Thursday, December 24, 2015

It's a miracle.

Do you believe in miracles?

Christmas deals in miracles, in the unexpected, the implausible, the incredible. This is true whether we're talking about "religious" or "secular" Christmas (I put those words in quotes because, let's be honest, who can separate them at this point?). On the religious side, the idea is that a baby was born in the middle of nowhere to a couple with few prospects (supposedly by some kind of divine insemination), and that baby grew up to be...the savior of the world? Oh, and he died but came back to life, and hundreds of millions of people still follow and worship him today. The secular story isn't much better: a man who lives in the Arctic Circle with a factory full of elves packs up a flying sleigh once a year and manages to deliver toys to every child in the world in one night. And he tracks them all year to see who wants and deserves what.

Of course, the difference between these two is that we adults (the Christian ones among us, anyway) are supposed to believe the first story, but the second is pretty much limited to children under the age of, say, 12 (I was a late believer, but that's another story). So, can we? Do we believe in this miracle?

On my best days, I do. It's such a beautiful and creative and riveting story that I want it to be true, hope it can be true, maybe need it to be true. But this credulity, this readiness to believe the stuff of dreams can happen, doesn't often extend to the rest of my life. I doubt. This is a defining aspect of my personality: I am a doubter.

I'm not talking about doubting the kind of fantastical miracles we see in the Bible--seas parting down the middle, people coming back from the dead, water turning into wine. To be honest, I'm not too worried about those. I identify strongly with the sentiment of one of my favorite fictional characters, Father Emilio Sandoz from the novel The Sparrow: "He found the life of Jesus profoundly moving; the miracles, on the other hand, seemed a barrier to faith, and he tended to explain them to himself in rational terms. It was as though there were only seven loaves and seven fishes.  Maybe the miracle was that people shared what they had with strangers, he thought in the darkness."

Here's the thing, though: sometimes I can't believe in the kinds of miracles Emilio is thinking about here either, those personal human miracles like welcoming strangers we might find a bit suspicious or off-putting, not snapping at people when they've said that one thing that pushes our buttons, repairing tears in relationships that seem irreparable. Those miracles require some work from us, not unilateral divine action.

Then I think about the grace I've received from people who managed to muster up love for me when I didn't deserve it...and believe me, that's happened a lot. When I focus on my own individual ability to love others as I want to be loved, I'm skeptical. When I call to mind how others have loved me, though, that's when I start to believe in miracles again.

We're not always faithful or loving or trusting, we humans--we're human! But when we embody those good (dare I say divine?) qualities, we reveal that we are also imprinted with the image of a good, creative, beautifully mysterious God. If that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A promise

"The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more."  (Jeremiah 31.33-34, NRSV)

Covenant: one of those words you only hear in church. Perhaps the closest we get to the word "covenant" in our everyday lives might be "contract" or maybe "agreement," but one of these is too calculating, the other too casual. I don't fully understand what it means establish a covenant because I haven't ever done it, not formally anyway. I'm not married, and I don't live in ancient Israel. These are the only two contexts in which I can imagine entering into a covenant. It seems like a somewhat antiquated concept, something we bring up when we feel like getting biblical.

In Jeremiah, though, God is promising a future covenant more than remembering an ancient one. "The days are surely coming," God says--not, "Remember those days?" God acknowledges that the people had broken the original covenant God made with them, but this is almost an afterthought. Sure, Israel broke their promise, but God has promise to spare. God doesn't withhold love when Israel doesn't do what God wants. If anything, God responds to their disobedience by loving them more intimately: "I will write [my law] on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." What a beautiful and overwhelming image: the divine approaching us, marking us, embracing us from the inside out. All this in spite of, or maybe even because of, our waywardness and our disbelief, our fear and our imperfection.

Can we imagine this kind of extravagant love? I don't ask this question because I think we humans are all bad, undeserving of love or commitment. I don't ask it to emphasize our sin in contrast to God's perfection. I ask it because so many of us, myself included, cannot imagine that someone, anyone, could respond to our faults and mistakes with more love. Love me at my best? Sure, I can be pretty impressive or funny or attractive sometimes. But love me at my worst? I don't think so.

Nevertheless, this is precisely the message we hear from Jeremiah, and from Jesus, and really from the Bible as a whole. You're not perfect? Good. If you can admit that, you're exactly who God came for. "I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more," God says here. And later from Jesus: "I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17b). We see God do this over and over again, continuing to call humans to account but loving them--loving us--no matter what we have done.

This message is difficult for me to hear because I bounce back and forth so wildly from being certain that there is something deeply wrong with me to thinking I'm doing pretty damn well on my own, thank you very much. I alternate between outsize pride and profound self-doubt. I can't fathom the kind of constant, unwavering love God proclaims.

