Monday, December 11, 2006

December 11, 2006 - Following the Star

Yesterday, I accompanied a group of church members to see the new film, The Nativity Story. I'd heard good things about this fresh retelling of a very old and beloved story, and I wasn't disappointed.

Unexpectedly, I found myself in tears at a few points: when Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, recognize the wonder of two very special babies growing within them; when Joseph agrees to stand by his betrothed, despite the scandal of her seemingly illicit pregnancy; and, of course, at the birth itself. I don't usually cry in movies, but this one had me blubbering like a fool. (Well, maybe not blubbering, but as close to it as I typically get.)

Everything I've been taught in seminary about Bible study says this is not how to approach these ancient texts. Matthew's and Luke's nativity stories should not be harmonized into one, say the biblical-studies professors. These are two completely separate accounts, that by all rights ought to stand on their own. Matthew tells of wise men traveling from the east, and Luke of shepherds and angels. Matthew's more interested in Joseph's role, and Luke in Mary's. There's nothing in the Bible to justify the conventional Christmas-card tableau of shepherds and wise men all showing up at the same time, gazing in wonder at the babe in the manger – as a beaming star directs the world's attention to the scene, like some first-century shopping-mall spotlight (I wonder how Herod's soldiers could have missed that)?

But that's what this film portrays. It's the iconic Christmas image, a celluloid version of the familiar Christmas creche, beautifully and sensitively re-created. I'm surprised by how powerfully these images still speak to me, even after years of objective, academic study.

My academic theological training says I should remain objective, analytical, unmoved by this ancient, holy drama. Oh, stuff it, Inner Voice of Logic. It's my ticket, and I'll cry if I want to.

I've been paging through a book a friend sent me, some months ago, that I've had on my to-do list for a while. Terri is a fellow pastor, and a cancer survivor. She found it helpful, during her own treatment.

In Cancer As a Turning Point, psychologist Lawrence LeShan suggests that some cancers could be linked to personal frustration, resulting from a feeling of being blocked in one's vocational life. LeShan's theory is that this blocked feeling suppresses the immune system, making us susceptible to illness. LeShan's book is filled with anecdotes of patients who decide to chase long-deferred dreams, taking the advice of folklorist Joseph Campbell to "follow your bliss," and who get better.

"A very large number of us grew up oriented toward what we should do rather than what we would enjoy doing; toward what we should want in our life rather than what we really want. Our actions are usually based on these ‘shoulds' rather than of the question of ‘what would fulfill me – what style of being, relating, creating would bring me to a life of zest?' This is the life, this life and the search for it, that mobilizes the immune system against cancer more than anything else we know today." - Lawrence LeShan, Cancer As a Turning Point (Plume, 1994), pp. 62-63.

I sent the people out from worship yesterday morning with the charge to "follow the star" in this Advent season. I wonder what that means for me, as a cancer survivor?

My cancer is changing me – making me less inhibited about crying in movies, more drawn to expressive, creative activities, less patient with routine, administrative grunt-work. I feel much more likely, at this stage of my life, to set out, magi-like, questing after some beaming star, than to sit behind a desk, making sure every "i" is dotted and every "t" crossed. This means I've been dropping some balls, administratively speaking – not compulsively cleaning up so many messes around the church, tolerating a bit more chaos than usual. (I've found that many of these low-level problems eventually resolve themselves without me.)

Maybe that's my spiritual growing edge, these days.

Today, I should be paying bills. I think I may hang Christmas lights, instead.


Anonymous said...

I vote for hanging lights . . . after all, it's your day off! And it's Advent! I finally hung my wreath last evening, and I'll dust off the nativity set Do gave me last year that is too nice to put away . . . it's always there in the living room. Interestingly, I note that, although it has its own cluster of stars, the symbols directly above it on the wall are a dove of peace and 2 angels. Wonder which one I should be following? Robin

Hainan said...

Typical of a psychologist to kindof say that I got my cancer because of myself... So that makes it my own fault, so nobody should bother, cased closed?

Like you said yourself: as soon as cancer hits you, you start thinking differenty. For me I feel that I got my cancer for something that I eat or breath... they cannot see my primary cancer, as similar as I cannot see what I ate or inhaled to get it.

Happy Xmas!

Drp by to give me a big hug,
maybe you can squeeze the cancer out!
Metastatic Liver Cancer

Carlos ("Carl") said...


Unless you've been involved in some risky behavior like smoking, that's clearly linked to cancer, I would encourage you to try not to blame yourself for getting sick (and even then, that wouldn't be the only cause). Many of us have a tendency to self-blame, that's not based on reality. From everything I've read about cancer, its causes are very often mysterious. Sure, there's some suggestion from the researchers that mental state may do something to influence the immune system, and make us more vulnerable in some cases, but there's no one who can say that with certainty. Many cancers, in fact, seem to result from flaws programmed into our genes from birth - it's bad luck if that applies to us, of course, but there's nothing we can do about it.

Merry Christmas to you, too!