Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Better

If you're a person who believes in some sort of personal Divine Being, do you ever play this little head game? Something disappointing happens, and either someone says, "Well, God must have a better plan," or you think something like, "God is sovereign and things happen for a purpose, so clearly I'm supposed to learn something from this, or He knew something bad was going to happen if my wishes were fulfilled, so it's all for the best." Then you sit around mulling this over for way too long and trying to envision all the scenarios that you might have been spared from, or trying to figure out what it is you're supposed to be learning.

Here's an example:

I was supposed to fly to Brother-Dave and Sister-in-Lu's yesterday. I was going to use up my last week of vacation for the year during the last week of the year playing with TWCN and Smiley-Guy. But I live in a usually-cold, wintery northern state, and Brother-Dave's family lives in a pretty far away cold, wintery northern state. My northern state had been a little tardy as far as snowfall and winter weather, in comparison to Ireland, where my parents live, which isn't even supposed to get snow, and was having a blizzard along with the rest of Europe the day my parents were scheduled to fly over here. Closed European airports notwithstanding, my parents actually got on a plane, which actually left, and actually arrived safely in our cold northern state that hadn't had any snow yet.

You would think if it had waited this long to snow, it could've waited a little longer, until the winter festivities were over or something. But it didn't. We managed not to get a white Christmas (snow on Christmas is, of course, totally irrelevant to the holiday, but it sure makes for a lovely landscape), but the day after, we began to get a blizzard. In this neck of the woods, it doesn't even seem like it was that bad, overall. But the timing was miserable, and the short version of the story is that I am now not going to Minnesota to see my brother and his family, and my parents, who were supposed to leave today, now have to wait to fly out there until Friday, and are still working on extending their stay, re-hiring a rental car, and getting back to the house here in the meantime.

This is when someone comes along and helpfully says, "Well, God has a better plan." This is probably true, but it sure doesn't seem like it from this vantage point. There's no use in pretending that any of this is of earth-shaking importance, but if it's important enough for God to have another plan than it, it must be important enough to get kind of a reaction from the people affected. The reaction, at least from me, is that being stranded at home on vacation with nothing to do (but church history paper research, which I can't do much of anyway, because the seminary offices are closed and it's hard to find info on the Protestant modernist-fundamentalist controversy anywhere else in this heavily Roman Catholic part of the world), as contrasted with playing tea party for a week with TWCN is a weird kind of "better." I'd debate it.

Then today I woke up with a cough, which has now established itself firmly in my lungs. So--maybe it's "better" that I was prevented from going because Brother-Dave's family spent pretty much the entire time at Sister-in-Lu's parents' house over Christmas, sick as dogs. Surely they do not need to get sick again, even if it's a completely different type of ailment. But really? Wouldn't it have been simpler just to keep me from getting sick?

Maybe God's trying to grow my character, and maybe it's even working, because in spite of this rant, I'm not actually angry, as I might have been in the past--just a little put out and kind of cynical/curious about reasons. Or maybe He's trying to grow my brother's character, by giving him surely one of the most miserable Christmas/New Year's seasons he's ever had. Or maybe He's trying to show two-and-a-half-year-old TWCN that life's just not fair and the sooner she learns it the better: apparently she cried when she found out I couldn't come to visit her. I wonder how she'll take the delay in my parents' itinerary.

Well, it isn't fair. None of this is the biggest deal ever, but it's disappointing and frustrating and disrupting and . . . not fair.

On the other hand . . . This is the kind of thing that leads some people to decide there is no God, or He doesn't love us, or He isn't all-powerful, and that, to me, seems like overkill. If there is a God, it makes sense that He might not make sense. I mean, made in the image of God we may be. God Himself, we are not (in spite of worldviews that try to tell us differently). In the first place, who am I to think any of this should matter to Him, really? And if, as I believe, it surprisingly does, does that mean He's going to step in at every moment, insuring that everything about my life is smooth sailing? (Evidently not . . . because it hasn't been!) I'm not writing this to prove anything. (Fortunately, since I'm not succeeding in that.) I'm just mulling this over. And here's what I'm thinking:

Maybe somehow, in some miraculous, sparkly-snowflake, cheesy Serendipity-movie kind of way, I'll meet this amazing guy this week and be married by next Christmas or something crazy like that, or maybe I'll just be stuck here with a chest-cold and no little-girl tea-parties. But either way, I still believe God is good, and God loves me, and God is all-powerful. I just don't think any of that requires Him to wait on me hand-and-foot, or forestall any disappointments, and I don't even think there has to be a "reason," or a "better," honestly. At least, not one that I'll necessarily ever see. The world is broken, and "broken" things happen here.

