Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year? We'll see about that.

Not being a big New Year's Eve partier, I'm at home for the evening, contemplating the year to come and the greeting typically exchanged on this evening.

Happy New Year?  In the United States it's going to be an election year, so probably not; at least the first ten-plus months promise to be quite unpleasant.  And to top it off, it's a leap year too, so there's an extra day of that joy.  In short, you're probably going to have to work to make it happy.

It's also an Olympic year, which makes some people happy.

For me, it promises to be equal measures of blissful enlightenment and outright befuddlement.  The exclamation "Oh, good Lord" may well be agonized or ecstatic, which I guess is a normal year.  I've been here just enough to know that I really don't know what's coming, and that's probably a good thing.  As long as the befuddlement does not too much outweigh the enlightenment, I guess I'm doing all right.

So, for all seven of you who read this blog, Happy New Year, wherever you are.

Friday, December 30, 2011


If you had told me five years ago that by now I'd be on Facebook, text regularly (if almost exclusively to my wife), and have a blog, I'd have first looked at you with a blank expression because I'm not completely sure I knew what any of those things were five years ago.  Once those things were explained to me I'd most likely have stared at you as if you'd suddenly sprouted alien tentacles from your nose.  Things do change, do they not?

I'm forty-six years old.  Not desperately old by any means (and not even that old to be on the fool's errand I'm on--I'm far from the oldest student here), but there's a good chance my life is more than half over, which is a jarring thought sometimes.  (For the record, I was born in February 1965, which if I have things right technically leaves me two months shy of being a baby boomer.  So there.)

In my teaching career I went from looking at classroom technology as mostly an opportunity for something to malfunction to being a regular user of PowerPoint for lectures (and sometimes I was even able to embed links in it!  Woohoo!) and able to use Blackboard to some degree, though probably not to the fullest extent that academic administrators probably hope.  I couldn't have taught popular music without YouTube, another thing I might not have understood five years ago.  (On the other hand, to the very end I was using long-playing records in class as well.  When you're into American music, not everything has migrated to mp3 yet.)

All of which is to say that while I'm not a complete technology failure, I'm probably a good five to ten years behind the curve most of the time, and that is probably a charitable estimate.  I'm not on Twitter, and a truly cutting-edge reader could probably rattle off maybe as many as a dozen technological innovations I haven't mentioned and conclude that I am hopelessly lame, which is probably true.

This is of course a challenge no matter what vocation one pursues, but it is a challenge of particular angst these days in ministerial circles, as the question of technological competency is inevitably linked to the latest missing generation in the church, the one born with iPhones attached to their index fingers at birth (or is an iPhone too hopelessly out of date?  I'm never sure).  The lamenting and angst and hand-wringing comes in several forms.

My current seminary in fact hosts a conference, every fall I believe, on this subject of technology and the church.  Of course, as any academic (professor or student) can tell you, hosting such a conference during the academic year can actually be the least beneficial thing for students on that campus because, well, they have classes at the time, and professors are loath to give up that precious time slot (a problem with which I have sympathy, as one who always felt I was skipping something essential every semester even without such class losses), so the student either misses class or misses the conference -- and since these conferences typically have registration costs involved you can guess which choice the student will make.

One of the conference speakers, though, did give a presentation to students before the gig began, which touched somewhat on the use of technology in the church and its life, though it often got sidetracked onto unrelated stuff.  This presenter is also involved in an "online worship" experience which I actually watched before the presentation.  Definitions of worship are touchy, difficult, and a good way to start a fight, I know this.  My impression of the program I saw, I have to say, was more of a really good talk show interrupted by music and DIY communion.  I guess some people find it worshipful.

This week I've been unable to go online without getting besieged by more rumination about technology and the church.  It comes in waves, I guess.  Adam Copeland, an inevitable moderator of PC(USA) unless he decides to remain among the Lutherans, offered up this thoughtful blog post on the subject, with particular attention to how a pastor or church might be tuned in to how a different generation's use of technology might influence worship in particular, right down to the tweeting of responses to the sermon in real time.  (An aside: our campus actually saw an experiment in this for one of our chapel services this fall, with tweets from the congregation actually being posted on-screen during the service.  I wish I could offer more comment on this, but the presentation software being used -- Prezi, I think? -- did so much swooping from one screen to another that I ended up with about a two-hour attach of mild vertigo, an issue for me dating back to 1993.  So I try not to think too much about that day; it just makes me dizzy.)  

