The final Advent reflection, sent this morning to my email list. If you’d like to subscribe and haven’t, click here. Blessings of the Season to you…
I love so-called “Freudian slips”—those mistakes in speech that often uncover an unexpected meaning or layer of humor. But I’m not sure I want to give Sigmund Freud the credit—rather, these flubs often seem the work of that holy trickster, the Spirit of God.
One of my favorites happened several years ago at a church conference. During a prayer before communion, the speaker meant to say “love is stronger than death.” Instead, whether because of a typo in the script or an error on her part, she said, “love is stranger than death.”
And I thought, Yes. That’s the heart of the Christian story, isn’t it? Love does not follow the rules as we understand them. Love has its own illogical logic, that of grace and new life. It’s truly strange, is it not, that the God who created nebulas and quarks and manatees and sequoias decided to pour into the flesh of a human being, live for a time, die without putting up a fight… and then three days later, that person’s heart starts beating again, neurons begin firing, breath pumps in and out of resurrected lungs. It makes no sense. It is strange.
And it’s here at Christmas that that strange love has its beginning—with an unmarried peasant girl, a confused fiance, a birth in a cave, and a bunch of simple shepherds, mouths gaping open at the holy surprise of the thing.
God became a human being. Amazing.
And that’s the story we participate in this Christmas.
Today James gave me another slip of the Holy Spirit. For some reason, we were talking about what time it was, and he said, It’s heaven o’clock.
Whether he meant to say seven, or eleven, or was simply making a rhyming joke by saying “heaven,” I’ll never know, because he saw my absolute delight at the phrase and repeated it again and again. That’s what time it is, in this season of Advent expectation, as the hour grows close when Christ will be born in our hearts again. It’s God’s opportune moment. It’s kairos time. It’s heaven o’clock.
I told the small crowd at our Blue Christmas service last night how perplexing it is to me, that the first day of winter would also be the day that the days start getting longer. I understand it geologically. But spiritually it seems all wrong. You’d think that (here in the northern hemisphere anyway) the coldest season of the year would also be the one with the least amount of daylight. But no—all winter long, even while many of us experience colder and colder temperatures, the light is returning, bit by little bit each day. It’s a holy disconnect, but one I find tremendously hopeful. Even when we feel discouraged or spiritually cold, even when we shiver against the darkness and pull our blankets and cloaks tight around us, the light is making its slow, relentless way back into the world.
Check your watches, folks—it’s heaven o’clock. Love makes its way toward us again. Thanks be to God for that good, strange news.
I’ve got lots of blogposts percolating right now, but I’m still in re-entry mode from the conference, so those will have to wait until next week. In the meantime:
NEXT Church Blog Roundup — NEXT Church
Here is a roundup of posts about the NEXT Church National Gathering in Charlotte. These give you an excellent taste of what that gathering was like. Presbyterians, mark your calendars for March 31-April 1, 2014 in Minneapolis.
This is a story that needs to be told more. At a recent rally in against budget cuts to family-planning services and against the proposed sonogram law in Texas:
In the shade of the Confederate Soldiers monument, a woman stopped midsentence and turned to her friend. “Did they just say he’s a minister?” Behind her someone muttered, “Why would a Christian be speaking here?”
Why was it so hard to believe? Rigby is one of the most outspoken progressive pastors in Texas, but he’s not the only one. Last fall more than 350 religious leaders, most of them Christian, signed a Texas Freedom Network (TFN) pledge supporting women’s access to contraception. Some of the same clergy, and their congregants, advocate policies supporting the poor, immigrants, and gays and lesbians; oppose the death penalty; and draw clear connections between their faith and protection for the environment.
“I think the religious Left unquestionably exists,” says TFN’s Ryan Valentine, who coordinated the pro-contraception pledge. “It’s just never been as well organized or as prominent in policy fights in Texas as the Right.”
I want to write more about this next week as it relates to the church, but in the meantime:
In fact, a series of studies by psychologists Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when people felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans with bigger potential rewards to more conservative plans, divulged more information, were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of blackjack, and were even more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.
In other words: you are likely to be even more creative than you were when you felt relatively powerless.
When you are in power, you can be more innovative because you feel more comfortable and secure, and less sensitive to, or constrained by, what other people think of you.
