Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Poetry Corner

Good Is the Flesh (by Brian Wren)

Good is the flesh that the Word has become
Good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
Good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
Good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
Sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
Feeling, perceiving, within and around,
Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Growing and aging; arousing, impaired
Happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh.
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Longing in all, as in Jesus to dwell,
Glad of embracing and tasting and smell,
Good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.


I love this poem because it is so ‘incarnational’. It bespeaks God, in Christ, taking on human flesh – that life in the body is good, and the dignity of human bodily life is only enhanced by God taking it on Himself. Through the Incarnation, God takes our embodied-ness, and fills it with Himself. No longer is He remote from us; His knowledge of us is not merely that of ‘Creator on High’ – He has walked in our world as one of us, hungered and thirsted, stubbed His toe, and ultimately, died.

“Good is the flesh,” indeed. It is not merely that God created human flesh, although it has a dignity that inheres simply to God having made it, and in His image, no less. But even more, the Word became flesh. Emmanuel – God with us.



Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I Didn't Even Know He Was Sick

When I was a kid, my parents (I think especially my mother) did the whole Santa Claus thing right to the hilt. One year, I think I was about seven or eight, on Christmas Eve, my brother and I were sent off to the family room, on the other end of the house from the living room, where the tree was, and instructed to wait, because my parents had just heard that Santa was in our area, and would no doubt be stopping at our house soon. Compliant souls that we were, we went off to the family room and shut the door firmly. We didn’t want to get caught trying to sneak a peek at the Big Guy, no sir.

After a while, my mom came to retrieve us, telling us that, yes indeed, Santa had just been there. We went to the living room, and, lo and behold, there were presents piled up under the tree, and spreading out across the living room floor! Just then, my dad came in, all flustered, telling us that we had to get back in the other room, because Santa was still at our house – he had just gone back up to the roof to get a couple more presents. So we ran back to the other end of the house, hoping like crazy that we hadn’t ruined everything by coming out too soon.

A few minutes later, they came to get us, saying that everything was okay now, we had all the presents, and Santa Claus had left. This time, when we came to the living room, there were a few more presents left near the fireplace, and a bright new sled (a Radio Flyer!) sitting right in the fireplace! Obviously, with us having come out before, Santa had been in a hurry, and rather than place the last few presents under the tree, he had just dropped them by the fireplace and left in a hurry.

It was a masterful ruse, and it kept me safely in the ‘believers’ camp for another few years. I mean, what could be more obvious – we came back the second time, and there was a sled that hadn’t been there before!

But, of course, in the fullness of time, I figured it out. And, in a way, I was a little sad when I did. Santa Claus was a sort of godlike figure in my imagination – “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good. . .” And, when I knew that Santa wasn’t ‘real’, it only seemed natural, by extension, to wonder about God Himself.

When I was in my teens, I came into a serious Christian faith, and, odd as it may seem, my whole ‘Santa Claus experience’ was a hurdle to be overcome on my road to faith. Both God and Santa were these benevolent old men (in my imagination; also the pictures I’d seen) who I never got to see, but who were looking after me, and keeping track of what I was up to. So, ‘no Santa’ seemed to point suspiciously in the direction of ‘no God’. Of course, I eventually figured out the difference, and all was well in the end.

So, when Molly and I began having children of our own, we didn’t want to sow the same ‘seeds of doubt’ for our kids – we didn’t want to set them up for future disillusionment that might possibly make it harder for them to believe in God. But, we didn’t really want to cut Santa Claus completely out of their lives – we had enjoyed the ‘experience’ of Santa Claus. So, we told our kids that Santa Claus was a fun game that people play at Christmas time, and we told them what the game was about, and how to play it. We especially told them that some kids don’t know it’s a game, and we don’t want to ruin it for them, so we should act as if Santa Claus is real – that’s part of the game – we know it isn’t really real, but pretending it is, is the fun of the game.

It seemed to work well enough for our purposes. To my knowledge, none of our kids ever ‘spoiled’ Santa Claus for another kid, and we did have fun with the ‘game’ – we would label some portion of the presents every year as ‘from Santa’, etc, etc.

