Grace and Grit: The Gospel of Carrie Fisher

nefncm69h5dnil_1_a

The word Gospel means “Good News” or “Glad Tidings”.  Gospel comes to us in many forms and never in ways that we expect.

That’s why I view the life of Carrie Fisher as a sort of Gospel.

Most of the world knew Fisher as Leia Organa, the brilliant, courageous princess with a smart mouth who would one day rise to become General Organa, a leader in the constant battle against the forces of the Dark Side.

Fisher was a mere 19 years old when she originated the role of Leia, creating a hero for girls everywhere.  In Leia, young girls were given the chance to see a hero who looked like them.  No shrinking violet or damsel in distress.  She more than held her own among the men and demonstrated that heroism, bravery, courage, and wit were not defined by or limited to a specific gender.  Perhaps just as important, the character of Leia served as a powerful reminder to boys that their female counterparts were every bit as capable when it came to saving the world.  If Fisher had done nothing more than act as Leia, the world would owe her a debt of gratitude.

But she didn’t stop there.  Fisher had a real life outside of General Leia Organa.  It was a brilliant, heartbreaking, hurricane of a life and she was brave enough to share it with the outside world.

She struggled with bipolar disorder, speaking openly about the difficulties of living with mental illness.  She worked as a “script doctor” working on iconic films like “Hook”, “Sister Act”, and “The Wedding Singer”.   She battled alcohol and drug addiction and wrote about both in her one woman play and memoirs.  Her candor served as a lifeline to people struggling with similar issues.  She battled the sexism and ageism inherent in her industry and somehow managed to keep a sense of humor throughout it all.

As a man who struggled with alcohol addiction/drug abuse, and continues to battle clinical depression, I look at her life and I see Good News.  I draw strength from the fact that, rather than cowering in shame, she confronted her demons head on, battling them with a smile, a sharp remark, clenched fists, and an open heart.

If the Good News means anything, surely it means this.  No matter how broken our lives, no matter how hard the struggle, we can overcome.  And we can lift up others in the process.

I think Carrie Fisher did just that.  She showed us how to live with grit and grace.

On December 27, 2016 Carrie Fisher passed away, but people will continue to be blessed by her story, by the art she created, and the life that she lived.

Rest well Carrie.

May the Force Be With You.

Post Script – Some Excerpts from the Gospel of Carrie Fisher:

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

“Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They’re the temporary happy byproducts of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either.”  

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside). At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die”

“I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there’s something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly it’s not something that you’re in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it, putting it into your words, can be a very powerful experience.”

“But I think if you have the expectation that you’re going to be happy throughout your life—more to the point, if you have a need to be comfortable all the time—well, among other things, you have the makings of a classic drug addict or alcoholic.”

“I am mentally ill. I can say that. I am not ashamed of that. I survived that, I’m still surviving it, but bring it on. Better me than you.”

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to BE art.”

 

Where Are You Christmas?

Moment of candor:  I’ve had a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit this year.

It’s frustrating, because I love Christmas.  I love watching holiday movies by Rankin & Bass.  I love listening to Christmas Carols, both secular and religious.  I love driving around town and looking at the light displays with my family.  I love Christmas cookies, fires in the fireplace, and hot chocolate warmed on the stove top.  I even love bad Christmas sweaters.  Big, loud, sweaters with tacky designs?  What’s not to love?

The Christmas Eve service at church is one of my favorite all year.  The choir sings hymns like Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem.  At the end of the night we dim the lights and the entire congregation holds up lit candles representing the birth of Jesus, the coming of light into darkness.

I LOVE Christmas.

But I’ve struggled with it this year.

It’s not just the abject consumerism that comes with the holiday.  I enjoy giving and getting gifts as much as the next person.  I don’t like how carried away people get, how the spirit of the holiday gets swallowed up by Black Friday mentality,  but I still enjoy finding the “perfect” gift for people I care about.  

The news hasn’t helped.  Every day it seems more grim.  Political divisions in the U.S.  Racial tensions.  Conflict Aleppo, Syria.  Terror attacks in Germany, and Switzerland.  Assassination in Turkey.  Talk of bringing back the nuclear arms race.  

