Monthly Archives: December 2014

Letter 15: Veni Emmanuel

f2def50dc61dee3d095d9cd167a283e9As with so many other things, the progression of this blog is interrupted by Christmas. The festive season sweeps all before its path, demanding that all pay it attention. Even those who do not celebrate it must account for it, if only to launch legal action to blocks others from imposing Christmas on them.

Nearly every year, I find myself frazzled and spent by this time. Too many activities, constant buying, and the even more difficult business of preparing my own wish list leave muttering with Scrooge that I will boil in his own pudding the next idiot who wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” and bury him with a spike of holly driven through his very heart. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

We have built up in our minds, I think, the image of the “perfect” Christmas. This is fed, in part, by depictions in the media, retailers, advertisers, and even the church. We must be surrounded by family. Everyone must be happy, and receive many appropriate gifts. We must celebrate with various social relations, co-workers, lodge members, fellow parishioners. We must be charitable, and if we do give, we become a magnet to every worthy cause, who seek further beneficence from us.

What have these things to do with Christmas?

Take family, for example. The Christmas story is remarkable for its lack of family. Contrast the birth of John the Baptist at the end of Luke 1 with the birth of Jesus that takes up most of Luke 2. John’s birth was a community event. God manages to scare up some shepherds for Jesus, in addition to whatever animals were present. Since Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David,” presumably, he knew somebody in Bethlehem, but he curiously seems to have made no effort to reach them, since they are not present. Worse, there is the possibility that he did tell them, and they refused to help him, given the suspicious circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. The first Christmas featured plenty of family disappointment.

Gifts? How retails love to hear the word. Images of wise men are summoned up, and for those more leery of such appeals, the reminder that Jesus is God’s gift to us. But the wise men come later on. Joseph has found a house to live in by then, and Jesus is several years old, since Herod will round up every child under five years of age. And the gifts are really an act of worship, recognizing, as they do various facets of Christ’s identity and mission. Myrrh, as John Hopkins points out in his carol, is used chiefly to embalm the dead, hardly a useful gift for a child. Gold, yes, but myrrh? The “first” Christmas featured less than useful or even tasteless gifts. Anyone want a prepaid funeral plan for Christmas?

The first Christmas was shabby and filthy. It smelled. When I was a child, my aunt and uncle kept a farm in Vermont, which we would visit every summer. We walked carefully through the barn, to avoid the “cow pies.” You would occasionally see either the horses or the cows peeing in their stalls. All of this surrounded the Christ child that night.

Indeed, the visions of joy and serenity fail to grapple with the undercurrent of fear and distress that permeate the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are all told, “Do not be afraid.” Then Joseph is told to flee in the middle of night to take the child out from the clutches of those who wish to kill him. Herod is positively terrified of the child. Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child will cause tumult everywhere, and closes with the ominous words, “A sword shall pierce your heart as well.” The wise men depart by another route. Fear and danger are everywhere. John captures this in Revelation 12. A monstrous red dragon awaits the coming Christ child. The streets of Bethlehem ran red with the blood of children.

Historically, the Church seems to have recognized the great tension inherent in Christmas, even without all of our modern pre-occupations. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Stephen, of course, was the first martyr. Two days later, the Western Church honors the Holy Innocents. Christ’s coming brings death, even His own. The celebration is tempered with sorrow.

For the past several years I have wrestled with how to best celebrate this season. I am haunted by a feeling of emptiness. The joy and excitement that I think I should be feeling are far from me. My efforts at producing the expected spirit have fallen flat.

So I go back to the stories of the first Christmas.

In re-reading them, I am impressed at the disruption and the disappointment. For all of the Jews waiting for Messiah to come, it is amazing that none of them are in attendance. This becomes a recurring theme of Jesus’ life. He is not the Messiah they are looking for. Jesus slips by unnoticed, not unlike today.

Do I miss Him?

I am coming to the conclusion that worship is the key to Christmas. The point of our celebration should be Christ, and honoring, and worshipping Him. Perhaps this is not such a digression from our considerations after all. Prepare for the Coming King, do him homage. I think you will that many of the things we usually do this time of year fall away.

Read the old story. Meditate on the words. Sit in the stillness. Appreciate the light and the darkness. Marvel with Mary, tremble with shepherds, worship with the wise men, weep with the mothers of Bethlehem, sing with the angels.

Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new-born King!

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Letter 14: For L, A Lament

I fear I must again interrupt my discussion of worship. My wife’s best friend lost her long battle with cancer just before Thanksgiving. She was 44, and leaves behind a husband and two children.

Since L was first diagnosed five years ago, we have been praying for her, that God would heal her of the cancer, and restore her to health. God answered otherwise. So we are left with questions.

Like you, I am familiar with God’s precious promises of Scripture. How we can boldly approach the throne of God to as what we will, in Jesus’ name, confident that it will be done. We are to continually repeat our prayers until we get what we seek. God intends to bless us, to prosper us. He answers the prayer of faith. Have the elders come and anoint with oil and pray for healing. Ask, and it shall be given.

Or not.

We did all of these things, with persistence and vigor. We were not alone in this, as other Christians, in other churches also prayed for L. My wife was ceaseless in her efforts, confident that God would act to heal her friend. Only he didn’t, and now the questions begin.

Should we have prayed harder?

Did we use the wrong words in making our prayers?

Should we have fasted more, or physically laid hands on her, or used only holy oil from Jerusalem?

What would it have taken for God to answer our prayers as we sought?

I don’t know.

Throughout my walk as a Christian, I have prayed for people to be delivered from the bonds of death, often to no avail. It has mattered not how fervently I have prayed, or how godly or ungodly the person I am praying to be delivered may be. In the main, they have died, despite my prayers.

