Fourth Sunday of Advent


The warm evening breeze
nudges the dry grass
and encourages the ceder leaves
to whisper.
The stars seem closer
softer and more familiar.
And the moon
full-faced and smiling.

The hill is crested
and the flock rejoined.
Silence falls
and soon companions sleep.

But I lie awake
remembering angels.

This shall be a sign unto you.
We sought and found him.
A baby
wrapped in swaddling cloths
and lying in a manger.

Search Term Friday: Christmas Carols as Resistance Literature

Two years ago I wrote about two different Christmas carols--O Holy Night and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear--describing each as "resistance literature." This week someone came looking for that post by searching "christmas carols resistance literature":

O Holy Night--Cantique de Noël in the original French--was composed in 1847 by Adolphe Adam. The text of the song came from a poem--Minuit, chrétiens--written by Placide Cappeau who had been asked by a parish priest to write a Christmas poem. Later, in 1855, Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight created a singing English edition based on Cappeau's French text.

As you sing O Holy Night you might notice the themes of emancipation from the third verse and chorus of the song:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
When you look the original French poem the themes of emancipation are even stronger. A more literal rendering of the third verse and chorus:
The Redeemer has overcome every obstacle:
The Earth is free, and Heaven is open.
He sees a brother where there was only a slave,
Love unites those that iron had chained.
Who will tell Him of our gratitude,
For all of us He is born, He suffers and dies.

People stand up! Sing of your deliverance,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer,
Christmas, Christmas, sing of the Redeemer!
Those are some pretty powerful lyrics. More, these were political and prophetic lyrics.

Recall that the song and the French poem were written in 1847. The English version was written in 1855, six years before the American Civil War and eight years before the Emancipation Proclamation. O Holy Night, it turns out, was a song of political resistance and protest. Imagine Americans singing in the years leading up to the Civil War the lyrics Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.

O Holy Night as political protest. A Christmas carol as resistance literature.

If O Holy Night speaks of liberation and emancipation, consider also the powerful lyrics of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear on the themes of violence, war and peace:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
This is a stunning image. The angels appear above the shepherds and declare the birth of the Christ child with this refrain of peace on earth:
Luke 2:13-14
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, good will toward men."
Peace on earth.

And yet, as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear recounts, since that angelic declaration of peace there has been "two thousand years of wrong." Why? Because "man, at war with man, hears not the love-song which they bring."

There is no peace on earth because we don't hear the love song.

And so the call continues to go out:

"O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing."

Mary's Lullaby

The Brilliance is, hands down, my favorite Christian group. I can't tell you how much I love their music.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful Christmas songs I've ever heard is "Mary's Lullaby" from their album Advent Vol. 2.
Mary's Lullaby (The Brilliance)

Sleep my child
Sweet child of mine
For the days ahead
Will be full of life
Tonight my child
Close Your eyes
I will hold You
Close Your eyes

You're my light
You're my lamb
You'll lead us all
By Your hand
But tonight my child
Close Your eyes
I will hold You
Let me hold You
I will hold You
Close Your eyes
Close Your eyes
Some kind soul embedded the song on YouTube:

The Zimzum of Love

A few weeks ago I read The Zimzum of Love, the new book on love and marriage by Rob and Kristen Bell. I really enjoyed the book and wanted to share two thoughts about it.

First, a theological comment about the word zimzum.

Quite a few people have dinged the term zimzum. Given that the term originated from a Kabbalah teaching of Isaac Luria (Luria was a founding rabbi of the Kabbalah tradition. He died in 1572.), many have taken Bell's use of the term zimzum to be a swerve toward pop-mysticism and pop-spirituality.

Perhaps. But zimzum is a theological idea with some heft. Zimzum is the notion that in creating the world God withdrew or contracted to "make room" for Creation. Many systematic theologians have used this idea in their own scholarly work, Jürgen Moltmann for example.

And I know many theologians who appeal to zimzum when speaking about the hospitality of God, God making room for us. Zimzum is a great term to discuss God's hospitality and how God's hospitality calls upon us to continue "making room" for others. I have appealed to the idea of zimzum many times on this blog to makes these and related points.

The point being, zimzum is a word with a sophisticated theological pedigree which does some significant and important theological work.

The Bells' innovation is to use use the idea of zimzum to describe the dynamics of human love. Specifically, like God we contract ourselves to "make room" for our beloved. In love we zimzum for our beloved. And when our beloved zimzums and makes room for us what is created is a shared and overlapping space where the drama and dynamics of love unfold.

Personally, I think this is a great example of how to deploy a theological idea to innovative and practical effect.

This brings me to my second, more practical, observation about the book.

Having deployed the notion of mutual zimzum, which creates a shared space between the lovers, the Bells argue that love is attending to, responding to and caring for this space. The Bells don't give a lot of specific "how-to" marital tips. What they do is describe the various dynamics that can emerge within the shared zimzumed space between lovers and what we can do to respond to or change that dynamic. Obviously, since this is a marriage "self-help" book, a lot of attention is given to how the shared space between the lovers becomes conflicted or tempestuous or cold.

So how should we respond when the space between us becomes troubled?

If I can be so bold to summarize what I take to be the Bells' overarching recommendation, their advice is this: take the initiative to move into the space and mend it.

Basically, as the Bells describe it (and I agree) the shared space creates feedback loops. If one partner grows cold the other partner responds with coldness which exacerbates the coldness of the other. And so on. Anyone who has ever been married has experienced this feedback loop. This toxic cycle--each partner negatively feeding off the other--sits behind most of our quarrels and conflicts. And if the feedback loop intensifies it can begin to cause severe and lasting relational damage, making it that much more difficult to find your way back to each other.

So the key, according to the Bells, is promptly attending to these negative feedback loops when they emerge to get the dynamic stopped and turned back around again.

Easy enough, but here's the hard part. The only way to stop the negative feedback loop is to preemptively and vulnerably enter the troubled space with an offering of love, confession or peace. Instead of contributing more coldness, distance or snarkiness you have to stop and reverse the flow with an offering of warmth. The Bells describe these preemptive offerings as "sacrifices." You make sacrifices for each other to nurture and care for the shared space.

Let me give you an example of all this.

How to attend to the shared space when it grows troubled? Make the sacrifice in being the first to apologize. From the book:
[In dealing with conflict] you can also get really good at apologizing...Apologizing always helps. Always. You can't go wrong with apologizing. Apologizing has a mysterious way of humbling you and opening the other person up.
I couldn't agree more. If you asked me to share what I think the secret to marriage is there is a good chance I'd say apologizing. Apologizing is the secret of marriage.