It’s unsettling.  It’s frightening.   It makes it hard to sing about “Peace on Earth Good Will Toward Men”.

I’m trying to find a way through it, to get back to Christmas, because in some ways I feel like I’ve lost it this year.

Then again, maybe I’m missing the point.  Maybe this feeling is exactly why we need Christmas.

I’m reminded of a story my old Pastor Dennis Wilkinson used to tell.  He regularly went to prisons as part of the Kairos Ministry.  I remember him telling us that they held a Christmas service in the prison gym.  The inmates stood in a ring with their backs against the walls, presumably for safety sake.  I remember Pastor Wilkinson telling us that they sang the hymn, “O Holy Night” and how the inmates sang it with ragged passion.  When they sang the line, “Fall on your knees,” they belted it out with every fiber of their being.  In prison, somehow they understood that the coming of the Christ meant freedom for captives.  Christmas meant something infinitely more than pretty lights, tinsel, and packages with pretty bows.  It meant that freedom had come.

When I re-read the nativity story, it becomes obvious that this feeling of uncertainty and fear was part of the first Christmas too.  Jesus was born into an occupied country, ruled by a petty, vindictive dictator.  Threats of armed rebellion and violent suppression by the empire were a constant reality.  Religious infighting reared its head around every corner.  

This is the world Jesus came into.  This is why Jesus came.  Because we desperately need Him.  We need the hope that only He can give.

I’ll be honest, even though I know this I still feel anxious.  I still have a hard time pulling myself away from the endless flood of bad news.  I feel overwhelmed.  But I’m trying.  I’m trying to remember that this is WHY we celebrate Christmas.  Because the world was (and is) lost and God came looking for it.  

He came into brokenness.  He came into fear and uncertainty.  

He came into darkness and brought light.

Merry Christmas.

 

Silent All These Years: Gender Equality and the Church

The year 2016 taught me many things.  Perhaps one of the most distressing was discovering the deep vein of sexism that still runs through the modern world.  It’s actually a bit embarrassing to admit that it surprised me as much as it did.  It speaks to the inherent privilege I experience every day by an accident of birth and gender.

Donald Trump’s “locker room talk”.  Jeff Sessions stating that grabbing a woman’s genitals may not be sexual assault.   Social media users making on-line threats of rape and making casual use of derogatory terms for women.  Judges handing out slaps on the wrist to rapists like Stanford student Brock Turner.  

A Huffington Post article, released in October, highlighted the sense of insecurity that women are forced to live with everyday, detailing reasons why ⅔ of sexual harassment and assault cases go unreported.  The article shares tweets and stories from women around the world explaining why they were too afraid to report abuse they experienced.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-women-dont-report-hashtag_us_57ffeb84e4b05eff55829017

Some of our misogyny is so ingrained that we hardly recognize it as a problem.  Terms like “runs/fights/throws” like a girl are considered insulting because femininity is somehow considered a weakness or liability.  The objectification of women from billboards and television, to sporting events is considered harmless entertainment.   

None of this addresses the continuing issues women face worldwide: lack of quality healthcare, honor killings, human trafficking, genital mutilation, the list goes on and on.

The women I know felt no surprise to see the level of violence and vitriol expressed toward women in recent months.  A fair number of my female friends have experienced violent sexual assault and ALL of them have faced sexual harassment and discrimination of some kind.  For them, it was just another reminder that being a woman is not safe.

You’d think that the Church would be a haven from this, but sadly this is often not the case.  There are still many Christian denominations that reject women as clergy.  For instance, when Irving Bible Church in Texas took on Jackie Roese as preacher, another local pastor named Rev. Tom Nelson had this to say:

“If the Bible is not true and authoritative on the roles of men and women, then maybe the Bible will not be finally true on premarital sex, the homosexual issue, adultery or any other moral issue,” he said. “I believe this issue is the carrier of a virus by which liberalism will enter the evangelical church.”

http://www.dennyburk.com/first-female-preacher-at-irving-bible-church/

Countless Christian books exist instructing women on how to be submissive to their husbands.  Some go so far as to suggest that women are responsible if their partners or husbands have affairs or assault them.  Many conservative Christians have even come to view the idea of being feminist and Christian as antithetical terms.

I disagree.

