God sent a man to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. He himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light. The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. -John 1:5 NLT
We are leaving our first Over the Rhine concert as a married couple, just shy of our third anniversary. It’s his first, period, but I have lost count of the times I’ve sat in a room full of strangers and been healed by Linford’s piano and Karin’s voice and a collection of words so perfectly woven together that it feels a lot like being immersed in sacred text. This last time–our first time–in this tiny venue, after the music is over, Linford invites us all to join them in the lobby for a word and an autograph. My husband looks at me as we leave the little auditorium, then at the table waiting for its occupants. It’s an unspoken question, and I quickly respond with a spoken “No!” He asks if I’m sure. I am definitely sure. He asks why. We are different in this way. I imagine him walking right up to Grohl or Peart, small-talking about drumming and beer and Buddy Rich, because he wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity. He wouldn’t want to regret walking away. But me? I walk away for much the same reason: I don’t want any regrets, either, and for me, regret looks a lot like attempting to have a casual conversation with–well, anyone really, but especially Linford and Karin.
It has always been this way for me, as long as I can remember. When I was seven, eight, I would walk a mile from my grandmother’s house to leave a note on my Sunday School teacher’s front porch, always at a time I knew she would not be home so I could avoid having to talk to her face to face. This was a person I sat with during most Sunday night services and Wednesday Bible studies. I adored her, but anything I had to say to her went on paper. Pen to paper was my first language, my native tongue. Leaving a letter tucked into a door was safe because it didn’t force me to rely on my secondary mode of communication–talking. Talking was awkward. Talking left me feeling slow-witted, spacy, tired. For days after the conversation ended and was long forgotten by the other participants, I was still having it in my head. It took some time for me to know the right words to say, particularly when the topic at hand meant something to me. And so I wrote. I wrote my heart, my truest self. Putting my emotions out into the world for everyone to see was never the problem, it was the act of speaking them that got me in trouble. My spoken words could not be precise enough, were not capable of the same truth and beauty as my written ones. It was for the best, and as far as I’m concerned, it always will be, and so walking up to Linford and Karin that October night was completely out of the question. I needed some paper. I needed a day or two to find my words. I needed a door to slip a letter under when no one would be home to catch me off guard.
My first exposure to Over the Rhine was The Poopsmith Song. I didn’t have kids at the time, nor did the person who shared it with me on a mix CD (although we both do now, and I’m willing to bet all our respective kids know that song by heart. I know mine do.). It was a novelty at the time, an amusing addition to a random list of tracks, but it was enough to make me go looking for more. And there was so much more. Those early days of discovery were dark, trying times for me, and Karin and Linford took me to church. Sometimes it was to a brightly lit, warm sanctuary where the congregation was singing praise hymns and basking in its Jesus glow, and sometimes it was to the dark corner of some unfamiliar cathedral, to a stark seat in a chilly nave or north transept where everyone was hunkered down, bowing in prayer or in tears, because it’s hard to tell the difference most of the time. But “all of it was music,” and it was exactly what I needed back then. I found copies of Drunkard’s Prayer and Good Dog, Bad Dog at my local used book store, and I must have played them a thousand times that year. My daughter’s birth preceded The Trumpet Child by just a few months, and in the long wakeful nights of her infancy, she often fell asleep in my arms with those songs playing on repeat as I danced her around our tiny house.
Some December later I discovered The Darkest Night of the Year, and something inside me sighed with a relief I hadn’t known I was seeking. It was the year of giant inflatable Santas and house tall Grinches that glowed a little too brightly and required the constant attention of a loud, powerful fan to stay upright deep into the December night. My neighborhood sounded like a landing strip that Christmas, a menacing inflatable on every corner and a perpetual whirring sound that made silence a novelty. The inflatables grew in size and number in the years that followed. They evolved into machines that played music and moved on their own–inflated Santas now waved; inflated car-size carousels with elfin riders turned in time to jaunty holiday tunes; huge plastic train sets overflowing with glittery presents, teddy bears, and smiling dollies literally rocked around giant inflated Christmas trees. It was too much for me. My wide-eyed toddler pointed and squealed as we made our way home in the early darkness each night, but inside our car Snow Angels was playing. By the time Blood Oranges in the Snow came along, my daughter was seven. Her name is printed in the liner notes as a contributor, so naturally she believes she’s famous and the band knows her personally. I took her to her first real concert that year–Over the Rhine and Joe Henry in a historic church in downtown Durham–and she sang along to “All My Favorite People” without missing a single word while her little brother turned somersaults en utero. They are nine and two now. He demands “Poopsmith” when we listen to music in the car, but it’s Christmastime and I usually override his tyranny with something from the OtR Christmas trilogy (“Darlin (Christmas is Coming)” is his sister’s favorite).
