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Monday, January 1, 2018

Training in the Flesh

           The Christmas story is about incarnation—Christ’s appearance in his body.  The gospel pivots around the human body.  Christ came in a body.  He reconciled us by the offering of his physical body, and it was this body God raised from the dead.  So to the Christian the body is never a carcass to be discarded but always as a temple to be redeemed.
       Many of us give a nod to this truth this time of year and think about training our bodies.  Yet, as health-club attendance seasonally swells, one can overhear gym-rats consoling themselves with jokes about how by April they will have their gym back.  
        The weakness of our will-power is often attributed to a lack of motivation.  Many decide to exercise because they are depressed and ashamed of what we see in the mirror. The fitness industry tries to capitalize on all this, mistakenly assuming that anything that people can use for motivation is positive.
      Yet our motivational problem is not one of quantity but of kind.  Self-loathing, loneliness and fear of sickness and aging are passions which seldom keep us in the gym.  Far more helpful is connecting our fitness goals to a holy sense of lasting purpose.
      Eavesdrop on Paul as he spoke of bodily training:  “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever…I beat my body and make it my servant so… I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 
        Paul’s contrast is not between training the body and training the spirit! The contrast is between physical training for competitions that are soon over, and Christian physical training (gymnasia) which disciplines the body in order to love with an everlasting impact. Christian exercise is about making sure the body serves us in ways that will last.  Dads who are in shape can run with children at night, make coffee for the wife in the morning, shovel the neighbor’s driveway and have enough energy at age 80 to show up at the community meeting.
     None of this training, Paul insists, will lose its eternal crowning significance.    If we continue to train with this in mind, it will attract a different kind of notice…even from some of the younger gym-rats.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Singing Things Together

     A group of my friends caroled during the lighting of Main Street last Christmas, catching the attention of a little boy who was about four years old.  His Father crouched down behind him, holding his arms. Occasionally this Dad would point over his child’s shoulder, explaining some feature of our carols which the boy clearly had never experienced before. 
     I didn’t hear all of what the Dad said.  It was something about Jesus being born—something about why we were singing— and how this nearly extinct Holiday practice of singing in harmony was once more common. Judging by what little I could overhear, the Dad was sharing a family memory, too.    
      God was helping unite this dad to his son, and the son to previous generations of his father’s memory.  I know that this father reconnected me to my own childhood, too. My Dad would similarly crouch behind me. He had the habit of tightly inhaling a short breath as he turned a page of my story book, or saw something interesting, coaching a sense of wonder at life’s mysteries. 
      Though the child had no idea what was happening in me or in his Dad, through the singing of traditional songs God connected this young boy to a thousand years of history.  Harmonies joined families, generations, and the community together in ways that only Divine Mystery can fully comprehend.

     It would be great if all of us resolved to be in public spaces more.  Community gatherings and spaces where we all can come and unite with one another are important.   My bet is that our differences will not keep us from being mysteriously connected more deeply.  I believe that because Christ is mysteriously active joining all things in heaven and earth together in love.  (Ephesians 1: 10)

Christmas Infanticide

      I like to listen to Burl Ives, to play with the kids in front of the fire, and to sip coffee.  Yet, nothing ruins my "Christmas spirit" like reading the Bible.
      Upon hearing of the true King’s birth in Bethlehem, King Herod tries to kill Jesus by killing all the local boys Jesus’ age.   Matthew quotes Jeremiah: "A voice is heard--Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more…” Jeremiah continues, “This is what the LORD says: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tearsfor your children will return to their own land."
     Follow Matthew’s extraordinary use of Jeremiah:   first, the mourning Mothers of Bethlehem  are said to be like their ancestor, Rachel.  She, too, wept for her kidnapped sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Yet, in Genesis these boys are restored to the ancestral family.  In Jeremiah’s day, as the mothers of Israel watched their children being kidnapped, Jeremiah tells them not to cry because God will see to it that they someday will come home.  
      Matthew’s Christmas is about God entering a world of mass infanticide.  Matthew depends on the Mothers of Bethlehem knowing that Rachel’s suffering came to an end. Mathew’s Christmas story is one of a vulnerable God entering a world of suffering as a sign that death will not finally prevail. As Joseph and Benjamin were spared, as the youngest generations from the exile returned, now even murdered children will return home for Christmas! 