Some of those behaviors lead to positive outcomes, as I’ll talk about next week. But I’m also thinking about “too big to fail” and the incredible risks Wall Street took with our economy. These studies suggest these bankers were influenced by the myth of their own invincibility.
This is the best piece I’ve read on that appalling murder-suicide:
Costas’s critics… responded by counting out the ways in which Belcher could have killed both Perkins and himself without a gun—a morbid, reality-denying game. …[One] suggested that Belcher could have driven his car into a wall. There are men who do that. But guns make everything faster and deadlier—they remove the space for doubt and regret, reaction and rescue. Recognizing this does nothing to exculpate Belcher; ignoring it is beyond obstinate.
Costas and Whitlock were not addressing gun legality, but gun culture. Not hunting rifle culture or antique collector culture—handgun as weapon and “protection” culture.
Anyone read Matthew Sleeth’s book 24/6 yet? I haven’t, though it looks good:
The principle [of Sabbath] is at least as valid today as it was in ancient times when it was incorporated in the Ten Commandments, says Matthew Sleeth of Wilmore, Ky., a former emergency-room doctor who launched a Christian ministry to promote environmental care.
“Now we’re consuming seven days a week,” said Sleeth, author of the new book “24/6: A Prescription for a Healthier, Happier Life.”
“The problem with that is it’s not very fulfilling spiritually, and I don’t actually think it’s sustainable economically,” he said. “… And it’s bad for the planet.”
Many years ago, during a meeting with the ministry preparation committee of my presbytery, I made what I thought was an uncontroversial statement: that while Jesus’ life was a model for Christian living in a general sense, he was not my model for ministry in a specific sense. As a married woman who held down a job and paid rent and expected to live longer than 33 years and needed to plan for it, I didn’t see Jesus’ ministry as a paint-by-numbers enterprise so much as an overarching ethos.
This really bothered one member of the committee, by the way. Everyone else got what I was saying. Anyway, this article reminded me of that encounter. The question isn’t WWJD so much as WWJHUD (What Would Jesus Have Us Do). Christian anarchism isn’t a term I’m familiar with, but we do have our Christian purists out there whom Stackhouse could be addressing as well:
Jesus, I clearly saw [in my youth] (and clear-sightedness is one of the benefits of this point of view), collaborated with no institution and endorsed no regime. His gospel was a message of creative freedom, individual dignity and mutual responsibility and care. He and his disciples enjoyed tramping about the countryside, living on the margins, engaging people as they found them, giving to each according to his or her need. Small was, indeed, beautiful.
So why in the world wouldn’t we do the same?
Two reasons: We aren’t Jesus. And living just like Jesus doesn’t get done what Jesus wants done.
…For Jesus wants what God wants, and God’s first commandment in the Bible is to make shalom – to take the good world that God has made and to cultivate it, to make something of it, to encounter every situation and try to make it better. Note: God’s commandment is not to “stay pure,” a kind of double negative that is typical of a lot of Christian ethics: “Don’t sin!” “Don’t get implicated in anything compromising!” “Don’t commit violence!” God’s commandment, then and now, is a positive one: cultivate. Make things better. It’s not enough to say, “See, Lord? I kept the talent you gave me and didn’t lose a penny of it. My record is unbesmirched by moral compromise. I didn’t get much done, sure, but I didn’t come even close to risking my purity.”
I originally saw this on Upworthy, which provides the description:
You can learn a lot from a kid, especially from a super-insightful kid like Joshua Littman, who happens to have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism that makes social interactions difficult. Don’t miss his question for his mom at 2:43… and his mom’s response at 2:50.
Long but worth-it article in which a photographer tracks down some of the couples whose weddings he photographed. Here’s the money quote for clergy, who have a front-row seat for these sometimes bizarre festivities:
Jesus, as wedding photographers are reminded each week, performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana. Of course, there’s no photographic evidence. Probably for the best. Had there been a photographer that day in Galilee, the world might today be looking at a picture of a bride and groom posed sexily in some ox cart, lit from behind by a strobe hidden in the hay, holding balloons while drinking wine out of Mason jars and gazing adoringly at each other.
