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Paradox

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.  And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.  And after three days he will rise.”

Mark 10.33-34

This is really the crux (I use that word deliberately) of the Christian faith: this idea that God, at His very core, is love and goodness.  This idea, like Paul says in Romans, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”  This idea, like God tells the exiles in Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you…plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  

And yet.

And yet here is Jesus telling the disciples that he must go to the cross, and the disciples fail to understand.  Really, how could they understand?  They had left everything to follow this man.  They watched as he calmed the sea and fed 5000 and healed the blind.  Peter proclaimed he was the Messiah, and Jesus said “Blessed are you.”  This man was the embodiment of hope, of love.  This man and this rag-tag team of castoffs, the not-good-enoughs who were apprenticed to no other teacher, whose only hope was the family trade.  Now, they had Jesus.  They witnessed miracle after miracle from his hands.  Now, he tells them that he must die.

There are the disciples, unable to understand what Jesus is saying.  And most often, we stand there, too.  Most often, we cannot place the trials and worries of this life into paradox with the unblemishing promises of God.  We see marriages near us falter and fail.  Family members get sick.  We all know someone who has lost his or her job.  Friends die.  Or, to come too close: we lose hope.  Another setback — vocational, relational, whatever.  Most often, there is the darkness — the warning of death and we can’t comprehend how this can fit in God’s grand scheme.

And yet.  

And yet it is Paul, in that same letter to the Romans, who says “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  Or in Jeremiah, in the same chapter where God promises hope and a future, he tells the exiles: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”  In other words: you aren’t going home soon.  There is this terrible paradox.  The promise and the present suffering.  There is Jesus saying that he will die, and the disciples cannot understand.

And yet this is the paradox of the cross: the place where God maybe most truly meets the world.  The symbol itself is a paradox, two perpendicular lines, one reaching to heaven and the other spreading out over the earth.  It is in the paradox of the cross that we find, however faint, a hint of hope.  The death that on Saturday seems overwhelming turns out to be life-saving on Sunday.  The command to stay in Babylon does not diminish God’s plans.  The present sufferings are not worth the glory to be revealed.

And so today I hope to discover the cross in new ways, and the paradox therein.  Sometimes it is simple things that bring the darkness: a crying baby, no time to myself, being stuck inside all day.  Sometimes it is big things: an emergency C-section, a scary diagnosis, the loss of a job.  But the cross demands that we don’t see events in the short-term and in the world’s eyes.  It demands that we imagine and pray and hope for an empty tomb — something more glorious than we could understand, even if we were told.  

No, most of the time we are the disciples on the walk to Jerusalem.  We hope for a kingship.  We are met with a death.  And we are just beginning to comprehend how this death is more beautiful than we could imagine.

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Pretend…

This is exactly what it looked like

This is exactly what it looked like

I’m putting together a Christmas reading, and thought I’d sort of test it out via the blog.  Naturally, it’s a little difficult to get the real effect — it’s meant to be read live — but, hopefully you get the idea.  I’d love to get feedback, since I have time to tinker (at least until the 24th).

— Gabe

[Lights Down]

Speaker:
For four-hundred years God had not spoken.  And Israel was waiting for a Messiah.  An Emmanuel.  Think about this: four-hundred years.  It would be history that no one could remember and they could only read about and would wonder: will God ever act again?  

[Spotlight on Speaker]

Then the brutal Roman regime issued a decree, a census.  Everyone had to go to his own town to register.  A man named Joseph, a builder from the backwater town of Nazareth, had to travel to Bethlehem.  He took his fiancée, who was pregnant.  But she wasn’t pregnant from him.  She told him that the baby was from God.  Joseph was going to divorce her, because even engagement was like marriage in those times, until his dream about Mary.  Maybe this baby was from God.  Maybe God, after four-hundred years, was beginning to act again.

