Friday, December 14, 2012

How to eradicate evil

In truth, what I did* yesterday was not very hard.  But it felt like it. 

The Officer and I looked our public-schooled, 9 and 7 year olds in the eyes; and we told them the truth. 

        Evil stalks even the steps of the innocent, the defenseless. 
We told them about the tragedy in an elementary school classroom, thousands of miles away.  We talked about how each of those children would eat dinner with Jesus that night; how they would be forever safe and forever loved.  But we also talked about how much it would hurt their families to be without them (no, the Officer and I could not get through that without choking up).  We talked about how the police and teachers and adults did what they could to keep those children safe, about how the adults in their lives strive to keep them safe.  And we talked about how sometimes, for reasons we can’t understand, evil destroys, evil steals, and that sometimes, evil kills. 

But we also asserted what I know without a doubt:

        There was not one moment that God was not in that room

                --present with each one of those children. 

                They were never, not for one breath, alone.       

Then we told them if they had any questions, at any point, to come and ask us.  If they want to talk about it, one of us is always available.  And we told them that if they wanted to pray: for the children, for their families, for the police, the students, the teachers; or to ask God, “why,” that one of us was always ready to do that right beside them.  But if they just wanted to talk to God about it alone, with only Him, He was always, always ready. 

And then, we went on with life.  A little more tenderly, a little more carefully, a little more aware than we had before.  Because that is what life does; even when we’re not entirely ready for it to, it goes on.
Honestly, reader, this was not a conversation I wanted to have with our children.  The Officer leaned towards sheltering them.  I don’t blame him; who wants their children to know that sometimes, on this rotten and broken planet, evil wins?  Who wants to look into the eyes of innocence and shatter it with the truth that sometimes all of our efforts and prayers just aren’t enough?  That sometimes the outcome seems to be the opposite of what a loving God would do?

But if we hide the truth, shelter them from the reality that there are days when evil seems to have won, then we miss the fullness of the very story of redemption and grace. 
There will be a lot of people in the next few days and weeks who will connect this tragedy with the truth that we are a world in desperate need of a Savior.  And they’re right.  We are in desperate need of our Lord and Savior.  But if we do not or cannot answer the reality of this tragedy with the fullness of truth, then we have given evil more power than it should have.  For the truth isn’t only that the world needs a Savior, but the truth is also why we need one.  Not merely to save us from the evil of madmen who slaughter innocents; but save us from the plague of sin and death that is incubating in each and every one of us.  Believer and non.  Parent and child.  Loved and un. 

Every single person ever needs a Savior to rescue us from ourselves, for we are the germinators of death. 
Because each and every single one of us has enough sin and depravity in us (when considered from the vantage point of a holy and perfect and just God) to outweigh any good we could ever do – in collective or in individual.  There isn’t enough good in the human race—through all of history, both forward and back—to tip the scales against evil.  And it doesn’t take a massive tragedy like yesterday to prove that.  All it takes is one glance at the state of our planet, the state of our families, the state of our very hearts (our pride, or greed, or anger, or lust, or self-absorption).       

The only thing that can eradicate evil from humanity is the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  And while this death was a once-for-all atonement for our breaking the rules that protected all creation, even the hearts of our fellow humans (for which we each, individually, earn and germinate death), it only applies if it's accepted.  We accept this exchange of Jesus for ourselves by admitting that as individuals we are culpable in our disobedience, and that no good we ever do will be enough to pay for what we have individually destroyed of our own volition.  This acceptance requires the desire to have our debt paid for by Jesus; and to then hand over our pitiful attempts at a good life to Him, so that we may be made more like him by following his example and leaving our old life of hurtful and destructive disobedience behind.
Thus if we shield one another from the truth of our destructive ways, our human history of depravity, our personal experience with evil , then we leave no room for grace to intervene, to change the track of eternity.  We hide evil, but in doing so, we shut out Truth and we silence Love. 

