Friday, December 21, 2012

i heard the bells on christmas day

"Advent is about anticipating the birth of Christ. It’s about longing, desire, that which is yet to come. That which isn’t here yet. And so we wait, expectantly. Together. With an ache. Because all is not right. Something is missing." Rob Bell, "Why Should We Care About Advent?"

This year, I began attending a church that takes the church calendar very seriously. And I realized that I liked it. The rhythm of the Christian life is lived out based on our ceremonies and traditions. Some are sad, some are happy, some are both at the same time. But just as the Bible has its hymns of revenge and its poems of romance, there is a wide spectrum present in the church calendar. A spectrum as wide as life itself.

Christmas is my favorite season of the year. That's fairly obvious from the disproportionate amount of blog posts I write about the holiday. But the true reason that I love it so much has never been as clear to me as it has been made through the lens of church tradition.

I enjoy Christmas as much as I do because it follows the journey that Advent has begun in us.

In the same way that it seems like the world is at its most opaque in the silent, cold, stillness of a winter's breath, I hear more from God in the season of Advent. (That may not be true. It just may be that it is the time I focus most on the listening.) Walk outside on the coldest, darkest night of the year and just stand there. You will hear noises you didn't even previously realized existed. More than that, you'll uncover thoughts you didn't know to be inside your own mind. I know that happens to me in this season. It is as if the world itself has more to offer in those long, quiet moments spent in solitude.

This is the season in which we welcome our coming Savior. Not very unlike the season the Israelites once welcomed him into. Except they had not been waiting since the end of the Thanksgiving meal but instead hundreds of years. Mostly spent in bondage and oppression and in the dimming light of the hope of a promised Messiah. It would have been a natural consequence of their long wait for them to lose faith in their interpretation of God's promise to them or maybe even in the idea that God would make us a promise at all.

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Of course, this year we cannot bring an end to Advent and shine the light of Christmas without having within all of our minds Newtown, Connecticut. There are no words and no comfort to combat the coldest, darkest tragedy that I can imagine.

And yet there is Christmas. One thing I have learned in difficult moments this year is that the days do pass whether or not we recognize it as the pages on the calendar's days flip by. For the families who can never again be whole because of this tragedy, I have only my sympathy and my prayers to offer. And these seem like wretched things in light of the magnitude of the loss that was suffered.

Our entire nation has been set back on its heels from the violence played out on the news. Unlike most tragedies, this one has hit a personal chord. This shouldn't happen. Not in our country. Not in our towns. Not in our schools. The immediate response is one of confusion at a tragedy so senseless. And then an urgent cry to prevent anything like this from ever happening to another family again.

Still we know that even if we improve public policy, we can no more reverse time to prevent what happened than we can to stop death entirely. The violence that exists in our minds can be a betrayal of our biologies or our minds or even our very nature. And when the violence spews forth from within to hurt those that form our communities without there will be losses suffered. We lost the lives of precious children in Sandy Hook and we lost the innocence that accompanies an age where wonder and delight rule over cynicism and hatred.

As the President read the names of the fallen in his speech last week or as the bells rang out 26 times this morning to commemorate those that were lost in a moment of silence, it would be understandable to let this world and this act of terror plunge us into a state of hopelessness. Or to turn on each other and propel ourselves into a divisive political blame game looking to point the finger at who is at fault for this feeling of helplessness and grief.

But the promise of Christmas is that the darkness of this season will be pierced by an unmistakable light. That the silence of this dark and lonely night will be broken by the cries of a baby from a manger.

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does He sleep (He is The Lord)
(He is The Lord)
The dark shall fail, the light prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Still, we cannot forget that as those cries from the mouth of the baby will one day turn to giggles to words of wisdom to comfort and healing to our very salvation, they will also turn to cries of anguish as this hope seems to be extinguished by a cross. God's very nature is to bring light into darkness, to bring form into chaos, to bring meaning into despair. We may not always understand it but he has set  the entire world to the rythym of this truth.

