Tuesday, November 29, 2011

This Advent, I'm waiting for Godot

It takes going into a CVS drugstore, asking an employee where they have their Advent calendars and being met with a blank stare and a quizzical "an Advent calendar?" to realize that yes, Virginia, we live in a post-Christian era and there is no Santa Claus. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a conservative evangelical trying to "put Christ back in Christmas." I have other reasons for shopping for an Advent calendar (more on this later), but still, I am shocked.

It's as if I went up to a hot-dog stand and asked for a frankfurter and got "a frankfurter?" as a startled reply. The glue that holds a society together is a body of common knowledge that needs no explanation.

It wasn't that long ago that most people knew—as they had for about 1,500 years—that Advent is the season before Christmas. Named from the Latin adventus, meaning "coming," the season is observed by Christian churches in preparation for the feast of the birth of Jesus, traditionally celebrated by a Mass on that day, known in medieval England as Christesmas.

You knew at least some part of this, right?

Of course, there never was a Santa Claus, and one could debate whether there was a Jesus of Nazareth. If there was, he was certainly born one unknown day. In the second century of our era those in the know thought he had been born in the summer, say June. The celebration of Christmas, one of the lesser and most recent of the feasts in the Christian calendar, was purposely assigned a day in the middle of solstice debauchery associated with pagan and Roman gods.

Just as Lent was marked early on as a period of expectation for Easter—historically the first and most important of the Christian feasts—Advent came into being as a period of awaiting Christmas, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

The Advent calendar is a Lutheran tradition, mostly for children. Physically it is a large rectangular card with 25 "windows," one for each day of December leading up to Christmas and one for the feast itself. Some have little boxes with candy or trinkets behind each window.

Like the Christmas tree it is not, strictly speaking, a Christian artifact. It's just, as a Jewish friend of mine said, one more item in a "heavily accessorized religion."

Why does someone who vaguely believes in God, go out looking for an Advent calendar? Because the idea of awaiting the birth of some presence of God is pleasant, even if it is only in one's heart, and even if it is based on an unproven, largely mythical, story. So sue me.

Now, does anyone know where I can find an Advent calendar?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What heaven was, what it could be

Heaven was always to me the afterlife alternative to hell. Now comes Justin Moore's "If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away" to speak of heaven as the afterlife itself. Indeed, what kind of being would God be if she consigned anyone to hell?

Let's be clear. I know full well that the mature Christian understanding of heaven is of unimaginably joyful wonder in the presence of the God for whom we have yearned in every yen, want and lust; and hell as the prison of one's own unfulfilled obsessive anxieties.

Until recently, I always despised the twangy, syrupy sound and simplistic lyrics of country music. I still dislike the sneaky conservative and low-church evangelical agenda of some singers. I cannot be proud of where I was born, since I had nothing to do with that; and heaven deliver us from "bahble"-based values, such as hypocrisy, self-righteousness and hateful looking down on others.

In recent times, however, rediscovering God as wonderful beyond imagination, creed or philosophical system, I find the old theological categories I discarded years ago useless. I'm not convinced by Christian moral theology, much less its teleology's heaven.

Moore provides a more palatable image when he sings of packing up the kids and driving to heaven for a day to introduce them to their grandpa. (I once woke up with precisely that thought.)

He touches markers familiar to Baby Boomers: Vietnam and those who died too young. He also evokes the intimacies of Everyman, imagining meeting with his deceased bird dog Bo (a bow to the President Obama's daughters?) to go "huntin' one more time."

It's a heaven so close you can go there for the day and drive back. A heaven I could believe in, with healing and recovery and laugh and love. Amen.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Death Day" was 31 years ago

I remember it clearly. I was sleeping in southern California. I'd been to a farmworker camp the day before and planned to discuss my moving experience with my father when I got back to Washington. Persistent ringing. Who in hell ...? It's 6:30 am! I was awake. 

