Tidings of Comfort and Joy
TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY
By Sarah Rudd
I’ll never forget that time in graduate school when another student found out I was a Christian. “You mean you’re one of those Born Agains?” she exclaimed in disbelief. “Aren’t they the ones who always need rescuing from some addiction or something?” We all laughed and, if I recall correctly, I proceeded to make some awkward attempt at explaining my faith.
Yes, my life story includes pain and conflict. Whose doesn’t? But this story is not about needing an escape or miraculous rescue—it’s a story of the slow and steady fashioning of my faith through a series of ordinary growing-up-happenings.
My parents sang and spoke scripture over me before I left my mother’s womb. Almost all my childhood memories take place in my home, my church or the undeveloped wooded fields in between. I woke in the mornings to my mom with her Bible in her lap, a cup of coffee within reach and a prayer on her lips. My dad was a pastor and he preached good news. And it was good news. Their devotion to Jesus was genuine, and Jesus was real to me.
As much as I loved Jesus and enjoyed my childhood, by the time I moved away from home for college I was ready for a new landscape. There’s no better place for deconstructing faith than college. It’s as if everyone on campus anticipates, with child-like wonder, the joy of knocking down the building blocks of your carefully constructed faith.
I studied voraciously. For one writing class, we were assigned primary sources, and I read first-hand accounts of colonization, slavery, the subjugation of women and so on. My understanding of history and the world was forever altered, and this necessarily and significantly changed my view of my church and belief system.
What a scary thing to watch your understanding of history, culture and faith unravel. It’s like the first time you discover your memory of an event is not the same as your sister’s memory. Wait a minute! Whose story is right? Soon enough, all the existential angsty questions follow. Who translated my Bible? Can my church evolve? What doctrine stands true and what can fall away? Is God even real? And an important side note: What will my parents think?
Since I’m such a thinker, this shifting in the tectonic plates of my worldview caused me to spiral a bit. I know a lot of people who go off the edge in times like this—rebelling in every way possible. That wasn’t my way. Instead a deep anxiety and tension set in. I was like a wind-up toy. The more I grappled with all this new knowledge, the more tightly wound up I became. Fear munched up my gears and I lived in dread of being wrong, of letting others down, of not being smart enough. What a wretched way to live.
Despite all the questions, one thing remained true for me. I still believed in God. So, I did what I knew to do: I prayed. One of my favorite spiritual practices, even today, is to pray the Psalms. So that’s what I did. I took just one line of David’s prayer and made it mine, “Restore to me the joy of my salvation.” I prayed that prayer repeatedly for well over a year.
My charismatic non-denominational church family doesn’t have many liturgical style traditions, but every year on Christmas Eve, we host a small, low-key candlelight service. I love it. In the midst of the crazy hullabaloo of buying presents, welcoming friends and family from afar, prepping a ridiculous amount of food, all while navigating snow and ice, we gather to remember Emmanuel—God with us.
We meet early evening. Everyone is welcome. We often arrive in snow boots and hats. We take off our wintry coats. Our church sanctuary goes dark. Excited voices calm down. Children’s chatter is heard interrupting moments of quiet. And we sing.
After the long season of praying, “Restore to me the joy of my salvation,” I’m not sure I was expecting my prayer to be answered. But that Christmas Eve of my senior year in college, I was surprised by God’s presence as we began to sing:
God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.1
Tears streamed down my face and waves of relief washed over me. The Prince of Peace Himself was baptizing me with comfort and joy. Dismay, anxiety, tension became small and peace became big. I let go of striving to reconcile ideas and conflicting stories and questions. I let go. Exhale. Selah.
That beautiful night took place over 20 years ago. I still wrestle with many of the same questions and paradoxes. Belief informs practice, so I’m happy to report that my theology and values have changed since that time. But I carefully guard that deep peace that Jesus brings.
Just this last year, again at Christmas time, Holy Spirit gave me these words from Jesus to meditate on for a new season of life:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).
Tidings of comfort and joy. Yes, Jesus. Yes.
1 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Traditional English Carol by Public Domain.