And so at Christmas the promise we cling to is just that moment of hope, of light in a dark place, or joyful clamor into the silence. If we can have just that moment to capture and to cherish, I believe we'll have strength for the journey ahead.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

why i'll vote against

“Bad laws are the worst kind of tyranny.” Edmund Burke

1. Amendment One is anti-freedom.

From the days of our Founding Fathers to the present day, the steady drumbeat of progress in our great country has been that of a march towards freedom. That used to mean something in so-called “conservative” circles. I am a conservative in every sense in which that word can be traced through history. I believe in capitalism, our republican form of government, in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, and for treating others as we wish to be treated. And I believe in the power of freedom to loose deep down in human beings our best selves instead of the ugliness and violence that we too often inflict on each other as a means of propping ourselves up and controlling others.

That’s why I oppose this amendment. Not as a liberal but as a conservative. Freedom comes with a great price. If you are to be free, it means you must allow others who have entered into the same social contract with you that same freedom. If some are freer than others, then a society can never be truly free. Freedom from tyranny means that you can’t become the tyrant yourself. Even a well-meaning, devout, religious tyrant is one that cannot be tolerated in this country. In fact, if you read your history books, it was just such a tyrant we fled from to establish this nation.

Sure, you can dress it up and say this is about defining “marriage” and not about freedom but that ignores so much of what this Amendment would do if enacted and so much of what it will not do if defeated. We have tried defining marriage in the past (as you see pictured here). Our last state constitutional amendment on marriage was to make sure that people of different races didn’t get the idea that their marriage was valid in this state. The prevailing thought of the day was that allowing mixed race marriages would cheapen the whole institution. (Starting to sound familiar?) But, of course, no one can define words by themselves. Words will mean what they mean as people use them to mean such. So if gays are being married, people are going to call it marriage no matter what the law says. We can’t legislate dictionaries.

To look someone in the face and say “You cannot enjoy the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that I do because you’re different” is the opposite of the American ideal. It is the opposite of what our Founding Fathers created this country to embody. If we are to be the city on a hill, then we can’t treat people differently and restrict their freedoms simply because we don’t like them as much. Oppression is ugly and un-American. And it is not fit for our state constitution.

2. Amendment One is unchristian.

Some religious people in this fight have decided that it is imperative to the fabric of our society to enshrine Levitical law in our state constitution. I suppose we are supposed to just ignore the admonitions of Paul that there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ” or Jesus’ “Give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s” brand of church-state separation. The entire story of the gospels is that Jesus came to seek and save what is lost. He came to reconcile men and women and even the Earth itself to God. He did not come to create a government. He was not a political savior bent on ensuring that one society or nation triumphed over all others. If anything, Christ’s time in our world was a demonstration that those society may consider virtuous may actually not be the ones who would find themselves at home in His kingdom.

Church-state separation is important because Christianity may not always be the dominant religion in this society. As Christians, our freedom is important. After all, it is again St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians that reminds us that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Restricting others’ freedom simply because we possess the political power to do so is precisely the opposite of Jesus’ mission. Christ, who even in the garden of Gethsemane, in what he surely knew were his final hours facing a long journey toward a cross refused to let his disciples take up swords to defend him. It was not a political victory he was looking to win. He may have been scorned by the people in power of his day but he did not lack for might. Christ could have summoned an army of angels to fight his battles, to release him from the cross, and make the entire Roman Empire and the world itself his footstool as He had been promised.

As Christians, we should be co-reconcilers with God. So we must ask ourselves will we take up the sword as Jesus has forbidden us? Will we demand a political messiah once and for all? Will we join him in his mission to redeem this world or will we instead embark on our attempt to control it? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” These two phrases, Christ told us, sum up all of the Law and the Prophets. The fabric of our moral universe is love. Hatred and oppression are not fit for the kingdom of God.