That’s the current state of the art.
It’s no longer enough to take wedding pictures that show a bride and groom in love—dancing, whispering during dinner, playing with a nephew or niece. These days, wedding pictures are elaborate, photographer-contrived setups that show the newlyweds kissing in a wheat field (as if it were a natural act to go wheat-harvesting on one’s wedding day) or aboard an old-time fire engine.
Eighteen years in, we look at our photos so rarely. Of course we got married before the wheat-field trend started. But I doubt we’d look at them any more frequently if it had, except to chuckle at how clueless we were on our wedding day. Everyone is, of course. Maybe wheat-harvesting photos somehow highlight that fact.
This is about Daydis (her spelling it’s actually – Daedalus). He is an ancient god guy who prays a lot. This book is about him crying. He is crying because he doesn’t like himself at all, because he hates himself. It looks like a saddy, saddy, saddy bookie.”
My friend April planned to be an attachment mother. She planned to co-sleep, wear her baby in a sling, breastfeed on demand, and hold her child whenever she cried. In all the books that she read, April was told that mothers find this sort of constant connection wonderfully fulfilling. The intimacy of on-demand feeding, she was told, would make her feel a sense of connectedness and joy unlike anything she had ever experienced.
April describes experience with attachment parenting as the biggest failure of her life. She is not just convinced that she is a bad mother; she is fairly certain that she is a defective human being. She found the constant connection of attachment mothering exhausting.
When it comes to parenting philosophy, I tend toward the attachment parenting end of things. But our practice was pretty spotty. This article offers an intriguing possible explanation.
Movies don’t make people murderers any more than guns do. Still, guns make muderousness much more feasible, and popular entertainment certainly plants ideas that sick minds can use as inspiration for deadly reality.
Does violence in media lead to violence in the real world? Yes, according to something called The Mean World Syndrome, the idea posited by communications theorist George Gerbner, that violent content in popular media – Gerbner focused on the entertainment media but the concept includes the violent and alarmist nature of news content too – makes people believe that the world is a more violent place than it actually is.
Actually, the implications of the Mean World Syndrome go far beyond what happened in Aurora or Colombine or Port Arthur, or even the idea that violence in the entertainment media might spur violence in the real world. It describes something far more insidious, and far more potentially harmful. The Mean World Syndrome is the byproduct of what Gerbner called Cultivation Theory, the idea that the more we watch the news and entertainment media and the more they depict the world as a violent and threatening place, the more we come to accept that those are the norms of society, and the more those norms shape how we live. A world that feels more violent and threatening than it is makes us more worried than we need to be. The implications of that are enormous, far broader than awful but thankfully rare mass murders by people who are clearly mentally unstable.
Gerbner’s idea holds that if we think the world is a ‘mean’ and violent and unsafe place, the kind of world we see again and again in both the news and so much entertainment media, we live our lives accordingly. We buy guns to protect ourselves (guns purchased for self-protection are far more likely to go off in accidents, suicides, or in crimes against others). We live in gated communities. We support candidates who promise to keep us safe, and policies like the Patriot Act that cede civil liberties in the name of safety. A Mean and worrying world causes us to magnify our fears of anything, be it terrorism or industrial chemicals or economic uncertainty, sometimes prompting personal choices or social policies that feel right but do us more harm than good.
When I was at Burke, we did a book study of The Suburban Christian, so this article was of interest:
America in 2012 is far more suburban than it was in 1950. American Christianity in 2012 is far more suburban than it was in 1950. …How has American Christianity shaped the suburbs? And how have the suburbs shaped American Christianity?
I contend that the latter influence has been far greater than the former. I believe, in other words, that American Christianity has been shaped by the suburbs far more than the suburbs have been shaped by American Christianity. To borrow a word from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12, American churches have conformed to the suburbs.
…The suburbanization of American Christianity has had a huge impact on institutional and denominational structures. Automobile-shaped development has produced an automobile-shaped ecclesiology. The car has abolished the possibility of the parish. And that, in turn, has helped to redefine “neighbor” as a matter of preference more than of proximity — as optional rather than obligatory. That redefinition is rather significant, since “Who is my neighbor?” is kind of an important question for Christians.
