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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday Drive: O Little Town of Bethlehem

My soul doth magnify the Lord,
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. . . .
He hath shewed strength with his arm,
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he hath sent empty away. . . .

My favorite rendition of this song is by Emmylou Harris, which unfortunately I can't find on YouTube; but Sarah's version just might become a close second to it.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man. . . .

Holy and gracious Father: In your infinite love you made us
for yourself, and, when we had fallen into sin and become
subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ,
your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature,
to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you,
the God and Father of all.

He stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself,
in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.

To live and die as one of us:  Well now, fellas, it really makes no nevermind to your Head Trucker what you choose to believe, as long as you obey the speed limit and keep your dog out of my yard.  At each stage in life, it seems to me, we believe what we need to believe; and like the chambered Nautilus, if we are wise and humble-hearted, our spiritual progress leads us on to ever more roomy mansions, though always circling round the divine mystery at the heart of things.

And of that central point toward which all converges, what can we say, what can we know for certain?  Very little.  Now your Head Trucker spent more than a few years digging through the Scriptures and sermons of Christianity for an answer to those questions; and though my excavations may not have gone as deep as those of some others, I am prepared to state categorically that the end of all our labors and all our cogitations upon the subject is but a handful of straw - as St. Thomas Aquinas put it, and his was a brain much greater than mine.

A very famous poem - well, it was once, though I doubt that any of you young'uns ever came across it in school, the times being so practical and unpoetical now - a very famous poem from the Victorian era, about "six blind men from Hindustan," expresses the problem of theological knowledge very nicely.  And then again, the wise Solomon declares: "of the making of many books there is no end, and the study thereof is a weariness to the flesh." For myself, I find that Keats sums up my view rather neatly:  "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination - What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - " Here, it may be that the young poet spoke more profoundly than he knew.

Believe what you will - and then "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God" - "love your neighbor as yourself" - "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."  That covers the outward expression of religion.  And yet we do not "live by bread alone" - our souls, as our bodies, must be fed too; the inner man needs nourishment as does the outer man.  Where shall we turn for spiritual sustenance, then?  Some find it in Nature - "my heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky."  Some in works of imagination or poetry, some in great works of art.  And some in philosophy or mythology or Scripture.  Sometimes we even find it in the face or the body of another human being; for that truth we all seek is Love, and Love is to be found everywhere:  in all things and through all things, if we have eyes to see.

Here I will share something that nourishes my soul and brings me comfort - if it helps you too, that's fine, and if not, then find something that does - and that is the immense mystery, the profound story of the Incarnation:  the Word made flesh, truly God and truly man.  A story not of power and glory, but of utter failure and suffering and humility; and for that very reason, a grand story - the greatest.

I cannot claim to have made a study of world religions, though I have come across a beautiful insight here and there.  What I can say is that I have yet to find a description of God - the ultimate Goodness, the height and depth and end of all our searching - that moves me as deeply as this story does.  Understand that here I am not talking about true and untrue, correct and incorrect - no, I'm talking about something no theological disputation can ever settle or assure:  the intuitive glimpse of the Love that lies at the heart of all things, that moves the stars, that is the ground of being.
For "Love is patient, love is kind - love is humble, does not put on airs."  Does it not follow, then, that the Supreme Love would be supremely humble, also?  Nowhere in my (admittedly casual) reading of other religions have I found an example of a God so loving that He would put aside his own divinity - to live and die as one of us - us men, us women, us fragile creatures of a day - so humble that He would descend from the heights of celestial glory to put on this mortal coil, to inhabit as we do this bag of bones and blood, so easily broken, so easily crushed.
The story is not at all what one would expect:  the Lord of Hosts, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father - born to a poor working-class couple, and not even in the relative comfort of their small-town home; nor even in a rented room; but in the squalor of a stable.  You fellas who never scraped manure out of a barn should stop a minute right here and just imagine the smell.  And no crib for a bed - but laid in a cattle trough, with perhaps a little clean straw, if any could be found, as a cushion.  A humbler beginning can hardly be imagined:  a quiet, obscure, unnoticed life in a little redneck town, miles from nowhere.  No great deeds to be performed, none expected:  just another barefoot, small-town kid, growing up in the sticks, learning his father's trade, no hope of anything bigger or better.  A tiny life; nothing glorious at all.
And then of course, to look at the other end of the story:  after doing great good for many people - to find all faces turned against him, and every door closed - despised and rejected of men - proclaimed a most wicked sinner, an evildoer, a heretic and blasphemer by the highest religious authorities - hunted down by the government - betrayed by a close friend turned police spy - deserted at the hour of his greatest need, abandoned by all who said they loved him - left alone, utterly alone - praying to God, begging God for help, for mercy, for a way out.  But there was no way out:  to live and die as one of us, in pain, in agony, in tears and sweat and blood.  Alone.  Friendless.  Helpless.
What kind of God is this?  Certainly not one I would ever have dreamed up.  Nor you either, I imagine.
From obscurity to degradation; from poverty to brutal death:  to live and die as one of us.
Yet how better could Love demonstrate itself than to do just that?
And of course, Christians believe the story did not end at the silent, bloodstained tomb - that the Story really only began right there.  But that, you can look up for yourself.
"There are some things worth believing even if they aren't true."  A line from a very good movie, which I recommend very heartily to you all if you want to know how a man should live and think:  Secondhand Lions, with Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. 
I'm not here suggesting that you have to believe this Christmas story as gospel truth; that's entirely up to you, my friends.  But considered purely as a story, is it not a wonderful thing?  I'm just sharing with you what I like to think is the holiness of my heart's affections:  a belief in a God who is not too proud to stoop to the muddy, bloody level of humanity.  A God with mud on his boots and dust on his face, born in a barn, not a palace.  A God who cares deeply about the poor and the hungry, the humble and the meek, the obscure and the frustrated and the friendless, and all the smelly, lonely shitkickers of the world:  because He was one of them, Himself.  Whether it strikes a chord in you or not, I find it a great comfort to believe in a God who is intimately acquainted with all the losses and hurts, the griefs and irremediable pains of my own life - because He has already suffered all of them, Himself.
There are many other lovely stories in the world, and some of them are also deeply moving, very profound.  This is the one, though, that touches my heart the most - and gives me hope that even though human life is ultimately too short, too bitter, and too cruel, and my own, like many another, is so small, so meager, so obscure and apparently so pointless - that yet, against all hope, beyond all knowing or imagining:  "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."
And that - not Santa Claus, not sleigh bells, not reindeer, not ribbons - is what Christmas means to me:  "Love came down from heaven - " to live and die as one of us.  I hope all of you, my Truckbuddies, in this holiday season - whichever holiday you celebrate - that you also discover a story, a Love, that fills and warms and comforts your heart, as this one does mine.
Merry Christmas.