We celebrate God's coming into the brokenness at this time of year. He came ultimately to fix it--to fix us--but first He submitted to the brokenness and darkness, the disappointment and frustration and disruption (do I think His leaving Heaven to hang out down here with us wasn't a disruption?), and even now we're waiting for the final "fixing." It'll come. I hope I learn something from this, even if I'm not married by next Christmas, but maybe it's all just part of living here, and maybe, with God around, even if He isn't fixing it right now, that's okay.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Becoming Human

Earlier this month I was emailing a little with my friend Stephen. He was talking about how he approves of any holiday which involves his getting presents. He was speaking of Hanukkah mostly (and acknowledging that the reason presents are exchanged during that holiday was so Jewish children wouldn't feel bad that they weren't getting presents during their holiday the way the Christian kids were during theirs). I could kind of resonate with this sentiment, if the truth were known (as it is about to be).

"I like presents, too," I said.

I am fully cognizant that my pretty Christmas tree and the digital camera that my family are pitching in to get me for Christmas have nothing to do with what I believe to be a celebration of God becoming a human being. However. I guess you could make the stretch and say the presents are a celebration of the material world which God validated if He did, in fact, become a human being. Or you could just make a pun on the word 'presents/presence.' Anyway. I'm just saying, I like the gifts.

Let's be honest, here . . .

"I have to say," Stephen replied,

that as an outside observer, I've always been fascinated by the fact that Christmas seems to be a bigger holiday than Easter (when I was working retail, I had a customer berate me for us being open on Easter while she was buying stuff - I love irony). It always seemed that Christ rising and becoming God was kind of the point of Christianity. You're the first person to ever phrase Christmas as the day that God became human. Quite interesting...

At which point, I e-blurted,

I can't believe I'm the first person you've ever heard express that Christmas is about God becoming human. No offense to them, but my gut reaction was to blurt out, 'What kind of Christians are these people?' (I.e., the ones you know who haven't expressed it like that.) Easter isn't about Jesus becoming God. Christians believe He was God the whole time. Easter is about "reversing the curse," if you will--death (including separation from God) being the "curse" and consequence of the general human rebellion against God. God didn't want us separated from Him, but at the same time He is just and requires restitution for the upending of the order of things we caused in His creation. The offended party is the only one who can forgive, and the offending party is the only one who can make restitution, so God became human Himself so He could both make the restitution on our behalf and extend forgiveness to the rest of us after restitution had been made. By submitting to death (including a rift in His own nature--most Christians believe that for a moment God the Father turned His back on God the Son on the cross), He took on His own curse, and by coming back to life, He broke it. Not, of course, that we don't all physically die--it's just that the ultimate effects of death can be different. (Presupposing life after it, of course.) Anyway. That's why Easter is so awesome--it's the culmination of God's becoming human and releasing us from our fear of death and giving us a completely new direction for life both now and later.
I know--that's a long "blurt." But this is me--did you expect a short one?

Amazingly, Stephen actually responded even after all that, but he did make the point that, "I have a funny feeling that if I were to post a survey on Facebook asking why Christmas is important to Christianity (as opposed to the day everyone gets stuff), most would simply say 'It's the day Jesus was born' instead of any reference to God becoming human. But don't hold me to that."

Okay, I won't hold him to that. But it really got me thinking. Many Christians want to "take back Christmas." Even though most of the time I am at least partially thinking that in fact it was we who commandeered a pagan holiday or two, and while I don't feel bad about it, it does seem maybe a little hypocritical to phrase it quite that way--in spite of such subversive thinking, it does feel pretty good to have someone random that isn't from either of my churches wish me a Merry Christmas. Like my long-lost Muslim friend who just contacted me on Facebook this evening, for example. But I think sometimes we Christians think that all we have to say is "Merry Christmas," and that is magically going to translate into everyone's head everything that Christmas means to us. Let's face it--those words don't even translate that to most Christians half the time, busy as we are trying to make the holiday significant. Frankly, I'm more likely to be thinking of how stressed out my wallet is this month than I am about how God invaded human history as one of us.

It seems to me that if we really want to get Christmas "back," we should worry less about correcting people who cheerfully and well-intentionedly tell us to "Enjoy the holiday!" and focus more on the fact that God became human. And that He did so, in part, to help us become more human, too, and give us endless reasons to celebrate.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Indispensable

It is a wry joke in many circles that religion and guilt go together. I would argue that genuine trust in and commitment to Christ don't go with guilt, but the general "religion + guilt" thing might be true, I guess.

