(Not Such) A Strange Way to Save the World

A few days ago, just before Christmas, I was driving down the road listening to Christian Christmas music. I find Christian music to be hit-or-miss; some songs I love and others have theology that makes me twitch. On that day, one song in particular gave me pause:

And Joseph said,
“Why me, I’m just a simple man of trade?
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world?
Why here, inside this stable filled with hay?
Why her, she’s just an ordinary girl?
Now I’m not one to second guess what angels have to say,
But this is such a strange way to save the world…”

I’ve heard this before: We start with OUR perspective, decide what would have made sense for GOD to do, then call God’s ways “strange” when God – surprise! – doesn’t look like us.

But what if, instead of placing our beliefs about what God should have done onto God, we start from the perspective of what God did do? What if we start with God’s perspective, not ours? What if we START at the unwed peasant teenage girl, what if we start at the manger, what if we start at the scandal, what if we start with the brutal world Jesus entered?

The more I discover about God, the less I think the story of Jesus’ birth is strange and the more it just makes sense. I mean, that’s kind of the way God usually operates: through the broken, the humble, the powerless. Most people who God called tried to get out of it, because they thought others would have made better candidates. God advocated for those without power through the prophets; Jesus spent his time with kids and tax collectors.  When God’s people are doing God’s work – and by that I mean feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, praying for their enemies, going about the general business of Love – they oftentimes aren’t looked on very highly… sometimes even by people who call themselves “Christians.” If you think the manger is strange, then you haven’t been paying very close attention to God.

It seems to me that we miss the point a bit when we chalk up a dirty manger and culturally subversive acts to “strange” then move on with our lives. When I think about how Jesus spent his time on earth – from his earliest days in that barn to his dying breath – I have to wonder where Jesus would be if he were alive today. Because THOSE places? Those places might not be the cleanest or the prettiest. The people Jesus would talk to probably wouldn’t be the ones you’d see on TV.

So instead of making God look like us then calling God’s acts strange, let’s endeavor to be more like God. And if you can’t find God, start looking in the places you might not want to go… that’s where God has shown up before.

Advent for the Churchless, Week 4: Love

LasAdvent-Wreath-3t week I clicked on a link from Facebook about how “Love Actually” isn’t really a Christmas movie, though it’s now considered a classic. I skimmed through the beginning of the article, as it laid out its case that Christmas was the backdrop, but it was really more of a Valentine’s movie.

Then I realized the article was three web pages long, and I decided I didn’t really care what this person thought. I like “Love Actually,” and I – along with thousands of other people – indeed watch it every Christmas.

I can see the author’s point, though; we tend to compartmentalize our holiday cheer: Independence Day is Patriotic, Halloween is Scary, Valentine’s Day is Love, Christmas is Joy. Each holiday has specific colors, specific shapes, specific decorations. When we think of Christmas, we think of trees and bells and candy canes, not hearts. And if there’s red, there better be just as much green.

As we move through Advent, Hope, Peace, Joy? Those scream Christmas!! But if you think about it, Love really does belong at Christmas.

Because all those horrible things I’ve mentioned in the last few weeks? The torture, the loneliness, the suffering… that is the world into which Love entered.

I have always thought of Advent as the time when “every heart prepares him room…” but you know, we’re not really good at doing that. There was no room prepared when Love came into the world (I mean, literally, right? No room at the inn and all?)

But Love came anyway. You and I didn’t choose to be born, we didn’t choose the family to which we belong, we didn’t choose the country or the city or the socioeconomic status in which we found ourselves.

But Love did. And Love chose an unwed teenage girl, a peasant. A girl with no power, no voice. Love was born into scandal, in the least expected of ways. Love came into a world that had not prepared room. And through that bold act of peace into a world of hate, Love spoke Redemption.

And that’s still how Love comes today. Love comes in a hospital room. Love comes in the middle-of-the-night feedings when you haven’t slept in weeks. Love comes right after a pink slip. Love comes in war. Love comes when people who have been oppressed are told that they have inherent worth. Love comes when we stop and listen to the stories of those who are different from us, Love comes when we turn our swords into ploughshares.

Love comes in the form of casseroles and art and random acts of kindness. Love comes in the form of you; Love comes in the form of me. Just when we think we can no longer see, Love comes through the darkness.

Love enters most boldly when no room has been prepared.

So no matter how dark your world is, look for the Love, look for the Light.

Then go be that Love to others – boldly. 

Advent for the Churchless, Week 3: Joy

I remember December 14, 2012 vividly.

The kids had gone to their first movie in the movie theater earlier that fall and fell in love with all things Disney in one fell swoop. But, as princess movies go, I was happy with Brave. My little girl had spent all fall pretending to be an archer and saying things like, “I am Merida, first-born descendant of Clan Dun’Broch., and I’LL be shooting for my OWN hand!” I was raising a self-confident girl, and I couldn’t have been prouder of her.