Which is really just another way of saying that peacemaking is the secret of marriage.

Love is the art of mending.

A few months ago Brenden and Jana, my oldest son and my wife, had some conflict. No one was being mean or anything, but misunderstandings and expectations led to some tension. Sadly, life is like that. Everyone can be trying to do the right thing and still we end up hurting each other. We always end up hurting each other.

Brenden and Jana had a long talk and they patched things up. The shared space between mother and son had been tended to and cared for and the positive flow in the zimzum between them was restored.

Driving to church the day after their conversation I said to Brenden, "You know son, we can't avoid making mistakes. We can't avoid hurting each other. Even when we are trying to do the right thing we end up hurting each other. For the rest of your life you're going to find out about how you did this, that or the other thing and how, even though your intentions were the best, you ended up hurting someone's feelings. Hurting people is inevitable. Of course, that's no excuse for hurting people. But it's inevitable.

"But what you can do is this. Mending. You can always mend. You can always apologize. You can always try to fix things. To knit and stitch what has been ripped back together. Mending is the secret of life."

I think the Bells would agree.

Advent: A Prison Story

An Advent story from the prison I shared last year:

Billy had a heart attack.

And he died.

The bible study at the prison this last Monday night was sober and sad. Billy was an inmate and popular. An excellent guitar player, Billy would often play for the prison worship services.

On Saturday Bill started having trouble in his cell. A female guard called for help. When the gurney came they placed Billy on it. The guard stayed with Billy as they raced him to the medical unit. Billy was transported to the local hospital.

But his heart stopped and he died.

The next day some of the men in the study, dear friends of Billy, thanked that female guard for what she did. She began to cry and said, "I wish I could have done more." And the prisoners offered her comfort. She did all she could. More than they had expected.

All this was shared at the start of the study. The mood was heavy. And then it was my time to get up and share my lesson. We were starting on the book of Job.

But I began by talking about Advent.

I started by contrasting Advent with Christmas. Advent, I explained, is sitting in the experience of exile. Waiting, hoping God will act in the future. We are slaves in Egypt. We are exiles in Babylon. We are sad friends mourning the death of Billy. Where is God? We are waiting. That, I said, is Advent. Learning to be patient, learning to wait on God.

We sang O Come, O Come Emanuel and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.

And then we opened our bibles to the book of Job.

Up until this point in the bible, I explained, the story has been governed by a theology of retribution, the "blessings and curses" of Moses (Deut. 11). Do good and stay faithful to God and you will be blessed. Turn to wickedness and idolatry and you will get punishment and exile.

The entry into the Promised Land. Judges followed by kings. Warnings upon warnings about the blessings and curses. Stay faithful. Do not bow to the false gods.

Deaf ears. Hard hearts. The Kingdom divides.

Israel descends into idolatry. Exile.

Judah follows. Exile.

The logic of retribution holds. The righteous are blessed. Sinners are punished. That's how God has set up the world. Bad things happen to bad people.

And then we get to the book of Job.

And an entire theological trajectory--starting in Deuteronomy and traced through 2 Kings--gets knocked off course. Good people are always blessed? Not so fast, says the book of Job.

Job is a man of integrity. And yet he suffers. Chapter after chapter Job's friends argue for the theology of retribution. Job is suffering, so he must have sinned. That's the way the world works. Moses said so.

Job disagrees. He's done nothing wrong. And yet God has cursed him. There is no lawful relationship here between virtue and suffering. Bad things happen to good people. Billy died on Saturday.

So Job waits on God. Waiting for vindication. Waiting for a chance to plead his case. Job wants answers. Waiting.

Like us in the wake of Billy's death.

You know what, I said to the men, as I reflect on it Job is a pretty good book for Advent. We talk about "the patience of Job."

Patience. Waiting on God. That's Job. That's Advent.

That's us.

But in the waiting is also expectation, longing, and hope.

The men share more from their conversation with the female guard who stayed with Billy until they took him away in the ambulance. Billy blessed her, she says through tears.

She shares Billy's last words, shared as they rushed toward the waiting ambulance.

"I am," he tells her, "a man of God."

He tells her this, over and over.

Quit Tone Policing the Psalms

A lot of liberal and progressive Christians are really uncomfortable with the imprecatory psalms, the psalms where the writer expresses hot, violent rage. I can't tell you how many times I've watched progressive and liberal Christians wring their hands over these texts, embarrassed and troubled by these psalms.

The classic example is the line about smashing babies on rocks from Psalm 137:
Psalms 137.9
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
Another example is Psalm 109, which rains down a long list of curses:
Psalm 109.6-15
Appoint a wicked man against him;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him come forth guilty;
let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
may another take his office!
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg,
seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
May the creditor seize all that he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him,
nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off;
may his name be blotted out in the second generation!
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord,
and let not the sin of his mother be blotted out!
Let them be before the Lord continually,
that he may cut off the memory of them from the earth!
Again, many liberal and progressive Christians are scandalized by these psalms. But here's my rejoinder:

Quit tone policing victims.

Quit tone policing the Psalms.

I, for one, am glad that victims were allowed to speak in the bible, and therefore in the community of faith. And I'm glad victims spoke in their own way and with their own voice. The rage and hurt of victims is not kind, or polite or nice. The voices of victims make us uncomfortable and unsettled.

I am glad the voices of victims in Scripture was not edited or tone policed so that the privileged could have a politically correct, tame, civil, nice, polite, kind and comfortable bible.

I like the bible we got, the unsettling and disturbing bible that gives victims the microphone.

Recall the context of Psalm 137. The opening lines:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
This is like SS officers asking a Jewish prisoner to sing a Jewish song in Auschwitz for their sick entertainment. "Hey, Jew boy, come over here and sing us a song! Do a little dance!"

And the Jewish prisoner sings and dances in the mud as the officers laugh and laugh.

This is like the African slaves in America being forced to sing and dance to entertain their masters and guests at parties.

Psalm 137 is sung after the Babylonian exile and captivity. Mothers, daughters and sisters had been raped. Friends and family members tortured and killed.

So, yeah, Psalm 137 rages.

But let's not tone police rape, murder and torture victims.