You might imagine that, in the kind of ‘serious’ Christian circles we were traveling in, different people took different approaches to the ‘Santa question’. One family we knew insisted on strict factual accuracy with their kids – they taught them the story of St. Nicholas of Myra, who left little bags of gold coins to provide dowries for the daughters of poor families, and so on, and how St. Nicholas had lived long ago, and wasn’t alive any more, but his legend had been passed down to the present day and, like a game of ‘Rumor’, had sort of morphed into Santa Claus. Which seemed to me like a lot of trouble to go to, but, hey, I could respect what they were doing. And, my ‘it’s a game’ approach worked just fine with those kids, too.

One year, when 1F was maybe six or seven, we took the kids to mass on Christmas morning. When mass had ended, our priest, who was Indian, was greeting parishioners in the back of the church. He mussed the hair of one boy, from the family I was describing above, and asked him if Santa Claus had been good to him.

The boy straightened himself to his full height, and, with a tone of righteous indignation, shouted, “SANTA CLAUS IS DEAD!” The poor priest was taken completely aback, and before he could even come up with anything to say, the boy continued. “HE LIVED A LONG TIME AGO, BUT NOW HE’S DEAD! HIS NAME WAS REALLY NICHOLAS, BUT NOW WE CALL HIM SANTA CLAUS!”

I don’t know if the priest or the parents were more flustered. Father was looking around for someone, anyone else to talk to, and the parents steered the boy toward the door, while the boy carried himself with a look of smug satisfaction – he had set Father straight, and given him the real story!

And, intermingled with stifled laughter, Molly and I congratulated each other for being one notch happier with the approach we had taken.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Behold, How Good and Pleasant It Is

When I started this blog, I never expected or intended to say much about the Christian community that Molly and I are part of. I didn't really mean for this to be a 'Christian' blog, although I certainly didn't intend to hide who I am or what my life is about. When I started, I mainly intended to talk about my family, and my marriage to Molly, and a little bit of married sex, just to keep you all interested. I didn't think that our community would be all that interesting to you all, and besides, it's a little hard to explain. But, in recent weeks, it has become clear to me (and probably to many of you) that I can't really tell you about myself without being pretty up-front and explicit about our community (and a few of you have asked me to tell more about it). So, here goes. . .

Back in September, I made this post, describing my spiritual journey, and it might be helpful if you read that before plowing ahead here. As I said, when I went to college, I was introduced to what, to my eyes, was a really cool prayer meeting.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Christian stuff was popping up all over the place - Jesus freaks and all that good stuff. This was a 'charismatic' prayer meeting (for a brief description of the charismatic movement, this isn't too bad). By the time I got there, in the fall of '73, it was a weekly prayer meeting with around 200 people in attendance. Of course, enthusiastic young Christian that I was, I was fairly blown away by it, and immediately made it part of my regular routine.

At the time that I arrived, there was quite a bit of ferment going on in the life of the prayer group. There was a growing conviction among many of the folks that, in order to 'go deeper' in the Christian life, we needed to have some kind of a 'life together'. In order to really grow in Christian life and character, we needed to have some more definite, structured way to support and encourage each other, and 'call each other on'. So, most of my freshman year, there was a series of meetings and presentations aimed at exploring what such a 'life together' would look like, and how it would work. At the end of the school year, about 80 people, my 18-year-old self among them, made a commitment to live in community together with each other, whatever that would mean. I went home to my parents for the summer.

When I returned the following fall, the life of the new community was underway. Most of the members had moved into households with each other, and those of us living on campus in the dorms arranged to live on the same floors in the same dorms with each other, so we could have enough direct contact with each other to actively support each other. We would pray together, a lot, and meet to discuss issues in our lives, and how we could more effectively live as Christians in the circumstances of our daily lives.

The community had a 'pastoral' structure, with each member having a 'pastoral head' with whom they met regularly (usually weekly, in those early days) to discuss their lives. In those early, 'formative' days, pastoral input was often direct, challenging, and, um, intense. Sometimes, the leadership crossed lines into some overly rigid and controlling stuff, and I suppose that I experienced some of that myself. I was usually able, though, to see the component of it that had my best interest in mind. Some folks quit the community because they felt overly manipulated and controlled; I can acknowledge what they experienced, while still saying that I experienced far more benefit than pain.

