Advent Reflection 9: Laugh 


“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:39-45).


I arrived back home in North Carolina yesterday to visit family en route to our new home in Washington State. I wasn’t certain I’d ever get to see my grandfather again. My mom has been taking care of him for the last twelve years. He’s 95. We came here a few months ago not knowing if he would make it through the night. But he seems to have found a second wind—for the thousandth time. So today I got to introduce him to my perfect daughter, Radley, his newest great granddaughter. As soon as he saw her he lit up with buckets of light and began to giggle. When we put her on his chest his laughter and light and life just spilled out all over the place. Mom and I got caught up in the moment. Everything did. We were laughing, they were laughing, the room was laughing, all the children of the earth and all the angels of heaven were laughing. The cosmos itself had cracked open in a fit of sidesplitting joy.

I suppose it was really just a very old man who has lost most of his mind amused by a very young girl who has yet to find most of hers. On the surface at least there wasn’t a shred of evidence of anything out of the ordinary, not even a speck of angel dust. And since humans typically forget to look beneath the surface, these aren’t the types of experiences we spend our lives pursuing or filmmakers spend millions of dollars trying to recreate. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t dramatic—and what even was funny? And yet, there we all were, swallowed up in the most naked and sincere laughter. It was somehow both forgettably unassuming and borderline apocalyptic. It was something like the Incarnation. And it was exactly like every experience of God I’ve ever had.

I have personally never had an experience of God that was visible on the surface in any real measurable sense, like a person’s stump growing back into a leg or an Egyptian river turning into blood. But I did just two weeks ago hold out my hands and receive my daughter into this world. I did just this morning look down at her face and see her looking up at mine.

I fully believe God has and will at times continue to use Nile-sized miracles to reveal his power, but I do not believe that is what he is ordinarily most interested in revealing. I think he is still most interested in revealing himself through miracles the shape of the Incarnation, the truly God showing up in the truly human, like infants and old people, because he wants us to pay attention to infants and old people, the least and the last—the only place we are guaranteed to find him (Mt. 25:31-46). And that’s the only real surprising thing about God. No human has ever struggled to believe that God can be as powerful as a god, but we have all struggled to believe that God could be as powerful as a baby.

It was just this kind of disproportionality in the moment that suggested God was in the room. The two mismatched mothers-to-be, one too old to be a mother, the other too virgin to be a mother, standing belly against belly, giggling their way into a prophetic frenzy. It’s the kind of scene that can’t really be seen for through the windowpane. You’ve got to enter in. You have to laugh yourself to hear the angels laughing too. You’re either swimming in it or it’s empty. It’s like the flag-wavers at church who are genuinely dancing in the Spirit while everyone else is genuinely distracted by the flags. The only way to ever start dancing in the Spirit is to start dancing. If you want the pool to be filled, you first have to jump in headfirst.

By this point, Mary and Elizabeth and their unborn babies were all dancing around the room, “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “leaping for joy” (Lk. 1:41-44), while the whole world was looking in through the glass. But from out here it still looks like little more than two women filled with child and a little too much wine. Until Mary opened her mouth and thunder came out (Lk. 1:46-55). There, with only a one-cousin-congregation, Mary stood up on the bar stool, raised her glass, and gave the most revolutionary speech in human history, the ‘Magnificat’, announcing that the Divine revolution had begun—in her belly. Granted, it was still in its embryonic form, a revolution that could still legally be aborted, and sometimes it felt like little more than acid reflux, but It was here nonetheless. God was here. Emmanuel—in utero.

God refuses to be found in the places we insist on looking for him. The center of Israel’s temple and the top of Babylon’s tower both turned out to be empty. The further away humans ascend from the world of the least and the lowest, the further away they get from the world of the Most High God. The Incarnation reveals that there are a number of things humans care about that God doesn’t care about and there are a number of things God cares about that humans don’t care about. God became an unborn child long before he was laid in a manger. And God made sure his mother was not sent to a nursing home just before he was laid in a tomb. Jesus loves the little children. Jesus cares about the old widow.

