[Disclaimer: this was actually written in the wake of the recent political campaign season. If it sounds a bit aggravated, it’s because it was. But just know: it’s not you, it’s me 🙂 ]
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:12-14).
A lot of people talk about “seeking God” as though on some open-ended quest toward an infinite horizon. But when the shepherds, who had just seen the infinite horizon rend with songs descending, were told to seek God, they were also told they would know they were on the right track when they received another grandiose sign from on high: a baby born in a barn.
Imagine how different the world must have been even 100 years ago. Imagine how much bigger and more mysterious the world must have been before it got entangled in the World Wide Web–a world without virtual friendships and virtually shared insta-moments of presence, a world without Buzzfeeds that reduce our ever-shrinking ordinary world to a series of tragic headlines and newsfeeds that reduce our ever-expanding social world to a series of one-way conversations 140 characters-deep and 10,000 friends-wide, a world without Google Maps and Google Earth and Google Sky and Google Multiverse (forthcoming). Imagine what it must have felt like to not feel like you are at the center of every event and every relationship on earth. Imagine a world with board games and the great big woods outback. Imagine what it would feel like to be only as large as a human being. Do you remember what it was like being small?
As a thought experiment, I would encourage you to go type “headlines” into your search engine of choice. Read the headlines. Then ask yourself the following question: “What can I do about this?” I’m thinking of specific actions that can actually address specific problems or make specific differences in my life or anyone else’s.
I suppose you haven’t thought of much to do either, other than maybe following a rabbit trail of hyperlinks that always seem to end up feeling like the links of a chain. You’d almost think the highest point of our nation’s freedom, that of its speech, is now being used to paralyze us. It’s like the headlines that feed us the bad news of the world have left us no room to speak about anything else, anything less important than politics or less complicated than the economy or less alarming than proofs of the immanent threat of radical Islam. How inconsiderate it would be to speak needlessly about the daylilies beginning to bloom outside with all that other stuff happening outside, which we know is happening outside because inside is a fire-breathing hydrant draining out a steady stream of realtime terror by concentrating all the evil of the world into one place, where we can observe it safely behind the glass in the comfort of our own homes, i.e., a TV. At a glance, here are the top three current headlines (at the time of this writing): A bear eats a mountain biker in Montana, a girl is stabbed in her sleep in Israel, bombs in Istanbul. So surely now is no time to waste our words on less important matters, to give thanks for the day that the Lord has made. The day is forever dark.
We most certainly have the freedom to speak, and we will do so passionately, if not viscously. It’s just that we don’t have any freedom in what we choose to speak about, at least not any practical freedom. We can speak about the kindness of a friend that led to encouragement or the kindness of God that leads to repentance, but we may as well be speaking to a wall. People only tend to listen to what is loud, and campaign speeches and suicide bombs are always going to be louder than love. But I remain convinced that it’s better to speak to the wall with the small voice of God than to divide up the stadium with the forked voice of the devil.
Just because it’s a headline doesn’t mean it’s important, that it rightly demands your attention, that it immediately affects your world, that it can add to or take away from your hope. The vast majority of information that comes through the news media serves to do little more than form cultural attitudes (cf. G.K. Chesterton’s sobering work, What’ Wrong with the World). It’s spectacle, a coliseum at our fingertips. But it is certainly not news in any literal sense of the word, just an ever-expanding buffet of rearranged words that are used to say the same thing over and over and over ad infinitum. It’s kind of like Mexican food. There is nothing new under the sun. We’re just moving around the rice and the beans.
–Because the unquenchable fires of the nightly news feed only on the world of decay, a world that requires the new to ever become old, a world that skims atop the surface of time desperately groping at what men identify as meaningful today but what moth will identify as food tomorrow. But Christians have been given a cross staked into history’s yesterday and Life raised up into history’s Tomorrow. That news has pierced the soul of the world, and it is the one thing that remains new precisely because it is the only thing that never grows old. It is the news that the angel heralded over history as “the everlasting good news…to every tribe, tongue and nation” (Rev. 14:6). And Christians have been commanded to speak about the news of this cross, because people will always keep killing for themselves until they find Someone to die for them first.
I’m not saying it is bad to be concerned with or aware of the global scene, especially if you are in a position to do something about it–-most of us are not-–but I do think it is bad to be unconcerned with and oblivious to the local scene. I’m suspicious of a man who decries world hunger but has never offered to buy a local man’s lunch, who endorses love for the world but doesn’t sit down to eat dinner with his family, who rails against abortion but doesn’t teach his son how to respect a woman, his daughter how to respect herself. The greater are our delusions of grandeur, the severer we suffer the sickness of Doestoevsky’s doctor, who
loved mankind…but…the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular. I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days; this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole (The Brothers Karamazov).
The problem with actual human beings, the kind that bleed real blood (Jn. 19) and eat real fish (Jn. 21), is that they get in the way of human ideals, especially our ideal of humankind. That’s why human beings are most hateable precisely in the name of humankind. We hate Hitler so much because we love humankind so much. But if it is an ideal of humankind we are after, we are better off leaving this world to find it. If God himself cannot fix the world without first getting caught up in the thickets of its realism, then neither should we imagine an ideal world void of invasive thorns and heavy-handed crowns, or of some strange combination of the two. Till kingdom come in all its fiery cleansing, humans will continue to erect crosses and blow their noses. And unless we are going to cooperate with the ones holding the hammers, cooperating with the One holding the nails will always be personal, and likely at least a pain in the neck.