That morning, on December 14, I took cupcakes to Sophia’s pre-kindergarten class to celebrate her birthday. We passed out treat bags and came home at lunch time, and I habitually turned NPR on the radio.

I listened in horror for about 30 seconds, looked down at my kids in the room, and turned the radio off. I opened my computer, and the news sites were all reporting the same thing: Someone had broken into a school and massacred a classroom full of first-graders. The Massacre of the Innocents.

The reports continued coming in, more and more details. But, it was still my newly-minted 5-year-old’s birthday, so I closed my computer, wiped my eyes, and we celebrated.

Her birthday gift that year was a DVD of Brave. After dinner, we cuddled on the couch as a family, and as we watched I listened to the lyrics of those inspiring songs. I was simultaneously struck with the joy that my daughter has more opportunities than I did, and the overwhelming grief that 20 other young children suddenly had none:

“I will hear their every story,

Take hold of my own dream,

Be as strong as the seas are stormy,

And proud as an eagle’s scream…”

 

“We will run and scream, You will dance with me

We’ll fulfill our dreams and we’ll be free

We will be who we are, And they’ll heal our scars

Sadness will be far away…”

 

“This love, it is a distant star

Guiding us home wherever we are…”

Advent-Wreath-3 That last one really got me, on a day, during Advent, when I was so torn between celebrating my own daughter and inescapably imagining myself in the shoes of the parents who had received devastating, heart-wrenching news. I glanced at our nativity scene and started wondering how that image might speak to the tragedy we, as a country, were experiencing.

Sometimes when we think of that little baby in the manger, we imagine a serene world, a lone stable in the midst of a beautiful landscape, with the Star of David looming overhead, “guiding us home wherever we are…”

But that’s not really accurate. Jesus was born into a world embracing its brutality, to a world that was massacring babies and toddlers. According to the Gospel of Matthew, when King Herod discovered that another king was prophesied to be born, he ordered the immediate killing of any boy under age two near Bethlehem. The Massacre is just as much a part of the Christmas Story as is the little baby in the manger. When we tell the story of the Hope that was born on Christmas, we must also tell the story of the grieving mothers, the lives that were lost.

Of course, there are many historians who doubt the historicity of this event. Whenever the historicity of an event in the Bible is in question, I find it even more interesting, because that means that there is a theological reason the text is included. Here, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew found it necessary to tell this part of the story, to include the grief that was associated with the coming child.

This week’s theme is Joy, and this is not a particularly joyful story. At all.

There is no “silver lining” to the slaughter of children. This is not a yin-yang situation; they aren’t some foil in a cosmic plot. It’s tragedy. But what I dwell on here is that Matthew gives us a model; we are reminded that, even in the great joy that is the coming Christ, we still bear grief. We still bear sorrow. Children were slaughtered at the time of Christ. Children were slaughtered on this day two years ago. And today, as you read these word, children and adults are still living and dying in tragedy and suffering.

I’ve heard it said that two emotions can occupy the same space; I could simultaneously feel joy for my daughter and grief for the kids at Sandy Hook. We do not need to be all joyful or all angry or all sad. That is even true in the story of Advent; when we look at the narrative from different perspectives, we can sense varying emotions from the different characters. Whatever you are feeling today, it is in the Christmas Story, somewhere.

I love that Hope is the first theme of Advent, because it reminds us from the beginning that part of this whole time of preparation is the acknowledgment that it isn’t here quite yet. We aren’t all joy right now… but we have hope. We have hope that there is joy, and there is more joy to come.

The Coventry Carol is a song written in the 16th century, memorializing the Massacre of the Innocents. As we sing about hope and peace and joy in our carols this season, may we also remember and name those without. May we remember that our joy is someone else’s grief, and that God is joyful – and grieving – right alongside us.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Lullay, Thou little tiny Child.

By, by, lully, lullay.

 

O sisters, too, how may we do,

For to preserve this day;

This poor Youngling for whom we sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

 

Herod the King, in his raging,

Charged he hath this day;

His men of might, in his own sight,

All children young, to slay.

 

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,

And ever mourn and say;

For Thy parting, nor say nor sing,

By, by, lully, lullay.

Advent for the Churchless, Week 2: Peace

I didn’t write about Peace last week.

I intended to. I really did. We were in the midst of moving, so things were busy, yes.

But that isn’t the reason.

The reason was that I was having a hard time placing Peace in the world around me. My little world is just fine, but the bigger world? The one that you are a part of and the names in the headlines are a part of? There seems to be little peace in that world.

In a world in which systemic racism continues to have a stronghold on our systems, its normalcy blinding us into believing it isn’t even there – that’s not peace.

The United States systemically dehumanizing people, bodies who are loved by God, in unspeakable ways – that’s not peace.