Because God already acted on our behalf.  He sent his very own, only Son to die in our stead.  He choose to sacrifice His child for us.  And in doing so, He ultimately and completely defeated evil with unrelenting and incomprehensible Love. 

Practicality – How I’m handling the next few days
I will be honest, reader.  As a parent, I cannot think about the events of Friday morning.  I cannot watch the news, read social feeds, or be online.  I cannot let my mind go there – put myself in the place of those parents, picture that room, imagine what those little innocents endured.  I cannot because I don’t think I’d be able to come up for air.  I think that darkness would devour my sleep and take up permanent residence in my thoughts. 

And that’s okay, because my ruminations, my empathy, will do nothing for the situation.  I can hand it all – the little ones, their families, the first responders, the survivors, everyone – over to God.  He is the only One big enough to handle all of this pain anyway.
I will not, in a public forum, engage in conversations about gun control or mental health policies, or any other political topics roused by this tragedy.  Because, in all honesty, now is simply not the time.  Nor will I discuss theological theories about the why’s of this horror; for again, now is not the time. 

Neither will I talk about my reaction to this event.  I am not personally affected; I have no ownership of it.  Thus it is not for me to add to the noise of the crowd, thereby detracting from the real pain experienced by those touched by this tragedy.
 I will not seek out feel-good stories that will restore my faith in humanity.  Because faith in humanity is misplaced and bound to not merely disappoint, but epically and eternally fail. 

If how I’m handling these next few days feels wrong for you, know that it is okay to feel grief, even if you knew no one affected.  It is okay to be angry.  It is okay to be scared.  It is okay to be confused or conflicted (passivism v. justified action; forgiveness v. anger; fear v. unshaken faith).  It’s okay to seek out some light – in the form of stories that show the good in humanity or in circling your proverbial wagon and sharing time and love with those you hold most dear (and no, guilt has no place therein – don’t give it space); because for so many of us, we must see that the light remains, that it still exists, that hope and love can still win.  And it’s also more than okay to hand whatever you’re feeling over to the Holy Spirit, without explanation.  He knows your heart, He really doesn’t need one.     
Just be sure to fall on your knees—in grief, in fear, in anger, in confusion, in desperation.  Beg for healing, for understanding, for courage (in my case, to send my kids to school on Monday), for justice, for mercy, for Christ to come quickly.  And stay there as long as you need to. 

Then get up, and fight the darkness.  With Truth, with Love, with Light.  Be these in the world, so that Love and Truth and Light and Hope win the day.  Remind evil once again that it has its eviction notice, and that all of creation strains evermore towards that day.     

              ~Come, Lord Jesus, come.  Amen~


* There are parents who will choose a different path; and I am not here to defend my choice, nor to judge theirs.  The Officer and I choose to tell our children, because we felt it would be too challenging in the next few days/weeks to shield them from it and we would rather control the information and frame it in context that is appropriate for our family, instead of running damage control after the fact.      

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

To Lucy, on her 100th birthday. With Love, from Ethel

This post comes from the archives, because it fits so perfectly here today.  See the original post here. 
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. ~C.S. Lewis

[I hold no rights to the "I Love Lucy" logo, its characters, or any other representations herein.]
A week or so ago marked the 100th anniversary of what would have been Lucille Ball’s birthday. No doubt there were I Love Lucy marathons, and boxes of chocolate. Perhaps somewhere someone concocted a bottle of “Vitamina Vegamin” or two. But certainly, no celebration would have been complete without a nod to Ethel; the fictitious Lucy’s closest friend, dearest confidant, and greatest accomplice.

Lucy and Ethel, Thelma and Louise, Scarlet and Melanie, Ruth and Naomi. And more recently, Aibileene and Minny. Women who were stronger, better, more alive because of a single common denominator: her best friend. It is interesting to note that some of the most oft used scripture in wedding ceremonies wasn’t spoken between lovers, but between women. Ruth doesn’t pledge to follow Boaz, make his people and God hers; she promises this to Naomi, her destitute mother-in-law who is throwing verbal rocks at her (a la Timmy and Lassie), trying to get Ruth to abandon her. But Ruth stays.