In a similar way, note the context of Psalm 109. Who are the curses being directed at?
Psalm 109.16
For he did not remember to show kindness,
but pursued the poor and needy
and the brokenhearted, to put them to death.
The curses are being called down upon a person who is murdering the poor, needy and brokenhearted. This is the same sort of rage we've see on the streets of Ferguson and Staten Island. And in those cases the homicides were not premeditated. Psalm 109 speaks of a murderer who pursues and targets the poor and needy. Premeditation.

And just as we'd not tone police the family, friends and communities speaking out on behalf of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, we shouldn't tone police Psalm 109. No matter how uncomfortable that makes us or how messy it makes our bibles.

Again, I'm glad victims were allowed to write the bible.

Let's quit tone policing the Psalms.

Third Sunday of Advent



Little one,
the world seems too torn
to be mended.
Too dark
to be lit.
Too much pain and grief
and too many tears
to be consoled or comforted.
Too much lost
to be found.
Too much hurt
to be healed.
Too much evil
and rivulets of blood
to be reconciled.

Little one,
the world seems too torn
to be mended.

But these visitors
they tell of angels.
Angels were singing.
A song about you,
little one,
a song about you.

Search Term Friday: Jacob Marley

The Christmas search terms surge this time of year. A search this week for "jacob marley" linked to a post of mine from 2009.

Every Christmas season Aidan and I like to read through A Christmas Carol sitting by our Christmas tree in the living room.

You'll recall that A Christmas Carol opens on Christmas Eve with the death of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner. Seven years after his death Marley returns to Scrooge as a ghost wrapped in chains.

I think the conversation between Scrooge and Marley is profound. It's my favorite part of the book. Below is the text from the scene from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I've highlighted in red my favorite parts:
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear in-doors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast.

Scrooge fell upon his knees, and clasped his hands before his face.

'Mercy!' he said. 'Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?' 'Man of the worldly mind!' replied the Ghost, 'do you believe in me or not?'

'I do,' said Scrooge. 'I must. But why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?'

'It is required of every man,' the Ghost returned, 'that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world-oh, woe is me!-and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness.'

Again the spectre raised a cry, and shook its chain and wrung its shadowy hands.

'You are fettered,' said Scrooge, trembling. 'Tell me why?'

'I wear the chain I forged in life,' replied the Ghost. 'I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?'

Scrooge trembled more and more.

'Or would you know,' pursued the Ghost, 'the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!

Scrooge glanced about him on the floor, in the expectation of finding himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable: but he could see nothing.

'Jacob,' he said, imploringly. 'Old Jacob Marley, tell me more. Speak comfort to me, Jacob.'

'I have none to give,' the Ghost replied. 'It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men. Nor can I tell you what I would. A very little more is all permitted to me. I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere. My spirit never walked beyond out counting-house-mark me!- in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me.'

It was a habit with Scrooge, whenever he became thoughtful, to put his hands in his breeches pockets. Pondering on what the Ghost had said, he did so now, but without lifting up his eyes, or getting off his knees.

'You must have been very slow about it, Jacob,' Scrooge observed, in a business-like manner, though with humility and deference.

'Slow!' the Ghost repeated.

'Seven years dead,' mused Scrooge. 'And travelling all the time?'

'The whole time,' said the Ghost. 'No rest, no peace. Incessant torture of remorse.'

'You travel fast?' said Scrooge.

'On the wings of the wind,' replied the Ghost.

'You might have got over a great quantity of ground in seven years,' said Scrooge.

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up another cry, and clanked its chain so hideously in the dead silence of the night, that the Ward would have been justified in indicting it for a nuisance.

'Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,' cried the phantom, 'not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!'

'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'
Mankind is our business.

Everything I Learned About Christmas I Learned From TV

In 2007 I wrote a series entitled "Everything I Learned about Christmas I Learned from TV." That series has been one of the most popular things I've written and it has been my tradition to post it again every Christmas season:

As a child I loved all the children's Christmas shows. Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to name a few. With no videos, cable, NetFlix or DVR these shows were once a year opportunities. If you missed a show, you wouldn't see it again for an entire year.

So, these were BIG events in my childhood.

I was so addicted to these shows that, looking back, I can now discern that everything I know about Christmas I learned from TV. Specifically, I learned from TV three big lessons about Christmas.

Lesson #1: There is Something Special About Christmas
How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The first lesson I learned was from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The lesson was this: There is something special about Christmas. Something that transcended the presents, Christmas trees, meals, or decorations. Christmas, to quote from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, was "a little bit more" than all these things.

If you don't recall the show, here's the basic plot. The Grinch, who lives in the mountains high above Whoville, hates the noise associated with Christmas. So, he dresses up like Santa Claus and ties a horn on the head of his dog Max to make him look like a reindeer. In these disguises they set off for Whoville.

Once in Whoville the Grinch proceeds to steal all the Christmas presents, trees, decorations, and food. He packs all this up and heads back up the mountain just as Christmas day is dawning.

The Grinch's plan is simple. He figures that if he takes away all the Christmas "stuff" the Whos won't be able to celebrate Christmas.

But the Grinch is wrong. In the climactic scene the Whos come out of their homes and, without a single piece of Christmas paraphernalia or presents, begin to sing their Christmas song Welcome Christmas:
Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
Come this way!

Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome Christmas,
Christmas Day.

Welcome, Welcome
Fah who rah-moose
Welcome, Welcome
Dah who dah-moose
Christmas day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp

Fah who for-aze!
Dah who dor-aze!
Welcome, welcome Christmas
Welcome, welcome Christmas Day
Upon hearing the song the Grinch has this realization, and I quote:
So he paused. And the Grinch put a hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow...

But the sound wasn't sad!
Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn't be so!
But it WAS merry! VERY!

He stared down at Who-ville!
The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook!
What he saw was a shocking surprise!

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN'T stopped Christmas from coming!
IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"
And this realization has such a profound effect upon the Grinch that his heart, previously two sizes too small, grew three sizes that day.

So, I learned from How the Grinch Stole Christmas that Christmas was more than ribbons or tags. More than packages, boxes, or bags. Christmas was MORE.

But here was the deeply puzzling thing about How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Watch it as many times as you want and it will never be revealed just what Christmas was truly about. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a negative tale. It tells you what Christmas isn't. But it fails, in a quite puzzling way, to tell you what Christmas is.

So as child I was left in quite a quandary. Christmas was clearly very special, but it was still a mystery. Luckily, there was more TV to watch! And a part of the mystery of Christmas would be revealed to me in that quirky tale of a mutant reindeer and his friend, the elf, who wanted to be a dentist...