Whatever the case, I always feel this low-level guilt if I happen to miss church. I was ill a couple of Sundays last winter and had to skip out on Sunday mornings and even cancel youth group, and I felt like I had to do some kind of penance or something, even though usually there was also an accompanying sense that God was trying to get me to take a break because I wasn't doing a very good job of it on my own. This morning I missed church because I pretty much slid off my driveway while trying to get out of it this morning. So, it's not like I didn't try to go to church. I tried a couple of times, actually. I also tried not to slide down the embankment on one side, the stone wall on the other, or the woodpile at the bottom. I couldn't even walk Oscar this morning it was so icy out. But still I felt guilty, and so I decided I was going to spend some time on a novel I've not been writing about Mary the mother of Jesus, because I'm working on the birth of Christ part right now and that's Christmas-y and a good use of Sunday-morning-not-at-church-time, right? But I ended up on facebook instead, and then I felt guiltier.

I think this guilt thing is even worse because I actually work for a church. So not only do I feel like I'm shirking some kind of spiritual responsibility, but also that I'm skipping out. I spent a large part of the morning worrying about the Sunday school, because I knew two of the teachers weren't going to be there, and at least one of the subs couldn't make it, and I couldn't sub if I wasn't going to be there, and what about the youth group, and we already couldn't do our plan A for the day, which was a trip to Boston, but if I still couldn't get out of my driveway by this evening, could we even do plan B?

I sat cozy and worried on my couch for most of the morning and then 10 a.m. came and went and suddenly church was over and there was no Sunday school to worry about anymore. They either managed or they didn't, but the moment was passed, and likely everyone survived, even without my hovering presence. It dawned on me that, although I helped get a new Sunday school programme going this year, and although I more or less organise it (I say "more or less," because we all know I'm mostly less when it comes to organised), the teachers are the one who teach it, and they're all adults and they could figure out what to do. And although I do believe my church hired me because they needed someone this position, and I actually feel that God orchestrated the matching of me and the church and this job, somehow, it's also good for me to remember that I'm not indispensable. Or . . . good for me to remember that part of the point of my job is to set things up which empower other people to take leadership in the church, and that I don't have to be in control of everything (because anyway, I'm not)--if I'm really doing my job right, people should be able to make things happen (or make the decisions to cancel things, even) whether I'm there or not.

I still feel responsible for being present on a day that's supposed to be a workday. But I guess this can count as one of my sick days. I haven't had one in almost a year, and it'll be 2011 in just a few more days . . .

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Voyage of the Lost Treader

So once there was this guy named C.S. Lewis, and he wrote this amazing series of novels about a magical land called Narnia. One of the most amazing of these seven stories is called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The framework of the story is a sea voyage, but the themes are deeper themes of personal development and . . .

. . . the new movie based on this book touches on some of them, and they get in most of the key episodic elements, but I kind of feel like they missed the overall point. Also, somebody in Walden Media is clearly a Lost fan. I don't really think mini green Smoke Monsters were exactly what Lewis had in mind. Somehow. I dunno. There was also something highly reminiscent of a hatch moment, some "Others," eerie whispering voices, and some sort of nameless evil that had to be overcome by a more or less arbitrary action which, in the end, didn't seem to answer any questions or have much to do with anything.

Also, not related to Lost, the undragoning of Eustace was pretty disappointing . . . although not as disappointing as I was afraid it was going to be.

I think if you don't know the story, it was probably a decent movie as far as entertainment goes. But I just threw in a spoiler so . . . maybe not. Heh.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Happy Hallowe'en!

No. I am not confused. Not more than usual, anyway.

This is a post I was going to write around Hallowe'en, but I got distracted, and anyway, it's really just a spin-off of my annual posts about saying "Merry Christmas," so it's not totally unseasonable. Every year since at least 2007, I say something about the whole "meaning of Christmas" issue, whether it be an emphasis on Easter instead, or how sometimes applying the word Christmas to everything might border on taking God's name in vain. My basic stance is that I do not want to be censored for saying "Merry Christmas," but at the same time, I don't think everyone should have to say it, and I wonder if they even should, if Christ is not who they're celebrating.

But it's the issue of censorship I'd like to address here today. I am going to be really politically incorrect for a moment. Bear with me.

I live in New England. I don't know if it's the "witch-hunt" history (which seems to have had the ironic ultimate effect of drawing a lot of pagans to this part of the world) or the fancifulness of dressing up or a genuine fascination with dead things, but I have a lot of friends for whom Hallowe'en is their favourite holiday. And let it be their favourite holiday. It's their choice. I'm going to say, though, that I personally think it's the most hideous holiday going. Maybe it's just because I'm not a fan of the orange-and-black combination, but I think it's more that I just don't get any enjoyment out of seeing skeletons and hooded grey beings and gravestones and clawed hands coming out of the ground. It just doesn't really do it for me. I also don't really support the trend of Hallowe'en being a time for women to look as skanky as possible. I apologise for the language, but really, is there another way to put it? I'm not sure if this trend is more exploitative of women or men, but either way, I don't like it.