Women stay, for the sake of each other. Thelma and Louise have their fateful cliff. Aibileene and Minny together motivate an entire community of women to share their stories, for change. Melanie opens her home and heart to Scarlett, despite the later continually throwing herself at Melanie’s husband. Each of us needs a friend of this sort. The kind that will spoon food into your mouth, just to keep you alive when you haven’t the strength anymore. The kind that always, always assumes the best about you. The kind that calls you forward into the person you’re supposed to be.

In the first chapter of Luke, tucked neatly into the nativity narrative, is a small passage so often overlooked by any expounding on the miracle of the Christ child’s birth. It’s in between the glorious Annuciation and the Magnificat. Seven verses, in which Mary leaves her home, supernaturally pregnant with Jesus, and visits her cousin, Elizabeth. Scripture doesn’t illuminate Mary’s emotive state during this visit; but she is a teenage girl, betrothed yet unwed, and pregnant, though still a virgin. Great though her faith must have been, I doubt that she was as carefree on the road to Elizabeth’s, as she likely was before the angel visited her.

Her song, a few verses later, is one of the most beautiful in scripture; a hymn likened by some to Hannah’s (1 Samuel 2), when Hannah dedicates her son to the Lord. A statement of faith so rich in theology and yet personal enough to apply to a teenage Jewess, that has been studied, memorized, and quoted at great length. However, Mary does not break into song immediately after the angel’s announcement that she is to be the mother of the Messiah. No. Mary, without her parents or betrothed, hurriedly travels to her cousin, Elizabeth. Some speculate she was trying to escape public disgrace; perhaps even save her family and betrothed from embarrassment; but scripture is silent on the why, so we can only know that Mary sought out company with Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the older, married antithesis of Mary, is also miraculously expecting a baby. And like Mary, Elizabeth is experiencing a type of isolation born from her pregnancy; her husband has been struck mute for his disbelief, and will not speak again until after their child is born.

The instant these women are in sight of one another, their very presence encourages the other. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary calls out to greet her, and the baby within Elizabeth’s womb leaps. Her delight that Mary would visit her pours forth in her greeting, as Elizabeth loudly proclaims truth over her, calling Mary “the mother of my Lord” and saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” (Luke 1:43, 42). And it is when she ends with, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her,” that Mary is able to praise her Lord for His promises to her (Luke 1:45). Perhaps until that point, this promise seemed more like a burden; her fiancĂ© had intended to divorce her quietly and she was likely the recipient of public ridicule (John 1:19). But with Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit inspired speech, Mary is able, in spite and because of her circumstances, to “glorify the Lord” and “rejoice in God [her] savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

It takes another woman, not her parents, not her betrothed, not even an angel, to give the Messiah’s mother a voice for praise. It is the relationship between these two women, grounded in their faith and infused with the Holy Spirit, that washes their loneliness and fear away with truth. This friendship takes each woman where she is, and points her ever closer to God, moves her to a place where she can see above her current circumstances to the provision and abounding grace of God the Father. This is the kind of friendship that illuminates God’s fingerprints on our lives. It highlights His promises and awakens our hearts to movements within and around us. It is the model of friendship that we each so desperately need; that we all are called to.

May you have and delight in such a friend. And may you be this friend to others.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, all losses are restored and sorrows end.

~William Shakespeare


Thursday, December 6, 2012

How not to make the holy mother an idol --

Granted, I do not hold to the ideologies that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, that she was without original (or any other) sin, or that she is the queen of heaven by way of being Jesus’ mom.  However, I think evangelicals veer too far toward over-analytic caution when they approach the passages in which she dwells.  It’s as if the non-Catholic portion of the body feels the need to gloss over her very existence so that potential veneration of the holy mother not eclipse the Savior Himself.  Thus we do much to shrink her from a revered position in our efforts to keep her our size.  And most of the time this is a good thing.  Jesus is the only human who was ever worthy of our adoration – because he was also completely divine. 

