Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Meditation

"You crown the year with your bounty" (Psalm 65:11).

What is the meaning of the "year"? The earth laps the sun once more, the seasons pass: leaves gather, grow thick and luxuriant, then dazzle us with gold, red, then browner, falling to the earth. Life is not just a single arrow flying, but a circle, a web, life given, life lost, life renewed, so natural, God's constancy played out annually.

The Christian marking of time is not the fiscal year, not the calendar year. We begin, rather weirdly, just after Thanksgiving, with Advent, a little ahead of everybody else, and when the darkness is long. Every year we re-rehearse the full Bible story: Jesus is born, is baptized, tempted - and so we observe a 40 day fast during Lent. Jesus is raised, the Holy Spirit comes - and so we observe Easter and Pentecost. Every year of our lives, we rewind and re-watch the Bible's dramatic epic; we live inside the story, and discover our place on the stage - not asking Is the Bible relevant to my life? but Is my life relevant given the Bible?

In his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan asked "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" Maybe the Christian asks each year, Am I closer to God than last year? Am I serving more faithfully? Have I grown in my giving? in my prayer? in holiness? It's just one more year - but then recall how fraught with profound meaning the numbers we attach to a year can be. 1967? My grandfather died. 1986? I got married. 2001? 9-11. 2012? That was the year I got serious about my faith...
My grandfather’s tombstone shows eight numbers with a little dash in the middle: 1904-1967. Peek under any such dash and you see a year, and more years (and there never seem to be enough of them when you love the person), a moment here, an act there, a lazy afternoon, working past dusk, a trying week, a blissful month, a year of anxiety, three years of declining health, a decade on the best job you ever had. Our attention spans are short (and getting shorter all the time) - but Christians, especially at the turn of the year, take the long view, as God does: “A thousand years in Your sight are like a day” (Psalm 90:4). We stop, step back, soar up high, and gauge the broad sweep of time, in which this afternoon's situation is merely a pebble on the beach, in which my entire life is a single measure in the triumphant symphony of God’s great composition of the universe.

How many years will I have? and what would make them “full”? In faith, we look back: can you remember what God has done in your life? Rifle through the boxes of old photos in your memory and notice a hand, a smile, a circumstance, a moment, and notice what God has done to bring you to this place. There are wounds, too - and you go there, and let God’s healing mercy heal.
But like Janus, we look back, and then turn forward. Inevitably our orientation is toward the future, God’s future. Today’s agonizing sorrow, or today’s heady success, will be eclipsed. Martin Luther King, coping with terrible setbacks, said “I am no longer optimistic, but I remain hopeful.” Optimism says everything will be better tomorrow; but hope is prepared for whatever happens tomorrow. Optimism depends on you and me doing better; but hope depends on God. The year to come is in God’s hands, and I would put myself into God’s hands now, and all year long.

And so we pray that classic John Wesley prayer for the New Year: I am no longer my own, but yours. Put met to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am yours.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Message 2011

This is not a column about Christopher Hitchens, although his death (or rather, his life) and the losses and doings of Steve Jobs, Kim Jong Il, and whomever it is you wish were here today are why I’m writing. But not really: I am writing to try to explain the Christian message to those the Church has confused, or wounded, and maybe even for satisfied Christians who’ve missed the point, as we all do from time to time.

Within minutes of the announcement of Hitchens’s death, I received multiple inquiries: is he in heaven now? How to respond? “I hope so,” or “I guess he knows now God really is great”? His book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, bugged me. Religion really has poisoned lots of things – but not everything. We poison things quite well on our own without religion, and we’re the ones who poisoned religion – including Christmas. Jesus in heaven must look down and shake his head over all the froth, the frenzy of self-indulgence. Sure, we remember to toss in a little spasm of charity, a toy for some child we’ll never meet – and then we paste a “Jesus is the reason for the season” sticker on it all so we whose true religion is consumerism feel semi-righteous?

What is Christianity? It is not that God is great. Rather, God is small. What we believe is that God’s greatness is that God became small to win our hearts. Absolute power, the kind Kim Jong Il wielded, intimidates; God wants to be as unscary as possible. Who’s scared of a child? And who can’t identify with God’s self-revelation as an infant? If God became tall, witty, muscular, or rich (or even a mother or father), many of us couldn’t connect. You once were small, vulnerable, dependent, needing lots of love, like Jesus.

And you will be vulnerable and needing the love again one day. We are mortal; our truest carol phrase is “Lo, the days are hastening on.” One day you won’t be here to do Christmas any longer – and you know this, because there is somebody you couldn’t imagine living without who won’t be there Christmas morning, or ever again. I mention this, not to frighten or manipulate. Rather, it’s just reality that we are transient beings, not here for so long – but we never feel comfortable about that. We want more, we yearn for a future, for deeper meaning.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs, and his awful gadgets that require us to be somewhere we aren’t. I fume when I’m with somebody who isn’t there; he’s pecking at a screen, he’s someplace else, but not there either. And yet, this impulse to find meaning somewhere else, this urge to reach for a linkage beyond the room where I am is absolutely on target. This world isn’t enough; we are hardwired to reach beyond. Children know this: they daydream, their world is enchanted, they can believe in the unseen. The story of Christmas is that God is – and God is, even if we are tone deaf to God, even if we are mean to God like Christopher Hitchens or mean to other people like Kim Jong Il.

I suspect this is why God thought the best way to reach us was by way of a child. Big people can make you fight, defend, grab. But a child evokes tenderness. How could a child be the solution to our really large problems, like economic and political turmoil or even violence? If we could remember the little children (as Jesus said once he got bigger) we really would get our priorities straight and stop shooting, grabbing greedily, and bickering. Think Jerry Sandusky. Every one of us is mortified: no one should stand by and let a child be hurt! So God showed us God in the shape of a child, inviting us to rise up and refuse to settle for injustice; children elicit goodness in us.

Notice there is no judgmental attitude in this message. To consider the idea that God entered our world as a child isn’t harsh judgment on anybody. Jesus didn’t sit up in the manger and denounce others, or deliver a lecture entitled “We are right, everybody else is wrong!” Jesus is the affirmation of all people, including you and me. Jesus isn’t my trump card defeating you. The idea of God-down-here is something special we treasure, and it causes us to treasure you, or we’ve missed the point. Jesus is the truth that we are all indelibly noble, worth loving and protecting, and that we can’t help but love other people, and not merely with a toy in December but with food and shelter (which Jesus’ parents had a hard time finding!) all year round.

And so, let’s contemplate the wisdom and hope in God being not great but small, and discover that God really does want to get close, the child being the only hope for such wonderful things as goodness, hope and love.