Sunday, December 30, 2012

What Matters

I’ve spent much time this past year sifting through my life, examining old goals, retelling old stories, wondering what matters.

I’ve stumbled into some new initiatives, and have found myself investing time in ways I would not have imagined a year ago. Still wondering: what matters?

The events of the fall and early winter, Hurricane Sandy, the shootings in Newtown, even the election and then the endless hype about the Mayan calendar and end of the world, and the fiscal cliff and end of the economy, have made the question ever more insistent: what matters?

The Money Lenders, Marinus van Reymerswaele,
Netherlands, 1540
Scouting out memento ornaments for our Christmas Eve celebration, I found myself wondering: does this really matter?

Considering cheeses for a holiday cheese plate, the question came again: does this matter?

Reframe it: if I knew this was the last week I’d have to spend with my family, would I be spending my time buying one last present?

Or listening to arguments about the fiscal cliff?

But is that the best way to judge what matters?

Can we google it? Check wikipedia?

Apparently, “new” matters. New car, new phone, new computer, new outfits.

Or growth: did the economy grow?  Is the GDP up, or down?

Rights? My right to own a gun? To ensure my money is spent on things I agree with, and nothing I object to? My right to live, love, learn in any way I want?

Our family went last night to see Steven Spielburg’s Lincoln. There on the screen, Daniel Day Lewis enacted Lincoln’s struggle with the same concern.

Did public acclaim matter more than political momentum? When held in the balance, which was more important: attempts to preserve the union, desires to see slavery ended, prayers for peace, insistence on the possibility of a enduring democracy?

And how balance personal with public: his son Robbie’s desire to join the army, his wife’s grief at the loss of their son Willie, the attempt to maintain integrity while in the midst of political maneuvering, the weight of exhaustion and longing for rest.

Even the lesser characters of the film showed the weighing of what matters: principle against pragmatism, fear of an unknown future against guilt over an intimately known injustice, ambition against love of a sibling lost in battle, public approval against private pangs of conscience.

What matters?

One of the books I gave as a gift this Christmas was What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. It’s by Wendell Berry, with a forward by Herman E. Daly, professor of economics at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland.

In the forward, Daly calls attention to what he considers a deep, destructive confusion in our understanding of what matters, a confusion embedded in our use, or perhaps misuse, of the word “economy”:
Aristotle distinguished“oikonomia” from “chrematistics.” Oikonomia is the science or art of efficiently producing, distributing, and maintaining concrete use values for the household and community over the long run. Chrematistics is the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run. Although our word “economics” is derived from oikonomia, its present meaning is much closer to chrematistics. . . . 
Where today do we find chrematistics masquerading as economics? Certainly in the recent Wall Street fiasco—“selling a bet on a debt [as] an asset” as Wendell succinctly put it. It is amazing that people who have recently engaged in this disastrous stupidity on such a massive scale still have any credibility at all! Yet belief in “free markets” as the philosopher’s stone that alchemically transmutes the dross of chrematistics into the gold of oikonomia remains strong.
Other examples of chrematistics at work include monopoly pricing, tax evasion, subsidies, rent seeking, forced mobility of labor, cheap labor from union busting and illegal immigration, off-shoring, mergers, hostile takeovers, usury, and bullying litigation—not to mention the airlines’ successful shifting on to their customers the labor previously done by former travel agents, check-in clerks, and baggage handlers. Externalizing environmental costs—shifting the cost of depletion and pollution from the producer to the general public, the future, and other species—is probably the most common and most disastrous chrematistic maneuver. The unaccounted costs range from irksome noise, to mountaintop removal and filling up of valleys with toxic tailings, to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, to global climate change and species extinction.
Several pages later, in the first essay of the book, “Money versus Goods,” Berry approaches this question from a different angle:
 “A proper economy . .  would designate certain things as priceless. This would not be, as now, the “pricelessness” of things that are extremely rare or expensive, but would refer to things of absolute value, beyond and above any price that could be set upon them by any market.
This past year, I've been looking for ways to stand against "chrematistics" as Daly describes it: processes that place high value on profit, and no value on things like healthy food, well-managed land, functioning families. At the same time, it occurs to me I've been trying to move toward "priceless" things: relationships, beauty, ideas, community.

In our chrematistic economy, the things of greatest value are often the things most easily devalued: the care of a parent for a tiny child. What's the dollar value on that? And if it doesn't pay, shouldn't mothers and fathers hurry back to work?

A golden sunset over a quiet lake. Can that be privatized? And if not, surely there's an appropriate fee?

My plan in the weeks ahead is to spend more time sorting through what matters, why, and what the implications should be as we arrange our lives and advocate for an economy that reflects real value.

