Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014.12.28 The Soul Feels Its Worth

O holy night
the stars are brightly shining
it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
long lay the world in sin and error pining
till he [Christ] appeared and the soul felt its worth. 

I love this hymn, in part because it is quiet and offers a counterpart to the loud confidence of the world, and yes, sometimes the church, thinking itself triumphant. Christians do joy very well at Christmas. We shout out, Hail! and Go tell it! and Gloria in Excelsis!— and much more. These are our favorite songs and stories. I love them, too. The mood soars. My mood soars, too.

Yet . . . do we know what we are saying?  What is Christmas, deep down and really? Is it Easter?

There is nothing more powerful than the vulnerability of a newborn or the suffering of human flesh. Both summon exquisite compassion, divine and human—compassion that can change the world.  

 Oh Holy Night, indeed! 


The other reason I love this hymn is that my father loved it and used to sing it in his deep bass voice with dignity and reverence. In fact, he sang it, softly and to his nurse, just a week before he died in 1983 after a short devastating bout with esophageal cancer which left him unable to eat and drink, except by artificial means. When he sang this hymn, something happened. I don’t know what, yet as a child, I thought he was God. I wasn’t that far off.

This year I have been haunted, sometimes annoyed, by one line of this hymn hammering in my brain: Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth. (I replace "he" with "Christ" because, well, "he" is too masculine, too constrictive for the enormity of divine hospitality herein proclaimed.) Over and over, I heard this phrase. Consider it: Christ appeared and the soul felt its worth—felt it, not thought it up. Christmas is a soul feeling its worth, immediate and ultimate, because God takes up residence in mortality. You are divinely human, and all humanity with you. Oh, if only we could ingest and digest this God, we'd never harm ourselves or others. 

[NOTE: the original text in French, written by Placide Cappeau in 1843, is a carol about Christ's birth, entitled Minuit, Chrétiens. Literally translated it reads: Midnight, Christians, is the solemn hour/When God as man descended unto us/To erase the stain of original sin/And to end the wrath of His Father/The entire world thrills with hope/On this night that gives it a Saviour.]

The line that has caused my heart to have a meltdown comes, not from this French translation but from an 1855 translation by Unitarian minister, John Sullivan Dwight. I prefer the simplicity of Dwight's translation. The essential meaning is intact: rejoice because your flesh is worthy of God's indwelling. My soul does not feel much worth from the 1843 version about God's wrath and original sin-stains.

What is soul-worth? It doesn't mean feeling happy, nor the thrill of a spiritual selfie, nor a blast of confidence or bravura, nor a burst of extraordinary courage or aplomb. Soul-worth is profound; it come from an inner well which nothing can destroy, eradicate, or desiccate—even death itself. 

Mystics tell us of direct, unmediated spiritual experience. They do not proclaim a God of wrath or an author of sin so indelible that it requires human sacrifice, even if lovingly offered, to erase it. Julian of Norwich writes: "There is no wrath in God." I wonder why we cling to this notion with such tenacity? Or should I say vengeance?  We love sin, especially the sin of others! 
*  *  *  *

On December 14, 2014, I read in the Boston Globe a good opinion piece by Jennifer Graham, headlined: “Holiday nitpickers deserve coal in their stockings.” She made a good point that Christmas, of all times, was not the time to obsess about facts or clear history, but rather to listen and take in the story, like a work of great art. Swallow it whole. 

From Graham’s article I learned, to my amazement, that “O Holy Night” had been banned in France when it was discovered that the composer, Adolphe Adam, was Jewish—just like the babe in the manger, but who would let that secret out in the 19th century? The stated reason for the banning was the song’s “total absence of the spirit of religion.”

The author of the French text was a professed atheist and anticlerical, the composer, Jewish, and the English translator, Unitarian—not exactly star-studded Christians, yet these people understood and communicated the mystery of Christmas within— and beyond —its religious particularity. It seems a supreme irony. Perhaps it is good that Christmas is now a secular holiday, as well as a religious one. Christmas goes beyond Christianity.

It has also been noted that all that “pining in sin and error” was a comment on French politics. Perhaps so, but could the same be said of 21st-century American politics?

