A Buddhist Slant on Christmas

     Some years ago, during a difficult time personally, I was driving north to visit my mother and listening to an audio book from American Buddhist Nun, Pema Chodron. One of the lines she spoke, which I quickly jotted down on a scrap piece of paper, was this:

“What feels like fear to us, is, at its heart, just clear, unobstructed energy.”

     And of course, there are times when fear serves a purpose in keeping us safe from real danger, in which case, it is best not to examine the fear, but to simply call for help! But in the multitude of other ways that fear emerges in our lives as anxiety, tension, worry, indecision, self-hate, prejudice, judgment, etc., there is a better way to handle the misperceptions, or what the bible calls sin, at the root of fear.

     John the Baptist’s famous line that describes this better way to handle the sin of fear is: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” (Matthew 3: 1-6) I love it when we can hear the echoes of divine truth in different religious traditions: Both of these teachers, 2000 years or so apart in time, are both saying that when we can see the truth about fear, in all its forms, in our own lives—-and see that fear is just clear, unobstructed, beautiful life energy, we are THEN better able to receive God’s Love in liberating US to use this energy on the world’s behalf. The people came to John the Baptist confessing the many sins that the sin of fear, in all its forms, had created in their lives—and this, my friends—repentance—is one of the secrets to finding the joy about which Mary’s Magnificat captures so radiantly. (Luke 1: 39-56)

     For me, it was having a bat emerge from my attic last week that allowed my soul to magnify the Lord a little like Mary of Nazareth’s. Now, at one time in my life, if I had heard someone say that she was able to see a bit of Mary of Nazareth in herself, I would have thought her blasphemous (or at least very arrogant). But in seminary they help you understand that each person in scripture can illumine truths about yourself, pleasant and unpleasant, to learn and grow from. Even the person of Jesus, of course. It is a good and joyful thing when we discover our own lives in the stories of scripture.

     So here’s how scripture played itself out in my life. It helped me move God’s gift of clear, unobstructed life-energy of Spirit from a constricted place of Fear to one of relief and Joy in the Lord, simply using John the Baptist’s encouragement about repenting, or inviting God to help me change the perceptions of my mind. Here’s what happened:

      We discovered we had hibernating bats in our attic and walls 2 weeks ago when the construction workers knocked down a wall in part of our bathroom remodelling project. (BTW, when we first began planning this badly-needed building project early in the year, COVID was not on the map!) Anyway, a stunned bat emerged and was quickly released out the window. But when that bat (or a different one—we have no idea how many may be using us as a hotel) emerged again early LAST week when only one worker was there, the bat zipped out of the bathroom and began happily flying around our bedroom at a very fast clip. However, I was too horrified and frightened to think about repentance yet, even though that’s exactly what I needed.

     Now most of us have been taught that to repent means to change direction: If you’re cruel to children, tell lies regularly, or use loopholes on your income tax in unscrupulous ways, get your act together and shape up. That’s how I’ve always heard JBap anyway. (JBap is my nickname for this incredible lighthouse of a man who was trying to get people’s attention about waking up and noticing their thought patterns. Ordinary people. Not just the mean-and-lazy-cheat people we think are so different from us, but more importantly, those people like you and me who are used to thinking that if they just worked hard enough in seeking God’s face, that they could trust that life would turn out a certain way—a predictable way, a successful way—“batfree,” in other words).

     I felt ashamed that we had this disgusting problem in our home that was putting these good construction workers at risk of contracting rabies.

I felt afraid that a bat might emerge through a vent or closet while we slept in another room and bite us.

I feared that this whole house project that we had been needing for so long was going to be delayed until after the bats flew the coop in early May, since it’s illegal to remove or relocate bats.

Last Thursday night I woke from a dream, perhaps not so different from the one Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, experienced in helping him to repent from seeing Mary’s pregnancy as an unwanted “bat problem” in his own life.  Joseph’s dream of repentance allowed him to take her as his wife rather than trying to relocate the so-called problem so he could go on with his life “batfree” —-uncomplicated by the scandalous nature of life’s uncertainty.

      “To repent” is the English translation for the Greek work metanoia, which means “to change one’s mind”—to learn how to see people and interactions differently—to process the information the world gives you from a position of emptiness, openness, and in solidarity with the holy lack of certainty in life.

     We have not usually been taught this understanding of repentance by the Church. My experience with many Christians has been one of absolute certainty that their way of seeing Jesus, interpreting scripture, valuing traditions, and understanding other religions is the best way. Which is an appropriate place of development if you are a person still in the early stages of religious or spiritual formation. But this posture is of little help to those of us who are able or willing to hike out into the wilderness for something more.

