Where Jesus Came

Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a lot of Christmas creches, and I suspect they’re not quite accurate.

Mary looks as if she’s just come from hair and makeup. Jesus is not crying, not nursing, but sleeping, the most unusual activity for a baby, as any new parents will tell you. And the innkeeper who wouldn’t give them a room apparently felt some last minute remorse and had the stables mucked out moments before because they’re gleaming.

The whole scene misses the point of incarnation; it confuses Christianity with perfectionism.

Jesus did not come into the world to put barns on the Good Housekeeping tour. He came to show that the stables shine just the way they are because there, as everywhere, the divine presence is found.

We have such a hard time with this. My family came for Christmas, and when they left, I felt unexpectedly sad. I enjoy the good fortune of having a wonderful family, but usually some sense of relief comes with having a quiet house again. Not this year.

I kept reminding myself to stick with the sadness, welcome it instead of fearing it and trying to push it away, and for one moment, I got it. I was making dinner, chopping up a pepper, and that pepper was suddenly breathtakingly beautiful, essence of pepper shining in the red and orange flesh.

Cutting vegetables in the comfort of one’s own kitchen is a far cry from going through the then dangerous ordeal of giving birth while lying on the ground, miles from home, without the community that would normally offer support. But that’s the thing about God’s love—it’s present during the smallest and largest difficulties, not taking them away as we often wish but rather inhabiting them and letting us know that no amount of muck can separate us from the sacred nature of ourselves, of others, of life.

Listening to the News in Spring

Spring broke through all my inattentiveness with a riot of color this week. The poppies and lupine trumpeted orange and purple, a row of plum trees displayed their delicate pink, and a tall, loose-limbed tree reminded the world, this is yellow. At the same time, the news was playing on the radio.

It’s difficult to reconcile the beauty of a spring day with war, racism, climate change, corruption—all of the hurt we humans in our woundedness do to each other and to the Earth. I often want it to be one way or the other, but we are not one way or the other. Life is not one way or the other.

To reconcile is not to choose one thing over another nor to consider one true and the other false, one more important and the other less so. Instead we must see and hold both, recognize the truth of suffering and of love.

This is the good news, the presence of love in the midst of suffering, not separate from it. We don’t know how to tell this story in our newscasts. We hear only of killing, cruelty, and destruction in certain areas of the world. We do not hear at the same time that people in that country are laughing, falling in love, marveling at a skill they learned for the first time.

Richard Rohr recommends saying, “Yes, and.” Yes, the rich oppress the poor and think it’s justified. Yes, in the town where each of us lives, today, a girl will be the victim of incest and a person of color will be discriminated against.

And love is the nature of existence. Love is the energy that moves the electrons comprising us in their orbits and continually gives itself away to make our universe anew every microsecond. Love is at the core of all of us in our most generous, most joyful, most selfish, and most destructive moments.

Here’s a poem from William Stafford about how to recognize this reality and what happens when we do.

Grace Abounding
by William Stafford

Air crowds into my cell so considerately
that the jailer forgets this kind of gift
and thinks I’m alone. Such unnoticed largesse
smuggled by day floods over me,
or here come grass, turns in the road,
a branch or stone significantly strewn
where it wouldn’t need to be.

Such times abide for a pilgrim, who all through
a story or a life may live in grace, that blind
benevolent side of even the fiercest world,
and might – even in oppression or neglect –
not care if it’s friend or enemy, caught up
in a dance where no one feels need or fear.

I’m saved in this big world by unforeseen
friends, or times when only a glance
from a passenger beside me, or just the tired
branch of a willow inclining toward earth,
may teach me how to join earth and sky.

 

A Time of Longing

I’ve often heard Advent described as a time of preparation and waiting, but my friend Barb Kollenkark recently described it as a period of longing.

I suppose that makes sense. We are, after all, waiting for the coming of a child, and I’m sure parents-to-be would confirm that those nine months contain a great deal of longing.

A woman who is pregnant is “expecting.” During Advent we expect the birth of Christ in our hearts. That’s a strong word, with a lot of faith and an element of demand to it. We’re not wishing, we’re expecting.

I so often consider the object of my desire to be a conclusion: the completion of a project, the settling of a decision, the ending of an uncomfortable emotion. But in that delivery room, all parents are hoping for a beginning, not an ending.

Life is a continuing unfolding, and that’s what parents want for their children. Not a straight path, not without difficulties, probably messy, but at every moment the potential for growth.

And so with us and Christ. The coming we are longing for is not a consummation, though we often get ourselves into trouble in big and small ways by searching for fulfillment in everything from alcoholism to the salvation that might arrive in the next email or Facebook post. Not that I’d know anything about that.

What arrives on Christmas, what we’re waiting for, is not an end to yearning but a deepening of it. We are finite beings with an infinite capacity for love, multiple teachers have said, and on Christmas we will receive at least two things, regardless of what is under the tree: a historical example of someone who will show us what our hearts are capable of and that ability itself, which is to live in the evolutionary moment we’re in, to live into our longing, into our true selves in God.

That’s something worth expecting.

Whose Will?

“What should I do?” is a question I ask God fairly often. Or so I thought. Recently it appears that actually I’m asking myself, and the question is closer to “What is the one step I can take that will keep me on the invisible path that makes me right and perfect?” Because as anyone who reads this blog knows, I’ve maintained a perfect record of right-ness and perfect-ness so far.