       I write this while warmed by a fireplace, smiling at a healthy child.  But the gospels call me out of comfort into a grieving world.  Somewhere there is a grieving mother named Rachel, who needs the real Christmas Spirit.  For her, a Christmas that is only about family togetherness is cruel.  She needs to cling to the belief that in her eyes God, himself, cries oceans of tears.  She needs a grace that wipes her eyes with the steely assurance that her suffering will end in resurrection.   She needs people to act like Jesus and enter her world of suffering as a death-defying sign.  For her, a flimsy, "holly-jolly Christmas" won’t cut it.

Friday, December 29, 2017

When Costly Gifts are Required

          I’ve noticed that the people asking for money at prominent intersections have changed their strategy. Instead of holding up cardboard signs saying, “will work for food,” they are now faking illnesses.  Faced with an immediate choice about giving or not giving, many people give in to the naive impulse that wants to believe we can anonymously help with a quick gift.  Thus, panhandlers make more tax-free money than the people who work very hard at socially important but poorly paid jobs. 
         If you detect a bit of frustration, please know that I admire generosity, and I desire the best for the people seeking help. Last Sunday night my congregation collected thousands of dollars to help a local family and support a mission in the Ukraine.  But in both instances we have some relationship with the recipients.  We don’t want our efforts at hospitality to become a form of co-dependency which harms strangers.  Social workers have repeatedly told my church members that financially helping certain people just promotes their transiency by financing patterns of continuing dependency and isolation.
        Several years ago local churches began to take stock of their efforts to help alleviate poverty in Indy.  Conclusion?  Many food pantries and clothing drives are doing good work; but providing services is not fully addressing real systemic problems. 
       Steve Corbett and Biken Fikkert’s book, When Helping Hurts, demonstrates how some ministries actually disempower and shame the people they are trying to help.  As a result some missions these days are trying to help people discover and express their own talents.  That’s harder work because it requires time, commitment and loving presence. 

      The Christmas story insists that what people need is precisely the gift of loving presence.  God became a vulnerable guest among the poor.  Born out of wedlock to a poverty-stricken, near-eastern teenager, the King of Kings did his work by befriending common folks who would become his co-workers.  Jesus’ name is Immanuel--God with us.  Real gift-giving has to include the gift of such sustained presence and friendship.  No gift less costly will suffice.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Dickens' Christmas Carol is Humbug

     Each year Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol plays to sold-out crowds at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  It’s a great show. I’m glad when people like Scrooge occasionally decide to be generous.  I’m touched by Victorian Christmas sentiment, and I can’t resist Tiny Tim’s pronouncement of blessing on the whole affair: “God bless us, everyone.”    
     Yet, A Christmas Carol asks me to imagine a man changed from a miser into a generous servant through a series of apocalyptic nightmares.  Humbug. 
      Scrooge’s dead business associate, Jacob Marley, returns from the grave to warn Scrooge to change his ways. Jesus’ parable in Luke 16 doesn’t work that way. Scripture refuses to give a rich, dead man permission to return to warn anybody about the misguided love of money. Jesus teaches that if people like Scrooge do not respond generously to God’s love, “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
     So, Dicken’s whole structure is troubling from the start. The Ghost of Christmas Past then asks Scrooge to consider all the opportunities for happiness he’s squandered.  The second ghost tells Scrooge he’s responsible for gut-wrenching images of suffering.  The third ghost shames Scrooge by showing him that his neighbors wouldn’t bother coming to his immanent funeral.    These are images of Scrooge’s regret, failure, shame and impending doom. Dickens seems to believe you can scare the hell out of people.
     I don’t.  As true as the judgments pronounced on Scrooge are, Jesus comes at Christmas redeeming our past, with all its regrets, creating new possibilities, forgiving all our failures, and freeing us from the condescending judgments of small people.  He soothes fears, leading a freedom march through death itself.  The Apostle Paul asks us not to show “contempt for the riches of [God’s] kindnessnot realizing that it’s God's kindness which leads toward repentance?”

