For a few hours in the afternoon I met with our music director to talk about the music and liturgy for Christmas Eve. Given the horrifying acts of violence against children - and every peace loving person - that took place this week at the hands of the Taliban in Pakistan - as well as the recent report on CIA torture and the escalating public protests for racial equality and justice that are spreading like wildfire, we sensed this reality had to be a part of our worship. Without a prophetic and healing word of truth and hope, Christmas Eve this year could be a pretty albeit sentimental show of tradition. Not what this hour cries out for, yes?
We had already planned to try two things: our 5 pm gathering will be very traditional - all the carols you could dream of along with candle light communion - a real place of safety, warmth, comfort and joy. I get that - and need that every year, too. Our 11 pm worship, however, will be a more evocative and contemplative extended jazz meditation on the coming of Christ into this moment in history. Not quite Coltrane's "Alabama" or "Fables of Faubus" by Mingus, mind you, but no less poignant or passionate given our shared commitment to justice and jazz in the context of worship. So we wrestled with how the ancient story of King Herod's violence always lurks just below the words of Christ's birth. We rewrote part of the liturgy so that the Christ candle lighting ceremony is now a directed meditation on the Lord's alternative to the violence of the world. And we played with some music that will help our folk make the connection between the coming of the Prince of Peace as a vulnerable child and what that means for those who seek to live into his grace.
THIS is why I have stayed in ministry. THIS is why I still hold out hope for the church. I have come to treat budget meetings with prayer. I know that there are important things disclosed in coffee hours, too. And I still believe in the value of small acts of kindness whether that's a phone call, a card or a visit to someone in the hospital. But budgets and coffee hours don't sustain me - and they were not why I followed the call into ministry. And at this point in my ministry, I'm not all that committed to any of the incidentals anymore. No, given the fear and violence, I sense that I have to live more fully as a "holy fool" who invites others to do likewise.
For the past few days, Fr. Richard Rohr has been articulating what I have been discerning for my own time in the closing years of my public ministry. Here's the way he puts it and I share it with you in the hope that if you, too are feeling like things are spinning out of control in the world or your life, you might join us Christmas Eve this year @ 11 pm. We feel that, too and want to point towards another way. A more gentle way. A way of peace and hope that takes the grief of this moment seriously. I believe that when we become allies of God through the foolishness of Christ, we start to bring balance and hope back into a bleak midwinter. A few of our local jazz masters will join us as guests, too so please come on out.
Some years ago I visited an old Franciscan who lived in Gallup, NewMexico. He spent most of his life working with the native people, and he loved them deeply. When I knew him, he was probably in his late eighties. He was bent over and he would walk the streets of downtown Gallup in his Franciscan robe and sandals, carrying a cane. He would lift his bent head and greet everybody with the greeting of St. Francis: “Good morning, good people!” Our job is to remind people of their inherent goodness, and this is what this dear man did.
On his cane he had strung a string of battery-powered, blinking Christmas lights. Now to anyone who is a tourist in town, they must think him quite the old fool—bent over, in a brown robe and sandals, with blinking Christmas lights on his cane! And it was not even Christmas time.
One day I asked him, “Father, why do you put those blinking Christmas lights on your cane?”
He cocked his head toward me, looked up grinning, and said, “Richard, it makes for good conversation. See, you are talking to me now. Everybody asks about them, and I am able to talk to everybody because of my Christmas lights.”
Now, was he a fool in most peoples’ eyes? Was he a naïve innocent? Yes, I guess he was. The “holy fool” is the final stage of the full human journey. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “It is those who become like little children who will enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus, in his frequent allusion to children, was in his own way describing this final stage of life. We return to that early childhood, as it were, running naked and exposed into the great room of life and death. “I am who I am who I am” now. God has accepted me in my most naked being, and I can now give it all back to God exactly as it is with conscious loving trust that it will be received. What else would God want?
St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”
Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.
A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.
That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?
When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons.