Friday, December 27, 2013

Angels, Shepherd, Wise Men... and a Mass Murderer?

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” Matthew 2:16-18
This is a disturbing passage, isn’t it? After the simple beauty of the birth narrative, and the wondrous story of wise men from the east following the star to find Jesus and bring him gifts, we get this. It’s an abrupt ending to what had been a merry little Christmas. Yes, merry, right up until the point where the evil king starts killing innocent babies. 
Well, I could easily dismiss this story by pointing out how it probably never happened. There is no historic record of such an event ever occurring. The only place we read about it anywhere is here in Matthew’s gospel. And Matthew made it a point to insert stuff throughout his narrative to prove that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. The parallel he draws here, of course, is with Moses. Remember how all the babies were killed in that story and Moses was saved? And remember where it all took place? Yes, it happened to be the place to which Mary and Joseph fled with their son Jesus. So, Matthew just threw this in because that’s what Matthew does, and we don’t need to fret over it. 
But I’m afraid that might be letting us off the hook too easily. Whether or not it actually happened, it seems to be an important part of the story, the truth that Matthew wants us to see. 
In American culture, there is typically an important figure missing from our nativity scenes. Are you aware of that? In other cultures, you will often find a figure dressed in a robe, with his arms folded and a great big frown on his face. When I first saw this I had to ask, “Who is that mean looking guy?” “It’s Herod,” I was told. And I thought, how weird is that? I mean, does a mass murderer belong with the angels and the shepherds and the wise men? Is Herod really a part of the Christmas story?
When the Magi ask him about the king of the Jews, he’s miffed because, after all HE is king of the Jews. Seeing a threat, he has the power to eliminate it, and he exercises that power. Matthew never tells us that the Messiah was born meek and mild. He tells us that, from the get-go, Jesus entered this world to challenge the powerful. And at the very beginning of the story, Matthew tells us how it’s all going to end. 
Matthew’s inclusion of the story of Herod reminds us that Jesus was born into a world mired in violence. Now, if you’ve ever read the Old Testament, you know that it’s just about the most violent book ever written. Its pages are dripping with blood. Often, the violence is attributed to God. God is angry with people. And when God is angry, somebody’s gotta pay. 
If you’re one of those people who think God wrote the Bible, God paints a disturbing picture of himself. But, if you happen to be someone who believes, as I do, that the Bible was written by people who spoke from their own limited understanding at the time, their perception of God is more interesting than disturbing. Those who told the stories we have in our Old Testament were trying to make sense of the world and their relationship with God, just as we all are. And they were speaking from their own limited experience. They held a primitive worldview that is reflected in a primitive understanding of God. God rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and you’d better do everything you can to appease God’s anger because when God gets angry, somebody’s gotta pay. That’s a primitive understanding of God.
Jesus said, “Do you really think that’s what God is like? That God smites entire cities just because they don’t do what he wants them to do? Oy! Nothing could be further from the truth. God isn’t about violence. God is about love. And to be a part of God’s reign, you need to be about mercy, and compassion. That means that when someone strikes you on your right cheek, you don’t strike them back, you turn the other cheek. That means that you don’t fight your enemies, you pray for them. That means you don’t retaliate when someone does you wrong, you forgive them. It means the ones who appear to have the most power are, in fact powerless. And the ones who appear to be the lowest of the low, are the greatest. The secret to being happy in this life can’t be found in proving how much better you are than other people; it’s about giving yourself completely in love.” “If you want to follow me, deny yourself,” he said. “Take up your cross and follow me.” He doesn’t say anything about becoming successful in the eyes of the world, or holy and pure people. “Deny yourself,” he says. Stop living as the façade you’re presenting to the world, the person who has it all together, and get real. Be your authentic self. The person God created you to be, created in the image of a God who is love. 
That’s what Jesus taught, again and again, in as many ways as possible. His life was about non-violence. The bottom line for Jesus, the new commandment he wanted to impress upon his followers more than anything else was, “Love one another.” He said this after he demonstrated what that love looks like. It looks like a master getting down on his hands and knees and washing the feet of his students. 
I’ve come to the conclusion that the opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s violence. And, by violence, I don’t just mean physically harming another. I mean whenever we assert our power over another in a way that is harmful to them, that’s violence. To demonstrate what love looks like, as an act completely devoid of violence, Jesus washed their feet. 
I’m not sure we can ever really understand Jesus if we don’t come to terms with the sin of violence that has permeated our world from the beginning. I don’t know if we can ever rid ourselves of our addiction to violence, but I do know that our violent nature is not what connects us to God. What connects us to God is our loving nature. Jesus was all love without the violence. And when we follow Jesus, we love. 
We seem to have a blind spot when it comes to violence. Maybe because we we are so accustomed to violence in our culture that we have little awareness of what it’s done to us. It takes something big for us to notice, something so shocking that we can hardly bear the thought of it. Like the slaughter of innocent babies in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, or the slaughter of innocent school children in Newtown, a year ago. We’ll look at these events as if they are anomalies, strange occurrences that appeared out of the blue, for no apparent reason, and we wonder, how could such things happen? When, in fact, they are the inevitable result of what happens when you eat, sleep and breathe violence.
We have an addiction to violence in our culture. And the first step in dealing with an addiction is admitting that you have a problem. 
  • Have you ever looked at all the shows that are on T.V., movies, video games, the sports we follow, and considered how much of our entertainment is based on violence?
  • Isn’t it incredible how even a great tragedy like Sandy Hook couldn’t get us to budge an inch by passing a single law that would make gun regulation more reasonable?
  • How might our leaders operate differently if they stopped working so hard to exert their power over others by proving they’re right and everyone else is wrong?
  • How would our parenting be different if we stopped teaching children that the way to resolve conflict is through violence? Let me be more specific here. Yes, I’m talking about spanking. Or insisting that the child who is bullied at school stand up for himself and fight back.
  • For that matter, will we ever stop belittling other people to make ourselves feel bigger?
  • How would our interactions with the people we encounter in our everyday lives be different if we didn’t see them as obstacles to manipulate or control so we can get what we want from them?
  • How would the way we do business change if we weren’t so preoccupied with obliterating the competition?
  • What would it be like if the whole concept of war became obsolete and the resources we now devote to building up our military strength could instead be spent on acts of justice and compassion for the world’s poor?
  • How would our relationships with those closest to us be transformed if we could give ourselves in love by forgiving, and showing mercy, and daring to reveal our vulnerability to one another?
But that’s not the way of the world, is it? If you want to survive in this world, you have to be strong. If you let people see your weakness, you’re going to get trampled. I mean, what would happen if a person really lived without violence like that in our violent world?
Well, we know what would happen. And I suppose that’s what we’re trying to avoid. Jesus lived a life of non-violence, a life given in love. And, it got him crucified. But even then, he met that act of supreme violence with love. He could have cursed those who nailed him to that cross. Instead, he continued to deny himself, he forgave them.
 Ironically, many Christians completely miss this point, and have used the cross to once again assume that God is angry with us and needed somebody to pay, so Jesus had to be sacrificed. Doesn’t that primitive explanation of the cross completely miss the whole point of Jesus’ life? He died as he lived. As a God who is confronted the violence of this world with love.
So, where does that leave us, as people who want to follow Jesus and yet are, in fact, a lot more like Herod than we are like Jesus? As people who are addicted to violence, how do we love as he loved? Could we turn our church into a twelve-step group that meets regularly to support one another as we struggle with our addiction to violence? I don’t know what it would look like if we dared to be that honest and vulnerable with one another. But I do know that in a church like that, when we read about Jesus’ birth, we would always include Herod in the story.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

This Christmas Message is Rated R: for mature audiences only

At our early Family Christmas Eve service, I read a book called Humphrey’s First Christmas to the children. It’s a delightful book told from the perspective of a camel named Humphrey who traveled with the wise men to see the baby Jesus. Christmas brings with it a lot of stories like this, where animals talk and angels get their wings and a little drummer boy performs for the holy family. It’s a magical time for children.

But if you're hoping to read about the magic of Christmas here, you might want to close this blogpost right now. Because this message isn’t rated G, for children; it’s rated R, for mature audiences only. There’s a big difference. Unfortunately, we may miss the deeper message of the incarnation because somewhere along the line, we got stuck in a child’s understanding of the Christmas story. That stuckness often pushes us as adults to either a) continue to understand Christmas as a child and suspend the use of our well-developed brains, or b) dismiss the story as nothing more than a fairy tale that has no connection to our real lives.

This whole dilemma reflects a larger faith crisis. I hear about it all the time from people who admit to me that they don’t believe in God. They’re often apologetic when they tell me this, as if to say, they really wish they did believe in God, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it. Now, if you’re thinking I’m talking about you, let me assure you that you’re not alone; I hear this more often from church members than you might expect, and I appreciate their honesty.

Because when adults tell me that they don’t believe in God, it’s most often the case that they don’t believe in the God they learned about in Sunday school when they were a kid. As thinking adults, they just can’t bring themselves to believe in that God. I have to applaud them for that because I can’t bring myself to believe in that God, either.

If you ask children to draw a picture of God, they will typically draw an old man sitting on a thrown with a long white beard. Maybe that works for kids, but it doesn’t work for adults.

As children, we believed everything adults told us at face value and we had no problem accepting ideas that were less than rational.  But then, somewhere around 15 or 16, a part of our brains started to develop that gave us the ability to think critically. We doubted and we questioned.

This is about the time the kids who are paying attention will notice the inconsistencies in Bible stories. And they’ll question information that doesn’t fit what they know to be scientifically possible. It’s just not rational to believe that a virgin can have a baby, for example. How can they possibly believe such a thing?   

It’s a challenging time, but necessary time in order to evolve from the faith of childhood to the faith of an adult. The task of adolescence, after all, is to break away from your parents and become your own person. As a person of faith, it’s also important to break away from a faith that’s based on all that stuff that your parents and other adults told you was true. This is the time to find your own truth.

Eventually, adults who continue to grow in the faith will come to realize that whether or not the stories of the faith are historically factual or scientifically possible isn’t really the point. The real point is, are they true? Truth transcends the facts. Is there truth in these stories? Truth that’s big enough to hold my life experience?

The real message of Christmas challenges us to grow up. An age appropriate telling of the Christmas story for adults has little to do with the sweet Christmas pageants we participated in as children. It’s about the deeper truth of the story, the truth of the incarnation.

Children think of God as someone who is a separate being, apart from us, somewhere looking down on us, making things happen. Unfortunately, many adults seem to be stuck in this very primitive understanding of God, as well.  If that’s who God is, I can understand why so many people have trouble buying into it.

Seeing God as distant and detached from us, out there somewhere doing stuff to us, like he’s moving the pieces on a chess board, leads us to ask questions like, “Why did God do this to me?” or “How can God allow this to happen?” At its worst, it’s used to pronounce judgment upon others, “God will reward you, or punish you for what you’ve done.” That way of thinking runs completely against the story of the incarnation, God becoming flesh. It seems to resonate with the popular song, “From a distance, God is watching us.” While the truth of the incarnation, is more in line with another song: “What if God was one of us, just a stranger on the bus.”

For the message of Christmas is that God IS one of us. There is no division between the realm of God and our very human realm.  God is not separated from us; God is in our midst. God is a part of us; we are a part of God. God works within us, and beside us, and between us, and among us. John describes it so well in his first letter when he says that “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  God is as close as that person sitting next to you.

The faith of our childhood wants to separate God from us, but the adult story of Christmas, the story of the incarnation, just won’t allow it.

Really, it’s perfect that Jesus would enter into our human experience by being born the way we all are. As a child, I always pictured Mary glowing, a halo above her head and a smile on her face like the Mona Lisa. That was before I ever had a baby myself, and I know better now. The stuff emanating from Mary wasn’t love’s pure light. It was blood and guts and all kinds of nasty stuff that made a real mess. She wasn’t smiling, she was hollering her head off like any other woman who’s giving birth. It’s not a pretty way to make an entrance, and our tendency to ignore the grisly reality of Jesus’ birth  says a lot about our discomfort with the truth of the incarnation.

