Monday, July 27, 2009

Receiving Heaven Like a Child

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” ~ Heraclitus

Last night as I was putting my daughter to sleep, I read her the story of Cinderella. These days Annabel, who is 4 ½ , lives and breathes Cinderella, and so I read her the same story every night. As any parent with young children knows, evenings after the kids are in bed are precious times to reconnect with one’s self and one’s spouse. And so I was looking forward to finishing the book, turning off the light, kissing my little girl goodnight, and heading downstairs to be with my wife, to think and say and do adult things. In other words, I had an agenda.

My daughter, on the other hand, had no agenda. She was not thinking of or planning anything else beyond our reading the book together. Actually, reading is not the right word. Living the book might be more apt. At every page, and sometimes at each sentence on the page, Annabel would interrupt me to launch into an elaborate commentary, an extended imagining of the world of Cinderella and it’s many intersections with her own life: why mice make better friends than cats, what makes stepmother’s mean, how rags can become gowns, and which people in her life she would cast in which roles.

As long as I was focused on my goal of finishing the story, this beautiful play of the imagination was lost on me. It was an obstacle to my fulfilling my agenda and I was growing more and more impatient.

And then I noticed what was going on. I had a goal. She did not. Time was passing for me, my evening was speeding by. But time did not exist for her, her world of imagination was growing and expanding and she was caught up in a kind of eternity, an enchanted world of which we grown ups proverbially bemoan the loss. “Time is a game played beautifully by a child.”

Perhaps, I thought, if I could set aside my goal-oriented consciousness, I might be able to recover some of that expansiveness that she seemed to possess so effortlessly. I tried, with some limited success.

This morning it was my son, who is 2 ½, taking on the role of spiritual guide. It was just the two of us awake and he wanted to do a puzzle together. We pulled out an alphabet puzzle with pictures drawn on each piece to indicate it’s letter. An octopus was curved into the letter O, piano keys shaped into a P, a quail standing awkwardly in the shape of a Q. Again, I fell into an agenda—finish the puzzle. Atticus had a different idea. He wanted to take all the pieces and put them into piles, then gather all those piles into one big pile. Then he found a container and put all the pieces in the container. And finally, one by one, he would pull them out and quiz me on each letter, explain how it was upper case and not lower case, describe the picture on the puzzle piece and inform me how a quail was a kind of bird, but not a chicken, which is also a kind of bird, and so on. I don’t remember if the puzzle ever was completed, but I remember not caring anymore as I let myself get lost in this beautiful boy’s exploration of letters and words and ideas.

Alan Watts, in one of his lectures, says that when we equate life with a journey that has a goal and an end point, we have distorted the act of living. He says that music or dance is a better analogy because there is no goal involved beyond the playing of the music or the dancing of the dance. Children know this instinctively. When my daughter repeats the story of Cinderella over and over again, it is not because she is in a rush to get to the “happily ever after,” but because it is a good story, a captivating piece of music, a merry dance. Telling the story is the happily ever after.

Jesus said to his disciples, Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. Maybe this is the quality that he was talking about, the ability to enter into a state of consciousness so completely, so joyously, and with full commitment. Maybe he is reminding us that the kingdom of God is less of a goal than it is a state of consciousness. Maybe he wants us to be as absorbed in that state as my daughter is when she twirls around just like Cinderella at the ball.

Maybe what God wants is for us to join him in a dance.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Finding Home

This is an excerpt from my new favorite podcast, Speaking of Faith. Krista Tippet, the host of the show, interviews Diane Winston, who teaches media and religion at USC. In the interview they discuss TV, and the way that shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica have become modern-day parables:

Winston: I think those characters on Lost, like the characters in Battlestar Galactica are addressing a fundamental question which is "How do I get home?"

Tippett: Right. Right. And what is the meaning of home?

Winston: And what is the meaning of home? And that's the question of The Odyssey, it's the question of the Exodus story, it's the question of The Wizard of Oz. I think it's a question that all of us have and that's why those characters are so appealing to us, because they mirror some of our questions about it.

When my first child -- my daughter Annabel -- was born, I discovered that I finally possessed something that I never realized I had been missing, but that I had been searching for most of my life. A feeling of home.

Not only had I not known it was missing. I hadn't known until I found it that I had been looking for it. It was as if, having received this incredibly precious gift, I suddenly became conscious of my prior lack, like receiving the answer for a question that I hadn't known I was asking. It was kind of like that feeling I sometimes get when leaving the house -- that I've forgotten something, but I don't know what it is, and I wait by the door until it hits me that I'm missing my keys, or my wallet, or something else, only I'd been having that feeling for almost thirty years and had learned how to completely ignore it. But, all at once, there I was, holding my beautiful girl in my arms, and I knew two things: 1) that because of my parents' divorce, I had felt homeless ever since I was 11 years old, and 2) with the birth of my new family, I was finally home.

It seems to me that the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of home?” has two components. The first part of the answer, I believe, is that home is other people. In my case, that means, primarily, my wife, Allison, and my two kids. When I am weary and wasted from my engagement with the world, it is Allison I need to get to in order to find rest and get oriented again. The night of her emergency surgery when I thought that I was going to lose her, everything I thought was stable and real flew apart. I remember, the next morning, leaving her still unconscious in the ICU with a breathing tube down her throat and driving home to see my kids. I could barely function and felt like I was losing my mind. I had no idea how I was going to keep going, until the moment I walked in my house and saw my kids. Being with them and knowing they needed me helped me get mentally and emotionally organized again. Being their Dad gave me purpose, focus, determination. Home is other people. My kids were my home and I was theirs.

And home is not just other people in the family. Our neighbors and friends responded to our family crisis with incredible generosity and support. Meals were dropped off, laundry was picked up, snow was shoveled, groceries were bought. Suddenly this little town to which we moved two years prior, and in which I’d always felt a bit of stranger; suddenly this town was our town. Our home.

The first part of the answer addresses being home in the world. The second part of the answer, being home in the universe.

It has always been obvious to me that God exists. I have never been certain about any religion’s particular claim to God, but of his existence I have felt sure. I know that is not the case for others, so I say that as a statement of personal experience, not with the presumption of a definitive truth. But I have never been able to conceive of a random and meaningless universe. For me the frontiers of human knowledge have always been suffused with mystery and not mere void.

I can’t really say why I feel so certain about the existence of God, except to say that I have always felt at home in this life. In my human relationships, I have, at times, felt homeless, lonely, abandoned. But, at a fundamental level, I have rarely felt I was alone. Not 100 percent of the time, of course, but even in my most desperate loneliness, I have carried an almost elemental feeling of belonging. Like the psalmist in the opening of Psalm 90, I can say, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

The early Christians as exemplified by Paul, in his second letter to the Ephesians, experienced their budding religion as a home in God, as “God’s household” built on the foundation of Christ:

“You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2: 19-21).

But finding a home in God is only the first step, as the next verse reveals: “And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph. 2: 22). For Paul, a person finds a home in God, so that God can make his home in that person.

I think this is an amazing idea. God wants to make a dwelling for himself in human beings. Maybe -- just as my kids and I needed each other to hold on to a sense of home -- maybe there is a mutual need between God and human beings. And why not? Maybe that’s what this whole experiment of humanity is about – a place for God himself to find home. Whatever the case, it seems that whether we are dealing with our relationships with other people or our relationship with God, home is a kind of mutual creation that grows out of the relationship itself.

And maybe the way we find home is by becoming that home for one another.