Sebastian said...

Wow. Just wow. And worthy of stealing (part of) for my Christmas homily, if you don't mind.

Russ Manley said...

Go right ahead, buddy, be my guest.

"Freely ye have received, freely give."

FDeF said...

I second the wow. You've been able to remain faithful to your Christian belief despite the best efforts of Christian religions to make you feel unwelcome; and you beautifully describe the personal meaning of the Christmas story.

You are fortunate not to have thrown out the "baby with the bath water" so to speak (pun intended).

As a (former?) Catholic I feel that the Church has purposely and willfully, abandoned my spiritual needs. This has made me question the whole creed. If my church cannot nourish me (and other LGBT individuals) as a self-accepting, gay person, with a legitimate sexuality, then all their dogmas, scriptures and myths become suspect. Including the Christmas story. Yes, I am a harsh critic.

On a more schizophrenic note, it is totally eerie that just last week I was thinking about posting (but was looking for a context) the Magnificat ("My soul magnifies the Lord" - "Magnificat anima mea dominum, et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo.."). It is one of those prayers, especially in Gregorian chant, that resonates ... spiritually. Yes, a bit schizo.

Russ Manley said...

Frank and Sebastian, I'm gratified and a bit humbled that you fellas with Catholic educations approve my little amateur reflections from the prairie here.

I do know exactly what you mean about the Church, all churches - I'm living in a seceded Episcopal diocese here, with a virulently homophobic bishop, that would like to put itself under the authority of the Archbishop of Uganda, or is it Nigeria - both enormous homophobes themselves. Which effectively bars me from the Eucharist, you see.

And sometimes I miss that very much - like now, here at Christmas, very much - but it can't be helped. So ultimately one has to discover the means of spiritual communion with the ultimate Good, and maintain that link in one's heart - even in the lonely darkness of Gethsemane, as it were.

I too have questions about creeds and scriptures and teachings and the hijacking of Christ's message by various "apostles" and by church factions and by imperial politics - one has only to read the history of the first Nicene Council to see that something was very rotten in Constantinople. And then there is the whole heterosexual male patriarchy thing. Perhaps another post, another time . . . .

Yet again I quote: Some things are worth believing even if they aren't true.

And I do believe there is a Something bigger than the Church, bigger than the Bible - a Someone that loves me, and lights my way, a step at the time. We talk all the time, in fact - not that that makes me any better or wiser than any other seeker. Today's post is just my feeble attempt to expand upon that conviction, whether it makes sense to anyone else or not, I don't know.

"Baby with the bath water" . . . oh Frank, you are so bad! Grin.

Jeepguy said...

Wow, Russ! What a nice post! It certainly brings to mind how attached I am to my cynicism. That seems to be the path I've gone down since I so thoroughly rejected organized religion 40 or so years ago. I'm sure that I am quite guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water, as Frank says! LOL

Do you think there is any hope for my jaded soul? Hmmm.

Thanks for rattling my cage a little, and Merry Christmas.

Russ Manley said...

Well Gary we homos have been the targets of active persecution by the Christian Church since day 1 you might say; and the Jews before that were as bad if not worse. So I understand why anyone might reject the whole belief thing, baby and bathwater.

