“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn….And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them…and the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12).
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 much bigger and more mysterious the world must have been before it got entangled in the World Wide Web, a world without Buzzfeeds that reduce our ordinary world to a series of tragic or trivial headlines and Newsfeeds that reduce our social world to a series of one-way conversations 140 characters-deep and 10,000 friends-wide. Imagine 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 the earth or the center of every event and every relationship on earth. Imagine a world with board games and the great big woods outback.
I wonder what it felt like to be as small as a human being?
Just as a thought experiment, 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.
Here are the current top headlines from a few various news media outlets:
- “Trump’s former friends flip as he faces a new reality” (CNN)
- “Jon Gosselin says he and Kate are still fighting over custody” (CNN)
- “Trump cancels White House Christmas party for the press” (Fox)
- “William Shatner battles with fans over defense of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside‘” (Fox)
- “High-speed train crashes into pedestrian overpass, killing 9 in Turkey” (Global News)
- “Is Kelly Clarkson being groomed to take over once Ellen leaves” (MSN)
- “Jennifer Lopez wears hot pink tulle dress with HUGE train to premiere of Second Act… (and A-Rod is spotted lovingly taking snaps of her look)” (DailyMail–really scraping the bottom of the barrel here)
There it is, folks, the “news.” These are the new things happening all over our world. Behold the newness of it all.
“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9).
Just because it’s a headline doesn’t mean it’s important, that it rightly demands your attention, that it can add to or take away from your hope, that it actually deserves to be regarded as “news.” 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’s Wrong with the World; also Jaques Ellul’s Propaganda). It’s spectacle, a coliseum at our fingertips. But it is certainly not news in any real sense of the word. It’s just an ever-expanding buffet of rearranged words that are used to say the same old thing over and over and over ad infinitum. It’s like Mexican food. There is nothing new under the sun. We’re just moving around the rice and the beans.
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 news that never grows old. It is the news that the angel heralded over history as “the eternal Good News…to every tribe, tongue and nation” (Rev. 14:6). It’s the eternal good news because it’s the news that makes all things new.
It is helpful to remember that when Jesus saved the world the worldwide web didn’t even exist. News feeds were word of mouth, and the words were from mouths that were not even miked. Without even the help of K-Love, somehow the love of God managed to spread throughout the airwaves. 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 religious right and 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.
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 Church’s News about the Prince of Peace sounds personal, like an invitation or a confrontation, not a pep rally. It belongs at the table, not in the bleachers. If we keep blasting it out into the nation-wide airwaves, our best words, like “evangelical,” are going to keep getting distorted, bastardized under the jurisdiction of “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). And that just deepens the mess we’re in now of needing to “unspeak” about Jesus as much as we need to speak about him. 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. 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 near the kind of people who would otherwise remain far apart in the name of so many other names of so many other tribes and gods and herculean lords-elect.
I’m not saying it is bad to be concerned with or aware of the national scene or global scene, especially if you are in a position to do something about it–-if you’re reading this, you are not-–but I do think it is bad to be unconcerned with and oblivious to the local scene. In the words of Gustavo Gutierrez: “So you say you love the poor. Name them.” Indeed, 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 hatable 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 corrupted 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 join the effort of the ones holding the hammers, joining the effort of the One holding the nails will always feel small and personal, and likely at least a pain in the ass.
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, too small to see through a screen, that you will find meaning, purpose and permanence, because it is in that world that you will find God. The shepherds found God in a makeshift cradle, after all, and God Almighty himself said he’d continue to be found in little unlikely places like prayer gatherings (Mt. 18) and prison ministries (Mt. 25).
This point is this: it’s easier to care about everything and everyone on earth 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 Wall Street and Hollywood’s depictions how heroes make a difference, so that you don’t waste all your efforts trying to change the one and look like the others or give up altogether because you don’t look like an X-Man. Neither did the God-Man.
The kingdom of God is not revolutionary like a typical change in thrones or regimes. It is indeed 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 Professor 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, truly God and truly Man, was somehow less divine than all the gods of the pantheon and even more human than the Greeks. He is the kind of God, in all his effortless omnipotence, who portrays himself taking a whole week to create the universe and then without apology takes a break. In fact, creation wasn’t complete until he rested from creating it–and it took all day (Gen. 2:2). To be sure, of all the things that made the post-Easter highlight reel of the risen Christ, John tells us about Thomas touching his glorified wounds followed by fish and chips on the beach. Even new creation itself isn’t complete without rest.
The Gospel thus frames the divine revolution of God’s kingdom 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 (Mt. 13:31), which is precisely the way love works. Loving people in Jesus’ name rarely ever produces mass conversions or a moral majority. Most of the time loving people in Jesus’ name just produces more people who love people in Jesus’ name. And that’s how the kingdom of God has been forcefully advancing for over 2,000 years, longer than any nation has been in existence, and will continue to do so longer than any nation will remain in existence.
And this is actually actionable for everyone, because people really only need moderate amounts of love. What I mean is: people do not need love from the whole human race or even the whole federal government; they just need it from their neighbor, their nearest, and only one at a time. In fact, God-sized love can only fit through a funnel that is one-person wide, not because that’s how big God is but because that’s how personal God is, and how radically condescending (in the best possible sense) God’s Incarnate love is, and if it weren’t it wouldn’t be love. A cup of cold water in Jesus’ name will always be more satisfying than a free drink from the fire hydrant. A pro-life rally will always be less effective than taking a troubled young teen out for ice cream. A father who works 23 hours a day to provide for his family in the name of “love” does not have children who have 23 hours worth of daily love filling up his their big house and empty hearts. Love can only be measured by its capacity to be received. 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 is too busy working for his kids to bother loving them. 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 and as small 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.
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 encounter 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 follow the light that leads to the manger, precisely where no one else is paying attention—because God cares about the people who are paid no attention, people like you, people like me. So be small, and know that God was too.
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 you’ve known: now go, descend from on high, and do likewise.