Adam is quite good at asking questions, which is a good thing.  Certainly some flexibility may be in order, and I do believe that there are or have been traditions which included a time for responses to or questions about the sermon immediately after it was over, even without technology added.  I also have an initial concern about loading too many things into the hour, or forty-five or ninety minutes or whatever that a church devotes to formal (i.e. designated) worship.  Schoolteachers over the past decades might relate to how many functions got assigned to the classroom -- needful things, but not necessarily educationally oriented; even state-mandated standardized tests might fall into this category -- that the time for teaching and learning inevitably was damaged to some degree.  I'd hate to see that become a problem in worship, or to be precise more of a problem.  

Let's face it, there are already enough challenges that get loaded into worship, demands that really have nothing to do with worship per se -- positive reaffirmation, patriotic display, cultural conformity, musical "performance", clucking and oo-ing at how cute the kids are -- that it can be tough enough to get any kind of focus on the word and sacrament as it is.  To the degree that flexing our technology muscles becomes merely another distraction it is something to lament; to the degree that it becomes a source of division, even worse.  But I have no answers here, and I'm still trying to work out the questions I do have.

Another FB friend linked to this article from The Christian Century's "Tribal Church" blog section.  This post by Carol Howard Merritt is not strictly about technology itself, but in addressing the "generational roadblocks" of its title speaks to or alludes to technological issues that may -- quite unintentionally -- be hindrances to the more technologically savvy (I'd simply argue that this doesn't strictly have to be a "generational" roadblock; anyone of any age who knows their technology can be put off by how primitive some churches are about it).  

Some of these problems are really so trivial that we should be ashamed of letting them be roadblocks.  To cite only one example: why in the world, indeed, should it be a problem for someone to be in on a committee meeting via Skype?  Heck, I've had master's students who did their oral exams by Skype.  And again this might not be merely a generation issue; imagine the parent with kids who can't find a babysitter for Tuesday nights, otherwise they'd love to be on the (insert name here) committee.  If they have to get up and chase down their toddler before the cat gets flushed down the toilet, no harm done (except possibly to cat and toddler).  Heck, is there a good reason the whole committee can't meet by Skype sometimes?

From another corner came this "Tech Lament" on the "Daily Episcopalian" site, by a vicar named Ann Fontaine.  Fontaine finds herself despairing at an article (linked in her blog entry) observing that a major company has announced plans to go "zero email" within three years, shifting its working collaboration and communication focus to messaging and social network platforms.  I had to agree; thinking of email as outmoded and potentially obsolete was a bit of a jolt, and made me feel older than I usually feel.  But then, as I thought more about it, I had to admit that I really don't use email nearly as much as I used to.  I still get information from the seminary and from some professors that way (though some use Blackboard for information, assignments sometimes get returned by email), and I get plenty of more commercial email (from outright advertisements to newspaper headline emails and such), I don't really send a lot of emails.  

Herein lies a caution, methinks: the technology we so avidly embrace now becomes obsolete sooner than we think.  Not unlike a "contemporary" worship service that suddenly finds itself thirty years out of date, the church Facebook page or blog we prize now may become a white elephant before we know it.  It isn't merely a matter of catching up, but keeping up that becomes the tremendous hurdle -- or series of hurdles -- faced by the church that would be techno-savvy.  

Whatever all of these may portend, I (as usual) find myself thinking in another direction.  Strange as it seem, I'd be the last person to deny the usefulness of these social technologies for more than just funny cat pictures.  The genesis of this whole fool's errand owes much to being able to talk not only to real live people in the flesh, but also real live people whom I could only contact on Facebook, to ask questions ranging from the utter foolishness of walking away from a perfectly good life to do this, to specifics about the seminaries they attended and their virtues.  These are resources I wouldn't have had or known about five years ago, if this vocational nudge had happened then.  So far be it from me to dismiss social technology's potential altogether.

I would like to do one reversal of direction, though, if I may.  Where Adam Copeland's blog above wondered about what technology may bring into worship, I wonder if these social technologies may help us take more out of worship than we've done before.

