The Subversiveness of Our Wish-List

Despite nostalgic protestations, do we really want to “Keep Christ in Christmas”? Do we realize how subversive that would be to so many of the social customs and family traditions in which we revel at this time of year?  At some deep, desperate level I want to believe we do!

Have we so domesticated the story of Jesus’ birth that we fail to recognize how Christmas really turns our world on its head? Virgin birth? God becoming human? No room in the inn? Birth in a manger. The people in darkness see a great light?

Instead of Christ’s birth truly liberating us, saving us, transforming us; we seem to have turned the original story inside-out and up-side-down. Instead of being the story of our salvation, many if not most of our social customs and religious practices exonerate false gods and verge on a practical atheism.

I have absolutely no valid evidence to make the following claim, but I have a hunch. My gut tells me that the very people who feverishly “worship” at the Twin Cities’ temple of American consumerism — our world famous Mall of America attracts more visitors each year than Disneyland! — are the very people who most vehemently protest to “Keep Christ in Christmas!” Yes, such is the state of our cultural agnosticism, our alienation from the true revelation of the Christmas story.

This is not meant to throw cold water on our family gatherings and holiday revelry. In no way do I want to be Scrooge or an old-curmudgeon! But let us at least acknowledge that we too are a people who walk in darkness. We too reside in a world in desperate need of a savior. Such is the basis for an even more celebratory Christmas, our recognition of the sheer gratuity of this grace-filled season.

Each faltering impulse, every nostalgic appeal, to “Keep Christ in Christmas” is truly an expression of a deeper personal and collective need — our persistent yearning for a savior, one other than ourselves to keep us from drowning in frenetic consumption and feverish idolatry, to bring us back to the truth of who we are as human beings.

Onto such as these — us — a child is given, a son is born, who is Christ the Lord.

Please Take Care of the Children

Three simple thoughts from sitting on a plane in China…

When giving the safety instructions — first in Chinese, then in English — the flight attendants on Air China routinely include the phase, “Please take care of the children.” How different that sounds than the American directive, “Put your own mask on first, then assist others.” Hmmm! What would it be like if we more regularly and routinely heard ourselves saying, “Please take care of the children.”?

How gently and generously we must enter another culture and contextualize our own! On a flight from Beijing to Shanghai I overheard a man in the row behind explaining an intervention he made at a business reception the evening before. His hosts were about to open a bottle of champagne with a cork screw. Even with the best of intentions, we often don’t understand what we are doing. Gracious humility goes a long way.

On the same flight from Beijing to Shanghai we did not even begin the boarding process until the scheduled time of departure. Once everyone was seated and buckled-up we then sat on the runway for an additional hour and fifteen minutes. Why? The extreme pollution blanketing the city decreased visibility to a few hundred yards. This was more than an annoying inconvenience. It was a stark reminder that we are literally choking ourselves with inaction on climate change.

Yes, what would it be like if we more regularly and routinely heard ourselves saying, “Please take care of the children.”?

Off ’til December 15

Thanks to many of you who are faithful readers.  You should know that I will be occupied with other things for the next two weeks — I’m off to China with my 14 y/o grandnephew and namesake.  Leaving the home front under the able and watchful care of my husband and Jeb the Dog!  This site will likely go silent until at least until December 15.  Again, thank for you interest in Kneading Bread.

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.

Guilty As Charged

Ever been called a heretic? “Them’s fightin’ words” where I come from. Well, something just said wasn’t a direct accusation of me but struck enough of a cord to make me squirm.

Of course, the heresy to which many of us are prone is as old as Christianity. Variations are so endemic to our human psyche they undoubtedly pre-date Christianity and exist in all great world religions.

An especially virulent outbreak is chronicled in the fourth century fights between the monk, Pelagius and St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo. It flared to epidemic proportions again in the “works righteousness” controversy of the Protestant Reformation. We haven’t resolved it and it hasn’t gone away.

Truly, it’s not about ancient history or abstract theology. I recognize the perversion inside me. It resides in each of us and in our faith communities, even if dormant.

“Pelagianism” distorts our sense of right and wrong.  It distracts us from what really matters, leads us to be judgmental of others, and disguises a self-righteous attitude. Yes, indeed, “them’s fightin’ words!”

Today Pope Francis admonished the bishops of Italy against a temptation to Pelagianism. As will any authentic proclamation of the Gospel it applies to all of us, not just to bishops:

Pelagianism brings us to have faith in structures, organisations, and plans that are perfect because [they are] abstract. Sometimes it even leads us to adopt a controlling, tough and prescriptive attitude. The law gives the Pelagian a certain sense of superiority… And it makes its seem as though [the Christian] is doing a good deed.

Francis’ morning admonition, directed to all of us, conveys a sense of urgency in light of the pressing challenges and urgent needs facing our world today:

[I]t is no good seeking solutions in conservative or fundamentalist attitudes, in the revival of types of conduct and forms that are dated and that lack a capacity to be significant even culturally. Christian doctrine is not a closed doctrine that is incapable of generating questions, doubts, queries but it is alive and able to unsettle and enliven people. It has a face that is not rigid, a body that moves and grows and a tender flesh: it is called Jesus Christ.

His is the way of humility, selflessness, the Beatitudes. This makes me squirm. I have to confess that it’s a whole lot easier living within the comfort and certainty of my self-righteous heresy.
My source is the news service, Vatican Voices. The report is available [here].  The bold print in the final quote is mine for emphasis.

We All Have One

My friend Susan Stabile has a most interesting spiritual pedigree. She is a professor and faculty fellow for spiritual development at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. That’s impressive. But what makes her so spiritually fascinating is that she lived in Asia as an ordained Buddhist nun in her early thirties. Needless to say, she does not fit the stereotypical model of your good Italian Catholic girl from Brooklyn!

While on the law faculty at St. John’s University in Jamaica Plains, NY she approached a Vincentian and asked his suggestion for something that might be helpful as she struggled with her conversion from Buddhism back to Christianity. Without hesitation he recommended Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Richard Rohlheiser. I, too, remember my sheer delight in coming upon the book — clearly one of the best I’ve ever read!

Susan is now leading a three-session discussion of this modern classic at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis. She offers important and encouraging wisdom today on her blog, Creo en Dios from last evening’s session:

For Rolheiser, spirituality is about what we do with the desire that is deep within each of our hearts. And that means that “[s]pirituality is not something on the fringes, an option for those with a particular bent. None of us has a choice. Everyone has to have a spirituality and everyone does have one, either a life-giving one or a destructive one.” Thus, he describes each of Mother Teresa, Janis Joplin and Princess Diana as spiritual – albeit in very different ways.

The question then, is not whether we will be spiritual, but whether our spirituality is a healthy one, that is, one that leads us to “do things which keep us energized and integrated, on fire and yet glued together.” Conversely, he suggests, “if our yearning drives us into actions which harden our insides or cause us to fall apart and die then we have an unhealthy spirituality.”

Amen, to that! If you care to read more by Susan Stabile, perhaps even follow her on Creo en Dios, you may go to her blog site [here].