I once heard a wise man say that the health of a society can be measured largely by how its people treat the very young and the very old. There is hardly much principle difference between the advent of abortion clinics and the nursing homes. They both suggest a mass rejection of the most vulnerable, a refusal to live with the least and the lowest, a refusal to live with God. They are both a rejection of Christmas.

Most of the time God-with-us feels more like us than it does like God. Most of the time it feels exactly as miraculous as taking care of people who can’t take care of themselves, like changing the diapers of ancients and infants. Most of the time the Incarnation just feels very carnal. But then there are times, right in the middle of the mundane, right between the two women feeling each others bellies, right between the face of an old man and the helplessness of a little girl, the heavens opens up and the splendor of the living God fills the room as the waters cover the sea. And you can’t help but laugh, because it feels just like Christmas.

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Advent: ‘Tis the Season to Wait


ad·vent / ˈadˌvent: the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event; to come to

 

“From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isa. 64:4).

It’s almost time for Advent. Advent is both a matter of history and a matter of festivity. It is, in the first place, a matter of history because before Advent is an annual holiday for Christians across the world it is the single event of Christ into the world: the Incarnation of the Son of God. And Christians not only celebrate Advent annually to remember the coming of Christ into the world but also to anticipate the coming of Christ into the world again. The first Advent came with the promise of a second Advent. We can greet an otherwise uncertain future with hope because we are certain Christ will arrive in the future to receive us. And so the Church’s Memorial Acclamation resounds daily in worship services across the globe: Christ has died! Christ has risen! Christ will come again! Christian memory is at once a form of anticipation. History has taken the shape of a promise.

So Advent is the season especially set aside for waiting, the time we remember how to anticipate God’s promised future and remember that our God is a God who delivers on his promises, even if it means being delivered in a barn and laid in a manger.

That is why Advent is also a matter of festivity. Christian festivity is about both memory and anticipation, about a certain past that promises a certain future. Advent marks the beginning of the Christian (liturgical) year, which revolves around the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But the birth of Jesus doesn’t begin with Christmas Day any more than the Bible begins with Matthew’s Gospel. The Gospel was a promise in history long before it was an event in history. And so the Christian year begins with a longing for Christmas. That is what Advent is all about. The most basic meaning of the word advent is to ‘come to’, not simply ‘to come’ but specifically to ‘come to‘. It implies a specific place where anticipation is met with arrival. During the season of Advent, the Church waits for Christ to come again into our world by waiting on Christmas to come again into our world. If Christmas is the time for gifts and celebration, Advent is the time for restraint and anticipation. We are ushered into this season not with the rush of Black Friday traffic but with the Silent Night of Israel’s longing: 

O come, O come, Emmanuel
To ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel 

Indeed, we wait and so rejoice, both that Christ has come and that Christ is coming again. So each year the Church relives our story of Salvation from slavery to sin through festive celebrations, just as Israel, instructed by Law, relived its story of Salvation from slavery to Pharaoh through its festive celebrations (Lev. 23). It is the education of embodiment, an annual reorientation to the coming of Christ into a world that constantly disorients us. It is also one of our greatest tools for teaching youth and new believers the Gospel in a way that situates it in the world of flesh and blood and living rooms and dining halls and silver bells and seasonal smells–our world.  

This all begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and concludes on Christmas Day, which is the Church’s New Year’s Day.  A few months after Christmas the Church enters the season of Lent, which culminates in the Passion Weekend (the Paschal Triduum), concluding on Easter Sunday. Forty days after Easter is the celebration of the ascension of Jesus to his throne in heaven. And finally, fifty days after Easter, the Christian festive year concludes with Pentecost, remembering the day the Holy Spirit flooded the earth and filled the Church.

To remember the event of Pentecost and the story that led to it is to understand what time it is at present in salvation history. It is our orientation for everyday life. God’s Spirit has been poured on all flesh and the Church has been sent as witnesses of Jesus Christ so that those who believe may be saved from their sins and filled with the Spirit. Indeed, Christian festivity is not about novelty—it’s about identity.