“Why all the sad Christmas music?” someone asked me once. “Christmas is supposed to be a joyful time.” Linford and Karin understand what so often gets stashed behind the tree, shoved behind piles of presents and wedged in between flashing inflatable reindeer this time of year: Christmas is about darkness being punctured by light in the most amazing way. If we forget about the darkness, if we just focus on the light, the bright commercially manufactured light with its jingling bells and streamers and Black Friday sales, we lose sight of just how significant and pure a light it is. Jesus didn’t arrive on the scene to fill us with light and make all our holiday dreams come true (sorry, Santa). He came to illuminate our darkness, to shine a light on the deep, looming need we all have for grace and redemption. He came because of our shadows, our dirty past, and our skeletons in the closet. He came because we were living in darkness, not because He was a light. He could have kept being a light right where he was, but He was needed elsewhere. One of the most profound things I’ve ever heard my pastor say is, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season–YOU are.”
“It’s not sad Christmas music,” I replied. “It’s reality Christmas music.” This is a term Linford and Karin coined, and it is the perfect description of these songs. Of all their songs, actually. Reality music. Actual reality, not television reality, like Big Brother. That is the exact opposite of reality. Linford and Karin sings songs about a reality we can all relate to, with just the right combination of hope, passion, love, whimsy, and yes, darkness, and sadness, and longing, and an emptiness only light can fill. We examine the emptiness so we can know how much we need the light. We remember loneliness and are reminded how good it feels to be in love. We allow grief and pain and sadness to etch their scars into our hearts because then our joy can go a little deeper, and hope digs in and creates a reminder for next time. Because there’s always a next time–more pain, more darkness, and it is always followed by redemption. Grace. A perfect healing light.
I have tried for a few years now to engage my family in a daily Advent activity, but even when they have been cooperative and agreeable, I have yet to make it to Christmas without falling behind or quitting completely. Everything I tried was just too…happy. Inflatable Polar Express train playing “Jingle Bells” happy. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about celebrating the birth of Jesus. It’s a big deal. But it’s a big deal because our need is so devastating. Even with the hope of Jesus in one’s heart, living is hard sometimes, because no matter how confident we are about the hereafter, the here and now is painful and rocky, and we are fragile, fallible, often forgetful humans. Speaking only for myself (and totally assuming I’ll get some high fives and amens from the rest of you), I struggle with staying in the light on a regular basis. I stumble a lot. I fall with more frequency than I want to admit. And there’s no better reminder of how much you need to be rescued than lying facedown on the ground, or huddled under the covers, or crying over your third whisky. But December rolls around, and WHEEEE! Put up your trees! String the lights! Start buying presents, and you’d better SMILE, because it’s the most wonderful time of the year! (And really, who am I kidding? The last trick-or-treater was barely out of my driveway when the bells started jingling.) There’s a reason depression skyrockets in December, and it is because some of us can’t press the pause button on reality for the duration of the light show, but the world makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us if we don’t.
Which brings me back to Linford and Karin and reality Christmas music. I played “Let it Fall” and “We’re Gonna Pull Through” about a million times on November 9. I was anxious and worried and in need of some comfort. One thing led to another and before the end of that week I had the entire OtR holiday collection on shuffle. It felt like the right thing to do. It felt like an arm around my shoulder, like a warm drink and a good fire after being stuck outside in a snowstorm, like an endless letter from a distant friend just writing to say, “Hey, me too. I know.” That’s what Jesus did for us–He came to this broken world and lived with us broken people so he could step into our dark rooms, pull back the covers, and whisper, Hey, me too. I know. I’ve seen some things,” He assures us. “I’ve been through some stuff. But have I got some good news for you,” He says, as He flips on the light.
This is where some of you cue “Joy to the World,” and that’s cool, but over here I’m listening to “Little Town,” one of Over the Rhine’s two reimaginings of the old carol. There’s the darkness, then the light. I’ve said many times that the Good Lord uses many means to speak into our lives. I think it’s safe to say He’s used these songs to say a thing or two to me. I think of Linford and Karin as musical missionaries. I believe they might approve of the title. “Here it Is” begins to play, and I think to myself, this is Advent. There’s this messy brokenness, but just wait, the light is coming. As I listen I write. For every shadow there’s a spark, for every act of hate there’s an act of forgiveness, for every broken heart there’s a sanctuary. I think about my failed attempts at observing Advent, the books never completed, the Jesse trees hastily assembled on Christmas Eve because we forgot to hang the last nine ornaments, and I wonder what an Over the Rhine Advent might look like. And then I decide I’d like to find out. I listen and listen. I write. I commit to 25 days of Reality Christmas Posts. I hope Linford and Karin are cool with it. It is my post-concert conversation, my no-regrets, my letter stuck in a door when no one is looking. I’m looking out at the darkness, and I’m turning on this little light: here it is.