But some of our attempts at belittling Mary can be mistakes in themselves. 
For God told her, and her alone, that the Messiah was coming.  Yes, Mary needed to know; but in a time when a woman had little control over her condition, it would have been so much easier if God had told her when she was with Joseph or even her father.  Easier, and expected.  But God, knowing the cost of what He was asking, gave Mary the task of telling the people who would be most affected, second only to her.  Thus, it was for her obedience that she was elevated over Zachariah.  It was her willingness to be the handmaiden of the Lord, to accept this task, to literally carry this burden that we should remember and emulate.       

For we must recall that Gabriel, an angel who daily stood [stands] in the presence of the Lord said to her, “Greetings to you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you!  In a time when the Lord’s presence was supposed to reside in the holy of holies in the temple, the Holy Spirit descended upon Mary.   The only woman of her day to experience this continue presence of the Godhead; the only woman to know of the impending arrival of God’s Messiah (though she could not have known what that meant or would look like).  The only woman in the whole of human history to carry within her very body Christ.    
Let us not forget, beloved friends, that God did choose Mary to be the mother to His One and Only Son.  And though she was still fully and completely human, sinning just like all the rest of us, she remains the only person in all of history who carried Divinity in her womb, who nursed the Messiah at her breast, who kissed the downy softness of the head of one-third of the Trinity housed in flesh.  And it was so because God ordained it thus.  He picked her out of all humanity and history.  It is because of this that she should be highly venerated, as even her angelic messenger told her that she had found favor with God.   

No, we mustn’t elevate her to a position which she cannot fill: intercessor on our behalf in the heavenly realms.  Person who stands between us and Christ.  Yet we do her, nor womanhood, nor God’s very decision to let her be the mother of the Messiah, no favors when we diminish this truth by making her smaller than she is to topple our perceived pedestals on which the idea of Mary rests.
If we can seek to emulate Paul’s evangelism after being left for dead by the people he was trying to reach, if we can marvel at the powerful rhetoric of Stephen as he was being martyred, if we can marvel at Abraham’s obedience as he took his only son up the mount to sacrifice Isaac to the Lord, we cannot ignore the young woman who was picked by God to care for His only Son incarnate.  The woman who wiped the boy’s tears, the woman who sang the songs of the Israelites to her son, the woman who did what mothers do: tirelessly care for the heart living outside of her person. 

We mustn’t ignore her, gloss over her in fear that we will misplace our worship.  Instead, we have to tell her story, again and again.  Learn her words as she praised God for what was to be the hardest and most crucial task assigned to humanity: raise the Messiah, and then let Him go.  And we have to emulate her obedience, her understanding of the scriptures and God’s promises.  We have to hold the truth of God breaking into humanity, so that we all might be save; and run into the world with this news.  Nurture this truth, rear it in our hearts, care for it with all of ourselves.  And then, let it go.  Watch its wild and beautiful truth change the whole world. 

       For God’s Kingdom Is Come.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Priest, an angel, and a virgin

Read: Luke 1: 1-4

Luke doesn't pretend that he's the first to pen a comprehensive account of the days of Christ.  In fact, one of the reasons I enjoy Luke is because he tells his audience that many have undertaken to set down on papyrus what was fulfilled among these citizens of history.  Even so, Luke is compelled investigate eyewitness accounts and write an orderly account of what had happened.  So that Theophilus -- and two thousand years later, we – might now the certainty of the things that have been taught. 
Another reason I adore Luke’s gospel so, is that he doesn’t jump straight to the manger, nor to the betrothal and pregnancy of Mary.  He doesn’t even start with the annunciation.  Luke, who granted does not go as far back as John, begins with the announcement of another impending birth.   Yet, as it precedes and intermingles with the intrauterine existence of Jesus, he stands these two narratives in such close vicinity of one another, his audience cannot but examine these two annunciations together.  In context.  And when we resist the temptation to lift the One out of the scripture, away from the other, what we find in their proximity, their togetherness, is how the first illuminates the second.  Raises it from humanly expectations and allows it to shine with the light of Divinity. 