The time from Pentecost to Advent is called Ordinary Time, or Kingdomtide in some traditions. Together the sense of this time can be understood: the Church understands its everyday ordinary world, not just its Sunday religious world or its seasonal festive world, as the context of God’s kingdom. Christians are the everyday ordinary citizens of that kingdom. And so the focus in Ordinary Time is the extraordinary mission of God’s Kingdom advancing through the Gospel to the ends of the ordinary earth.

So the Church spends roughly the first half of its year, in effect, reenacting the Gospel story,  which not only helps older folks remember who they are in Christ but also helps teach younger folks who they are in Christ. It is the education of embodiment, which is most appropriate for the education of the Incarnation, the embodiment of the Son of God.

Roughly the second half of the year is focused on taking that story to the streets—the first half on remembering, the second half on continuing. Precisely because the Gospel story has not ended, precisely because the Holy Spirit is here and Christ will come again, the Church continues that to-be-continued story by living as witnesses of Christ in anticipation of his return. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Rom. 10:15; Isa. 52:7). How beautiful, that is, is faith that is embodied. Indeed, faith without legs is dead.


This rhythm of life is essential for Christian formation. It’s God’s design in the first place. God commanded Israel both to rest and to work, to celebrate and to serve, to remember and to continue. Indeed, this rhythm is embedded into of Israel’s calendar year by law (Lev. 23). Israel’s festive season, like the Church’s, revolved around God’s decisive acts of salvation. It began with Passover, remembering its origin as a nation when God rescued them from slavery in Egypt according to his promise to Abraham, and continued along a total of seven annual festivals through which the people reenacted their story, from the Exodus to the Wilderness Wanderings and on into the Promise Land. The rhythm: rest and work, celebrate and serve, remember and continue—the education of embodiment. 

Many churches have unfortunately shied away in recent history from the Church’s festive nature, but in so doing the Church has suffered from some devastating memory loss, forgetting some really basic things like Jesus saves and God is sovereign. The Church’s festive seasons are designed to help us shore up our memory, to “take care lest [we] forget the Lord [our] God who brought [us] out…of the house of slavery” and end up repeating some history other than God’s history, walking toward some future other than the one God has promised, which inevitably leads to nowhere at best but more likely to another god (Ps. 78:10-11; Isa. 51:12-13; Jer. 2:28, 32; Ezek. 16:43; cf. Deut. 6-8). So our times of rest and celebration, retreat and regrouping, are both for our good and the good of the world. The world needs far more than just our service. It needs our celebration. It needs our joy. It needs our Christmas.

This is why year after year skeptics of the Christian faith can’t help but indulging in the holy-days of the Christian faith. It’s not our most ‘contextualized’ message the world wants to hear; it’s our least. They want something foreign, because they obviously haven’t found anything native worth celebrating, nothing that endures at least. They can try to disguise it all they want, as though “Happy Holy-days” is any less religious than “Merry Christmas,” as though they aren’t looking for something holy to celebrate like the rest of us. So they don’t want our Christ wrapped in their pragmatism. They want our Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying useless in a manger, just the way we want him.

That’s where the world found him in the first place, the day the magi–-those pagan astrologist standing over the baby Jesus on your fireplace–-found him, when “they bowed down and worshiped him…opening up their treasures and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” The pagan world has always been drawn to the gift of Christmas. Indeed, it was the first to offer anything back. The world opened up and offered its treasures because it somehow knew that heaven had opened up and offered its Treasure. It took pagans to discover that Christmas really does mean ‘Joy to the World’. And this is simply because the world’s longing is in the exact shape of the Christian hope. Hope is just longing that’s been filled, and the Christmas message endures as the articulation of that longing from the other side of the promise that fills it.



So let us not be outdone. Let us keep the festival! Our festive seasons are becoming more and more important to observe in times when festivity seems less and less appropriate. When there’s much to be done and much to be grieved, it is time for Advent. When terrorism is spreading and when there refugees fleeing, it is time for Advent. When it feels like the “days of Herod” (Lk. 1:5) and the earth is longing for her True King, it is time for Advent. When it begins to look like the world could only be saved if God himself would come and save it—then it is time for Advent. For it is when God must come that we most need to remember that He has come and to believe that he will come againThe world of exile is longing for the God of Exodus.