3. Amendment One is anti-family.

If you have been following this fight at all, then you will know that Amendment One does more than just restrict gay marriage in our state. It invalidates any civil union even among straight couples and puts in jeopardy the relationship, rights, and privileges of families all across North Carolina. I am not only a conservative and a Christian. I am also a strong supporter of family. That’s why I think it is imperative we defeat Amendment One to ensure that it cannot do harm to families in our state.

Just a few examples of some of the worst harms adopting Amendment One could do to people who aren’t gay and aren’t married.

*Children could have their health care put at risk if their parents are not married. They could lose health insurance and prescription drug benefits that could be desperately needed when a child is sick.

*The financial burdens could be further felt by the children of unmarried couples if one partner dies and wills and trusts are invalidated. Custody issues could even be altered as a child could be caught up in the system and ripped from their family.

*Amendment One would even invalidate domestic violence protections that currently cover unmarried women and leave the most vulnerable women in our society without any legal protection from abuse. (This already happened in Ohio when a similar law passed.)

Amendment One is poorly written and was put on the ballot without a thorough review of just what the consequences of adopting it might cause for North Carolina families.

And just as a reminder a vote against Amendment One is a vote for the status quo. Defeating Amendment One will have no effect on our current laws. Gay marriage will still be illegal in the state of North Carolina. No church will ever be forced to marry gay people. What defeating Amendment One will do is avoid perpetrating the tragedies described above on thousands of children and families in our state.

I promised with the title of this article that I would tell you why I’ll vote against Amendment One. I’ll vote against because I can’t look my gay friends in the face and tell them they are lesser human beings than me and undeserving of the freedoms and rights that I have been blessed simply by being born straight in American.

You may have your own reason for voting against. If so, I encourage you to write out your thoughts, and share with your friends and family. Dr. King said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” This fight matters. So remember to get out and vote on or before May 8. If you need information about how and where you need to vote, you can find it here. Even if you aren’t registered to vote, it’s not too late to register and cast your ballot against Amendment One.

If you’re still undecided, I encourage you to continue doing research. Visit the Vote Against project and Protect All NC Families and learn more about Amendment One and what its passage would do to North Carolina. Then join me in voting against.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

the herald angel

I recently rediscovered one of my favorite Christmas hymns in the form of a reimagination by the terrific group Seabird. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a staple of any Christmas album or church service but this version is special because although it still retains its reverent hymnlike nature, it introduces a little more up-tempo "heralding" of Christ's birth. After all, this is the gospel--the good news that God has come to live among humans in the form of a man born from the womb of Mary--the announcing that there is now no longer any separation between God and His creation. Though there was once enmity and war, there is now the promise of peace eternal. There will be no more struggle, no more mourning or tears or hate or war, only "God and sinners reconciled."
Hark the herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled"
It sometimes seems that since creation itself began, it has exploded with violence. The violence we do to each other, both the ones we love and the ones we leave out. But God sifts through the struggle and doesn't blot out our transgressions. He shows up among them. He leaves the throne of Heaven, the eternal unchanging perfect synergy of the Trinity to introduce His creation to how they have been created. We are to join Him in His mission of reconciliation. We are co-reconcilers with Christ as this earth, this life was our gift from Him. Though we have done our best to sully and denigrate what we have been given, God is patient. He is relentless. And even when our faith does not lie in Him, His faith lies in us.
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem"
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
This is the essence of what the herald angels have come to announce. The fact that we refer to them as "herald" shows just how special they are. They have one job. To proclaim, to announce, to declare that life as we know has been forever changed. A new reality has taken hold. In the midst of our despair, of our struggle, of our hatred and denial... springs Hope.
Christ by highest heav'n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
A herald is an official messenger of news. A courier. A forerunner. A precursor. A harbinger. Harbinger is an interesting word in itself. Normally, there are "harbingers of death" or "harbingers of evil" or "harbingers of danger." But I think harbingers have gotten a bad rap. I don't think it is the danger or death or evil that turns a simple messenger into a harbinger. It is the gravity of the message they carry. And there nothing heavier than the truth weighting down the announcement of the gospel.

