by Philip Siddons
Joseph still hasn’t shown up.
“Of course” says the pageant director flippantly. “Gabriel? Where’s Gabriel?” she calls to the back of the church over her shoulder. “Gabriel” she musically calls again as if she’s calling her child for only the second time for dinner.
“Oh” Gabriel says from the back of the church as he stumbles hurriedly down the aisle.
“I was showing her how to keep her ribbon on” he explains with more earnestness than the task would normally command.
The director comically tilts her head sideways and says “Ya? . . . ya?” as if to mock him for his failure to be up with the other angels who are, at this point, rolling on the stage floor with the shepherds who are supposed to be asleep on the hillside but have somehow missed their morning dose of Ritalin.®
As speakers number 4 and 5 rapidly mumble through their lines, it’s clear that once again, nobody in the church will hear anyone say anything from the front. The fact is, they’ll be cute and it won’t matter. It’s the doing of the pageant that makes Christmas.
Joseph is still not here and a couple of the angels are missing in action. How many had to show for the original nativity scene? Did God have to have a last minute rehearsal and sit them all down, barking out, “Now during this scene, you can’t talk to the person next to you. And don’t pick your nose. And if see any Gameboys® I’m going to take them away from you and you won’t get them back. So take that back to your parents or you’ll never see it again.”
The director rattles through the order of events once again, obviously confident that their photographic little minds will methodologically and nimbly string the coming sequences of pageant segments together with the precision of Microsoft’s latest video editing program.
The mid-teen Joseph slowly waltzes down the aisle. “Joseph is finally here” the director says with some relief. “We’re glad you made it” she says, softening even more. Perhaps her real life experience of the male absence or unreliability has taught her to work with what she’s got.
Suppose the original Joseph hadn’t shown up and Mary would have to go through the birth alone in the stable? Who would have wiped off the cow drool? Would she have screamed at the weird little drummer boy to go practice anywhere but in the stable – “like go play in the DMZ of the West Bank or something!” she could have blurted out.
OK, so no little drummer preadolescent or any a-rump-pa-pa-dums in the original production.
They should really make this last-minute pageant rehearsal THE pageant. Most of the parents are here anyway and the director’s expectation that this production will be anything other than what it is now (only without her prompting everything and everyone across and off the stage at the right time) is the most spectacular act of faith in the history of Christendom. “Come see a faith that can move mountains” the bulletin board outside of the church should say. People ought to get out of their beds and come here to see the futility of this rehearsal.
The children are herded back to the Sunday School classrooms to change. We expect more of the same to happen only back out of sight. But we know that with the addition of costumes, the in-the-wings nervousness of their peers and a sanctuary packed with their family clan and a host of unknown adults grinning, the volume of their spoken lines will dive down to zero, the prompters’ shouted whispers will be even more embarrassing and the pauses before the hoped-for movements of groups of bathrobed or haloed children will seem painfully strained.
So when central characters didn’t enter stage right in the original production, what did the Almighty do? Whisper little prompts in their hearts? Did Joseph suddenly snap to attention out of a distracted moment and say “Oh yea” after hearing an inner prompt just before lurching over to stand by his wife who had creatively used the cow’s manger for a cradle?
How much stage whispering did the Cosmic Producer of this first nativity have to do to remind Joe and Mary that these overworked and rambunctious contracted sheepherders are supposed to be crashing their barn encampment in the middle of the night and just after the baby finally got to sleep?
“Mary, stop breast-feeding – there’s a bunch of guys coming in here!” Joe probably said.
And later on, not long after their boy would ace His bar mitzvah at the temple and be offered an internship as the youngest teaching assistant in the history of the temple’s education department – why did Joseph disappear?
Did all the pressures of being the parent of a icon drive him to drink?
Maybe Joe had a gambling problem and when the young Jesus started turning angry bully’s thrown rocks into birds before they hit their victim, Joe started making bets.
“I bet you my boy can out-argue a member of the Supreme Court” he’d wager and win several hundred shekels. Maybe Joe, one day, got a little cocky and bet the whole wad and lost to some pretty heavy hitters and ended up at the bottom of Lake Galilee wearing clay overshoes.