A discussion of the “endowment effect”: the idea that you place increased value on what you have simply by virtue of your having it.
I am not a hoarder—probably the exact opposite—but there’s an interesting mental hack in here that’s good for anyone:
Say I am cleaning out my stuff. Before I learnt about the endowment effect I would go through my things one by one and try to make a decision on what to do with it. Quite reasonably, I would ask myself whether I should throw this away. At this point, although I didn’t have a name for it, the endowment effect would begin to work its magic, leading me to generate all sorts of reasons why I should keep an item based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable I found it. After hours of tidying I would have kept everything, including the 300 hundred rubber bands (they might be useful one day), the birthday card from two years ago (given to me by my mother) and the obscure computer cable (it was expensive).
Now, knowing the power of the bias, for each item I ask myself a simple question: If I didn’t have this, how much effort would I put in to obtain it? And then more often or not I throw it away, concluding that if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t want this.
I find this a better question than “can I imagine a use for this someday?” Because c’mon, of courseyou can imagine a use!
Byron Katie wrote a book by this title and I found it to be flakiest thing I’ve ever read. Which is a shame, because I love that phrase—it’s even become one of my twelve intentions.
This post is short but has a lot packed into it. It spoke to me this week:
We usually associate love with a warm, fuzzy feeling. We like what we see and are happy to embrace it and lend our energy to it. It feels GOOD. In my experience there is another kind of love that is cool, clear and compassionate. This kind of love is more objective and sometimes even chilling. It demands more of us.
If we are to love “what is”, it is the second kind of love that is needed since much of “what is” doesn’t suit us at all. It requires inner spaciousness — a capacity to be inclusive. In the final analysis it requires us to be whole. This love asks us to include all the horror, terror and awesome beauty of life — no exceptions. It asks us to allow for everything to belong to us in some way and for us to belong to it in some way. It asks us to be humble enough to have such an attitude. It asks us to be real so we can accept reality. In other words it asks us to be utterly human.
And a part of loving what is is taking a long mindful look around:
A photographer in Mexico City documents the effects of Mexican and North American policies on the border region where he was raised. I appreciated this interview about one of his heartbreaking images:
I shot the scene a bunch of different ways, but the way that worked best was just showing it from the front. These people were killed by one single bullet. The woman is far into her pregnancy. The hit man came in from the left-hand side of the car and fired a bullet into the man’s head when they were embracing and killed both of them.
I don’t know. It seemed appropriate as we move into Holy Week.
I know I’ve linked to his work before, but I find it fascinating as an agnostic theist (I don’t know but I believe):
The French atheist and proto-fascist Charles Maurras, an admirer of both Comte and Nietzsche, was an impassioned defender of the Catholic Church. John Stuart Mill – not exactly an atheist but not far off – tried to fuse Comte’s new religion with liberalism. In marrying atheism with very different ethical and political positions, none of these thinkers was confused or inconsistent. Atheism can go with practically anything, since in itself it amounts to very little.
Most people think that atheists are bound to reject religion because religion and atheism consist of incompatible beliefs. De Botton accepts this assumption throughout his argument, which amounts to the claim that religion is humanly valuable even if religious beliefs are untrue. He shows how much in our way of life comes from and still depends on religion – communities, education, art and architecture and certain kinds of kindness, among other things. I would add the practice of toleration, the origins of which lie in dissenting religion, and sceptical doubt, which very often coexists with faith.
Today’s atheists will insist that these goods can be achieved without religion. In many instances this may be so but it is a question that cannot be answered by fulminating about religion as if it were intrinsically evil. Religion has caused a lot of harm but so has science. Practically everything of value in human life can be harmful. To insist that religion is peculiarly malignant is fanaticism, or mere stupidity.
In November I introduced a periodic blog feature called “Language Cop” to “keep track of unacceptable words and catchphrases that enter the political dialogue.” In that column I exiled the terms “optics” and “inflection point.” Earlier this month I inveighed against “pivot,” and last week I suggested this euphemism be replaced with a new term, “shake,” in deference to America’s first multiplatform gaffe. Today I banish “Christian ”—not the word itself, but a specific, erroneous usage.
In other words, a usage that implies that Christians are all conservative/fundamentalist. A- to the -men.