Christmas itself comes in the dead of winter. Just days after the longest night of the year in fact. It is literally never more dark than it is at Christmastime. I don't know if that is a coincidence or not but it is part of what I love so much about this season. Because in this time of darkness and cold and dreariness steps in the most joyful, special time of the year. And instead of avoiding at all costs this intemperate time of year, we welcome it. We look forward to it. I'd have a hard time finding a better metaphor for Christ's arrival than the season in which it comes. The God who shames the wise and uplifts the foolish has us looking forward to the darkest and most difficult time of the year because of the hope it symbolizes.
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
You see, Christ isn't just announced by the herald angels. He Himself is a type of herald angel. Because he is the second Adam, the firstfruits of the gospel. He is the precursor of life itself and yet alive and present forever. Before anything was, He was. And so He is the promise, the hope in human form. At our darkest moment, God doesn't bring us comfort, he doesn't relieve our suffering, he doesn't even change the weather. In our bleakest moment, God steps into our lives Himself. He comes for us. And He promises us that this is the rhthym of life. This is the pattern, the DNA of life lived in intimacy with God. When we are weak, He is strong. When we are downtrodden, He is hopeful. When we have lost, He has won on our behalf.
Not always in the way we would expect. Not with a powerful Kingdom trampling all others under His feet. Not with trumpets and revelry and pomp. But on a quiet, still night. With a simple miracle. Birth. 
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"
Sometimes it takes fresh ears to hear an old song. Sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see an old truth. Few will herald but all will know. Christ is born in Bethlehem. And Hope is born in us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

same kind of different as me

Sameness. I think I hate it.

I used to have a habit when going to restaurants with large groups of people I would try to order something off the menu that no one else in the group had. I’ve always had the habit of falling in love with the most obvious girl in the room. I once had five earrings and blue hair.

I like being different. I value diversity. And more often than not, in the evangelical Christian circles I find myself in, it has caused me problems.

There are strands of evangelical Christianity that take great pleasure and expend great effort in silencing new ideas. As if opposition to motion can prevent the future from arriving. It’s Hoover Dam Christianity holding back a massive wall of water so that we can control what areas of land remain dry. In some ways, it has its place. There are reasons why we need to enforce our will on that water. It is powerful and not easy to manipulate and can easily overwhelm everything else.

But what if God is in that water? Do we want to hold Him back too?

Somewhere in the divide between Gen X and Gen Y, there came a point where a generation started to be willing to ask questions again. We wanted to challenge the assumptions that were made for us and undertake the task of rebuilding the foundation from which we will judge truth. It’s a predictable part of the evolution of every generation no doubt… as is the predictable response from the generation that comes before us. “We already know what’s true. You’re wasting your time. And worse than that, questioning what we have already established is dangerous.”

This generational shoving match plays out before us every day. It plays out in our politics, literature, fashion, technology, religion and all kinds of other ways. If we’re going to rebuild from the foundation already established, we’re going to have to knock out a wall here and there to do it.

Most recently, I’ve seen this struggle play out in the context of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins. It’s “A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” It only came out today. I haven’t read it and I can neither defend the author not critique him.

What I have seen are at least a half dozen articles and blog posts calling Bell every name under the sun, slandering his work, and generally aiming to silence his message. He’s called everything from unscholarly to arrogant to heretical and accused of lying, manipulation, and blasphemy.

As a general rule, I assume anyone being opposed so strongly has something incredibly important to say.

