Thursday, December 20, 2012

Baby Strength

      Here’s a truth you’ve probably never thought of: You can’t win an argument with a baby.  Ever notice that?  Think about it.  Babies don't try to compete, don't stand up to you, don't try to best you in an argument, and don't try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can't speak at all. You have to coax everything out of them, and that effort demands great patience.  Push at a baby too hard and it will begin to cry and the session is over.
And that is the Savior who was born in Bethlehem, and that is too how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby, God does not outgun anyone, out-muscle anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less:  innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, have us hush our voices, teach us patience, and call forth what's best in us.
The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby; it underwhelms in such a way so as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, speed, charisma, and any unstoppable force: If you were to put a baby into a room with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world,  the baby would win every time.  Something about the baby's powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God, and that is the message of Christmas to those who have ears to hear.
But we have always been slow to understand this; we want our messiahs to possess more immediate power.   And we are in good company here, because for centuries the Jews longed for a messiah who would be kind of a human superhero, someone with the earthly muscle to bang heads together and rid the world of evil by might as well as right. 
Even John the Baptist expected the messiah to come with that kind of power. He was concerned with justice and repentance, but with a sackcloth and ashes—or, rather, camel hair and leather—kind of attitude.   He warned people of an approaching time of reckoning and expected the longed-for messiah to come precisely as a violent fire, a winnowing fan that would separate the bad from the good and burn up the former with a righteousness that came straight from God.  When he heard reports of Jesus gently inviting sinners in rather than casting them off, John was scandalized.  That wasn’t the kind of a messiah he expected.  Why, that wasn’t any kind of messiah at all.  Jesus didn't fit his expectations or his preaching. That's why Jesus, in sending a response to him, invites John not to be scandalized in him.  John hadn't wanted a gentle, vulnerable, peace-preaching messiah.  He wanted bad people punished, not converted.  But, to his credit, once he saw how Jesus' power worked, he got it.  He accepted a deeper truth, stepped back, and pointed people in Jesus' direction.   “He must increase and I must decrease. I'm not even worthy to untie his scandal strap!”
We too are slow to understand. Like John the Baptist, our impatience for truth and justice makes us want and expect a messiah who comes in earthly terms, all talent and muscle, banging heads together so as to rid the planet of falsehood and evil. We want the kind of messiah we see at the end of every Hollywood thriller, Mother Theresa turned into Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis, beating up the bad guys with a violence they can only envy.
But that's not the Christmas story.  That’s not the kind of power that God wields.  An infant lying in the straw in Bethlehem didn't outgun anyone. He just lay there, waiting for anyone, good or bad, to come to him, to see his helplessness, to feel a tug at his or her heart strings, and then gently try to coax a smile or a word out of him.
That's still how God meets us.
You can try to argue with that, but you won’t win.  Like John the Baptist, our ways must decrease, and his way—that of a baby—must increase.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