For example: most churches nowadays have some means of posting each week's sermons online, whether by streaming media of some ilk or simple posting of the text.  How many of these might be enhanced with something as simple as a "comments" function as a means of continuing the discussion beyond the bounds of Sunday morning?  Many pastors I know do post their sermons to their own individual blogs, and I'm sure there must be some churches where sermons are posted with some sort of response capacity, though I'm less aware of these.

And by no means does this need to be limited to the sermon; what about a comment on why a particular hymn was chosen, or what the week's anthem adds to the service?  Or about the missional doings of the church and their relationship to worship?  Or the educational ministries?  If these social technologies offer the opportunity to tie the whole of worship together, to knit it more thoroughly into the life of the community of faith and beyond, and perhaps even to get people who may not ordinarily show for worship curious enough to want to come and see what all the fuss is about... well, this is something I can thoroughly get behind.

Unless I'm misreading things, one thing that the tech-savvy seeker is looking for is transparency -- to be able to question without fear, to know why things are instead of merely knowing that they are, not to be cudgeled by authority for not being certain or for (horrors!) disagreeing.  This is in fact a good thing, as long as the transparency goes both ways, and some genuine hard soul-searching will not be blown off as mere authoritarian posturing.  I don't think the minister needs to be the Wizard of Oz busily pulling levers and pushing buttons while hidden behind the great curtain; sometimes the best thing to do is open up the process and be able to show and say why we do what we do; why we believe what we believe, why we actually insist on something so off-putting as confessing our sins, why the Eucharist is too important to be restricted to a monthly observance, maybe even why an organ is a good thing for a church to have.  But again, this has to go both ways; if questions are going to be asked, answers have to be heard and listened to with the same seriousness and openness.

This is hard, time-consuming work to be sure.  I've consumed a rather large chunk of morning and early afternoon just writing this blog post, and this after several days of thought on it.  But if this kind of opening and connecting can be part of what social technologies can be in the life of the church, then by all means let's get on it.

I'd even be willing to learn how to do Twitter.  If it doesn't become obsolete first.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A quickie: What if the church really DID 'Twelve Days of Christmas'?

I am guessing that for many (at least in the Eastern time zone of the US), Christmas Day celebrations are either winding down or wound down quite a few hours ago, and the evening is turning into just another ordinary evening.  Here at the headquarters of the Fool's Errand, turkey has been consumed, dishes are in the process of being cleaned, presents were opened long ago, and if anything remains to mark the day it might be pulling out the DVD of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" for viewing.  Then, for all practical purposes, Christmas will be "over" for 2011.

But what if that weren't so?  What if the church actually took its liturgical calendar seriously and continued to "be Christmas" until Epiphany?  Things would have to change, yes?  The typical one-day blowout wouldn't be sustainable over twelve days; we'd have to pace ourselves.  At the same time, opening up the full twelve days as a way to observe Christmas would be about as countercultural as you can get; when the secular world starts observing "Christmas" the day after Thanksgiving and ends at about noon on December 25, and the body of Christ is just getting started, unfolding the whole story of Christmas (massacres of children, strange prophecies in the Temple, all that), well, that's a witness.

Maybe I'm just feeling jealous of my Jewish friends for whom Hanukkah is a multi-night observance.  Or maybe I'm finding a certain level of dissatisfaction with The Way Things Are.  But for now, I can't help but wonder if this is the time to slow down and consider making Christmas a real live liturgical season in deed as well as word.

No answers here, just some things to chew on.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve, "Christmas Eve," and Getting Totally Gobsmacked By Grace

For a brief while we are in an activity lull.  With my wife's parents in town, we took them around to see a few of the sights of Richmond today, including St. John's Church, where Patrick Henry gave his "give me liberty or give me death" speech back in 1775.  The afternoon is fading, but the Christmas Eve service we will attend this evening is not until 9:00 p.m., so there is a small amount of down time suitable for thinking.