     The perplexing words of Advent: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” are here to fill the longing of those who are hungry for more than just glib responses to life’s deepest questions. These words point us toward having the wonder-filled experience of Mary’s ecstatic awe we hear in scripture today, standing there with her older cousin, Elizabeth, both of whom stood outside of any kind of normalcy, certitude, or risk-free parenting of those divinely-chosen boys.

     When I woke from my dream last Thursday night, fear took hold of my mind until I could feel the adrenalin coursing through my veins, and I knew it was useless to try and find sleep again. So I decided to do contemplative prayer while I laid there with my eyes closed, perfectly sealed under all the blankets so any emerging bats in my imagination couldn’t nibble on an exposed toe or finger.  It took strength to just keep my mind on the faithful pull of my diaphragm, breathing in God’s Spirit of repentance with every inhale. “There is not a spot where God is not,” I remembered our dear Myrna from Towsley Village saying. I imagined my body curled up in a human-sized flower pot, feeling comforted by remembering God as the container of my life. I repented by focusing my mind not on my fear, but instead on God’s presence in and around my body.

     This is what I hear in Mary’s words from scripture: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones (i.e. he has gotten them out of their thinking, out of their craving for certainty and security, and down into the fundamental uncertainty of life), he has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors.” 

     My fears had me nailed to a cross of self-judgment, anxiety, anger, and frustration that we hadn’t fixed the siding on our house years ago—and the moment I realized this—that I had nailed myself to a torture-device and was in so much pain— I saw Jesus, in my mind, moving toward me to take my place on that cross, that I had placed myself and my husband upon.

“He looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary says, and I thought of my seminary teachings about God’s love infused in the lowest of circumstances and people: how Christ is more than just a person who lived and died 2000 years ago, and around which a new religion was born. Jesus Christ, or God incarnate, as the Word or Living Blueprint or Software, is a reality wired into all of creation and every situation we face.

The unfolding of this bat situation, just like Joseph’s messy situation with Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, was simply another way in which the Lord’s presence could be revealed, if I could let it become part of the Living Word rather than a “problem” to relocate or bury or outwit. Suddenly, as I lay curled up tightly under the hot covers, I could feel my body relax in trusting acceptance of whatever befell us, our home, our health, or our reputation among the wonderful workers who may not wish to continue the job. I felt gratitude in suddenly not feeling alone anymore. Mary put it this way: “My spirit rejoiced in God my Savior.”

     And then it hit me as I lay there pushing the covers off my too-hot body: I felt Joy. No kidding—the words “My soul magnifies the Lord” popped into my mind, and for the first time this Christmas season, I think I may have tasted a bit of the joy that Mary was trying to articulate.

     This is what repentance looks like in our everyday lives. Taking our mind off of what is robbing of us of life-giving energy and Spirit, and placing our mind on the very real “incarnated-in-your-body-and-lungs” Presence of the One who has said I will never leave you and will always come.

     In Lucinda McDowell’s book called, “Dwelling Places: Words to Live in Every Season,” she shared this story on the very first Sunday of Advent: “We practice the presence of God, and it is always a practice of the eyes. We don’t have to change what we see. Only the way we see. This year Sharol Hayner will be facing her first Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. Over the last year of her husband’s life, she chose to practice [this way of placing the mind on the Presence of the One who has said I will never leave you and will always come.] Sharol says, “Even in the worst of times, there is always something for which to be thankful. Today I’m thankful for an amazing hospice doctor who comes and sits with us and explains what’s going on physically for Steve but also asks questions about our emotional and spiritual journeys. I’m grateful for emails and texts from so many who have felt nudged to pray for us. Yes, it’s a time for grief, but it’s also a time for gratitude. As one friend says, grief and gratitude mixed together create joy. How true this is.”

     Fear is just clear, unobstructed energy that has been temporarily blocked for some reason. What is it in your life that is creating a fear blockade between you and the beautiful life-giving energy of God’s Spirit in your life? What grief could become bearable if you repented and placed it into a container of Love this holiday season in a brand new way? What “bat problem” might we have in our lives that might not need to be felt as shaming any longer, as we let Jesus take us down from the crosses we think will never release us?

     The King of Kings is coming for you. To release you from the need for absolute certainty, to redeem you from the sins that fear in all its forms has caused in your life, to take you off the cross you have nailed yourself to. Let us all “prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight.” I, for one, can’t wait till the brightness of his coming comes again.

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