Saturday, December 25, 2010

Dangerous Babies

A cooing newborn baby is much less dangerous looking than a man who bursts from a tomb alive after being dead for three days. We "get" babies. Babies are commonplace, and they speak to us of the best that we can be, full of promise and innocence. Dead men who stand up and walk out of graves alive again most certainly upset the normal order of things. Such men threaten to overturn everything. They are dangerous and we really don't like them. Unlike babies, The Resurrected are scary.

Babies, by contrast, seem tame. The problems is that we want to keep the baby as a baby, ignoring the danger inherent within. The baby in the feeding trough may look like any other baby, but it requires a baby of a different kind to become The Resurrected. If we look deeper, we find that the baby is just the beachhead of the Great Invasion. He is not tame at all. He is a dangerous baby. 

This is why Christmas is so much more popular than Easter. It is easier to tame. In trying to tame it, however, we fail to make real sense of the reality of it.

Ricky Bobby in Talledaga Nights merely channeled the zeitgeist when he said:
"Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want... I like the baby version the best, you hear me? I win the races and I get the money...Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled up fists..."
As usual, N.T. Wright nails the problem in a recent article from Christianity Today. He explains how the first paragraphs of John's Gospel destroy any chance we might have of removing the sharp edges from the baby Jesus figurine. He urges us to "get real and get johanine" about the Christmas story.
Unless we recognize this strange, dark strand running through the Gospel, we will domesticate John's masterpiece (just as we're always in danger of domesticating Christmas) and think it's only about comfort and joy. In truth, it's also about incomprehension, rejection, darkness, denial, stopped ears, and judgment. Christmas is not about the living God coming to tell us everything's all right. John's Gospel isn't about Jesus speaking the truth and everyone saying "Of course! Why didn't we realize it before?" It is about God shining his clear, bright torch into the darkness of our world, our lives, our hearts, our imaginations—and the darkness not comprehending it. It's about God, God as a little child, speaking words of truth, and nobody knowing what he's talking about.
It is normal for the Dad to hand out cigars at the birth of his child. The family and friends celebrate, but the birth of a baby is hardly news. This baby, however -- this God in an Infant -- this is no ordinary child. Only because of this is the birth worth noting two millenia after the fact.

In God's war on death, the birth of Jesus is only the first move of the ultimate strategy of redemption. It was Operation Incarnation. The birth only sets up the theater of operations for Operation Resurrection, which deals the death stroke to death itself. Revolutionary stuff. Revolutions inevitably involve the breaking of things and the overturning of apple carts. That's what the cooing baby was born to do.

Like I said, dangerous.

But it's a revolution of restoration. His breaking is fixing. His overturning is uprighting. It's no less disruptive, but when you disrupt chaos, what do you get? Peace. When you reverse suffering and sorrow, what are you left with? Joy.

So whenever you look at that baby in the manger, hang on. It may look quiet, but he's a ticking time bomb that will blow everything to heaven.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent Meditation 2 - Prepare

There’s a party coming and it’s time to get ready.

At its best, getting ready for the party is almost as good as the party itself.

Clean the house. Set the table. Cook the food – fancy food, hearty food, plain or spicy. Just make sure there’s lots of it and it’s good. Oh, and remember to pull the best bottles from your cabinets and cellars, with lots of glasses and plenty of ice.

Take a bath, polish yourself up, and put on your goin’-to-the-party clothes. Smile and be happy and open the door.

The house will fill with chatter and laughter. The convivial spirit will rise as bellies fill and wine glasses empty. For a moment the ugliness of the world is held off outside the walls and inside you taste just a bit of heaven. It was finally worth all the work and worry of getting ready, because once the party is on, nothing else matters.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But…that’s not always the case, is it?

Have you ever prepared for a party and found that the preparation was not fun at all? Have you ever been overtaken by “guest anxiety?” You work for hours, perhaps days, in a red mist of hospitality rage, trying to whip things into shape, and woe to the poor fool who gets in your way or fails to pitch in to help.It's a soul sucking madness that takes over the whole house and turn the rest of the family into zombie slaves in the thrall of the rabid hostess, made mad by her party planning psychosis.