Whatever happened to Joe must have been a major embarrassment to the Apostolic Fathers for them not to even mention him after a certain point. Maybe Joe got Alzheimer’s and the gospel writers couldn’t figure out why Jesus, Who could raise the dead, couldn’t or wouldn’t bring clarity of mind to His mom’s husband.
But with all the botched lines, absences, miscues and frankly inappropriate behaviors, there was a first nativity scene with inattentive and clueless characters.
“You work with what you’ve got” the Almighty must have mumbled to Self after every scene in the Messiah’s life.
Just before the pageant starts, the Reverend comes to the podium and announces to the congregants that “whoever has come in a blue Ford with a license plate that starts with NAZ has left their lights on.
This brings predictable and comfortable laughter among the assembly. With all of our life’s struggles and our obvious failure to be the next Dali Lama of our own faith expression, church is the one place where we can forget to turn off our car lights. Perhaps all of life is like one large Christmas pageant through which we stumble, forgetful of our parts or relevance to some unknown overriding theme.
The pastor flees the podium, just after expressing gratitude to all the children and the beleaguered director for what they are about to present.
As narrator number 1 begins to mumble through her hurried description of the scene where Joe is turned down by the inn keeper, (who has the Gameboy® in his bathrobe pocket), I think I hear something. It’s a voice but is it behind me? Perhaps a child speaking to their parent?
No, it’s internal. It’s within me. It’s like a quiet thought that suddenly comes to you like an almost forgotten matter that comes to you in a special and profound moment.
And the voice within me says, as if it’s my clue to the meaning of my life today and forever, “… and don’t pick your nose.”
When a “For Sale” goes up in the neighborhood, it’s a little startling. When the home belongs to folks you have come to know, it is a little more unsettling. But when the “Sold” sign goes up ten days later, now there’s a bit of a tremor in the force.
That’s because we seem to spend most of our lives holding on to the “normal” images, sounds, shapes, people and places we often experience. We cling to what we feel is “normal” – the usual people and things we’ve come accustomed to having in our lives. Tradition. The familiar.
C.S. Lewis, the great religious writer of pieces like The Narnia Series and other books also wrote The Four Loves. In it, he described 4 kinds of love, most of which we all experience throughout our lives.
The first kind of love is the love of familiarity. We love our pet dog and its friendly smiling and slobbering face and wagging tail. The innocent look of confusion or incessant desire to play. We love the big lug falling asleep in the recliner with his hands firmly controlling the television remote. We love the same old streets, stores and places that we are used to seeing for years at a time. We love and we cling to the familiarity of it all.
The “For Sale” and “Sold” signs emit tremors. Someone is moving out – someone we frequently see day in and day out. We don’t like change. We don’t like to think that someday we will have to make changes ourselves. We like all our “stuff” and it is ours and we’ve always had it and not only do we not want to move it, (and have to set it all up again somewhere else) – we don’t ever want to get rid of some of it – make that ANY of it. We want things just the way they are!
The fact that some “older people” have gotten rid of their home and moved into some kind of subsidized, small, geriatric ghetto with other well-aged people: “that just will never happen to me!” we quickly tell ourselves (without saying it out loud.) “I’m going to stay in my house forever, not change ANYTHING, and if I die, either my kids will just take care of it or the town will come along and handle it.” We all seem to be change resistant and living with a hardened denial about transitions surely coming ahead of us.
Sometimes we have become familiar with folks on our block and neighborhood and it feels comfortable to see these same people walking by on their daily stroll. The familiar friendly greetings and exchanges through the years bring friendliness to the neighborhood.
The second kind of love Lewis discusses is that of friendship. It’s the sort of relationship where we have become close to another. This is where we find that we are accepted, forgiven and we find enjoyment in common values, activities and commitments.
Friendships we make in the neighborhood are forged from shared acts of concern. The natural and gentle laughter that flows from shared experiences. The casual times and the genuinely wonderful help we receive when we have a need when a neighboring friend has reached out to us.
There certainly have been times when we were overcome with sadness, the death of a friend or relative, the loss of a career, the frightening health diagnosis.
All these things add up, through the years, to yield the simple friendships that bind us together and give our lives stability and joy. We are indeed fortunate when we have found friendships in our neighborhood.
