Friday, December 30, 2011

Always Go To The Funeral

    I have been reminded recently that the most meaningful moments in life are found far more often in the walks through the dark valleys, not the meadows ( I place a lot of the blame at the feet of Odd Thomas).  The lifeless stones and hard despair of the valleys - sickness, death, poverty, loneliness -  are meant to make us all look up to the source of light and life; meadows are so flooded with both that we eventually begin to notice the flowers more than the sun. 
     That's not the flower's fault, or course, or the meadow's.  Beauty and peace are two of God's best gifts to the world. The importance of the tangible blessings of friends, family, health, comfort, and love cannot be overstated. We minimize the importance of these "glimpses of heaven" at our peril.  
      But there is a part of human nature that cannot stay in the meadows for too long, or we forget to look up.  Even worse, we begin to resent those who need us to follow them into the valleys and walk with them out of the darkness.  
     From the December 2011 issue of First Things:
"You can't come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral."  So Deirdre Sullivan's father taught her.... Going to funerals was partly a duty and partly a matter of learning to do things for others when doing them wasn't convenient, like going to 'the painfully under- attended birthday party' and visiting someone in the hospital during happy hour.
    It bears fruit, this discipline. When she was sixteen, she went to the funeral home by herself, unwillingly, for her fifth-grade math teacher. 'It was worse than I thought it would be; I was the only kid there.  When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson's shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, "Sorry about all this," and walked away.  But, for the deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered twenty years ago, Miss Emerson's mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes."
     If, by God's grace, I can lay claim to similar legacy - that people say hello with tearing eyes because I was willing to enter the valleys of their lives and walk with them -  I will consider my life to have been lived well. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christ and Christmas

    When Christianity first started, the followers of Jesus lived in a world full of people in situations that were really at odds with Christ and his teaching.  What were they to do now that they were spiritually Christian, but almost everybody around them was a culturally very Roman?
    The early followers of Christ often took an approach to spreading the Good News of the gospel that was not only counter-cultural to the Roman and Greek way of life, but was countercultural to how the church today often handles the uneasy tension between the church and society. 
    The early church wanted to reach their cities – they cared about them.  But they lived in cities where they were surrounded by a lot of really bad stuff.  For example, the holiday that we now know as Christmas was a week of  serious indulgence and license in Roman society; Easter was originally a fertility celebration... the list goes on.
    So, the early followers of Christ decided that the best way to communicate the Gospel was to enter the current cultural stream and divert it to Christ’s ends.  They didn’t move out of the neighborhood; they moved even more deeply into the neighborhood.
   As a result we see some interesting intersections of church and culture:
  •       The kriophoros, or lamb bearer (for Christians, The Good Shepherd) was a popular icon of a shepherd that early Christians used to symbolize the passages in Scripture that referred to Christ as a shepherd.
  •       The orant, a praying figure that symbolized piety, was used to symbolize the praying saint.
  •       Endymion, a young man who fell in love with a goddess, was often depicted sleeping in a cave, which is where his lover arrived to visit him.  This image became the early church’s motif for Jonah under the withered vine.
  •       Though not nearly as common as the Good Shepherd motif, Christ also appears in early Christian art in the form of the Greek god Orpheus. There is a fresco of Christ as Orpheus  in the Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, which dates from the 4th century. Another example of Christ as Orpheus is in the Catacomb of Domitilla.  Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Orpheus pacified wild beasts by the power of his song…Jesus’ new song tames “the most intractable of all animals – man.” 
  •     We find all these images on the walls of the catacombs, where the early Christians hid from persecution from the very people whose culture they were subverting for the cause of Christ.

     My point?  When Jesus came to earth he loved, he moved into the neighborhood; he blended in with normal cultural expressions (which is very different from blending in with cultural norms/worldviews). 
    The early church did this too – “As the Father has sent me, so have I sent you.”  Jesus didn’t avoid cultures; he entered into the stream of history and made himself known; the early church realized they were called to do the same.
        This brings me to Christmas (and Easter, and Halloween…)  An article at CRI asked the question, “Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?”  The article noted:

 “But what of the fact that December 25 was the date of a pagan festival? Does this not prove that Christmas is pagan? No, it does not. Instead, it proves that Christmas was established as a rival celebration to the pagan festival. That is, what Christians did was to say, "Rather than celebrate in immorality the birth of Mithra, a false god who was never really born and who cannot save you, let us celebrate in joyful righteousness the birth of Jesus, the true God incarnate who is the Savior of the world."