Lesson #2: Christmas Means Misfits Have a Place
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

After watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas l knew there was something special about Christmas. But How the Grinch Stole Christmas never says exactly why Christmas is special. I got a clue to answering this question by watching that classic Christmas program Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The entire plot of Rudolph centers around misfits. The central misfits are Rudolph and the elf Hermey.

Rudolph, obviously, has some kind of genetic mutation. He's got a red nose and that, well, just isn't natural. So he is shunned, mocked, and excluded from the reindeer games.

Hermey has a different problem. He's terrible at making toys. And he also doesn't enjoy singing in Santa's elf choir. What Hermey really wants to be is a dentist. But for this curious interest Hermey is, like Rudolph, ostracized and made fun of. They are both, clearly, misfits. This is captured in the mournful little song they sing We're a couple of misfits:
We're a couple of misfits
We're a couple of misfits
What's the matter with misfits
That's where we fit in!

We're not daffy and dilly
Don't go 'round willy nilly
Seems to us kinda silly
That we don't fit in.

We may be different from the rest
Who decides the test
Of what is really best?
 
So Hermey and Rudolph leave Christmas Town and set out on their own.

The misfit theme is continued when Hermey, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius, after being chased by The Abominable Snowman, find the Island of Misfit Toys. This is an island where rejected, unwanted, and unloved toys find sanctuary. Rudolph, sympathetic to the plight of the Misfit Toys, because Rudolph knows what it's like to be a misfit, promises to take their plight to Santa. This is the lament of the misfit toys:
We're on the Island of Misfit Toys
Here we don't want to stay
We want to travel with Santa Claus
In his magic sleigh!

A pack full of toys
Means a sack full of joys
For millions of girls
And for millions of boys
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

A jack-in-the-box waits for children to shout
"Wake up! Don't you know that it's time to come out!"
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

Toys galore, scattered on the floor
There's no room for more
And it's all because of Santa Claus.

A skooter for Jimmy
A dolly for Sue
The kind that will even say, "How do you do?"
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful day of the year.

How would you like to be a Spotted Elephant?
Or a Choo-Choo with square wheels on your caboose?
Or a water pistol that shoots -- jelly?
We're all misfits!
How would you like to be a bird that doesn't fly? I swim!
Or a cowboy who rides an ostrich?
Or a boat that can't stay afloat?
We're all misfits.

If we're on the Island of Unwanted Toys
We'll miss all the fun with the girls and the boys
When Christmas Day is here
The most wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful day of the year!
At this point in the show all the misfit themes are coming to a climax. We see misfits seeking community, we see empathy as one misfit identifies with another, and, finally, we see one misfit seeking to act as savior. A misfit to save the misfits. A misfit Messiah.

But the theology of Rudolph takes its most radical, surprising, and extreme turn when the personification of evil, The Abominable Snowman, comes back from death in a quirky resurrection event--Bumble's Bounce!--as a peaceable creature who is also in need of loving community. Apparently, this "evil" creature is also a misfit. And the hint is that he's "abominable" because he's been marginalized and without community.

So, summarizing all this, I learned from Rudolph this important lesson about Christmas: Something about Christmas means misfits have a place, a community, a home. Or, rephrased, Christmas means that there are no more misfits.

But I was still puzzled as a child. From How the Grinch Stole Christmas I learned that Christmas was more than presents and Christmas trees. And from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I learned that Christmas had something to do with misfits finding a place of love. But in both shows the reason behind it all remained elusive. Why do misfits have a home? And what does being a misfit have to do with Christmas? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer never says.

So I was quite puzzled. But luckily, there was more TV to watch! And I finally got my answers in a speech delivered by a boy who loved to carry a blue blanket...

Lesson #3: The True Meaning of Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas

After the hints about Christmas from the Grinch and Rudolph I finally turned to that trusted friend Charlie Brown.

In A Charlie Brown Christmas Charlie Brown is struggling to find out why Christmas is so depressing. He seeks advice from this local psychiatrist, Lucy, who gets him to direct the school Christmas play.

Well, this doesn't go very well. Eventually, Charlie Brown is rejected as director and asked instead to go buy a Christmas tree for the play.

Most of the symbolism in A Charlie Brown Christmas focuses on the tree he picks out. Out of all the shiny, bright artificial trees Charlie Brown picks a real but forlorn little tree that isn't much more than a branch.

Charlie Brown takes this tree/branch back to the cast and they laugh at both him and the tree. This ridicule pushes Charlie Brown over the edge and he finally screams, "Would someone please tell me the true meaning of Christmas!!!!!" At which point Linus steps forward.

But before we hear Linus's answer, let's reflect on the symbol of the forlorn little Christmas tree. It's a humble little tree, not much to look at. And it's rejected and despised by men. And yet, it is real. All those flashy other trees are dead, cold, and fake. They are empty and hollow. But this fragile little tree is REAL. It's fragile, but real.

And all this taught me that whatever Christmas is about, it is about something that is humble, about something fragile and weak, about something that is despised, marginalized, and overlooked. It is life, it's real, but it's so humble that it is easily overlooked and passed over. Further, its humility makes it a stone of stumbling, a scandal, and a reason for offense.

So, to recap, these are all the lessons I learned about Christmas from watching TV:
I learned that Christmas was MORE and that it had something to do with finding community.
I learned that, because of Christmas, there were no more misfits, no more outsiders or marginalized ones.
I learned about empathy, compassion, and that Messiahs might be misfits.
I learned about how community can be the route for the redemption of evil.
And here with Charlie Brown, I learned that the humility of Christmas makes it oft overlooked and despised.
But to this point in all this TV viewing no one ever connected the dots among all these things. No one had spoken the word that explained just what all this stuff had to do with Christmas. So I perfectly understood why Charlie Brown screamed "Would someone please tell me the true meaning of Christmas!!!!!"

Well, Charile Brown and I finally got our answer. Linus steps forward and explains it all:



May there be peace on earth and good will toward all. Merry Christmas.

An Unlikely Advent Meditation: Piss Christ in Prison

An Advent meditation I shared last year.

Out at the prison bible study I led the inmates through an unlikely advent meditation. Our focus was on Piss Christ, the controversial photograph by Andres Serrano.

As I describe in my book Unclean, in 1987 the photographer Andres Serrano unveiled his controversial work Piss Christ. Piss Christ was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989 when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received $15,000 from the American National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1997, the National Gallery in Melbourne, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.

