a big wet tear slid down my cheek. Something had been unlocked inside. I was not sad, but I was crying. They were tears of wonder, tears of gratitude. Redeeming. Grace. I was feeling the words. As one in need of grace. As one who had been forgiven much. As one who needed to be forgiven much.
I did not know what to do other than to keep on playing. I understood Renita Weems sermon about “the gift of tears” in a whole new way. I finally could cry and I did not want it to stop. I had wanted to cry for so long. So I kept playing that simple song, over and over again. I played until I lost count of the number of times. I played until my joints hurt. I played until my fingertips hurt; and then until they stopped hurting; and then until they became numb. I played until I had no nails left on my strumming hand and the sound became very soft. I played until I was hoarse and began to lose my voice. I played until I knew the chords by heart and could close my eyes and play them as a prayer. I played until the tears stopped, and then I knew that the moment was over.
I put the guitar away, and found my way down to the water to talk to God about what had happened. We talked about all the hurt I had felt, all the pains that I had to release. But that had clearly not been the only point, because it was not pain that I was feeling as I had wept wet tears onto the neck of my previously untarnished little guitar. It was love I was feeling… and gratitude… and understanding. Love because God loved me. Gratitude because I did not deserve it. Understanding because God knew who I was, and how hard I’d tried, and how much I wanted to do the right things.
I thought of the spiritual director, Juanita Rasmus, who I had skyped with at the beginning of the week. She had prayed for me and had given me the words God gave her for me as they came to her mind. “Trust me,” were the words God gave her, “I am leading you… even here, even in this place.”
She had not known how powerful those words were to me.
Those were the words I had heard from God before, at my moment of greatest fear, “I am with you always… even here, even in this place.” I had stumbled forward blindly and tried to keep going, trying to “play on” through the pain. Not yet accepting that it was over, that I had allowed myself to be pushed too far, that I had no strength left to go on. Driving on fumes, driven forward by love, and by fear, and by simply not knowing what else to do. Asking for help, and finding no one with the time. Asking for mercy, and finding my requests denied. And there was God again, “I am with you… even here… even here… even in this place.”
But now in this simple moment with this simple song there was a promise for me. This was what it really meant to play on through the pain out of love – to play not because I loved, but because I was loved. I was known and understood and loved – even at moments when no one else would be able to understand.
“…with the dawn of redeeming grace…”
Earlier this year, another spiritual director had helped me come to see that I was trying to earn God’s love, to be a good enough girl to merit it.
All my life, that had been my role. I was the good girl. Of the five children in my family, I was the good girl. When I was fourteen and my brother was eleven years old, I began to realize how deep that went when he began to tell me which movies he did not want me to watch and what songs I should not hear. I was the ying to his yang, he claimed. I had to be good. I could never slip up, and in some measures I never did.
I went all through college as the designated driver. Went to parties most weeks for the seven years that I was in college and graduate school and never had a drink once. You could set your watch by me, I was the definition of consistency. You could pressure, tease, or flirt but it would get you nowhere. You could count on three things, Hannah would not drink, she would not get physical, and she’d be glad to give you a ride home at the end of the night – because if she wasn’t doing the first two, she needed some reason to be at the party after all.
I was the good girl. That was my job.
But as time went on, I began to have holes punched in my perceptions. Perhaps the biggest one came when I was working in ministry with what we called at the time “high-risk” young women. And I realized what that “high-risk” meant. It meant that they had a much higher likelihood of having no choice in whether they were a “good girl.” I listened as they told me of how they had been taken advantage of by brothers, by step-fathers, by friends – and they had no say in it. My privilege – and not my ethics or my self-control – was what stood between me and them. My ability to maintain my impeccable boundaries was one more sign of a twisted culture in America that had a history going back hundreds of years of “protecting” the chastity of women of privilege while using the bodies of others. Even as we lived as neighbors, we still knew in the back of our minds that the police would come down hard on anyone who touched me, but it wouldn’t be – it hadn’t been – the same for them.
I was not good. I was not perfect. Somewhere along the line, I began to question the usefulness of that Wesleyan doctrine of Christian perfection – that we are all moving on towards perfection and that it can be reached in this life. Even so, in my ordination vows, I had to say that I believed I was moving on towards perfection, all the while thinking about what it meant to me and how I would view it. I wondered if the way that it took such importance in the Methodist movement had more to do with John Wesley’s OCD tendencies than because it was actually a helpful goal. Or perhaps the world had just changed. Perhaps perfection meant something different to them than it means to us in our airbrushed, plastic surgeried, carefully-monitored-social-media presence culture.
In any case, I was not perfect. I am not perfect. I am far from perfect, and I realize it more deeply every day.
I am in need of grace from God. I am in need of love that I do not deserve. I am in need of forgiveness… from God… from myself… from others.
“…with the dawn of redeeming grace.”
And so I kept on strumming and strumming and strumming that guitar. I did not keep playing because I was afraid of what would happen if I stopped. I kept playing because I did not want the feeling that I was experiencing to end.
“Let me love you,” God breathed into my fingers, “I am with you always. Even here. Even in this place.”