I would I were thy bird.
Sweet, so would I,
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.”
“Funny the way it is, if you think about it
One kid walks 10 miles to school, another’s dropping out
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
On a soldier’s last breath his baby’s being born
Funny the way it is, not right or wrong
Somebody’s broken heart becomes your favorite song.”
From “Funny the Way It Is” by Dave Matthews Band (Big Whiskey and the Gru Grux King) (http://www.davematthewsband.com/)
I excerpted the above lyrics from my favorite song by DMB, “Funny the Way It Is,” which is mixed in with my Christmas CD’s on the car stereo. When the song came on yesterday I felt like it was intruding on my holiday karma, but the fingernail sketch of life’s ironies hooked me anyway. While life’s strange twists and turns are often ironic and infuriating rather than funny, the message rings true at this time of year as it does at any other. Christmas brings some of these contrasts into even sharper focus and they create static in the message of pure joy we hear at church and certainly with the message of pure self-indulgence that we hear from our culture. Some of my personal ironies include the fact that we celebrate Advent in our warm house, relishing our electric blankets and lighted Christmas tree while members of Denver’s homeless population ride the bus, camp out at the airport or suffer in the deadly cold.
The song re-asks humanity’s perpetual question, “why do bad things happen?” (or the slightly slanted version, “why do bad things happen to good people?”) How does one maintain a joyous and grateful spirit while recognizing the pain and suffering of others and/or how do we maintain a joyous and grateful spirit while dealing with personal hardship and dark times? I find it hard to believe that good deeds are not right and that horrible misfortunes are not wrong. Perhaps tagging circumstances as right or wrong gives rise to the myth that there exists one person or set of persons to blame for the bad problems, and one person(s) who will save us from ourselves.
But wait, isn’t that the message of Christmas – that Jesus is born to save us, to bring peace, love and joy to the world? The holiday is such a happy time, emphasizing angels, light, small babies, mild and meek mothers and universal happiness. After listening to some of the traditional carols I start to think “game over! The good guys won.” I walk happily out into the cold only to be hit in the face with realities of homelessness, the impacts of economic recession, and people struggling with emotional or physical pain. Do we block out the negative realities for a month so we can really get in the spirit? Do we submerge ourselves in charity work and donations until we are exhausted and impatient with our children’s toy requests and candy-cane consumption?
I recently discovered my personal answer to these questions of how to live Christmas and marry its joy to the world’s realities. I found my role model and cheerleader in Mary, Christ’s unwed teenage mother from the wrong side of the tracks. Mary is no “meek and mild” chica; she is tough and focused as well as graceful and determined. One would have to be resilient to accept a miraculous pregnancy in the midst of a culture that stoned unwed mothers to death or chased them out of town to live (and die)alone in the desert. Mary’s song is found in Luke (1:46-55) and is sometimes called the Magnificat because she says her soul magnifies the lord (magnificat in Latin). Here is what she says:
English (The Divine Office):
My soul glorifies (magnifies) the Lord, *
my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour.
He looks on his servant in her lowliness; *
henceforth all ages will call me blessed.
The Almighty works marvels for me. *
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age, *
on those who fear him.
He puts forth his arm in strength *
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones *
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things, *
sends the rich away empty.
He protects Israel, his servant, *
remembering his mercy,
the mercy promised to our fathers. *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificat
Mary not only accepts the tremendous burden placed on her by God – to carry and raise a child when she is young, poor and unmarried - but she accepts joyously and with a sense of purpose, recognizing that her mission is vital to the success of good over evil. Mary also sees that the world must change and seems to suspect that her son will be doing the scattering of the proud-hearted, the casting of the mighty from their thrones, the feeding of the hungry and the rejecting of the rich. Yet she has her own role to perform, one that is mission-critical.
We all have some such critical mission (though I’m hoping that I’m done with infancy, myself). Jesus was born to show us how to live but his arrival did not solve all humanity’s problems, did not iron out the wrinkles of our existence. We have a lot of work to do to fulfill the promise and joyous spirit of the holidays. There is a call and an admonition in the songs of Christmas if we are willing to hear them. In “O Holy Night” the lyricist wrote “Change shall He bring, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression must cease.” That message was written for us; we are the chosen to end oppression, feed the hungry and accept the responsibility God lays on us. I feel great joy that our role model exists, that our Jesus came, but I can celebrate with a more lasting and steadfast joy when I acknowledge the charge laid on us by the arrival of the baby. Our mission: to bring about change, to work for peace, love, justice and joy for all peoples not only now but every day of the year, all of our years. Should we choose to accept it.
"Everybody's talking about President Obama's speech last night. He's sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Right now, in Scandinavia, the Nobel Committee is really rethinking the wholepeace prize." -Craig Ferguson
Today is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, yesterday was the second Sunday in Advent – a period in the Christian calendar where we prayerfully practice waiting for the birth of Jesus - and the theme of the service was Peace. My innards have been twisting recently when talk turns to peace, or rather, as it turned to talk of war (again). Though I voted for and support President Obama, I am deeply saddened by the decision to send 30,000 more beloved individuals into harm’s way in Afghanistan. Ferguson’s comment (above) was no doubt meant to be funny; I found it quite painful. The Peace Prize supposedly goes to people who dedicate and risk their lives to further the cause of peace, not those who extend resources to the killing and destruction that war brings.
