“Daddy,” Eliza said, “I can’t sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I’m seeing terrible things.”
She was “wide-eyed and trembly,” Christian Wyman writes of his four-year old daughter in his essay, “I Will Love You in the Summertime.”[i] Wyman’s wife was traveling, so he was on his own.
“I suggested she pray to God,” he continues. Not an uncomplicated suggestion for him. “This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness.” Perhaps you can relate to the internal conflict when we think of prayer. I know I can. Wyman soldiered on.
I suggested that my little girl get down on her knees and bow her head and ask God to give her good thoughts—about the old family house in Tennessee that we’d gone to just a couple of weeks earlier, for example, and the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets…and the fireflies smearing their strange radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight. I told her to hold that image in her head and ask God to preserve it for her. I suggested she let the force of her longing and the fact of God’s love coalesce into a form as intact and atomic as matter itself…. I said all this—underneath my actual words, as it were—and waited while all that blond-haired, blue-eyed intelligence took it in.
“Oh, I don’t think so, Daddy.” She looked me right in the eyes.
“’Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and’—she spread her arms wide in a disconcertingly adult and ironic shrug—‘look how that’s worked out.’”
Along with four-year old Eliza, we might find ourselves just a little disappointed, as we flee to Egypt this Sunday with Mary, Joseph and the baby. Surely there is an answer to prayer here in Joseph’s dreams that echo the confident faith of the psalmist:
Men and women, young and old,
raise the anthem loud and bold;
join with children's songs of praise;
worship God through length of days.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.[ii]
But at what price? The slaughter of innocents? Power unleashed not to save, but to harm. Look how that’s turned out!
“Here’s an obvious truth:” Wyman confesses later in his essay. “I am somewhat ambivalent about religion, the very meat of it, the whole…shebang. Here’s another: I believe that the question of faith…is the single most important question that a person asks in and of her life, and that every life is an answer to this question, whether she has addressed it consciously or not.”
I suspect he is right. These stories today hold for us the tension that Wyman names. On the tail end of a season of giving that is so often known more by what we get, and by our relentless wanting, they resist the temptation to water-down Christian faith into some soothing sleep-aid, into some form of religion preoccupied with parking spaces and oblivious to suffering. And yet, they refuse equally to deny God’s goodness, God’s presence, and God’s saving power.
The writer of Hebrews captures the tension that is so important for people who long for faith that is true and durable: “10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”[iii] Through sufferings! What a stunning, unsettling idea.
We don’t follow God in hope of happiness, Wyman suggests, but because we sense a truth that renders ordinary contentment irrelevant.[iv] We follow God because the only lasting happiness—if that’s the right word for it, which I suspect it isn’t—becomes possible only by way of Egypt. True faith, as unsettling as it may be, compels us to look upon the innocents who are slaughtered whether in ancient Palestine or modern day Aleppo or Darfur or Detroit. It calls us to remember our own story of Japanese internment as we anticipate a new era that makes similar threats for our Muslim neighbors.
I can’t speak for you, but I know for me this is of some importance, especially in a time when much of our culture allows even basic facts to be contested. We need truth in all its forms. We need that childlike faith that, as Wyman phrases it, “depend[s] upon the very contortions they untangle.” We have to look into the very darkest of the worlds we have had a hand in creating, we have to look on these terrible things, at what we have done and allowed to be done, if we ever hope to see the blinding light of God’s love that is recreating them and us.
“My thoughts were all a case of knives,” the poet George Herbert said. Wyman says it this way: “There are some hungers that only an endless commitment to emptiness can feed, and the only true antidote to the plague of modern despair is an absolute, and perhaps even annihilating, awe.”
There is something remarkable about this journey into Egypt. The writer of the gospel captures something of the way of this God we look to sometimes with wonder, sometimes with awe and even fear, and most times with both.
As we look back on a year that has been, for many of us, decidedly mixed, a year of joys and regrets for sure, perhaps this story of a refugee family has a word of wisdom, and perhaps even salvation to offer us.
It is very hard for us to be freed from the demonic grasp of our old stories. I suspect this is true of both individuals and nations, as Herod’s role demonstrates all too tragically. In order to be set in a new direction, our stories must be revisited, and ultimately changed. We have to get our hands dirty. And that is what this baby in all his vulnerability does. That is what this story does. That is what this way does. It takes us across borders we fear crossing, knowing that our salvation depends on it. It calls us to be the shelter that people need for survival. It rewrites our lives toward peace, even as violence rages about us.
So take the journey. Be willing to look into the face of the one you fear. It just may be the journey that will give you your life back.
[i] This quote and the others that follow are from Christian Wyman. “I Will Love You in the Summertime.” The American Scholar (Spring, 2016), accessed on December 30, 2016 at https://theamericanscholar.org/i-will-love-you-in-the-summertime/#.WGbSooWcFR0.
[ii] Isaiah 63:9.
[iii] Hebrews 2:10.
[iv] Christian Wyman. “I Will Love You in the Summertime.” The American Scholar (Spring, 2016), accessed on December 30, 2016 at https://theamericanscholar.org/i-will-love-you-in-the-summertime/#.WGbSooWcFR0.