Last Sunday was a bit unique in that we had two different services. The early service was on the spiritual practice of doubt and living with uncertainty, and 11:15 service we saw the youth lead in what I can only call a joyous Christmas Pageant based on the movie Polar Express. I thought the two services an interesting juxtaposition and thought I would explore it some more. The movie Polar express asks the question as to whether we should believe in things unseen, unknown. The story centers on a boy (I’ll call the protagonist) who is starting to question his belief in Santa Claus.
Using his analytic skills he starts looking for clues in the Atlas and magazines as to where the North Pole is, or some proof as to the existence of Santa Claus And whether in a dream or not he takes a ride on the train called the polar express and befriends three other children along the way each with a lesson to learn. As they journeyed on their train ride, the train inexplicably was put into many terrifying situations up and down hills without brakes, though mountain tunnels, sliding across ice, to the point that one could believe the purpose of the movie was to try to market a roller coaster for a future amusement park ride, but of course that would be cynical of me to think that way and would of course defy the message of the movie. Maybe I just lived in Orlando for too long where its all about the amusement parks. I do have to admit that I found parts of the movie challenging. First, I found it strange that the head elf was speaking in Yiddish, with a New York accent. Sometimes it is good to have our perceptions disturbed, but I just never pictured Christmas elves as being Jewish. Also, I found the elves chanting as they are waiting for Santa to be a little cultish.
Although I was heartened that Santa delegated the determination of who is naughty or nice to the elves. I thought it a little creepy showing the elves spying into children’s bedrooms on multiple television screens. Clearly elves don’t have to follow our 4th amendment rights of privacy!! And our young doubting protagonist, wanting to hear the sleigh bells ring, and being unable to in the midst of a large throng of elves cheering for Santa and realizing the other children could hear the bells ringing, led him repeat “ I believe, I believe” until he could hear the bell ring.
This left me with the feeling of describing belief as being formed by a sort of peer pressure, a belief coerced due to the benefits it would give him, of seeing Santa and hearing the bells, just like all the other people surrounding him. And don’t even get me started on Santa using a whip to get the Reindeer flying. In all the cartoons I saw growing up, Santa was able to communicate with the Reindeer. Although this could explain a bit about why the other reindeers bullied poor Rudoph all those years. Well I probably shouldn’t look at this quite so analytically.
Anyway, Santa and the train conductor come to the rescue for me in this movie in their advice to the 4 main characters of the movie, in what I think are important messages for all relating to the concept of belief. As I said there are four children in the story, One of them is a know it all, someone who is cynical and always wants to point out how smart they are and is dismissive to others. Even one of the elves says, you are not even supposed to be here. That’s sort of how I felt watching this movie…..But Santa’s message to that young boy and I guess to me, is that he needs to learn patience and more important humility.
When the train conductor punches the boy’s ticket with the word Learn, which would seem an odd message to someone who is a know it all. But when given the ticket, the know it all boy has his finger over the R, so it looks like the ticket says Lean to him, and he says sarcastically looking at it, “lean whatever that is supposed to mean”, and thus the message is, even if we are smart, even if we know more facts about something than others, we don’t always have all the information, there are still things in the universe that are unknown to us.
Sometimes like the boy, in our haste to prove ourselves right, to show how smart we are, we mistakenly blind ourselves to other wisdom, or other’s circumstances, or how what we will say will affect others. But deeper than that there are mysteries in the universe that are unexplainable, there are mysteries that we do not even have questions for yet, Just as someone in the middle ages could never have conceived of quantum physics, there are I am sure ideas that we cannot conceive of today that in the future will be commonplace. That doesn’t mean we stop questioning.
But it does mean we could be a bit more humble in the face of all that we know we don’t know and just be a little nicer, more compassionate, a little more open to sharing with others what we do know and a little more open to hearing others wisdom and experience. The second child in the story is a young girl, clearly a natural leader, a decision maker with confidence. And the ticket the conductor gives her says L-e-a-d. After seeing it, she says “Lead, like a lead balloon.” Of course what it says is lead as in leadership. And I think this homograph, (I know you English teachers out there love that word – homograph, two words spelled the same with different pronunciations and different meanings) points to a very important point about our worldview. We can be a confident, decisive, leader, but if we have a negative world view, if we see the negative in everything, if we see led instead of lead, how will that affect our decision making? If our life experiences continually show us the led in the world, that is what we tend to come to expect. We must transcend the led that holds us down from imaging a new world with hope and a loving message that we can lead others to.
