Friday, December 24, 2010

Light in the Darkness

It is Christmas Eve and I am sitting alone in my motel room. It is cold as I have been gone all day but just came back and turned on the heat. As I reflect back on all that has happened in my life and my family's life in the last year, it is all so different than Christmases past. There is sadness, some of it sweet and tender, but some of it is just plain painful and even a bit scary. But that does not mean that I do not believe. That does not mean that my Christmas is terrible or ruined. No - it teaches me more about what Christmas is and what it isn't.

There are some things that I have known or suspected for a long time. Christmas is not about hunting high and low to find gifts for our friends and family, nor is it about expectantly tearing the paper off of brightly wrapped packages. It is not about watching children's excitement when they rush at their presents Christmas morning. It is not about sending cards, decorating a tree, baking cookies, hanging up lights or singing Christmas carols. It is not even about spending the day going to church or being with family. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities nor am I suggesting that we not do these things at Christmas time. It is just that they are not Christmas.

Although there is historical evidence that the man, Jesus, lived and walked this earth, we do not know exactly when he was born. The ancient writings of the scriptures tell us stories about how and where he was born and a Christmas mythology has developed around those stories. I am not using the term "mythology" to suggest that the stories are not true, but rather that the stories have been elaborated upon to convey a meaning in our culture that goes beyond what is historically knowable. If we listen to the words of our favorite (or worn out by now) Christmas carols, we can see this, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing", "Little Drummer Boy", "Away in a Manger", etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with these products of our cultural Christmas. It is just that they are not Christmas.

Christmas is about love. About unconditional love. About the giving up of self so completely as to risk it all. This sort of love is not always pretty (or happy or fun or even interesting). In Christmas language, it is about a very pregnant young woman having to travel for days to satisfy the need of a ruler to count people in a census. It is about her being forced to give birth for the first time, away from home, with little help and in a stable with animals, feed and manure. Or it is about a husband-to-be making the same journey, risking being made a fool of for trusting that his betrothed is truly chosen by God rather than cheating on him. In Christmas language, it is about the Creator of the entire universe (now estimated to involve billions of galaxies) allowing himself to become as small and vulnerable as one human baby on one little planet, doing this so that he could help his lost children find their way home. Doing this even if that meant allowing them to insult and murder him. It is a love beyond anything we can imagine - if only it is true. If we want to celebrate Christmas, it is this we must celebrate, this love that goes beyond everything, that enters suffering and isn't always happy or beautiful in the ways we tend to think of happiness and beauty.

To truly celebrate Christmas, we are called to become students of this kind of love. If we know this, there is no harm in the fun celebrations of the cultural Christmas. However, if the cultural Christmas is all we have, we may find ourselves on the edge of a dangerous precipice. One year, there may be an illness, a job loss, a death or any of a number of other sufferings that will make that cultural Christmas seem utterly meaningless. If we have not known what Christmas truly is, we may find ourselves facing a gaping emptiness as the holidays approach. We may find that we don't want Christmas to happen and we may even feel that all of our past beliefs were just stories that held no truth at all.

Yet to celebrate the true Christmas is no small or easy endeavor. It may frighten us as we recognize how incapable we are of grasping this sort of love. (Our world tends to tell us that the great cannot be concerned with the small, so those billions of galaxies can make it inconceivable that the Creator could care about us, broken creatures of one small planet in one little galaxy.)  We may feel overwhelmed by the inadequacy of our own attempts at love. It is hard enough just to love and get along with those I am supposed to love (family, friends). How can I possibly learn to be part of this love that gives all?

A favorite passage from a famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, comes to mind:

"Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened overmuch even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you."

How do I even begin to become a student of this "harsh and dreadful love" that is true Christmas? To begin as a student, I first must realize that I need to be taught, i.e. that I cannot possibly understand it or figure it out by myself. Then, I must find a Teacher. Fortunately, there is One who has come to teach us, to show us the way. Our Teacher is here to take us by the hand and guide us, to walk with us on all parts of the path - the parts that are fun and full of good feelings as well as the parts that are lonely, painful or frightening. Our Teacher teaches us the way of love by being with us and loving us. If we but accept the love, we will begin to carry it in our hearts. In our hearts, it becomes a light in the darkness - perhaps a very small light at first, but a light nonetheless. As we share it, even in the smallest of ways, it grows...

(Below is my little gift to you - and yes, it includes a Christmas song, played with love...)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A voice in the wilderness...

"A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight." (Isaiah 40:3) For those of us who have grown up in or around Christianity, these words are familiar at this advent time of year that leads us to Christmas. We are called upon to prepare for the Coming.

