Do You Believe in Santa Claus?

If you ask a naïve child: “Do you believe in Santa Claus?” he replies “Yes!”

If you ask a bright child the same question, he replies “No!”

However if you ask an even brighter child, he replies “Yes!”

- - Ronald Rolheiser in Forgotten Among the Lilies - -

Not long ago, my partner and I had one of the worst moviegoing experiences of our lives. We went to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The movie itself was quite good. The audience, however, was atrocious.

Parents, who apparently had never uttered the word "no", brought throngs of ill-mannered adolescents who kawkawed through the entire movie like a murder of crows. As we entered the theater, two of them ran up from behind us and attempted to shove us out of the way in order to get prime seats. (My outstretched leg halted their progress.) The gossipers seated behind us provided a cacophonous secondary soundtrack, and with one exception, none of these urchins every said "please" or "excuse me" during their repeated foot-trampling escapades in and out of our row. By the time the movie was over, we were eager to enter the whole lot of them into a Hunger Games lottery.

We were particularly eager to see this movie because we had enjoyed reading the trilogy. In our heads we had conjured a complex, virtual reality of characters, districts, the topography of the games, the ambience of the capitol…a vibrant and fluid mental landscape inspired by the books. If we had seen the movie first, our imagination would have been narrowed to the vision of the film's director.

This struck me as an analogy for the spiritual path. We start off taking things literally as we have been spoon fed them. We naively believe in a literal Santa Claus. This is fine as the starting point in which we first learn the stories, but eventually we have to throw off this limited literalism that denies the reality in which we live (or we become rigid fundamentalists). Eventually, we no longer believe.

Then, at some point, if we are lucky, we realize there is a deeper truth beneath these stories, myths, scriptures and dogmas. It's not the stories themselves which were important, but the Ultimate Reality to which they point, which is, after all, a Mystery. While we may no longer believe that a rotund philanthropist trespasses across the threshold of every household and is then whisked away by airborne caribou, we do start to believe in the spirit of generosity, altruism, good cheer and kindness. We can once again say with integrity that we do believe in Santa Claus.

What it requires is that we release those "film interpretations" that narrow our perspective without losing The Story itself. We read both sacred texts and the sacred scriptures of our own lives side by side. Imagination sparks. Hope inspires. Compassion exudes. Otherwise, we've missed the point. Even the Christmas story itself needs to pass through this dialectic of belief, unbelief, and then deeper belief that rhymes with the holy experience of our own lives.

Perhaps if those adolescents at the movie still believed in a literal Santa Claus, we could have threatened them with lumps of coal for Christmas. While Santa won't literally shaft them with lumps of coal, I do believe it will happen in a deeper sense. Soon enough the smartphone or Wii given at Christmas will seem like a lump of coal when it is tossed aside as obsolete.

We all get to the point where life feels like a bag full of charcoal briquettes. In those moments will we keep grasping for new toys to distract us? More lumps of coal in the making? Or will we choose to believe in and embrace the Essence of Christmas…a human heart broken open by compassion…awe-filled eyes that see the Sacred Presence everywhere…satiated gratitude for the simple goodness of being this and now.

Do you believe?

'Twas the Night Before Christmas

`Twas the night before Christmas, when all through God’s houseNot a creature was stirring, not a wife, not her spouse;

The children were restless, all crammed in their pews, The thought of their presents they could not refuse;

The stockings were waiting, hung at home with great care, In hopes that some people soon would be there.

The pastor in vestments for obvious reason, Had just settled her brain after a long Advent Season.

When out from the lectern there arose the old story, Of a Child in a manger, born in such glory.

Yet none sprang from his seat, nor gasped in great wonder. All had heard the story, both hither and yonder

Of how God came to earth, in form of a boy, To bring peace to earth, and life and joy.

The pastor she spoke, in voice strong and bold, The story of Christmas, that she retold.

Had it all become trite now; did it still matter? For life’s full of problems, much sorrow, and clatter.

The bills, they were mounting; the jobs, full of stress, And all folks were dealing with demands and duress.

And sickness, no stranger to God's people on earth, Suff’ring and death had robbed many of mirth.

Problems and mem'ries which live in the mind, Guilt, fear and vices, the heart they do bind.

When all of these troubles fine people do ponder, Their minds fill with dread; they start then to wonder:

"How could a Baby born years ago past, Bring balm for our sorrows, hope that will last?

How can that story heard so many a time Bring any more help than an old children's rhyme?"

So knowing what fear and worry can do, The pastor spoke thusly on Luke chapter two:

"I read you this evening of peace come to earth, So familiar the story, this one of Christ's birth.

Born to a maiden, in a stable so bare, Some shepherds, they came, to worship Him there.