Sound familiar?

This is what happens when the host begins to think that the point of the party is to prove what a great host she is. Instead of offering the party as an act of joyful love for the sake of your friends, the party becomes (in the mind of the host) the impending day of judgment -- and the judges are your guests.

This is such an easy mistake to make because we love to make everything into a religion where we think that doing things just right will save us. We tell ourselves that its all for the guests, when in fact the guests are just an excuse to congratulate ourselves on what good hosts we are. We turn the party into a religion and in the process miss the whole point of the exercise.

Now in the second week of Advent we prepare for the party we call Christmas. It's a pretty big deal, in case you haven't noticed. In this layer of the advent season we remember when Jesus was coming and look forward to when he will come again. His coming changes everything. So we prepare.

Here is the question: What are we preparing for? The judgment? Or the Party?

Be careful how you answer. It’s a trick question really, because if you are preparing for judgment, if you think you are preparing to be good enough for the party, you can just forget it. It is simply impossible for us to perfectly clean the cobwebs out of every corner of our spiritual house. We can scrub and polish and sweep and wipe, but we can never banish the stains and dust of our fallen lives, but we can never really make it good enough for Jesus.The dirt is just too embedded. The walls too rotten. The carpet too shabby.

But that doesn’t mean that there’s no party, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invite him in. On the contrary – that's exactly why we MUST invite him in. You see, this is the Good News. 

Jesus is the guest who, when he arrives, cleans the house for us – top to bottom. Jesus cleans our kitchen, shines our bathroom, scrubs the toilets, washes the floors and deep cleans the carpets. Jesus arranges the furniture, plumps the pillows, puts away all the scattered clothes, polishes the silver and straightens the pictures on the walls. When Jesus arrives he takes your house, and completely remakes it into the best house it could possibly be and then some – spotless, perfect and completely comfortable. Jesus is the original and better Extreme Makoever Home Edition.

Not only that, Jesus provides all the food. More than you could possibly eat, more kinds than you can possibly imagine and better than you ever thought it could be. Whatever food you might have to offer, even if it’s just meager loaves and dried fishes, he will take what you offer and make it into the most sumptuous meal you never imagined.

With Jesus there is no dieting, no diabetes and certainly no anorexia. With Jesus if its feast time then it is time to feast! And when Jesus is in the house, you can bet no wine bottles will ever go empty.

This is Gospel: Jesus brings his own party wherever he goes and nobody – but NOBODY -- throws a better one.

This too is Gospel: Jesus is both the best guest and the most host, all at the same time.

And this also is Gospel: he has invited you to your own party.

So get ready wontcha?.

 Jesus has both come and is yet coming. We are both waiting (preparing) and enjoying his presence now. So prepare out of joyful overflowing love and in prescient thanksgiving. Forget fear and judgment – he has done away with it. Know that when our own preparations fall short (and they always do), Jesus makes up the difference, completely, joyfully, perfectly. 

Make sure you understand what I am saying. Get ready. Clean yourself up. Make your place beautiful. Do all the things you would do to prepare for the most wonderful guests - but do it all out of love and thanksgiving for the host, and the party He brings. That is Gospel. 

So for Christ’s sake (really, I mean it literally) stop worrying and get ready to party. Jesus is on his way.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Patience with Fools

When it first came out, a friend of mine commented on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He did not complain that the Jar Jar Binks character made him want to spew. Instead he complained that this movie continued to reinforce a common theme in today's pop culture -- that if your heart is in the right place, you can succeed without any discipline or preparation, regardless of the difficulty of the task.

He may have had something there. I work with a number of young people at a large national retailer. A few are what I would consider typical youth, using their work experience as a way point on a journey upward. Others, however, will make noise about their plans and ambitions but seem to lack any ability to actually act in the direction of their stated goals. Nice kids, but not real clear on how life really works.

Some of the YouTube comments complain that the author of the video is being mean to aspiring writers. I would say it's fine to encourage those [fill in the blank] who are aspiring even as they work, but we need not have patience with fools. Fools should be slapped in the hopes that it will knock some sense into them.

While I haven't had a conversation exactly like the one in the video below, it made me think of some I might have.

