Into the Woods

I saw Into the Woods a few days ago. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine capture something compelling and provocative with their lyrical rendering of “the woods”: life is an uncertain journey into mysterious unknowns by way of a path that twists and turns and abides by no discernible map.

No absolutes.
No one as independent as she imagines she might be.
All of our fates intertwined.
These are the most prominent signposts of the woods.

An image from the film came to my mind as I visited my mother today. She lives in a senior adult community. The name of the place where she lives includes the word “woods.”

Early in the movie, Red Riding Hood skips into the woods, her crimson shoes leading the way. She sings as she goes:

Into the woods,
It’s time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods-
It’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Red Riding Hood is young. My mother and others who live in her community are not so young. But I suspect that each has carried a version of Red Riding Hood’s song along as she or he made her way into the woods–away from home and into the uncertainties of aging.

Who are we in the woods? In the film, we encounter a baker and his wife, a witch, a giant, a young boy, two princes, a poor villager, an orphan, and others. In my mother’s woods?

One of the first women to gain her credentials as a pharmacist.
A chemistry professor.
Mother of nine.
Gilbert and Sullivan vocal artist.
Manager of harness racing association.
Bank vice president.

Somehow, once in the woods, these identities fade. The commonalities of shared humanity surface, and one of those shared realities is how lost we can feel when we go into the woods, how unsure we can become of those social identifiers that for so long and with such power shape who we think we are.

Red Riding Hood continues to sing:

Into the woods
And down the dell,
The path is straight,
I know it well.
Into the woods,
And who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?

But the path is not so straight as we’d thought or hoped, not for Red Riding Hood, not for my mother and others in her community, not for any of us who travel down life’s dells. What, indeed, awaits us on the journey? Neither the wisest nor most mystical of fortune tellers can know for sure. And yet, we must journey on. This is perhaps one of the only certainties of human existence–that we must continue into the woods.

One of the messages Sondheim and Lapine offer is that though the woods may be dark and tangled, we are not alone. That, too, is part of our shared humanity, one of life’s most beautiful and lasting gifts. Listening today to older people recount their “once upon a time’s,” their eyes shining with remembered youth as they spoke, I found myself wishing as the characters do in the movie: I wish for 2015 that those in the woods know that no one is alone. Of course, that knowledge comes to embodied life only when we are willing to sit together and let the story continue in our sharing of it. . .

Into the Woods

Magnificat: Christmas Eve Thoughts


Snow falls. Gently. Lights twinkle in houses festive with welcoming wreathes. Santa and his eight tiny reindeer land on a snow-covered roof. Enchanted. Perfect. Bah Humbug!

Those were Robin’s words as she opened the Christmas gift to discover–the snow globe. A holiday scene trapped in a watery sphere. What does a 50 year old woman do with a snow globe? You look at it, and then what? She had no room for one more thing to look at. Her house is too full. Her life too complicated. Her time too cluttered with grown-up worries…

But don’t we sometimes long for a snow globe Christmas? Smiling people on festive streets. Enough snow to cover up imperfections—not so much to make streets unsafe. A lovely Christmas contained in a predictable scene. Oh, the extremes we go to create that idyllic Christmas, and what disappointments do befall us…

We are also perhaps too quick to see the Nativity story as snow globe scenes. Shepherds on a hillside. Joseph in an uncluttered carpentry shop working with well-maintained tools. A baby born in a barn touched by the glow of the brightest star in the heavens. But what about this scene in Luke 1? Mary. Young. Poor. Unmarried. Luke 1? This is no snow globe scene. Things get shook up, but by a message that sends Mary’s life into disarray and unsettles even more an already uncertain future. Mary says “yes” to God’s call but then flees to the mountains. To Elizabeth. And there in the safe space of friendship—can we see her? It is as if Mary holds up a snow globe and in the light of community glimpses God’s vision for the world. A vision that is being birthed in her. A song rises up within her: “My soul magnifies the Lord. God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things.” In me? Through me?

To magnify. In Greek: “to enlarge.” How does a human soul magnify God? In ancient Rome, people used a bowl of water to magnify things. A bowl of water. A snow globe’s watery sphere. Mary’s soul, her life, magnifying a truth about God. And looking through her soul, we see a radical Christmas scene. God’s vision. Where justice and grace replace fear and violence.

Many have imagined a different kind of world—Hallmark, the creator of Rudolph and other Christmas stories, songwriters. But Mary? Mary’s soul magnifies not a snow globe hope for a momentary, seasonal change of hearts and minds. Mary’s soul magnifies a radical vision: God birthing hope in to human life—God breaking through the glassy domes we put around who and what we think God and humanity are—breaking through cynicism and pain—to ignite justice and hope.

Robin decides to donate the snow globe every year. But she never does. Maybe the child inside of her won’t let her give up her hope for a joyful Christmas scene where all is right with the world. We want to believe too. We pray. Protest. March. Cry out to God. We long for a world where hope replaces despair. Where children don’t fear violence or hunger. Robin takes a last look at the snow globe. She will really donate it this year. She shakes it. Watches silver snow fall on Santa and the reindeer. She loved the magic of it all when she was a child. She believed something about it was true. But then she grew up.

Ready to put the globe in its box and take it to the donation center, Robin notices on its side a key she has never seen before. Music too? Probably “Here Comes Santa Claus” or another Santa song. Notes tinkle out. “Away in a Manger.” Oh my. Then something stirs within her. An ancient hope, perhaps? Lost childhood wonder? Or the unexpected belief that what God promises in these Advent stories is real. Maybe the peculiar snow globe scene and music combination isn’t as crazy as it seems. After all, God didn’t come to visit an idyllic scene. God came to earth. God came to the mixed up mess that is human living. God comes to turn our lives upside down, to transform, redeem, heal, restore. Robin put the snow globe on her windowsill and looked through it out into her neighborhood. Out there—in the ordinariness and brokenness of human lives—God comes. The scene is not idyllic. We have much yet to do to see justice done in our world. But the promise is real. God works through you and me to bring hope. What vision does the world see through our lives?

“My soul magnifies the Lord. The lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things. From generation to generation.” Oh God, may your song live in us today.