Over the past few years certain members of Congress have advocated forming a Department of Peace (http://www.thepeacealliance.org/content/view/278/23/), to promote the efforts and development that are proven to bring stability to diverse regions around the world. What a wonderful idea, to not merely protest war but to advocate construction of peace. For certainly there is a misapprehension that peace is the absence of war, requiring only a chance (as in “give peace a chance”) to succeed. One need only look at the past 100 years of human history to see that human natures do not lend themselves to peace, that friction, impatience and anger are the first and easy options. In order to short-circuit these tendencies we must work hard. Peace requires more effort than war, not less.
I think of how to explain war to my children, who play at battles and fighting easily as all children seem to do. They certainly do not understand the implications of real war: how one’s opponents in this war could turn out to be allies in the next, how publics are manipulated by propaganda and outright untruths to support war efforts, and how innocent children in another land could turn out to be “collateral damage” in our pursuit of national interests. I read a story once of a father who was driving his two children to dinner when they asked him to explain how wars got started. He said, “I’ll have to think about that for a minute,” and while he was pondering the appropriate language they began to argue in the backseat. The fight escalated until the father pulled over and said, “now that is how all wars begin.”
In raising children I am intimately aware of how difficult it is to hold my temper when their defiance and chaos obscures my own sense of peace. I realize that keeping peace between nations is so much more difficult and nuanced, but it is worth the effort. This week of Advent I will pray for peace, in my heart, in my home, and around the world.
"The great gift of family life is to be intimately acquainted with people you might never even introduce yourself to, had life not done it for you." – Kendall Hailey
Yesterday I was indulging my coffee addiction at Peet's Coffee and the server who made my caffe freddo cheerfully handed it to me, saying, "Here you go, Gloria - have a great day!" Though I must have temporarily lost my powers of enunciation when I told her the drink was for 'Laura" I was secretly delighted at this permutation. What better name to be called by at this time of the season? (I am thinking of using it as a nom de plume.) Certainly I felt like giving thanks and glory yesterday as we celebrated the safe return of our family from a five-day Thanksgiving trip to visit with my husband's side of the family in Ohio.
Traveling at this time of the year gives me near-panic attacks and shortens certain key facets of life (conversations, attention span, temper) while magically lengthening other, more unpleasant items (to-do lists, laundry piles, time spent in airports). Every time we leave to go anywhere else for the holidays I ponder the trade-offs of the travel. The give-and-take has changed over the past ten years as we evolved from a young couple with no children to a harried couple with babies to a middle-aged couple with three school-aged children. In the beginning we took it for granted that we would travel to family at every opportunity, having both grown up in large families we needed the crowded kitchens, teasing banter and shared sleeping quarters to fulfill our holiday needs.
Traveling with babies made the jaunt much more difficult. Lugging carseats, strollers and diaper bags through airports is more challenging than an Olympic-distance triathlon and changing a baby's time zone and schedule guarantees one a sleepless holiday (never to be confused with a vacation). But we were still desperate for family, for their love and support and for the miraculous beginning of their relationships with our newest member. Now the dynamic has changed again; we have a loving community here, a church home and our own few rituals and habits that the children embrace. Travel itself is not so difficult but as we sink roots in this place it is harder to transplant ourselves to journey through winter weather, carrying and receiving germs as well as presents, and worrying about how to feed our gluten- and dairy-averse family.
I pondered these dynamics while packing and transporting our family 1000+ miles to Ohio last week, keeping my eyes and my mind open to register the benefits for our slightly older children. I did not have to look far to see delight: my mother-in-law's happy face when we arrived (past one in the morning) the children's joy at seeing her and their grandfather. My son's magnetic attraction to his young uncle, my daughter's pleasure at helping her great-grandmother trim the Christmas tree. The easy conversations at Thanksgiving brunch where we attempted to catch up on the news of the past year, knowing we could never get it all but comfortable with the attempt and with the promise to see one another next summer. The pleasure of viewing a different landscape: factory towns and farms, 100-year-old barns, naked forks of forest trees abrading a low cloud cover. Amish buggies a delight for the children, being able to jog every day, relaxing our TV rule to watch movies, football, parades.
Most of all I thought about how fortunate we are to have these folks in our lives. Where else can our children go and see walls of photos reflecting their images from babyhood to now, elbowing out aging frames with images of their dad and uncles at all ages, both of the above peeking out occasionally from their own artwork, regarded as masterpieces by this uncritical audience. Uncles, aunts and cousins - good people with different life experiences than our adopted family and friends in suburban Denver - bringing their perspectives to our lives, their support and love to structure our holidays. Though occasionally I think wistfully of saving credit card airline miles for a trip to Costa Rica, I have to be honest in admitting that a trip to Ohio is worth more to my children. Their history is there - the border of the crazy quilt that is forming with their life experiences. Gloria, indeed.