Monday, December 26, 2011

O if we but knew what we do / When we delve and hew

Below is a dream and interpretation I had January 2011

I was at Gardner-Webb University where I recently graduated and, at the time of this dream, worked and lived, but the scenery was my elementary school in Friendship, Maine. I walked to the back of the small-town school and saw machines at work cutting down trees.

I was aghast. I went to the other side of the playground where I saw a lady preparing a chainsaw to cut down a tree whose width spoke of its age, but whose height invited a good climb or friendly shade on a hot summer's day. I screamed at the lady, "You have no heart!"

Two other ladies were standing near me, guarding the area. The elder was Lois Lash, my third-grade teacher and my church's choir director from when I was kid until the past year or so. The younger was her daughter, Carol Ehle, the church's pianist for as long as I can remember. She is also mother to a neighborhood boy my age with whom I went to school and participated in band and academic events. They looked at me with such surprise, wondering how such terrible words could come from the mouth of a man who was once a young angel of the church, a young man with whom they worked many hours for the church's music.

They were disgusted with me and so I explained to them how wonderful the trees are, for aesthetics, for shade, for the homes of animals, and for the very air we breathe. Despite my reasoning, they stood as still in their ways as the sentries of the Queen's Guard in England. Their foundation was firm and they faltered and wavered not.

So I watched the austere, heartless woman cut down the tree with her chainsaw. In the heaviness of the moment, a crowd gathered. I became anxious, claustrophobic. I was being pressed against a pole of a swing-set. I started to push myself from the pole when two men grabbed me and carried me away.

Scared out of my mind, the men dropped me off at the basketball court, one of the boundaries of our recesses when in elementary school. They wanted me to leave, to stop causing trouble. Before I could interact with them anymore, I woke up to my phone vibrating on the windowsill above my head.

Trees are sacred symbols. They aid us in worship. They provide us shelter and furniture. I look to them and I see us in their seasonal phases of life and death, their ubiquity, their diversity. It is hard for me to see them cut down, although I understand why we cut them. Still, the thought of cutting down a tree before its time gives me pause. In the words of G. M. Hopkins, "O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew -- / Hack and rack the growing green!" ("Binsey Poplars")

Considering my dream, I first thought of them as symbols of justice, diverse, strong, and good for life. I was watching a woman destroy something for which I stood, a long-standing tree of my faith. Not only was the tree wide with age, but also at a place marking bookends of my life. The scenery was my elementary school, a place I first began to learn about ecojustice, although I understood the area as my current home, a place where my love for the earth was re-inspired.

In one of my less tactful moments, I told her she had no heart for injustices hurt people. I could not believe she would cut down such an obviously wonderful truth. At least, the truth is so obvious to me. Two pillars of the faith community from which I grew stood as still as trees not seeing what I thought was obvious.

With the injustice committed, with the tree of my affection gone, I felt alone in the masses. People from my past, present, and future are all around me, yet I do not feel safe because I think differently, appreciate different things. I am growing and changing like the trees. Will I be cut down, too? Will my life be cut short, because the acorn has fallen a little too far from the tree?

Anxious, claustrophobic, I felt I would die if I did not push against the grain of the crowd coming in on me. In my dream, my life was cut off, in a sense. I was cut off, exiled from the people by two strong men. The anima and the animus have ousted me, one ignoring me and the other removing me. I am rejected and I awake, thrust away from the subconscious mingling of past, present, and future, and forced once again into the conscious present, left on the margins of recess.

The tree was not simply a justice for which I stand. The tree stood for still more than just the people I know who are hurt and oppressed by the injustices of felling such trees, left not to be themselves, but a haunting visage of who they could be in a just society. The tree was also me, falling when he cannot stand to see others fall, falling with them and going with them to the fire. The tree was me, dealing with the potential end of my formal education, watching others and wondering if I can join in. The tree was me dealing with the rejection of women and men as I apply for jobs.

The tree is me and the tree is you, co-inheritors of the sins of others. Whether we wield the chainsaw, yell slurs, stand guard, or watch, we reap what we sew and what others sew, be it a cut tree, the evil deeds of capitalism, or the hodgepodge donations of surplus. Like a forest, we are all in this life and on this earth together. We might fall when we sin and we might fall when others sin, but one day we will fall.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas According to Mark: A Deconstructing Advent & Christmas

I'm normally very bitter about Christmas. I don't like crowds, shopping, and gimmicks. However, being a Scrooge is no fun.

Instead, I have been rethinking the Advent and Christmas season a little bit, as reflected in my two previous posts. This morning I was thinking about Advent again. The Advent wreath contains four candles arranged in a circle and one candle in the center of that circle. Often times when I think of circles, I think of Jacques Derrida who noted how circles are defined by a center, but the center is not part of the line that is the circle. In effect, the center is something transcendent to the circle ("Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences").

The concept of center is, well, central to how we understand Advent, Christmas, and life in general. Around the Advent wreath are candles representing hope, peace, joy, and love, concepts connected like radii to the center of the circle, connected to Christ and Christmas through the stories of Jesus's birth.

And already the circle is starting to re-de-fine and un-define. There are multiple Christmas stories, stories of Christ being born in and to humanity in Jesus. There is the story in Matthew, the story in Luke, the baptism of Jesus in Mark, and the abstract story in John, not to mention a number of stories that never made it into the canon.