Words like 'cult' were occasionally thrown our way, but I can't say with any justice. No one ever tried to keep me from my family, or get me to sign away my paycheck. I've already told you the story of how Molly and I met and married; you can rest easy that no one 'arranged' it for us. I discussed 'major life decisions' with my leaders, but the decisions were mine alone.

I should be clear here that the community is voluntary, and intentional. We are also not a church - virtually all of our members belong to their own churches, and our community life is independent of our churches or parishes. We're also 'ecumenical' - our members belong to a whole range of churches - Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, and probably a few others that I can't think of right now. Catholics might best understand us as a kind of lay religious order, akin to the Third Order Franciscans or Opus Dei.

I graduated from college, and took a job that would allow me to maintain my involvement in the community. Once I was more or less 'established' in my job, I started looking for a wife; Molly and I began our 'courtship' that fall, and we were married the following summer.

In the early '80s, the community went through a period of major upheaval, prompted in part by some pretty extreme abuse of authority on the part of one of the 'senior' leaders. We went from a membership of around 500 to less than half that in the course of about a year.

But I also think that a large component of it was that community members were becoming 'grown-ups'. When we began in '74 with 80 or so members, there were five or six married couples, and one child; maybe two of our 'founding members' were over 30. In the late '70s and early '80s, dozens of community members (Molly and I among them) married each other, and by '82 or so, the character of the community had pretty completely changed over from a group of mainly young singles to a group of young married folks. And as we started having children and families, we started drawing more lines in terms of what we were available to do (looking back, I don't know how the families that joined us in the 'early days' managed to do it; the 'single-ness' of the community in those days was pretty clueless when it came to how families needed to work).

And, for the last 20 years, the life of our community has been more or less like that - couples and families, and young singles (we have maintained a campus 'outreach' all along), pursuing a Christian way of life together, mutually supporting and encouraging each other in that life.

I don't know if I've been able to do justice to the task of describing our community, but perhaps this will help you all understand what I've been talking about. If I've left something unclear to you, please don't hesitate to ask for clarification.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Workin' For a Living

Back when I finally graduated from college (I got to the end of my senior year, and wasn't ready to be done with school yet, so I stayed on for a Master's degree), I entertained a few good job offers, and I chose one in the same town where I'd gone to college, mainly so I could continue my involvement with the Christian community I'd become part of when I was in college. (I'm working on a post to 'flesh out' the life of our community more for you; as you can see, it has provided a major context for my life).

I enjoyed working for XYZ Corp., an automotive supplier company. My job was interesting and challenging, and I worked with good folks who became many of my friends. (Among my bosses were Alex and Ross, about whom I have blogged previously). I was an engineer, but of a particularly computer-geek variety (which is quite funny, because I'm no more than mildly 'tech-savvy').

I worked for XYZ for 17 years. While I worked there, I got married and begot (begat?) the first six of my children.

In the mid-90s, life for automotive suppliers became crushingly difficult, and in the fulness of time, XYZ ceased to exist. I was laid off (just before my 40th birthday) about a year before the final collapse, which actually worked in my favor, in terms of getting into the job market that much sooner.

With six kids, you can imagine that that was a pretty anxious time in Jones-world. But, within a couple weeks, I was already generating some good leads, and within six weeks, I had landed a new job with HugeMassive Company. I hoped to stay in the same town I was living in, and the guy that hired me at HMC promised me that, if I took a position at an office 45 minutes' drive from my home, that a position was about to open up back in OurTown. So I took the job, and started driving the 45 minutes.

And it was a darn good job. A company like HMC could offer me a much more interesting and challenging set of problems to work on than XYZ could. I had to learn some new methods, and use some different software than I'd had, but it didn't take long for me to come up to speed.

The 45 minute commute was kinda painful, after having been used to no more than a 10-minute drive to work, but I got used to it. I even managed to coach my sons' Little League team for two years, in spite of the commute. Besides, I was going to be moving back to OurTown in fairly short order, so I didn't mind.