Beyond the content of the photograph what really offends is the name, the juxtaposition of the word "piss" with "Christ." What is blasphemous is the contact between something holy and something defiling.

Piss contaminates the Christ.

This is an example of the attribution called negativity dominance in judgments of contamination. That is, when the pure comes in contact with the contaminant the pure becomes polluted. The negative dominates over the positive. The power is not with the pure but sits with the pollutant. 

This is why the Pharisees see Jesus becoming defiled when he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The pollutant--the tax collectors and sinners--defiles Jesus, the pure. The negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Thus it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus's presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Because pollution doesn't work that way.

Thus, in the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively--and blasphemously--believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the "piss" of our lives.

I looked at the men in the study and said, This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the piss, shit and darkness of your life. And the piss, shit and darkness did not overcome it.

I know, I told the men, that this is so very hard to believe. That Jesus goes into the darkest, most disgusting, most defiling corners of our lives. This, all by itself, is hard to believe. But even harder to believe is that Jesus is stronger than that polluting, shameful, defiling darkness.

That is the scandal of Christmas.
John 1.14a, 5
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The story of the incarnation is more subversive than the most subversive art. It is hard to be more transgressive than Christmas. Consider Beth Williamson's analysis of Piss Christ:
What are we to make of this work: what are we to understand by it, and how can we interpret it?

Most obviously were enraged by the combination of the most iconic image of Christianity—the Crucified Christ—with human bodily fluid, and felt that this work set out deliberately to provoke viewers to outrage. The artist almost certainly aimed to provoke a reaction, but what reaction?

The fact that urine is involved is crucial here. But was the use of urine simply intended, as some of Serrano’s detractors have claimed, to cause offense? Had the artist deliberately set out to show disrespect to this religious image, by placing it in urine? Some felt this was tantamount to urinating on the crucifix.

I would suggest that, even if some viewers and commentators feel that it was the artist’s intention, or part of his intention, to be offensive, there are also other ways to interpret this work...

The process of viewing the Crucified Christ through the filter of human bodily fluids requires the observer to consider all the ways in which Christ, as both fully divine and full human, really shared in the base physicality of human beings. As a real human being Christ took on all the characteristics of the human body, including its fluids and secretions. The use of urine here can therefore force the viewer to rethink what it meant for Christ to be really and fully human. 
God had a body. That is about as transgressive as you can get. So transgressive that many Christians, now and throughout history, have passionately resisted and banished the thought.

Christmas is so hard to believe that most Christians don't believe it.

But the Word became flesh. God dwelt among us. And still does. Even in the piss. Especially in the piss.

Immanuel.

I looked at the men in the prison and paused. I wanted them to hear this. Because there is some real darkness in their lives. Darkness we rarely speak about.

I looked at them and said:

The meaning of the Incarnation is that God has descended into the piss and shit of our lives. And that God is stronger than that darkness.

Do we believe this? Because it is so very, very hard to believe.

We want to believe that our foulness, all the shit we've done or experienced, is the strongest thing there is. The greatest and final truth about our lives.

It's so hard to believe what I'm telling you because it feels like blasphemy.

But it's not. It is not blasphemy.

It is the story of the Incarnation. It is the Word becoming flesh. It is the story of God's love for you.

It is the story of Christmas.

Doublespeak and the Demonic

Orwellian Doublespeak, description from Wikipedia:
Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., "downsizing" for layoffs, "servicing the target" for bombing), in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. It may also refer to intentional ambiguity in language or to actual inversions of meaning (for example, naming a state of war "peace"). In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth. 
William Stringfellow on the stratagems of the Powers:
[E]ach and every stratagem and resort of the principalities seeks the death of the specific faculties of rational and moral comprehension which specifically distinguish human beings from all other creatures. Whatever form or appearance it make take, demonic aggression always aims at the immobilization or surrender or destruction of the mind and at the neutralization or abandonment or demoralization of the conscience.
The aim of demonic assault is to morally incapacitate human beings through the neutralization of the conscience. Stringfellow calls these assaults on truth babel. Babel, of which doublespeak Stringfellow explicitly names, does two things.

First, babel overwhelms and dumbfounds the conscience:
Babel means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumor, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy...

Essentially, babel targets the faculties of comprehension--sanity and conscience...
Next, babel then lays the foundation for violence. Stringfellow quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
Let us not forget that violence does not exist by itself and cannot do so; it is necessarily interwoven with lies. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle. 
Example:

Graph of New York Times usage of the phrase "enhanced interrogation" over time:


 (H/T Derek Willis)

A Theology of Desire, Love and Marriage

A sketch of a theology of sexual desire, love and marriage.

As we physically mature we come to discover that we desire other human beings. These desires are not intrinsically evil. As aspects of God's creative work they are, in the biblical description, "very good."

However, while desires are not intrinsically evil they are fallen. Our desires are greedy, consumptive, covetous, rivalrous and violent. In a word, our desires are lustful.

The sanctification of our desires is a process of making them cruciform. This occurs in the context of covenant. Covenant is a "school of desire" akin to a spiritual discipline, even a monastic discipline given the relationality of the process, where eros is shaped by fidelity and self-emptying servanthood (kenosis). The daily practices of covenant lead to the divinization of desire, where eros is made chaste, holy, and a participation in the Triune love of God.

Did King Herod Make a Mistake?: An Advent Reflection

A few weeks ago out at the prison we began working our way through the gospel of Matthew.

We were in Chapter 2. Matthew 2 is all about a clash between two kings. The clash is right there in the opening three verses:
Matthew 2.1-3
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Two kings. King Herod--ostensibly the king of the Jews--hearing about "the one who has been born king of the Jews." No wonder he was disturbed.

We know the rest of the story. Upon hearing about this other king Herod orders the death of all young boys in the town of Bethlehem. The Massacre of the Innocents.
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Alerted by an angel Mary, Joseph and the baby escape to Egypt until they get word of Herod's death. Even then Joseph is still wary of the new king, causing him to move north, far away from Jerusalem:
But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. 
So from beginning to end in Matthew 2 there is this violent and bloody clash between kings. King Herod on the one hand and King Jesus on the other.

Having noted all this, I asked the men out at the prison a question.

I asked, "Did King Herod make a mistake?"

The men looked puzzled, so I elaborated.