Child homelessness skyrocketing – that’s not peace.

Tens of thousands of children coming north, looking for a better life – and not finding it – that’s not peace.

Because these issues, these headlines, these philosophical and political ideas we discuss? They’re not just issues. They’re people. People loved by God. Each of us – you, me, the man who was fed hummus through his rectum, those dying in the streets from hypothermia, starvation, or a gunshot wound – is imago dei – made in the image of God. Each person bears the image of God just as much as anyone else; when we dehumanize a person, we are denying that which God created.

As much as I would have loved for Jesus to come in and triumphantly brought peace to every corner of the world, that isn’t what happened. Jesus was born into a brutal world, and he was brutally executed three decades later. He told his disciples that he was leaving his peace with them. If we are to acknowledge the Peace that Jesus was born for, we must acknowledge that every person is as deserving of that Peace as you or I.

I have a need to have an answer, to conclude this with a nice checklist of how we can follow Jesus’ model and bring peace into our corners of the world. But it isn’t that easy. And I think that part of Advent is sitting in the storm, sitting in the chaos, sitting in our grief and our pain and our unmet expectations. We don’t gloss over the pain with our hot chocolate and sugar cookies; we read the names of those whose lives have been lost. We listen to the stories of those in pain. We acknowledge our own pain. And somehow, even in the midst of that, we hold a glimpse of hope of a peace we cannot yet see.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was no stranger to grief. Having a son wounded in the Civil War and a wife who died in a fire, he penned these words:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Till, ringing singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Advent for the Churchless, Week 1: Hope

As my family moves the first week of December, we have found ourselves churchless for Advent. If you are in the same situation – whether it’s because you’ve been hurt by the church, or because you are in transition, or if you just haven’t found a good fit yet, you’re welcome here. And if you do go to church? Well, you’re welcome too. 

I always feel a little nostalgic when I hear “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

adventcandlesweek1 Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, it doesn’t make me “a little nostalgic.” It makes me want to sob uncontrollably. For as cheerful as the words are, the music sure doesn’t match it. The music calls to mind Hallmark movies with montages of families hanging scarce ornaments on a Charlie Brown tree, far from family and loved ones. The lyrics are hopeful, but the music is not.

Isn’t that how life is sometimes?

The hopeful and the discouraging get all muddled up, until it’s hard to see which is which. We see the smile on our child’s face… when we get the news of our layoff. We hear of a friend’s pregnancy… when another holiday passes with our own empty arms. We get that email from a friend we haven’t heard from in ages… when we still can’t bring ourselves to pick up the phone to call our siblings.

Riots in our country. Unaccompanied minors. ISIS. Unemployment. More bad news.

Where is the hope? What are we even hoping for?

I love the Christmas season, I really do. I went to the mall today and was actually taken aback by the lack of Christmas music. I need my holiday cheer! For every mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” there is another “Sleigh Ride” and “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” – and I love those songs!! I listen to Christmas music 24/7 (seriously, Pandora Chanticleer Christmas station is playing in my house all.night.long), I watch Christmas movies (ALL the Christmas movies!), I light my evergreen candle, and I admire lights when I drive down the road.

But I’ve realized that sometimes we like to rush into Christmas. I’m not talking about the decorations out at stores in October – I’m talking about our rush into feigned happiness. We sing along with Bing Crosby, we hang our wreaths, we go to an Ugly Sweater Party with friends… and we force a smile on our face as we fake our way through yet another season of silver bells.

But when we stop for a minute, there’s more to it, isn’t there? We blind ourselves with Black Friday sales and recipes from Pinterest, but deep down, we just don’t buy into it. We have this culture of pretending during the holidays, this culture of pretending that all is joyous – but really? A lot of times, it’s not.

Which brings me to my favorite part of the Christmas story – the whole story of redemption of humanity – is that this is not the end.

There is hope.

Advent brings the hope that whatever story your life wrote this past year, it’s not over yet.

We rejoice in the hope that Christmas is coming, that Jesus knows our pain, that Jesus suffered in all his humanity, that – though we might not see an earthly end to our pain, this is not the end of our story. Our stories – yours, and mine, and the person sitting next to you, and the person you haven’t talked to in years – our stories are still being written. And the story of humanity, the overarching theme that binds us all together, that is still being written – day by day, year by year, by you and me and the person sitting next to you and the person you haven’t talked to in years. The person you see in the headlines, the nameless and faceless who seem to count only as statistics. This is our story. And this is not the end.  

We have hope. Hope that it might not get better, but it could.

We all could use a healthy dose of hope this season, and that hope is contained in a tiny little baby in a manger. Because the good news about that baby? The good news is that he didn’t stay a baby forever. That baby grew to speak into unjust systems, to turn the status quo on its head, to reinterpret what it meant to live faithfully..  and because of that?

Hope arrives.