Feminism, by definition, is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.  This is an inherently Christian concept.

In the Gospels, we see examples of Jesus treating women as equals of men.  Women sat at his feet while he taught, a place typically reserved for a rabbi’s disciples (Luke:10:39).  Women were the first to see the risen Christ and the first to proclaim the Good News of His resurrection (Mark 16:9 & Matthew 28:1-10).

In Galatians 3:28 Paul says:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Even the Old Testament, which has many troubling passages regarding women, begins by describing both men and women as made in the image of God.  

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Curiously, one of the verses frequently used to subjugate women actually has a more nuanced and progressive meaning than most realize.  In Genesis 2:18 God says,

““It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

The term for helper is “Ezer Kenegdo”.  Some scholars point out that the word’s roots trace back to the Hebrew words for “rescue” and “strength”.  In fact, in most instances the term “ezer” is used to described God when helping mankind.  It is not a term of subordination, but of strength.

http://www.godswordtowomen.org/ezerkenegdo.htm

As a man, I apologize if I have ever, knowingly or unknowingly, contributed to any of these issues.  As a member of the Church, I apologize for ways that the Church has betrayed the cause of women.

Women were never intended to be second class to men.  Not in the Church.  Not in the world.  They were never intended to be silent.  We need women’s voices.

 

Six Subversive Christian Books

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the line people began to think of the term “Christian” and “Subversive” as mutually exclusive.  It’s an odd development given that the life and teachings of Jesus were both radically subversive.   The early days of the church were also revolutionary.  Believers rejected the deification of Caesar, dispersed their belongings among the poor, and refused to participate in Rome’s military industrial complex.  Many members of the early church were beaten, arrested and ultimately executed for their faith.  That rarely happens to people who simply go with the flow.

You’d never suspect this looking through the Christian section of a bookstore.  Most of the books resemble nothing more than a self help seminar for the well to do.  

The sad fact is that somewhere along the line the Church became self absorbed, concerned less with spreading the Good News than in maintaining a comfortable status quo.

Martin Luther King Jr. warned of the cancer that this type of mindset becomes to the body of the church.

“If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority,” King said.  

Luckily, there are still some writers of faith that burn with this prophetic zeal. Here is a list of six subversive Christian books that I think everyone should read.

 

  • Letters & Papers From Prison – Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian from Germany during the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.  He became part of what was known as the “confessing church”, which maintained opposition to Hitler’s message.  He was eventually jailed and executed.  The letters and papers he wrote during his imprisonment are a revelation for believers.  Bonhoeffer discusses faith in the modern world, the perils of cheap grace, and the cost of being a disciple of Christ.  
  • The Irresistible Revolution – Shane Claiborne: A self described “reformed redneck” Claiborne is part of the New Monastic movement known as the Simple Way.  As part of the Simple Way, Claiborne has worked for social justice in the heart of Philadelphia, travelled to Middle East during the American conflicts in the region, fought to end the death penalty, and acted to further racial and economic equality.  This book details his faith journey and the creation of Simple Way.
  • The Year of Biblical Womanhood – Rachel Held Evans: Televangelist Pat Robertson once said that, “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”  With views like this, it’s amazing that brilliant, outspoken women still bother with the church.  Lucky for us, Rachel Held Evans is one such woman.  In this book, she examines the idea of Biblical womanhood and what it means.  Along the way she tackles women’s issues across the globe, the role of women in the modern church, modesty, violence against women, and more, all with equal doses of insight, humor and compassion.
  • Assimilate or Go Home: Notes of a Failed Missionary – D.L. Mayfield:  The plight of refugees may be the most urgent and pressing moral issue facing the world right now.  The last few years have seen an explosion in refugees and migrants worldwide, particularly from war torn locations like Syria.  Mayfield’s book details her years working and living with Somali Bantu refugees.  The book begins with the starry eyed idealism she brought to mission work, before diving into the challenges, doubts, and insecurities it exposed, as well as the joys, growth, and blessings she gained living among some of the world’s most forgotten people.
  • Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived – Rob Bell: This is the book that made the Evangelical world explode.  Bell, founder of Mars Hill church and author of books like “Velvet Elvis” and “Drops Like Stars” decided to challenge traditional concepts of hell, while addressing how the preoccupation with eschatology has led us to ignore the powerful message that Jesus called us to live in this world here and now.  Bell discusses how Jesus’s teachings focused on a radical vision for building the Kingdom of God in the world rather than the Christian preoccupation with escaping it.   After the book was published, Evangelicals largely decried Bell as a heretic who had abandoned the true faith.
  • Tattoos on the Heart – Fr. Gregory Boyle: In 1992, Father Gregory Boyle founded Homeboy Industries after years spent working in Los Angeles with gangs and at risk youth.  The project began as a job training program that led to the creation of several businesses employing former gang members and the recently incarcerated.  Along the way, Boyle facilitated reconciliation between rival gang members, developed friendships, celebrated successes, and mourned deaths.  The book is not a memoir, but a meditation on building Christ centered community and the belief that God wants everyone as part of His kingdom.

