Last year I heard a song that arrested my heart. I know, that’s super dramatic. But I felt immobilized when I heard it, so the words feel genuine.
Naturally I played it over and over again, just to be immobilized. One does, when one finds something worth being frozen for.
Have you ever seen something that completely captured all the things you can’t even describe to yourself?
Have you ever smelled something that replaced a feeling you thought you’d lost?
Or like me, have you ever heard something that made you realize for a split second that you weren’t alone?
I love when it happens, even though it almost hurts.
I think that for most of us there is a place where the leftover feelings, ideas, and emotional runoff gather. This isn’t the place where we stuff our tears at being called ‘fat’ on the playground. It isn’t where we leave our emotional abuse to rot and fester. It’s just the bits that didn’t get swept up as life went along.
It’s the time you forgot about, when your aunt got you the present you wanted when your parents didn’t have money.
It’s the stuffed dog you slept with that got left on the airplane.
It’s the childhood aspirations to be an architect, a singer, an actress.
It’s the accumulated sunsets on the beach and laughing until you feared you would wet your pants.
All those milliseconds when you feel that everything is right with the world, or that nothing will ever be right again…they all go to this place I’m talking about.
It’s a terrible, wonderful place that you don’t ever want to go to and don’t ever want to leave.
If you’re still tracking with my esoteric ramblings, congratulations! You are in the running to be my new best friend.
I just want to be really clear when I say I was arrested and immobilized by this song. It tapped into this place I’m talking about, which we might as well call the emotional rubbish bin.
I was decorating my apartment last year with paper stars. We were in Galway, waiting for my parents to arrive for Christmas. I missed my sister, and so I played The Indigo Girls. We’ve listened to them for years, and they make me miss her even more in a masochistic way. Listening to them is like looking up an ex on Facebook. You know you’ll regret it because the feelings will overwhelm you. But you have to do it because…well, because you have to.
The paper stars fell down from the mantle and I had to untangle them from the thread and try again. And then again, and yet another time it would happen. Meanwhile the Indigo Girls sang of love and monsters under the bed. And then, this:
‘There’s still my joy for Christmas day’
The music is haunting even if you aren’t perched on an orange swivel chair with tangled stars in your hand.
But the words! Oh, the lovely words. I’m not going to list them all here, because you HAVE to go listen on whatever music platform makes you happy. But if your stars are all tangled tonight and you want a visit from the emotional fairy, here’s a snippet:
I brought my tree down to the shore
The garland and the silver star
To find my peace, and grieve no more
To heal this place inside my heart
The snow comes down on empty sand
There’s tinsel moonlight on the waves
My soul was lost, but here I am
So this must be amazing grace
One tiny child can change the world
One shining light can show the way
Through all my tears for what I’ve lost
There’s still my joy
There’s still my joy
For Christmas day
It’s good right? You don’t know what it means, but you know what it means. This, my friends, is good art. It is many things to many people, and can still maintain its original purpose.
I stood there, paper stars in hand, not wanting to break the magic of the music that now filled my room. It was wafting out, creating a fog that penetrated my heart.
What does it mean? To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I have to awkwardly admit that I understand it at a level that I can’t yet describe.
So let’s awkwardly try, shall we?
The group that sings this version are lesbians. I say this not because I care that they are lesbians, but because it is pertinent.
I’ve spent my life in church. Lesbians aren’t welcome there. Sure, if they USED to be lesbian, or maybe sort of thought about it or maybe they one time met someone who was a lesbian, they could come and testify about it. But an actual bonafide lesbian? Not welcome.
It struck me that this woman who so beautifully sang this song about a child changing the world would not be welcome in the institution I served. Does that matter? It did to me, standing there in an Irish apartment, surrounded by someone else’s furnishings.
The words speak of great grief, heartache, a lost soul. I identify with these feelings pretty strongly. I especially identified with this last year, separated from family and friends and not knowing where I’d be in a year’s time.