The third child was a boy named billy. Actually I think he is the only one of the four that is actually given a name in the movie. I thought that fairly strange, I am still thinking about that one. The movie states clearly, he is from “the other side of the tracks” He states “Christmas doesn’t work out for me” In fact he would not have even been on the train if not for the help of the protagonist boy who stops the train to let him on. Billy tries to isolate himself, and doesn’t even want to see Santa, but Protaganist Boy and Leader Girl encourage him. And they end up on an adventure together, and when he finally meets Santa, Santa reminds him that there is no greater gift then the gift of Friendship.
I think there is no greater truth. I think he was hoping for PSIII or XBOX, but I thought it interesting that the ticket the conductor gave him had the word dependence on it. We often hear the word dependence in a negative way so often. We are so steeped in our notions of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, which I can tell you none of my loafers have by the way. And just think about that, the word for shoes without bootstraps or laces is loafer, as if to indicate that I am lazy just because I don’t want to spend hours of my life tying shoelaces. Now bootstrapping is a good thing if you can do it. I don’t discourage that, But we are led to believe that we are of less value if we cant do everything without the help of others and I reject that. Being able to depend on others, being able to admit that we need help with something, is an important step to our self actualization. Nobody, nobody does it alone. From when we are baby, as we grow, until we die, we all need nourishment, we all need encouragement, we all need guidance and opportunity. Our lives have become so fragmented by the various demands and complexities of the world, that only by people helping each other, can we find wholeness in this life.
Just knowing there is someone you can depend on, makes it easier to move forward and stay on track, just knowing you will have someone in your corner makes it easier to take a risk, just knowing that there are others on the same path with you, makes the journey easier. That is what we seek to do week after week after week here as we come together on our spiritual and religious journey to explore with friends, some old some new, some deep, some not, but all of us have had the shared experience of being human together, to seeking meaning together, to laughing and loving and yes grieving together. Together not just dependent, but interdependent with each other and stronger for it.
And lastly the protagonist of the movie, the boy who had a lot of questions about Santa. Once he hears the bells ringing, he asks Santa for sleigh bell to take home, and Santa commends him on his choice of a gift, and tells him the bell is the spirit of Christmas as is Santa and that the true spirit of Christmas lies in your heart. And so I ask you what is it that lies in your heart this Holiday Season. Is it love, Is there love in your heart….Is there patience, is there humility are there friendships in your heart, do you feel the interdependence, are you looking at things trying to pick them apart based on their inconsistencies with how we view the world, sort of as I did at the beginning of this sermon with the movie, or how we often do with people who we may not agree with. Or are we with our actions trying to create a wholeness for ourselves, our family and our community. Is your heart filled with wonder? I think we sometimes set up a false dichotomy for ourselves, that says if we question, if we doubt then we cant believe, we cant have wonder. But even with doubt we can believe in something unseen or unknown. I believe peace is possible. I don’t know how, I have not seen it, but I believe…and if I act with peace in my heart with loving actions, then it can happen. At the very least it will happen for me. And the person I am sharing my peace with will experience it as well. I will be at peace, if I act with peace. That to me is the spirit of Christmas, when we imagine what we can be as our best selves. As whole human beings. It can give us a sense of wonder of what is possible for ourselves and the world. I encourage you live with wonder in your life, every day, not just this day. Live with wonder for the most basic things in the world. I tell you when I looked out over the Grand Canyon, I could have thought about all the evolutionary forces that caused it to happen or I could just stand in awe at its beauty.
When one sees the smile in a new born baby’s face, one could think of all the biological events that had to take place to bring it to fruition, or we can just stand in in awe at its beauty. What is it that brings you wonder? OR what is it that can bring you wonder? For all who suffer, some with debilitating illness’ for all who have lost a child, or could not have children, for all who have lost a loved one, or have been hurt, where can you find wonder. The conductor of the Polar Express said that the one thing about trains is not where they are going, but rather your decision to get on it. The front of the train has a bright light on it to shine the way in the dark. I encourage you to get on the train. Move forward. See where will your heart take you in this coming year. See where you can find wonder in the world. Maybe it is as simple as watching the sunrise or sunset, feeling the wind blow across your face, thinking about the hot sun warming your body….especially this week. Or even more importantly, think about how you can you be the wonder in this world. How can you let your light shine to show someone else the way. And you may think, how can I be a light, I cant even get my own act together. But you can, just a simple smile, a kind gesture, a helping hand. Let us be conscious in our actions.
Lets us stop for a moment as our life fills up with things to do, And although we have promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep, I encourage us this time of year, stop and take notice of the deep dark woods within yourselves and notice their loveliness and within our deep dark woods there is an inner light, a light called love. Don’t forget that light and don’t forget you are loved. I believe this to be true. May it be so.