“Do you want a part in the Christmas nativity play?” James’ grade school teacher asked him.
“Of course,” he answered.
“You get to be Joseph,” the teacher told him.
James was proud, what with his friends having to be sheep and cows and such. “What are my lines?” he asked his teacher.
“You don’t have any,” the teacher answered.
“But what do I do?”
“You just stand there,” the teacher said, “and make sure Mary doesn’t look bad.”
Have you been to a grade school nativity play? What does Joseph do? Other than stand at attention until his balance starts to give out…
After the play all the adults patted James on the head and said, “You were such a marvelous Joseph!”
“And I was so proud,” he recalls. And then it occurs to him, “Wait a minute. If I’m such a great Joseph, how come I never once talked with Mary? If I’m such a great Joseph, how come I never once picked up the baby Jesus and sang him a song? If I’m such a great Joseph, how come I never offered coffee to the shepherds? I was only a great Joseph because I did what everyone said I should do. I was great because I was frozen.”
I understand what that feels like. It’s just that when I live frozen, I lose Terry, and I live small (all the while, patted on the head). And I don’t like what it does to me. And I don’t like how it affects the people I love.
There is already plenty of angst each New Year. One email assured me this is my year to “create a new and more marketable self”. Who knew?
I’ll stick with Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) affirmation that we live fueled by grace and graciousness. When we do, it touches deeper needs in others, and we literally “love someone into existence.” Yes. And here’s the deal; that “someone” you love into existence, may be yourself.
This gift begins with a paradigm shift. GK Chesteron’s observation. “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul; and a new nose, new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.”
So, I check out one of Chesterton’s own “new soul” stories. Chesterton (1874-1936) writes about his youth as “nightmare years”—at Slade School in London—where his outlook on life turned dark and despondent. He remarked later that (after those years) what remained of religion was the “one thin thread of thanks.” A thin line with two strands: wonder and gratitude.
Frederick Buechner picks up the story, “It was at this time also that he met Frances Blogg, whom, after a long engagement, he married in 1901. During the engagement, Frances’ sister Gertrude was killed in a bicycle accident, and Frances was so prostrated with grief that directly after the funeral she went to Italy to recover. At the funeral, all the flowers were white except for the ones that Chesterton sent, which were brilliant scarlet and orange and accompanied by a card that read, “He that maketh His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.”
While Frances was in Italy, he also wrote her a remarkable letter that further reveals the near euphoria that followed in the wake of the Slade year’s nightmare. “I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me; the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud.”
Here’s why I love this story.
One. Chesterton chose scarlet flowers, for no apparent reason that we know of, save that he was definitely not frozen. (Proving David Whyte’s affirmation that “inside everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born.”)
And two. The intensity of his passion for all things (fueled by his intoxication with wonder and gratitude) gave no heed whatsoever to public opinion.
Grace is alive. Spill your light. Hope is real. Let us love one another into existence.
Living life unabashed is one thing. Sadly, we live in a culture that wishes to capture “it,” or tame it, or make it manageable (hoping that it comes with instructions).
As to resolutions that beckon? I’m partial to Parker Palmer’s take, that instead of resolutions we ought to follow Rilke’s famous advice about “living the questions,” and carry into the New Year a few wonderings…
What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
How can I open myself to the beauty of nature, and human nature?
Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me?
How can I let go of my need for fixed answers, in favor of aliveness?
Living these questions will stretch us. There is no doubt. And the enticement of being frozen reappears. And to be honest, too often it’s not authenticity (aliveness) I want. It’s certainty (or security) that I’m after.
This week on my friend Charlie Hedges’ podcast, The Next Chapter, he asked me about New Year resolutions, and why we’re so addicted to prescription or destination resolutions.
I tell this story. The CFO of a large company was greatly admired for his energy and drive. But he suffered from one embarrassing weakness: each time he entered the CEO’s office to make his weekly report, he would wet his pants! The CEO was less than pleased and urged the CFO to see a specialist at once, at company expense. “Let’s get this fixed!”
After a week goes by, they are in the office together, and sure enough, the CFO’s pants were again wet! “I thought you took care of this?” the CEO bellows. “We paid a lot of money for this.” “It is resolved,” the CFO answered, smiling. “I saw a psychologist, and all is well, because I don’t feel embarrassed anymore.”
I have a suggestion; instead of marketable, let’s make 2019 a year where we dare to be human. And maybe, just maybe… it’s not about the “correct” way to live. Maybe it’s about the freedom to give scarlet flowers.
Do we dare?
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany (Feast of the Three Kings), so the Christmas tree will come down this week. But not today, as I’m in Vancouver, BC. Tomorrow working with the good teachers and staff at St. Augustine’s.
Looking back on best of 2018 for me. Favorite book, The Soul of America, Jon Meacham. Favorite movie, Roma. Favorite plant, David Austin Rose Heritage. Favorite wine, Pesquera Ribera del Duero. Favorite music, Little Patch of Sky, Larry Murante. Favorite TV show, Kominsky Method. Favorite feel good song, Tennessee Whiskey, Chris Stapleton.
My prayer for each day of 2019, from John O’Donohue, “May I live this day compassionate of heart, clear in word, gracious in awareness, courageous in thought, generous in love.” Join me.
Quote for your week…
If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person. Thomas Merton
Note: Nativity story adapted from James Dittes, The Male Predicament
POEMS AND PRAYERS
You say grace before meals. All right.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
and grace before the play and pantomime,
and grace before I open a book,
and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing,
boxing, walking, playing, dancing
and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
My Granddaughter’s Eyes
The note of one violin (humanity) causes
a second violin (God) to resonate.
—Sanford Drob. Kabbalistic Visions
This is where I find You,
—my granddaughter’s eyes.
not yet learned
to turn away
from naked love,
to shut her eyes
from deepest meeting.
She has not yet learned
So she stays,
My granddaughter’s eyes—
in the meeting
Jennifer (Jinks) Hoffmann
May God bless you with discomfort,
At easy answers, half-truths,
And superficial relationships
So that you may live
Deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression,
And exploitation of people,
So that you may work for
Justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears,
To shed for those who suffer pain,
Rejection, hunger and war,
So that you may reach out your hand
To comfort them and
To turn their pain to joy
And may God bless you
With enough foolishness
To believe that you can
Make a difference in the world,
So that you can do
What others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness
To all our children and the poor.
St Francis Blessing