Two years later, I finally got the call that the position in OurTown was opening up. On the same day, HMC announced that it was closing the OurTown engineering office in one year. So, I discussed the situation with my bosses, and arranged that I could work in OurTown for the one year, and then return to my current position. While I was in OurTown, HMC announced that the engineering office I was hoping to return to would also be closing, and my job would be moving to another office, over an hour's drive away. So, I had one peaceful year working in OurTown, and then I hit the road. Since 1999, I've been driving roughly 65 minutes one-way to work.

Molly and I seriously pondered the idea of moving closer to my job, but in the end I decided that, dug in as we were to relationships in our Christian community, parish, school, etc, that it was preferable for me to drive the miles rather than uproot our family from a stable and life-giving set of relationships.


And that's what our life has been like since 1999. I'd be lying if I told you I was real happy about it. It's workable, at best. But, I sorely feel the effect of having another 2+ hours taken out of my day just driving back and forth. I can 'make use' of the 'car time' - thank God for books on tape - but I'd much rather be home, and on hand for Molly and the kids.

I've tried many different avenues for getting my job at least closer to OurTown, but nothing has panned out. It seems that the Universe has created a black hole for jobs of my sort within an hour's radius of OurTown. (sigh)

And, the friendships that I had with my co-workers at XYZ - well, let's just say that HMC mainly doesn't swing that way. The culture is much more 'upwardly-mobile', more competitive, more fast-paced. Most people don't sit still in one place long enough to form friendships, and besides, co-workers tend to be viewed more as competitors for the next promotion than as potential friends. I don't mean to whine about it; it's just the way it is, and it's very different from what I had for 17 years.

I wonder sometimes what God is up to with me - right when my family needs me to be on hand the most - right when my sons are teenagers - my ability to be on hand for them gets seriously curtailed. You can believe that, when the stuff of the two previous posts was playing out, that I wondered many times why I couldn't manage to come up with a better situation.

And that's about all I have to say about that.


Thursday, December 7, 2006

Family Dinner

Many years ago, when Molly and I were just newly embarked on the whole adventure of marriage and family, we read something that said that the most significant indicator of successful family life was how often the family had dinner together. If a family had dinner together four or more times a week, that had a strong correlation with all sorts of positive indicators of social and mental health. And so, we worked very hard to establish family dinnertimes as a rock-bottom feature of our family life together.

Now, you wouldn't be surprised if I told you that the theory and the practice haven't always corresponded as closely as we might have wished. Especially once our kids hit middle school, and started getting involved with sports teams (why is it that middle-school sports teams can't seem to practice at any other time than when our family is sitting down to dinner?), dinnertimes where the whole family was together around the table became increasingly hit-and-miss.

But, truth to tell, as our kids (and, I have to say, especially our boys) hit middle school, family dinners, even when we were all present and accounted for, became exercises in futility on an entirely different front - the capacity (or should I say, the incapacity) of the kids to maintain focus on anything like a coherent conversation. I really don't know how it happened, but at some point, our dinnertimes became an ongoing cacophony, with one child idly singing to herself, another idly tapping his plate with his silverware, two boys reciting extended dialogue from 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail', and various and sundry other random noises, assorted pokings of fingers into ear-holes and other available orifices, originating from various other children, all occurring simultaneously and without regard for anything else that might be going on at the time. Molly might ask one of the children how their day went at school, and before the poor child could answer, or, more likely, in the middle of their answer, prompted by something they said, Monty Python would spontaneously erupt from the other side of the table, and thus would end the conversation.

And nothing we did helped the situation. On many occasions, Molly or I would loudly interrupt the recitation; sometimes we would try to give the floor back to the child who was interrupted, and more often we would just launch into the standard rant about showing respect to our brothers and sisters, and dinnertime isn't about showing off our ability to recite movie dialogues, etc, etc. And, once we were finished, they'd start over, only this time reciting from 'Napoleon Dynamite'.

A couple times, the noise got so out of hand that Molly and I just looked at each other, grabbed our silverware, and started yelling and pounding along with the kids. Which actually brought a little humor to the situation, much preferable to the standard anger and frustration. But it still left us a long way from the kind of peaceful, respectful dinnertimes we aspired to and hoped for.

