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.