Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Climax

Every Christmas Eve, my family reads through the nativity story. This year, I was particularly struck by the appearance of angels to the shepherds:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)
The climax of the angel’s declaration seems to be “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” The Messiah had come! However, it is not until later that the veil of heaven bursts open with what we now imagine as angelic choirs singing Handelian choruses. The moment when that heavenly host could no longer be restrained was after the seemingly anti-climactic statement, “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Perhaps heavenly hosts are simply more polite than mortal audiences, so they waited for the angel to finish its announcement before they began cheering. But, I like the idea of an anxious angelic audience unable to contain the overflowing joy of this occasion, suddenly erupting in songs of praise. And I like thinking that it was that final statement which induced their outburst: Not simply the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, but the birth of this Messiah who would condescend from eternal glory to be born in a stable and laid in a manger.

This thought reminds me of the following poem, by Leslie Leyland Fields, entitled, “Let the Stable Still Astonish:”

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.

Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: "Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place." ?

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, "Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here ----

        in this place."

On Christmas, I join with that heavenly host in praising a God who condescends to birth in a stable, to life among lepers, to death by crucifixion, and, ultimately, to me.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

School Shooting at Arapahoe High School, My Alma Mater

It is tradition at Arapahoe High School for the Singers to carol the hallways during 5th period on the last day before the winter semester’s finals week. They had just finished a song and were beginning the next when gunshots silenced their singing.

“Double time to the choir room now,” Ms. Parmenter, their director, shouted.

In full caroling regalia, they scrambled back to the choir room and hurried into the dressing room, where they locked the door, turned off the lights, and sat in an uncomfortable quiet broken by indiscernible shouting in the outside halls and the sniffles of their terrified peers. Knowing only that shots had been fired and that the school was in a hard lockdown, they sat and waited in that cheerless room which, only moments before, had rung with, “May your days be merry and bright.”

I received this text from my mom at about that time: “Shooting at ahs. Have not heard from Daniel. Prayers are needed.” I stopped in my tracks on my way to the principal’s office, suddenly unconcerned about whatever errand brought me there. I returned to my room and knelt behind my desk to pray. “Father, please bless Daniel. Protect him from harm.” I quickly searched the web for news on the shooting at my alma mater. All the sites simply reported “breaking news” that a shooting had occurred and that two students were confirmed to be injured. Horrible still, but the terror subsided somewhat when I learned there were no deaths.

And I soon received word that my little brother was unharmed.

There was only one death that day. The shooter killed himself. One other student was severely injured and hospitalized in critical condition, but no one else was seriously wounded. While there was sweet relief for the many reunited parents and children, the families of those two will have to wade through deep anguish in the coming days and weeks. My prayers are now full of gratitude for my family and my brother’s safety, of hope for the wounded student’s healing, and of sorrow for the family of the shooter. I cannot imagine how they will pass the holidays this year.

I will return home to Centennial in one week. I will drive past Arapahoe High School multiple times while I’m there—it’s only a few minutes from our house, and it is situated at the intersection of two significant local roads. My hometown will be scarred by this event, and that will be very perceptible while I’m there.

That will be the backdrop for us this Christmas: The song of “peace on earth, good will to men” mocked and muted by a confusing act of malevolence. But the song will not be silenced long. The Singers will gather again, and, once again in their knickers, scarfs, mittens, and sweaters, perform their carols. My family will go caroling too. And little by little, harmony will replace discord, and someday, I believe, “the whole world [will] send back the song which now the angels sing.” I yearn for that day more poignantly than ever.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why is Religion Necessary?

I recently participated in an interfaith panel about the relationship between religion and education. That opportunity allowed me not only to become more familiar with several religions, but to get to know the other panelists representing the Baha’i, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist faiths. I very much enjoyed that, and have appreciated our continued friendship and correspondence. The Baha’i panelist recently invited me and the others to her home for dinner. She also invited some people from a different interfaith panel, including one person representing atheism/humanism (he would want me to clarify that those are not interchangeable terms, but he feels comfortable identifying with both distinct perspectives). In our dinner discussion, this man said something like, “I’m not saying that religion does no good—I think it absolutely does. I believe, though, that it is possible to achieve those benefits without requiring religion. I think that you could get all the good things religion provides—community, counseling, morality, etc.—in a secular setting.”

As a religious person, I obviously believe that there is great value in religion, but I was unable to give an immediate response—what could I say? Since then, though, I have continued pondering the idea, and have come up with a few answers:

1.      Grace: Without a belief in God or a sense of sin, it would be impossible to feel the same kind of sweet relief and rejoicing in an unmerited gift. It would be possible to happily chuckle at a pleasantly serendipitous occurrence, but that is essentially different from feeling that Someone has lovingly given you something, despite justifiably withholding the gift.

2.      Mythological narrative: Religion gives people a mythological narrative which not only informs their lives, but often permits them to participate in some way with its events. This provides them with a sense of direction and belonging that transcends the contemporary. There are non-religious narratives (and I’m sure non-religious people strive to identify with them), but I do not think they have the same power. Identifying with a historical or social movement is one thing, but it pales in comparison with feeling a part of the epic clash between good and evil.

3.      A super-human ideal: Without religion, humanity’s highest ideal is humanity itself. With a belief in a higher power, we can look above and beyond ourselves. Goethe captured this idea, I think, when he said, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”  Robert Browing likewise wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” By aiming not simply at the good, but at the perfect, we encourage greater goodness. 

There are certainly other answers, but these three have stood out in my mind. If nothing else, I can certainly say that my personal religious experiences and beliefs have been beautiful, uplifting, and meaningful in my life, and I'm grateful that my parents raised me with and within a faith.