But that’s just the thing with Bell. His general M.O. is to ask questions and employ the Socratic method to get his readers to explore a topic more deeply and study more thoroughly the scriptures that should inform a Christian’s opinion on the matter. Now whether Bell is a universalist (he says he’s not) or whether he sets out to create controversy (he says he doesn’t) is up for debate. I just don’t think those are the true reasons he is being opposed.

People hate it when you mess with the systems they have worked so hard to mold. You can’t question these things. They just are. They have always been.

My pastor even made a point this weekend of saying that “the gospel can be summed up in four words.” A four word systematic theology. Alright, so it can. But should it be? Is the gospel four words deep? Or it is it deeper than all the water we can hold back with the Hoover Dam? Do we create our little systems to better understand God or to better control Him?

Bell at one point deflects the criticism he expects by saying there is a reason that many evangelical Christians don’t appreciate good art or throw good parties. Those things require someone to accept new ideas, to come in contact with diversity, to be challenged, and to relish the opportunity for genuine conversation. We cannot live a full life without being confronted by these things and yet so many of us continue to avoid them.

As a Christian, I don’t find it acceptable to fear other people’s ideas. I can’t fear questions. We have birthed a generation of critics rather than creators. People who live off criticizing the ideas of others instead of creating their own. It’s ugly. It’s unoriginal. And it is devoid of grace. Not to mention that fearing a challenge to the things I say I believe only exposes my insecurity about the allegiance I truly hold to those beliefs.

You know how Jesus responded to questions? He answered them. I’m reading through the Gospel of Luke right now and one thing I have noticed is there are a lot of questions in this book.

How can this be, since I am a virgin?

Why is it that you were looking for me? Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?

Why do you do what is not lawful on the Sabbath?

Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?

But who do you say that I am?

Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus shatters our systems, our preconceptions, and our previous knowledge. He is the answer to many of our questions. But we must have the audacity to ask them.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

angry birds

Whatever happened to the dreamers
They always look beyond the sky
Saw a world they could believe in
But only when they close their eyes - Jack Savoretti

Where is the line between dream and reality?  What is the relationship between ambition and obsession?

These are the questions at the center of Darren Aronofsy's latest film, Black Swan.  The film depicts ballerina Nina Sayers as she wins the role of a lifetime starring as the Swan Queen in a stripped down, raw production of Swan Lake brought to the stage by a visionary, mercurial director.  Faced with the full weight of the pressure of dancing the lead in the show, she slowly begins to buckle under the enormous stress that is put on her body and her psychological health.  Even as she revels in her newfound fame and power, she becomes increasingly suspicious of a new dancer to the company, Lily, and constantly worries that Lily may be trying to steal her role.  Nina becomes only more consumed by the role and driven to the edge of madness by the requirement that she transform her personality to achieve some method-like form of representing the evil Black Swan onstage. 
I'll stop my summary there as not to spoil any of the key plot points in the movie but if you are familiar with the story of Swan Lake, you may quickly catch on to where the action is headed.  (Only Aronofsky would attempt a film about Swan Lake with the plot of Swan Lake.)  As one reviewer described it, the movie is "cold to the touch leaving more to be admired than liked."  However, Natalie Portman's spellbinding and Oscar-worthy performance  is reason enough to see it and study it as a piece of pure cinema.  More than anything, the film left me pondering whether the interplay between dreams and reality will forever be aggresive and adversarial and whether ambition and obsession share a similar fate.

On the one hand, dreams (read: hallucinations) are what Portman's character experiences throughout the film as she falls further down the rabbit hole of her own obsession and paranoia.  However, on the other hand, her character also dreams of being a prima ballerina, of dancing a perfect routine to the loud cheers of an adoring crowd, and winning the admiration of her mother.  I think there has to be more of a connection between these two kinds of dreams than simply the word we use to describe them.

Nina's dreams/hallucinations materialize more as nightmares as the movie progresses but they are directly fueled by her dreams to achieve and fulfill the bright star of her potential.  Her nightmares are caused by the fear that her dreams will never come to fruition.  As Langston Hughes would have it, a dream deferred is not simply a missed opportunity but a haunting specter much more difficult to decipher and traverse than merely a disappointment.