We never just gave in to the cacophony; we continued to try to establish some kind of order, but it always just seemed like an uphill struggle, and a losing one at that.


These days, we have five children living at home - 4M and everyone younger. Dinners are a bit more peaceful; 3M was our main 'comedian', and absent his instigation, things don't get out of hand quite so quickly, or so irretrievably. But 4M and 5M are both heavy into sports teams, which, inevitably (or so it seems) practice during the dinner hour, so most nights we have the three youngest kids around the table with Molly and me.

A couple weeks ago, though, we had all seven of us around the table at the same time. Without any instigation from Molly or me, 5M brought up a question that had come up in one of his classes. While Molly and I did double-takes, 4M chimed in with a similar question from one of his classes. Soon, we were engaged in a really rich discussion on an interesting question, with all of the kids, except maybe 8M, contributing. We touched on questions of theology, moral philosophy, science, mathematics, and all manner of things. We stayed at the table a good 20 minutes longer than we usually do, and nobody was clamoring to be excused. It was very cool.

When we finally ended, and were clearing the table afterward, 7M said to me, "This was a really good family dinner, Dad."

And, in the course of agreeing with him, I might have had to stifle a tear. . .


Monday, December 4, 2006


Ever since the Friday after Thanksgiving, we've been in the commercial season of 'Christmas', with the sales, the extended hours at the malls, special advertisements, etc., etc. It's what much, if not most, of our culture thinks of when they think of 'Christmastime', but less and less does it have any discernible connection with the actual content and meaning of Christmas.

One time I was visiting family in a large, midwestern city over Thanksgiving, and the following day, the local news had several reporters on site at various malls, doing interviews with shoppers. They asked one guy what the 'true meaning of Christmas' was, and he said, "We gotta get out here and spend money to keep the economy going strong." He actually said that.

I sometimes wish that they would come up with a different name for the year-end consumerist feeding-frenzy. Just leave Christmas out of it. Or, maybe we should come up with another name for the celebration of Christ's birth. Let 'em have 'Christmas' for the 'shopping season' - admit that we've lost it, and start over with a new name. (sigh)

Anyway, yesterday was the First Sunday of Advent - the beginning of the Christian season of spiritual preparation for Christmas. As I've gone along, I've come to really love Advent, imperfectly though I may observe it. In rough terms, Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter, just with not quite the same 'penitential' emphasis. Rightly done, Advent is a time of contemplation, a time to step back from the normal frenzy of daily life, take a few deep breaths, and prepare spiritually for the joy of Christmas. Advent is pretty much the polar opposite of 'consumer Christmas'. Pausing for contemplation is not a thing Americans are terribly inclined to do (perhaps I should say it's a thing that we're inclined to do terribly).

In the larger American culture, the 'Christmas season' runs from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, but in traditional Christian circles, the Christmas season begins on Christmas Day and runs until Epiphany (January 6) - thus, the 'Twelve Days of Christmas'. So, when most of our neighbors are finished with Christmas, we're just getting started. It always perplexes me just a bit to see all the Christmas trees out on the curb on the 26th; when Molly was a kid, Catholics didn't even put their trees up until Christmas Eve. And, just as I'm getting pumped to sing 'Joy to the World' and 'O Come, All Ye Faithful', most of my neighbors are sick of hearing them.

Maybe I should blame it on the Three Wise Men - they started the whole giving-gifts-at-Christmas thing. I doubt they had any clue how far it would get out-of-hand, though.

When it comes right down to it, though, I've got to admit that my spiritual preparation for Christmas is my own responsibility. It's not up to American culture to get me spiritually prepared. It might be nice if the culture were more supportive (or even just less disruptive) of what I'm trying to accomplish, but it is what it is.

So, we Joneses are setting out on Advent. If, over the next couple weeks, I seem a little reticent and low-key about Christmas, you'll understand, won't you? And then, if I'm getting all Christmas-y just when you're getting tired of it all, you'd be very kind to indulge me.

In the meantime, I'll be over here, singing 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', in a minor key. .