Then angels appeared in garments so hoary, ‘Peace to all men, and to God be the glory’.

This baby grew up, like you and like me, He even would work by carving a tree.

He taught for three years in old Israel land, And proclaimed a deep peace that could never be banned.

But much more than teaching and preaching did he, He became love incarnate, exuding pure chi.

For this baby was born for one purpose only, A purpose so noble, yet painful and lonely.

To become fully human, divine light reveal Till the darkest of hearts would with hope learn to squeal.

And the outcasts he greeted with a grace not conceited. Till meekest among us rejoiced undefeated.

For his goal was no less than to free up the world From the fear, greed and meanness in which it had whirled.

Not surprisingly big wigs began to decry How he mirrored divine love with twinkling eye

Infusing great faith in the powerless masses Till they trusted their own Light, both lads and lasses.

With trees He did work, and on a tree He did die, Then buried by some friends in a grave site nearby.

An innocent man had died for a reason; Liberation from hate that was so in season.

Then inside the tomb there arose such a clatter, Guards rose from their slumber to see what was the matter.

An angel appeared, tossed aside that great rock, The guards all stood frozen, amazed and in shock.

`Fear not', the beginning of all angel message, `Life has returned to remove every vestige

Of small hearts, separation and all fear of hell, Till you see God in each face, wherever you dwell.'

That God is in us is a truth elementary, That reaches down into this twenty-first century.

So on this night before Christmas, to all in God's house, Bless you, all creatures, even if you're a louse.

For a Child has been born for me and for you, To rekindle Inner Light and give us a clue

Of a joy all around us, a hope and a cheer That connects ev'ry person throughout the new year.

Whatever your problem with me now take heart, Divine Life is within us, let’s make a fresh start."

Then the pastor concluded with an unusual plea, She called out their names, and did so with glee.

"Now, Scottie! Now, Herbie! Now, Miss Jane and Val'rie! On Omar! On Sarah! On  Anya and Mall'ry!

A Child was born that first Christmas night, Let hope be reborn, no matter your plight.

Out to the world, we go with the story, Of a Cosmos that loves us and gives us such glory."

They sprang to their cars, to their friends they gave greeting, And away they all flew, for time, it was fleeting.

But I heard them exclaim, ere they drove out of sight, "Happy Christmas to all.  And to all a good night."

The Tyranny of American Enormity

Several years ago author Wayne Muller facilitated a workshop that I attended. One of his phrases has stuck with me: "the tyranny of American enormity". We live in a culture where enough is never enough. Every laptop and cell phone must have more features and be faster than the previous model. Profits this year must exceed last year's profits. More choices. More data. More. More. More! The consequences of our consumer culture on the planet and on the poor laborers who make our lust for more possible have been well documented. According to the Worldwatch Institute, we are 5% of the world's population, yet we consume 24% of the world's energy. Every day we eat 200 billion calories more than is needed, enough to feed 80 million people.

Nowhere is this addiction to "more" more apparent than during the Christmas season (a.k.a. retail season) as we spend our way into greater and greater debt. But the tyranny of "more" is not just economic. It's become an entire lifestyle. How many of us can keep up with the increasing number of emails we receive? To read, reply to or act on each email would take most of us most of our daylight hours. Just to triage email requires the skill of an e-surgeon.

Of course, email is not the only technology which has grown to enormous proportions in our lives ...text messages, Facebook, Twitter, radio, television, podcasts, Internet sites we frequent...the list is endless. And, of course, it's not just technology. Billboards, snail mail flyers and junk mail, books and magazines we've not read, clothes we've not yet worn or no longer wear, piles of papers and possessions...all compete for our attention and add a sense of weight to our lives.

How can we escape this tyranny of American enormity? This is the culture in which we live. How do we become counter-cultural and yet still function?

Here are some questions for reflection that might help us lighten up and simplify:

What if...

  • Instead of buying Aunt Polly a 3-pack of jams for Christmas, I make a donation to a charity in her name?
  • I take a three-minute break outdoors when I'd normally be immersed in keeping up with the demands of whatever my e-addiction is? What if I look at a tree or a bird or even water flowing over a wood bridge (photo above) until I feel a sense of awe, of "enough"?
  • I limit the number of times I check email to once or twice a day? If my work does not allow that, what if I take a "e-Sabbath" one day a week or month when I don't check email or surf the Internet?
  • I spend more time getting to know the camellia in my backyard and less time catching up on the latest "Honey Boo Boo" gossip?
  • I unsubscribe to at least one email subscription and make it ok that I am choosing to keep up with one less thing in the world?
  • I pause before buying the next item I plan to purchase and reflect on why I feel the drive to purchase it?

The Magi brought the baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts I long to receive this Christmas are simplicity, awe and a felt sense of "enough".