God doesn’t live somewhere up in the sky, removed from the real stuff of this world. God isn’t only present in Temples and churches, in beautiful sunrises and moonlit nights, in golden wrapped gifts under a twinkling tree, or in sentimental Christmas stories. God’s son Jesus was born amongst the animals. When he took his first breath, the air was heavy with the stinging smell of cow dung.

We get ourselves in a lot of trouble when we start deciding where God is present and where God is not, what is holy and what is not. The truth of the incarnation is that all life is holy, and God is present in all aspects of this life, even where we would least expect it. Because of the incarnation, we can’t point to any person or any place and say, God is absent. The truth of Christ’s nativity is that wherever you are certain God couldn’t possibly be, there God is. I know it may be hard to get your head around it, but God is even present at the Walmart on Independence Avenue on Christmas Eve. I don’t know how it works, but I know it’s true. It’s not magic, but it’s a mystery.

How is that possible? How is it possible that the creator of the Universe should take on flesh and blood? That he should befriend the most despised people on earth? That he would dare to touch people with dreaded diseases? That he should die on a cross between two criminals?

While the faith of a child may marvel at the magic of Christmas, the faith of an adult marvels at the mystery of Christmas. The truth of Christmas is not that God had a cute little son who never cried when he was laid in a manger. The truth of Christmas is that little baby cried just as we all do. The truth of Christmas is Emmanuel: God with us.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Something I can count on

There are certain things I can count on for Christmas. Despite my best efforts to stay healthy, I always end up with a nasty cold and a scratchy throat. After devoting the month of December to pumping myself with Zicam and large doses of vitamin C, avoiding crowds and washing my hands after touching anything in a public place, I thought I could escape the inevitable. But this morning, December 23, when I woke up, I discovered that the unwelcome guest I’ve spent so many Christmases with is back. Oh, goody.

I can count on not sleeping well the night of December 23. Not even the cold meds will help. I’m just too hyped about Christmas Eve, and not in a good way.  The weight of Christmas expectations bear down on me. I don’t want to be the one who ruins Christmas for the people who come to worship with us at Holy Trinity. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. I pick at my sermon until it bears only a slight resemblance to my original draft. I wonder what hidden mistake that I didn’t catch in the bulletin will jump up and smack me in the face during the service. I highlight every word I’m going to say. I make lists of details I will need to tend to as soon as I arrive at the church, last minute instructions I need to give to the assisting minister, and the organist, and the lector, and the ushers (all people who know perfectly well what to do without the last minute meddling of their pastor). I can’t remember how it works when we light the candles at the end. Do I go to the ushers to light their candles? Do they come to me? Does it matter? More than anything, I need a good night’s sleep, and that’s exactly what I won’t get. Yep, I can count on it.
I also can count on having an episode of feeling sorry for my poor, pitiful self because I live so far away from my family. I’ll remember how it felt to be with my brother and sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins on Christmas when I was a kid, and how it felt to spend Christmas with my own kids back when my whole world revolved around them, and I’ll wonder what happened. It’s just wrong. How did I come to this? And I’ll wallow in my sorrow as if it just occurred to me that I’m all alone. It often sneaks up on me when I’m watching some sentimental, sappy holiday movie on T.V. (or a greeting card commercial) and all of a sudden I start sobbing uncontrollably. It happened just last night, in fact.  I tried really hard to get a grip, but I lost it.