But as we start the new year, I’d like to hear from others. One of the things that matters to me- a lot - is conversation. Shared ideas. Listening to voices other than my own.
Money Changer and His Wife, Marinus van Reymerswaele,
Netherlands, 1549

So - how do you decide what matters?

How does your daily schedule reflect what matters?

How does your budget reflect what matters?

And what would it look like to live in a “proper economy” that prioritizes “absolute value” and "priceless" things, that refuses to commodify the things that matter most?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent Four: Sing Alleluia

Why do humans sing?

Browse through the musings of neurologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and it quickly becomes clear: humans have engaged in music and song as long as there have been humans, and there is no provable scientific reason.

detail from Cantoria, Luca della Robbia, Firenze, 1431-38
Yes, it’s likely that some music plays a role in mate selection, as is the case with birds, whales, other creatures that sing.

And some plays a role in building community, aligning the singer with cultural goals or norms, or creating a shared emotional response.

And some songs have a role in passing on knowledge, sharing stories, assisting memory of otherwise boring details.

But those explanations fall far short of the human experience of song. Cambridge musicologist Ian Cross, describing theories of music, concludes: “Although there have been some fabulous experimental studies of music perception, music is a bit too wild to be trapped in the lab.”  

Music is one of those human experiences that steps beyond the boundaries of scientific determinism. It can’t be tracked back to material causes; attempts to explain its origins or biological purposes fall flat. Yet it can be tracked forward: it’s not hard to show the deep influence of music on motivation, emotional state, willingness to work together. Exposure to music can increase intelligence, improve study skills, even alter the size and shape of the brain.    

I mentioned in anearlier post my personal affinity with Christmas carols. As a kid, I loved to sing them, in our elementary school chorus, in a short-lived children’s choir at our church, in our church’s occasional Christmas visits to local nursing homes.  I remember watching mouths move along with our songs, old voices joining in. In spaces that felt confining and a little scary, something bright and free and embracing drew us close, as if angels were lending their voices, as if the song held all of us in a warm and loving embrace, and stirred hopes we’d long forgotten. For a few minutes, the isolation of the aged and the insecurity of the young were caught in melody far beyond us, a song of glory, of joy, of promise.

Our small church was part of an international network of churches, and I remember, at the age of 12 or so, attending a gathering in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. Standing in an upper tier, I sang with thousands of voices as followers of Christ from dozens of nations, in bright traditional dress, processed down the aisles to take their places on the stage.  I had never grasped the depth and breadth of my faith, but standing there singing, it occurred to me that I was part of a community that spanned oceans, cultures, centuries, that reached beyond time:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
detail from Canoria, Luca della Robbia,
Firenze, 1431-38

Strange how certain words take us past cognitive experience and allow us access into something else: Alleluia is one of those. Literally, it means “Praise Yahweh.” Sing it in the right frame of mind and heart and we find ourselves far beyond our own meager offerings of praise in a place of communion with stars, angels, all the company of heaven: 
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
    praise him in the heights above.
Praise him, all his angels;
   praise him, all his heavenly hosts
Praise him, sun and moon;
    praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens
    and you waters above the skies. 
     (from Psalm 148) 
Singing alleluia in Philharmonic Hall gave me a glimpse of the harmony heaven might offer. That vision was expanded in times of song and prayer at Truro Church, a charismatic, liturgical, worship-oriented church we attended for fourteen years in Fairfax, Virginia. Communion hymns would open into free-form worship, with voices raised in words known and unknown, some carrying the tune of the music we’d been singing, others lifting into cadences inspired by an inner music, or half-remembered melody. The resulting sound was so multi-layered, and so breathtakingly beautiful, I sometimes stood silent to listen, and other times lifted my voice to sing along. No composer could construct harmonies so complex and free, or conduct as gently the mysterious melting back toward hushed, attentive silence.

Since then, I’ve had that same sense of heaven leaning near when I’ve sung alleluia with teams of tired, committed teens and young adults in the battered courtyard of an inner city church. I’ve imagined angel voices joining when singing with Christian friends from other countries, when we’ve tried singing each other’s words, or agreed to sing our own simultaneously, merging in the alleluias, finding unity in our place of praise. 
Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
    stormy winds that do his bidding,
you mountains and all hills,
    fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all cattle,
    small creatures and flying birds,
kings of the earth and all nations,
    you princes and all rulers on earth,
young men and women,
    old men and children.
   (from Psalm 148)
When I sing the songs of Christmas, I find myself small, in a healthy, comforting way: my voice is one of many. I am part of something very large: one of God’s loved creatures, part of the song of whales, birds, mice, trees, mountains.

