I once knew a woman who maintained that the Y-chromosome is a birth defect. Arguing with her was fruitless. She would tilt her head to look at me over the rim of her glasses and state unequivocally, “It’s a miracle that any boy makes it to adulthood.” Having raised several children, she knew whereof she spoke. It was her son who, at twelve, dared me to ride my bicycle over a small cliff at a nearby sand quarry. Things are often higher than they seem. I survived with my honor intact, but I couldn’t put full weight on my right foot for two weeks. Try hiding that from your mother.
That small, missing piece of the X-chromosome that differentiates males from females probably contains the instructions for judgment and almost certainly contains the instruction set for span of attention. Most of us eventually come around to developing both but not before we’ve had our share of misadventures – nearly all of them avoidable, like not riding your bicycle over a cliff just because your friend said you wouldn’t in front of your other friends who had no intention of following you. We grow up. But we grow at different rates and achieve different levels of maturity. For many of us, the desire to fly our bicycles never really leaves us, but those instruction sets that bedeviled us in our youth, once mastered, become the building blocks of our lives.
It is our nature to grow. How we grow is only partially determined at birth by our genes. What we are – our height, our eye color, whether we are skinny or stout – is very much beyond our control, but who we are depends on what we do with all of the elements of our lives. There is a famous quote by Dr. Samuel Johnson, a line delivered after a falling out with his friend Thomas Sheridan, “Why, Sir, Sherry is dull, naturally dull; but it must have taken him a great deal of pains to become what we now see him. Such an excess of stupidity, Sir, is not in Nature.” We may not suffer from an “excess of stupidity”, but we all have taken a great deal of pains to become something and often that something is not true to our nature. The who we are doesn’t correspond to the who we were meant to be.
The Apostle Paul reminds us in his “Letter to the Romans” that we are by nature conflicted. We are, all of us, more aware of both the desires that drive our decisions and the sure consequences that follow those decisions than we like to admit. We are rarely if ever completely innocent victims of life. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” There is a way out. Paul cries out: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” This is the cry of many of us who long for something more, somehow for things to be different in our lives, for life to be more like we dreamed it to be in the days when bicycles flew and we were oblivious to the consequences of our decisions. Paul’s answer is as relevant and powerful as it was when he first uttered it: “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” There is a way back, but it requires us to surrender, to let go of the accumulated hurts and fears whose weight grounds us.
To become as children is not to return to a world of fantasy and a naïve vision of the world, oblivious to its dangers. It is to return to a world full of possibilities, a world made new each day. That is the promise of Jesus. What we cannot do ourselves is possible through a life lived in the Spirit – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus. The Easter season reminds that the impossible broke into the world to make all things possible. We are, as in everything, free to choose what we believe, but some decisions are more destructive than riding a bicycle off a sand cliff. For thousands of years, generations have attested to the reality and power of the Living Christ. Those same generation have witnessed the misery and poverty of spirit in those who have chosen “to take a great deal of pains” to become what we now see, lonely and unfulfilled souls wishing the world was other than it seems. It still could be, but the answer doesn’t lie in broken chromosomes, it lies in the foolishness of the Cross and in the one who stretched out his arms that you and I might make our way back to our true natures, at rest and at peace with the one who created us.
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When my daughter was very young, I volunteered as a docent at the insect zoo in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It is a place of screaming children – screaming from wonder and delight – and strangely absent the fear that bugs and other crawly things often invoke in adults. Among her favorite things were the tobacco hornworms (the larva of the sphinx moth). These nearly three-inch-long grubs are rubbery caterpillars with stumpy legs and odd looking eye-spots on each section. They often plague gardeners in the southern United States where they are a leafy green. The diet we fed them was lacking in pigments so ours were a deep turquoise – almost blue.
Whenever I took Tiffany to the insect zoo she would run to the glass case housing the tobacco worms, stand on tiptoes, and look through the foliage to count as many caterpillars as she could. She always reminded me of Alice in Wonderland who “stretched herself up on tiptoe and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar.” The caterpillar and Alice looked at one another in silence for some time. That is where the similarity ends. Alice’s caterpillar can talk, and Alice, not knowing quite what to make of the whole thing, ends up insulting him:
“’Well, I should like to be a little larger, Sir, if you wouldn’t mind,’ said Alice: ‘three inches is such a wretched height to be.’
‘It is a very good height indeed!’ said the caterpillar angrily, rearing itself up as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high.).”