The world desperately needs our passionate engagement.  We are called to build God’s Kingdom on Earth.  These books are a good primer for how we can do just that.

 

Balloon Animals, Fuzzy Socks, And Hobbits: Doing the Little Things

I make balloon animals.  

I’ve done it for a few years.

It started with Wally Boag.  I saw a recording of him performing at the Golden Horseshoe in Disneyland.  I fell in love with his slapstick antics and the joy he brought people through his balloon animals.  I decided that I would learn.

I started studying different balloon twists and learning how to make things like a dog, a toucan, a bear, and even an iris.  I’d sit at home making animals until they lined our entertainment center.  Our kids had more balloons than they knew what to do with.  The apartment looked like a latex menagerie.  

Somewhere along the line I read the Shane Claiborne books “The Irresistible Revolution” and “Jesus For President”.  They are full of prophetic vision.  Claiborne and his co-conspirators started the Simple Way, an organization that they refer to as the “new monasticism”.  They moved into a reclaimed building in a poor part of downtown Philadelphia and became active members of the community, hosting meals, providing children with school supplies, and engaging in other charitable activities.  Beyond that, they became friends with their neighbors, playing and praying with them.  They made community gardens and played games with local kids.  Claiborne even has special pockets on his pants that he reserves for sidewalk chalk and bubbles, because you never know when the chance to spread a little joy will appear.

Rather than performing their good deeds from a distance, or as good deed tourists, Claiborne moved in and developed lasting relationships.

I decided I wanted to try it.

One day I went on my front stoop and started twisting balloons while my son played with his friends.  Before long kids from all over the apartment complex were lining up.  I made them swords and ray guns.  They chased each other around the complex with their new weapons, laughing and playing together.

It proved good practice.  Later in the year my church asked if I would work our annual Halloween festival as a balloon artist.  Hundreds of people came to the event and I made balloons until well after dark.  By the time I was done my hands ached and I had raw spots on my fingers.  

It was worth it.  The looks on the kid’s faces were priceless.  

14917064_10210183758448187_5503557018288760468_o

I’ve done it at several churches since and it is always a blast.  I find it impossible to turn kids away.  Even when the other booths shut down, I seem completely incapable of packing up until every kid (and adult!) has a balloon.

Does it change any lives?  I doubt it.  It didn’t end the wars going on across the globe, or put food in the bellies of the hungry.  It didn’t eradicate disease.  The kids have probably already forgotten they ever got the balloons.

But for a moment….

For just a moment they were happy.  I don’t know anything about the kid’s personal lives.  Chances are some of them aren’t very happy, but by doing a little thing I could make them forget their troubles.  Even if their lives are fine, it added a bit of joy to the world and God knows we could all use more of that.

My wife Kara started a similar venture.  Shortly after the election in November, she decided that she wanted to do something to bring happiness into a world that seemed to be sinking into anger and hatred.  She decided that she would start committing random acts of kindness.

Kara loves spa socks.  They make her feel warm, comfortable, and pampered.  She wanted other people to feel the same.  She started buying extra pairs when she went to the grocery store.  She hands them out to random women in the parking lot.  They way she sees it, the women could be stressed, they could have had a long day at work, could be going through illness or family troubles, and her gift might make them feel a tiny bit better.