And so it is time. It’s time to wait for the God “who acts for those who wait on him” (Isa. 64:4). It’s time to enter again the world of waiting, the world of promise, the world where God has come with a promise to come again, and to bring with him an incomparably greater world—this one.

Levi Ryser: Born in the Shadow of the Savior (12/26/13)

Levi Ryser

The baby was born. They called him James.

There’s not much to say about James. He doesn’t say much about himself in the letter he left for us. The only other thing the Bible says about James is that he was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). All we get from Church history about James is in fragments, no cohesive narrative. A guy named Hegesippus called him James the Just. It stuck.

But it’s no surprise there’s not much to say about James, because all that is said of him is said under the shadow of his big Brother. James the Just, brother of Jesus the Judge, born in the shadow of the Savior. A hard act to follow.

I wonder if Mary felt guilty. She was found to be with child, again, but not by the Holy Spirit again. This time by plain ol’ unholy Joe. This child surely would not be so godly as her First. I wonder if she felt guilty before James was born, knowing that she could not love him as much as her Firstborn (of all Creation)?

But even more than that, I wonder if she felt guilty after he was born. I wonder if she felt guilty when she realized that she loved her second-born just as much.

I remember when we were expecting our firstborn. All Keldy thought about was the baby. She loved him in I suppose the way only a mother can love an unborn child. I on the other hand felt guilty. I could not relate. For those nine months my reaction to her pregnancy was a kind of surprised “Oh yeah…”, coupled with a nagging fear that I wasn’t going to love him like a father is supposed to love his son. I literally feared that I would love my dogs more than my son. Babies just hadn’t been all that impressive to me, because I am not a woman. The honest men out there know what I’m talking about. Women have no clue.

Except for maybe Mary. Mary knows. Mary had, after all, held at her bosom the one who came from the bosom of God the Father (Jn. 1:18). Mary had indeed “kissed the face of God.” But this second-born would be just another face in the shadow of the Almighty. Mary wasn’t yet used to having children who weren’t God. Middle children already have a syndrome named after them, but what of the one that comes second to the Savior of the world. Mary knows.

When Kezek was born, I started treating my dogs like dogs. I loved my firstborn so intensely that I was afraid I loved him more than God. I was afraid that if anything were to happen to him I would hate God. That fear lingers.

When Keldy told me we were expecting again, I was doubly guilty and doubly afraid. Not only did I love my firstborn more than or as much as God, now I feared that I would not love my second-born as much as my firstborn, perhaps only as much as the dogs.

The baby was born. We called him Levi Ryser. There was no sound. He was blue. The voices of the people in white raised an octave. They stopped looking us in the eye. They were looking at some protocol that was visible only to those who knew some unspoken “code.” Ryser needed decoded.

The doctor handed him to me to carry him to the NICU. It seemed far too much like a formality for my first embrace of my second-born son, like it was a consolation, the beginning of some process necessary for some Contingency Plan Z. It felt like I was greeting my newborn son with a goodbye. They escorted me at an anxious pace. And they apparently could not hear any of the 75 questions I asked in route to the NICU.

There are no words here that will do.

I held him as close to my heart heart as humanly possible. I tried to hold him as close to my heart as inhumanly possible, or as humanly impossible. I tried to pour my life into his. I tried to empty myself to fill him up. I tried to breath for him. I wanted to cut out my heart and put it into his body. I wanted to die so I could raise him from the dead. Anything. Just please…

I think that was the first day I ever actually interceded for someone. I beat on heaven’s door like one of those old grandmothers who’s earned the right to act that way. I was pleading, then I was demanding, then I was crying. I had felt the joy of a father’s love with my firstborn but with my second-born I was brushing up against the prospect of a father’s grief. I was feeling the very sharp other edge of love for the first time. I learned that day something about the sword Simeon told Mary about (Lk. 2:35).

