Tuesday, January 10, 2012

What Now?

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in God.” (Lamentations 3.22-24)

A Timely Question

I don’t know what books high school kids read these days. Having heard that education's undergone many changes since my teens, they might not read books at all. Printed literature may be obsolete now, replaced by video and Websites. I hope not. There’s something exquisitely intangible about holding a book in hand—a mysterious comingling of the tactile and ephemeral that elevates reading into an immersive experience unlike any other. When there’s no screen sealing the writer’s thoughts and imagination behind glass, the distance between eye and page becomes a thin place of endless possibilities. If we let technology’s ease of use and cost-effectiveness rob our youth of this, we’ll be to blame when they haven’t the curiosity or stamina to venture beyond their narrows. Without advantages that can only be gained from learning by proxy—at length, in detail—in books, they'll pay dearly for being ill-equipped to meet life's demands and avoid its dangers.

In my youth, love of books was passed down from teacher to student and parent to child. Homes without bookcases were few and far between—and pitied. Our school’s storeroom shelves were lined with daunting titles that our instructors insisted we wrestle with. Looking back, their nerve to expose us to such emotionally fraught, politically charged literature is astonishing. We pondered class warfare and tyranny in A Tale of Two Cities; marital and psychological dysfunction in The Bell Jar; inhumanity and genocide in Heart of Darkness; madness and moral ambiguity in Crime and Punishment; bureaucratic intransigence and loss of identity in The Trial. Yet light always broke through; we always turned a corner to see what we were looking at wasn’t ordinary—that the characters’ sorrows and sacrifices resulted from being pushed to extremes. The Book of Lamentations, an anthology of five poems grieving the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, turns a similar corner. After going through extreme turmoil, the writer asks, “Now what?” What good remains and what good can come of the ordeal? With today marking our leave of Advent and Christmas’s extremes for the relative calm of ordinary time, it’s a timely question. Now what?

Despite All Evidence

Anyone who skates through Advent and Christmas—scanning the texts and images like museum exhibits—ends with the impression it’s all about angels and starlight, baby’s breath and happy endings. But we who do the homework know it’s not a pretty story. It’s a tale of common folks pushed to uncommon extremes, a saga fraught with raw emotion and charged with political peril. Reading the prophecies and Nativity accounts unlocks a thin place, where the veil between Heaven and Earth lifts to reveal the elegance of God’s plan. Every “i” is dotted, every “t” crossed. And the intricate rhymes that bring Christ into the world demand more of us than a passing nod. They insist we wrestle with their ugliness for our benefit. When we’re open to the narrative’s dark side, what we learn becomes ours to own.

So what have we learned? What good remains and what good can come of our experience? After years of trying to explain and rationalize why God permits Babylon to sack Jerusalem, level its Temple, and take countless Jews captive, Lamentations’ writer reaches an inexplicable, altogether irrational conclusion: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in God.’” (Lamentations 3.22-24) His sudden turnabout causes us to gasp. Really? None of it makes sense—until we back up to verse 21, where he says, “But this I call to mind.”

Ah, he’s been to the thin place of endless possibilities, where God’s ways defy logic. He’s not yet sure what to make of it, because he quickly relapses into depression. But even in the depths of his confusion a light shines. He sees that what he’s looking at isn’t ordinary. Good that outlasts his crisis, along with good because of it, will validate his trust in a God Who is ever faithful, despite all evidence to the contrary. He remembers that new mercies often come wrapped in weary hardship, waiting to emerge in wisdom and know-how he acquires while struggling to find them. Although pushed to extremes, he makes God his portion, knowing as little as that seems it’s more than enough to keep him going. We see in him exactly what we just observed in Isaiah’s stubborn hope, Mary and Joseph’s simple faith, the shepherds’ childlike curiosity, and the Magi’s rugged journey. To a one, they’re pushed to extremes, asked to take huge risks, and expected to believe things that no one with a spoon full of sense would dare consider. Still, light breaks through their haze. They present us with an infinitely powerful God wrapped in a tiny, fragile Infant Who looks at us with knowing eyes and asks, “Now what?”

The “What” We’ll Need

The irony of dubbing intervals between sacred seasons “ordinary time” is that real time is rarely ordinary. The “now” of everyday life can be so overwhelming we don’t get around to considering the “what.” That’s why this transition mustn’t be minimized as a calendar quirk or church thing. It’s a holy opportunity to make sure we leave Advent and Christmas with all they’ve given us. Every lesson learned, every discovery made, is a new mercy. Not one can be forgot, as it very well could be what we’ll need when now engulfs us.

We may need to reach for Mary when doubts rear up about God’s faithfulness and perfect plan. When we’re tempted to value ourselves more highly than others, we may have to summon the priceless hour we knelt beside gamy herdsmen to marvel at a homeless Child. We may have to recall the Magi’s enormous sacrifices and risks when we recoil from giving our best to a needy stranger. When we feel unjustly shut out, undervalued, or ignored, our only help may be recalling that Steadfast Love was born into a world that gave Him no room. Year in and year out we cross from Christmas into ordinary time with riches we didn’t expect to find—gifts too dear to discard, too vital to live without. The answer to “Now what?” starts with an inventory of what we’ve got. While our lists are never the same, nothing on them is ever ordinary.

And so we turn, O Lord, from the season to contemplate Your birth and resume everyday realities of ordinary time. May Your Spirit guide us so we’ll leave nothing behind and bring to mind what we need when now overwhelms us. Amen.

Today is when we inventory all we’ve gained from our Advent and Christmas sojourn, taking care to bring it with us as we return to ordinary time.

Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/01/10/what-now/

Postscript: What’s In Your Suitcase?

So I’m curious. What did you learn during your Advent and Christmas journey? Why is it essential that you not forget and leave it behind?

In a season that was strewn with invaluable discoveries for me, perhaps the greatest was renewed appreciation of simplicity. A confluence of unexpected events steered Walt and me to turn the volume way down this year. Rather than whipping up Christmas excitement—which I must confess we’re pretty good at—we just let it happen. And we both came out of the season refreshed and amazed, agreeing that it was one of the loveliest, purest Christmases we’ve ever known—and totally convinced we’ve stumbled on a better way.

Your turn…

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