Friday, December 23, 2011

"Breath of heaven, hold me together..."

"Breath of Heaven
Hold me together
Be forever near me
Breath of Heaven*..."
- Amy Grant

Recently, the editors at Church Alive asked me to write about a time when "church" played a role in my Christmas memories. It seems like I have a heart-shifting, church-related experience every Christmas. But this is the one that came to mind:

"The greatest gift..."

I’d traced the path from our house, to the church we attended nearby, almost a thousand times that year. But this particular winter night, as a million stars hung brightly from an inverted bowl of midnight blue velvet, my steps were heavy and my heart sank low. We’d lost a baby that year…a baby who’d moved in my heart, long before she moved in my womb. Because of my size, there were those who wondered if I’d just imagined her and thought it was some sort of psychosomatic pregnancy. There were others who’d mourned our loss and feared my descent into a quiet sort of madness. But her still birth was very real. Leaving me, her mother, siding with the latter group—those who were praying for my fragile peace.

That particular night, so close to Christmas, I was months beyond her loss and yet closer than ever to my sorrow. Our church was holding a Christmas Hymn Sing and I was carrying a plate of cookies with one hand, and holding our kindergarten-aged daughter’s mittened hand in my other. Earlier that spring I’d imagined this Christmas with a baby in my lap and our sweet daughter opening presents under the tree. And although I’d tried so hard to be at peace with our loss, that night the tears froze on my cheeks as we walked through the cold December air.

Arriving at church we were greeted by a sea of love; it washed over our small family, and carried our daughter along from loving embrace to loving embrace. She was surrounded by an ocean of kindness, and I was deeply grateful. On the surface I’d been functioning normally for months, but just under the surface I was always on the verge of tears. As members and guests found their seats in the beautifully decorated auditorium, and my husband joined other musician on the platform to lead the singing, I took a seat at the back. I didn’t know if I could make it through the hymn sing without putting my face in my hands and weeping.

But as the first song was suggested, and the musicians played through the opening verse, I felt a voice…yes, felt a voice echoing through my being. It was the same feeling I’d felt, in that very church auditorium, the day our baby first moved in my womb and the words from Luke flooded my heart, “Be it unto me, according to thy will.” Feeling it again was like a divine reminder. I had felt our daughter move, I wasn’t mad. It was glorious. It was more than I’d hoped for, a sensation I’d only dreamed of experiencing during years of other early pregnancy miscarriages. I’d felt her move. I’d known the kind of love that defines the word “compassion” in Hebrew as “by extension, the womb as cherishing the foetus” (Strong’s Hebrew Dictionary). The foetal stage is the one where the babe’s life is not obvious, unseen to the observer, but completely known to the mother. And I’d experienced that awareness. I knew what it felt like to love the promise of what was unseen, without measure. This was the greatest gift in the world.

The auditorium became a manger that night. My church family had become shepherds, kings, wisemen, and cooing doves…midwives at the birth of something holy in me. My mourning had been turned into dancing. The Christ, the consciousness of man’s unconditional innocency, worth, purity, goodness, beauty, and promise, had found its breath, and was singing an “Allelujah” in my heart. It was as if each chorus rose to meet the next, in a crescendo of peace.

By the time we left the church later that evening my heart was no longer broken, it was whole. I’d felt the presence of a Love that delights in the unseen, celebrates the power of peace, and knows a love, that alone is life. The tears that froze on my cheeks that night, as we walked home together, were tears of wonder and joy.

*"Breath of Heaven," was written by
Amy Grant, but the version sung by Sara Groves, takes me apart.  The clip in the first link is Amy's performance and the video sticks to the nativity story, but the second video, paired with Sara's extraordinary recording, although a bit rough and dramatic, underscores the human passion and pathos of the larger story.  Both are moving.  I love them each for different reasons.

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