We tend to think of kingdom work in grand sweeping terms, but I think a lot of it takes place with little acts of kindness done everyday, with seemingly mundane things that the majority of the world overlooks.  A smile.  A kind word.  An act of friendship.  

There’s a scene in the movie version of the Hobbit that sums this up.  Gandalf and Galadriel are talking and Galadriel asks him why he chose Bilbo Baggins for his mission.  Hobbits, after all, are tiny.  They are domestic.  They have no grand ambitions.  If you were looking to save the world, they are the last people you would select.  Fellow wizard Saruman does not see their value.  He plots and plans to save Middle Earth by seizing power and using it to force the change he wants.  But Gandalf treasures the very traits that Saruman views as useless.

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check but that is not what I have found,” he says. “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”

In a world that struggles along in darkness, may we all have the courage to be little sparks of light.  

May we all be Hobbits.

P.S. I would love it if readers would share their own random acts of kindness stories in the comments section!

 

 

Comic Books, Psalms, and Grief

It’s odd the way the mind makes connections.  A single thought or feeling can lead us down unexpected roads.

This happened to me recently.

A few weeks ago I read the graphic novel “Sisters” by the ever delightful Raina Telgemeier.  It tells the story of Raina and her younger sister Amara, tracking their relationship from Amara’s birth to a road trip taken years later in the midst of a family crisis.  Along the way we get glimpses of the joys and frustrations of family, creating a beautiful illustration of the unbreakable bond between siblings.

In the end, the love Raina and Amara share is big enough to hold all of the complicated emotions associated with their relationship.  Because that is what love does.

When I finished the book, I immediately sent a note to my sister Janelle, telling her how lucky I was to grow up with her.  My mind flooded with a million memories.  Playing in the snow together.  Attending talent shows to watch her dance.  Going out together for frozen yogurt as adults.  Chatting about our artistic ambitions and promoting each other’s work.  I felt indescribably blessed.

But I had another reaction to the book too.  It created a twinge of sadness that opened up old wounds.

I have two children, a nine year old boy and a three year old girl.  My wife Kara and I didn’t intend to have them so far apart.  In fact, we started trying to have another child after my son’s third birthday.  We’d hoped that we could have several children, close enough to grow up as close companions and partners in crime.

Getting pregnant the first time had been easy.  People told us to be patient, that it would probably take months, but it happened almost immediately.  We had no way of anticipating that the next six years would be filled with negative pregnancy tests, doctor’s visits, and miscarriages.  

At first it seemed like things would be just as easy the second time around.  It took a few months longer, but before long Kara was pregnant.  We breathlessly called our parents to share the good news.  We sat our son down and explained that he would be a big brother and he gleefully started calling the new baby “Peanut”.  Within a few weeks all of our friends and family had been told the news.

We floated on air for days.  I even scheduled time off from work so that I could be with Kara when she heard the baby’s heartbeat for the first time.

The day of the appointment we dropped our son off at my parent’s house and drove to the doctor’s office.  We waited in giddy anticipation as the doctor searched for a heartbeat.  

After a few seconds we noticed a look of concern cross the doctor’s face.  He continued searching for a beat, but told us that he wasn’t finding anything.  He explained that we would need to get an ultrasound to get a more definitive answer, but that we should prepare for the idea that we might lose the baby.

The days that followed went by in a blur of tension, fear, and near constant prayer.  We begged God for a miracle.

For a time, it seemed like our prayers were answered.  We attended the ultrasound and found out that, yes, we had lost the baby, but that my wife was actually pregnant with twins.  The second baby had a heartbeat.  We felt a mix of grief at losing one, but profound joy that God saw fit to answer our prayer in such an unexpected way.

A few weeks later we lost them both.

I remember alternating between rage, despair and a sense of dazed numbness.  I developed feelings of anger toward the people around me.  I couldn’t understand how their world kept turning when mine was crashing down.  I cried and raged at God, demanding to know what He was doing.  Why a miscarriage?  And worse, why give us false hopes with the discovery of the second baby just to take them both away?

We were forced into awkward conversations with friends and family.  They would call to ask how the pregnancy was progressing and we would explain what happened.  Each time the wound ripped back open, exposing the anger and grief associated with the loss.

A year later, it happened again.

There were differences.  We didn’t know we were pregnant when the next miscarriage occurred, but it was still devastating.