"Well," I continued, "we always say that Jesus' Kingdom is 'not of this world.' Jesus didn't want to take Herod's throne. So it doesn't seem that Jesus was a political threat to Herod. So it was all a big misunderstanding on Herod's part. The Massacre of the Innocents, all a big mistake. Right?"

Some of the men begin to nod, seeing my point.

So I continue, "So Jesus was no threat to Herod?"

Now the men are unsure and some reverse their answers. "Wait," they say, "Jesus was a threat to Herod."

I agree. I point out that all the blood in Matthew 2 seems to make that point. Jesus was a huge threat.

I try to bring out the tensions.

"I asked the question 'Did King Herod make a mistake?' because I think we tend to over-spiritualize Jesus and his Kingdom.

"That is, we think that Jesus' Kingdom has no political implications for the world, for the allegiances we offer to the world, to the state in particular. To be sure, in one sense Jesus isn't interested in Herod's throne. And in that sense Herod may have misunderstood Jesus' mission.

"But Jesus is a threat to Herod in a deeper sense. In this sense Herod rightly discerns a threat to his power and acts accordingly. The Massacre of the Innocents was no misunderstanding. The birth of the true King of Jews was a climactic and disruptive event. King Jesus was dangerous.

"How so, if Jesus wasn't going to try to overthrow and take Herod's throne? How was Jesus a legitimate threat to Herod?

"I think it has to do with how political power is built upon our allegiances, how we swear ultimate loyalty. For while Jesus may not have attempted to seize Herod's power he did radically undermine his power, dissolving it and reducing it to nothing.

"And when the state sees its allegiances weakened, changed, called into question or vacated it will respond. Violently.

"Herod didn't make a mistake."

the night is not silent

the night is not silent

in the bloody violent city
the dark corners
weighty and full
with wailing and lamentation
from wounds
some fresh some festering
both of body and mind

the night is not silent

as people are broken
under heavy oppressive yokes
tears testify and bear witness
to frustrated blind rage and grief
how long?
how long?

the night is not silent

as these mutely endure
brutalization and beating
for paralyzing fear
yet lift screams within
of horror and despair

the night is not silent

for unto us
a Child is born
a Son is given
this One to be
the Prince of Peace
amen yes amen
glory to God in the highest

but still
hush quiet
and listen

the night is not silent

Search Tearm Friday: Repose on the Flight to Egypt

Here with the start of Advent the search terms "repose on the flight to egypt" brought someone to an Advent reflection I wrote about one of my favorite paintings, Luc Olivier Merson's Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1879):

I love Rest on the Flight into Egypt for a couple of reasons. First, the scene is haunting and full of fatigue. Joseph is asleep on the desert floor. One imagines his mental and physical exhaustion fleeing danger and trying to take his wife and baby across deserts to a foreign land.

And what awaits them at journey's end? Will they find friends in Egypt? Work? And when will it be safe to go back home?

Sitting on the Sphinx, in a striking juxtaposition and lending an exotic touch to the scene, is Mary and the baby.

And the baby. The only source of light in the painting.

What I like about Rest on the Flight into Egypt is how it depicts, from the very beginning of his life, the homelessness of the Messiah. God is a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a strange land, a person of exile.

I have always felt that Rest on the Flight into Egypt is metaphor for the life of the church. We should live as a people of exile, as strangers among the nations. All we carry across the wastelands of this earth is the Christ Child. We have nothing else to offer.

This note is echoed in John Howard Yoder's book The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited where he suggests that the church should model its existence after the Jewish diaspora. The church is to embrace a "cosmopolitan homelessness" and accept "dispersion" among the nations as a part of its "mission." The church is to embrace "galut as calling." Galut is a Hebrew word for the situation of living in a state of exile or homelessness. I think Rest on the Flight into Egypt vividly captures the experience of galut.

Yoder illustrates "galut as calling" by pointing to biblical models in the Old Testament--Joseph, Daniel and Esther. Joseph, Daniel and Esther each lived as exiles, as resident aliens. Each labored alongside the people of a nation to which they did not belong, each working elbow to elbow "seeking the welfare of the city" (Jer. 29.7).

We can add Mary and Joseph to this list while they lived and worked in Egypt with the baby Jesus.

Watching Their Flocks By Night: An Advent Meditation on Vigilance and Violence

This is, by far, the most popular Advent essay I have written:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.
One of my most favorite psychological studies was published in 1996 by Dov Cohen, Richard Nisbett, Brian Bowdle and Norbert Schwarz in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Titled Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor: An 'experimental ethnography' the study attempted to see how Southerners and Northerners in America responded to insult. The authors argued that a "culture of honor" had been, historically, more robust in the Southern United States (due to immigration patterns) making Southerners more sensitive to perceived affronts to their personal honor (e.g., being insulted or disrespected).

To test this theory the researchers asked Northern and Southern college students to come to a building where they were asked to fill out some surveys. After filling out the surveys the subjects were asked to drop them off at the end of a hallway and then return to the room. But the hall was blocked by a filing cabinet, open, and with a person looking through it. To get past this person the subject had to ask this person to close the drawer to make room to pass. The person at the filing cabinet was in on the study and he complies with the subject's request with some annoyance. The subject passes the filing cabinet, drops the surveys off, and then returns back toward the filing cabinet. The person at the filing cabinet has reopened the drawer and is again blocking the hallway. As the subject approaches for a second time this is what happens, quoting directly from the study:
As the participant returned seconds later and walked back down the hall toward the experimental room, the confederate (who had reopened the file drawer) slammed it shut on seeing the participant approach and bumped into the participant with his shoulder, calling the participant an “asshole.”
Sitting in the hallway nearby were raters who looked, ostensibly, like students reading or studying. But what the raters actually did was to look at the face of the subject at the moment the insult occured. They then rated how angry versus amused the subject looked. Because we can expect a wide variety of reactions to the insult. Some of us would smile or laugh it off. Some of us would get angry and seek to aggressively confront the person who just called us an asshole.

The research question was simple: How did the Southerners and Northerners compare when responding to the insult? Was one group more angered or amused?

The findings, consistent with the Southern culture of honor hypothesis, showed that Southerners were more likely to become angered by the insult while Northerners were more likely to become amused. This finding was reconfirmed in a variety of different follow up studies (for example, Southerners had significantly more stress hormones in their body relative to the Northerners after the insult).

All in all, then, it seemed that Southerners were working with, and defending, a more robust "honor code" than Northerners.

But where does a "culture of honor" come from?

