This is an abridged version of the sermon preached at First Parish in Milton, MA on Sunday, November 27, 2011. The first Sunday in Advent.
I know you’ve seen the street sign, too. Usually found in residential neighborhoods, it’s meant as a caution to drivers who might otherwise barrel down the streets thoughtlessly. Slow: children – those two words and one punctuation mark speak volumes. “This is a place where children live, children who are loved. Please drive slowly so that they may live.” And of course beyond that there is even more: all the layers of hopes and dreams their parents have for them, the perennial challenge of protecting and raising children well, the sense of vulnerability we all have. I know that’s what the sign means to evoke for us, but I often read it a little differently. It makes me pause all the same, but it also makes me smile.
Sometimes I like to imagine that it says: Slow, children.
Slow down, children of the universe
Go slow, children of the God who made all life in its mysterious beauty and fragility.
Take it slow, all of you who are still growing, though past a certain age you are loathe to admit it.
Slow, because life is a great gift we are meant to savor, not gulp.
Slow, children! Life gets its deepest meaning when we have space of heart and presence of mind to let all of it in.
We grow best, all of us still-children of someone and something greater than us all, when we have the time to let the wisdom of our experience guide our choices.
To do that we must move slowly, children.
Maybe I intentionally mis-read the sign because it’s exactly the reminder I need, daily.
I can’t drive through enough residential, family-filled streets to keep it current in my mind. It’s the combination that is key. To take it slow, and that we are children. We rely on the benevolence of others for our well-being. We are held in the arms of a force of life and love grander than ourselves. We are still growing into who we are and what it means to be human in this world, (and though we might fight it, we pray we never stop that growth.) We have plenty of responsibilities, including being an adult in our work and in our relationships and as we parent our children and care for our parents and do the million other things asked of us as people of a certain age. Still, deep in the heart of each of us, where the greatest wonder and the deepest fears and the highest hopes reside: there is a child.
The pull is strong this time of year to turn inward, to measure our lives in some way. The moment may come somewhat uninvited: the moment of irritation intertwined with a hint of inferiority as the shameless braggart in the family waxes eloquent about the accomplishments of self or children. Or it may be a welcome surprise: catching up with a distant cousin, an old friend, a faraway sibling, a beloved parent, and realizing connections never before explored. It is rare that we can escape the holiday season, no matter how hectic our lives, without at least a moment of pause in wonder, in celebration, in grief, in contemplation of the meaning of our lives.
That place in us that is still someone’s child, that growing, glorying, grieving place comes a little closer to the surface this time of year. Its work is deep and real and true, and most poignant with us as the nights lengthen and the festive lights are hung. It’s there, waiting for a little attention. Waiting for a chance to grow us more fully into ourselves.
As faiths around the world have known for millenia, we belong to the cycles of nature. As the earth pulls back its energy into itself, so must we. A lot happens under that surface if we will let it. If.
That work can be full of joy, but it can also be tearful, and angry and difficult. Slowing down means sitting squarely with disappointments we had shrugged off but still hold as wounds. It means letting in our sadness at the loss of loved ones we miss especially this time of year. It means sitting with our own fears of inadequacy, our sorrows at mistakes we’ve made.
The outward pull of the season is surely an enticing escape: Shopping! Lights! Carols! Shopping! Food! Shopping!
In this season of faith in the coming of god in the most common and plain form, to the most common and plain people, let us not be too busy to watch for the new life stirring in our own hearts. Let us make space not for the shoulds but for the needs of our souls.
If that is reveling in lights and taking in concerts and feeling exalted by it all: do it!
If that is giving ourselves and others permission not to rush, to take a much-needed rest, to play, to reflect with dear friends: do it!
Remember also that the moments savored in stillness take us to great depth, though the world may cry out against it. It could, in fact, be that the transformation we await so fervently in our world needs us to slow down, to re-adjust our internal clocks to sacred time, to envision a world transformed by a depth of living that honors the sacred in each and all and reminds us of what we really need: each other.
Walk in barren woods without a rush.
Curl up with a good book even though there are cards to be written.
Play a board game with a loved one when the chores aren’t yet done.
I know it’s not what the sign means, but imagine with me for a moment that this is exactly the message we need to take in this Advent season. What if we let it play in our heads, imagine it spoken to us in the voice most likely to make us gladly obey:
A doting grandmother or wise grandfather,
A goofy aunt or a doddering uncle,
A compassionate but stern friend.
When memories of loved ones lost return as you miss them
Baking the handed-down recipe without its signature chef,
Untangling lights without the smart-alec comments of Uncle Bob,
Missing the annual letter from the friend who passed away too soon.
Slow with your tender heart,
Slow with your fond memories,
Slow, as you let the loved ones who are still with you
know a bit of what is stirring in your soul.
Slow with the hurts and angers, the disappointments and dismay,
Let them have their place too, in the lengthening nights,
Ask them what they in their uncomfortable truths have to teach you.
Slow, children, with the knotted places in your bellies.
And with the joys?
Especially slow with the joys, dear ones.
With the delight of new love in life,
the eager anticipation and heart-bursting welcome of a new child,
the satisfaction of work that feeds the needs of our spirits,
the delight in the well-being of our nearest and dearest,
the thrill at thanksgiving for the many little miracles that can make all of life a celebration
Slow, children: the gifts of this life were meant to be savored.
Let god arrive in us and with us in every form, that we may bring to birth new life, new truth, new love in this magnificent world.