Tree of Life

IMG_1108 (2)It´s late November, and we are warm, soon to be hot.  Our fake plastic Christmas tree sparkles in the corner of our living room, while all the rest of our previous years´ Christmas decorations sweat it out as perpetual hostages in the storage space where I used to do business.  Unless we can take everything out at once, we don´t dare ask the landlady to sort through for individual items.  It´s a small thing, but it´s also a big thing.  I now have a significant quantity of items stored in two different countries, and I never really know if or when I´ll be able to have them again in one place.  They are a fine analogy for my life.  All the people I love are now spread across 3 continents, and it is a guarantee that I will never have them in the same place at the same time.  Sadly, this is the recipe for Christmas failure.

H, my daughter, sparse months from reaching 13, has finally realized that Christmas ¨here¨ is not the same as Christmas ¨there.¨  Here is hot and sandy, where pine trees are as exotic as milk in a gallon, and our relationship to extended family is limited in actuality to my father in law, H´s ¨Tata,¨ who has some inexplicable aversion to spending time in any house but is own.  (I recently learned the fun fact that he leaves work and goes home when he needs to use a bathroom, so he can use his own.  I feel less offended).  H asked her dad last week, ¨Dad, is Tio Lucho really your brother?¨  Her question was mildly baffling, because who else would he be? But understandable, because she has never seen the two of them share so much as a handshake.  That´s as much love as is lost between them.  My husband calls his niece here ¨the little girl.¨ Not sure he knows her name, but then again, I won´t read too much into it, because he also does not now how old I am, how long we´ve been married, or what my maiden name is.  Just for the record, 9 years (that we´ve been married). Not long enough, apparently.  I digress.

When we were about 12 and 14, my sister and I laid in bed together one Christmas morning and realized that it had happened.  The Christmas magic has dimmed.  What WAS the big deal, we asked each other?  We both knew that we´d spent a good decade being thoroughly thrilled by the event, but somehow, that year, the thrill ran thin.  And as another Christmas is on us, one in which we will stay in our desert town for the holiday, my daughter is keenly aware that there is a big difference between celebrating with Noni and Papa, Nini and Jeff, and all the cousins, and staying here.  What pleases me is that she hasn´t had the ¨oh crap, it feels wrong,¨ moment about Christmas yet.

She has however asked me if Jesus is real.  And I don´t wish to be disingenuous with her.  Recently, in a rare moment of introspection and doubt, she said to me with emphatically, ¨but how do you know he´s not just something made up?¨ And the honest answer is, I don´t.  Because that is the whole point.  There´s no scientific method that can make a proof for or against him.  And when I think of what to say on the topic that will be meaningful, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I can´t help but cringe at a mental reel of Will Ferrell dressed in a Wonderbread jump suit in Talladega Nights, praying a monologue to ¨dear little baby Jesus…¨ And worse, (now that I´ve googled it), I can´t help but think how accurately his monologue captures our decadent approach to ¨dear little baby Jesus,¨ and the commercial spirit of the holiday.

Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers in the South call you: ‘Jee-suz’. We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family: my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome striking sons, Walker: Texas Ranger, or TR as we call him. And, of course, my red hot smokin’ wife Carley, who is a stone cold fox, who if you would rate her ass on 100, it would easily be a 94. I also want to thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr, who’s got my back no matter what…Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father Chip. We hope that you can use your Baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. It smells terrible and the dogs are always botherin’ with it. Dear Tiny Infant Jesus…Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists…Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the $21.2 million dollars… LOVE THAT MONEY, that I have accrued over this past season. Also due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just wanna say that PowerAde is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day and we look forward to PowerAde’s release of mystic mountain blueberry. Thank you, for all your power and your grace, Dear Baby God, Amen.”

The theology of champions.  Instead of being grateful that we can hope for a greater future and truer happiness than the finite and frayed pleasures money or beauty can deliver; instead of understanding that we can´t take it with us, we pray earnestly for them, as if God is interested in our bank accounts and emerging wrinkles. And by we, I do mean I.  It´s hard to remember or even believe that the concerns and desires consuming us daily don´t have eternal value.  That is supposed to be a consolation when everything goes to shit, and yet, it isn´t always.  I feel like a fraud with God all the time.  Of course we want stuff and money, and pretty kids and easy lives.  Because it´s so much easier!  But what do those things make us? Wonderbread believers I suppose.

Hookie asked me last week why God doesn´t ¨do miracles anymore,¨ and I gave her my usual rhetoric on the topic, thinking as I always do of Dostoyevski´s Alyosha.