And I find my inner compass realigned. My current situation is fragile and fleeting; reality is larger. I can hold the good things God gives me lightly: there is greater good ahead. And I can relax my grip on my current griefs; the heartbreak of this life is not the last word.

The last word is Alleluiah.

So in the days ahead I’ll be singing.

With families grieving the loss of treasured children.

With loved ones caught in chronic conditions that have no discovered cure.

With friends who struggle with poverty, unemployment, bitter disappointment, and friends whose stories point to God’s intervention in times of near despair.

With my northern Uganda friends, who will be dancing as they sing.

With my Bolivian friends, waving bright banners in worship.

With friends in churches large and small, accompanied by brilliant organ song, ancient pianos, keyboards, guitars, drums.

With men and women I’ll never meet, singing alleluia in prisons, underground churches, in small quiet gatherings in private homes, in crowds of thousands in deserts or city squares.

Singing with brothers and sisters no longer visible to the human eye, some I know and remember with thanksgiving, some who went on long before, that cloud of witnesses that joins us as we sing.

We’ll be singing alleluiah.

The song the angels sang on that first Christmas night, two thousand years ago.

The song of praise and thanks and love that was the first pulse of the first cells, the first breath of the first lungs, the first thought of the first mind.

A song that began before history.

A song that will never end. 
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
    with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
    through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
    that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
          (from Psalm 89­)

This is the last in a four-week Advent series. Other Advent posts:

The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011

Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 
Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent Three: Questions. Fruit.

Here we are again, in the dark time of the year. 

And once again, I've turned off my radio, rather than hear the minute-by-minute replay of the story of young lives lost, of misguided hands grabbing publicly sanctioned weapons to assuage the pain of damaged heart and mind.

Death is always near and children are never exempt. Ask the parents in Syria, weeping over the collateral damage of the al-Assad regime's death struggle. Ask the grieving siblings of Pakistani and Yemeni children caught in the precision strikes of US drones.  Or ask the children scooping water from dirty waterways. More than a million will die this year of waterborne diseases, 5,500 a day; which would you choose, to die of thirst, or diarrhea?

Sitting on the couch in my comfortable living room, I hear the jarring sirens of our local fire engine, weaving along the roads not far from my house. This is the day that Santa rides through town, Santa and his firemen assistants, throwing candy to children who run out to greet them, spreading cheer, confusion, and sugar, setting off every dog in the township until the day becomes a cacophony of sirens, honking horns, and dog song. 
O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive IsraelThat mourns in lonely exile here . . .
I had meant to write this week about the fruit of metanoia. I came across the Greek term last December, a rich, intriguing word too often flattened into “repentence,” when what it points us toward is a new mind, a new way of seeing, “the mind of Christ” -  a mind no longer conformed to the tame, tired patterns of this world.

But the unsettling disaster at Sandy Hook Elementary School set my thoughts spinning in new directions. I graduated from high school just half an hour from Newtown. My heart jumps up in grief for the twenty children dead, for the committed principal, the other school staff, the families torn and trust destroyed. But my heart jumps up in grief as well for the young man who thought a gun might solve his pain. He’s the guy I sat next to in my junior math class, the troubled loner who showed up at my church uninvited, the socially awkward misfit who didn’t get the hint when I told him twenty times I was too busy to go out.

John the Baptist, from Isenheim Altarpiece,
Matthias Grünewald, Alsace c 1515

I had thought of writing about John the Baptist's exhortation to “produce fruit in keeping with metanoia.” Last week’s Synchroblog held some wonderful examples of fruitful, generous exploration of the mind of Christ. A mom, still working her way through a cross-country move, puts together gift bags for the homeless, and is working hard to provide Christmas joy to a woman and child starting over after escaping an abusive household. Another woman found her friendship with a homeless mom became the impetus to start a furniture ministry to families moving from shelters into homes, then launched a neighborhood support center, and is starting yet another. Their stories challenge and excite me: fruit in keeping with metanoia.

But I find myself spiraling back to questions that haunt me:

Why am I so much more troubled by the death of twenty children, in a school I can picture, in a community like my own, than the deaths of thousands upon thousands in countries I've never seen?

Why am I spending money on eggnog and ornaments when I could pay for clean water for children who walk miles a day for water, knowing the water they collect will most likely make them sick?

Why do we allow our gun control discussions to be dictated by gun manufacturers and the organizations they fund, instead of insisting on real conversation about what’s best for our communities and homes?

How would I comfort a grieving family? 