Can God heal? Yes, absolutely. The question is, will He? In each and every instance, I cannot say that he will. And I don’t know why.

We are told to pray persistently. Yet, Jesus also tells not to repeat ourselves like the pagans when we pray.

We are told not to doubt when we pray. Yet Jesus assures us that even faith the size of a mustard seed will move mountains.

These are old questions. They form a variant of the “Problem of Evil.” They are doubly cruel because God encourages us to pray, to ask anything of him in Jesus’ name. But why do so if He’s not going to answer them?

That is, perhaps, a bit harsh. After all, it is entirely possibly, even likely, that God prolonged L’s life in answer to our prayers. And that’s all we can really ask for, a prolonged life. But we were hoping for a longer delay, and a respite from the pain.

Job asked these questions of God, and more, and he never received an answer. What he did receive was a revelation of God, and a more children and livestock and wealth to replace what had been taken. But people are not a fungible commodity, capable of easy replacement. My wife will develop other friends, but they will not be L. We can only hope that on that great getting up morning, we shall meet again.

In Luke 4:25-27, Jesus offers a slight glimpse into this reality. While offered in the context of His rejection by His own people, Jesus admits to a reality. There were many widows and lepers in need of a miracle in the days of the prophets, yet only the Widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian received them. Surely prayers were offered for the others, too. So why weren’t they helped? Lack of belief in the prophets perhaps, but all of them? Jesus offers no explanation.

Again, in John 5:1-8, Jesus heals the invalid at the Pool of Bethesda, John notes that there were many sick people there, waiting for the angel to stir the waters, yet Jesus heals only this one man. Why? No explanation is given.

We so desperately want an explanation, if only to give us some measure of control in the face of suffering. But the Bible is stubborn in not offering an answer.

It would be easy to resolve the tension by asserting that life has no meaning, and therefore, none of the constituent parts that make up life have any meaning. There are just a series of random events, guided only by probabilities. But that is not ultimately satisfying. While it removes meaning from suffering, it does not remove suffering. It also leaves out human will and intentions. We wander aimless as a cloud, as events “happen,” until the last such occurrence extinguishes our brief candle.

Hardly a life worth living.

Another possibility is that God is, in some way, cruel; that for reasons that please Him, he allows, if not wills, suffering upon some of His creatures. Why? There appears to be no pattern to suffering to guide us in our efforts to live a happy life. Is God Himself subject to some law of randomness? If so, He is rather less than God, and we fall back on the discussion above.

We keep circling back on this issue. We want our lives and our actions to have purpose and meaning. We ascribe similar attributes to God. The Bible certainly supports the idea that God has purpose and intent. Throughout the Old Testament, God reinforces this understanding by framing things in conditional terms. He rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. That makes things easy for us to understand. Life becomes a series of rules grounded in God, His will and His nature. We can learn these rules, master them, and live accordingly.

Only it doesn’t always work that way. The Disciples asked Jesus for the explanation for the “Man Born Blind” in John 9. They knew someone had sinned to bring this about, their only question was who.

Jesus’ answer must have left them flabbergasted. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” We are thrust back on God’s will again as the only explanation. “Jacob I have loved. Esau I have hated.” (Mal. 1:2-3) Simple as that.

Perhaps it is time that we rediscover God. We like to pin Him down, like an insect on a card, to explain His every attribute and action. In so doing, we make Him tame, subject, if not to our wills, to certain laws, which have the same effect. God seems to delight in smashing our expectations of Him, thundering from Sinai, falling as fire from heaven, speaking as a still small voice, or coming as a helpless infant of suspect origins. He wants to remind us that He is God, subject only to Himself.

I will admit that this is a dark answer, one that leaves me groping. I wish I had better, but I don’t.

We make much of God’s goodness, often going so far as to present Him as a sort of sugar daddy, ready to meet our needs, as if that is His highest aim. It makes a great selling point for evangelism. It just isn’t true. God aims to make saints, a people for Himself. He chooses the means most likely and most suited to achieve this. He doesn’t rule out suffering, and if we study the life Christ in any measure, God almost guarantees suffering as a part of our path.

Indeed it is to Christ that I am most drawn in this time, more specifically, to Christ on the cross. Here, he cries out to God for mercy, for relief, and finds none. (“Was there ever such grief as mine?” asks the old liturgy for Good Friday) He pours out His all, looking heavenward, and to us. This is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of evil, that He himself undergoes it, suffers its depredations with us, and is somehow transformed, and transforming. He Himself draws no answers, He only submits in faithful obedience.

So I sit in prayerful waiting, compelled to contemplate God’s mystery, accepting that there is much I do not know and cannot know. I cling to God’s goodness, and trust that He knows what He is doing, and that His plan will reach His appointed end. I try to accept that pain and suffering are among the tools He uses to achieve those ends. But when the questions get too much, I look again to Christ, and there I am satisfied.

There are no prayers

To be offered

Now

Only laments.

Summon the mourners,

Sing the dirge.

One I loved was

And is no more.

Bold did I approach

That eternal throne,

And oft my suit prepared

With loud cries and tears

Did I make my

Wants and wishes known.

There is a silence

In stilled breath

That drowns out

Our prayers.

This, then, is our answer;

A mockery of every promise,

A turning aside from our

Deepest cries.

What sort of God is this?

Cruelly deaf and arm too short.

Who joyfully answers petty requests

While giving over our souls to the grave?

Shall our prayers yield nothing more

Than a bolted door, a face set like flint

And a sky turned to brass.

Why, oh why, has thou forsaken me?

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