Sometimes it is urged that to take a pagan festival and try to "Christianize" it is folly.  However, God Himself did exactly that in the Old Testament. Historical evidence shows conclusively that some of the feasts given to Israel by God through Moses were originally pagan agricultural festivals, which were filled with idolatrous imagery and practices.  What God did, in effect, was to establish feasts which would replace the pagan festivals without adopting any of the idolatry or immorality associated with them.”

     I would add that the suzerain covenant treaty, during which an animal was slaughtered so that the covenanting parties were clear about the penalty for breaking the covenant, was a widely used custom that was adopted by God for use when He covenanted with Abraham.

     That, I think, is what we mean when we talk about “being in the world but not of it.”  We are people with a dual citizenship, and our goal is not to alienate our fellow citizens of earth.  Our goal is enter the stream of history and find a way to channel the life and the energy that is there to the glory of God.
     I believe Christians should be entering into cultural holidays, no matter what their origin or current expression, and redeeming them.  I get that many have pagan origins.  I just don’t care.  I am far more interested in what Christians are doing today to remind people of Christ’s birth at Christmas, Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter, and Christ’s ultimate authority over death, hell, and the grave at Halloween.  For that matter, it wouldn’t hurt to use the 4th of July to talk about the freedom Christ brings; Memorial Day to commemorate those who have died for the cause of Christ; Labor Day to remind ourselves that our workplace is a mission field; New Years Day to talk about the new beginning that Christ offers in our lives…

     I wonder how creative we can be with the Super Bowl?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Love With Sinew And Bone

From "The Way of Enchantment", by R.R. Reno, in the January 2012 issue of First Things:
"Love and her enchantments can be dangerous. Our gods may be idols, our patriotism misguided, and our ardent convictions false.  The twentieth century tells a sad tale of the brutality of ideologies passionately believed. For this reason, love is never self-authenticating.  It must be purified: sometimes by reason, sometimes by conscience, sometimes by authority.
   But this purification does not alter the fact that love does not take us to ta high citadel.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  A wedding feast celebrates the destruction of a the fortifying walls that insulate one person from another, and the covenant of  marriage creates a very different kind of citadel, one in rather than above the world.  My wife, my children, my friends, my community, my nation - I cannot gaze down from above on those whom I love.  Love draws us down into what, viewed objectively, is a reckless intimacy: for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.   The same holds for a supernatural love of God. St. Augustine did not stand aloof, , nor did St. Francis, nor St. Ignatius... In their steadfast and immovable love of Christ they served the world rather than observing it from above...
     To look down on life from above: It may free us from the pains of desire, but it's a dry, cold, loveless enterprise, one that, if followed to its end, leaves the world as it is.  Christianity' for enduring happiness is more humane, allowing us to hope that the sinews of life - our very bones - can be penetrated by an enduring, unconquerable, eternalizing love."
   That, I believe, is the hope and the beauty of the Christmas message. God is not a cold, loveless God content to leave the world as it is.  He took upon himself the very sinews of life so that only the world but our should can experience His enduring, unconquerable, eternalizing love.  

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Odd Thomas

    I am re-reading Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series. I had forgotten how talented Koontz is at addressing momentous topics with creativity and seriousness (read Out of the Corner of His Eye for confirmation). Close to the end of Odd Hours, Koontz gives the following monologue to Odd:
"Grief can destroy you - or focus you.  You can decide a relationship was all for nothing if it hand to end in death, and you alone.  Or you can realize that every moment of it had more meaning than you dared to recognize at the time, so much meaning it scared you, so you just lived, just took for granted the love and laughter of each day, and didn't allow yourself to consider the sacredness of it. But when it's over and you're alone, you begin to see it wasn't just a movie and a dinner together, not just watching sunsets together, not just scrubbing a floor or washing dishes together or worrying over a high electric bill.  It was everything, it was the why of life, every event and precious moment of it.  The answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can't get off your knees for a long time, you're driven to you knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss.  And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life."

Thursday, December 15, 2011


     I realized recently that in all the thinking and writing I have done since the death of my dad and Grandpa, none of my memories have revolved around big events.  I did not write that we went to Disneyland, or that Mom and Dad spent a month in Kenya where Dad taught at a Bible college, or that my Grandpa was on "Good Morning America" one time (even though they all happened).  Those are not the events of which my most precious memories are made.  I have much stronger and better memories of very ordinary things.

With Dad, I remember:
helping him put down linoleum flooring in Alabama; 
listening to him play piano;
going out for pizza with him on my 8th birthday in Oregon; 
driving to Mt. Hood to go tubing; 
sitting by a wood stove playing Stratego; 
picking raspberries;
building our house;
entertaining international students in our home. 