A more rare and meaningful form of love Lewis mentions is “Agapae.” It is the sort of love that one gives to another that is unconditional. No strings attached. Sometimes, a loving of the unlovable.
Perhaps it is the simple act of opening your home to welcome new or departing neighbors. It could extend to responding to a need (and sometimes to a very needy person) who is decidedly unlike you. Perhaps the kind of person whom you would never be like. But you give of yourself to them unconditionally. You are kind. You sacrifice to somehow quietly make their life better in some way. And you do it not expecting thanks or recognition. You just tough it out and do it because it is part of your DNA and you know that no matter what this person has done or where they have been, they are your neighbor. A fellow human being. A kindred spirit.
“If you do this to the least of these, you’re doing it unto Me.”
In our neighborhood, there have been quiet acts of unconditional love and they haven’t made the 6 o’clock news. They happened without fanfare. Yet they quietly soothed the heart of someone on your street.
The fourth kind of love Lewis mentions is the erotic. This is the wonderful stuff that Bruce Springsteen sings about being “the best time in my life.” Each of us know that some of us have been blessed to have some “best times in our lives” and yet others have not been so lucky. Yet we have come to trust our neighbors and most everyone seems have a genuine respect for the intimate, modest and cherished relationships that are part of the fabric of our lives.
So the “For Sale” and the “Sold” signs are a reminder that everything WILL change. No matter how much we live in denial of it, everything changes. The houses around us change. The people in the houses will change. The people in the rest of our lives change. We will change. Without noticing it, we are changing.
But the first three loves that CS Lewis talks about are the very things that enable us to weather these constantly changing lives of ours. While it always feels good to get back to the familiar, it’s the deepening friendships that carry us through the heartbreak and celebrate the joys of the small successes. It’s the unconditional love and acceptance and the random acts of kindness that give us a centering, right when we’ve felt we have hit bottom and there seems no way back.
These kinds of love are the very things that create a sense of community. They are the brick and mortar of our feelings that we are all connected. I think these diverse acts of love are subtle reminders of the presence of God. The genuine, compassionate, friendly presence that we have experienced in our neighborhood which have enriched the lives of each member of our family.
As our household makes a transition from our neighborhood here, we carry with us what we have learned from you. As we leave this neighborhood, we will seek to be a similarly compassionate and caring presence ourselves in the lives of others in our new community.
But we will have to work at it. There is a lot of joy and sorrow in life. Because of your presence in our lives in this neighborhood, we will try to be the same healing presence for others in our new community.
Thank you for all the kinds of love you have bestowed on us. You have and are making life better for all of us.
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I work for an organization which enables seniors to remain in their homes or apartments as long as possible. We help them thrive and remain relatively independent – preventing them from having to go into an assisted-living institution.
It’s called Canopy of Neighbors. (See http://canopyofnieghbord.org ) We do this through a network of volunteers and groups which give their time to do the kinds of things you and I already do to help well-aged friends and loved ones. We give them rides to doctor’s or therapist appointments. Help them get their prescriptions. Sometimes we help them with confusing bank-account or bill-paying tasks. We flip their mattresses or set their clocks ahead or behind twice a year. We change a light bulb that is out of reach – anything to prevent them from stacking kitchen chairs and making a perilous climb and risking a fall.
We also enable them to come to free yoga classes and coffee gatherings where there are featured speakers on health and aging topics. There’s even a monthly luncheon at a local restaurant which offers a low-cost fee for everyone.
I spent a couple of hours this week talking with a couple in their 90s, answering their questions about joining the membership. They are impressed with Canopy. They live in a grand old home in a neighborhood where, in time, only the wealthiest could afford. Homes of doctors, senators and CEOs. Their home was full of life. Paintings filled their home, his paintings. Their furnishings reflected world travels and a lifelong engagement with their children, their careers and themselves. They even have a beautiful Australian border collie who has been part of their household for years.
As I summarized my organization’s services and patiently answered their questions, in my peripheral vision, I could see their daughter. She was in from out-of-town, looking a little frustrated. She’s been here before with them, I suspect. Their hesitancy. Their resistance to get involve with anyone outside of their family for their personal needs. And yet they knew they could use some assistance here and there.
I couldn’t help but think that they only reason they were a little hesitant to join is that it might imply an inability to be independent. Perhaps some giving up of control. Having ‘outsiders’ involved in potentially unknown changes in their lifestyle.
