I got stuck waiting in line today behind a woman who couldn’t make up her mind.
I was at TJ Maxx where the mile-long checkout is edged with displays of all the things no one needs: toe socks, lemon-scented candles, and cat art.
However, if you wait long enough you begin to rationalize a need for these needless things. “Maybe I do need a cactus-themed oven mitt. Is my current kitchen whisk looking a little frail? Better pickup this orange one that matches nothing. Also a bag of blueberry flavored coffee and an anti-fogging shower mirror and a combo pack of Mariah Carey perfume and body lotion.”
This is exactly what happened to the woman in front of me, except it was with nail polish. Picking one. Putting it back. Red (no). Black (no). Glitter (no). Grey (maybe?). When she finally made it to the register, I watched her unload the contents of her very full cart and then carefully put the nail polish to the side.
“I’m not going to get this after all,” she said.
Though her back was to me, I looked at her with wide-eyed exasperation.
As if I’m so much better at decision-making.
The whole reason I was waiting in line was to return a pair of jeans that I purchased without trying on. In my defense, Molly was with me at the time, the pants were twenty dollars, and the wash looked like it might be flattering.
It was not.
Mike will tell you that I do this a lot; that I am a chronic returner. He will tell you this drives him crazy and that budgeting our (my) transactions is like cataloguing a web of lies.
I buy things and return them. So what? Decisions are hard.
But I made a big decision today. I decided to scrap a whole chapter of the book I’ve been working on. And it felt like withdrawing a major investment. The topic was something I’ve been curious about for a long time and I thought maybe I could land on revelation if I just wrote my way to it. But after working for months, after interviewing friends and reading what others have written on the subject, I was still uncertain.
And my unknowing showed.
The pages read empty and flat, a poor imitation of actual wisdom, as if my writing voice was trying on a topic that didn’t fit at all.
Ernest Hemingway famously advised, “Write the truest sentence you know.” But I’ve discovered that the truest thing I know is often the expanse of my own uncertainty, or worse, a revision to what I thought I knew.
For example, I used to think that being a proper Christian meant having all the right answers. I thought it meant being prepared to litigate the whole world on right versus wrong.
But now the truest thing I know is that the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to equip us not with bitter condescension, but with compassion of the heart; to remind us that we are forgiven so that the impulse of mercy permeates all things, including how we treat others, including how we treat ourselves.
Now I believe that walking in faith is not so much walking in certainty as it is walking towards unfolding Mystery. We have a foretaste of what is true, yet still we squint through a fog.
In faith, we walk anyway.
And in my case, sometimes we throw away whole book chapters.
This Christmas season, I’ve thought often of how the birth of Jesus was preceded by hints of glory in the midst of uncertainty.
Mary was visited by an angel and given a prophecy of what was to come. Specifically, she was going to get weirdly pregnant as a virgin. And also this child would be the Son of God.
An angel also visited shepherds in the field. The radiance of God’s glory overtook the night as the shepherds learned the Messiah had been born.
Everyone converged in Bethlehem, carrying their promises, some in their hearts, one in her womb.
And they all reacted to the birth differently.
When the shepherds encountered the actuality of their hope— Jesus in the manger— they ran into town telling everyone what had happened.
But you know what Mary did?
She pondered. Quietly. Introspectively. She stored observations in her heart, matching what was promised with what had come.
For a while I wondered why the shepherds turned into instant evangelists while Mary turned into a quiet contemplative.
Then I realized that, unlike the shepherds, Mary had been promised more than just the birth of the Messiah.
She had been promised a Deliverer.
But that deliverance hinged on a cross, on a resurrection, on an ascension. The birth of Jesus was just the beginning. There was more to come.
So Mary spent thirty years waiting on the rest of the promise.
There are times I feel like a shepherd, one that is interrupted with the light and clarity of truth. There are times I feel sure, times I’m ready to testify to the whole world of what I’ve seen, of what I know.
But more often I feel like Mary. I have hope of a future glory, a tiny deposit of wisdom, but I’m still pondering, still waiting on the rest.
I’m fanning the flames of faith and “peering through a mist” until I see and know God as clearly as He sees and knows me. (1 Corinthians 13:12 MSG)
When Mary was confronted by the angel she asked him, “How can this be?”
Shockingly, she wasn’t instantly certain of the whole Immaculate Conception thing.
But Luci Shaw writes that the thing Mary was really asking for was “a widening of the imagination.” She was asking for more faith, for clarity in the midst of inbreaking impossible.
“All my life I have been requesting the same thing— a baptized imagination wide enough to see the numinous in the ordinary. Without discarding reason, or analysis, I seek from my Muse, the Holy Spirit, images that will open up reality and pull me to its center.” (From Wintersong, Christmas Readings)
This is what I mean when I talk of uncertainty, of faith, of pondering.
Like Mary, many of us have to live slowly into our convictions rather than talk or write or postulate into them. In the meantime, we gather our stories and catalogue them as testimony, as an investment, in something true.
And here, in the waiting, even as we count ourselves among those that cannot makeup their minds, the manger stands before us as a display of all the things we actually need:
A Wonderful Counselor
Prince of Peace
A baby seems like a small investment, until you consider him a seed sown to grow, a promise still unfolding, a deposit of Kingdom still coming.
“…and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.” (Isaiah 9:7 MSG)
Christmas reminds us that we have tasted and seen the goodness of God. Yet in the tasting, in the seeing, we know, we just know, there is still more.
So we wait.