As I reflect on this, a story comes to mind. All of my life I have been very shy, though it may be less evident now than it was when I was a young child. I recall when I was in the third grade, the teacher engaged the class in a small activity where each of us was to take a turn speaking into a tape recorder. Of course, I was very anxious at the thought of doing this but did what I was told to do. When the tape was replayed, an even more terrible thing happened. When the recording of my voice was played, this deep, dull, croaking sound emanated into the room and everyone laughed! I was sure there was some mistake and was horrified to think that this was how I sounded to others. I had never thought much about my voice before that but suddenly, in that moment, I came to think of myself as a person with an unpleasant voice, one that certainly should not be overused, muchless recorded or amplified. Certainly the laughter of my classmates had made that clear.

After that year, I was probably more shy and quiet than ever. By eighth grade, I was one of two voted "most quiet" in my class. (The boy who was voted in as my male counterpart, had a soft, high pitched voice and was often made fun of.) However, as I evolved through my adolescence, I found that I had ideas, things that I really wanted to say. This need to speak pushed me beyond much of my shyness. I became more able to talk to strangers because I needed to, if I wanted to offer help. I spoke up more in groups because I felt that somehow I could not hold in the ideas that came into my mind. I even ventured into becoming a lector (reading the scripture readings) in my church because it felt so important to me to do. But I still thought I had this awful, odd sounding voice. Without knowing it, I had allowed a giggly group of third graders to define a part of me and years later I was still believing them.

A funny thing happened. As I became a more experienced lector, people sometimes came up to me after church and commented on how they loved listening to me read and found my voice so easy to listen to. This was really quite startling to me. I had worked at learning good technique for reading, but my voice? As I pursued my graduate studies and career in psychology, I started making relaxation tapes for my patients because so often people requested help in practicing the techniques that helped them relax in my office. Again, this strange thing happened. People started telling me how they found my voice so soothing, so calming. Sometimes people have told me that they just felt better hearing my voice. Despite all of this feedback, this still seemed strange to me. It still seemed that my third grade classmates were the ones who knew what I really sounded like and all of these other people were just being kind.

As I have walked the way of growth with so many patients over the years, I too have grown. I can see now that my shy and sensitive child-self had taken a message from my peers and blown it way out of proportion, leaving me thinking something about myself that was a distortion. (I am not claiming to have a great voice, but I do know now that I don't sound like a bull frog.) Perhaps even more important though is that I have learned that so much of my focus on me was completely unnecessary... all of the worrying and wondering about the approval of others, the fear of their judgment. I am not here for myself. And neither is my voice.

Going back to the words of the prophet, we find often ourselves, like the wandering people of Israel, in a "wilderness". While the biblical stories tell us of the forty year journey of this ancient people through the desert, the desert was not just a dry, arid place without enough food and water. It was also a state of their souls, their spirits. They were (as we often are) a people "bewildered", straying, lost, wandering and not knowing what direction to go in. A wilderness is a place where there are no paths, no roads. A wilderness can be a frightening place to be.

I am far from being a biblical scholar, but it is interesting to see what comes next in the instructions to the prophet, "Make a straight highway for our God." So here we are in the wilderness, the place without paths, lost, not knowing the direction to go in - and we're to build a highway? If you are at all like me, you may be thinking: how can I build a highway, especially a highway for God, if I don't have any direction, if I don't even know if there is a God or where he might be found? If God really is coming, can't he build his own highway? Certainly we might assume that God knows how to get here more than I know how to get there.

As I look out my window, I see snow starting to accumulate with predictions of more to come. Oddly, I think of snow shoveling, the creating of a path. While people coming to see me might be able, with great exertion, to walk through a foot of snow to my door, a path lets them know they are welcome, that I want them to come and find me here. So perhaps if One is coming, I can make a little path. I can make a space that says "I want you to find me. I am lost. I have no direction. Come. Show me what to do and where to go."

It strikes me that perhaps making the path is what prayer is about. I have often wondered about prayer. God, if there is a God, certainly knows what I need and how I feel. God, if God is good, doesn't need me to tell him or persuade him to do the good thing instead of the bad. I cannot imagine that God really needs me to say words at all. But perhaps I need to say them. Perhaps the saying of them is the way I clear the path, the way I make a "highway" for the One to come and find me in the wilderness. To let him know he is welcome and I want to be found. Perhaps when we say prayers together or when we pray for one another, we become connected. As people spiritually connected, the wilderness feels a little less scary and the making of a path a little less overwhelming. Hearing the voice of another as we wander through the wasteland helps us to feel not quite so alone.

If you'd like to, join me. I will use my voice. (If you don't feel ready for prayer, it is OK to not listen in - you'll still be connected because I'll pray for you. If you aren't sure what you believe but would like to hear my voice in your wilderness, you are welcome to listen and just let my words wash over you. There are no obligations or expectations here.)

(Since I do not know how to build highways, I will use the tool provided by the One who comes; I may use slightly different words than you are used to, but we will still be spiritually connected, since the words aren't the important part.)