Thursday, December 30, 2010

He Comes to the Chaos: A Final Christmas Meditation


 Our church had a Christmas Eve service, and I was looking forward to and hoping this would provide a sense of haven in the midst of hectic activity and obnoxious  shoppers and angry drivers en route to shopping.  I was already on edge because I was responsible for memorizing a significant portion of the second chapter of the gospel of Luke, which contains the birth narrative of Christ.  I was the narrator as various children re-enacted the nativity scene.  I was anxious about being able to recall my lines while the kids were acting  like shepherds slamming down Red Bull.  Well, I did lose my place and forgot several lines and attempted to re-insert them, and I doubt that many listening could tell, but I knew I screwed up and I had so badly wanted to nail it without flaw, and, ironically, found myself silently cursing before we all sang Silent Night.  

The kids were squirming and restless and fussing and ruined a Norman Rockwellian Christmas Eve service.  After the children's program our pastor shared a meditation and while he's talking people are hacking and coughing.   A pew over, Marge is wheezing.  Shortly into his meditation, a number of kids are by now whining.  An occasional "Mommy, she pinched me!"  It slowly is reaching a crescendo and one child begins and continues screaming his lungs out.   My first reaction was, "Merry freakin   Christmas!"  And then it hit me:  This--and much worse--is what Chrst enterd and still enters.  Chaos.  Christ was born in a setting wherein King Herod was slaughtering innocent children.   Christ enters the the chaos of a Christmas pageant, as trivial as that level of chaos may be.  Christ enters our chaos at our core level.  That's why he comes to us--to bring order to our chaos, to bestow forgiveness for our sin, to eradicate the darkness with light. 

I avoid the chaos; Christ enters my chaos.  I do not have to fear getting lost in the chaos and the seeming senselessness; Christ finds me in it.  He does not merely embrace my darkness by entering it, but he transcends the darkness and, in time, will dispense that darkness with his light.  The gospel of John, in reflecting on Christ's birth puts it this way:  "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not (and will not) overcome it."  Even in the throes of my emotional chaos, even at the height of my angst, there is always hope because Christ was born and is born into all of this mess.  He enter our chaos.

Adrian Plass composed a poem that captures what I'm trying to say, and does so with more eloquence and poignancy than I will ever muster.  i invite you to reflect on these words.

And Christ Will Be Born 

On Christmas day the world will turn once more towards its end.
But Jesus will be born.
A woman who has tried once more in vain to re-create the morning
Will find her spirit crushed at last by failures and defeats
Her grief will trail like tattered ribbons
Through apocalyptic streets
And Jesus will be born
A little child who cannot waste his tiny reservoir of moisture
On a thing as purely pointless as a tear
Will puzzle at the burning skies
Blank and empty as his mother’s eyes
And wish beyond the point of fear
That darkness would descend
And Jesus will be born
And in some cold, sad cell a man will dream of blessed ordinariness
A walk, a meal, a smile, a book, the chance to feel
A trusting hand in his
Small and soft and folded like a flower in the night
Devastating innocence that promises redemption and has never lied
But will not save him from the morning and the hour
When heavy boots come marching down the corridor outside
And Jesus will be born
At the corner of the street the image of the living God
Will hug herself against the cold
And smoke a friendly cigarette
And be prepared to greet success with weary resignation
Feebly lit by one of yesterday’s recycled smiles
And struggle to forget what she was told
When someone was in charge and choices could be made
And there was hope
And Jesus will be born
Yes, Jesus will be born
Though the night enfolds like a black shroud
And the liar’s lies drive us from our peace
And take us from our beds
And bring us to our knees
On the cold stone tiles of the kitchen floor
Jesus will be born
Yes, though the skies crack
And the heavens sway
And the heat dies in the earth’s core
And the last stitch in the last ditch appears
When all is lost
A child’s hand will reach out from the manger
A wounded hand will catch our tears
For Jesus will be born on Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

My Model of a Man

 I'm inviting you to watch the video that follows. I aspire to be possess the gentleness and the peacemaking spirit of this man (and his wife) while I still have my senses. I don't want to reach a point of old age and senility where I'm  harmless and incapacitated, reduced to a continual smile while I soil myself and salivate down my chin, and people remarking, "He' so happy and peaceful. . . and delusional."  I want to still have fire in my belly--I want to have my senses and all my passion-- yet be consumed by a gentle, peacemaking spirit toward others.  This man inspires me and gives me hope that maybe I, too, can become such a person.

Old Radicals

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bill O'Reilly, Baby Jesus, and Jobless Joe

This week Bill O'Reilly took to task Dem. Jim McDermott  for his comment, "We talk about good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won't give you a check to feed your family. That's simply wrong."  O'Reilly asks, "What does a moral society owe to the have-nots?"  The implication being--not much.  The implication being that you got yourself into your mess; you get yourself out.  The implication being it's your own damn fault; if you weren't a slacker but were industrious like me you'd have a job. 