In Bethlehem, there wasn’t any room at the inn.  So Joseph and Mary stayed in a stable.  Stables were often caves, and they were dark and dirty places.  Here, among the reeking animals and their refuse, Mary gave birth.  Here is where God makes his entrance to the world.  Among the lowly, among the dirty, among the darkness.  Mary wrapped the baby tightly in cloths and laid him in the manger, which was probably a feeding trough carved in the cave wall.

[Person begins lighting candles in front]

We read that as God brought Jesus into the world, a star appeared.  This star marked the birth of Jesus.  God began to shine a light in the darkness.  And thousands of miles away, a group of wise men, maybe astrologers, saw the star.  They recognized its importance and began a journey to Bethlehem.

That same night, just outside of Bethlehem, there were shepherds living in the fields.  They smelt of sheep and fields and wildness; they were unsophisticated, uncivilized, unexceptional.  But that night: that night, an angel appeared to them.  The story says the glory of the Lord lit up the dark night sky around them.  And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for everyone.”  He said, “Today, in the town of David, in Bethlehem, a Savior, a Christ, has been born to you.”  The angel told them they’d find this baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.

Before they could go, a whole host of angels appeared.  This isn’t 20 or 30 angels singing a pleasant chorus, but hundreds or thousands of angels filling night the sky, filling the silence with praise, filling the darkness with light.  They sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”  And the shepherds, they would’ve had no doubt that the Lord was acting again.  The dark night sky was filled with light.  Another writer says that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

[Lights slowly up]

So these shepherds run off to find the baby Jesus.  And thousands of miles away, these wise men, these Magi, pack their camels to find the baby Jesus.  I can hear the conversations: the hushed and hurried voices, like if you speak too loudly this magical spell might break.  But it wasn’t a spell and not magic in the modern sense.  The shepherds, and later the wise men, found exactly what they were looking for, exactly what they’d been told.  Imagine what this would have been like: the smell of the stable mingling with the smell of the shepherds.  Their eyes wide in wonder, transfixed by a baby’s cry.  God himself, the Creator and King of the earth, born into the dirt and discomfort of a stable, worshipped by simple shepherds.  God put on flesh and bone and moved into the neighborhood.  He brought his light to the darkness.

And we come every year to remember this: a light has come to shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  We gather to celebrate a miraculous birth, a Savior, and a light.

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Fatherhood…

Our kid is one hip cat...

Our kid is one hip cat...

I imagine that most of my blog readers have already read Brooke’s blog.  But, if you haven’t: we are pregnant!  Brooke showed me the two little pink bars over a month ago now…which is about the right amount of time to actually understand the reality of what has transpired.

My boys can swim.

Seriously, for all you fathers-to-be out there, it’s a pretty good feeling to learn this.  It’s hard not to think about your virility and feel a little extra manly after impregnating a women.  AND, if you were trying to impregnant said woman, all the better.  My guess is that if you were trying NOT to impregnate said woman, you wouldn’t feel virile but rather…shocked…overwhelmed…afraid…come to mind.

Actually, I’ve felt all of those, too.  This is because immediately after feeling mighty proud of your ‘boys’ you realize that a baby will bring drastic changes.  Financial pressure.  Loss of sleep.  Being overwhelmed.  Stress.  Loss of sleep.  Never any time for yourself.  Never any time with your wife.  Loss of sleep.  No more freedom.  And, I’ve heard you don’t get a lot of sleep at first.

Yet, beyond all of this, I am amazed at the creativity that God bestows upon us.  In the middle of my first novel, I realize that through an act of love my wife and I created life.  I realize that she is growing that life — creating that life — inside of her body.  And I realize that a child, really, is the ultimate act of creativity and creation.  Obviously, it is physical creation.  But beyond the physical, it is spiritual creation, emotional creation, life-creation.  We have the chance to offer our child an environment of love, enabling him or her to develop emotionally.  I can take our child camping and read him or her stories and play board games and ball games.  We can teach our child about God.  We will inform his or her sense of humor, his or her outlook on life, his or her loves: of music or art, football or dancing.