John’s parents were almost everyone a devout Hebrew would expect the parents of a prophet to be.  Both descended from priestly lines.  Both were “righteous in God’s eyes, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.”  Both mature in years, endowed with wisdom that can only come from having so much experience with life.  They were past the stage of knowing who they are – priest and his barren wife.  Having lived so many years together, Luke’s audience can infer that they knew one another very well, as only two people who lived together for decades can.   They knew each other’s rhythms and moods; how the other chews their food, and what their voice sounds like in prayer.  The only flaw in their story: Elizabeth’s barrenness and disgrace because of it.[1]    

Mary, on the other hand was about as different from these parents as one could be, and still be a devout Jew.  Instead of a priestly heritage, she came from the line of kings.  She was a woman; young where Zachariah and Elizabeth are old.  Betrothed, but still residing in her father’s home, suspended in a sort of identity twilight: already a bride, but not yet a wife.  No longer solely her father’s responsibility, but not yet fully her husband’s either.  Alone in contrast with the togetherness of John’s parents.  While scripture doesn’t explicitly say that she was poor, she was betrothed to a carpenter and not a priest; and when making her sacrifice at the temple following Jesus’s birth, she was forced to use two birds instead of the more expensive animals.  Thus, we can infer that she was not well off.  She likely hasn’t been praying for a pregnancy to precede her marriage; Zachariah and Elizabeth have been praying for a baby for years.  Scripture is also silent on whether or not she knew her betrothed well.  She likely doesn’t even know what side of the pallet Joseph sleeps on, let alone how he would handle this new, eternity-altering development. 
Zachariah is inside the holy of holies when he meets the angel.  It is an expected place for such a heavenly encounter.  Scripture does not tell us where Mary is; but we can be certain that she was not in the holy of holies (women were not permitted past the Court of Women) and that she was alone.  Because no one else is mentioned alongside her.  While Zachariah is alone inside the holy of holies, he is still attached to his fellow priests with a rope.  His presence is anticipated greatly by a large crowd just outside the room.  There is no mention of anyone anticipating Mary’s return; though even if she is expected by her family, they do not constitute a crowd.  Even when greeted by the angelic messenger, Gabriel, he announces the impending pregnancies differently.  To Zachariah, he says, “your prayers have been heard.”  To Mary, he proclaims, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!  The Lord is with you!”  Of the two characters, any Israelite would have assumed that the latter greeting belonged to Zachariah and the former to Mary, if only because it had been that way in scripture before.    

After the pronunciation, Zachariah asks, “How can I be sure?”  Mary asks, “How will this be?”  The very manner in which each phrases their question illuminates their differences in faith.  Zachariah is saying “can I trust God?  How will I know this is what will happen?”  Mary is saying, “How is this going to happen?”  Hers is a question not of faith, for she displays her expectation of the promise to be fulfilled, rather it is a question of mechanics.  Zachariah is rendered mute for his doubting; Mary is left to explain all of this to her parents and fiancĂ©.  And then await their reactions.  Though, throughout all of this, The Lord was with her.    
Thus, we find that the annunciation of John in a completely expected and predictable way (to an ancient Jew) highlights exactly how upside-down Jesus’s kingdom would be.  That the only person to know about his existence was a young, poor, not yet married virgin girl, tells scripture readers so much about their coming King.  That His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. 


[1] Scripture does note that it is Elizabeth who cannot conceive (v.7).