However, I do understand the overall appeal of dressing up and pretending and I also understand that some people genuinely like this holiday, and so if the occasion presents itself, I don't object to wishing someone a "Happy Hallowe'en." The general public doesn't either. There may be Christians or other religious groups who choose simply not to acknowledge it, but nobody goes around telling people they should say, "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" at Hallowe'en, even though it is not a purely secular holiday either. I went to my e-card-making application the other day to find a Christmas card template, and there were only two options with the word "Christmas" in them, and they were super-cheesy. Everything else was genericised. But you can find Hallowe'en cards, and they actually have the word "Hallowe'en" on them. People just say, "Happy Hallowe'en," to each other and nobody bats an eye.

So, could everyone please stop batting their eyes if I choose to say, "Merry Christmas"? Or, if I'm in the UK, where merry means tipsy, "Happy Christmas"?

Monday, December 06, 2010

Pageantry

On Saturday and Sunday my church put on their annual Christmas Pageant. People--especially the people who are in it--go nuts over this thing. My first autumn at this church, I was enlisted to be a "Traveler," in the "King's Procession," and in the "People of Other Lands," and I hadn't even seen the production yet. I mean, I know the Christmas story, of course, but I hadn't seen this version of it, and by the time it was all over, though I had a rough idea of all the components and how they all came together, I was still a little uncertain about what I had just been involved in. Mostly all I knew was that we were talking about Jesus' birth and that at the end the narrators said that one day people of all walks of life and all nations of the earth would come and worship the One who gives us life, and then there I was, a white girl in a sari, walking down the aisle.

Last year I got to opt out of the "King's Procession," but I still didn't get to see the whole production until this year, when one of our three narrators couldn't participate. I jumped at the chance. My family read aloud to each other up through the time I graduated from high school, and beyond, so I love reading and being read to. It didn't occur to me that by taking this role, I would also get a different perspective on the Pageant.

On the night of the dress rehearsal, it was not maybe such a good different perspective. Everything was chaotic and we kept having technical difficulties and the whole thing lasted far longer than I had expected or hoped. (God promises to do more than we can ask or hope, but . . . somehow that wasn't what I had in mind.)

On Saturday I had a raging migraine, such as I have not had in a long time (though I've been getting them more often again, of late). I sat up in the balcony far earlier than I needed to be there and tried to relax and stay warm and drown out the low hubbub that was going on around and below me. Then it got to be 2 o'clock and they turned off all the lights and I sat in the quiet darkness and waited for the first scene to go by before I had to read anything. The Pageant had begun.

As it went on, the pain all over began to subside, and I watched as adults and youth and children I know and care about made postcard-scenes in their bits of cloth and glitter and gold lam'e. And I noticed something strange. The best descriptor I could think of for it was Picasso's pithy saying to the effect that "Art is a lie that uncovers the truth." Here we were, a whole bunch of ordinary people, telling an extraordinary story, but not telling it in a very realistic way. There were songs and darkness and spotlights, and no one's costume was, I don't suppose, legitimately first century or Middle Eastern. We had two sheep and a donkey (who at one point almost stole the show because she did not want to exit stage left), and magi wearing bits of drapery and upholstery, and the combined effect was truly beautiful. I hadn't thought those things, which in real life would be quite tawdry, really, could have that kind of a result.

Maybe it helped that I know people here now and all the teens who played Mary and Joseph and the major angels are "my" teens in "my" youth group, but it just seemed like something about everybody's getting dressed up totally differently and putting themselves in a completely "other" context brought out things about them that highlighted who they are, that ennobled them. People carried themselves differently, or the colours they were wearing highlighted certain features about them that made them "more" than they usually seem, or someone caught just the perfect facial expression for the character they were portraying, or the spotlight hit someone just right so that they looked glorious.

Churches nowadays are really "big" on authenticity, and rightly so, I think. I'm really big on authenticity. But sometimes (and I feel I can say this because I feel I've fallen prey to it on more than one occasion) what is touted as "authenticity" turns into self-promotion or self-indulgence, and maybe it's time to recover something that other Christians of other times understood, and that was a sense of wonder and a sense of pageantry and that sometimes, while you don't want to make the costume and mask the place that you live, if they are just temporary measures, they uncover a truth greater than we would have expected.
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