Side-stepping the whole nature vs. nurture debate there is this: our child has the imprint of both of us, physically, intellectually, spiritually.  And our child will know no other home better than he or she will know our home.  Although we are not ultimately responsible for who our child becomes, we are the foremost determiners.  We provide the nurture, yes, but we also provided the nature.

So, now that we have spread the word among friends, I take a moment and think.  For a creative like myself and like my wife, this is the pinnacle of our creative participation with a creative God.  And this time now is full of anticipation and excitement.  I only hope to have such space to reflect on the miracle before me in the ensuing months and years.  Especially when I am short on sleep.

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Problem Creation

So, it has been some time since I’ve written on this blog — which Brooke pointed out to me so eloquently yesterday. (I believe the comment was, “Update your blog, dude.”) In my defense, it’s been a busy past few weeks, as I’ve been in Vermont and Iowa for a week each, and had The Gathering garage sale sandwiched in the middle. But, for Brooke and the few others who read my blog, I will now resume my normal blog writing schedule of 3 or so posts a week, for the rest of my life.

Today, a quote from Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker, a book exploring the Trinitarian Creative God and humanity made in God’s image:

“Here, you!” he will cry, “you have some trick, some pass-word, some magic formula that unlocks the puzzle of the universe. Apply it for us. Give us the solution to the problems of civilization.”

This, though excusable, is scarcely fair, since the artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation […] If, therefore, we are to deal with our “problems” in “a creative way,” we must deal with them along the artist’s lines: not expecting to “solve” them by a detective trick, but to “make something of them,” even when they are, strictly speaking, insoluble.

Sayers argues that too often we look at life as a problem to be solved, rather than as a medium for creation.  Not only artists, but all creative types (which, if you ask me, means everyone) are called to create — to make new things — when faced with “problems.”  An example she gives is the “problem” of death, mainly that we feel a “resentment and exasperation” in the face of death — by the notion that anything in this world should be inevitable.  Our efforts are not directed to make something new out of the problem, but to “solve” the problem.  Of course, the problem of death is insoluble.  It can only be faced with creativity.

In closing today (I’ll expound in coming days) I offer a creative “solution” to death — a poet’s take:

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

Crossing the Bar, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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It’s All Ritual…

So I had this thought today as I was pulling away from the bank: it’s all ritual.

Let me put it into context.  I just finished The Shack, a book that explores grief, loss, relationship, and God (mostly God).  It is a book that I both really liked and made me a little sad.  I really liked it because it explores topics such as suffering, free will, heaven, intimacy with God, guilt, among many others, and it articulates some of these frustrating theological concepts.  More than anything, it reminds me that God is a God of love and relationship, a God who is always with us and desires more than anything to be intimate with us.  For all this, I really liked it.  Additionally, it tackled some tough theological concepts (free will, anyone?) and, while certainly not offering a concrete conclusion, it does offer some insight.  It made me sad, however, for the small reason that the writing itself doesn’t have much going for it.  The ideas are great; the writing is average at best.  This makes me sad not because it won’t reach a good number of people in our culture today (it will), but because it won’t have staying power: a book that is read fifty or a hundred years later needs both ideas and writing.  I think some of the ideas have enough going for them to last fifty or a hundred years, I don’t think the writing does.

But I digress.  A line in The Shack, when God is talking to the main character, has God saying “nothing is about ritual.  It’s about relationship.”  I found myself nodding as I read this line.  Until I pulled out of the bank today.

Think about it.  What do you do before you go to bed?  Brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, etc.  How about when you get up?  Do you shower or eat breakfast first?  Do you read the paper or check news on the internet?  (I’m a breakfast-shower-internet person, myself.)  We do these things consistently because we have developed morning or evening rituals.

Brooke, during the school year, would call me everyday around 4pm.  If she didn’t call, I’d call her.  We’d ask about each other’s days and talk about what we wanted to do that night — generally not too much.  We didn’t plan it, but it became ritual over time: Brooke’s school day ended at 3:30 but she never left then and it was a good time to call and connect.  It became a ritual.