But sometimes our dreams don't come true.

This is a fact of life.  We don't get everything we ever wanted.  No matter how hard we strive for it or how well we work for it or how ingeniuous our plans to grasp hold of it, there are times when our dreams remain just beyond our reach.  Like the hazy first few moments of realizing the dream has ended and reality has returned, we remain just within sight of our dreams but incapable of attaining them.  Nothing can hurt so much as the intanglible that feels just beyond arm's length.

I would submit that our character is forged many times by our response to these seeming tragedies.  I think most people would say I'm a very driven individual.  I live my life with purpose.  I expect much from myself and from the people around me.  I value boldness and vigor when making decisions and I take that approach to my professional life, social life, romantic life; I apply the same philosophy whether I'm on the basketball court, in a meeting with politicians, or across the dinner table from a date. 

But I wonder whether that ambition can lead to obsession and whether taking that responsibility to make things happen for myself, to achieve my dreams conflicts with Christ-like humility.

There's a verse in Scripture that I feel like is always quoted out of context and misrepresented by preachers in the pulpit and paltry promisers looking to make a quick dollar on their newest Christian self-help book.  It's in the 29th chapter of the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  In verse 11, "For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  If you have any knowledge of the Bible or have heard any amount of contemporary preaching, you have probably heard this verse used out of context to feign comfort for those with uncertain futures or even to promise prosperity.  What you likely have not heard is verse 1.

This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

This is the context from where God's promise comes.  These are the words God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel who have been exiled to Babylon.  They aren't even necessarily personal words of comfort, they are more meant to assert that God is ultimately in control despite the outward reality of Babylonian captivity facing the people hearing them.  The words were spoken to a people that had worshipped at the temple built by Solomon who had overseen one of the most prosperous times in the long history of Israel.  Spoken to a people who knew of the promises given to his father David that a king chosen by God would forever reign on that throne.  Spoken to a people who had seen all of that come crashing down as the temple itself fell under the crushing blow of the Babylonians.  But not without God's permission.  God had sent the people into exile and sacrificed the temple because the people had relied on themselves and not on God.

Sometimes I'm in exile.  And the way out is not to rely on myself, to try harder, to buckle down, and drive myself to obsession over my own ambitions.  Sometimes the proper response is to take an objective view of reality and believe the fact that God is in control and ultimately has my good in mind.  Christ prayed for his followers that they would have eyes to see and ears to hear.  He did not pray that their dreams would come true.  This is not a case against dreaming but it is a plea to myself not to let my dreams and ambition turn to the nightmares of obsession. 

I feel like I've just been through a year where I got everything I wanted and nothing that I needed.  What do we do when our dreams come untrue?  Achieving a zen-like ignorance of reality won't solve the issues that surround me and neither will giving a firmer tug to my own bootstraps.  My only response, my only option is to remember and wait.  Remember that God is in control of this world and that everything happens only because he allows it.  Remember the ways in which He has worked for my good and on my behalf in the past.  Wait for Him to show me what comes next and where I can join Him in living out what He plans for my life and ultimately the plans He has to continue to redeem this world and all its broken dreams.

It is in light of that context that I can more fully understand what God is speaking through Jeremiah to the people and how the truth of that might apply to all of us.

"Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity."

I can learn much from that passage by simply listening to the cadence of the You's and I's.  God says: You will call.  You will pray.  You will seek.  God promises: I will listen.  I will be found.  I will bring you back.

We don't need our dreams or our ambitions to bring us comfort.  And whether realized or unrealized, they would never be up to such a task.  Our source of comfort comes from the fact that God is in control.  Even when we are in exile.  Even when we are in captivity.  He has a plan and wants us to be a part of it.  He is listening.  He is waiting to be found.  He is bringing us back.