Sunday, December 27, 2009

Scott Cairns, "Advent"

Here is the poem by Scott Cairns that I mentioned in my previous post. That post was already too long even without the poem, but the poem seemed too significant and spiritual to leave out altogether.
Well, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas—everywhere, children eyeing the bright lights and colorful goods, traffic a good deal worse than usual, and most adults in view looking a little puzzled, blinking their eyes against the assault of stammering bulbs and public displays of goodwill. We were all embarrassed, frankly, the haves and the have-nots—all of us aware something had gone far wrong with an entire season, something had eluded us. And, well, it was strenuous, trying to recall what it was that had charmed us so, back when we were much smaller and more oblivious than not concerning the weather, mass marketing, the insufficiently hidden faces behind those white beards and other jolly gear. And there was something else: a general diminishment whose symptoms included the Xs in Xmas, shortened tempers, and the aggressive abandon with which most celebrants seemed to push their shiny cars about. All of this seemed to accumulate like wet snow, or like the fog which our habitual inversion tried to choke us, or to blank us out altogether, so that, of a given night, all that appeared over the mess we had made of the season was what might be described as a nearly obscured radiance, just visible through the gauze, either the moon disguised by a winter veil, or some lost star—isolated, distant, sadly dismissing of us, and all our expertly managed scene.

Holiday Malaise and the Ordinary Holiness of the Reason for the Season

John 1.14

The radio has constantly been on at our house lately, blaring holiday cheer into my ears. One song wails, over and over and over and over, quite literally like a broken record:
Have a holly jolly Christmas
And in case you didn't hear
Oh by golly have a holly jolly Christmas
This year.
Well, I did hear. I've heard about a hundred thousand times. This year alone. I've been hearing since before Thanksgiving. "Have a holly jolly Christmas." Don't tell me what kind of Christmas to have! Bah-humbug. I'm being a little silly, of course, but it's true that I've got a sense of holiday malaise, "a vague feeling of discomfort, one that cannot be pinned down but is often sensed as 'just not right'" (reference).

Clearly, as has been said ("many times in many ways"), we've lost the "reason for the season." But I don't think that the people with the Jesus-Is-the-Reason-for-the-Season Yard Signs have really got the "reason" down either. Both the signs (which seem more political than spiritual) and the "removal" of Christ from Christmas that the signs protest are, as Scott Cairns puts it, "symptoms" of a larger missing-of-the-point (see his poem "Advent").

What we've missed, I think, is not the splendor of the holiday--the Star in the East, the singing choirs of angels, and so forth--but the ordinary holiness that is, at the same time as the splendor, also part of the reason for the season. The ordinary day-to-day kind of holiness is easy to lose track of in all the bright lights. The holiness of the ordinary days is often barely visible, like the moon or a star barely visible through the clouds (in Cairns' metaphors). But, of course, the strength of the moon to pull the oceans and the awesome firepower of the stars reaching here from so many million miles away are not diminished because we do not notice them. So, God here is all around us, omnipresent--even in the air we breathe.


The version of the Christmas story that I prefer comes from the Gospel of John (verse 14):
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. (KJV)
Another version puts it this way:
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood. (The Message)
Most literally, the passage could be translated from the Greek in this way:
The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.
This version of the Christmas story emphasizes the ordinariness of Christmas. John even makes quite a point of the fact that people did not even recognize that Christ was the Son of God (see verse 10) because he was so ordinary (see also, Isaiah 53.2). For many, the coming of Christ to earth as a cute little baby means that we can go to heaven. But if this is all that we get, we're missing at least half the story. The coming of Christ as a baby who cried at night, who spit up, who pooped in his diaper, who caught the cold, and on and on, as any other human baby, means something too. By becoming an ordinary person in an ordinary town, breathing ordinary air and eating ordinary food--Jesus Christ sanctified or made holy the ordinary.


The Oxford English Dictionary describes a holiday or, more specifically, a "Holy-Day" as "a day consecrated or set apart for religious observance, usually in commemoration of some sacred person or event." It also describes the term "Holy" as meaning "kept . . . from ordinary use, and appropriated or set apart for religious use or observance." Part of what has "eluded us," as Scott Carins puts it, is the understanding that a big part of the whole meaning of the Christmas story is precisely to turn these definitions on their heads. As the life of Christ shows us, all days are equally "holy." And as the subsequent "sending" of the Holy Spirit shows us, holy days are meant for the present, not meant to merely be commemorative. Religious use--or at least, true spiritual use--is not any different from "ordinary use." When, in John's Christmas story, people failed to recognize their creator, it wasn't because they were blind to seeing the Spirit in the rare-supernaturally-fantastic, it was because they were blind to seeing the Spirit in the most-of-the-time-mostly-ordinary.

