The Flamingo and the Star
Presented December 23rd, 2018
A Unitarian minister, Clarke Dewey Wells, has a story about his young son and a star.
Shortly after twilight, our 3 ½ year old tried to gain our attention to see a shining star. We were busy with time and schedules, the irritabilities of the day and other worth pre-occupations. I said “yes, yes, we see the star – now I’m busy, don’t bother me.”
On hearing this, the young one launched through the porch door, fixed us with a fiery gaze and said: “You be glad at that star!”
You be glad at that star!
Wells says he never forgot the incident or his son’s perfect words. “It was one of those rare moments when you get everything you need for the good of your soul.”
It seems to me that this is the intention of many religious rituals – to push us to be glad at that star – to stop and look up, away from our pre-occupations, and place ourselves back into a much bigger, grander story.
We don’t have much room for this kind of experience any more, we don’t live in a culture that encourages star gladness. But we all need experiences that are good for the spirit, that provide some kind of spiritual renewal.
Christianity created an entire mythos and holiday season about the birth of a single baby long ago so people could – for a moment – feel part of a timeless story, could see ourselves as part of a much larger family.
Whatever the original intent behind Christmas, it has evolved into a holiday to remind ourselves of that which is whole and holy; we dressed it up in pagan clothes of evergreen and holly and added feasting and singing.
Humans have a deep, often hidden, need to experience glorious mystery, and here in Canada, as a culture we pour it all into just a few nights each year.
And because that mystery is hard to face – to be reminded of the length of history and the immensity of the divine or the universe is an intense experience – we surround it with ordinary pleasures.
We’ve added chocolate and gifts and gingerbread houses. Lately we’ve been adding giant glowing puffball snowmen waving on lawns and red and green laser light shows on houses. And, for some reason I do not quite understand, ugly Christmas sweaters.
It’s really rather strange to have the label Christmas apply both to honouring the birth of the Christian saviour and to the great pink flamingo carrying a present that appears on my neighbour’s lawn on the first of December.
It is also wonderful – the way cultures around the world claim this holiday and evolve it into an event that speaks to their own history – so now we have both.
But we still need to be glad at that star. We need nights like the one I spoke about last week – St. Francis and the first nativity scene – “that venerable night … made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise.”
I’d like more venerable nights made glorious in my own life – nights that remind me that I am part of something greater and more wonderful than my own small life.
Nights that let me rest in the peace and glory of life on earth.
That allow me to feel that greater kinship across time and space.
Nights in which I can simply breathe and be, lost in wonder.
Mostly, and it seems especially during the holidays, I have the nights of the pink flamingo, kind of weird and goofy but making it work.
I think this is a very human thing to do, to take a moment of mystery and make it a little ridiculous.
Feasting and being silly are good in and of their own right. There is plenty that is good about a Christmas pink flamingo. But it does make the mystery – the glory – harder to access.
Since I was not raised Christian, I don’t mind Christmas being about more than Jesus in the stable. That story doesn’t hold much meaning for me. But what I do long for is cultural permission for a socially acceptable way to break through to the mystery – for all of us together to stop for a moment and look around and see the kinship and connection that exists among us all.
For us to be taken outside of ourselves and just feel being alive as we are – in this moment.
I want to feel amazed by the kinship that is all of us, all of life. To feel the transcendent hope that life is long, that rhythms shift, and that good will always come again. To be bigger then the schedules.
It’s hard to break through our pre-occupations, even for a moment, in times like these. It’s hard to be glad at that star when children are dying trying to reach a safe refuge. It’s hard to feel kinship with other creatures when they are steadily disappearing. It’s hard to find hope when global politics feel dangerously unstable.
To open our hearts to joy is to be open also to pain – and there is a lot of pain in the world right now.
And there is this nagging sense that if we were doing it right, we would experience and express that wondrous sense of connection all the time and be forever transformed. That to feel that wonder and hope means we will become saints of kindness and there won’t be any more pink flamingos at Christmas.
But to be human includes the great and the ridiculous. We need both.