It is Christmas Eve.  Somewhere on the planet, the sweep of "midnight masses" and other late-evening observances of the transition from Eve to Day has already started.  Other bloggers have already covered the degree to which many of these services or observances will, in my evolving view, "get it wrong"; the softening and hypersentimentalizing of the Nativity, with creepily silent baby and odorless barnyard animals.  (I am again reminded of Iona community's John Bell and his reaction to the verse of "Away in a Manger" that declares, "But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes": "Why not?  What's wrong with him?") The whole thing gets "tamed," made much more domestic and acceptable to comfortable modern listeners who have busily been ignoring the prophets of Advent, with their insistence on a world undone.
And yet for all of that taming and softening and weakening, that spark is still there; not quite yet has the ember of Incarnation, that thing which makes this whole feast day worth bothering with, completely been extinguished.

Without getting into too much theological deep water or rehashing theological controversies stretching back nearly two millenia, I will simply acknowledge that the whole Christmas event draws its power from the notion that the baby born on that night ages ago was not merely a baby of solely human significance.  Whether one holds that God Godself was present in that child from birth (or earlier) or not, it remains that this child will be the extraordinary God-With-Us, Son of God, whatever term you choose to use.  God Incarnate, God enfleshed.  Presumably squawling like any newborn who ends up being put down for sleep in a manger instead of something more bed-like, with swaddling bands wrapped around as the only protection from the cold, who-knows-what smells wafting all around.

What then are we to do with this Incarnation, this "Word became flesh" as described in John 1?  Or what does it do in us?  Friedrich Schleiermacher published a curious little book (treatise? novella?), Christmas Eve: Dialogue on the Incarnation, in which he seems to suggest that the most natural, most right response to the Incarnation is joy.  And if we have known that joy, the joy that comes of knowing God-With-Us really is with us, we live with one another in joy.  We share joy and give grace to one another.  We don't necessarily agree, we certainly don't all behave or believe the same way, but we share the joy of God being among us and showing us how to love one another by how God loved us.  (John comes back to that thought a few times in his gospel, and even the first epistle of John reiterates that point as well.)

While I'm still working my way through Schleiermacher's little tome (yes, I deliberately checked it out to read over and around Christmas Eve because, well, that's how my mind works), I am already haunted by its opening.  The assembled guests await the hostess, Ernestine, and her permission to enter the main room and begin the giving and receiving of gifts.  They are, not surprisingly, a tad impatient, but Ernestine has held them at bay, striving to set everything just so and to provide the utmost welcome and hospitality she can.  At last the doors are opened and the guests enter; when they do, however, instead of rushing in and grasping the gifts, they are in fact overwhelmed by what Ernestine has done; the arrangement of the gifts, the decorations, the lights, all is so right, so warm, so welcoming, and done with such taste and feeling (this is an early nineteenth-century German work, after all, so feeling is going to be a major concern) that the guests are drawn away instead to shower their hostess with embraces and gratitude.  In that simple unexpected moment of receiving Ernestine's labor of love, the guests are ministered with grace and given a moment, just the tiniest taste, the barest hint of the joy of the Incarnation shared by one (probably without realizing it as such) with all.  Indeed Schleiermacher's primary aim in Christmas Eve seems to be to show, rather than describe, what it means to be the body of Christ, bound together by this Incarnation joy and the love that flows from it.

It can hit you when you least expect it.  Even as I was reading Christmas Eve on Christmas Eve Eve, I found myself getting gobsmacked by a similar unexpected ministering of grace.  A gift, with contributions apparently coming from about eleven different sources (some of whom I literally have not seen since my high-school graduation night--talk about the incarnational power of Facebook!) through a couple of devious ringleaders, leaving me more floored and tongue-tied than I can remember being since...I can't even guess how long.  And yet, there it was, reminding me that more people care about this fool's errand than I can even guess (though I wouldn't presume that my becoming a Presbyterian minister--excuse me, teaching elder--is all that impressive to all of them, by any means), and that I'm a lot less cut off than I fancy myself to be sometimes.

Maybe your experience of this is different.  Sometimes it might look like something else, I suppose, only to be realized in retrospect.  Still, those unpredictable and unearned moments reward like few things can, in some cases all out of proportion to the size of the gesture and quite without regard to dollar signs.

