Advent is the season of the child-like spirit. Last week we talked about the stage in faith development called "second naïvete," which is a place of wonder and openness to the possibility of the miraculous. Today we journey into the life stage of adolescence, a chronological age many of us passed long ago, but whose experiences are always, in emotional and physical ways, still with us.
Someone said to me once that she thought that people are defined for the rest of their lives by their high school experience. Her theory was that if you were popular and had a great time and were a star in high school, the rest of your life would probably be a let-down. "People who are high school stars become obnoxious adults," she said, "because they can't handle not being the center of attention anymore." Conversely, she believed that people who had a really horrible high school experience would either become especially compassionate and interesting adults or else axe murderers. Her views are a bit extreme (!) but it certainly is interesting to consider: is that tumultuous period of adolescence something we ever get over?
I don't think so, but then, I have never believed in the idea of "getting over" life experiences in the first place. Our human journey is all of one piece, with one body, mind and spirit that accompany and house us all along the way. From the moment we are born, everything we experience becomes not just a memory in our minds and hearts, but also in our bodies, on the cellular level. Long after we have forgotten happy or sad incidents, our bodies remember them. This isn't to paint us all as permanent victims of challenging times or traumatic moments, it is to encourage us to honor the steady through-line that connects every age of our lives, and to recognize that it is the animal body every bit as much as the mind that comprises what we call the Self.
One interpretation of the Advent story is that it is a story about God's longing to be born into the world in human form, to experience life as a human being, to suffer all the joys and sorrows and vulnerabilities of being human. (Hearing the choir's sweet anthem just now, I was just thinking that we never hear Christmas lullabies about the teething baby Jesus). It is such a shame, I think, that we have no literature about Jesus' teen years -- just a few mentions here and there. It would have been such a wonderful contribution to sacred literature to know, for instance, how Mary and Joseph disciplined Jesus (or if they did) after they lost him on that trip to Jerusalem and found him teaching the elders in the synagogue. Did they ground him? Did they just back off and watch him become the enlightened being he was becoming from a distance? Did they stay up nights worrying about him? Did he have acne and an awkward voice change, or was he spared that?
Adolescence is the time when we become keenly aware that we are incarnate beings. Do you remember the overwhelming feelings, new sensations and obsessions that came along with that? Last weekend we dedicated two beautiful little babies and we said that "it is our belief that each child born is one more redeemer." That's right. Every person contains within themselves a seed of the Divine, and has the potential to incarnate holy intention in the world. Children mostly do this unconsciously, instinctually. But the teenager represents not just one human body coming of age as an animal capable of reproducing, but as a moral being capable of ethical reasoning and personal responsibility. That is a potent force. I think that teenagers, by the powerful physicality of their being, can intimidate those adults who have learned to silence the body's wisdom and who treat their own bodies as a mechanism to be ordered around by the mind.
When I watch how fast our church children grow, it actually frightens me a bit. I mean, it in the sense that it fills me with awe and amazement. One of our little boys or girls shoots up over the summer into a leggy, elegant young man or young woman with a whole new voice, bone structure, and sense of presence. I have sometimes stood in conversation with one of them not even knowing who they were as they chatted animatedly away, and then realized "Oh my God, you're CARSON. My Lord, it's KAREN. " My heart pounds. Maybe this is because I'm not a parent and I don't see them every day. I know that their transformation is just nature taking its course and a young body growing bones and sinews and grey matter and being flooded by hormones and all that, but there is also the overwhelming sense for me that the creative force that of the universe is just pounding through these young veins. They are electric. They just shine. They radiate energy. Last weekend we hosted a youth dance here and it was wonderful to see them dancing, being awkward, being beautiful, having a minor misunderstanding with the chaperones about grinding, all the classic stuff.
So as much as I had some serious criticisms of the movie "Where the Wild Things Are," (which I saw with Jennifer and our youth group), I loved the wild physicality of Max running with his enormous monster friends all over that island of his imagination, growling and tumbling, climbing and cuddling with them in a big pile. Max seemed to me to be doing as much maturing from his playing as he was doing from his thinking and working through conflict. I am in favor of more wild physicality in all our lives, at any age. I am glad that a few weeks before our teen dance, we hosted an adult dance here! I am in favor of play time that stops the sophisticated mind from its defensive, denying maneuvers and sets the body free to express its own uncensored truth. The body is the repository of ancestral wisdom, ancient wisdom, spirit wisdom.
Earlier in our service we heard a meditation that reminded us that the church is a body. And it is. It is a body at every stage of life in a literal sense as well as a metaphorical sense. Part of its strength lies in this chronological diversity, this gift of being able to walk in on a Sunday morning and to see the baby, the elder, the thirty-something, the fifty or sixty-something, the teenager, the whole span of life represented and welcoming each other, reaching across generational boundaries to encourage each other. Traditional Western religion, with its suspicion of the body, has often hidden away its youth and children, asking that they be seen but not heard, or just not seen. We want to see our youth. It is a congregational commitment that comes not from a sense of duty but from appreciation and enjoyment. I think that those of us who have passed through the fire of adolescence would like to say to our youth, "Stay wild things. Stay wild. Dance. Play. Run. Make some noise. You are the universe creating itself. Thank you for reminding us what we are made of, and what we were made for. Thank you for the fresh start that you represent.
Take care of each other. Be good friends. And that thing Jennifer's teacher said to her at the end of each class about it being a jungle out there? -- Follow her example. Don't believe everything we tell you."