Thursday, December 23, 2010

"KK! Look! Santa's on top of the house!"

"Oh wow," she said again and again as we drove through our neighborhood looking at the homes decorated for Christmas. I hear her sharp intake of breath as we turn the corner. "KK! Look! Santa's on top of the house!"

This is life with our four-year-old granddaughter Morgan. Excitement bubbles up in her with absolutely zero false social filters to block its display. When she says "wow," the word is airy, long and drawn out, and something within me wants it to go on forever. As we drove around the neighborhood that evening I sensed that Morgan was inviting me back to a time when I experienced Christmas, too, with that kind of awe and wonder.

One of my mentors, Ruben Habito, relates this story in his book Healing Breath:

A young father and his little three-year-old daughter, taking a Sunday stroll hand in hand through a meadow one day in spring. They came upon a clearing where there were clusters of flowers, and the little girl broke loose from the father's hand and began to prance about, dancing among the flowers. "Look, Daddy, look!"

"Yes, dear, those are violets," the father replied.

The little girl continued dancing and prancing, singing the new word: "Violets! Violets!"

The point here is the difference between the modes of awareness of the little girl and her father. The little girl, wide-eyed and full of wonder at everything around her, saw the flowers in their pristine beauty before she could name what they were. This beauty right before her simply moved her to dance and prance about in joy and celebration, unsullied by any dualistic frame of mind. It is an awareness of being filled with mystery and wonder at beholding the simply beauty of nature.

The father, on the other hand, having come to adulthood and now wise in the ways of the world, "knew" what those flowers were over there--violets--and in so knowing, lost the ability to see them in their freshness and mystery of their being. "Those are
violets." The human capacity to name things, giving us a certain sense of being in control over the things we can name, takes its toll on us, and we lose that sense of mystery and wonder that anything is there at all in the first place. [end quote]

The difficulty we adults have in seeing the wonder and beauty of everything around us is a huge loss for the world. It’s the first step necessary in acts violence, in pollution, and in the killing off of millions of species on the planet. When we can’t even see the beautiful Mystery of life itself, then, of course, we don’t respect it.

I know that “mystery” is a scary word for some of us. We have no power over a mystery; we can’t control it, so we try to take it apart and apply the scientific method to it! Understandable, but sometimes simply letting go and allowing a mystery to “be” is the better course.

It’s always struck me as a bit amusing that for all the violent arguing amongst the theologians of the early church – heresies! error! truth defined once and for all! excommunication! – what they finally declared as “dogma” was total mystery.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 declared that Jesus Christ was “perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity.” The Council said that Jesus Christ possessed two natures which were “not intermingled, not changed, not divisible, not separable.”

Same with the Trinity. If Jesus is God, does that mean there are two Gods? No. “Substance” unites the three aspects; “person” is what distinguishes them, said Tertullian.

Ah yes, the inscrutability of official doctrine.

I’m not denigrating these early church controversies – making fun of them a bit, I suppose, but in many ways I have great respect for them and find the questions they were addressing fascinating. And most importantly to me, where they finally landed (however ironically!) left the door wide open for Mystery.

That’s important because our experience of the divine is just as important as parsing the difference between homoiousios and homoousios. (That was a huge argument.) To experience the divine we have to allow ourselves to welcome the mystery. In fact, we have to move into it! – move into the mystery of the Incarnation as well as the mystery at the center of our own lives. Yes, it can be a bit scary, disorienting, disturbing, but moving into mystery may also empower our respect for other beings. What I mean is that standing in the center of mystery pushes us to acknowledge that we’re not in control, that we don’t know. Standing in that place of not knowing makes it much easier to acknowledge the inherent dignity of other beings and of creation itself. And standing in that place also brings us closer to our own childlike gift for wonder and awe, hidden for years, perhaps, but still there.

To actually experience Christmas this year, that’s not a bad place to stand.

Advent: awakening to a season of anticipation

The first Sunday of Advent is November 28th – can you believe that? Talk about time flying by. Cindy and I were talking this morning about how “busy-busy” we’ve been with church business lately. Since Dave’s announcement it seems that most of our time and energy has been taken up with “what to do,” “how to do,” “when to do,” “who needs this right now,” and “we need that by tomorrow.” It’s been a mad rush, and now, suddenly, Advent is stepping out from around the corner and holding up its hand in greeting.

On second look, perhaps Advent’s hand is not greeting us, but holding up a Stop Sign to our faces!

Stop!, says Advent. Look around and really see what’s whizzing by as you run 90 miles a minute. Open up your ears; hear the beauty.

I think there’s an art to seeing Advent. In my training as a pastoral theologian I encountered the whole idea of what’s called “phenomenology,” a big word with multiple meanings and multiple nuances within those meanings. I finally landed on thinking of it mostly as simply a way of seeing. Phenomenologically, if you really want to see something deeply, down to its very essence, then you must “bracket” your ‘normal’ way of seeing—you have to let go of ‘normal’ assumptions about what our vision brings us.

If we bracketed our assumptions about Advent, with what would that leave us?
Personally, I assume Advent will be shopping, Christmas lights and trees, winter jackets, hot chocolate, annoying commercials, green and red everywhere, Salvation Army bell-ringers, presents, family-time…all that.

If I bracketed those assumptions, what would Advent be?

For me I think “awakening to a season of anticipation” is a lovely description of the essence of Advent. Beneath the hubbub and clamor, Advent is about the excitement of waiting. Remember as a child how we just couldn’t wait! for Christmas morning? Or how we just couldn’t wait for … whatever is was. That sense of thrill and exhilaration and jumping up and down! The essence of Advent for me is like that, for I know that what comes at the fulfillment of Advent will be amazing, beautiful, full of wonderment and awe. What comes at the fulfillment of Advent is the absolute miracle, the miracle of the ordinary. A baby. Born in obscurity to struggling parents. Happens all the time. And with the eyes to really see it, we know it’s happening all the time. With the eyes to really see it, all of life becomes the miracle it is.