I'm particularly interested in the stories that aren't birth narratives, but tell of Jesus' coming to Earth. The book of Mark opens: "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." According to Mark, the Good News of Christianity has nothing to do with Christmas, which is an understanding of Jesus, Christ, and the Gospel quite contrary to the portrayal in Matthew, Luke, the Nicene Creed, and the month of preparation Christians have observed for centuries, not to mention the long celebrations of the US "Christmas season."

If the author(s) of Mark were to celebrate Advent, they wouldn't be waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but rather the coming of Christ's movement in the life of people. For Mark, this coming didn't happen when Jesus was born, but rather when Jesus was baptized, reborn not of man and woman, but of God solely. In this story, Jesus' virgin birth was of God, not Mary.

And thus, Advent and Christmas are de-centered. Hope, peace, joy, and love are no longer connected to Christ through the generally-accepted reconstruction and assimilation of the stories Christmas. They may still be connected to Christ, but Jesus as the Christ--"born of the Virgin Mary"--is no longer that which defines them for this or any season.

Since deconstruction is not destruction, a de-centering of Advent and Christmas is not an end to Advent and Christmas. Advent can still be a season of anticipation--of hope, peace, joy, love, and Christ. A deconstructed Advent sees the themes inevitably and forever interconnected and interdependent, instead of four dependent on the one. Furthermore, a deconstructed Advent will embrace the interplay of anticipating and receiving, the already and the not-yet, of God's absence and presence, and of absence in presence in relation to hope, peace, joy, and love.

Christmas deconstruction will re-remember Christ in the various aspects and stories of Christ's "beginning" on earth, a beginning lacking an originary event. That is, Christ never came, but has always been coming and has always been here (to use some more deconstruction terms: a "hauntology" of Christmas in the "aporia" between presence/absence).

A deconstructing Christmas is one where "God so loved the world," not "God so loved all the people I love." Christmas would then lose and gain significance. It would lose the significance of gift-giving to those we love and being with those you love, it would no longer be a holy day (holiday), a day set apart and other than the rest of the days, because it would give significance to the rest of the days of the year by recognizing the Other and Otherness by asking for generosity, for hope, for peace, for joy, for love, for Christ, for "the Christmas spirit," to be a year-round thing, so these things are born every minute, not once a year.

A deconstructing Christmas would be an active holiday where significance needs to be created, not inherited. For all of these abstract terms--generosity, hope, peace, joy, love, Christ, Advent, Christmas--are merely abstract terms with no center defining. If we are to use them at Christmas or ever, they need to be embodied. Words don't mean, they are given meaning.

And so it was in Mark with Jesus. Jesus wasn't born the Christ. Jesus became the Christ by giving that term meaning--that was the beginning of the good news. Christmas is a time not only to remember, but to actively remember by continuing to create meaning for Christ, by continuing to create Christ, to birth Christ.

Monday, December 5, 2011

This Advent, I'm Not Waiting for Peace: Isaiah 40:1

At this point in the Advent season, tradition emphasizes people waiting for the peace associated with the coming of Christ. As I at least hinted at last week, I believe the real impact of Advent is not waiting for Christ, but embodying the return of Emanuel. When I sing, "O Come, o come Emanuel," I am not singing for a human to come out of the clouds, as if I believed heaven were literally above the sky. Rather, I am singing for God to be born in me, that I might be pregnant with God's transformative love and power. The second coming of Christ is not a one time event to happen in the future. This parousia is a continual event. Like the first advent, this advent consists of Christ being born in humans. But this time, unlike the first, it can happen in all of us, not just in Mary.

In light of this understanding of Advent, I don't wait for peace.
"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.
"Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And clal out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the LORD's hand
Double for all her sins"
A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness;
Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.
Let every valley be lifted up,
And every mountain and hill be made low;
And let the rough ground become a plain,
And the rugged terrain a broad valley;
Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
And all flesh will see it together;
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:1-5)
I am not waiting for peace, because I am making it.

In an attempt to mimic the Hebrew words, Isaiah 40:1 has become hard to understand in English. In the Hebrew, the verb is in a tense known for intensity (Piel). The intensity increases when the word is repeated, not something we do in English. In verse 1, God really wants comforting to happen, given the verb tense.

Apparently comforting is really needed. In v.2, we find out why: "[Jerusalem] has received [...] double for all her sins." Generally one dose of retribution is bad enough, let alone two. For this sort of comforting, generally you expect divine action. The Bible is full of God promising to make up for any sort of suffering of the Israelites, even when it is deserved.

But in this instance, God tells someone else to be the one doing the comforting. Actually, God is telling a group of someones to be comforting; the imperative "comfort" is plural in Hebrew, a construction we don't have in English.

To whom is God talking in the mind of Isaiah the author?

I don't care.

Let's remember that Isaiah or Deutero-Isaiah and Tertiary-Isaiah understood the world like people understood the world before the common era (BC/E). You know, back when it would have been acceptable to think evil existed below us, in the center of the earth.

I don't care who Isaiah thought God was talking to, because God can only be telling us, in reality. A few truths from Isaiah 40:15 are: (A) people need comforting and (B) God wants those people comforted. Who is going to do that comforting? Us, the people of God.

It is no wonder that Isaiah 40:1 echoes the common construction of "your God" and "my people" from "I will be your God and you will be my people." The two concepts are inseparable. If God's people are to be comforted, then God will do it through God's people. It isn't just the concepts that are inseparable. God and God's people are inseparable. God exists in God's people.

"I will be your God and you will be my people." Today's Christianity knows this concept better in the idea of "the body." The Church is the body of Christ. They are one and the same. Inseparable. Interdependent.

Don't wait for the advent of God's peace. Be God's peace. People, let it be born in you.