Well meaning people kept trying to comfort us.  They offered the typical platitudes.  It wasn’t the right time.  It was part of God’s plan.  It happened for a reason.  None of it helped.  In fact, it made things worse, as though we were supposed to be okay with our loss because it was part of some grand, beautiful design.  

As humans, we seem hardwired to look for these kinds of answers.  When tragedy strikes we immediately ask why, as though knowing the cause will somehow act as a salve.  It rarely does.  The entire book of Job explores why bad things happen, only to come to the ultimate conclusion that even if God explained it we wouldn’t understand.

We then compound the pain by making it unacceptable to feel the anger and doubt that come with loss.  We question God and then feel guilty for asking the questions, as though our feelings were somehow sinful.

I think the book of Psalms should help us dispel this illusion.  King David, whom the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart, writes verse after verse alternating between praise, anger, doubt, and despair, all directed toward God.  He even accuses God of being unfaithful to His promises.  

I think David understood that God’s love is big enough to hold our anger, fear, and despair. 

If you are reading this, you’ve probably experienced loss.  If you haven’t, I’m sad to say that you will.  When it happens, you will probably ask ‘Why?’ and the truth is that you’ll probably never get an answer, at least not one that satisfies you.  I wish I could say something different, but I can’t.

I can tell you that it gets better, but it takes time.  Grief moves in fits and starts and never in a straight line toward healing.  You get there when you get there.

Along the way, my prayer is that you will remember that it is okay to question, okay to feel anger and doubt, to feel rage and despair.  The great God of the Universe is big enough to hold you and all of your emotions.

God is love.

That is what love does.

The Magnificat: God’s Heart for the Poor

I love the focus on storytelling and remembrance in the Judaic tradition.  Throughout the Old Testament we read countless passages instructing the people of Israel to remember the mighty works of God, to tell the stories and history of Israel to their children, and to write them on their hearts.  The repetition of these stories helps imprint them in the collective consciousness of the people, giving them a source of strength in times of difficulty.  

My family has a tradition of re-enacting the Nativity story each Christmas Eve.  The kids dress up as the various characters while the adults read from the Bible.  I did it as a kid, my mom did it when she was young, and now my kids do it.  Growing up, it helped the story come alive for me, even when it drifted into the absurd.  For instance, instead of Mary riding a donkey, she had to ride a giant stuffed tiger.  Because we didn’t have a big stuffed donkey.

To help you visualize, here is a scene from the play.  I think I am supposed to be the Virgin Mary.  My baby sister is Jesus.  It was a gender bending production:

12621945_10205938576293091_6384207029985167791_o

Another example of things getting a bit silly:  We didn’t usually stop the story at Jesus’s birth.  In fact, we went so far as to include Simeon blessing Jesus.  I played most of the roles in the play and in an attempt to depict Simeon’s age I decided that he needed a beard.  My solution?  I put a white sock between my teeth so that it dangled below my chin like a beard.  I also draped a sock over my head to simulate white hair.

This is me as Simeon:

12496383_10205938512611499_6425084043289857372_o

Curiously, I don’t remember us reading the Magnificat.  I seem to recall that we told the story of the Annunciation.  We even read Mary’s humble declaration, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38, KJV), but we didn’t make it as far as her song of praise.  It’s too bad, because it is one of the most powerful and subversive texts in the entire story.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.   For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  And his mercy is for those who fear him  from generation to generation.   He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel,  in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Everything about the song is stunning.  It gives us a window into God’s heart for the poor and the marginalized. As an impoverished, unwed, teenage mother, Mary could not have been further from the centers of social and religious power.  Yet in this song, she declares that she will be known for generations as blessed, and that God will lift high the lowly and pull down the mighty.  It is a message that should be greeted with rejoicing by those living on the margins of society, and with more than a bit of trepidation by those who are not.  In many ways, it sets the tone for Christ’s entire ministry, a ministry that would invert traditional ideas of power and righteousness, a ministry that would declare the first last and the last first.  It tells us that God actively works for the poor and forgotten.

This brings me in a roundabout way to another story.

From the age of two to five, I lived in a single parent household.  My mom raised me while working and attending college.  They were difficult years and for a time we lived well below the poverty line.  