Four days later, he was stable. Over those four days I started to understand what I suppose Mary had come to understand with her second-born: that the love of God and the love of a son are not two separate loves. I started to understand that God is love in a very nounish sense of the statement, or like the nounish sense of the Word Incarnation. She couldn’t compare her love for Jesus with her love for James, because her love for James came from the life of Jesus. There is no love apart from that Life. Indeed, there is no life apart from that Love. If it is in God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), then Love is the ether of all our relationships. To love is merely an act of alignment.

His name has become more fitting than I had intended. Levi Ryser means, by my assignment, death and resurrection, or offering and acceptance, or more simply “Gift of God” (with the intentionally ambiguous genitive). It is the second-born of Mary, after all, by whom we discover ourselves, since we all are second-born of the dead. We discover that unto us a Child is born, to us a Son is given, in order to restore love to its proper form, that we might love our own as we love God, because he loves us as though we were his own. That is the meaning of yesterday’s Birthday and therefore every birthday in the light of its shadow.

Levi was born on the altar, where all gifts are born. He was born without breath, blue. But while he was yet unknown and unknowing, in route to the NICU, he was already being born in the bosom of his father. I think in that moment, if for only that moment, I understood Mary. I think I understood something about motherhood that day. I understood what it was like to carry a life that could not carry itself apart from my own. I understood what it was like to carry life with a sense that if one dies, we all die, if one lives, we all live. I think I learned something about being the Mother of God that day. I’m certain I learned something about being a father that day, maybe even something about being a Son.

We had decided to call him Ryser before he was born. But Levi was Ryser before he was born. He was raised in his mother’s heart for nine months. And he was raised in his father’s for four days. He is now growing up in both. And all this is from God, because he has been raised from eternity in the heart of Love. And my only plea for his life is that he will continue to grow in that Love. God help me.

Ryser is our number two, but he is loved just as much as the Firstborn, even if he was born in His shadow, even if we did use leftover nativity scene wrapping paper for his birthday presents this year.

Happy Birthday, Ryser. You are loved with an everlasting love, my son.

“How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of man take refuge in the shadow of your wings.”

~ Psalm 36:7

 

Advent Reflection 21: Hope

“For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:19-20).

The day is drawing nigh. We have been waiting for the coming of our Lord, the Advent of Jesus Christ, for just over two millennia now. But for just over four weeks, we have been waiting for Christmas. The season of Advent is the season we learn again what we have forgotten again: how to wait. But it’s a special kind of waiting, an active waiting. Advent is our dress rehearsal.

Dress rehearsals are the final rehearsals before the main attraction: full costumes, stage propped, spot lights on, everything ordinary strangely dimmed. Reality is altered. Advent is the time for the Church to decorate the world, to create the context to remember, and to deliver, the Advent message.

In ordinary times we brown-bag our Advent message and don’t bother wrapping it in the songs of the heavenly hosts, but only so we can share it at the table of IRS agents and other brown-bagging sinners. If God can wrap himself in swaddling sin (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21) to deliver his message to the world, then surely the Church born of Christ should learn how to become all things to all people in everyday life (1 Cor. 9:22). So in ordinary time, we deliver our Advent message in any and every context.

But the season of Advent is different. ‘Tis the season we insist upon obnoxiously decorating everything around us, because Advent means nothing less than that everything around us will one day be altered. Sure, it at times can be a little forced—the begrudging dog in his jingle-bell sweater, the divorced family in the strained “family” photo, the holiday that invariably requires more work than work since it is a holiday built on relationships—but it’s also somehow irresistible. All the pretense. All the happy. Neighbors walk across the street, strangers talk in lines, people awkwardly sing at the door of others who awkwardly listen, people smile. We all roll our eyes just thinking about it, but we simply can’t resist it. Even soldiers stop shooting each other so they can sing together instead, to pretend, if only for a night, that the world is not at war, to pretend there really were peace on earth, good will to men (cf. “The Christmas Truce of 1914”).

