I have lost count of the number of clay teacups I have held, poured into, and drunk from since spending time in this room at the drop-in centre. Tea isn’t drunk alone; you sip it with company and conversation, and in this place you swallow it with the sound of hood noise filling the evening air and the sight of customers walking past in a steady stream. It’s a liminal space that heralds freedom in one of the darkest places that I know, where the tea is sweeter some days than others, and the conversation ebbs and flows around liberation.
This particular cup of tea got me thinking a lot about sitting in the tension between pain and privilege – the pain of hearing pain and the privilege of being a trusted person. That seems to be my constant state of existence here; layers of pain and privilege repeating, repeating, repeating and still somehow there is a mysterious hope that remains beyond the teary-eyed blur that the neighbourhood reality begs all too frequently. I wonder how that can be. How even in the deadweight of heartbreak, the thickness of trauma, and the seduction of despair, hope can stay and wait and witness to a deep, deep wholeness beyond itself and beyond the pain-drenched stories of now. I wonder and I am thankful. I am thankful that there really is a light that shines in the darkness in a way where the darkness cannot overcome it.
Drinking this cup of tea, I guess I’m drawn to that dark and dirty trough somewhere in the badlands of Bethlehem where my King was laid. I am convinced that the neighbourhood he was born into wasn’t too dissimilar from the one I find myself in. “Away in a manger…” in a community where the heartbreak of nonsensical death at Herod’s hands was blood-red raw, where the trauma of exodus and exile was undeniably palpable, and where the despair at a supposed no-show Saviour was fermenting in confusion and anger. If that’s where Emmanuel chose to shine the light of redemption road from, then how can I not believe he would choose also to stand in solidarity with my community, one that is all too familiar with the heartbreak of death and dying, the trauma of trafficking and abuse, and the despair of a people resigned to lack of choice.
There is a visceral pain in the Christmas story that we too often ignore, because we don’t want to be the trusted people left holding it asking “What do we do now?”. Yet, it was in that sort of questioning and agonizing that the world’s Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace chose to be born. It was from Israel’s disenfranchised margins that wisdom and power and compassion and wholeness came and interrupted all of history marked and marred by the pain that had been and that which would one day be. We cheat ourselves of knowing the depth to which hope and wholeness incarnated into our world if we don’t acknowledge the aching that we feel in our own lives and that which we feel with others. This is the part of the story that helps us understand that Emmanuel really, truly does mean God with us in the deepest depths and the paralyzing darkness.
And so I will sit and drink another cup of tea and expect no less. I will sip on tea, giving thanks for the privilege that because I know Salvation is here I need not despair, for the kingdom will one day come in all its fullness, heralding freedom and healing and a thirst-quenching peace for all people.