What does my faith have to say in the face of tragedy? 
 O come, O come,
Thine own from Satan's tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o'er the grave
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Hours before I heard of the deaths in Connecticut, I met with friends for our monthly time of prayer for Emily, a woman struck by lighting. When we meet, we bring food to share, and spiritual food as well. Often we’re amazed at how clearly God speaks to us. Sometimes we have the same passage to share. Sometimes a common theme appears.

This week I was feeling discouraged. As I told the group, the passage I had to share, from Psalm 86, reflected my own sorry state:
Hear me, Lord, and answer me,    for I am poor and needy. Teach me your way, Lord,    that I may rely on your faithfulness;give me an undivided heart,    that I may fear your name. 
I’m the leader of this little prayer band, the one who organizes it, and I was feeling conflicted: what’s the point? What if God really doesnt hear us? Do I even know how to pray? 

One of the others in the group pulled out her journal and read what she had planned to share from  1 Corinthians 12:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

She was insistent: God has called us to gather and pray, and each time he gives what we need. He speaks through us all, for the common good.

Christ in Gethsemane, Michael O'Brien, Canada
While I puzzled over what that might have to say to my own discouraged state, another of the group shared ways God has been at work, dramatically, with precise timing, with visible grace. Her words brought tears to my eyes: God does hear us. But then she went on to read a passage I blogged about last fall, a passage I shared with her at a time when she was struggling:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
She went on, sharing her own heart, her own experience of grief and comfort, as she read: 
We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
Her conviction comforted me, as I know mine has comforted her at other times in the past. This path isn't easy, doesn't unfold in straight lines, no matter how hard we try to make the crooked road straight, the rough ways smooth. The story is still unfolding.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheerOur spirits by Thine advent hereDisperse the gloomy clouds of nightAnd death's dark shadows put to flight.Rejoice! Rejoice! EmmanuelShall come to thee, O Israel. 
A friend asked me recently: “What are we supposed to do with what you write?”

I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she tried to elaborate: “I read your blog, but I don’t know what to do with it.”


Like a checklist? An easy application?

I'm reminded of the question to John the Baptist: 

"What should we do?"

His answer: "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same."

I"m not sure what it means, today, here, to share my shirt with the one who has none. I do know I can buy a bag of groceries when I visit a friend with too many hungry mouths to feed

Here’s my prayer, for myself, my friends, those who read my blog:

Set aside easy answers.

Question voices motivated by power and profit.

Work out together what it means to follow Christ, what it means to share our gifts, our experiences, our burdens and joys, today, every day, for the common good.




Ask God to teach us his way, to give us undivided hearts, to reshape our minds so we see beyond the boundaries of the visible to the mysteries of the real.

Pray for fruit in keeping with metanoia –  for the grace to grow in generous friendship, sacrificial worship, transparent, humble, respectful witness. 

Wait together, with expectation, for that kingdom we long for, the place where death has lost its sting: 
O come, Thou Key of David, come,And open wide our heavenly home;Make safe the way that leads on high,And close the path to misery.Rejoice! Rejoice! EmmanuelShall come to thee, O Israel.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent Two: Outsiders In

Eugene Higgins, There Was No Room
at the Inn, monotype, c. 1940, NY
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God--for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.--Father Oscar Romero, 1978 Christmas Eve homily
I grew up as far from Bethlehem as one can imagine, in a gracious, well-groomed suburb of New York City, in a community of spacious, lovely homes, a world of quiet, green backyards, live-in help, excellent schools.

I lived with my grandparents, in the only non-two-parent household I knew. My grandfather, a first generation Italian-American, had built the house and others in the neighborhood. He kept some of his contractor supplies in a locked shed in the back yard, kept tools in the locked garage, kept his basement workshop locked, his office off the driveway locked, kept a large TV turned loud in the master bedroom, also locked. He traveled through the house with the jangling of keys, and, depending on the level of inebriation, with loud, sometimes obscene proclamations about whatever caught his eye or sparked his simmering anger.

My birthday was two weeks before Christmas, but I never had a party, mostly for fear my grandfather would ruin it. In some strange, childhood way, I considered our school Christmas parties my own; my name, after all, is Carol. I imagined every Christmas carol we sang was a birthday present for me. Strange idea, I suppose, but in some ways I was a strange kid, always watching from the edge of things.

Christmas, for me, wasn’t so much about decorations. Most years we had a tree, but some years not. If our grandfather decided on outdoor decorations, we’d all be drawn into hours of unhappy compliance with his whims.

It also wasn’t much about presents. Most years there’d be just one gift, usually something practical: a winter coat. A pair of boots. Occasionally a good surprise would surface, but usually not. No reason to lie awake at night, wondering and hoping.

Christmas cookies? We had some, but my grandmother was a good cook, and she baked year round: bread, pies, cookies.

