Monday, December 27, 2010

"God With Us" Is Not Just for Christmastime

In Matthew’s Gospel the joy of the birth of Jesus is overshadowed and sent fleeing with the holy family’s flight into Egypt and the loud cries of lamentation from the parents of the children slaughtered in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16–18).

Life is filled with interruptions of tragedy and tumult. The abundant life made available to us in Christ does not provide immunity against the discomfort and distresses of life. Any version of Christian faith that downplays suffering or attributes it to God’s displeasure needs to reinvent itself.

The intricacies of the interplay between divine power, divine goodness, and human freedom will always be a mystery. Jesus believed that God loves the creation and is creatively engaged in its healing and redemption. Jesus taught that God knows the number of hairs on our heads, which is to say that God takes special interest in each one of us. Even the minor players of creation, according to Jesus, do not escape God’s attention, for God observes a little sparrow when it falls to the ground. Jesus’ faith was firmly grounded in the goodness of God. He was convinced that God is “with” and “for” the creation.

God’s care for the creation, however, does not prevent bad things from happening that are the opposite of God’s good will. We live in an open universe. God has bestowed upon and built into creation the element of freedom. This freedom is essential to the biological, evolutionary processes of life. God does not (or perhaps cannot given the nature of reality) intervene to stop hurricanes and floods, nor does God alter the processes of life so that children are born free of mental disabilities and physical handicaps. This holds true in the moral life as well. We are granted the freedom to do good or evil, to harm or heal, to destroy or save life. The Herods of the world exercise their freedom to dispose of any person or group that threatens their position and power.

Freedom, then, is at the core of evolutionary life and moral existence. It is, of course, influenced and limited by many factors: genetics, time and place, circumstances of birth, education, the entire socialization process, and numerous factors beyond our control. Cancer strikes randomly, as do terrorists exercising their God–given freedom.

God does not (or cannot) override this freedom. God does not intervene to stop holocausts, genocides, tragic accidents, and random natural disasters. There are powerful forces of evil at work against God’s will: egotism, classism, racism, nationalism, militarism, and narcissism. The powers of greed, hate, and selfish ambition are strong in our world and they reside in some degree in every human soul.

Does this adequately explain why God does not or cannot intervene to stop monstrous evil in the world? Not really. The biblical writers offer no solutions, and the great thinkers—the theologians and philosophers—continue to debate issues of theodicy.

For some people of faith it is enough to know that God absorbs into God’s self the world’s anguish; that God participates in and is influenced by our misery and travail. God is “Emmanuel,”—God with us. God cannot stop tragedies from happening and people from dying, but God walks with us, sharing our struggles and pain.

God is not a spectator in our suffering, but rather, an active participant in the ebb and flow of both the good and bad in our lives. Our experience, rapturously joyful or horrendously painful, or anywhere in between, becomes part of God’s experience.

An artist was painting a bleak picture of a winter storm sweeping across the countryside. Over in the corner was a cabin that looked dead and hopeless. But with one small stroke, the painter dramatically changed the mood of the picture. He took the tip of his brush, dipped it in gold paint, touched one window of the cabin, and the golden glow from that cabin transformed the picture from one of coldness and gloom to one of warmth and welcome.

No matter how dark the night or how fierce the storm, the warm glow of “God with us” shimmers in our hearts. And that is sufficient, that is enough to get us through.

(The following reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light, published by Wifp and Stock Publishers. Click on picture to order.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Shimmers of Love

Willa Cather's Christmas story, The Burglar's Christmas, portrays a young man named William, who had moved away from his family back east and was now in Chicago. Impoverished, he breaks into a house on Christmas Eve to steal some food. He discovers that he has burglarized the house of his parents who had moved to Chicago. His mother catches him while stealing, and he confesses everything.

In so many words she begs him to stay, “Tonight you have come back to me, just as you always did after you ran away to swim in the river that was forbidden you, the river you loved because it was forbidden . . . I never asked you where you had been then, nor will I now. You have come back to me, that’s all in all to me.”

He looks up at her questioningly and says, “I wonder if you know how much you pardon?” She responds, “O, my poor boy, much or little, what does it matter? Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it only loves, and loves—and loves?”

The God who has come to us in Christ, “only loves, and loves—and loves.” God is continually at work in non-coercive, creative ways, revealing to us the width and depth of unconditional divine love.

Jesus, empowered by divine love, challenged the powers that be and stood in solidarity with the poor, oppressed, marginalized, and excluded, confronting the gatekeepers of conventional religion and the powerbrokers of the social order. Courageously, he preached, taught, and lived the kingdom of God, and the kingdoms of the world were offended and outraged. In our discipleship to Jesus we are called to love like him.

God’s love is the energy of the universe. When this energy pulsates through our thoughts, attitudes, and actions, and vibrates through our conversation and conduct, then our spirits are electrified with the joy, mystery, wonder, and sheer gift of life. As we become conductors through whom God’s love flows, we become God’s gift to others who need fresh experiences of God’s grace and goodness. As the current of divine love arcs outward into the lives of the people we touch, we serve as mediators of the light and radiance of the divine presence.

