Over the noon hour I spoke to a group of men and women from across Phoenix who deeply care about their city, and month by month come together to think and pray, to talk and talk some more, before they go out into the Valley of the Sun for another try at the flourishing of the city, taking up the complexity of its social and educational institutions, its economic hopes and dreams, its heartaches with names like homelessness and joblessness and mental illness.
The folks who invited me asked if I would take up the the question of “making peace with the proximate,” something that is written deeply into my life these days. As they said, “These are people who have cared, and are worn down and out. But they want to keep at, they want to keep engaged.” So I began with a reflection on our tendency to romanticize the days of December, making them be about things that they never were nor can be.
I read aloud the headlines from the New York Times yesterday morning, from the front page on through the first section, with story after story of tragedy and sorrow, cities and societies broken and wounded all over the face of the earth. Does Christmas have anything honest to say about that world, about our world?
Because Steve Turner is one of my favorite poets, I read his poem, “Christmas is Really for the Children” as a way in. His poetry has long promised to be for people who feel that poetry has forgotten them, artfully inviting us to see ourselves and the world in very different ways. (See below.)
And then I talked about my friends and neighbors, Todd Deatherage and Mark Rodgers, specially our decision to live a common life, committed to common ends, stretched taut as we are between what we long for and what is. Because this is Advent, I told about my question earlier this week, asking them both, “What do you do with your life and labor this week, in the face of the fallenness that sometimes seems overwhelming?” For Mark, it was about his persistent, patient work on the film, “Silence,” the novel by Shusaku Endo that is being made into a movie by Martin Scorcese. One of the most difficult of all stories ever written, the question Endo asks: is God silent in the face of suffering? Silence is an eerie word, a stark and sober word– Mark, does Christmas have anything to say about that? And for Todd whose days are filled with the deep-seated tensions of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, one that runs back through thousands of years, “What does ‘peace on earth and goodwill to men’ possibly mean this week, this month?”
We spent the rest of our time thinking about living in the tension of this now-but-not-yet world; but as Todd recently put it, “Some days it seems like there is a lot more ‘not yet’ than ‘now.’” We all know that, feeling it deeply in our souls.
And we concluded with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, wondering about the epiphany of Ebenezer Scrooge, who after a lifetime of not seeing the world truthfully, awoke with eyes to see— and some things began to change in the world around him. Not all heartache, not every longing, but something right and true and fair began to happen.
More was said, mostly about the vocation that is ours to know and to love the world, having to make peace with the proximate, if we want to keep on keeping on. Is doing something worth it? If all that is needed isn’t done, if all that is wanted doesn’t happen, is some justice, some mercy, worthy of our lives?
Nothing cheap, because nothing cheap can be said. As I left, one man put his arm around my shoulders, and said to me, “Thank you for being honest.” Yes, but what else can we be? what else would we want to be?
And without any one of us knowing, at the very time we were thinking together about the hopes and fears of all the years being bound up in our deepest beliefs about God and the world, a horror was happening in San Bernardino— one more day, one more tragedy, one more reason to groan with all of creation for what is so very broken in us and our world.
Yes, Christmas has to be about more than swaddling clothes. It must be.
(Written yesterday, on the plane coming home from Phoenix.)
“Christmas is Really for the Children”
by Steve Turner
Christmas is really for the children.
Especially for children who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men, kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really for the children
unless accompanied by a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails, a spear and allegations of body snatching.
It involves politics, God and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop of spring.
Or they’d do better to wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up or whether there’s any connection.