Greetings St. Liz,
The Woods family is very excited to begin our time with you this coming week. It has been a long hot summer for us as I am sure it has been the same for you.
I am writing this after standing outside with our oldest daughter, Harper, as we watched a nice little summer rainstorm pour down upon us. It was just long enough that it knocked the heat out of the air and left a cool breeze in its wake. It was cool enough that we actually felt like spending more than ten minutes outside after the storm passed. ...Read More
Advent Reflections after a Hike with my Dadby The Rev. Daniel P Strandlund on December 5, 2019
There’s a Catholic High School and Abbey in Cullman called St. Bernard, and the Abbey owns hundreds of acres, much of it forest. There are several miles worth of trails to hike, and Dad and I hiked 3.3 miles together, including a few hundred feet of elevation change. I know this because he told me in classic dad speak. “We’ll start by heading southwest”—insert slightly dramatic orienteering gesture—“and after 1.6 miles we’ll gradually circle around until we’re heading northeast again. We’ll edge along the creek and finish Big Loop. So counting the walk back to the car, that’s exactly 3.3 miles.” He just knows and remembers numbers like this.
We hiked at a pretty good clip, just slow enough that we could keep talking without too much difficulty. At some point in our conversation, we realized that the last time either of us could remember doing anything really active together was one particular day when I was in high school when we played Frisbee at a park in Cullman. That was twenty years ago.
Identifying that twenty-year gap was a significant moment for both of us, I think. I realized then that part of how I understand myself is as an active person, and that Dad understands himself this way, too. More important, he always has. This was more than a hike: I was getting to taste the fruit of the transformation his retirement has facilitated. We both were. In our hike together, Dad was recovering and enjoying an aspect of his identity he’d been missing for twenty years.
In Colossians St. Paul writes about what it’s like to “have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed [ourselves] with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (3:9-10). In Paul’s own day, the image of being “clothed…with the new self” is probably a reference to the white robe new Christians put on right after their baptism, but today I can’t help but see some of my dad’s post-retirement transformation in these words. He’s stripped off a kind of old self and put on a new.
He and I can both identify some very particular changes he’s made—some dietary habits, reconnecting with old friends, getting into volunteer work and ministry with a non-profit based at his church, exercise and weight loss—but his experience of the change has been top to bottom: emotional, spiritual, mental, as well as physical. Whatever the specific, tangible changes, the result is more wholeness of being. There’s some kind of old self that he’s put away, or allowed God to put away, and a kind of new self he is putting on.
We’ve just begun Advent, and it’s a new year in the Church. We’re preparing, anticipating, getting ready for Christ. I can’t help but wonder what sort of old self I’m carrying around. Is there some false person I’m trying to be, rather than simply receiving from God the gift of who I really am? What are the specific, tangible changes I’m called to make in receiving that identity? What burdens am I carrying that are necessary for me to carry, and what burdens need putting down?
Maybe you resonate with these questions, maybe not. It’s rare that any of us undergoes a big life change like my dad has had this past year. Intense periods of whole-life transformation like that happen only a few times in a life. In seminary speak, we call these “nodal events.” A nodal event is one by which we orient the narrative of our life as we tell it. When we say, “After Mom died” or “Before Suzie was born” or “When we moved back to Texas” or “After I went back to work,” we’re identifying a nodal event. A kind of chapter marker by which we organize the other stories we tell about ourselves.
We all have them. In ten years, Dad may be telling stories about “before I retired” and “after I retired,” who knows? He’s still undergoing whatever transformation he’s in; he’s still getting used to his new retirement self. It takes time before we can know whether That Thing That Happened is going to be pivotal in how we organize our life story. What’s important is this: a nodal event is the thing that happens between the old self and the new self; it’s the thing that reorients the story of our self-understanding.
For St. Paul, the nodal event is his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9.) His old self was Saul, a violent persecutor of the Church, and his new self is Paul, an apostle, a church-planter and willing martyr for the faith. In between is his painful but ultimately joyful and life-giving encounter with Jesus. Doesn’t get much more nodal than that.
It also doesn’t get much simpler. Old self bad; new self good—and Jesus is that semicolon in between them. Death, resurrection, woohoo! But for many of us it’s just a lot messier. Nodal events aren’t always good things, after all; they’re just significant things. Whatever your most recent nodal event has been, whatever chapter marker is the most recent milestone in your story, maybe for you the new self isn’t at all what you wanted or hoped for. Maybe it’s actually your old self you miss, that person you were before That Thing That Happened. Maybe this new self feels like you’re living somebody else’s life, like you’re an alien in your own head.
This is part of what I learned on our hike. Dad’s move into retirement has led to new energy, new self-esteem, new lots of things—but the real crux of our hike was that we were regaining something we used to share but haven’t for twenty years. We haven’t gotten to do this, to be active and outside together, since that day in the park with the Frisbee when I was a sophomore in high school. Thus, Dad’s new self isn’t only new; it’s also a recovery of something that used to be but hasn’t been for a while. The new self revives an older one.
In the season of Advent, we await Christ’s arrival, and yet this arrival is also a return. We prepare for Christ’s birth anew, and yet we also prepare for the Lord’s return in glory. Deep in our memories we know that Christ used to be with us, that we used to see him face to face, but that we haven’t in a while. This new thing we await will revive an old knowledge.
The mystery of Christ’s Incarnation is that when we meet God, God is always utterly new to us and yet also utterly familiar. We remember that Face we’ve never seen. We anticipate being seen by Eyes that even now are upon us. The old self and the new self are reconciled to each other, the image of God in us burnished to a clarity we’ve yet to know. On the last great day, when we put on our new, resurrected selves and experience a never-before-felt fullness, we will say, “Oh yes, I remember now, this is what it’s like.”
This Advent, what new self are you hoping to become in Christ’s birth? What old self are you hoping to recover in Christ’s return?
What does the Incarnation of God look like when shaped like you?