That sounds just like little baby Jesus, doesn't it?  I don't know about Bill's baby Jesus but the Bible's grownup Jesus is described in this manner:  "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."  (Matt. 9: 36) 

There is an instance recorded in the gospels where a massive group of people--about 5,000-- had assembled to hear Christ teach or experience his healing.  It's been a long day and people are tired and hungry and his apostles approach him and tell him, "Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and find food and lodging . . . "  Jesus replies, "You give them something."    That definitely does not sound like Bill O'Reilly's Jesus.

He (Bill, not Jesus) goes on to say, "There comes a time when compassion can cause disaster. If you open your home to scores of homeless folks, you will not have a home for long."  Maybe I'm missing something here.  Are we precariously perched on the brink of disaster because compassion is running rampant across America?  I'm going home tonight and tell the scores of homeless people I've taken into our home that I'm fed up and they have to leave.  And I want each of you to do the same.   Really, Bill?   I don't know anyone--myself included-- who currently has taken a  single solitary homeless person into their home, let alone scores of them.  Are we really at risk here? 

Mr. O'Reilly closes his editorial with two comments.  ". . . being a Christian,  I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive."   While giving himself up to die on a cross may not exactly be self-destructive by intent, dying on a cross certainly isn't the epitome of self-actualization, accumulation, acquisition and consumption.

He closes by saying, " The Lord helps those who help themselves."  That's not a quote from the Bible, by the way, about God.  However,  here is a quote from the Bible about the Lord whom Mr. O'Reilly references.  "When we were still powerless (helpless) Christ died. . . " for us.  God does not wait for us to initiate; God always makes the first move.  God is the Initiator; I am the Responder.  God doesn't help only those who help themselves; God helps the helpless and the jobless Joe's.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I'm Ch-ch-ch-chokin' on Ch-ch-ch-changes

Maybe David Bowie was stuttering after all when he sang about ch-ch-ch-changes.  My wife and I have just made the most monumental decision in recent decades and I certainly find myself stammering and stuttering as I come to grips with it all. 

We are both quitting our respective jobs/careers as of Feb. 1 and  we're going to work with and serve the poor in Honduras for 3 months, beginning in March.  Mercy International in Yamaranguila, Honduras has invited us to do so and we have accepted.  And a significant part of me says,  "You did WHAT?!?"    The bolder, trusting side says, "YES!!!!"  At this point it an ongoing internal dialogue hundreds of times a day.

Ch-ch-ch-changes.  Some of us thrive on change; some of us dive from it.   I personally thrive on diving from change.  Gimme my predictable comfort zone within which to operate and then a comfy haven to come home to at night.  I want the American Dream--without the divorce, the rehab, the ulcer, the mid-life crisis, the sense of pleasure but no purpose, the spoiled adult children.  But then it wouldn't be the American Dream--now would it.  I want my comfort zone but I find myself getting complacent in it.  I find myself becoming soft 'n pudgy-- the Pillsbury Dough boy with a remote.  

I believe there is something innate within us that needs adventure; we need a cause, a purpose greater than our own ego.  I need more than my acquisitions and accumulations.  I don't buy into the idea that he who dies with the most toys wins.  He still dies.  By the way, have you heard some variations of that 80's mantra?

Judaism - He who buys toys at the lowest price, wins.
Catholicism - He who denies himself the most toys, wins.
Atheism - There is no toy maker.
Anglican - They were our toys first.
Branch Davidians - He who dies playing with the biggest toys, wins.
Hare Krishna - He who plays with the most toys, wins.
Polytheism - There are many toy makers.
Evolution - The toys made themselves.
Church of Christ, Scientist - We are the toys.
Communism - Everyone gets the same number of toys.
Baha'i - ALL toys are just fine with us.
Amish - Powered toys are a sin.
Taoism - The doll is as important as the dump truck.
Mormonism - Every boy may have as many toys as he wants.
Voodoo - Let me borrow that doll for a second....
Jehovah's Witnesses - He who sells the most toys door-to-door, wins.

If there is someone I have not offended, please let me know.   I have been known to digress and I believe this might be one of those instances.  I will get back on-course.

As inviting and alluring as it may be at times, I don't want to settle for the status quo.   I don't want to observe life like I'm some Audubon bird-watcher.   I want to fly; I don't want to watch birds do it.   There is a stone plaque that sits eye-level on my computer desk.  I'm looking at it right now.  It reads,

 Remember this; when you're through changing. . . you're through.

Now THAT makes me stutter. That jolts me out of my false sense of security and possibly settling for less than what God intends for me.  How about YOU?  Are you embracing ch-ch-ch-changes?  Are you resisting the life of consumption?  You and I will make an impact--either on the couch cushion or on others.   I'm far from it but I want to embody that axiom, If you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much space.