I had to go to the rectory ASAP. I was staying at a church facility in San Bernardino. Only nuns and priests would call me out of my slumber at six-effing-thirty. I was told to call home.

No answer. My wife was pregnant: had anything gone wrong? Because "wrong" was beginning to be the word rising up in my mind. Something was ... um ... askew. But it was six-effing-thirty, maybe 6:45 by then.

Called my mother-in-law. "Your father is dead."

The priest and a nun were looking at me as my face crumpled and I set down the phone. Everyone seemed to be speaking to me at once and I just ran out of the building and out to an avenue and lit a cigarette.

Nobody walks on sidewalks in California. Certainly not that early in the morning.

I returned, let me be sleepwalked to the airport and to an all-day cross-country odyssey to ... what? To confront the debris of my father's life, ended at 59 years of age and nearly 10 months. Five months older than my age today, 31 years later.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

No more stasis

There's a time for everything under the heavens, wrote the much-quoted and little-known Qoheleth. This time is the time to break out of stasis, to do something about the lingering global economic toothache, to speak up one's frustrations, act on needs, think of solutions.

I've been studiously avoiding saying a word about the Occupy movement and the various bits of startling economic news, in part for professional reasons, in part because I have so very little to say that others aren't already saying.

I don't think it's too sectarian to see in all of them signs that the reign of God is "at hand." Although I borrow from the New Testament, when I say "God," I mean the unimaginably wondrous one who is the ground of all being. Of whom I can say next to nothing otherwise. Similarly, her reign is as unfathomable as herself, except that it is exceptionally different from everything as we know it and would be as much of a surprise as meeting her face to face.

I think this is the message of the Occupy movement: the order of things wants changing. To what, ask the pundits?

We are slouching toward something that reaches out to all and in some way gathers us all in the folds of God's robe and the warmth of her breast. The new arrangement calls for a world of loving, caring, respecting, life giving, all flowing from us with abandon without thought for tomorrow, for efficiency or for gain.

We just need to begin to live in it, like OWS, ready to weather weather, cops, anything, all with the expectation that everyone will be provided for and fed.

Friday, November 04, 2011

I don't believe to get to Heaven

"Profit," probably "benefit" in the original French, is the most common reason given by Brother Lawrence, a seventeenth century Carmelite, for living "in the presence of God" (or roughly in utter contemplation and obedience). It's a common theological transaction.

You believe in God to get saved or to get to heaven or experience blessings, or whatever -- all of it by and by, because everything here and now remains as nasty and brutish as ever, and you are no better. "Primitive" people (unlike those about to destroy the planet today) danced to the gods for rain and ate the flesh of others.

In my many years of religious belief I never believed for that reason. Nor do I now, when I find religion highly questionable and at heart ignorant of God's unimaginable wonder.

A believer I know says this is my, and her, arrogance. Probably it is.

I probably think myself above the salvation crap that satisfies the religious rabble. The hoi polloi can pray to get a parking space, a good grade, a good job, a spouse, a house with a white picket fence, a painless death and the 70 virgins in Islamic heaven. Not me.

I don't think God is a reality "for me," in the relativist sense that things can be true for me, but not others. This is the same as saying there are 7 billion unique universes with entirely different laws of gravity, each depending on the personality of the human being at its center.

Nor do I think that God wastes too much time on whether I get a convenient parking spot. I usually do ... people say I have "parking karma." Or maybe, to borrow from Justine Labalestier, I have a parking fairy.

One would think that's not God lavishing her bounty on me. God has better things to do, or not do (she hasn't told me which) ... that do not include monitoring whether I masturbate, lie, steal, cheat, etc., all of which I surely have done at one time or another.

The truth I find plausible isn't so because I find it convenient, indeed downright profitable. Just a right and wrong aren't determined by what I choose, or are biochemically impelled, to do.

To my mind the truth I posit as true and the good I propose as good is quite independent of where I "go" after death, other than, say, the crematorium. Or where I park my car.