Archive for December, 2011

Is It Christmas Yet?

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by   |  12.19.11  |  Uncategorized

This time of year, I need to come clean about something.  I too am part of the excessive consumption and sappy sentimentality.  I like the music, and not just Ave Maria or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, but also Bing Crosby and Tony Bennett and even, in moments of weakness, Alvin and the Chipmunks.   And I enjoy too much the ham, sweet potatoes, and apple/pumpkin/pecan/chocolate/rhubarb/strawberry/blackberry pies.  The bell ringers at the mall get me, and so do the neighborhoods burning hydrocarbons to light up wire reindeer and strings of multicolored lights.  I like it all, even when I feel guilty about some parts of it.  I’m not alone in having mixed feelings.  Many of you do too.

Still, there is another piece of this season worth recalling.  Or rather, it’s the whole point beneath all the excessive glitz and kitsch.  It is about life and death, sin and redemption, possibilities lost and found.  At its core it is a story not the least bit sentimental, one of a family too poor to afford a decent place to have a baby, of rulers whose fear led them to massacre innocents, and of hints of illegitimacy and aching disappointment.  Christmas presents such an odd story of the time when no one knew the baby’s name or even whether he would live in obscurity or just die like so many other infants in the days before modern medicine.  It is a story of fragile human beings, lost in a world in which the powerful strutted across the world’s stage only to be replaced by others.  In short, it is the human story.

I thought of that again today when reading the obituaries of two major world leaders, Kim Jong Il and Vaclav Havel.  One was a savage tyrant who used his immense privileges for self-gratification of body and mind.  Kim Jong Il, if he is remembered at all, will go down in history as one of its worst human productions, a man whose death definitely made the world better.  He will not be missed, at least not by free people.  Havel, on the other hand, gave his life for human freedom and dignity, first as a dissident, often jailed, playwright in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, then as the president who managed the peaceful split of the country to maximize self-determination.  May he rest in peace.

The differences between the two men could hardly be more stark.  But perhaps they illustrate the range of human possibilities, the deep longing we have for human wholeness, but also the impulses for darkness that lurk within us and that can rise to prominence under certain to-be-avoided circumstances.  Moral differences matter a great deal, and we do well to have clarity about that.  No one is perfect, but some imperfections have far worse consequences than others.  The key is to find God amid our imperfections.

The curious thing about the Christmas story, I think, is not that it illustrates the complete failure of all human endeavors.  It is not a Gnostic myth of a redeemer come to rescue a select few from the invincible darkness of the world.  Rather, it is a story of solidarity, of God the Almighty creator of this very world (not some other world up in heaven!) joining us in our fragility in order to bring to the forefront the capabilities for goodness and wholeness that he placed within us.  It is about the healing of creation, not its dismissal.  So — to mix Matthew and Luke for a moment — angels sing to poor shepherds, Persian astrologers follow a star, and old people in the temple see a baby whose appearance fulfills all the old prophecies.  Human beings stand together in their freedom before God.  There is a seamless connection among humankind, and between us and God, that is revealed in the baby in the manager and all for which he stands.

So, is it Christmas yet?  Yes, it always is, for every day God is with us in our suffering and in our joy.  Too many babies are still born (and stillborn, alas) in stables, and too many tyrants still sleep peacefully in their palaces.  Yet there are also men and women who live with dignity and peace, even amid the sorrow.  Immanuel is not just a pretty word, but a description of the nature of reality.  And there is better news still.  Another holiday is coming.  Easter is on its way.  The God who brings life from a womb can also bring it from death itself.  Amen.

Sin as Inattentiveness, Faith as Caring Enough: The Psalms in our Worship 43

by   |  12.06.11  |  Bible, God with us, Identity

David Prital tells the story of the Baptist Ukrainians who rescued him, a Jew from the Nazis.  The poor farmer brought him into their hut and said to his wife, “’God brought an important guest to our house’,” he said to his wife.  ‘We should thank God for this blessing.’  They kneeled down and I heard a wonderful prayer coming out of their pure and simple hearts, not written in a single prayer book.  I heard a song addressed to God, thanking God for the opportunity to meet a son of Israel in these crazy days….”

Crazy days.  I guess that label has been appropriate in almost all times and places.  Since Adam and Eve first said to each other, “Things aren’t what they used to be,” we have been in a steady state of dismay at our world and the other humans sharing it with us.  And with ourselves, for that matter.  Particularly dismaying has been the persistence of evil, not so much as the result of concerted plans (the Holocaust is exceptional, after all), but as the inevitable product of inattention to goodness.  Carelessness is the root of all evil, we might say.  Or at least of evil enough.

Psalm 52 expresses fitting indignation at the persistence of indifference.  Some people, it says, “love evil more than good, stupid nonsense (Hebrew: sheqer) more than speaking justly.”  That sounds about right.  In a world awash with words, no one could plausibly argue that our choices of ideas, practices, norms, or beliefs always avoided being sheqer!  Our common human indifference to wisdom shows itself in many forms, and in all our lives.  Psalm 52 diagnoses the cause of our problems in a simple way: “Behold, no person puts God in his reflections.  He trusts in the abundance of his riches….”  By miscalculating the true source of meaning and security, human beings lose a vigorous sense of meaningful distinctions between justice and injustice, between good and evil.

Still, this is not the psalm’s last word.  Verse 8’s (verse 10 in Hebrew) “But as for me, I am like a verdant olive tree in God’s temple.  I trust in God’s loyalty forever and ever.  I will praise you forever for you have acted.  And I will trust your name, for it is good….”  In contrast to false trusts, the psalmist finds life, permanence, beauty, productivity (all symbolized by the olive grove in the temple courtyards) through the simple expedient of trusting in God.  He or she does not explain what that means in detail, but this very lack of specificity underscores the radical nature of the commitment.  To trust God in an uncompromising way requires every bit of our moral commitment, our clarity about ourselves and others, and our resolve not to take shortcuts in the life of faith.  Most of all, it requires God’s grace, not just our activity.

Trust is thus itself a gift from God, a gift rooted in relationship, and it returns to strengthen the very relationship that gives it life.  This simple psalm, which lacks all pretense of sophisticated artistry or theological profundity, calls us to the most difficult thing of all.  In our crazy times, such a call may be our only hope — and our best option.