At age five my mom remarried and we found ourselves pulled out of constant need.  In later years, she would frequently tell me this story.  

One day we found ourselves with no food or money.  Our cupboards were empty.  We had nothing.  

That same day, we got a knock on the door.  A member of my mom’s church had come to check on us.  When she realized our dire situation, she took my mom to the grocery store and stocked our cupboards with food and other basic necessities.  When my mom talked about repaying her, she firmly said no.

“Someday you’ll have the chance to do this for someone else,” she said. “You do it for them and that’s how you’ll repay me.”

In that moment, she was acting as the hands of God on earth.  She understood that as Christians we are called to be “little Christs”.  We are required to care about what He cares about.  We are expected to fulfill the promise that Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat.

It is important that we tell these stories.  As a parent, I will tell my children the stories of the Bible.  I will teach them the Magnificat.  And I will tell them the story of the woman who brought it to life for my family.  I will repeat them over and over again until they are written on their hearts, so that they too can help give life to the promises of God.

A Season Of Waiting

The Advent season has begun.

For my family, that means driving around town to look at Christmas lights, watching television specials like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.  We’ll burn logs in the fireplace and my wife will make hot chocolate on the stove top.  Chances are, we’ll sing songs like Silent Night and Jingle Bells more times than we can count.  If the past is any indicator, my son will imagine sci-fi fantasy battles while listening to Christmas Eve/Sarajevo by Trans Siberian Orchestra, and my wife and I will discuss why Baby, It’s Cold Outside is the most unsettling holiday song of all time.

Our town has special traditions as well.  Every year we have a light parade that ends in a tree lighting at City Hall.  The parade has been rained out the last few years, so our newest city tradition is cancelling the parade.  One day this month, carolers from the Community Chorale will stroll around Old Town singing on street corners and in diners.

10849096_10154804232455018_3046186462998498395_o 

One neighborhood in town decorates their homes with the 12 Days of Christmas and every year our family drives down the street singing the song at the top of our lungs.  We rarely make it through without mixing up verses.  It doesn’t matter.  The only line we really care about is, “Five Golden Rings!” which we sing at the top of our lungs.  In another neighborhood there is a gentleman who dresses up as Santa Claus and greets children from a wooden sleigh in his front yard.  He’s being doing this for almost thirty years.  I visited him as a child, and now I take my own kids to see him.

1929715_10207606969470073_4770750551897505529_n

All in all, the month leading up to Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year.  It is a season filled with warmth and anticipation.  

Of course, there is another side to the season.  Advent, at its core, is a time of waiting.  If Christmas is a day to celebrate the birth of light into the world, Advent is a time to recognize that we are in darkness and in need of the light.  To understand the joy of Christmas, we have to recognize the deep brokenness that makes Christmas necessary.

A quick look at the news is enough to make us all feel uncertain and fearful, in desperate need of light and healing.  

Lutheran Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached often on this subject.

“The Celebration of Advent is possible to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” (Bonhoeffer, from a sermon delivered Dec. 2, 1928, from the book Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons).

This is the contradiction at the heart of the holiday.  We are caught in a state of limbo.  We have hope and cheer, because we know the light is coming.  We sense confusion and despair because we can see the darkness and uncertainty all around us.  

I am reminded of my friends Bob and Liz.  

Every year they have decorate their front yard with a brilliant miasma of Christmas lights and trains.  Their house has become an institution in town.  For weeks, cars can be seen up and down their street as people drive by to look at the display.  Many park and get out to take a closer look.  Most nights, Bob and Liz are sitting out front to greet their visitors, chatting about the trains, the lights, and treating total strangers like lifelong friends.

About a year ago, Bob was diagnosed with cancer.  

The months since that initial diagnosis have been a roller coaster of ups and downs, successes and frustrations.  Anyone who has ever been affected by cancer knows what this is like.  There’s a perpetual feeling of “one step forward and two steps back,”of the hope associated with treatment and the uncertainty that comes from knowing that success is never guaranteed.  On top of the psychological tension is the physical exhaustion and pain that comes from treatment.