Christmas Eve draws on.  The joy of the Incarnation awaits.  A blessed and joyous Feast of the Nativity to you all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Jock Theology 101

The cliches are too numerous to count.  We'll go with the one that has a lot of currency where I came from: Football ain't a religion.  It's way more important than that.  And football (mostly college in the case of that quote) is hardly the only sport with its own "liturgies" and "creeds," so to speak.
Of late the news in Jock Theology 101 has been dominated by a certain quarterback playing more like a running back for the Denver Broncos.  [NOTE: since I believe in full disclosure, I will freely admit that I will never be inclined to give Tim Tebow a break, because he is a F'ing Gator.  Even if I have totally renounced all football on the (F)BS level until the B(C)S lies in a smoldering, decrepit ruin and they've either figured out a legitimate and fair way to come up with a so-called National Champion or quit pretending they're going to try, GatorHate is going to remain strong in my veins, like it does for any graduate of Florida State University.  So there.]  Tim Tebow has, all the way back to his F'ing Gator days and presumably even further, been a rather loud and public voice for a particular strain of evangelicalism, and has managed to cheese off a lot of people in the process.  He's also managed to cheese off a lot of NFL types by being a part of several wins for the Broncos despite being a really poor passer, though his latest few games do seem to be picking up in passing quality.  There's been a Tebow backlash, then a backlash against the Tebow backlash, and maybe now a backlash against both backlashes.  Quite the polarizing guy.
Mind you, there are several different outlets through one might make theological criticism of Tebow, but I'm going to stick with one (I really don't have that much time to write this blog entry after all).  By his words and behavior both present and past, Tebow seems to give the impression that God actually cares who wins athletic contests.
Perhaps God had a rooting interest in David vs. Goliath.  Otherwise, I can't find a shred of evidence in either testament, particularly in how the gospels present Jesus Christ to us, that this is at all a justifiable belief.  Even when Paul starts using running metaphors, he only wants to exhort his readers to finish the race (2 Timothy 4:7); he doesn't say anything about winning it.
While it might be amusing to accuse Tim Tebow of being a closet Pelagian, I really don't feel compelled to do much more than to link you, my two or three readers, to this fanciful Rick Reilly column from his days at Sports Illustrated.  It happens briefly, towards the end of the column (you might have to go to page two), but it's about as effetive a refutation of the notion that God is going to play "us vs. them" games with our games just because we do so.  While I'm always scared of putting words in God's mouth, even in a literary sense, I can't really argue with how Reilly shoots down that particular jock theology, after Christ has picked up a save for the Cincinnati Reds: "And please stop praying for wins. Put yourself in my position. If your kids were playing each other, who would you root for?" Hate to disappoint, but those folks on the other side of the line are your brothers, Mr. Tebow, if you're really serious about this Jesus business.
But in truth, my attention has been distracted from Tebow by a new entrant into Jock Theology 101: Albert Pujols, who seems to be enrolled in the class with his wife.  Pujols has never been quite so vocal and exhibitive about his religious faith, but has (let's be fair here) done a heck of a lot of funding and supporting a lot charitable and religious activities in the area.  The impulse is to appreciate Pujols's wilingness to "walk the walk" instead of putting that much energy into "talking the talk."  One could even argue that this is how it should be done, if you believe things like the Semon on the Mount (Mt. 6:1-6 in particular--you read that one, Tebow?).  
Nonetheless, after taking 254 gartanguo-gazillion dollars to swap uniforms for the next ten years from St. Louis Cardinals red to Anaheim Angels red, the family Pujols was apparently surprised that St. Louisians, the oft-proclaimed "greatest fans in baseball," weren't all sweetness and light about his impending departure, freshly-won World Series notwithstanding.  Pujols's wife Diedre apparently took their case to a radio station in St. Louis (not your usual sports-talk station, but a Christian station that had apparently once been partly funded by Pujols).  
Presuming that Diedre has not gone rogue, one learns very quickly that for all his good works and apparent sincerity of belief, Pujols may well be getting tripped up on a strange little belief to try to fit into a viably faithful way of looking at the world:  Dollars = Respect.  Or maybe it's Length of Contract = Respect.  Apparently an initial offer of a five-year contract for $130,000,000 (or about $26,000,000 a season) was insulting.  (Keep in mind that Pujols is 31 years old; not bad right now, but the end of that contract has the potential to be ugly for the Angels.)  Eventually the Cardinals offered ten years and something like $210,000,000, but by then the apparently wounded Pujols was ready to bolt for the big bucks and bright lights of southern California.  Diedre Pujols does a little bit of lashing out a fans and a lot of defending Albert, but unless I'm missing something that seems to be the gist of it.
Again, I'm straining to see how that formula works.  Maybe Pujols has major faith-based plans for all that moolah, I don't know.  But I gotta say I can't make the whole Dollars = Respect fit with anything I've ever known or learned about Jesus Christ.  "The laborer is worthy of his hire" and all that, but jeez louise, $26M/year seems a plenty worthy hire for a guy who plays a game.
I have got to admit that right now is one of those times I'm pretty happy not to have children.  I can't imagine trying to explain how Tebow and Pujols and their public deeds would fit with the things we'd have been trying to teach them all of their lives.  Oh well.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A rerun of sorts: what Christmas is all about