My hope for not only me but you is that we will discard our pipe dreams and embrace our God-given dreams.  That we will summon the courage--the faith?--to go for it in spite of the obstacles.  Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the tradewinds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.   (Thank you, Mark Twain)

The Foo Fighters in "My Hero"  pose this question in a lyric about heroes, people who discard their apathy and give all they've got to make an impact on this pummeled planet.  "Don't the best of them bleed it out while the rest of  them peter out?"  

 May God give us grace not to settle for being one of "the rest of them."  May we bleed it out because we are fueled by a heart for others, a restlessness with the status quo, a compassion for those who are suffering.



Friday, December 10, 2010

Merry Christmas and I Hope You Don't Freeze to Death Tonight

The shelters in town turn out the homeless very early in the morning and don't allow them back in til evening.  One, I'm told, does not allow them back in until 9 p.m.  Our church provides a hot breakfast for the homeless early each Sunday morning. Last Sunday, we didn't have a shuttle van and had informed everyone that they would  have to walk.  A 30 minute walk in the cold for a healthy person.  My wife and I were the first to arrive; it was still dark.  In the darkness I noticed a figure huddling in the cold. A homeless man was already there, waiting.  I thought it was strange anyone should show up an hour early, particularly due to the walk.  Puzzled, I asked him what he was doing here so early.  He had on a  light denim jacket.  I don't recall any gloves.  Shivering, he told me he had slept outside all night in an open parking deck.  He told me he was "cold to my core."

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and God, it's cold out there.  The Christmas season has become primarily an opportunity for further consuming, rather than caring.  I know what's on MY list and am hoping to get--and it's not a place to sleep.  This is supposed to be a season of giving, not getting.  Isn't our entire life, if properly ordered, to reflect our compassion, not our acquisitions?  Our culture is all about accumulation; on the other hand, Christmas--"Christ's Mass"-is all about giving, not getting.

So, let's enjoy our friends and families.  Enjoy what you get from those whom love you.  Give to those you love and with whom you share life.

But, please don't forget--it's cold out there.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Life is Like the Ocean; It Comes in Waves

I don't believe that life is a crap-shoot but it certainly consists of both billboards, doesn't it. There is a book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes, and the writer attests to the fact that "for everything there is a season. . . a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build. . . "  Pete Seeger took this text from Ecclesiastes and put it to music in 1959.  "Turn!  Turn!  Turn!" became a world-wide hit in 1965 when The Byrds made it their cover song.   It isn't merely a good song; it's a picture of life itself.  

As you read this, I don't know what season of life you are going through. For some of you this has been and continues to be a season of drought and despondency.  A relationship has  dissolved.  Savings are being exhausted.  Health issues.  Broken trust and discarded vows.  Demons who had been dormant now have sprung to create a living hell.     I would never--never--choose such a season, but I can see value  in it.  A season like this can serve the purpose of a crucible, wherein the "fluff", that which lacks substance, or possibly the inauthentic in me gets grounded out.  Granted, the grounding, the grinding can feel as though I am being hammered to death, rather than the "impurities" being ground and filtered out.   I hope you endure the billboard.

There are several perspectives which serve to sustain during one of these seasons.  I believe there is Order underlying the seeming chaos of the season.  I believe there is One who possesses  a good heart overseeing a very bad time.  "Why?" questions abound, but I do not allow this season to define me.  It certainly influences me; it does not have to define me.  There is something in the very nature of a season that also motivates me to endure.  A season, by definition, is temporary.  This season of the dark will yield, eventually, to rays of light.  This season will change.  I will not always feel like I do today.  As a Christ-follower, I do not hold to the position that God brings such a season into my life to punish me, to spew his wrath upon me.  What serves to sustain my hope is that God desires to turn that which could serve to destroy me into something that will, instead, deepen and strength me.  

For some of you who are reading this, it's a season of hope.  A season of joy and gratitude.  A new baby.  You've fallen in love.  A new job has opened up.  A relationship has grown to a deeper level.  You've lost the weight.  Things aren't heating up; they're looking up.  I encourage you to savor the season.  Enjoy and "be in the moment" of every moment.  Give voice to those matters of the heart that, in a different season, may be much more difficult to utter then.  Hold each other close.  Dance with delight.  Enjoy the billboard.

For me, though I have very much for which I am thankful, this has been a very long and persistent season of drought.  To use Ecclesiastes terminology, "a time to tear down. . . a time to weep. . . a time to search. . . a time to be silent. . . "  For many, many months I have found myself withdrawing.  It's been a time of brokenness, a desperate time of wrestling with God and questioning my faith.  Toss in some self-loathing and Abracadabra!  I haven't been exactly charming. 

But I keep pressing on.  I speak beyond what I feel.  I trust beyond what my senses may tell me.  And though I don't know why this darkness has descended on me I know why I trust the One who does know why.

(I want to give credit where it is due;  the billboard picutre was posted by Abraham piper, a blogger, twentytwo words.)