The Playful Tremor


I believe Christian faith engenders an inherent playfulness, a free-wheeling optimism drenched in the largess of God’s love, yielding great droughts of laughter, hope and a near-scandalous rejection of fear, narrow-mindedness and gloom. Some of us, saddled with a stilted, dour or unimaginative faith, need to encounter anew the Father who threw raucous parties for wayward sons and daughters, the Jesus who gathered children, scoundrels and outcasts like the pied piper.

However, to say that faith is playful is not at all to say that faith is frivolous. God’s wide and joyous welcome comes as a happy shock precisely because God is the Almighty, the Holy, the final judge, the One true mystery. When we encounter this God, we’re fools if there’s never any tremor in our voice, never any disoriented wobble in our step. Because of Jesus, we come to God joyfully assured of God’s lavish welcome, but something’s wrong if our vision of this welcoming God evokes runaway chatter and piles of self-confident schemes. Something’s wrong if we never go mute, are never dumbstruck by wonder or the weight of love or the gravity of this God who was and who is and who will be forever.

God’s welcome releases us to be free, to make mistakes, to forgive ourselves, to chuckle over our muddleheaded detours. But God’s holiness, God’s fierceness, God’s piercing otherness, reminds us that this welcome God gladly offers arrives as a stunning gift.

The Trembling Mystery

It’s become too easy a thing for us to appeal to the great outlier, to ‘mystery.’ Mystery is a word that should be spoken (if it must be uttered at all) with gravity, with at least the hint of tremor. An appeal to mystery does not relieve us of hard thinking. God knows it does not relieve us of the need for steely-eyed courage. It’s a mystery should never be the tagline diffusing all the tension, but rather the invitation to gather up all the fortitude we can muster and walk deeper into the mercy that perplexes and astounds us.

If we have never sat dumbstruck in front of a blue-swept mountain ridge…if the sorrows of a friend have never sunk like icy lead into our chest…if a single word from a stranger or one line from a novel has never caught our breath…if we’ve never felt the terror and aloneness of Gethsemane – then we are so new and green to this twisting and very long path. And there is no shame in being new; in fact, these virgin days provide their own beauty and wonder. However, these are the days we must learn to listen more than we speak.

John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, learned this silence: “I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to force some theory on a mystery and make foolishness of it, just because that is what people who talk about it normally do.” To walk amid mysteries, at least in a way that is faithful and true, often requires a simple skill – the courage to go mute, to refuse to add words when only silence will do.

To speak of mystery does not make all difficult things light and free. The fact that mysteries surround us may allow the world in which we live to be honest or bearable or once again overwhelmed with grace – but mysteries, if they are true, require grit and patience and bravery.


Absurd {fourth week of advent}

The Annunciation_Francesco Mochi

But Mary was very perplexed by Gabriel’s words…’How can this be, since I am a virgin?’… {Mary}

I love the story of God born to a virgin because of how utterly outrageous it is. If we were aiming to create a religion perfectly suited for the modern mind, we failed with gusto. Our vast intellect, rigorous experimentation and unflagging chutzpah have conquered the moon, polio and more than a few mysteries of the atom. We have debunked old delusions and learned to snicker at the naivete of older generations. And if we know anything at all, it’s this: virgins don’t have babies.

Of course, this brilliant observation would not be news to Jews of the first century – or to anyone at anytime for that matter. Our primal urges as well as our survival as a human population means that, in every age, we possess a clear understanding of at least the basic components required for a child to find its way into a woman’s belly. Yet here we have our first story of Jesus, and it is absolutely ridiculous.

When we review Jesus’ life, however, we know that his arrival simply had to be absurd. Everything Jesus would teach us, every way he would move in this world, would be entirely nonsensical to the established truths and entrenched powers. If we think the virgin birth was Jesus’ most ludicrous moment, we’re not paying attention.

But the question for us, the tension this story and all Jesus’ stories create for us, is this: will I receive the absurd and fantastic love of God? Will I, like Mary, say, Here I am, crazy as it sounds. I’m in. And will we stay put so that we can welcome with wide arms the joy, the love, the wonder?

I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés…Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “YES” that will change me forever? {Kathleen Norris}


This reflection comes from the Gospel reading from this week’s lectionary: Luke 1:46-55. Many thanks to John Blase and Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk for being my cohorts this Advent. 

I hope that you play and laugh, that you give and receive much love over these next few days. Have a very merry Christmas.