Ouch! Not a good way to win friends. Perhaps I like Alice’s story because it reminds me of Saturdays on the National Mall when Tiffany wasn’t the only one that was younger. Now like Alice she could rightly say: “You are old father William … and your hair has become very white.” But perhaps there is another reason. Lewis Carroll wrote of this encounter for us, for those of us who once having given flight to the thoughtless and inconsiderate remark, net in hand, try desperately and unsuccessfully to capture it and put it back in the box. The Lord’s brother, James, writes: “All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
Alice has an excuse, she has fallen down a hole into a strange land, and she can truthfully say: “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.” In a troubling way, we are not ourselves either – not the people we were created to be, and like Alice, we know it. We do not need a giant blue caterpillar smoking a hookah pipe to tell us what is wrong in our lives, what keeps us from being the people we know would make us happier human beings.
Alice falls through the looking glass into a world where nothing is quite what it seems. James reminds us that it is in the looking glass that we can see the world as it ought to be and find the way to make it so. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”
Tiffany learned that the blue caterpillars were harmless. She even came to a point where she would let them crawl lazily up her cheek – but only after a long apprenticeship of letting them make lazy tracks across the palm of her hand. Too many of us never get beyond the apprenticeship. James’ “perfect law of liberty” is the key to a world that does make sense, that does allow us to explain ourselves, that makes room for wonder and delight. It’s time to take a step in faith. It’s time to let the blue caterpillar wander beyond our outstretched palms.
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Whoever Saint Valentine was, nothing remains of the original association between the saint and the February fourteenth celebration that bears his name. Of the several saints named Valentine, none truly resembles the mythical harbinger of romantic love celebrated with hearts, cupids, and chocolate. The day took on its current caste sometime during the Middle-Ages as noted by Jeffery Chaucer: “For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day / When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”Clearly, it was a lot warmer in February in those days. The ice and snow outside my window don’t invite frolicking on the hillside – that will have to wait for April. Nevertheless, every young man in love learns early that Valentine’s Day is not lightly passed over.
It seems to be an antidote for what C.S. Lewis calls the Same Old Thing, that is, the fear of the commonplace, the familiar, the predictable. That feeling of being too comfortable with one another that cries out for something novel. Change for change sake in a world desperately seeking escape from otherwise unfulfilling lives. It is the Same Old Thing that drives everything from changes in fashion to all-night vigils outside of the consumer-electronics store where scores wait to be the first to own the latest cell-phone that offers few new features. The demand for the new seems insatiable, and Lewis points out that it is not benign: “The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both.”
Unhappiness or both? The problem with seeking novelty is that is anesthetizes us to the pain of growth and inoculates us against the changes that create mature human beings. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in modern, serial relationships. In Ruperrt Holms’ 1979 hit, “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”, the protagonist places an ad in the personal column of the local newspaper seeking someone to breathe new life into his bored existence. He arranges to meet a woman who shares his interests, also seeking relief from a tired and boring relationship, at a bar called O’Malley’s.
So I waited with high hopes and she walked in the place
I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face
It was my own lovely lady and she said, “Oh, it’s you?”
Then I looked for moment and I said “I never knew.”
“I never knew” is all too often the sad last-word to a once flourishing relationship. The key to keeping love alive isn’t novelty, it is intention. All relationships, whether romantic or otherwise, need attention; they need to be nourished – and that more than once a year in February. Paradoxically, it the intentional relationship, the one where both partners are committed to life together, that remains fresh, that offers daily opportunities for the novel. We have been conditioned to look for fulfillment in a changing landscape, not as a future to be worked toward one day at a time. As Screwtape writes to Wormwood:
For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant’. We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain – not as something everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
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In a Paris Review interview, Truman Capote praised Virginia Woolf with the remark: “From the point of view of the ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence.” High praise from someone many believe to be one of the twentieth-century’s masters of English prose. Reading Capote’s essay, “Brooklyn,” one gets a flavor not only of Capote’s own skill with words but also of his gift for seeing. The practiced eye of the observer who notes every detail but records just enough to draw the reader into his world, to draw the reader into the decaying urban neighborhood he calls home. A place he loves even though he describes it so unflatteringly: “Brooklyn is also sad brutal provincial lonesome silent raucous lost passionate subtle bitter immature innocent perverse tender mysterious, a place where Crane and Whitman found poems, a mythical dominion against whose shores the Coney Island sea laps a wintry lament.”
A Mythical Dominion. Isn’t that where we all live, walls erected against the world that assaults our senses, makes unreasonable demands, and holds terrors untold for the unwary? In “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” Virginia Woolf takes a late afternoon walk in search of a lead pencil – not quite the idyllic stroll through Henry David Thoreau’s meadow and forest nor the hurried walk of the weary New Yorker heading home from the subway to the projects – home to an apartment alive with mementos and memories, insulation for the soul. Going out into the London street means leaving the mythical dominion behind: “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.”