With all of this happening, everyone would understand if the family decided to skip the trains and lights.  The process typically takes days.  It involves building wooden platforms for trains, stringing the lights, and arranging dozens of hand painted sets for the trains to travel through.  The other side of the yard is typically covered with a Nativity scene and piles of packages listing the “true gifts” of Christmas, things like Joy and Peace.  It is a labor intensive process.

Still, Bob refuses to be stopped.  A few days ago he let friends and neighbors know that cancer was slowing him down, but that he was determined to complete the display again.  A day or so later, we drove by his house and the lights were glowing again, inviting friends and strangers alike to come and experience a little bit of holiday cheer.

In a way, I think Bob and Liz are living the Advent story, surrounded by darkness but waiting for the light.  They inspire me by their willingness to push through the dark, holding tight to the hope for something greater.  In the process, they help bring the light to others.  

May we follow their example, walking on through the darkness with faith that the light is coming.  

Choosing Christ or Caesar: More Thoughts on the Refugee Crisis

syrian-boy

Just over a week ago, I saw a video that broke my heart:  

A young Syrian boy sits in a hospital sobbing, his face pinched with fear.  A nurse tends to him.  In between gasps the boy asks if he will die.  According to reports, the boy had been exposed to a bomb containing chlorine gas.

(http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/21/middleeast/aleppo-boy-chemical-attack/)

Many things about the video upset me, but one thing in particular stood out.

The boy resembled my son when he cries.

With a little imagination, it was easy to see him as my little boy.  They are even the same age.

On Friday, December 1, Human Rights Watch released a report stating that the Russian-Syrian coalition committed war crimes during their bombardment of Aleppo. (https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/01/russia/syria-war-crimes-month-bombing-aleppo)

The report states that:

“The Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian civil monitoring organization, documented that the bombing campaign killed more than 440 civilians, including more than 90 children.”

Later that evening, President Elect Donald Trump spoke at a post election victory rally in Ohio, referencing various terror attacks in the United States and linking them all to refugees.

These are just threats that are STUPIDLY created by our very, very STUPID politicians—refugee programs,” Trump said.

ohio-rally

I listened to his words and realized something important:

Christians are being given a choice.  

It is a choice between God and Caesar.  Between Christ and Empire.  

We can work to build Donald Trump’s Kingdom or the Kingdom of God.  Not both.

The President Elect’s rhetoric is built around fear.  He promises security and safety at the expense of those in desperate need.  He asks us to look at refugees, not as human beings and children of God, but through the lens of self interest.  He strips refugees of their humanity and reduces them to symbols of terror.

So, what is a Christian to do?

I think we have to be careful.  There is a subtle violence that we can do.  In our attempt to defend the cause of refugees we can still strip them of their humanity.  I fear that I have been guilty of this.

I don’t know the name of the boy in the video.  I’ve looked, and haven’t been able to find it anywhere.  

This matters.

The frightened little boy is not just an emblem of suffering.  He is not a symbol for the refugee plight.  He’s a real boy with a real life that I know nothing about.  He has a story.  

Over the course of his life, he has experienced joys and sorrow I know nothing about.  No doubt he has gotten into trouble and made mistakes, disobeyed his parents or bickered with his siblings.  Perhaps he excelled in school, or perhaps he struggled.  Like every human, he is more gloriously complex, contradictory, maddening and amazing than we can possibly imagine.  He is, as the Psalmist declared, “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

As much as he reminded me of my own son, he is not.  He has his own story.  Our connection began when I saw my child in his eyes, but I can’t leave it there.  If I do I’ve stripped him of his unique, God given identity.

I think we have to fight both the overt violence of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the subtle violence committed by reducing human beings to symbols.  We do this through building relationships.

If we want to help refugees, we need to get to know them.  We need to learn their joys and struggles and join in both.  We must recognize that relationships are messy.  By entering into them we risk hurt, disappointment, anger and loss.  It will be frustrating and rewarding.  There will be mundane, tedious moments and moments of sublime transcendence.

Relationship is difficult.  It exposes us to great risk.  But then, Jesus never promised us comfort and security did He?  He warns us that He walks a narrow road and that we should consider the cost before following Him.  

To help the vulnerable, we must become vulnerable.

We are called to open our country to refugees, and then we are called to enter into meaningful relationship with them.