They are truly dear people. Talented and very intelligent. But my heart goes out to them because they seem so frail. He’s a retired but working artist, still holding an office with studio privileges in the local university. But his Parkinson’s is already affecting his mind-to-speech abilities. He drools as he tries to construct his sentences.
In another room, he’s got an unplugged collection of turntable, amp, radio, tuner unplugged and he hasn’t been able to reconnect them. It would take me or another volunteer probably half a day to rewire it. In other rooms, they say their computers are giving them problems and they claim not able to get back into using them. They can’t get their email working.
Her physical condition has left her barely able to move. She has had some disfiguring strokes and yet she is fully engaged in conversations. Reflective, insightful and empathetic toward others. But she says ‘I know we are vulnerable.’
I already know that whatever my organization can offer them, they will need more. Much more. They’ll soon have to contract with outside healthcare organizations for in-home nursing and home-care aids. How much longer can they remain in their lovely home? Who will take care of their dog?
They will be thinking their membership over and will let me know in their own time.
They both have had me thinking, today, of how frail we humans are and temporariness of life. We can get to the point in life where we are blessed with good minds, more-than-adequate resources and all the time we need to pursue anything we’d like. Yet our bodies wear out, out of our control. There is no Toyota to replace parts, even beyond their usual warranty. Our bodies die out from under us. They slip away from us, as do many of our component parts. ‘Moth and rust doth corrupt.
So today, I’m mindful that being present with others, in the moment, is the only place where the meaning and authenticity in life resides for any of us. When I left them, I touched their shoulders and genuinely told them it was a pleasure being with them.
When I got home, I embraced my wife as if it was our anniversary and said I had a great day at work because there were holy moments. ♦
We do a lot of grasping throughout our lives. We like our stuff. We want to hold on to our things. We want to keep our activities and surroundings the same. We maintain the way we do things, the way we think and what we value. We go from day to day as if we will always have and control our life’s experiences. ‘To have and to hold to cherish’ suggest our wedding vows. My Precious said J. R. R. Tolkien’s character Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
But what is it that we hold on to? Pretty much everything. We prefer things around us to stay the way they are. We’re often ‘change-resistant.’ The way things are have become the way we do things around here. That goes for how we stack dishes in the cupboard, where we store things in the closet, the people we strangely judge as not as equal to us because of their differences. My gosh, we’ve put our socks in the same place in our dresser for years.
It’s probably why couples, at least in the first couple of years of marriage, fight over the way toothpaste tubes are squeezed, cars are parked in the garage and the lopsidedness of perception of household chore responsibilities. It is a miracle that two people can amiably negotiate the ordering of their household. Then there is the use of how we handle power. The extent that we can create an environment of fair and consensus-based decisions. If nobody ever modeled it or taught us or we never learned how to use our power and influence in decisions in an egalitarian way, we are doomed to a life of loneliness.
Not to mention that all this grasping and controlling, unfortunately, has a lot to do with how we measure our self-worth. We mysteriously think that if we have a lot of things or financial power, we are doing pretty well. House. Car. Gadgets. Job. Things, you know, my drill, my lawnmower, my position in the company. Keeping up with the Jones. Maintaining a lifestyle that approximates the TV and movie characters with whom we seem to identify.
This is immediately fertile ground for the topics related to personal growth and fulfillment. If we relentlessly strive to hold on to the way we do things and what we now possess, we don’t grow or mature. We wall ourselves into a nice little box. A person wrapped up in themselves makes for a pretty small package.
But our lives are full of transitions. Everything changes. This is why we cry at marker events like weddings, births, graduations and funerals. Things keep changing and the ceremonies frame the transitions to new changes.
There are few circumstances that bring us to face the temporariness of life more obvious than the first day of retirement or walking out of the courtroom after the divorce is finalized. This is because we’ve programmed ourselves to define who we are in our introductions. Like, Hello, my name is Bill and I am the Vice President at BigBox Corporation. Or Hi, I’m Sharon and I’m married to Bill and we have 2.3 children, we own a house in the burbs and I’m a member of the PTA and work as an investment broker for Too Big To Fail Bank, LLC.