Many people who don’t like church, hate church even, will stop by the place at Christmas. They get made fun of by the church crowd as not being faithful or genuine. In the same breath, they are lusted after to further fill the pews and the offering plates.
‘If only they came all the time!’ We hear. “Imagine all we could do if they would commit to come all year like we do’.
But lesbians aren’t welcome, and neither are a whole host of other people who do life differently.
Some of my closest friends are lesbian or gay. I watched their struggles not only to identify with their own self, but to bring that into line with their Christian upbringing. It was and is heartbreaking to see the way they are treated.
I’m not trying to make waves about homosexuality and Christianity. There are better minds than mine that can wax poetic/eloquent/crazy about those topics.
But I do know that IF you believe Christ came into the world, he came to love. He did this in many ways, as love takes different forms. But love was the beginning and the end of the plan.
I listened to this woman sing her soul up and out through her vocal chords, pour them out and lay them there while I stood frozen.
For all the grief she’s been through, for all that her soul was supposed to be lost…there’s still joy for Christmas day.
Why? Why would someone who is marginalized, demonized, dehumanized by the church that celebrates Christmas, want anything to do with this holiday?
I’m 97 percent sure that she isn’t singing about her joy based on peppermint ice cream or Nordstrom’s sales.
There’s an incredible longing here. I hear it every time I play this song, no matter how many times I play it, and it is overflowing my emotional rubbish bin.
She is real to me, this singer. She didn’t write the words, but she chose them as her own. She claimed them, supported them, when she sang and recorded them. She is my best friend, my cousin, myself, and maybe even you.
If you read my blogs, you’ll notice several themes. One is that I don’t feel at home in churches, particularly those in the American South. Never have, not ever in my life have I felt accepted or included in that institution. It isn’t because there is something wrong with Jesus. It’s because there’s something wrong with me. When I was a kid, it was because I was poor. Not truly really poor, but ‘we don’t go on the All Church Ski Trips’ poor. We had money for piano lessons, but not new clothes. We ate, we drove a car, but we didn’t eat fancy and we sure didn’t drive fancy. I waited, hoping that one day I’d have the issues ironed out and I’d be welcome.
As I grew into the teenage years, my clothes were a bit better and our family car was a bit more posh. But I still wasn’t welcome. I wasn’t demonstrative enough for charismatics, too mystical for traditionalists, too feminist for the reformed. I had no place in that place, either. I hung on, hoping that one day I’d have the issues ironed out and I’d feel welcome.
As an adult, it was a nightmare. Maybe it still is. I’m too afraid to find out. I didn’t want to wear the right thing or vote for the right person anymore. None of that helped, in the end. I wasn’t welcome because I was me, and I am not welcome. To be myself and say what I want and question what I question means I’m not the right fit for any church I’ve ever attended.
I can hear you saying, ‘Surely not! She’s being way too sensitive!’ or ‘Boo-hoo, you big baby. Nobody is perfect, no church is perfect, and you’ll never be happy if you expect it to be so.’
There’s validity to those statements. But there’s validity to mine as well.
When I hear her sing, I feel my own rejections again. That’s the part that hurts, of course. But then I hear her say with as much emotion as can be packed into a few notes, that her joy for Christmas day remains.
A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
On Christmas day, the light of who Christ is and was and what he came to do breaks through so magnificently that no amount of heartache or rejection can withstand the onslaught of hope.
The soul responds to the hint of amazing grace. All souls do, in their own way.
After all the tears, after all the rejection, after all the frustration and fear, there’s still my joy for Christmas day. I haven’t been able to attend church much since The Great Debacle of 2012. But this Christmas Eve, I’ll make my way to light a candle and remember the great day that gives me hope.
I might not resolve the issues I have with church. The singer of the Indigo Girls might not ever want to resolve those issues, if she has them. But we both think on the meaning of the season and feel joy and peace wash over us, and it arrests us as we wait with stars in our hands.
"There's Still My Joy"
(Beth Nielsen Chapman, Melissa Manchester, Matt Rollings)