In a culture that loves ascending ladders, hitting milestones, and surging forward toward progress, I often feel like one who is moving backwards. Not only am I not where I thought I would be, I sometimes feel like I am regressing in confidence, purpose, and direction.
One of Flannery O’Connor’s most memorable protagonists, Haze Motes, is described as “going backwards to Bethlehem.” The phrase resonates with me and serves as a reminder that God’s growth cycle for his children does not follow organizational charts or ten-year plans. As I approach forty, I feel less sure what I want to do with my life than I did at twenty-four. I feel more certain of my weaknesses and foibles and silent vetoes than I do of my abilities.
In her book The Coming of God, Maria Boulding wisely notes “Our strength can sometimes be a greater obstacle to God than our weakness.” If this is the case (and countless biblical stories verify such a reality; just ask Gideon what God did to his strong armies and false confidence), then maybe what I have felt like as regression is actually progression, the walking backwards to Bethlehem that O’Connor mentions.
After all, who was available enough to put their own agendas aside to move toward the infant who was God incarnate? The shepherds shivering in the cold of night, apart from the bustling of the town, were quiet enough to hear the angelic herald. Their agendas were not so full of networking meetings to advance their own plan for self-actualization that they missed the chance to have a glimpse at the invisible God made visible.
And the wise men from the East? They were dissatisfied enough with all their studies and knowledge to set out on a cockamamie plan to follow a star. I wonder what their peers thought as they began their journey, laden with food for the wandering and gifts for an obscurely-prophesied nascent king. They certainly did not appear as those who were moving forward on a straight line to progress.
If I am uncomfortably honest, in the past, I trusted in my own intelligence, orienteering, and intuition to get me to more of Christ (sheer willpower and a steady diet of spiritual discipline). While I remain committed to the spiritual disciplines as ways of posturing myself for more of Christ, I am also learning more deeply that God cannot be approached even with pious spiritual transactions.
In this season, I don’t even feel capable of walking myself to Bethlehem. On the surface, I am keeping up with the tasks and enjoying the sweetness of this season of life. Yet, simultaneously, I feel like the Lord has my soul in a bit of a chrysalis. (Initially, it felt more like a straight-jacket that I tried to escape to no avail; the Spirit has softened the imagery to a chrysalis as I have settled down into weakness and stillness). I feel stuck and quite swollen. Stuck and swollen don’t fit well in a society of beauty and blazing speed. I feel like the world is rushing around me and leaving me behind.
As I woke up this morning, God gave me the sweetest image to console my heart which, yet again, felt a bit aimless in such an arrow-sharp culture of progress.
I may be a chrysalis (which don’t really have any mobility on their own). However, if I am held in his hand or even to be found safety resting for renewal somewhere in the expansive space of his royal robe, I can be still yet still moving. He is the mover; I the immobile. He is the active initiator; I am the dependent one.
I am learning this is what growing backwards to Bethlehem feels like. To be safely carried in weakness and dependence to the God who became weak and vulnerable to secure my safety in him, this is a good place to be during the Advent season. Waiting. Longing. Submitting. Staying.
He is worth the wait. One day, we will vigorously join Isaiah in saying, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).