But this enormous eye opens only for those who are ready to risk seeing the world as it is. Those for whom distinctions disappear and people emerge as they are. Only then does the possibility arise of entering imaginatively into the lives of others. “One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?” It is in the lives of others – those wild beasts, our fellow men – that we find our true calling.
Take a walk in the neighborhood. Leave the MP3 player and the smart phone behind. Forget about Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin. Take a walk in your neighborhood again for the first time, a walk beneath brambles and thick trunks to the place where God dwells in the midst of his children. Truman Capote and Virginia Woolf shared a rare genius for words, but they also shared a deep appreciation for people, for communities, and for the life that is the common property of us all. Leaving our private mythical dominion behind is fearful and risky, but the world of truth waiting to be revealed to those with open eyes is a place for truly productive living – a world that may unflatteringly be described as sad brutal provincial lonesome silent raucous lost passionate subtle bitter immature innocent perverse tender mysterious, but a world desparate for a better way. It is a world, a neighborhood, waiting for love.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
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It’s the night before Thanksgiving and visions of Santa Claus dance in my head. A brief trip to the mall confirms that the Christmas shopping season is in full swing. Christmas decorations dominate every window display and the sound of familiar carols drift through the air. And everywhere Santa, eyes crinkling with delight, beckons. Shop here! Or there! Or better yet, everywhere! And don’t forget to have your picture taken sitting in Santa’s lap. The line of waiting children snakes past the Starbucks kiosk, explaining why so many parents are drinking from those iconic seasonal red cups.
But a Santa large enough to accommodate twins in his lap doesn’t fit the image I have of him – an image forged in childhood from that most famous of Christmas poems: “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” He is, after all, “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf.” And a tiny one at that.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
“All tarnished with ashes and soot” and small enough to slide easily down the chimney, he makes a grand entrance (I suspect accompanied by a fine ash cloud). But this small figure from an 1823 poem has come to represent something a great deal larger than Clement Clarke Moore imagined when he wrote these lyrics for his children. Millions of other children have drifted off to sleep while straining to hear sleigh bells and the sound of hooves on the roof. Households all across the country are decorated every December in red and green with little Santas and sleighs to keep the magic alive. But this imagined world where time stands still so that Santa can visit every boy and girl gives way to a much harsher reality. We grow up, and we stop believing in magic.
The original Christmas knew no Santas, no gaily decorated evergreens, no Christmas goose or pudding, but it knew joy. The angel brought a message of hope: “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people … And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” It is this event we celebrate with “Christ’s Mass.” We celebrate the promise that through the incarnation all of us can enter into a new relationship with the Creator God. One founded on the sacrificial love of his Son, Jesus. The Santa-centerpiece and the holly wreaths will soon be put away for another year, but the manger scene on the mantel reminds us of a promise that does not fade or disappoint. It is the promise of God’s peace and good will to all people. Whether we are surrounded by family or celebrating the season by ourselves, we are never alone. The love of God made present to us by the birth of his son is the promise of the angels and the promise of the ages.
This season I choose not to worry about the commercialization of Christmas nor will I preach about it. Recovering the meaning of Christmas is something that we must do for ourselves. I will acknowledge and celebrate all of the aspects of Christmas. On Christmas Eve I will gather with my brothers and sisters in the faith to sing our favorite Christmas hymns, to watch the children place the figures in the manger scene, and I will join with Christians all over the world in offering prayer and praise to the one born in the manger, Jesus. But then I will go home to sit before our tree, and perhaps fall asleep with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head as I listen for sleigh bells and the sound of tiny hooves on the roof.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all goodnight.”
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The church has kept All Saints’ Day since the fourth century. It was earlier celebrated in May but moved to 1 November by Gregory III in the eighth century. It is the day set aside to remember all of the Christian saints, known and unknown. It passes unnoticed by most in the modern age where the preceding evening, All Hallows Eve (Halloween), has taken a commanding position. Hallows is the Old English word for holy, and it is applied to the evening before All Saints’ Day because under the old calendar, the day begins at sundown. All Hallows’ Eve gets its particular flavor from the ancient superstitious belief that the boundary between the physical and spiritual worlds gets very porous this one evening of the year making it possible for shades and spirits of all stripes to cross over into our world. Sadly the solemn remembrance of all of those Christians who have gone before us and now rest from their labors is lost in the costumed scramble for individually wrapped pieces of chocolate.