This time of year there is a lot of talk about virgins.  Well, one in particular.  Actually, when a lot of evangelicals talk about the virgin birth, they stay away from Mary.  Talking about the Virgin Mary is too Catholic and might lead to excessive Mary-veneration, and down the slippery slope of papacy we go!   No, evangelicals prefer to talk about the virgin birth of Jesus, as if he was the only important one involved.  The virgin birth is important because it demonstrates that Jesus did not descend from an earthly father.  He is God’s Son, and if a virgin birth doesn’t prove it, what does?  So the virgin birth tells us something important about Jesus, but nothing, really, about Mary.  Or you and me.
In other words, if all the virgin birth does  is point to Jesus’ divine nature, then it is one of those things about him that we can admire but not imitate.  Like the feeding of the 5,000, which is one of those really cool things that Jesus did but none of us should ever try, so also with the virgin birth.  It’s pretty cool, but none of us can do it ourselves.
But there is a moral challenge within the virgin birth which we shouldn’t ignore, something which invites imitation rather than just admiration.  To help us see this we need to briefly skip from Jesus’ birth to his death.  In those days tombs—usually caves—would contain the bones of numerous family members, but the gospel writers note that Jesus’ body was laid in a new, unused tomb.
Connection 1: Virgin womb, virgin tomb.
Luke adds that Joseph of Arimathea, who gave the tomb for Jesus burial, was “waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”  And after he was laid in the tomb the women had to wait until the Sabbath was over before they could anoint Jesus’ body.  That’s a lot of waiting going on.
Connection 2: A virgin is a young woman who waits.
Oh, it would be easy to make this about sex, but the virgin birth isn’t primarily about sex before, within, or outside of marriage; it’s primarily about waiting.  The virgin birth is about waiting  rather than acting, patience rather than impatience, reverence rather than irreverence, respect rather than disrespect, and accepting to live in tension and even frustration rather than giving up and giving in to desire.   A virgin's heart accepts the pain of inconsummation rather than sleeping with the bride before the wedding.
It is from the virgin womb  that Jesus was born, and it is from the virgin tomb that Jesus also was “born” again.  Both emphasize what kind of heart and soul is needed to create the space wherein something divine can be born.
We all know only too well that our lives are full of most everything that is not virginal or pure: impatience, disrespect, irreverence, manipulation, cynicism, egotism, pride, etc.; and, as we also all know, within this matrix no messiah can be conceived and nurtured.
Only virgins' wombs bring forth messiahs because they alone live in Advent, waiting for a bridegroom who is late, who is hopelessly late, beyond the eleventh hour.  And still the virgin waits, trusting that the bridegroom has not forgotten nor forsaken her.
Still ,the virgin waits, refusing all other suitors who tell her that waiting is for fools, that her bridegroom is never coming, that waiting is unnatural.
Still, the  virgin waits, refusing impatience, delaying passion, ignoring the urge of flesh on flesh and a divine Kingdom on human terms.
Messiahs are only born in virginity's space, within virginity's patience.
Letting love be gift.
And God be God.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Nobody likes to hear those words.  As children we were told that all the time, and we never liked it.  As adults we’ve all had to say it to a child or two.  Children don’t like to be told to wait.  If there is something good that they want, they want it now and can’t understand why they can’t have it now.  It’s part of the maturing process to learn how to wait.
Still, even as adults, nobody likes to be told to wait.  We’ve perhaps grown used to it, maybe come to accept it, but, still, nobody likes to hear it.  “Wait” means there is something you want, and you want it now, but you aren’t going to get it now.  You never have to be told to wait for something you don’t want or need.  “I'm going to question your integrity and impugn your character, but not right now; you are just going to have to wait.”  No, there is usually an element of anticipation in the notion of waiting.  You want something, you want it now, but you can’t have it now.  You have to wait.
It’s common now to say that we are not as good at waiting now as we used to be, that in this age of instant gratification, of microwave dinners and faster and faster computers that our waiting muscles aren’t as developed as they used to be.  There may be some truth to that.  Two-hundred years ago it could take a letter weeks or even months to get from one person to another, depending on the distance it had to travel.  Then came the locomotive cutting that time down, then the truck, then the airplane.  I remember when airmail was something special that you paid extra for that could cut delivery down to a couple of days; FedEx made it that normal.  When email came along messages could be delivered around the world instantly.  If I was away from my computer they would all be waiting for me when I got back.  Now I don't even have to wait for that—I have two devices, my tablet and my phone, from which I can get email, and since I'm rarely without my phone, I literally get mail almost as soon as it is sent.  So, yeah, we don’t have to wait for a lot of things the way we used to, and maybe that has impaired the waitability of this age over previous generations.
But I'm not so sure.  I'm not sure that waiting has ever been something we’ve been that good at.  Impatience isn’t a new condition; after all, Paul wouldn’t have listed patience among the fruit of the Spirit if impatience wasn’t naturally a fruit of the Flesh.
For kids, the Christmas season is a time of waiting and anticipation, and what makes it hard for children is that they have little concept of time—telling them to wait a week is like telling them to wait a month, they have no concept of how long that really is.  And, my goodness, tell them to wait a month and you might as well tell them to wait a lifetime.  That’s how it feels, anyway.  Do you remember that?  And that’s because, perhaps paradoxically, time moves slowly for a child.  For an adult months blow by like pieces of paper in a tornado, but for a child a month lasts forever.  Waiting is excruciating when time moves slowly.
But it’s one thing to wait for something you want; it’s another thing to have to wait for something you need.  That’s when time really does seem to move slowly.
This is the season of Advent.  It’s a season of waiting.  Advent lasts for roughly a month, but it commemorates a wait that lasted for over four hundred years.  After the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroying the temple and the city wall and carrying off the son of David who was the king, the people had to wait.  They had to wait for God to return to Zion and for another son of David to become king.    Understandably, after a couple of hundred years a lot of people gave up waiting.  They either gave up on the dream, or they gave up waiting and tried to force the action with a sword.  Either way, when God did return and the king did arrive—and in the same person, which no one anticipated—they couldn’t see it.   
The only ones who saw it were the ones who, with great faith and undying hope, still waited.

I'm Back

For those of you who look forward to reading my stuff...sorry, I've been neglectful the last few weeks.  I'll try to catch up in the next few days and try not to let it happen again.

Thanks for hanging with me.