The day after Christmas we may be back in our respective bunkers ready to fill the silence with shrapnel, the house with hostility, but we still can’t get the songs out of our heads. We may hate our ex-spouse till the day we die, but “Nurse, could you please put that ‘family’ photo right next to the heart monitor.” There is a hatred that lives in all of us—an inherent need to create a “them” to secure ourselves within an “us,” the need to accuse and to blame and to gossip—but there is also the love of an idea of not having to hate. We really just want to live at peace in a world that runs on fear, a world where love is always weaker than grief, where Goodbye is more enduring than Hello. The world we find ourselves hoping for just can’t be the one we find ourselves living in. So we settle for the one where we must compete and take and lock the doors and pick sides. Except on Christmas, that day imaginations run amok, the day for pretending peace on earth, good will to men, the day the world is permitted to hope.

Perhaps this is why Christmas festivity is both the most alien and the most contagious thing the Church has ever created. The world won’t copy our theology or our piety or our prayers, but the world will copy our holy days. It will not prepare for Christ’s coming but it will prepare for Christmas. This is simply because the Christmas message is little else than an articulation of the world’s longing from the other side of the promise. We all want peace, joy, love, and eternity more than we want power, but power is more believable on the surface where it is more available than hope. And indeed, the Church’s hope is in the exact the shape of the world’s longing. It’s just that we remember that our Longing was made flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). It’s just that we believe Emmanuel (Mt. 1:23)—and so we wait, we hope for, Emmanuel (Rev. 21:3).

Advent Reflection 20: Small

“‘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 received another grandiose sign from on high: a baby born in a barn.
 
Some sign…
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Imagine how different the world must have been even 100 years ago. Imagine how much smaller it must have seemed without Google Maps and Google Earth, without Buzzfeeds and such a constant and immediate influx of newsfeeds, which come so voluminously and rapidly they are best digested in 140 characters or less–anything else: #tltr. 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 without selfies. Imagine what it feels like to be as small as a human being.
 
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 speech, is now being used to paralyze us. It’s like the headlines that feed us the bad news of the world as from a hydrant at the tip of the tower on our one-dollar bill have left no room for us to speak about anything else. We most certainly have the freedom to speak, and we will do so passionately, if not viscously. We just don’t have any freedom in what we can 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. 
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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. 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. 
 
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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–you are probably 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 and eat real fish, 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. 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 at the second Advent of Jesus Christ, 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 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, 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. I don’t know how he managed to sell his t-shirts. 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 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. 
 
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 bastardized. And that just deepens the mess we’re in now of having to “unspeak” as much as we have to speak about Jesus. 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 near people 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 of 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. He was somehow less divine than all the gods of the pantheon, and even more human than the Greeks, indeed just as human as God. 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.
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The thing I want to say to the wall I am currently speaking to is that 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 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 acceptance 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 give them something as large as the love of God. 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 (and as sinful) 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.
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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 Christmas evening, we’ve got to follow it through to Easter morning–and there sadly are no detours around the midday of the Friday before. But neither were there for God. So be small, and know that God is God.

Advent Reflection 19: Doubt

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

An Open Letter to My Skeptic Friends

Dear Friends,

I am writing this letter to try to help you see where I am coming from when we debate and why I will likely never be able to satisfy your questions with my arguments.

The elephant in the room of every Christian-nonchristian debate is there because Christians have not only been asked to affirm an apparent contradiction, but we have been asked to base the universe on that contradiction. God was not oblivious to this design. He set it up so that the contradiction would have to run its course before it can do the work of drawing people back in. We must first look away only to realize we cannot look away. We must be repulsed by the death of Christ only to be seduced by it. We must see who God is in Christ, so that we can see decisively who God is not in us. We must first see the infinitive qualitative distinction of Christ crucified in order to see the infinite qualitative beauty of Christ crucified. We must behold the One lifted up as we behold the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as an unattainable spectacle of impossible grandeur, as something that is kept from our reach but given to our eyes, as something so absolutely alien but somehow so absolutely at home. We must learn not only to handle the truth of God, to follow the goodness of God, but, perhaps at the very center of it all, to behold the beauty of God. But we cannot run to the academy for proofs of God’s beauty, because, in Von Balthasar’s words, “Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as uncontained splendor around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.”

