For all the pageants and grand tellings, there’s something about our kids in wonderfully makeshift costumes gathering together around the manger at the front of the church that tells the story best of all. I mean that last sentence with as little sentimentality as possible. They get it right, as they did yesterday at Pilgrim.
Our telling involves a small parade of characters — from shepherds to soldiers to magi — who walk in to the verse of a carol and then carry on a conversation with the somewhat irritable innkeepers until we are all at the front in tableau and everyone sings “Joy to the World!” This year, I was one of the Wise Men (irony intended), though the speaking parts went to the younger ones in our band of magi. The dialogue went back and forth until one of the boys said, “You don’t understand. What if God was in that stable — wouldn’t that change everything?”
What a question. In one sense, it feels rhetorical and yet, in another — as in when I think of my friends dealing with grief and cancer and unemployment and who-knows-what-else — I hear it in a different light. Still light, but a different light. The “what if” of it all reminds me there is more going on than it seems and that I have to pay attention. I love that phrase because of the action involved: pay attention. Mr. Berry enlightens:
We speak of “paying attention” because of a correct perception that attention is owed — that without our attention and our attending our subjects, including ourselves, are endangered. (83)
The subjects of which he was speaking are those things we write and speak and paint and sing about. His call to art and attending means understanding, as I spoke of before, they are not “raw materials” but the stuff of life that matters most. When we pay attention to one another we strengthen the ties that bind, we become community. When we pay attention to the story unfolding at the stable, we find ourselves along with God.
We use the verb attending when we talk about serving: attendants are those who take care of those around them. A key part of service is listening. To attend — to pay attention — means to listen. Listen well and our subjects are not endangered.
I met one who I hope is becoming a new friend a couple of weeks ago. He’s an artist here in town who does metal sculpture. We met at Cocoa Cinnamon (of course) and talked about the creative process. As he spoke about his painting and drawing and sculpting, he said he saw what he did as “abstracting,” but he had a twist on the way he defined the word. Till that moment, abstract art meant “not easily understandable,” but Jim said, “In academic life, an abstract of a dissertation distills the whole document down to a paragraph or two; it offers the essence of the thing. That’s the way I want to use the verb: abstracting, for me, means distilling life into the work of art: offering the essence of what I see around me.”
Very little of our pageant on Sunday was authentic or historically accurate, but what we did well was abstract the story: what if God was in that stable — wouldn’t it change everything.” That’s it. Let’s keep moving to the manger.