In the middle of her editorial, Graham commented that the proper time in the ecclesiastical calendar to obsess about facts would be Easter, not Christmas. “For Christians, everything hangs on the cross, and the Resurrection; nothing hangs on the manger.” My hackles flew up as I raced to my computer to type a letter to the editor, courteous yet firm.

I wrote: “I enjoyed Jennifer Graham's wry humor and her insight about Christmas not being an occasion to obsess about facts ("Holiday nitpickers deserve coal in their stockings," December 14, Ideas.) Graham writes: "For Christians, everything hangs on the cross and Resurrection; nothing hangs on the manger." I would counter that everything, for Christians, hangs on the cross and lies in the manger. It's not by fact but on faith that Divinity dwells in human flesh, even a humble manger.”

There is nothing more powerful than the vulnerability of a newborn or the suffering of human flesh. Both summon exquisite compassion, divine and human—compassion that can change the world.  

They didn’t publish my letter, and one could shoot a million theological/historical holes in my abrupt statement, however, the message of both manger and cross hang (great word) on a theological truth that Godde always appears as life abundant—on birthing bed or deathbed. Christmas and Easter live together. Both assure the soul's worth.

 When God appears in whatever form, souls feel their worth.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014.12.21 Nativity Pageant: Getting Christ Born Again—and Again, and Again

I jumped into something for the wrong reason, or so it seemed. The Nativity Pageant, a drama I have witnessed many times over in various Christian parishes, is a tradition I’ve loved and still do. Taking on the organization of a parish pageant is, however, quite another thing from being an adoring parent watching—and not the usual comfort zone for an introvert like myself. Angels, help!

I can remember when our 4 children were young and used to put on their own home pageants. They would dress up in bathrobes, crowns, aka old hats, a broom for a shepherd’s crook, wire hangers with tissue paper (or ripped pajamas) for angels wings, and a makeshift cradle. I don’t remember what they used for straw. The two older sisters would produce, direct, and have the most important roles, i.e.Mary and the Narrator. The younger brothers would follow orders, very happy to wear crowns and hold crooks, or be Joseph. The reluctant Siamese cat, Coco, was always cast in the role of the baby Jesus, a star role in which she was most uncooperative, scratching anyone who tried to restrain or swaddle her. Mostly there was an audience of one, me. I applauded and adored, as one should for any effort done with such earnest care and cool.

I said I offered to help with this parish pageant for the wrong reasons. What I meant was: I was tempted by my own idea that I could give this great Christian story some extra gravitas within its essential simplicity. Such arrogance!— however, there was a natural break in the adult director roles, so I jumped in, running a phrase from Psalm 107 (translation by Pamela Greenberg) through my mind: They cried out to you about all that made quiver their minds. From all constraints, you lifted them safely away.

I had two agendas. First, that a pageant is a procession with a tableau, not a play. And second, that the story be narrated as it is in the scriptural texts. Oh, one more item: I wanted a swaddled baby doll, not a real baby, to play Jesus. (I was thinking of Coco the cat and the real possibility of a screeching infant. I’m sure Jesus squawked, as all babies do, but just not for this pageant, please.) Others agreed, and off we went. I put together a new script, added a verse of appropriate carols for traveling music to get shepherds, angels, Magi, and the pregnant espoused Mary up the aisle, her faithful, beloved Joseph at her side.

Besides the Narrator, there was only one speaking part for a child. The Angel Gabriel announces to Mary her key role: helping God do a new thing in the world. Our Gabriel, a beautiful young girl of about 10 delivered her one line with angelic flourish and we got a tall redheaded boy to be the Star of wonder. Gabriel's offer was one the young Mary could not refuse. Well, she protested a little. Scripture, tactfully, doesn’t tell us much about Joseph’s feelings, but we can only imagine. My bet is that he helped deliver his son.

Two wonderful Church School teachers and several parents helped, really directed, because I don’t know the children well yet, and I'm terrible at diving into such things, scrambling through mounds of varied costuming variations to locate just the right outfit amongst years of accumulated gear. (I am a good mother, but I'm not as good a mother for young children. I'd rather watch and listen to their amazing antics and verbal precocity, then later listen to their wisdom and their trials as they grow up.) 