About a year ago I was feeling frustration over what at the time seemed to me a boomlet of blogs and other sources that appeared to advocate jumping the gun and questioning the value of the season of Advent in the liturgical life of the church.  The lectionary readings for the third Sunday of Advent last season prompted in me a response and, I suppose, a defense of Advent (not that it requires a defense from the likes of me).  Since I wasn't blogging at the time, or at least hadn't admitted to blogging at the time, it got recorded as a Facebook note.  
I would not call it a sermon, yet; I'm sure I'd be required to exegete things differently now, and probably scolded for combining scripture passages and such.  Nonetheless, it still expresses some things I find important and valuable, and if perhaps it is of worth to anyone else, make of it what you will.
(Again, remember that the scriptures are last year's, not this year's.)

             I have long been a fan of Charlie Brown.  Even as a child, I “got” him.  I could understand where his perpetual frustration with the world and its inhabitants came from, because I felt it often myself. 
            My favorite of all Charlie Brown/Peanuts stories was, no surprise, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”  Even today I’m willing to hold that the existence of that show itself single-handedly justifies the existence of television.  For one, I’ve always liked the music, even before I knew anything about Vince Guaraldi or how unusual it was to use jazz as an accompaniment to an animated TV show.  But most of all, again, I “got” Charlie Brown’s frustration.  At the dramatic climax, when the tree he selects has been laughed and hooted down, and he finally lets out his exasperated exclamation “isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”, well, I could feel where he was coming from.  I knew what I heard at church, and I saw what went on “out in the world,” and they didn’t match.  So yes, I could see where he was coming from. 
            Of course in the TV show, the absurdly philosophical Linus, having quickly memorized his lines under threat of violence from Lucy, takes center stage and recites the Christmas narrative from Luke (you can’t do that on TV today, that’s for sure!), and everyone is properly chastised; after one small setback the tree is decorated and all ends well.  Warm fuzzies safely delivered, everyone can go home happy.
            When I read the scriptures offered by the lectionary for this Sunday, the third Sunday in this irritant called Advent, I wonder if Linus has gotten things slightly wrong.  (Irritant?  It seems to me that this year I hear and see, depending on the media used, more and more people, even those whom I’d never think, looking for a way to edge out of the waiting and watching of Advent a little early and get on to “Christmas” ahead of time.  Or maybe I’m imagining things.  Anyway, back to the main point.)  Yes, Linus has given us a good summary—the best possible summary, you could even say—of what Christmas is.  I’m not sure, though, if he—or we—necessarily get from that what Christmas is all about.
            The reading from Isaiah 35 points to a day and a world we probably don’t recognize.  It is a world turned upside down and inside out.  A world in which the desert is blossoming abundantly is not the usual world of the prophet.  Words like “wilderness,” “dry land,” “desert” . . . these are not places in the biblical landscape typically associated with rejoicing and blossoming.  But the prophet keeps driving the images home:
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (Isaiah 35: 6b-7)