I think that we hear this word — ritual — and get scared of it.  I know I do.  I hear it and think of church services where you stand up and sit down and recite verses without thinking.  I think of being told to read my bible or pray a certain number of minutes everyday.  And, in these cases, the ritual can rob the relationship.  It can cause obligation or unthinking and unfeeling action.  But, that doesn’t mean we get rid of ritual.

Other rituals, even spiritual rituals, hold deep significance whenever I get to do them.  Communion or witnessing a baptism are reminders of who God is and who I am, of my relationship with the Creator and Redeemer God.  These rituals are central to followers of Jesus, they are symbols and reminders.  

The answer, I think, is to embrace ritual without being bound by the ritual.  Embrace ritual for the deeper meaning behind it.  I brush my teeth before bed so I don’t get cavities; I shower in the morning so I don’t smell; I call Brooke because I love her.  I need rituals in my life — and they are quite present in my life when I take a look — but don’t want them to define me.  It’s about the ritual when the meaning gets lost, when the ritual itself becomes the object.  When I read my bible because that’s what you do I am voiding a brilliant activity from the relationship that makes it brilliant.  When I read my bible every morning to connect with God, because I need connection with Him, I embrace ritual without it defining me.  Maybe I miss a morning: no big deal.  Maybe I find other ways to connect.  Good.  

I want to be someone who forms rituals and habits that make me a fuller person, more connected and alive, while never acting simply for acting’s sake.

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Sundays and Love…

It was Sunday and I rose early.  I drank black coffee and ate oatmeal while I worked on my talk.  It was still in the morning and time slowed; I moved pieces around and the clock dawdled.  It was as though I could will the clock to hesitate, and I would glance over at the lime-green clock-numbers above the stove and I was calm.  But time seems to move that way in the morning.  It does not rush.  Maybe because, while the cobwebs of sleep are leisurely swept away, I do not rush.  

Church was the rush.  I knocked over the planter that Brooke put flowers in yesterday.  Already late, I scooped up fistfuls of dirt with my hands and gently placed the flowers back in the pot.  I reminded myself that we would talk about time today and that the demands on my time that I feel often aren’t necessary.  I told Brooke about the pot before I left.  Church, now, was making more coffee — this time enough for everyone — and starting some music and putting out our sign.  It was a talk that was not as good as I wanted it.  

Much more than this, though, it was people.  People talking about God and revering God.  God, in some mystical way, with these people.  With us.

After-church is the time that I watch television and hover semi-consciously between sleep and not-sleep.  I ate pizza and did this and Brooke ran errands.  There was a golf tournament on, and these are good for semi-consciousness.  I took full advantage.

Brooke was cleaning when I got up.  We have house-guests coming tomorrow and our house was not guest-worthy.  I helped Brooke clean, some.  I did dishes and swept the stairs and cleaned out a shelf in the refrigerator where something was leaking.  I didn’t always have the best attitude as I cleaned and I wonder why I sometimes don’t do more to show Brooke that I love her.

On my desk I have a picture frame and yesterday Brooke put a new picture in it.  It is her, from a few years ago.  She’s holding the camera, which you can barely tell if you look at her left shoulder, but I know it.  She’s in the hallway downstairs and light from the front room windows overflows behind her.  She is looking right into the camera.  Her eyes are smiling; they are deep.  She’s wearing a necklace and her head is just tilted in a way that is thoughtful.  She has this half-smile on her face.  It’s a real smile but not a teeth-smile.  It is alluring and inviting and contentedly happy.  This is the photo that I look at when I work.  I cannot look at this photo without smiling.

It is Sunday night now.  Brooke is dusting and I am at the computer.  She dusts my desk — where I am sitting — and says with a smirk, “I hope this isn’t distracting.”  I look laugh.  She does, too.  She is gone in a blink and I am smiling foolishly at the computer screen.

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