I hate doing the same old thing. Perhaps that’s why I felt like this past Christmas demanded uniqueness unlike before, for you see, at twenty-two years old, I had my first white Christmas. You don’t really ever get that in Dallas. But snow aside, I still hate doing what everyone else does. Seems to reek of a lack of creativity. That Christmas morning, when I was awake before anyone else—not out of excitement; I simply can’t seem to sleep past eight o’clock anymore—I wanted to read something out of my Bible, but I didn’t want to read the Gospel message of Christ’s birth. How cliché. Some may be offended by this casual attitude. To each his own. But sometimes it feels like we pretend this is the only passage of significance around Christmastime, which is dissatisfactory to me because so much more is tied to Christ’s birth, and I’m not even talking about crucifixion and resurrection. And so I read something different.
I used to say I wasn’t a sensitive person because that was true for most of my life. In the past, I would proclaim to people proudly how I’d never cried during a movie, as if it were some sort of a badge of honor to display upon my breast. But within the last two years, I’ve begun to cry with the most bothersome effortlessness, and tears can flow with simplistic ease at . . . anything. It happens when reading literature the most. Portions of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography trigger a deluge, specifically the episode where he sees a female slave strung up from the ceiling by her wrists, stripped naked as her sexually masochistic Caucasian owner whips her until the blood slides down her slashed back with a disturbing liberality. I bawled all throughout John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me and not only because of how horrific his tale is, but also because of how many disturbing correlations there are between black oppression then and today’s oppression of the homosexual community, specifically the detrimental part the Church has played in both cultural episodes. And you feel alone when you realize that people never learn.
That Christmas morning I was not a very happy person. I think a big part of that had to do with the school I was currently going to. Oh, don’t get me wrong—Harding University’s English department was a godsend (literally). I felt free to be myself and say whatever I wanted there. But being at a denominationally-affiliated university in the deep(er) South with its never-ceasing fundamentalist sectarianism as a whole began to make me weary. And that Christmas break I had reached what would become the apex of my frustrations. My school’s hypocrisy had hit a blatant all-time high, and something snapped inside me. I needed rest. I also wanted to escape desperately; thankfully, I often found such respite when alone with God. And I still do.
Because when I’m there I felt like I was reading a Bible that the majority of the wallets at my alma mater do not. I’d often wonder with indignation where they got what they preach and would be frustrated when the answer obviously did not come back to Scripture, but politics and economics. I got flustered. I got angry. I am not proud of this. I lost count of how many days I had a “the hell with it” attitude dominating my landscape. But those times when I sat down with my Bible by myself created a renewed intensity, fervor, and love for this whole God idea, even if the environment around me was retroactive to such pursuit.
Now, I’ve heard it said many times that a person should not “focus on the institution, but the people.” I’m sorry if this steps on any toes, but that is a horrendously stupid statement. Those very people are what make up the institution. Those people are why so much of the secular (and religious) crowd hates the institution and thinks it’s so ridiculous. Many times in the past three years, I sincerely wanted those people in the institution to disappear. If you read that as offensive, it’s because it is. But it’s an honest emotion, and I’m not going to pretend like I’m never a jerk. My wanting those people to go away may bring about a sense of contradiction given that in a pervious post I wrote how unity is diversity and not conformity. And I still believe that. But I, at least, have the testicular fortitude to admit that I hate it when I see hypocrisy—whether in others or myself—and wish it would just go away rather than having to deal with it. It’s not that I want God to go away. And honestly, I didn’t even really want the maddening people to go away necessarily because even as annoying as it is to see people reading the Bible out of context and reading between the lines to extract guidance for their religiously fanatical side, I am grateful for their existence and petulance, for without them I wouldn’t have had to answer the questions raised by their induced irritability. They forced me to wonder, “Why do I disagree with them?” or, in other words, “What exactly do I believe?” I learned long ago that I do not have faith in people who proclaim Christianity. I would be told, “Well, Nelson, your faith should come from Christ, not people.” Thank you Mr. Flannel Graph, I am well aware of that. And because of that, on Christmas morning I did not want to just read what most people from my university were probably reading. And so I didn’t.
As the eerily ethereal light of my first-ever white Christmas cascaded through my bedroom curtains, I had a phrase in my mind that would not go away—a phrase that continuously places a lump in my throat, throbbing to the point that it almost elicits sobs. It comes at the end of a section in Revelation 21.
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea . . . And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.”
And this is when tears pour and latch like molasses to ones dry, cracked, winter-weather skin because this—this re-creation—is what I want so badly. This clearing of the easel. This. This starting over. And I love that such a sentiment is communicated in such simple words. Little phrases like these pop up in literature from time to time. They use words that a second-grader could understand, and yet communicate something that the innermost parts of our hearts scream. They transcend the spoken realm and enter that which is nestled in the arms of the known because all of us have felt it. These phrases rock your world, cause you to pause, and leave you trembling. Yeats’ phrase “things fall apart” instantly comes to mind, and I’m not even thinking of Chinua Achebe right now. When the reader hits that moment in his poem “The Second Coming,” you could hear a pin drop in the reader’s mind, for everything has halted as it recognizes that somebody just put into words what they’ve been meaning to but never have been able to succeed in doing.
