Friday, December 24, 2010

On The Red Eye to Bethlehem

The following is an account of the first fight I had with my husband.  Really.  A shorter version with me reading the story aired Christmas Eve on our local NPR station - KUT, 90.5, in Austin. 

December 1974.  Our first Christmas together.  We are young, in love, and mostly broke. There are no presents under the tree.  In fact, there is no tree, just a hand-me-down creche that I pull from a tattered Sears box stuffed in the back of the closet.  My sweetie plays a Dylan-esque version of Silent Night on his guitar, and I sing along while unwrapping Joseph and Mary and the smiling baby Jesus with the golden halo circling above his blond curls.

Silent Night, Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright. 

I carefully shred a brown paper bag to give the manger scene a hay-filled barn look, then place the cattle who are lowing, the sheep who are following the shepherds, and the star that is guiding all to the beautiful babe in their proper places.  Next – the wise men, who I line up, of course, in order of their gifts:  guy with the treasure box first - gold... funny lantern looking carrier next – guy with the perfume bottle last – myrrh.

Holy infant so tender and mild…
The guitar tempo slows as I go for the heavenly peace high note.  My sweet serenader stops playing.  

“The wise men weren't there, you know.”  he says, looking at me with a touch of smugness that does NOT make him attractive to me at all. 

"Ha Ha," I say.  "They followed the star and found the babe lying in a manger and brought him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh."  I try my best to mimic the smug look. 

“Actually, the wise men were sent out by Herod after the buzz about a new Savior hit the streets...remember?  'Go and find the child so I can worship him too?’”  The words are familiar…his mocking tone is not.  “You don't think they flew on red-eyes to get to Bethlehem, do you?” 

I glare at my beautiful, boy-faced sweetheart.  And I tell him to shut up.  “The wise men are always there,” I say.  “Every church in America lines up the wise men on front lawns and altars.  Surely you are not suggesting the church – God's Holy Church – has been misrepresenting the story for all of history.”
“Yes,” he says with confidence.  “That is precisely what I'm suggesting.”  And then he goes on to announce that the Holy family’s lodging was more like a cave than a barn so I can probably toss the paper shreds and sprinkle some gravel from the driveway around instead.

A huge fight ensues.  There is swearing and a bit of name-calling.  There is a frustrated swing at Wise Man Number 2, which renders him giftless.  There is pouting and re-packing the creche and no good-night kiss.
I feel quite betrayed. 

35 Christmases have come and gone...

We have found an honest group of people who find their way to God through the stories of Jesus.  As a community of faith, we have worked hard together to turn away from the lies churches tell.  We do not believe there is only one path to the heart of the Holy.  We do not believe a church should make decisions on behalf of pregnant women in crisis or people who come to this country in crisis or registered voters.  We do not think God hates gay people or Muslim people or even the people who hate us because of our inclusive views.

But, come Christmas eve, danged if we don't find the church altar flanked by those wise men standing in the queue with their gifts, ready to gaze into the face of our sweet little Anglo baby Jesus with the gold-painted halo. 

It's not a lie, I whisper to my husband every year over the first measures of Silent's tradition. 

Peace all.  And Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Baby Changes Everything

While the entire Christian world turns its attention this week to a sweet and quiet baby glowing in the light of a star, surrounded by adoring parents and calm animals, I hear a voice in my head saying, "Who missed the part about this being a baby?"

The story seems to be retold year after year as a reminder to us that God was willing to be tender and vulnerable and well, so easy, arriving among us as the most innocent form of life.  Just review the words to Away in a Manger for evidence that the baby we've uncovered in a livestock pen in Bethlehem all these years turns out to be something of a non-human phenom.  

If this is a real baby...the kind of human who won't let you sit down to dinner until it is cold, keeps you up all night and day with needs you can't quite decipher, delights in one moment with a smile and terrifies in the next with a howl...then what's the deal with all the references to silent nights and no crying and let nothing you dismay?

Babies change everything.  The way we sleep and eat and talk and dream.  The way we view the world, our family, and even the electrical outlets we stopped thinking about the minute after we plugged in the TV.  They are the ultimate show-stoppers, heart-stealers, and home wreckers.  They turn our worlds upside down. Nothing is ever the same. 

What parent doesn't know this?

I must confess, I have no time for the demands of a baby this week. I mean, it's Christmas the day after tomorrow.  There is no room on the schedule for sickness or sadness or a broken heart or a wounded spirit. baby behavior.  I have too much to do. 

Unfortunately, this is not a Christmas condition of mine - it is the way of my days.  Don't let me see that needy person on the corner or that hungry child on TV or the tears gathering in a friend's eyes.  I don't want to hear how many people died in Afghanistan today or how difficult it is to find clean water in Sudan or that the soup kitchen 8 miles from my front door needs volunteers.

Please world...stop being a baby.

As I ponder my Christian tradition on this Christmas Eve Eve, I cannot get past the clear image of God as a crying, hungry, 100% needy baby.   Oh my.  And even when God was all grown up, the story tells us these words were spoken:  When you do something for the least of these among you, you have done it for me. 

In other words, it seems, pay attention to the baby. 

Could it be that peace really was born on Christmas?

The baby is crying.

Why haven't we picked him up?