We broadcast who we are by defining ourselves by what we do and with whom we are in relationship. Somehow, just us and our own interests, likes, passions and allergies and phobias aren’t enough. We even tend hold on to the things we don’t have but aspire to have or do. We spend years holding on to our careers (and roles) because we think that if we keep doing the same thing with ourselves, things won’t change. We won’t have to give up anything.
Career wise, we pursue excellence in what we do. We pursue further training. We try to meet company goals. We seek to excel and win the approval and admiration of those who are higher up on the corporate latter. Throughout our lives, we seek to hold on to our position, our title, our salary level. We pursue tenure as if craving for oxygen.
Frankly, there isn’t much in life that we don’t strive to keep the same. So unless we are creative artists and musicians seeking new venues and textures in our work or performances, we strive to keep things as they already are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This brings us to transitions. There are changes foisted upon us or self-chosen migrations to different experiences we feel we must make. We resist change and frankly haven’t cultivated pursuing change in our lives in order to grow.
If we define our sense of who we are by what we do and with whom we are in relationship, when those things change, our life can seem to unravel – at least in our mind. Like it or not, despite our overwhelming predisposition to prefer things to stay the same, they don’t.
But what happens when the people who once related to us only by our position in the company are not there. The social circumstances, once resulting from relationships we had, may disappear. We’re now looking at different visual imagery throughout our day. Our daily communication with others has remarkably changed – maybe stopped in several ways. The phone. The emails. The conversations, the meetings, the written reports. Say, presentations, deadlines, calendar management. Social obligations.
1. Who we are in the company has no significance (although who we are as a person is huge).
2. What we do for an external group is no longer a valid means of weighing our self-worth.
The fact is, a corporate position, salary and power doesn’t add anything to our worth. (But note that nobody in America thinks this. That’s why we seem to be obsessed with holding on and adding to what we have and can control.)
The absolutely transforming thing you get when you are beyond your full-time career years or are experiencing less of a socially connected life is that you can come home to yourself.
Come home? you ask as you fiddle through your now empty calendar on your smart phone in vain. Come home as if I’ve been away? you continue to muse. But where I have I been that I would come home?
Well, that’s the point. Where have we been all these years? Chances are that we’ve not been real present with our spouse or significant other. That’s because we’ve put so much more of ourselves in our careers because we thought that would bring ups more or ensure that we keep the level of money we needed to maintain control of our lives. More of what we like – what we’re used to. ‘Keeping things the way we like them.’
But sometimes at transitions, we find that we haven’t been very present in our lives to begin with. Some of us couldn’t be present in the moment with our spouse for the time it takes to eat a meal. We’d feel uncomfortable with moments of silence (as if is mandatory that one or the other of us has to be laying down a bed of words to dispel the silence).
Check this out. When you are in the room with your significant other for ten minutes, do you know how they feel? At the end of the day, if you were magically transported to a college classroom and you were asked to write an essay on what is most important to your spouse, how many sentences would you be able to scribble out?
Complicating almost any transition is our lives is that we haven’t been very present with ourselves, those closest people to us or even the transitions and changes themselves. How present are you with yourself, those around you and what is happening in your life in this very moment?
Riley, do you love me? Peg asked.
Riley responded Well I live here, don’t it?
Do you feel that who you are, without any career position or social relationship, is just as it (you) should be? Do you feel that if you suddenly found yourself living in a totally new context, that whoever you’d meet would find a good and worthwhile person in you? Do you feel that in whatever context you’d find yourself in, others would find you to be a worthwhile human being who positively contributes to their existence?
This is a far cry, another planet or cosmos if you will, from the daily striving to get, hold on to and protect what we have and have been for all our previous years. It’s an entirely different orientation to life.
It’s not the money. It’s not the investments that may or may not be working for us while we’re sleeping. It’s not the house, the car, the boat, the property, the career. That’s because when all of the ownerships and responsibilities into which we’ve placed our energies are gone, all we have left is ourselves. To whatever extent we’ve been able to be present in the lives of our most significant others, it comes down to now. What we’re left with is just us. Can we even be present, in a comfortable and loving way, with ourselves?
You see, it comes down to this moment. Be present in the transitions. Our lives are full of them. The good news is that you’ve got a wonderful and noble person along with you in all of these transitions and change – you.