     Scrooge is selfish because he’s scared. Amplifying threats won’t help.  Love has to drive out fear.  Moral change happens when we’re gripped by visions of mercy triumphing over all judgment. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Relighting Christmas

          In 1966, Noma, the largest Christmas tree light company in the world, filed for bankruptcy as the domestic Christmas light industry struggled with foreign competition and the introduction of the much smaller, foreign-made string-lights. 
        In the industry flux, some companies changed the shape of the larger decorative lightbulbs.  The new replacement bulbs came to a sharper point, emulating the shape of a candle flame.  This was a marketing ploy for the elderly, who could still remember a time when tree lights were actually candles. 
      Being only a child, I received this change as a heresy.  Each year more of the older, classically convex bulbs burned out and were replaced with these fake flames. The magic memories of my first Christmases seemed to burn out with the convex bulbs. 
       One older style light unaccountably continued to burn atop of the family tree for a decade. It symbolized what became only the memory of a joyous religious longing.  In 2001, when my own son reached the age of six, he complained of the same widespread, religious experience:      
      “Daddy, this Christmas tree is not giving me any warmth.”        
       This is like the experience of the Jewish people when they returned home from seventy years of slavery.   They began rebuilding a Temple, but those who had seen the previous Temple as young children were grief-stricken. It was just not the same.  The mysterious glory which filled Solomon’s Temple did not re-fill the new one.  The glory had departed.  They were back in Jerusalem, but somehow it did not seem like home.
        I fear most people experience something akin to this homesickness at Christmas.  They cannot wring a departed joy out of all the festivities.  In my boy’s words, Christmas trees no longer “give them “warmth.”    
       “Yes,” I told my son, “for it was never really the trees that gave the warmth.” Christmas is not so much about the trimmings as it is about being homesick for a place we’ve never been.  It’s about the burning glory of the eternal city returning to us.   Heaven comes to reassure us our earliest experiences of that true home were no lie.   


Friday, December 8, 2017

The Big News of the Season

            Jesus was born of a virgin. It’s Christian dogma. If the first Adam was made from dust, there is nothing to prevent God from making the Second Humanity any way he wants to.  To deny such a possibility is to give in to a materialism which renders the world a dead and mechanistic machine.
        There are also religious people, who hold out hope for such miracles but who get squeamish about such dogma.  They generally think the mythical dimension of Christian truth can be pried away from God’s acts of historic redemption.  Hesitating about virgin birth suggests that they have doubts about the church’s historical claims.  Such folks are willing to defy the church’s primitive canon by reducing the faith to one more of Feuerbach’s socially constructed metaphors.
       For these reasons in recent centuries affirming the miracle of the virgin birth has functioned as an effective test of Evangelical orthodoxy. Yet, by using the virginity of Mary as a mere shibboleth, the church may miss the more profound miraculous sign in the story of the incarnation.  We haven’t grasped the message of Christmas if all we do is keep rationalism at bay.  Christians have to admit that the virgin birth is not included in Scripture’s creeds, and as such it did not function as a primitive test of orthodoxy.  The entire Pauline corpus makes no mention of virgin birth, and as such the virgin birth cannot be central to the most primitive form of historical Christian witness. 
     This is not in the least to suggest that Paul did not believe in the virgin birth; it is to insist that for Paul the important gospel matter was that Yahweh had returned to Zion in Jesus the Messiah-- that the Temple of the nation at last had been refilled with unveiled glory-- and that the name of Jesus was identical to that of Yahweh, the only name for a Jew which is “above all names.” What was central about the historical life of Jesus was that he embodied the very life of the God of Israel, sharing God’s name, and executing God’s will in redeeming Israel and then all creation.
    These are the big claims about Jesus.  Compared to this, the virgin birth is small potatoes. The ancient world was very familiar with widespread reports of kings being born of virgins.  Only after this faded from widespread public consciousness did the particular asexual means of Jesus’ birth seem to embody unique Christian claims. Just as one can find Hindus who are perfectly comfortable with affirming Jesus’ virgin birth, in the ancient world virgin-birth claims were made for historical figures without making any claim as astonishing as that made most explicitly in Paul or the Johannine literature.       
      In John the unique Christian claim is that the eternal communicative Wisdom which holds all creation together had interpreted himself by tabernacle-ing in Israel.   This One true God, who exists as eternal Word, uniquely entered the life of Israel as a human being.   This is no mere reproductive trick.  The incarnation is about the central mystery of creation.  Namely, it is about how the world exists within God’s own self-originating life, and how that self-sustaining, communicative Wisdom invests God’s self within the world.  For Christians this Transcendent mystery, this ever-near but elusive presence, is finally and singly interpreted in the concrete historical life of Jesus Christ.
      God redeems with vulnerable, baby-like presence.  The weakness of God is what ends up being stronger than all the political strength of mankind.  In a world of retaliatory political one-upmanship, the eternal Mystery which contains and permeates all things approaches us as vulnerable love.
     That’s the big news of the season—bigger than reproductive anomalies.