Are you depressed yet? Well, all of this is just leading up to the one thing I can count on at Christmastime that fills me enough to keep me going for the next year. It happens without fail on Christmas Eve when I’m standing behind the altar holding a lit candle in my hand and I look out over a sea of candles that illuminate the faces of God’s saints as we sing “Silent Night” together. This is the family I am spending my Christmases with these days. I’m far from alone. And they don’t care if there is a mistake in the bulletin. They don’t care if my sermon is a dud. They don’t care if I forget how to light the ushers’ candles. It doesn’t even matter if I can’t sing because I’ve lost my voice. Because, in that moment, it always becomes quite clear to me that Christmas was Christmas long before I came along, and Christmas will still be Christmas long after I’m gone. I’ve been blessed to experience it through the years in 62 different ways and counting. Every one of those Christmases and the people I’ve shared them with comes crashing together in that moment when “all is calm, all is bright.”
Yes, lately there are some things about Christmas that I’ve come to count on. Many of them involve struggle for me. But the one I treasure the most is that transcendent moment with the people of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on The Plaza. The song is there, the love is there, God is there. Just as surely as Christ was born on this earth, in that moment, he is born in us, in our community. It’s something I can count on.




Friday, December 6, 2013

Why I'm hooked on Olivia Pope

I’ve been thinking a lot about the appeal of the TV show Scandal. The first time I watched it I thought it was poorly written, much like a soap opera. The plot twists were so abrupt that I was getting whiplash from being jerked around so much, and it was insulting. Bleh. I’m not falling for this slop, I thought.

But then, so many of my friends were into it that I wondered if I was missing something. So, over the summer, I returned to it, and got caught up on Netflix. And, despite the plot that leaves me sighing, *oh, pa-leese*, I kept watching. Why? I got hooked on Olivia Pope. 

For starters, a woman who seems almost omnipotent, is way cool. Liv has the strength and determination to handle any crisis and she exudes a confidence that leads her clients to believe in her. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like Olivia Pope in your corner -- someone you could trust with any problem, knowing she’ll fix it for you, even when you make a royal mess of your life? Oh, yeah. No matter how much they’re paying her, it couldn’t be enough. She is a badass woman. I admire that because I’ve tried to be a badass woman from time to time, and I know how hard is to convince other people that you really are badass. Liv manages to pull it off in a way that I never could.

But the most interesting thing about Olivia Pope isn’t her superhuman power. What’s most interesting is that it’s a complete façade. Her life is all about making things appear acceptable when they are teetering on the rim of the toilet.  In particular, her personal life is a disaster. She’s in love with a man she can never have, and continues to live with the dream of marrying him some day, when she has to know better. Her father is a monster she can’t get away from, and pretty much everything in her life is a lie. Some of those lies she has participated in, but many of them have been thrust upon her. For someone who appears to be all-powerful in public life, in her private life, she has been victimized again and again and she's struggling to survive.

Liv is an exaggerated version of every woman, and I suspect every man, too. We work really hard at presenting a persona to the world in which we are completely in control. We know what we’re doing. We can take care of ourselves, and we’re up to taking care of other people, too. But, we’re like the proverbial duck, floating along on the surface of the lake, looking like we have it all together, while under the surface, we’re paddling like hell to keep up. Olivia Pope reminds me of how inauthentic our lives can be when we deny our own vulnerability, and how tragic this can be for us, and everyone around us.

But then, there’s something that redeems Liv. And that's the odd little family she’s formed. Although they're at least as flawed as she is, they provide her with all the protection she needs to keep from self-destructing. Where would she be without them? The same place they would be without her. Dead.

For me, the appeal of Scandal is the way it taps into something so true about us, despite its far-fetched story-line. It portrays a woman who works really hard to maintain an illusion of competence in the world, which is the antithesis of who she really is underneath it all. She is so good at convincing people of her superhuman powers, that they entrust her with their lives. The irony is that if they knew how messed up her own life was, they would never turn to her for help. And then,  she has the good fortune, or good sense, to surround herself with a community of people who understand who she really is, beneath the façade. They know her, they see her, they love her. And she trusts that they’ll always have her back. That's the ironic double-twist summersault to the irony of her life. Liv, the one who deceives the world to get people to trust her, only trusts the people in her own life who can see her authentic self. Oh, that's good stuff!

The very human themes of authenticity, vulnerability and trust are all there. That’s what keeps me tuning in.  Come to think of it, that’s also what’s kept me in the Church all these years. Yep, it's good stuff.