I think the moments – and they are only moments – of connection to the greater whole – help us be our ordinary extraordinary selves.
It’s really a kind of a spiritual reset – we need those moments to get outside of ourselves and simply be – to rest in the glory of the world and experience that great kinship of all life.
To be at home in these bodies, in this place, at this time, together.
These moments put us back together, make us whole again, make us wholly human.
May we enjoy the pink flamingo bringing gifts and find time to “be glad at that star.”
A young man, struggling with the meaning of Christmas, tried to shift his perspective by spending some time at a Christmas market.
Throughout the space were light displays spelling out giant words: Hope. Family. Joy.
He thought that if he created his own light displays they would read: Anxiety. Frustration. Regret.
As we live into this strange mix of mystery and consumerism that is the winter holiday, some of us might experience those mirrored light displays within ourselves.
Hope. and Anxiety.
Family. And Frustration.
Joy. And Regret.
Getting tangled up in complex feelings makes it seem impossible that our hearts will ever be calm enough to be open to the mystery. Dealing with expectations and pressures from family and society keeps our thoughts swirling trying to get through the holidays. How do we find those moments of re-connection to the glory of life? How do we find spiritual renewal?
I wish I had the answer, or at the very least a clear three step process, results guaranteed.
We have the Maple Leafs – sports events are places of connection.
We have Star Wars – the kinship of fans is not to be underestimated.
These cultural experiences are valid ways to break out of ourselves.
Drumming, chanting, singing, meditating, walking, gardening – these are all ways we might find that moment of connection.
I think the opportunities are there, but we need to be open to the possibility, not to will it to happen, or try so hard we get in the way of ourselves, but to be aware and be open. Just in case.
There is a video going around facebook at the moment of a young woman in a largely empty Spanish cathedral – She sings O Come, O Come Emmanuel and the building sings with her – the reverb carrying and lifting her voice – it’s glorious.
It makes me wonder what it must have been like centuries ago, to be in a cathedral lit with the warm glow of candles, the people gathered under the vaulted ceilings, held within the music soaring all around. Did these moments allow them to let go, to breathe and simply be, for a time? Before they went back to the difficult work of being a weaver or a blacksmith, the difficult work of being human?
We try here, with ceremonies and rituals – when we light candles or pour the waters or share flowers – but it’s hard to get out of our heads long enough to simply breathe and be. Sometimes, some of us, get there. Sometimes we don’t.
Many come here to have a space outside of all the expectations, outside of all the loneliness, where we can re-connect with ourselves, with one another, with the world.
My hope is always is that each person here leaves at least a little bit renewed.
It isn’t easy to be human, to be broken and whole together, to be responsible to others and to simply be.
In a culture that emphasizes success and perfection and control, seeking spiritual renewal doesn’t make a lot of sense. To seek something elusive and intangible, that doesn’t last? That can’t be described, only experienced? That might come with years of meditation practice or occur unexpectedly on a crowded street?
It’s not efficient.
But those moments of connection – of kinship with all that is – is the reset button we need more than we know. Those moments outside of our busy heads and hearts that bring us into connection with the mystery of life. These heal us in ways we don’t always know we need.
In the coming weeks I invite all of you to be open for a moment of hope and connection. It might be with your family, or on a moonlit night or watching a youtube video. There is no one way to experience a moment of transcendence.
But I think it helps if you can just accept yourself as you are, to let go of how you should be or would like to be, and just be.
Writer Sue Monk Kidd tells a story of her young daughter – When my daughter was small she got the dubious part of the Bethlehem star in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal she burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel designed to drape over her like a sandwich board.
“What exactly will you be doing in the play?” I asked her.
“I just stand there and shine,” she told me.
This holiday, take a deep breath, or two, or three, and just stand there and shine.
There are other things to do, of course, obligations to family, friends, to ourselves.
But perhaps one of our obligations could be to just stand there and shine.
To take a moment to be nothing more than ourselves, present and open to all that is.
If we can just stand there and shine, we might just open ourselves to being part of the glorious immensity and intensity of life.
So Say We All.