SOME of my readers may imagine that my young man was a sickly, ecstatic, poorly developed creature, a pale, consumptive dreamer. On the contrary, Alyosha was at this time a well-grown, red-cheeked, clear-eyed lad of nineteen, radiant with health. He was very handsome, too, graceful, moderately tall, with hair of a dark brown, with a regular, rather long, oval-shaped face, and wide-set dark grey, shining eyes; he was very thoughtful, and apparently very serene. I shall be told, perhaps, that red cheeks are not incompatible with fanaticism and mysticism; but I fancy that Alyosha was more of a realist than anyone. Oh! no doubt, in the monastery he fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

This was my answer to her; God doesn´t have a reason to do miracles, because they don´t compel belief and we as a generation are prone to discount the miraculous. But I of course had to contradict myself immediately after.  Look at your hand, I told her.  Think about the earth´s distance to the sun.  A few miles closer, we´d burn up.  A few miles further away, we´d freeze.   Those are miracles.  Think about a single cell splitting until it turns into you.  People who don´t want to believe in miracles will find reasons not to; to explain and justify them as a trick of the natural world or the mind.  I added that we are prone to forget miracles, even if we do accept them as such,  and my sweet, not so little inquirer said to me ¨well, I won´t forget that there are miracles mommy. We got a yes for our brother or sister, and that is a miracle.¨

To give some context, we are six months into a process of being approved to adopt here in Chile, after many many years of ¨someday.¨ And just a week or so ago we finally finished a battery of mandatory counseling sessions with a psychologist who has the power to approve or reject us as suitable.  And, as H noted, we got approved.  To H, who has been campaigning for years for a sibling, it is nothing short of a miracle. We´re not at the finish line, but she is ready to cheer.  And so she should.  One of the things that makes Christmas ¨Christmasy¨ are the kids.  The sisters (or brothers) and the cousins.  Subtract them and it´s a sad affair.

But I am still trying to solve the problem of how to explain what makes Christmas miraculous, without talking just about tiny little baby Jesus and his golden fleece diapers.  Because that is where we focus at Christmas; even she knows that.  She keeps stealing baby Jesus from our little Holy Family, leaving Joseph with his arms open wide in surprise, and Mary praying in a panic (I imagine).  She scolds me that ¨he can´t be there until Christmas.¨ At least she understands the power of expectation.

I have been forcing her to sit and read devotions with me, before I let her rip into her tiny chocolate advent window, for the not so chocolate advent chocolate.  She protests, and I ask what exactly does she think the advent in ¨advent calendar¨ means? It is as much for me as her.  I´m trying to work it out-how to talk about what Jesus means to us and for us, without invoking the dreadful ¨invite him into your heart,¨ rhetoric that makes me wince and every 8 year old imagine an action sized figure of hippy Jesus baking flat bread in her aorta, nicely adorned by an exterior finish of Valentine heart.

Until Terrance Malick rescued me.  If you haven´t watch Tree of Life, don´t, at least not after about 7:00 at night.  It is too slow and beautiful, with Jessica Chastain whispering deep thoughts as she ushers you into REM.  It´s like a movie for a lava lamp.  That said, do.  Watch it, when you´ve had your morning coffee and you´re feeling pensive.  Watch it in parts, watch parts with your kids.  Better yet, head over to Vimeo and watch this:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

This is what I want my daughter to know about Christmas, and the baby she keeps hiding.  When around the world people and places are blown up in the name of God, we have this promise from him, left in a story and the grace we show each other, that he sent himself in the humblest way to be a servant to us, individually.  He took off his crown, took off his robe, made himself an ant for us to step on and spit at; it is hard to comprehend the message without really dwelling on this detail.

1) IN the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2) He existed in the beginning with God.  3) God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. 4) The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. 5) The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

John 1: 1-5

He was bigger than the universe; he spoke it into being, and yet he made his way into the world in a single cell. He followed the rules of the natural universe, until he became a man.  It´s like the plot from an Ursula Le Guin novel.  He tells us that if we are going to accept him, we have to do more than believe the story-we have to get inside of it. We have to give grace also, which is truly against the grain of human nature.  He washed his disciples feet, he prayed for forgiveness for his captors, he protected an adulteress woman from shaming.  He touched lepers; he loved and valued women and children.  He hated hypocrisy and corruption.  I tell you that, like Dostoevsky, I want to believe in the story and the man as much as I don´t.  I don´t really want to be like him, to forgive freely and love stinky people.  I like my stuff and my space, and most days I agree with Bill Maher; I want to be a ¨spend¨ timer (on earth), not an end timer. If you´re not a refugee, if you´re not in a politically or socially oppressive country, life can be good.  So this call to think beyond the good here, to believe in such a thing, is taxing.  Like my daughter says, what if none of it´s real?

But what if it is?  I want the gift of faith, for myself and for her, for everyone I love.  Because it is a light in a dark world, and that is where the magic comes from. Charlie Brown knows it, and I want to believe it.

¨I want to say to you, about myself, that I am a child of this age, a child of unfaith and scepticism, and probably (indeed I know it) shall remain so to the end of my life. How dreadfully has it tormented me (and torments me even now) this longing for faith, which is all the stronger for the proofs I have against it. And yet God gives me sometimes moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple; here it is: I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one. I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth.¨

¨I believe in Christ and confess him not like some child; my hosanna has passed through an enormous furnace of doubt.¨

-Fyodor Dostoevsky