Many phrases like this exist, but it’s ironic that these two use the word “things” because technically it’s not even a good word to use. Academically, you’ll get crucified if you use “things”—what does it even mean? how nebulous and vague can you get? why are you dabbling in ambiguity? do you like getting an F on a paper?—but this is poetry (modernist poetry in Yeats’ case, no less); rules often no longer apply. Who knows what “things” even means? It could mean several, a few, two, or everything. It could be all-encompassing or horrendously exclusive. And yet, this is why the passage in Revelation is so desirable, for the adjective “all” is placed before our most elusively definable word. And this is when the heart melts, for these words wrap up everything the heart longs for. Is it any wonder, then, in the next chapter John says, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come”? I think not. And I think this, too, can be misleading.
People in the Church say it a lot. Or somebody will be praying and say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and a lot of people will do the religious nodding of the head and murmur, “Yes, yes.” Granted, I don’t know exactly what’s on their hearts, but I wonder if people realize what they’re saying when they calmly, almost meditatively say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come,” as if God is just an Enya piece playing in the background with a soothing oil massage waiting, followed by alternating hot and cold rocks for your spine. I’m not insinuating even I know what I’m saying when I pray that God would come back, but I believe it is something that should be accompanied by fear, physical trembling, and exhaustion. The presence of the Lord is a frightening thing. To me, if you’re saying, “Come, Lord Jesus,” that is a cry of, “I am at my last rope here.” It is a plea of, “I can not take this anymore.” It is a shout of, “I can not make sense of all this anymore.” A friend of mine calls this a person’s “what the hell is all of this” stage of faith. The deeper throes of mine were a year or two ago, but the ebbs and flows of it still stick around. It is not fun, but it is necessary.
Here’s how I read John saying it in Revelation. I think he’s begging. Pleading. Crying. Sobbing. Because just the chapter before he’s been tantalized with the promise that God will make all things new. Consider also how he’s just seen Christ in his glory. He’s seen Christ back in his true environment. I’ve seen tigers in cages at zoos, and I even though I don’t know for sure, I can’t help but believe it’s a much more majestic—and altogether terrifying—sight to see them in the jungle where they belong instead of behind tempered glass. John had seen Christ on the earth, but that’s not where Jesus is originally from, and so to then see him in his glory in Heaven must have been quite a sight.
And more and more I find myself begging. Pleading. Crying. Sobbing. I can’t ask God to come back as if I’m just a five-year-old asking his Mom to help him tie his shoes. I ask it as a weary man with his knees boring indentations in the carpet while the same Berber below his eyes is sopping up salty sweat and tired tears. The vein in my forehead is bulging, my fists are clenched to the point my fingernails perforate my palms, and there may even be some salivatory dripping included. This is a juicy plea, full of fluids and fraught with frustration. It is not quiet meditation. But more importantly, it is the desire to see a promise fulfilled, a longing created by the mere taste born out of imagistic words of a man in a cave.
Sound hokey? Oh, most definitely. But it can’t be any crazier than life already is, and this return to normality, this return to what is right, this return to that which is most pure weighs heavily upon the heart of a frustrated, impatient man who knows when he looks at the Church and the world around him, “This . . . is not it. This is not how it should be. This is not how it was meant to be.”
Division exists today, and yet John says, “There was no more sea.” A pure picture of unity. Some will disagree that this could signify a return to unity, but that is because they approach it with a frame of reference that is locked in and created by the only world they know—this current physical one. But John says the sea is gone. Take into account the ancient connotations water has throughout literature: chaos. Chaos is now gone, too. Peace pure presides. Lap it up. Drink it up. It has replaced the sea. It is our water now. Drown your lungs in it. We ride on its waves.
And with the institution of perfect peace comes the removal of pain, fear, suffering, and ultimately death. The alluring thing about this passage, though, is how this aspect of eternity touches the present. C. S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters the present is the only moment that touches eternity, and while he doesn’t say it’s a give and take, I will assume he’d also believe the reverse is true. And so while the King James Version of that Revelation verse does encompass the dual meaning, the New International Version goes ahead and spells it out more plainly, translating Jesus as saying, “I am making everything new!”
It’s happening now. We are caught up in the current moments of restoration. Frustration will hit, and it will hit hard, and during that time between semesters it was weighing heavily on my life. But so much of those emotions from that Christmas were self-focused. Indignation, to the participant, always seems external when, in reality, it is constantly focused on his own selfish agenda and desires. Which is why I had to remind myself some months later of how capable I am of creating similar frustrations in those around me. And so I wrote the following on a piece of paper, and taped it to my mirror:
Today you will fail people, and they will fail you. People will anger you, and you will anger them. You will offend people, and they will offend you. You will hurt others and be hurt. And in the beginning, middle, and end of this day, God will lavish the same love on each of these. They do not deserve it. You do not deserve it. Be thankful you have it rather than taking it for granted. Rejoice that these beautiful children around you have it rather than wishing they’d earned it. But most importantly, do not write someone’s story for them before they’ve had a chance to tell it to you first.
Had I continued to wallow in such resentment and fury that Christmas break, I may very well have ended up echoing Sufjan Stevens by saying, “That was the worst Christmas ever!” But instead, having been renewed by the promise that Christ is actively restoring “things” even now, my first ever white Christmas contained more joy than I can remember from any other past holiday.
We are weak. We are tired. We are weary. And so we say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come,” because we know that even though we can partake in such restoration and renewal in this moment, we can’t do it apart from him. And this is why the occurrence of Bethlehem and the promise that took place there are so great: the birth is the beginning of “things” being made new. It was not something which stopped at the cross. It’s a renewal so strong even Christ’s body was made new after being ripped to shreds. And just because he’s gone on and left his Spirit with us does not mitigate his ability to keep working. For eternity touches this moment, and our present nestles against the rest of time.