With Grandpa, I remember:
sitting in his living room in Alabama and just talking with him;
golfing on the day before my wedding;
meeting him and Grandma in Midland for supper a year before he died;
driving his RV on the way back from a reunion.;
shucking corn with all my cousins at his house on “corn shuckin’” day…

    All these little things pile up.  And all of these things played a vital role in my formation as a Christian, not just as a person.  Dad and Grandpa were  followers of Christ; I was absorbing something about what that meant as I interacted with them in even the most seemingly insignificant of things.

    It was like that with my mom, my principal, my coach, my friends, my wife….  They have all molded me in all the moments of life…every word spoken…every kindness shown…

    There are no little people in little places doing little things in the Kingdom of God.  There are only image bearers of God doing things that ripple through eternity.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lower Case and Upper Case Saviors

     At a conference several weeks ago, Robert Kellerman noted:  “Despair drives us to what we really hope in.”   Good times and pleasure and success can allow us the freedom to pursue what we like – but hard times, pain, and failure drive us to things in which we place our hope.   
     It is an inescapable part of human nature:  we constantly need and seek saviors.
  • Doctors save us from sickness.
  • Money saves us from poverty.
  • Sex saves us from loneliness.
  • Exercise and diet saves us from disease.
  • Education saves us from ignorance.
  • Government saves us from chaos.
  • Friends and family save us from isolation.
  • Entertainment saves us from boredom.

           Each of those can offer a form of salvation in the moment in a particular, limited, fleeting way.  Money can save you from poverty.  Education can save you from ignorance.  Doctors can save you from disease.   When they do they are meant to point us toward the one who ultimately saves and restores us. They are all what I call “lower case saviors,” and it makes sense that we turn to them to solve lower case dilemmas.

     We get tripped up when we make the lower case “s” an upper case  “S.”  Little temporary saviors can only save us in little temporary ways.   We want them to solve our ultimate, deepest problems, but they simply cannot save us in that way.  

     It’s the Titanic perspective.  Rose says: “But now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me…in every way that a person can be saved.”  No, he didn’t.  He couldn’t even save himself. 

     At best, lower case saviors can save you in one very specific way – say, money from poverty.  But it’s salvation is limited.  It cannot bear the weight of your life.   Neither can money…a spouse… friends…. a job… money….education…health…sex…doctors… They cannot save you.  They were never meant to.  We may want to believe these will save us, but what we want to be true is sometimes very different from what is true.

    At Christmas, we are reminded why the entrance of Christ into the world gives us what we both want and need if we are to be truly saved:

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2)

   There is only one Savior from whom we find true wisdom and knowledge; who provides true wealth that will not fade; who provides true love and relationship; who makes us healthy in ways that won’t vary depending on our prescription or exercise plan; who provides true forgiveness of sin; true hope; true joy.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Childlike Wonder

    I am in increasingly aware of the tension of the world in which we live.  Beauty and pain live in such close proximity, and it's sometimes tough to have the right perspective.  
   Dawn Eden, who wrote the fantastic Thrill of the Chaste,  is no stranger to this tension.  In the midst of living out the beauty of the transformation God brought in her, she walked through the valley of the shadow of thyroid cancer.  She has now written a book on overcoming sexual abuse.   
    She blogs and writes very honestly about this tension in life - this existence between the "now" and the "not yet."  She recently posted these thoughts on her blog:

" St. Josephine Bakhita as a young child was kidnapped, enslaved, and beaten. Yet, even after being so traumatized that she forgot her own name, she retained the memory of the awe she experienced before her world was turned upside down: "Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things? And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage..." 


By holding onto her childlike sense of wonder, Bakhita was ultimately able to see that even her most painful memories fell within the scope of God's loving providence, which permits evil only to bring forth a greater good."

     I have had some tough times, but not that tough.  And I lost my childlike wonder a long time ago.  I wonder sometimes if God gave my boys to my wife and I to remind us what it is like to see the world through eyes widened by wonder and adventure, not deadened by trouble and pain.  
 I remember AJ asking for a pet monkey, and when told that wasn't possible, asking for an eagle. Braden writes stories that I suspect M.C. Escher inspired.  Vincent just "betacks" the world in general with gusto and creativity.

Christmas commemorates a time when the beauty of heaven entered the ashes of the world, raising from it a Savior who changed everything.  I forget how awesome that truly is.  May this Christmas be one in which I become like a child, and I "desire to see him, to know Him, and to pay Him homage."