Perhaps that's why I need this whole covenant thing in the first place: to anchor me in promise, quiet my anxiety and level my pride, still me. When I can accept God's assurance that God will write on my heart, forgive me over and over and over again, love me without stipulations or limits--only then can I share any kind of covenantal life with other people. This doesn't mean I will start loving everyone perfectly, but it does mean I can promise to see them and love them for who they truly are, and for all they are. The day of a new, perfect covenant is coming, God says. While we wait, can we promise to love and forgive each other in all our beauty and ugliness, triumph and failure, hope and fear?

A breaking point

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon* us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
(Luke 1.76-79, NRSV)

* “Other ancient authorities read has broken upon,” my Bible (okay, notes. So which is it? Will the dawn from on high break upon us, or has it already? Perhaps the logical response to this question is that no matter the translation, it’s already happened. In this passage Zechariah is talking about John the Baptist, who will prepare the way for Jesus…who is the light, right?

Well, yeah. I guess that is what I believe, now that I think about it. So why does it still tug at me? I suppose it’s the collision of certainty and uncertainty we witness in Zechariah, a collision that takes place in all of us. For months before he delivers this prophecy, Zechariah is, must be, silent. He did not immediately believe that his elderly wife could become pregnant, and because of his doubt Gabriel literally silenced him. He had a good eight or nine months to come up with what he was going to say. Do you think he, a priest, a leader in the community, a “righteous” and “blameless” man, would screw up his first chance to speak in almost a year? I don’t think so.

This is not to say Zechariah wasn’t sincere in his exclamation. I believe the joy, amazement, and hope he expresses are completely genuine…but he had a lot of time to consider how he would express himself. He was forced to wait, to watch, to listen. How many of us do those things when we don’t have to? I know I don’t, at least not often, and certainly not for months at a time. It almost makes me jealous of him, that he cannot betray his doubt, doesn’t have the option to say something skeptical in the face of an incredible promise. When seen in this light, Gabriel’s silencing of Zechariah is a gift, not a punishment.

Back to that “dawn from on high”: does Zechariah see its presence, or its coming? No one knows for sure. We do know, though, that he has been waiting for a long, long time, longer than his silence, for many things: a child, peace, that dawn. That—that long, quiet, turbulent watch—is Advent. It is much of our life. This waiting can be almost too much to bear, too long to believe it will end. So, too, can the joy that we must hope follows the waiting: too much to bear, too wonderful to believe it can come. Both are gifts, but gifts that we cannot help but doubt. We can but wait, and watch, and hope. Thanks be to God.

A common thread

I spent all of Sunday afternoon in my car, mostly in silence, save the occasional comment from my dad about traffic, or the weather, or how cute my sisters’ one-year-old twins looked at their birthday party the day before. My mom sat in the back doing Sudoku or looking at her iPad, editing pictures of said twins. It was a good weekend away, and I dreaded going home.

I couldn’t place why, exactly, except for the contrast between my certain place in the family I had spent the last few days with and the fogginess of my present life and future. The past has this settledness to it, a grounding quality that holds us to the earth, like spiritual gravity of a sort. Even when people you’ve known your whole life hurt your feelings or make you want to pull out your hair, they’re still yours somehow. They are simply not going anywhere, or at least our ties to them aren’t. I struggle to put this feeling to words, but I am thinking of the word home and all that comes with it: comfort and nostalgia, and also grief, intractability.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I heard these words from T. S. Eliot for the first time in a college class, 10 years ago now. I continue to think of them often; you might say they roam around my mind, a kind of exploration in themselves. They bring up so many questions, doubts: How long does this exploring go on? Can we know that place, the place that started us, in the midst of our exploration, or only at the end? Are we going in the right direction? Is there a right direction?

People wander. I like to think if we have a purpose in our wandering, something to aim for, it means more. If all of it–every time we laugh, cry, scream, love, touch, hurt–has a single thread running through it, a thread that wraps around us and back to our beginning, that must mean something, right?
I want to spin that thread, to control it, and to have a sense that things are happening as they should. But the older I get, the more uncertain I become. Am I doing the right things in the right place with the right people? I am too unsure, too prone to mistakes and deliberate waywardness, to control or often even see the thread that ties my life together.

I am reminded here of the words of a hymn (and amazed at how often this happens):

You bring my wand’ring spirit back.
when I forsake your ways;
you lead me, for your mercy’s sake,
in paths of truth and grace.

Your sure provisions gracious God
attend me all my days;
oh, may your house be my abode,
and all my work be praise.
Here would I find a settled rest,
while others go and come;
no more a stranger, nor a guest,
but like a child at home.

Perhaps it turns out that we do not, cannot lead ourselves. We may follow a thread and even twist it, but it is spun for us.

This thought does not comfort me, but it does give me hope. It does not make the fog before me dissipate or the questions disappear, but it does provide a sense of connection between the beginning and the end. We will always be pulled back from the brink. We will again become like a child at home. In the meantime, we wander, hoping we do not become too lost before we are found again, and again, and again.