I have to speak in Christian terms when I describe my belief because that's the only vocabulary, the only religious grammar I know. And as I say, the story is a very moving one, considered as a story. But as I also say, I've grown to realize God is much bigger than the churches and Bibles we try to keep Him locked up in.

Look at the fundies who rant and rave about so many things; and isn't it obvious that their God is a small, nasty one, made in their own image? Anybody can make up a God to suit themselves: masturbatory religion, as it were. An ugly thing.

But there's Something more and bigger, that thoughtful, humble people around the world have glimpsed and experienced down through the centuries. Closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet; the splendid question mark at the heart of all creation. I call it Love.

Not something you have to jump through hoops to encounter, or sign your life away to experience. Not so concerned with rules and regs as with your attitude, and how you treat your fellow men, day in and day out: unselfishness. Which is what the Story I posted is all about.

But the more words I pile on here, the further I get from it, Gary. There might be lots of good, wholesome spiritual paths. If you want one, look around and go with the one that makes you a happier, humbler, kinder, wiser person. If so, that will be the right one for you.

Tip: you're already on "the path," and already beloved - we all are; we just don't all realize it. Start by whispering a small "thank you" for morning sun and wind and rain and snow - and heat and light and food in the fridge - and see where that leads.

But I'm no guru, just a fellow traveller. You have to lead yourself.

iain said...

I surfed into your site via - oh, someone or other - slabber I think - and have now bookmarked it; reading your meditation/essay reminded me deeply of the Christmases I once experienced in my small hometown in South-East England quite a few years ago (more than I care to think), with the King James Bible and the marvelous language of the Book of Common Prayer (both now seemingly discarded in favor of what the Brits call 'happy clappy' folksy-singalong Anglicanism - all a bit dismal, like turning up at a theatre to experience Shakespeare and having instead someone in t-shirt and jeans stumble onstage, read us the synopsis of The Winter's Tale then tell us all to go away. Wretched, with no mystery, no actual magic, which is the heart of worshipfulness, surely?) Your thoughts have moved me to tears, as much for what I have lost or walked away from as anything else. Meanwhile, this Christmas Day 2009, I arrive at my thirtieth -yes, thirtieth- year clean and sober, via a 12-Step Program that most certainly emphasizes a "Power Greater than ourselves"; yet I have gradually interpreted that Power non-theistically, have walked away from the "desert religions", and indeed alll religions, except perhaps for a sense that God is a metaphor for natural power. Thank you for such a humane post, so touching and non-partisan. Here in California, where my husband and I have lived for a number of years, the only thing that seems to matter to organized religions is their tax-exempt status (scientology, anyone?), and getting together to trample the basic rights of gay people (Prop. 8). Thus it has been wonderful to be reminded what an authentic christian can sound like. Thank you.

Jeepguy said...

Yes, Russ. I believe there is something much bigger than us out there -- call it God, Supreme Being, the Force, or whatever. I might have stuck with the church had I been accepted rather than excluded for who I am. I always liked the stories of Christmas, Easter and the life of Christ. The thing that turned me away was the people who believe in that narrow, nasty little god that you described. I just got really sick of the guilt-tripping and being beaten over the head with their interpretation of the bible.

My strongest connection these days to the church is through it's music. I am talking here primarily about music that was rooted in Catholicism, such as the magnificats, masses, oratorios, requiums, etc. I love those large sacred choral/orchestral works. I really like listening to our classical radio station this time of year because they play a lot of this stuff. The music speaks to me much more profoundly than does the spoken liturgy. And the music does not tell me that I'm going to hell if I don't do as some pseudo-pious churchperson says I should. (To tell you the truth, I'm not really at all convinced that hell even exists. I think they use that concept as a fear tool to keep their sheep in the coral.)

When it comes right down to it, I think each of us has to find his own path. And just as importantly, each of us must respect the path that our brothers and sisters have taken, even though it may not be the one we have chosen. Sometimes the way is dark and scary, so we need to help each other along the way, yet be respectful of people's desire to explore on their own.

Again, I really enjoy reading your posts because they are thought-provoking on more than a shallow level, and often contain the luminous lining of humor, which I like immensely. Keep rattling those keys, bud!

Russ Manley said...

Iain, Gary - just another shitkicker here, sharing what means something to him. Glad you guys find it worthwhile to read, and relate to your own experience. It's stuff people don't usually talk about when they get together socially, you know. It helps me, inside, to be able to share some deep stuff from time to time and put things out there - and in the act of writing, I discover more about what it is I do believe, ya know?

And Iain, I like your metaphor about "expecting to see a Shakespeare play" and getting a casual synopsis. Yup.

I guess some people are just deaf and blind to the majesty of the KJV and the BCP; to the glory of great words and great music that in the liturgy carry me, anyway, a little higher, a little closer to that Something I seek.

Some folks want to reduce it all to the level of a junior high dance, with pink punch and sugar cookies: something shallow and cheap. If it works for them, well I guess that's fine. But it doesn't work for me. I can be casual all I want to at home, ya know?

Appreciate all the kind comments here from all you fellas, and what you shared with me in return. You guys are the best.

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