I find that what I’m really trying to do when I share the Gospel is not something that is possible for me to do, because the Gospel itself suggests that those who believe it do so because God himself compels them to, because he will speak to your heart in a way you will not be able to deny, in a way similar to your inability to deny the beauty of a sunset or the delight of a shooting star. So what can I do but point away from myself into the infinite space between us and God and declare a deep mystery. What context is there for me to describe this cosmic enigma but in the gap of the otherwise unknowable? It’s not like I can ever assume a direct correlation between what I say and how you respond, so if you are going to really hear what I’m trying to say, you will simply have to listen for Someone Else’s voice. And if He doesn’t speak, I have nothing to say.

For future reference, I want to put out a disclaimer, so as to not mislead. I want to say that the distance between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the highest link on the chain of reason is like the distance between the highest tidal wave and the moon. And yet, for all lack of appearances, and in an act of self-humiliation, I am still commanded to proclaim that there was a day that the moon plunged itself into the heart of the sea, only to return three days hence to rule the night sky. I do not expect that I can prove this actually happened, nor do I pretend it is not a foolish story, as though we should have expected it to happen, as though Via Negativa should always lead to Via Delarosano matter the God, no matter the universe. More foolish still, I need to concede that I was not even there when it did happen, and yet I have been commanded to proclaim it as though I witnessed it myself, because I did witness it myself.

It is such an absurd story indeed that if you ever do find yourself believing it, it will be nothing short of a miracle, and your faith will not rest in the wisdom of men but this miracle of God (cf. 1 Cor. 1-2), so please don’t try to persuade yourself into believing it, and neither will I try to persuade you. When you do believe it, it will only be because you cannot help but believe it, only because it is in your head not like people are in an airport but like busyness is in an airport. It will be in your head unlike any other idea or fact or truth is in your head because it will be in more than just your head, as though its roots have grown down and wrapped around your heart and your gut and begun sprouting its life in a way that distorts your vision, like the suddenly permanent image of the sun after you foolishly behold its beauty too directly. Even in your doubt, you’ll have to stop and have a little chuckle at yourself after suddenly realizing you are in an impassioned argument with the God whose very existence you are questioning. You won’t be able to doubt him like you can doubt every other god. You will always find yourself doubting him to his face. He will be for you like the presence of a fresh memory, always just an immeasurable moment away from being as tangible as the bread and wine in your mouth–invisible but indelible.

And you would rather it be so, because you will know that anything nearer than that would be confined to time; that the permanence of his presence as such is precisely why his presence is not fleeting, why the Bread of Life must hide itself from our tongues to remain hidden in our hearts. You will know that to keep from being objectified and made into an idol, God mustn’t objectify himself to those who desire nothing more than to make him an idol, to make him a possession so as to avoid becoming His possession. Indeed, you will know that his single pendulum swing through time in Jesus Christ was his perfect, unrepeatable form, so that his cruciform temporality is as necessary to behold as his reigning eternality–for it is The Infinite whose form is perfectly revealed by his becoming The Mortal–the reality of which will become for you so irresistible, so radiant, so beautiful, that you will long for others to see as you see, not because it makes you feel so large and in control, but precisely because it makes you feel so small and out of control; precisely because it will have restored for you a vision of the wonder and mystery that you had only as a child tromping around in an infinitely large and wonderful world; precisely because you have again become a child. And indeed, unless you become a child, you will never see it (cf. Mt. 18:3).

So my only hope of your understanding why I must speak of him to you, is that you see him for yourself. And you will know when you have really found him with your eyes because you won’t be able to keep him out of your mouth. But you won’t speak of him as a man with a unified theory of the universe, rather as a child pointing aimlessly into the night sky, not with great confidence but with great delight. You will not do it because you think you’re right about Jesus and others are wrong about him. That’s just not the point. You will do it because you think Jesus is beautiful and will eagerly want others to see in him what you see. But, I must warn you, there will be moments of heartache, the kind of heartache that is felt the day the most splendrous sunset begins to fall into your vision, but you’ve no time to find someone to share it with; the kind of heartache the anxious museum curator feels as he begins fumbling over desperate words trying to capture the attention of a distracted group of teenagers, who at some point will have to realize that nothing can persuade a person to see Beauty but Beauty itself. But never stop pointing and naming what you see, even as you concede the great gap between the end of your finger and the beginning of the moon. And never stop praying that naïve prayer, as naïve as a child’s birthday wish, that the moon would once again descend from the heavens and land in the abyss of another’s heart, that is, of course, if you ever do find yourself believing. And that is my prayer for you even as you read this: simply that you would be able to see his glory and unable not to.