I read somewhere that during the filming of The Misfits, Arthur Miller, who was married to Marilyn Monroe, watched his wife descend into the depths of depression and despair. He feared for her life as he observed their growing estrangement, her paranoia, and her dependence on barbiturates. One evening while she was sleeping, after a doctor had been persuaded to give her yet another shot, Miller stood over her. Commenting on that moment he said, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she was to wake and I was able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she was able to believe it! How I wished I still had my religion and she hers.”

Can we really believe this? Can we believe that God loves us each one with an unconditional love that drives out all fear; a love that will never give up on us and never let us go? What a difference it would make if we could. When we are confident that we are forever God’s beloved children, then we are empowered to love God’s creation and one another with the unconditional love of God.

(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season, available at wipfandstock.com. Click on picture at right for more information or to order).

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Way of Peace

What are your first thoughts when asked to reflect on the word “peace”? You might think of a feeling of ease or comfort. The popular country rock group, the Eagles, had a hit song that echoed the heart’s longing for a “peaceful, easy feeling.” As you anticipate family gatherings this season one of your Christmas wishes may be: “I hope we have a peaceful time with family this year.” Invariably, there is always someone in the family who knows what hot buttons to push to get uncle or aunt so-and-so on his or her soapbox. Or you might think of a pastoral scene, like the one reflected in Psalm 23, “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters.” You might think in negative terms, such as the absence of strife or conflict. The biblical meaning is much broader and deeper.

In the Greek world, “peace” was often employed to describe an inner state of well-being, whereas in the Hebrew tradition, the word was used primarily for interpersonal or social relations, coming very close to meaning “justice.” Both of these perspectives are found in the New Testament, and though a particular context may emphasize one or the other, neither meaning should exclude the other.

In a Peanuts cartoon Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “I hate everything. I hate everybody. I hate the whole wide world.” Charlie Brown responds, “But I thought you had inner peace.” Lucy replies, “I do have peace. But I still have outer obnoxiousness.” Whatever Lucy may have, it is not spiritual peace. In the biblical tradition, inner peace goes hand-in-hand with relational and communal wholeness.

In the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel, an angel announces the birth to lowly shepherds who were caring for their flock by night, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10–12). Then suddenly a multitude of the heavenly host joins in, “Glory to God on high, and on earth peace among all humankind, on whom God’s favor rests!” (Luke 2:14, my translation)

In the Roman Empire, it was customary for poets and orators to proclaim peace and prosperity at the birth of one who was destined to become emperor. Following that familiar pattern, the angelic messenger announces the birth of Christ, the Lord, who is destined to be the Savior of Israel and the world. The irony is that Israel’s Messiah is Rome’s Savior as well.

Luke begins the actual birth story by setting it in the historical context of Emperor Augustus. Caesar Augustus was heralded as the greatest of the emperors. He was born Octavian and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Following his father’s assassination a great civil war tore Rome asunder, wrecking havoc on the empire until Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE at the Battle of Actium. He then assumed the position of emperor and became known as Augustus, the Divine (the imperial myth had him being conceived by the gods). Augustus ushered Rome into a great era of peace and stability. He was proclaimed throughout the land—on coins, inscriptions, and temples—as “Son of God,” “Savior of the world,” “Lord of the whole world,” and “God made manifest,” among other titles.

Undoubtedly, Luke is drawing a contrast between the one he believed would occupy the throne of David (1:32), and the one who brought peace to Rome. The peace ushered in by Augustus was a temporary peace, enforced and supported by imperial might that violently subdued all opposition. It was a kingdom maintained by violent power, exercised by the powerful.

How different is the kingdom of the Christ child! He was born, not in pomp and pageantry, but in a humble peasant’s house among the animals. He did not walk among royalty in palace halls, but among the poor, oppressed, diseased, and demonized in the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea. Lowly Jewish shepherds, often despised among their own people, came to honor him, for to them and their kind he had come, bringing hope of a new world where the power of love would take the place of violent force. He did not wield sword or spear and he admonished his followers to love and pray for their enemies. He taught his disciples a nonviolent strategy for asserting their humanity and dignity as children of God under the crushing hands of imperial force. He pronounced blessing on peacemakers, judgment on warmongers, and he challenged all security systems rooted in wealth and control. He is a different kind of king, the viceroy of God’s peaceable kingdom, and he manifested in his life, words, and deeds the character of a forgiven, healed, and restored world.

Many contemporary Christians seem to favor the kingdom of Augustus over the kingdom of the Christ they profess to follow, by supporting a war policy that responds to violence with violence. Jesus told his disciples to put their swords away and when he stood before Pilate, the representative of imperial might, Jesus said that his kingdom was of a different nature altogether. Jesus and those who would follow him dance to the beat of a different drummer—Pa rum pum pum pum.

(The preceding reflections were adapted from my book, Shimmers of Light: Spiritual Reflections for the Christmas Season, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers (wipfandstock.com). Click on book picture at right for more information.)