Often, the way holidays are celebrated, inside and outside the church, reinforces attitudes that cause us to miss this so important part of the story. This, I believe, contributes to the  holiday malaise that some of us share. But all certainly is not lost. We still can use the very simple and precious symbols of Christmas--the manger, the shepherds, the teenage girl, even the tax season--to remind ourselves to live every day as a "holy-day," understood differently, to live every moment with an awareness of the most-often-ordinariness of the holy omnipresence of God.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mixed Bags

Many of my students, when they write, default to outrageous fundamentalist party-line thinking. One student, for instance, wrote about how evangelical marriages are astronomically more successful than the marriages of "atheists" and "agnostics." Of course, that is patently false. Ironically, the source she cited for this statistic actually points to something the opposite being the case (citation). In addition to being an example of careless research, this student's writing betrays several moral faults bequeathed to her by her wider social context: arrogance and judgmentalism. Many of us share these same faults to greater or lesser degrees (for instance, just see how much easier it is for me to see the faults in this student rather than in myself!). Apparently, as George Barna has found out, "Faith has had a limited affect on people’s behavior . . ." (same citation). These faults--and that statement by Barna--are things for us to mull over. But that's not my point here.

The point is this. My students are mixed bags. In the very same paper, this student wrote:
It is a crazy idea to think that perfect love dwells in every living soul on earth. That even atheists and agnostics have the same perfect love settled in them as any other religious individual, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhist, etc. Now this off the wall proposal may have your mind boggled, but its so true. Lets first look at this thesis from a Biblical standpoint. The Bible clearly defines in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.”
This is not arrogant or judgmental but beautiful, not the party line but a spiritual insight. This shows me that my students are mixed bags, which--and this is what I'm getting at--gives me hope because I realize that I too am a mixed bag. We all are. When that part of myself manifests which is not any better than the arrogance of the party line, whatever the party, I may have the grace of knowing that that is not all of who I am. Our selves--the selves we live as day to day--are heterogeneous mixtures of good stuff and not so good stuff. We will continue to be this way until we are fully reconciled with God who is already within us, until we are no longer divided. As long as I'm not perfect, I am grateful to God that I'm not all bad.

Thomas Merton says, the person "who hates the division in himself [or herself] is already beginning to be free.” St. Paul says:
And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (The Message)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Spiritual Sparks

Yesterday, when it was 63 degrees and raining, our friends Stephen and Christine Hoffman came to visit Rickey’s class, Christian Mystics. (Stephen is the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Palmetto, Florida.) Stephen’s opening words to the students were they shouldn’t take this course for granted. Then he and Christine each spoke about how they came to appreciate and practice deep spirituality in their lives. Stephen talked about things happening in his life that brought him to a place of needing to be personally renewed. As a pastor, he was also seeking a fresh Lenten devotion to share with his congregation. He bought a book about centering prayer, and as he read it, he discovered he was being drawn and touched in a profound way. It was at this point he began a practice of prayer that considerably outlasted the forty days before Easter; he is still at it years later.

When it was her turn to speak, Christine said the short answer as to why she began the practice was because she wanted to join with and support Stephen. But as she has continued in it, she found her own meaningful reasons for persevering. As a Biblical scholar she was able to connect the Hebrew idea of tikkun olam, healing the world, with her prayer. She explained the concept, “When we join our spirits with God’s spirit, like a spark joining a fire, we are actively extending God’s healing presence into the world.” Also, she loved discovering what it meant to be silent and let go of thoughts in prayer. She said, “I am a wordy person, and I have lived my whole life using thoughts and words as effectively as possible.” (She was a teacher and a lay preacher for decades.) In this kind of prayer she told us she was delighted to experience the value and importance of silence.

During Q&A, she said by centering she was refreshed and strengthened for all the other kinds of prayer she does, adding that if you really care about people then engaging their needs can be exhausting.

Stephen was asked how much his congregation practices this kind of prayer. He replied that in spite of his participation and support, his own church prayer group only has five members. I immediately thought of Fr. Keating’s gentle response to this same lack of participation by the larger Christian community. He said, “Well, you will have to weigh them instead of counting them.” Stephen also told how much it meant to him to attend conferences and retreats with people that share the practice. Instead of trying to explain or even defend his practice, he is able to immediately connect with folks who, as one gifted teacher put it, “speak the same language.”

Too quickly our 50 minutes was over, and Rickey had to end class. Later, I thought of Stephen’s opening remarks about not taking for granted our opportunity to explore deep spirituality. He meant the course, but it made me reflect on what it means to share spiritual connections where we can be strengthened and encouraged to continue growing in God. Yesterday was one such time, one such place; and although it was a rainy day, perhaps some sparks were fanned in other hearts as well.

Blog Archive