Advent Reflection 18: Anxiety

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt. 6:34).

Not too many months back a well-meaning man and his son knocked on my door, awkward, tracts in hand. Below is the conversation as I remember it. I don’t think it is far from verbatim.

Me: “Hi…”

Man: “If you died today, do you know for certain you would not go hell?”

Me: “No.”

Man: “Would you like to be certain of that?”

Me: “Yes.”

Man: [Handing me tract] “Read this…”

Me: “Jesus said not to be anxious about tomorrow. I feel like you are trying to make me feel anxious about tomorrow.”

Man: “I thought you said you didn’t know for certain whether or not you would not go to hell when you died.”

Me: “I did. But I’m not anxious about hell. My faith is in Jesus, not in heaven, and certainly not in not going to hell. At any rate, Jesus is the Judge, so I’d rather put my trust in the Judge than in the verdict. Wouldn’t the latter just be mistaking myself as judge?”

[Very long, awkward pause–I waited.]

Man: “Okay, well I hope you get a chance to read this.”

Me: “Thanks. Have a good one.”

When the angels proclaimed the first Advent of Christ it came with a message: “Fear not!” (see yesterday’s reflection). I can’t help but think that our preaching about the second Advent of Christ should sound similar. Below is an example of what I think that might look like, singing with the angels and whatnot:

I’ve probably watched this video 100 times. I love it. To me, it is a symbol of true evangelism, of what it should look like to herald good news: not a hit-and-run proposition of ‘the kingdom-of-God-and-way-out-of-hell hereafter’ but a public declaration of ‘the kingdom of God at hand’. Its aim is not to promote the wretchedness of man or the rightness of the Church but rather to proclaim the glory of God, for which the most appropriate mode of communicating is song.

All evangelism is imposing, but true evangelism like this is imposing in the right way, like a sunset is imposing on the western horizon, like stars are imposing on our attempt to gaze only into the dark matter of the universe. It’s an imposition of of light, of beauty, of joy–whoever has complained of such an imposition? Satan himself must struggle with this temptation, biting both tips of his tongue with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength to keep himself under constraint. I wouldn’t be surprised if even that dried up old prickly pear occasionally falls off the wagon in the irresistible desire to join in with what all creation was made to do (Ps. 19)–to “worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness!” (Ps. 96:9). What is evangelism if not public worship? What is public worship if not Harking the Herald angels’ sing?!

And, indeed, worship offered up to God–be it in a life lived, a sacrifice made, a song sung–always is about gravitation, not polarization, because it seeks to articulate not how fear-worthy hell is and anxious we should feel about it–that’s just not the point–but how love-worthy God is and how peaceful we should feel about Him. That is, it points to the centerpiece of all time and space in the One who was lifted up on a cross to “draw all people to himself” (Jn. 12:32).

So the syntax of worship is not ‘If…then…’ as much as it is ‘Hallelujah!…because:

“The kingdom of this world is become
The kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ!
And of His Christ!

And He shall reign for ever and ever!
And he shall reign forever and ever!
And he shall reign forever and ever!
And he shall reign forever and ever!

King of kings–forever and ever–Hallelujah! hallelujah!
King of kings–forever and ever–Hallelujah! hallelujah!
King of kings–forever and ever–Hallelujah! hallelujah!
King of kings–forever and ever–Hallelujah! hallelujah!

This must have been similar to what John saw and heard from the angel that flew over “all tribes, tongues, and nations,” singing “everlasting good news” (Rev. 14:6): News that is always here. News that is always good. Indeed, news that is always new, and thus the only news that is ever new–God with us!