One explanation that has gained a lot of attention is a theory posited by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen, two of the authors of the insult study, in their book Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Specifically, Nisbett and Cohen argue that different ethics of honor and retaliation have evolved in herding versus farming cultures.

The argument goes like this. It's hard to steal from farmers. If I have acres and acres of wheat or corn it's pretty hard for a couple of thieves to make off overnight with the fruits of my labor. More, for large parts of year there really is nothing to steal. There is no crop during the winter, spring and early summer. In short, for most of the year there is nothing the farmer has to guard or protect. And even when there is a crop to steal you can't make off with it overnight. Harvesting is time consuming and labor intensive.

All in all, then, farming cultures, it is argued, have evolved a fairly pacific and non-retaliatory social ethic.

Herding cultures face a very different problem. Imagine a cattle rancher. You can steal cattle much more quickly and efficiently relative to trying to steal a corn harvest. A handful of cattle rustlers can quickly make off with hundreds of cattle, with devastating economic impact upon the rancher. More, the cattle are always around. Unlike the farmer, the rancher's livelihood is exposed 24/7 for 365 days a year. While the farmer sleeps peacefully during the winter months there is no respite for the rancher.

Given these challenges, it is argued that herding cultures have developed a very strong ethic of retaliation. The only way to survive, economically, in a herding culture is to protect your livelihood and honor with lethal vigilance. Farmers, by contrast, are spared all this. And, given these contrasting demands, there has been a lot of data to suggest that herding cultures (or places settled by herding cultures like the American South) are, indeed, more violent than farming cultures.

(For full disclosure, this trend is disputed in the literature with data on both sides of the argument. Studies are still ongoing.)

Even if you don't find this argument compelling you likely will recognize the stereotypes from American film. In Western films farmers are rarely violent. They tend to be peaceable. By contrast, ranchers and cowboys tend to be violent. And when someone in Western films has become respectable it's often associated with settling down and taking up the farming life. Conversely, leaving the farm is the resumption of violence. Think of William Munny in Unforgiven.

Why am I going into all this? Well, during this Advent season we are exposed to many portrayals of the shepherds in Luke 2 as they keep watch over their flocks at night. And these images often look like Hallmark cards. It's sweet and idyllic. Peaceable.

Well, there was a reason these guys were up at night watching their flocks. They are examples of a herding culture. The point being, these shepherds were pretty tough, even violent, men. They aren't into sheep because they are sweet looking props for our Nativity sets. When you see those sheep you should see dollar signs, stock portfolios, walking retirement plans. That's why the shepherds were up at night. If I put your paycheck, in 10 dollar bill increments, in a pile in your front yard I bet you'd be up a night keeping a watch on your flock. Gun in hand.

The point in all this is that these shepherds were likely rough and violent men. They had to be. So it's a bit shocking and strange to find the angels appearing to these men, of all people. Thugs might be standing around in our Nativity sets. That scene around the manger might be a bit more scandalous than we had ever imagined.

But here's the truly amazing part of the story. The angels proclaim to these violent men a message of "peace on earth." And, upon hearing this message, the shepherds leave their flocks and go searching for the baby! Can you now see how shocking that behavior is?

Leaving their flocks? Risk economic ruin? This is something you don't do in a herding culture.

Is there something out there more important than money? What are those shepherds looking for?

Think about how all this might apply to us. For most of our lives we stand around protecting what is ours. Our neighborhoods, borders, homes, 401Ks, income, jobs, status, reputation. And on and on and on. We're like those shepherds, keeping watch over our flocks, even at night. We're tensed, anxious, fearful, paranoid, suspicious, watchful, and ready to pounce. And all this makes us violent people, in small ways and large.

That's the ethic of this world. It's a herding ethic. Protect what is yours because someone is coming to take it away from you.

It's a culture of fear and violence.

And so the angels come to us and proclaim "peace on earth and good will to men." But how is that going to happen? Well, the story in Luke 2 shows us the way:

We follow the example of the shepherds.

We leave behind our flocks and our lifestyles of violent vigilance.

We go in search of the baby.

God's Golden Rule

You've heard of the Golden Rule. I have a new rule for you. I'll call it God's Golden Rule. Here it is:
God's Golden Rule:
God will treat you the way you treat others.
Jesus teaching God's Golden Rule:
Luke 6.37-38
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 6.14-15
"For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Matthew 7.1-2
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."

Mark 4.24
And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you..."

Mark 11.35
"And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”
So there they are, the two Golden Rules:
Treat others as you would like to be treated.

God will treat you the way you treat others.

Raising Stones at the Gateway of Heaven: The Kingdom of God As Event

Kingdom of God is an event rather than an organization.

Some time agon I described the relationship between the Kingdom and the church this way:

More and more I'm thinking of the Kingdom of God as an event. The Kingdom of God comes--for a season, for a moment--and then is gone. Church is a place where, hopefully, the conditions for the Kingdom coming are cultivated. But those conditions don't guarantee anything. You just have to wait. And keep at the work. Make yourself available, over and over, individually and corporately.

All that to say, the Kingdom of God is real. It does occur. It just doesn't last in any organized or bureaucratic way, as a "church." Consequently, there will be long seasons of church life where nothing seems to be going on.

But here and there--around this table, in this worship service, in this small group--the Kingdom of God comes. Elusively and transiently. But still, it comes.
This idea isn't new to me. I borrowed it from William Stringfellow. Stringfellow describes the Kingdom as "the Jerusalem event" occurring in the midst of Babylon:
Jerusalem means the emancipation of human life in society from the rule of death and breaks through time, transcends time, anticipates within time the abolition of time. Thus the integrity or authenticity of the Jerusalem event in common history is always beheld as if it were a singular or momentary or unique happening. To be more concrete about it, if a congregation somewhere comes to life as Jerusalem at some hour, that carries no necessary implications for either the past or the future of that congregation. The Jerusalem occurrence is sufficient unto itself. There is--then and there--a transfiguration in which the momentary coincides with the eternal, the innocuous becomes momentous and the great is recognized as trivial, the end of history is revealed as the fulfillment of life here and now, and the whole of creation is beheld as sanctified.

So far as the human beings who are participants and witnesses in any manifestation of the Jerusalem reality of the Church are concerned, nothing similar may have happened before and nothing similar may happen again. But that does not detract from the event; it only emphasizes that the crux of the matter is the transcendence of time....