One of my favorite hymns begins “For all the saints who from their labors rest, Who Thee by faith before the world confessed.” It is the quintessential All Saints hymn, and it captures the hope central to our faith. Whatever else we may argue about, the ancient creeds unite us in the proclamation of the “resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Or as the Apostles Creed declares, “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” So central is this belief to the Christian faith that the Apostle Paul declares in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” But Paul goes on boldly to declare that Christ is raised and so shall we be in our own time.
This season as we move from All Saints’ Day through Christ the King Sunday into Advent, let us boldly proclaim the message that Christ shall come again, and although we do not know what we shall be like, we will be, and that is enough to sustain us. And we are not alone. We look to the day when we are united with all of those we have loved and lost.
The great human hope is that there is something more, something beyond this life. In Ararat, Charles Tomlinson wrote:
We shall sleep-out together through the dark
The earth’s slow voyage across the centuries
Towards whatever Ararat its ark
Is steering for. Our atoms then will feel
The jarring and arrival of that keel
In timelessness, and rise through galaxies,
Motes starred by the first and final light to show
Whether those shores are habitable or no.
The promise of Christ is that those shores are habitable, and we will voyage together across the centuries to that timeless Ararat. And we will sleep-out together with all the saints who from their labors rest because like them, we by faith before the world confessed, “Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.”
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Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” the November 24, 1951 Saturday Evening Post cover, is a picture worth spending time with. The muted tones and dismal, gray rail yard, seen through the window of the station diner, invite us into the gritty world of postwar urban-America. Three figures, business travelers, frame the painting. In the center, a woman and small boy (Her grandson?) sit with bowed heads and folded hands; the boy appears to be saying grace over lunch – a bowl of soup, a sandwich, and glass of milk are barely visible. Sharing their table are two young men quietly but respectfully watching. In the foreground, the ash builds on a momentarily forgotten cigar. Time seems to stand still as Norman Rockwell captures the hushed pause that has come over the diner.
Careful examination of the painting reveals that the boy and his grandmother are not the subjects of the painting. They provide the ground on which Rockwell paints a character study of the men whose routine has been interrupted by a small boy at prayer. They are respectful. Perhaps they don’t pray, perhaps they don’t believe there in a listening god, but they are respectful. A simple act of piety has awakened in them a need to honor the moment, to pause in the presence of the sacred. We are vicariously with them as they witness this simple testament of faith.
I was in Wendy’s not long ago. I found what I thought was a quiet place in the corner and sat down to eat and read the sports pages. I was interrupted with my cheeseburger halfway to my mouth by the sound of prayer. Not the grace many of us say before meals but a full blown “just wanna, just wanna thank you, Jesus.” Notice the double “just wannas.” The starched chinos (slacks for him and skirt for her) and matching L. L. Bean polo shirts identified them as neighborhood people, a middle-class uniform not unlike the ones the kids wear to the private school down the street. Hands folded, in the cadence of a drill sergeant, they loudly gave us nearly the whole thing. I say nearly because somewhere between family as God intended it, protection for the unborn, economic justice for those earning over $200, 000 per year, and the amens and thank you Jesuses they forgot to pray for the burgers and fries.
Some looked at them with undisguised contempt, some ruefully shook their heads, some barely glanced at the couple before going back to their own conversations and meals. No one was impressed, nor do I believe evangelized. I immediately and unkindly thought of Matthew 6:5 and of those praying in the synagogues and street corners, those Jesus solemnly warned about public prayer. “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” Who is being served and what image is left in the mind of the hearers?
In Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … And Why It Matters, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, of the Barna Group, provide us with an uncomfortable look at ourselves. To those young people “outside of the faith,” we are hypocritical, insulated, judgmental, and politicized. I heard all of those themes in one lengthy diatribe disguised as prayer over French fries at Wendy’s. Those despairing about the eroding image of Christians don’t have far to look for the reasons.
The contrast between the two images – an early fifties railroad café and a modern Wendy’s – is striking. One speaks to the genuine witness to the Christian faith; the other to culture wars. Will time stand still for a genuine act of piety, a short and gracious thanksgiving for the food before us? I don’t know. Probably not. But no loud and lengthy prayer meant to carry over multiple conversations in a crowded dining room will draw people to Jesus. Perhaps that is why he enjoined us to pray at home, away from the crowds. The temptation to make a statement is too great.
There is a place for table grace, even in public places, but public witness is a tricky thing. Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace” resonates with us because we know it is true. If we want to reach the people around us we must engage the community, sometimes as passive observers of our prayers. A simple act of naïve faith by a small boy can still a gritty dining-room. What about our prayers?
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