Of course, then there are jaded old farts like me who are working at rebuilding their dreams and plans from the wreckage. C'est la guerre.

(hat tip to Jared Wilson )

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Die Tochter Fotografien

My oldest daughter has been bitten by the camera bug. She has quite the eye for composition and loves playing with the camera every chance she gets. One of the beauties of digital photography is almost instant feedback. While she has acquired a very nice film camera with lenses that she is learning to use, it's just such a hassle to send the film out and wait for it to come back. Then there is the expense. It is much cheaper to experiment on a digital camera. 

Recently she was able to go on a walk in the woods with some friends, exploring the "caves" around Mt. Major. In this part of the country, caves are usually just spaces between large rocks that have fallen from a cliff face. Although they are not true caves, they can be quite large and are still pretty cool to explore
At any rate, it was a nice off piste walk, and she got ahold of the camera that belongs to my friend Rick. Here are a few of the best shots.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Advent Meditation 1

Lately, I find that seasons pass by almost without my knowing.

I am living mostly day to day, week to week, head down, leaning into the wind, making slow headway against the prevailing forces. Now and again I duck behind a tree or a rock and when I look up, time has passed and things look different. I'm always a little surprised. I can't stay in one place, however, so I put my head back down and continue plowing forward. I don't know how long it will take to reach a land that isn't so windy, but I know it's there.

It's not that I rail against wind anymore. I am learning to accept the wind. Wind is. Perhaps I can even harness the wind. Wind is what I have. I can possibly even learn to love the wind. Wind has it's own fierce beauty. In spite of all that, I will still long for the stillness of a sheltered place.

So I looked up the other day to realize that it's the first week of Advent. Once again I am taken by surprise. When I let myself move beyond the surprise, I find myself taken up in the layered beauty of Advent. Advent is like looking through the glass from both sides at the same time. It is a sort of cubist season where I find myself both seeing and being in the sheltered place even though it has not yet arrived.

I can do this because in Advent we remember what it was like for the Jewish nation to look forward with longing and anticipation and hope for the Chosen One who would lift the boot heel of Rome from their national neck. Of course, the Chosen One did come, but he looked nothing like they expected. Surprise!

In this way Advent becomes a time when we mirror that waiting in our own expectant waiting for the coming of The Chosen One. We expect and hope and long for him to return and deliver us from....what?

Pick your poison I guess. We know the world is one messed up hole. Anybody who pays any attention at all knows that for all it's beauty and wonder and power, there is also something quite wrong with the whole operation. Something isn't working the way it's supposed to. Deep down inside we long to see it fixed. It's a human thing, this longing. We naturally seek the sheltered place.

The followers of the buddha might say that if you can eliminate the longing then you eliminate the problem. It certainly doesn't hurt to cultivate a sense of equanimity about what is. I can say from personal experience that it is generally a good thing to do. But I don't think the longing is the cause of the problem. I would rather say that the problem is the cause of the longing. Anesthesia doesn't repair the broken bone. It merely numbs the pain. The bone remains broken.

In Advent, we are reminded that there is someone who came once to deal with that damage in the most unexpected way possible. He set the broken bones of the world with a profound finality that is really breathtaking to contemplate -- beyond politics or power or money or family or education or anything else that we look for to save us. His method is scandalous, crazy, ridiculous and ultimately the only thing that could possibly work. It makes no sense, but it's the only sensible thing.

Then he moved off (inexplicably) telling us to keep an eye out because he's coming back to finish the job. Apparently, the job is done, but not done. The world is fixed but the fix isn't finished. He'll be back to mop up. When? Who knows?

And so we wait, like the Children of Israel. They returned from exile sure that YHWH's favor rested upon them once more, only to experience repeated domination and disappointment over 400 years. Like them we walk against the wind and seek the sheltered place. And Our Shelter is coming. This is more certain than the rising of the morning sun in the eastern sky. He comes.

This then is one layered layer of Advent -- longing and waiting. We know our Shelter is there. And we know that we can stop seeking Our Shelter. We can sit quietly waiting, for Our Shelter has already found us. Our Hope has already arrived and is yet coming. And his coming is always a surprise.