The night before the pageant I had a small nightmare: what if we don't have enough wings for all the angels?

But I needn't have worried. The marvelous sea of childhood chaos, earnestness, and innocent wisdom prevailed to offer this gift to parents, to the church, and most of all to Christ. We all helped God get Jesus Christ born again this year.  Thumbs up and high fives....... we did it: Christ is born again in Bethlehem or Massachusetts or Anywhere.  

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 

And sure enough, my mind stopped quivering and I felt born again myself!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014.12.14 Fear Not . . .But . . .

The phrase most frequently repeated in the New Testament is “Fear not,” or some version thereof. I find the phrase a comforting half-truth. Of course we have fear, and the wise writers of scripture acknowledge our fear, yet “fear not” is not a condemnation but a consolation.

Being able to feel fear is healthy. Like pain, fear tells us, that something is threatening, something is amiss.  Fear can be a motivator. It shoves us into action, often with great courage—not to erase fear, but to refuse to let it dominate our psyche and soul, to refuse to let it paralyze us. 

When fear dominates we can not hear the Word of God inside us, nor can we listen well to our own good sense or the counsel, or even love, of others.  When the disciples felt afraid they either went into high-gear military mode (let’s fight to kill) or they fell asleep (let’s refuse to acknowledge that there is danger, let’s take care of it tomorrow.)

Ironically, Jesus Christ presented a real trauma (something over which you have no control happens to you that scares and scars you, almost to death) to the world in which he lived, and taught, and healed, and died, and was resurrected. He scared the living hell out of them with his gospel. Jesus advertised a God who could reverse the worst of human conditions by the power of Love.

Jesus trusted the God he proclaimed, yet he was not free of fear; in fact, according to the accounts of the New Testament gospel writers, he sweated it out in the garden of Gethsemane where he prayed fervently just scant days before he would be arrested and executed. What made Jesus different, and therefore irresistible—followable—was that he did not succumb to terror’s paralysis. He was neither free of fear, nor naive to its effects, both internally and externally. Terror was all around. He just did not let it cause a mental, emotional or spiritual blackout!
Fear not is a prayer.

Jessica Stern, in her 2010 memoir,  Denial. A Memoir of Terror, relates her own experience of  the terror and trauma of rape. She writes about the disturbing side effects of trauma: “Denying one’s fear makes it possible to survive a life-threatening event but also impairs the capacity to feel fear and worse still, impairs the ability to love.”

I think this is why Jesus Christ spoke of love and fear in almost the same breath. It’s so easy for Christians to deny and push away the fear in our story. In Advent we want to jump into Christmas jollity. In Lent we want to leap into Easter joy. My God, you can hear Christmas jingles blasting in gas stations as you pump your gas. Ick! This is why Advent is important. It reminds us of the dark side of our world. The only way we can feel the love, is if we also can feel fear.

In Easter images that depict Christ resurrected, the wounds from his cricifixion are always pictured. Without them it wouldn't be a true image. The wounds of Christ survive biological death!

Do Christ's wounds also survive biological birth? Are the wounds present from the beginning? I've never seen an artistic rendering of the manger scene with wounds on the infant Christ, have you?   That would be too much, no? Symbolic crucifixion marks on a newborn, the wounds of human mortality on divinity from the beginning? Way too frightening! Or not.......... 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

2014.12.07 A Very Wise Spiritual Autobiography

Some clergy have definite ideas on the timing of calls to ordained vocation. If you’re not called before you’re 50, or some definite age, well, it is too late for you to fulfill your calling. That sounds ageist to me. It also is not my take on vocation. Such a schedule is too tight and rigid, ungodly really, and we gave up corsets for us, and for Godde, long ago, no?  I think Creation is about becoming, unfolding, calling and being called —over and over and over. Like this..................
Autobiography In Five Short Chapters

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

 Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in... it's a habit... but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.
- Portia Nelson

Walking down another street, of course, is not the end of this story. Can the deep hole be repaired? If it's a pot hole in Cambridge, MA, probably not. But if it is a rent in a relationship, there is hope to rebuild torn trust. It takes time and willingness on all sides. But repair is as much a way of life as endless creation, vocation, becoming. We keep on walking down streets.