It has been almost ten years since we stood at the altar of an old Baptist church, June sun shooting through the glass stained blue and green, downtown traffic buzzing outside of the thick, wooden doors. We lifted our voices while we squeezed our hands and felt the words to How Great Thou Art sink into the choir of hundreds of friends and family.
They were all present in their finest clothes to witness the joining of our lives. I remember how easily the lyrics left my lips, how they nearly floated out of my nervous smile. They rang loud and true while the ancient organ hummed low beneath all that joy rising in song.
Just a couple of weeks ago, sparks from the fire popped into the black sky over our backyard. Bare hands, shaking from the fall crisp held plastic cups of red wine and glass bottles of amber beer. In camping seats and wooden lawn chairs, on top of coolers and criss-crossed on the brick patio, friends gathered around the hot blazes as my husband poked a stick to stir the flames.
They came to remember. They came to support. They came to pour their tears into our cupped hands, the perfect and only offering.
It was a night to feel the grief of losing our little boy two years ago. And our voices cracked with deep sadness as we whispered the words of that same hymn, How Great Thou Art. The strumming of the guitar could just barely hold up our fragile song.
I felt it on the altar that afternoon in June so many years ago. I felt it in our backyard that night in October.
The deepest places are an invitation to touch the holy.
And I wonder sometimes why it is that those moments of grief, of despair, feel like they are scraping right up against a mystery hinting of joy and peace. How can it be that the same song, the same old, ancient hymn could cause a heart to bleed the same hot tears on the altar of marriage and at the service of remembrance? I don’t know for sure why the wall between joy and grief feels at times more fragile than lace, with holes to peer through and catch a peak of the other side.
But I wonder if that razor’s edge between grief and joy is the holy ground where we most smell the new milk on the Infant’s lips while touching the bright red spilling out from the side of the Christ.
I wonder if these deep places, these hallowed out spaces, are where we bow down next to the manger and catch a glimpse and get a touch of God among us.
I wonder if the reason that we ache with joy the way that we ache with grief is simply because they are two sides of the same coin. Right in that thin space between them is where we find ourselves fully in the presence of Love Come Down. It is where we worship like the first time, as they did that night in Bethlehem thousands of years ago.
So as we crawl to the manger this Advent season, let us remember the moments when we most knew that we were in His presence.
Let us remember the times when our bellies hurt with pure laughter, and the times when our throats closed up with true sadness. Let us remember when we felt our hearts falling apart, and when we felt them brimming over.
For those are the times that we have kneeled low and touched the skin of the God who knew joy and grief.
And it was all worship.
May we never leave those manger moments without the words, How Great Thou Art, spilling out of our broken and redeemed hearts.