The problem of praise

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name for ever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness,
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.
(Psalm 145:1-7, NRSV)

I’ve always had a problem with praise. Passages like the one above take me back to conversations about heaven in the small Southern Baptist church I grew up in, where people talked about an eternity of singing to God like it was something to look forward to. What kind of god, I wondered, would make that the climax of his creation–people shouting and singing about how wonderful he is? It made God sound like some kind of egomaniac, or worse, a being so insecure that he literally requires constant encouragement.

Plus, doesn’t that sound boring? I like singing (almost) as much as the next person, but my voice gets tired after awhile, and songs get old. When we had to sing an extra few verses of a hymn during a particularly popular invitational, all I could think was, “All right, let’s wrap it up.” So an eternity of this activity sounds like my own version of hell rather than heaven.

This is all starting to sound more than a bit heretical, and probably not as pithy as I hoped it would. This sentiment of mine doesn’t sit particularly well with me either, perhaps even less so than it sits with you. There are dozens of psalms of praise in the book of Psalms–if I’m not mistaken, that’s the most popular kind of psalm. Plus there are countless other expressions of praise throughout the Bible. And I do believe God deserves praise–for creating us and the world, for sustaining us when things get hard and then harder, for wanting to be with us and understand us and save us from ourselves so badly that he became one of us and died because we couldn’t take that level of love and solidarity.

So this is why I’m uncomfortable with my discomfort with praise: I get it and I want to practice it…just not so much with eternal hymn singing. Luckily (blessedly?) that’s not how praise has to look, not even how it does look throughout the Bible or in the lives of the most holy people I’ve known. Praise often looks very different and much more creative than the popular image of a bunch of people in white choir robes singing “I’ll Fly Away” in the clouds (although I do like that song). Praise looks like speaking and acting with love towards people you don’t feel particularly loving towards. Praise looks like creating something beautiful and true–a song, a story, a picture, an idea–with the hands God created for you. Praise looks like thanking God for one more day of being alive on this earth, the earth that is moving ever towards the kingdom Jesus told us such strange and wonderful stories about. Praise looks like getting up and trying to create that kingdom every lovely, painful, confusing day.

Singing hymns forever is starting to look a little more appealing.

Here’s the key, I think, that I often miss: we don’t praise God because God demands it. We praise God because God deserves it, and because praise looks a lot like creation and creativity, which we were made through and for. Praise is continuing that creation, living out our God-image.

So, my question about praise changes. It’s not, why must we praise God? Rather, how might we praise God in such a way that honors God and brings to life the fullness of creation? That’s the kind of question we can spend our lives, and eternity, answering. It will never get boring.

What's in a name?

I've always wished I used my middle name more. Maybe it would calm me down, I think, if the world called me Grace, if I heard the word every day, every few minutes even. Perhaps it would make me slow my pace, treat people more graciously, treat myself more graciously.

Then again, perhaps the word would lose its meaning in the repetition, its mystery and its ability to jar. As it stands, I think about the concept of grace rarely enough that it entangles me each time, befuddles me, unsettles me. Grace never adds up. It doesn't even operate as elegantly as it sounds like it would. "Grace" is such a lovely word, so simple and, though it pains me to say it, pure. When we talk about grace, many other things of beauty tend to come up--love, compassion, forgiveness, peace. "There but for the grace of God go I" (how lucky I am!). "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound" (no longer a lost wretch!). "Fall from grace" (uh-oh).

We talk a lot about what grace delivers us from: sin, bad decisions, ourselves. But what does grace deliver us to?

At church on Sunday, we sang "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." I like this song, but it usually doesn't hit me with any punch of emotion. This week the third, last verse did.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

Debt, fetters, binding, sealing--what kind of grace is this? It doesn't sound like something I'd pray for. Another, more modern lyric, comes to mind, this time from Mumford and Sons:

It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works.

Well, isn't it? Grace requires something of us, something hard. This is not to say it's not freely given because it is, at least I believe divine grace is. But it's not quite free to receive if we want to receive it fully. Grace changes us, transforms us even, and we have to welcome that change, that transformation.

What does this mean? I don't think I've ever fully welcomed grace so I'm not entirely sure, but I've caught glimpses in stories, in songs, in the occasional encounter with strangers or with God (perhaps the strangest stranger). Based on these I think that accepting grace and its effects means letting go of self-importance, of the need to control, of the illusion of independence. It means recognizing our need for grace, our inability to save ourselves from everything (from anything?).

I'm not so good at this. I like to think I'm pretty good at managing my life, or at least at convincing other people I'm good at managing my life. If that's the case, though, why would I need grace--really need it? It might sound nice, but it doesn't sound necessary. Unfortunately that's not how this grace thing works. Grace necessitates a deep, deep need for others, for love, for God, for help. As long as I don't believe I need any help, grace will probably stay a fuzzy concept for me, a part of my potential identity that I recall occasionally, wistfully, uneasily.