[H]ere and there and now and then--Jerusalem is apparent.
I also like the way David Kelsey describes the providential actions of God as intrusive and interruptive aspects of our quotidian/daily existence. This highlights the temporary and transient nature of the "Kingdom come." Kelsey writes:
Signs of God's providential righting of the moral balance are not a steady-state feature of the quotidian. Rather...signs of God's providential preservation of a moral order break out in the quotidian like a small rash: patchy, intrusive, and unpredictable. God's providential action in creation is often eruptive...These occasions are but patches on the broader spaces of the quotidian stained by violence...
Such reflections reminded me about a post wrote a few years ago about the Old Testament practice, before the construction of the temple, of raising stones to worship God, give thanks, seal a covenant, or name the Presence of God on earth.

Specifically, if the Kingdom of God is an event I wonder if the notion of raising stones might be an apt metaphor for Christian worship.

For example, the story of Jacob's dream at Bethel in Genesis 28:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar...
During the time of the temple God was in a specific location. Thus, to encounter the Presence of God you had to go to that specific place. God's Presence was identified with a particular and immobile location. Similar to how many Christians view the church building. God is in the church--a temple-like building--and we go there to encounter God.

But if the Kingdom of God is not tied to a place but is, rather, an intrusive and interruptive event, then perhaps the pre-Temple impulse to raise stones at the gateway of heaven wherever that is experienced many be the better metaphor for Christian worship.

Worship is raising altars to name the Presence of God in the world. Worship is raising stones to mark the event of the Kingdom.
“Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

News of Great Joy

Hope you had a blessed start to the Advent season yesterday.
Luke 2.8-10
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 glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy...
News of great joy.

As a psychologist I think a lot about human neuroses. We are all so, so neurotic. Anxious. Stressed. Worried. Obsessive. Addicted. Perfectionistic. Sad. Angry. Depressed. Frustrated. Irritable. Petty. Jealous. Mean. Competitive. Domineering. Spiteful. Impulsive. Compulsive. Negativistic. Cynical. Hateful. Judgmental. Dependent. Co-dependent. Narcissistic. Vain. Self-critical. Shamed. Guilty. Self-loathing. Misanthropic. Fearful. Smug. Snobbish. Insecure.

Neurotic.

I've thought a lot about what makes us so neurotic and what might be done about it. What's the cure?

In writing The Slavery of Death I came upon what I think is the best answer to that question.

What is the cure of neurosis?

Joy.

As I ponder the list above I have a hard time seeing a joyful person wrapped up in any of that stuff. Joy, it seems to me, is the antidote to neurosis.

It's hard to be joyful and neurotic at the same time.

And so here, at the start of the Advent season, I'm struck by the message of the angels.

"I bring you good news of great joy."

Christianity is a religion that was founded upon joy. And over the course of 2,000 years I think we've often forgotten that.

May we, this Advent season, remember and reclaim the joy.

Search Term Friday: Summer and Winter Christians

I get a lot of search terms coming to the blog searching for "summer and winter Christians."

The labels Summer and Winter Christian originated with Martin Marty's book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. Many years ago my ACU colleague Darryl Tippins introduced me to Marty's distinctions between a "winter" and "summer" spirituality. In my research I've spent a lot time trying to precisely unpack the distinctions between and the dynamics that characterize these two spiritualities.

Much of that work is summarized in Chapter 6 of my book The Authenticity of Faith, a chapter entitled "Sick Souls, Winter Christians and Saints of Darkness."

The heart of my analysis regarding Summer and Winter Christians begins by comparing what I call the polar versus circumplex models of faith and complaint.

Many Christian communities and believers implicitly or explicitly work with a bipolar model when it comes to relating complaint to faith. Complaint toward God involves experiences of lament, protest, disappointment, frustration, anger, and doubt toward/about God. According to the polar model these experiences and expressions of complaint are symptomatic of faith problems, and are thus the polar opposite of faith. According to this model, then, strong faith should be characterized by a lack of complaint. No lament. No protest. No doubt.

In short, the polar model suggests that faith and complaint are antithetical impulses.

In contrast to the polar model, a great deal of theological and psychological literature (which I describe in The Authenticity of Faith) suggests that the relationship between communion/engagement with God and compliant may be circumplex, not as polar opposites but as two dimensions existing at right angles.

This model suggests that communion/engagement with God and complaint can co-exist.

Faith, in short, can be a complex mixture of communion and compliant with God.

Now, if you read the bible (e.g., the Psalms) this observation should be obvious, but many Christians struggle with this idea because they are tacitly working with the polar model of faith. Which is why setting the two models visually side by side can be helpful and therapeutic for many Christians. They can begin to see what is going on:


Again, many churches and Christians are explicitly or implicitly working with the polar model of faith, viewing any complaint toward God as a failure of faith, as a faith problem.

The value of the circumplex model is that it allows us to view complaint as a legitimate expression of faith, as an experience that co-exists with faith, what might called the "winter experience of faith."

With the circumplex model in hand the Summer versus Winter experiences of faith can be contrasted as two different quadrants in the model:


As you can see in the top two quadrants, the distinction between Summer and Winter Christians is not a distinction between those who possess versus those who lack faith. Rather, the distinction between the Summer and Winter Christian is the degree to which complaint, lament or doubt intermingles with faith, communion and engagement with God. 

Finally, we can think of these quadrants as being either episodic experiences or as spiritual temperaments. When I speak of "Summer Christians" or "Winter Christians" I'm speaking about spiritual temperaments or dispositions, people who tend to spend most if not all of their spiritual lives in a particular sector of the circumplex.

But these sectors can map episodic experiences as well. For example, a Summer Christian going through a season of lament or doubt could be described as "Summer Christian" who is going through a "winter Christian experience."

Count Your Blessings

In 2003 psychologists Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough did a ground-breaking study on gratitude. At the heart of the study was asking a group of participants in the "gratitude condition" to "count their blessings" each day for 21 days.

Their instructions were these:
There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.
Some of the things the participants wrote during the study were “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “to God for giving me determination,” “for wonderful parents,” and “to the Lord for just another day."

Overall, after 21 days of the cheapest therapy you'll ever find--simply counting your blessings each day--the research found this:
We found that random assignment to the gratitude condition resulted in greater levels of positive affect, more sleep, better sleep quality, and greater optimism and a sense of connectedness to others.
Hope you get a chance to count your blessings today.

(You can read more about this study and about the science and psychology of gratitude in Robert Emmons' book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.)