While decorating the Christmas tree with my daughter, I had an ear on two Charlie Brown Christmas shows. One first appeared in my childhood, the original Charlie Brown special with those musical themes that became part of the culture, and the lovely scene of Linus reading the story of the shepherds from Luke’s gospel. This show was followed by a special I had never seen, and in one segment, Lucy is giving Christmas greetings to Charlie Brown. She wishes him peace in this season and he asks her a good question, one that was present in the music on that older show, in the song “Christmas Time is Here.”
Christmas time is here
We’ll be drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year
Charlie Brown wonders aloud, “Why can’t it be that way all year long?”
And Lucy responds: “What are you, a fanatic?”
I suspect this was the same question on the minds of the Pharisees when they took a long walk to see what all the fuss was about with this man, John, baptizing in the wilderness. We read that he wore skins, and lived on locusts and wild honey. I imagine him resembling a well-ripened hiker. John was not the sort of person you would be inclined to invite indoors for dinner and conversation, more of a holy madman, a real wild thing.
I remember one long ago Christmas when I went to see a special exhibit at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg. The museum had on display a collection of paintings by Edward Hicks. He was a sign and coach painter in Pennsylvania, a Quaker born in 1780. He is best known for the work I saw that day, a series of paintings on the subject of The Peaceable Kingdom, that land of wonders described by the prophet Isaiah.
The other night I dreamed of being back in Williamsburg, where my family lived in my high school and college years. In the dream I walked on Duke of Gloucester Street, that main road of the restored area, as proper and well-maintained a place as you can imagine, and as I walked I met a lion. I wondered what he was doing loose in Williamsburg, and I asked him, though I was a bit afraid to hear the answer. He was looking for me, he said, and we walked along together, my hand on his mane.
The motto of Abby Aldrich, as we used to familiarly call the museum, is “That the future may learn from the past.” That’s a nice way of saying that those of us who don’t learn from the past will be doomed to repeat it, and when we turn on the TV or listen to the radio and the news every day includes the number who have been killed violently the day before, we have to wonder if we have learned anything. When will that day come, the day Isaiah describes, “when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea?” When will we be as filled with God as the ocean floors and basins are filled with ocean waters?
We church folk like to identify with the lamb, or the calf, or the nursing child. But the gospel today challenges us to look deep within ourselves and be sure. John the Baptist, that wild man prophet, is down by the river baptizing. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who
are the faithful church folk of their time, come out to the river not just to observe, but to be baptized, too. Maybe they really mean it, or maybe they are just covering their bases.
John is not giving them the benefit of the doubt; rather he is calling on them to repent, to truly turn their lives in God’s direction. The Messiah is coming and he will put us through the refiner’s fire, says John. He will thresh his way through us and leave the chaff behind. John warns these faithful Pharisees and Sadducees not to assume they’re safe from the threshing just because they’ve always done things a certain way, or because their ancestors did the faithful work.
It’s a pretty discouraging message for the publicly pious or the privately certain to hear.
I don’t know about you, but I like to thing I know what’s going on, and I find it produces a bit of anxiety or rebellion in my mind when someone tells me I’m clueless. What this means is that I, who pride myself on being a quick learner, am actually slow when it comes to understanding myself. I get caught in one understanding of me – good or bad, weak or strong, innocent or guilty – and have a hard time remembering that the contrasts are not always so extreme, that I am made up of all these things, that most all of us are.
Sometimes I am like Charlie Brown, and want to see the world at peace, and want to do my part to bring it there. But sometimes hurt feelings or mistrust or fear lead me to put on Lucy’s suit of armor and think of the Charlie Browns of the world as fanatics.
Here is a story of a year I tried to be more like Charlie Brown. Sixteen years had passed since I went to see the Hicks paintings, sixteen years that included marriage and three children and a divorce, the deaths of my parents and just that summer the death of my beloved mother-in-law. When the holidays drew close that year, it was hard for her family to imagine gathering for Christmas without her, since the celebration had been filled with the Swedish influences of her childhood.
The children and I had recently moved to the house we still live in today. It was a new space for everyone, a place without memories, a good place for a new thing, I thought. Although I had been excluded from family holidays since my divorce, I suggested they all come to my house for Christmas. I felt courageous as a lion when I invited them, but I began to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to be as canny as a wolf and protect myself a little better. For I had invited into my home, into my den, people who had hurt me, because I could see they were hurting, too.
Imagine you’re the wolf. You’ve agreed to this peace thing. After all, it’s hard work keeping on the move all the time. It might be nice to just rest for a while, and that lamb is pretty soft to cuddle up with, isn’t he? But, oh, you really are a wolf, and hanging out with the lambies and the bunnies is just not the life you are accustomed to living. You like being on the move, you discover. What have you gotten yourself into? And who ever thought eating grass would be satisfying?
It was a tough day, playing hostess to my former husband and all his family. We all missed his mother together. And in grieving together, I believe we all began to heal. I learned that I could be the lion, noble and fierce, and that at times I had been the wolf, the restless one with the power to make things happen. I was not fated to be always the submissive and threatened lamb. I began to learn to let the lion and the wolf and the lamb in me live together in peace.
We all reach a day when we have to go to where the wild things are, the wild parts of ourselves, in order to come back and live in peace. Without knowing who and what and where they are, we never will. Each of us must know our own wild selves in order to find our place of peace.
I believe that has two parts. First, we must come to accept who we truly are, the parts that are lamb-like and the parts that are wolf-life, or lion-like or even cow-like, the parts we approve and the parts we disapprove but can’t seem to eliminate entirely. In each of us there is some part that resists civilizing impulses or judges others harshly or wallows in self-pity or cannot bear to trust. My list is incomplete. What is the restless creature living inside you? Who do you see when you go to the place where the wild things are?
The people of Israel went seeking, and they found John the Baptist. They saw in him a prophet hearkening back to their past, a figure of power who wore none of power’s trappings. He proclaimed a fierce and frank call to repentance, and that is the second step to finding peace in our wildness. We must turn to God in our wholeness, and that includes the parts we want to show to God and the parts we wish God could not see. The peace of God begins inside each one of us. It begins where the wild things are. Amen.