Discernment is the practice of getting in touch with God’s will. “What should I do?” is not about stepping into the divine flow in a way that is most beneficial to all of creation, including me—which might be what following God’s will means.

In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Abba Poemen says, “To throw yourself before God, not to measure your progress, to leave behind all self-will; these are the instruments for the work of the soul” (from the Benedicta Ward translation). All this time I thought I was practicing discernment, I was just measuring progress. “Should” is a dead giveaway that we’ve substituted progress measuring for the will of God.

Much of my thinking, say 99 percent, is about how well I’m doing and how far I’ve gotten, in other words, progress. But progress toward what? Seeing as we really don’t know where we’re going, trying to figure out how close we are to the end seems dicey at best.

I’m fairly certain that God doesn’t do “should.” God invites but doesn’t obligate, loves but does not impose. Laws are useful, but God is inviting us to freedom, which begins in our hearts. Only our hearts are big enough for freedom.

“Should” is a giveaway that I’m not leading with my heart. There is no room in love for how things ought to be according to me, only for how they are.

So how does discernment work instead? I have absolutely no idea. When I experience it, I’ll let you know.

Seeing Each Other Through

Friendship is a curious and wonderful thing. I spent last weekend with college friends whom I’ve now known for more than half my life, twenty-three years to be exact.

I find our friendship remarkable because we remained connected through a span of time in which human beings—at least in the western world—behave in ways that are designed to alienate people. I don’t mean that we were bad people, just that we were in our twenties, a period when we struggle so hard to establish an identity that we can feel threatened by others’ attempts to do the same. Now we can joke about our differences, but there was a time when we—or at least I—took those aspects of our personalities so seriously that we could have allowed them to pull us apart.

And that would have been a great loss because I can confess the important things to these friends, from jealousy toward women who can wear cute, flat, bad-for-your-feet sandals to my deepest heartbreaks. These are generous, funny, smart women, and we can laugh or be silent together, drink good wine or eat onion rings with equal giddiness.

These two know me at so many levels. They know I didn’t learn how to clean a toilet until my junior year of college. They know I will always be the last one ready to go. They have listened with great love and patience to my self-doubts and my fears that the world was falling apart. They have held the preciousness of my self when I couldn’t and reflected it back to me until I could find it again. They have done this not once but many times.

One of my favorite hymns, The Servant Song, says, “I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.” I’m not sure that we can offer one another anything more essential than sharing our joys and sorrows. I know that Heidi and Molly will do exactly that for me and that we will be together until the end of our journeys, and that is a tremendous gift. I love you both. Thank you.

Not Getting There

This week may have been about not losing sight of the infinite, which of course I learned by losing sight of it in many small ways. Like eating three—OK four, but they were small—croissants in one day, panicking over approaching work deadlines, or falling back into my default position of resisting doing things such as the dishes or writing this blog. But somewhere in the midst of that, I heard for the first time the phrase, “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Of course I’ve known those words most of my life, but I’d never heard them, especially that word “surpasses.” I’d always heard, “There’s this state out there that you’re supposed to achieve that you don’t understand yet because you’re not advanced enough, pure enough, whatever you’re supposed to be enough.” Turns out this is not what “surpasses” means. Plus there’s that pesky little “all” in there.

This peace is not understandable ever, no matter how smart you are or how holy you are; your mind cannot grasp it. I don’t know about your mind, but mine is not fond of admitting the existence of things outside its purview.

Jim Finley says something along the lines of, we think there’s a corner to turn and then we’ll be able to grasp all this, but there isn’t. That’s the story our mind tells, but as Finley points out, there’s nowhere to get to because “all this” is infinite.

On first blush, I am not a fan of this situation because I really want to get to that un-gettable place. I want to believe that at some point in my life I will have better time management skills, and that will make it all OK. But on second glance, there’s a spaciousness that opens up when I admit the possibility that, as William Stafford says, “there will come a time when all we have said and all we have hoped will be all right.” That time is any moment we choose to accept existence, including ourselves, as it is.

Note: The Stafford quote is from the poem “A Message from the Wanderer.” “The peace that surpasses all understanding” is from Philippians 4:7.

Poems, Poems, Poems!

As some of you may already know, it’s National Poetry Month, which on this blog means that I’ll be posting some accessible and wonderful poems—along with an occasional less accessible but still wonderful poem—in hopes of convincing you of poetry’s awesomeness. It is also, as anyone who’s been in a grocery store recently knows, almost Easter. In this season when we are called to be a sacrament of love, or perhaps more accurately to live the sacrament of love that we already are, here is a poem of welcome from Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Invitation to Love

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

Come when the nights are bright with stars
Or come when the moon is mellow;
Come when the sun his golden bars
Drops on the hay-field yellow.
Come in the twilight soft and gray,
Come in the night or come in the day,
Come, O love, whene’er you may,
And you are welcome, welcome.

You are sweet, O Love, dear Love,
You are soft as the nesting dove.
Come to my heart and bring it to rest
As the bird flies home to its welcome nest.

Come when my heart is full of grief
Or when my heart is merry;
Come with the falling of the leaf
Or with the redd’ning cherry.
Come when the year’s first blossom blows,
Come when the summer gleams and glows,
Come with the winter’s drifting snows,
And you are welcome, welcome.

If you’d like more poetry, you can download the Poetry Foundation’s poetry app, which is how I found this one. If you scroll to the bottom of that Web page, you will also find multiple ways to sign up for a poem of the day. One of my favorite ways to get daily poems is on The Writer’s Almanac.