The truth is, you can’t make your world different until your world becomes close enough to touch, low enough to look in the eye. That is your world. Everything bigger is a mirage. Anything more important is unimportant. And strangely enough, it is in that little insignificant world of yours, with hardly more than an earshot radius, that you will find meaning, purpose and permanence, because it is in that world that you will find God.
Q: “When did we see you hungry and feed you and thirsty and give you drink?”
A: “When you didn’t see me on a screen and when you gave me more than your opinions.”
In fact, when Jesus saved the world, the worldwide web didn’t even exist. News feeds were word of mouth without the help of microphones or bullhorns. Without even the positive encouragement of K-Love, somehow the love of God managed to squeak by. It was even more primitive than a landline phone call, as old fashion as family dinner. In fact, not a single member of his little lakeside church had a voice loud enough even to cast a Roman vote. How they managed to function without a cultural pat on the back and a governmental stamp of approval baffles the camel staring eye-to-eye with the needle. But as Jesus once said, it’s easier for the Gospel to get into North Korea than for Donald Trump to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or Hillary Clinton for that matter.
So we cannot be deceived to think that the effect of the Gospel increases with an increase in volume. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I tend to avoid sitting next to the guy with the bullhorn, especially if he is carrying a Bible. The Word of God sounds like an invitation, not a pep rally; it belongs at the table, not in the bleachers. If we keep letting it fly off into the airwaves, our best words, like “evangelical,” are going to keep getting being emptied of their power (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17). And that just deepens the mess we’re in now of having to “unspeak” as much as we have to speak about Jesus. That is in part the great evangelical task of the Church in America today, and it is no small task.
But it is necessary if we are to speak truthfully of God. God speaks in a still small voice because that kind of speech requires nearness, and God wants us to speak like him when we speak about him, and when we speak about him we speak about the God who is near in Jesus Christ, and the God who is near in Jesus Christ brings people near who are otherwise far apart in the name of so many other gods or nations or denominations or politicians or jerseys or brand names or petty opinions or very serious opinions.
The kingdom of God is not revolutionary like a typical change in thrones. It’s actually more evolutionary, like a garden. Jesus may not have been as radical as Karl Marx, but he was just as practical as potatoes. Now I don’t mean evolutionary in the way Mr. Whitehead meant it, nor am I talking about the kind of ‘practical’ found in the mouths of politicians or the most popular preachers. I just mean there is a certain size and speed men have tended to associate with God that God has tended to dissociate with himself. Jesus, the eternally begotten Son of God, was, after all, was somehow less divine than all the gods of the pantheon and even more human than the Greeks. He is the kind of God who takes almost a week to create the universe and then without apology takes a break. To be sure, of the the things that made the post-Easter highlight reel of the risen Christ, John tells us about Thomas touching his wounds followed by a big ole fish-fry on the beach. Even in the new creation there is good reason to rest.
The sign of this God is that they’d find a baby, lying in a manger.
The salient point is this: it’s easier to care about everything in the world than to care about one single human being. At least as far as the Church is concerned, we don’t need more initiatives than the one we’ve inherited. We just need to take the one we’ve inherited seriously. But that requires believing in a very large gap between the size of your efforts and the size of the difference it makes, but it also requires disbelieving in the size of Washington and Hollywood, so that you don’t waste all your efforts trying to change one and look like the other. You can do no such thing.
But the Gospel frames the divine revolution of new creation in mustard seed packets. And these mustard seeds are not like Jack’s beans. They don’t magically produce watermelons on vines of Zigguratic proportions. The difference is both bigger and smaller than that–it just depends on how you measure, and I can’t help but think that the Church’s measuring sticks need about as much conversion as the Church’s nonmembers, and exactly as much as its members.
Unfortunately or not, the magical mustard seeds of the kingdom turn out merely to produce more mustard seeds, which precisely the way love works (the kind of love that still means something more like active charity than passive ‘tolerance’ or political activism). People who need love do not need it from the whole human race; they just need it from you. In fact, you are the only one small enough to love with a God-sized love. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ name will always be more satisfying than a free pass at the fire hydrant. So if you want to love a refugee, find one. If you can’t find one without a country, find one without home, or one without a father, or one with a father who may as well not be a father. They are everywhere, especially right next door.
If you want to be “missional” and save the world, just make sure whatever world you intend to save is one inhabited by human beings as real as you are. Even if God sends you across the globe, it will only be in order to send you across the street. But he doesn’t have to send you across the globe to send you across the street, so please don’t wait until you are called overseas to the nations to call the neighbor next door.
May I offer a simple way to stay grounded in the kind of Gospel that actually touches the ground? Think about a time you received the grandest expression of love. Now go, descend from on high, and do likewise.
If you are committed to becoming part of something as small as God’s global mission, going around town proclaiming “good tidings of great joy” to little kids and boring neighbors, I can promise that you’ll experience Jesus as you go. Sometimes that will be as sweet as Christmas morning, other times as sour as a sponge dipped in vinegar; but if we are going to grow in the Hope of a Christmas kingdom, we’ve got to be willing to walk away from the starry evening angels and head crossward toward Easter morning–and there sadly are no detours that allow us to avoid the midday of the Friday before.
But neither were there for God. So be small, and know that God is too.