            But there’s more; it isn’t only the wilderness being undone.  We are also promised sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, dancing for the lame, and speech to the mute; even the infirmities and disabilities that afflict the body are turned around.  But beyond physical malady, even more emphasized is something not associated with the wilderness, or the desert: safety.
            Through this undone wilderness the prophet sees a road, one promised only to God’s people.  No threats will be found there; no lions, no predators of any kind.  But this promise is ultimately capped by the image of the “ransomed of the Lord…joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  All this undoing and turning upside down has a point. 
            If the prophet promises an undoing, the words of the Magnificat are a virtual assault on The Way Things Are.  The words out of Mary’s mouth exhibit no ambiguity at all.  God looks with favor on the lowly servant.  The proud are scattered in the “thoughts” of their hearts (here, I sheepishly confess, I kinda miss the old language; “imaginations of their hearts.”  Somehow that seems to get at the falsity of what we conjure up to comfort ourselves all too often.  But I digress.)  The powerful are brought down, the lowly are lifted up.  The hungry are filled, the rich sent away without.  The reversal of the world’s ways cannot be more explicit. 
            [Even if one opts for the appointed psalm instead of the Magnificat, one finds no escape.  Even the psalmist proclaims the opening of blind eyes, food for the hungry and justice for the oppressed.]
            If there is still doubt, Jesus echoes the very words of the Isaiah reading in his message to a weary, worried, wounded John the Baptist, languishing in Herod’s prison.  One can hardly blame John for wondering.  After all those years in the wilderness (which was distinctly not blossoming and flowing with streams in his experience), it had seemed so certain.  Cousin Jesus, nondescript though he may have seemed, sure looked like he must have been the One, what with all those noises from heaven and things descending upon him. 
            But now, while Jesus was still preaching out in the countryside, John sat in Herod’s prison, a place people didn’t leave alive.  Is this how it ends?  Is Jesus really the One?  Have I wasted my life just to lose my head to this corrupt so-called king?  So he sends some of his disciples, maybe some of the very few left to him, and asks directly:  Are you the One?  Should I be looking for someone else?
            Jesus’s answer seems anything but direct, unless you remember your Isaiah.  Again, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear.  Plus as a bonus, lepers are cleansed and the dead are raised.  And then the last, cryptic comment:  “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11: 6).  Is that a jab?  Something only John the Baptist would understand?
            All of these witnesses proclaim in concert that the world as we know it is due for an undoing.  A world in which the poor and lowly continue to be oppressed and impoverished, in which the powerful continue to lord it over the powerless, in which the rich are filled to a point beyond gluttony and the hungry only get hungrier; this is not the world proclaimed in Isaiah, in the Magnificat, in the Gospel. 
            Is it a mistake to tie this world undone, turned upside down and inside out, to Christmas?  I don’t think so.  While it is no doubt tempting to sprint ahead to the babe in the manger, we do so at our peril. 
            For one thing, we risk failing to understand exactly what we’re embracing.  Even that babe in the manger makes no sense at all without the words from Isaiah, from the Magnificat, from Matthew.  Look at it this way: should Prince William and the princess-to-be Kate Middleton ever decide to produce an heir to the throne, where do you think that child will be born?  I believe we can be certain it won’t be at a feed trough in Yorkshire, not with all those palaces at their disposal.  That’s not how it’s done among those of high status (I hesitate to say “powerful” of the British royal family, but there is certainly still some status invested there if one judges from the tizzy over the engagement announcement).  Yet the One we call Messiah, Immanuel, Christ the King, was born in a nondescript setting in a nondescript town in a nondescript backwater of the Roman Empire.  Nowhere near Rome, the seat of earthly power.  Not in Jerusalem, the focus of spiritual authority.  This cannot make sense to us without the images and contrasts drawn by Isaiah, by Mary.  Even this babe is part of a world undone.  Herod in all his power could not stamp it out, though he tried, brutally.  The Roman Empire couldn’t comprehend it. 
            For another thing, we run the risk of finding ourselves—dare I say it?—on the wrong side of this world undone.  Very few of us think of ourselves as “rich,” or “powerful.”  We are most proficient at casting our eyes longingly at those with more than us: more money, more power, a better car, a bigger house, a hotter spouse, you name it.  But is it possible, just maybe, that we don’t always remember the poor, the hungry, the blind, the lame, the oppressed as being those blessed of God?  Are we too comfortable, too much at home in a world where the powerful just get more and more powerful, the rich get richer and richer, and the poor . . . well, the Bible itself says they’ll always be with us, right?  Are we too ready to accept that justice is a thing to be bought and sold, that the Golden Rule really does say “he who has the gold makes the rules,” and that the only way to cope with The Way Things Are is to play the game, grab as much gold and power as we can, and as for those less fortunate, well, tough luck, you obviously deserved it somehow? 
            If that way, The Way Things Are, has found so cozy and comfortable a home in us, then there’s a serious problem.  Isaiah’s blossoming wilderness, that desert with springs bursting forth, is forbidden to us.  We become the powerful who, Mary warns us, are brought down from our thrones and sent away empty.  If we’re at home with the way things are, then we have no part of God’s world undone. 
            And this, Isaiah and Mary and even Jesus tell us, is what Christmas is all about.  All the “Silent Night”s and “Away in a Manger”s are just noise if that babe in the manger doesn’t grow in us into the One Who undoes and throws down the powers and thrones we humans so adore.  Without taking time to hear the stern rebukes of the prophets, we risk turning Christmas into little more than a too-cute idolization of a highly sentimentalized children’s story, something too easily accommodated to The Way Things Are and, frankly, something far worse than the crass overcommercialized boondoggle so many of us vocally deplore.  That at least is a clearly false and sham “Christmas”; to trivialize the real thing, to try to take what Christmas is without the life-changing demands a true Christmas makes on us, is something like an abomination. 
            So then, if Isaiah and Mary and Jesus may be allowed to bump Linus from his spotlight, what then do we learn?  The desert blooms and flows with life-giving water.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  The lame walk, even leap (and dance too, I’ll bet).  God’s people walk in safety.  The lowly are exalted.  The poor hear good news.  The proud are scattered, the powerful dethroned, the rich denied.  And those who are not offended at this undoing Jesus are blessed.
            And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:47-54
Psalm 146:5-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The winding down: a status report

For anyone keeping track:

There's one week of classes left in this inaugural semester of my fool's errand.  After that comes exam week; with all my exams of the take-home variety this term, that's not quite as meaningful but still represents a lot of due dates.  The break between the fall term exams and the beginning of the January term is only a little more than two weeks.  Whew.  I'm going to be really happy when June arrives, as it is really the only extended break in the seminary calendar.  Yeah, I got spoiled on that academic calendar in the past.

After a massive blowing off of steam last night on the part of a good chunk of the UPSem community in the form of Calvin Ball (no, not Calvinball), the last push resumes.  I am reminded again that I am very happy to be among the people I am among.  My last exegesis paper is puttering along, with progress slow but not nonexistent, as I get tangled in the vines of John 15.

After a relatively quiet term I ended up with multiple chapel responsibilities in the last portion of the term, from simple reading of scripture to nagging and wheedling the seminary choir into a processional hymn with handbells (completely stolen from my vague memories of such a hymn as done at First Presbyterian in Tallahassee, I think), to, this week, singing a recitative in Bach's cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61.  The miracle is that I'm in a seminary choir that will sing a Bach cantata; if the experience comes with the misfortune of the world hearing me flail through Bach recitative, it's a small price to pay.  The rush of chapel experiences confirms some things I already knew; I can read reasonably well, and the biggest charge I get in some cases is actually being able to choose hymns for a service.

My wife and I have been singing in the choir at Ginter Park Presbyterian Church for the last few weeks, and will continue to do so through Advent.  It is an interesting experience, musically challenging as we hoped.  After that we will resume visiting other Presbyterian churches in the area, and possibly settle in at a church for the Lenten season when that arrives.  It's a strange way to attend church, but for now it strikes the balance between the need to experience a church community over time with the need to cultivate possible places to do an internship down the road.  Whether this will continue for the longer term I do not know.

We had a lovely Thanksgiving with my relations, and will spend Christmas here with my wife's.  That has become the pattern of our lives.  It is a workable compromise.

Miss Piggy is still with us.  She is one incredibly persistent dog, approaching eighteen and a half years old.  The cats continue to rule.  No one with cats is surprised by this statement.

No earth-shattering revelations or ponderous ruminations tonight.  A simple status report is all.  Useful, though, to remind myself of where I am, and that behold, it is good.