For me, Christmas was more about the carols: songs of mystery and longing, of promise fulfilled, of exuberant celebration.

In third grade, I earned a small Sunday School Bible of my own by memorizing the books of the Bible, and I started setting the Christmas story beside the already memorized carols. I was struck by the bit about Herod and the babies, and the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous wrath. I felt a kinship with Jesus, living in the shadow of a malevolent, unpredictable power.

I also felt a kinship with the shepherds, partly because I would have loved to have a lamb or two of my own, but more because they lived outside, as I would have been happy to do. As I grew older, I realized they were outsiders like me, not quite part of the community around them, marginal younger children, tolerated but not quite welcome.

Arthur Allen Lewis, Shepherd, 1927, NY
The more I lingered in the stories of Christ’s birth, the more I saw a growing cast of outsiders: Mary, am unmarried teen, suspiciously pregnant. Ragtag shepherds, running through the dark to share a ridiculous story of angel choirs and strange pronouncements. Old, extraneous Simeon, not quite ready to die. Strange old prophetess Anna, offering words quickly forgotten.

Even the wise men, the mysterious Magi: weren’t they outsiders too? Neither Jews nor Romans, travelers from some unknown land, carrying inappropriate gifts, setting off that chain reaction of jealousy, suspicion, and slaughter.

I saw in those stories hope for an outsider. Did God choose outsiders deliberately? Or were they the ones who were watching, and waiting, ready to hear something new?

When I got around to tackling the genealogy in Matthew 1, I found more outsiders. In the middle of endless names of men, there were just a few women: Tamar, a Canaanite, whose two evil husbands died, whose children, Perez and Zerah, were the product of pretended prostitution. Then Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute rescued from Jericho. Ruth, a Moabite, great grand-mother of King David. Bathsheba, mother of Solomon, recorded as the wife of Uriah the Hittite, although Solomon’s father is listed as David. That one short sentence carries a reminder that Bathsheba was unfaithful to her husband, and David arranged for Uriah’s death to hide the resultant pregnancy.

All four women were outsiders, alien in some way, with the hint of scandal attached to their names. If Matthew’s goal was to convince readers that Jesus was the ideal choice as Messiah, those weren’t the names to use. But if the goal was to say “God uses outsiders, and redeems broken families,” those names are deeply comforting.

Comforting as well was Mary’s song, the first Christmas carol:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
I still go back, sometimes, to the question that troubled me as a skinny kid, in my baggy hand-me-down sweaters and itchy, too-long wool skirts: Was it that God chose the outsiders? Or were they the only ones ready to listen?

As my life becomes more comfortable, as I find myself surrounded by a warm, loving family, by caring friends, as I find my cupboards and closets full, I wonder: in my riches, am I less able to hear? Do I miss the good news, the voices God sends that aren't part of my comfortable circle?

Do I shelter myself from outsiders, like the shepherds? Would I welcome strange prophets, or weary travelers, carrying unexpected treasures?

In this season of lights, and food, and gifts, what can I be doing to keep my heart open to the humble, the hungry?

What a grief it would be, to find my stomach full, and my own heart empty.

To be an insider in things that don’t matter, and an outsider in the family of God.
O Rex Gentium
O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

                  Malcolm Guite, 2011 

Jourmey of the Magi, James Jaques Tissant, 1894, France
This post is part of the December synchroblog: Tell Me a Story

Jeremy Myers, Santa Clausette
Liz Dyer,  Dreams Do Come True
Leah Sophia, Planting Hope
Glen Hager, Christmas Surgery   
Wendy McCaig, Once Upon A Time  

It's also the second in a four-week Advent series. Other Advent posts:

The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011

Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 
Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent One: How Do I Know?

This is the season when our secular script calls us to account. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday: consumer capitalism is taking attendance and counting the collection. Get your money in motion. It’s your patriotic duty.

I find myself agnostic on free market fundamentalism, and non-compliant on the call to dutiful consumption. I don’t believe our future depends on ever-increasing production. Instead, I’m intrigued by thinkers like EF ShumacherHerman Daly, Gar Alperovitz, Marjorie Kelly, and their exploration of a commons-based economy less dependent on measures like market shares and GDP and more open to alternative systems of value.

Every year, as Advent collides with our annual consumer celebrations, I find myself thinking about belief systems, identity issues, where we put our hope for the future. Am I of value because I spend? Is my contribution dependent on the size of my paycheck? Is my hope for the future tied to the health of my pension? If I question our economic model, will I be tried for heresy?

We all have beliefs we hold firmly, creeds we confess. Some of those are so deeply embedded we no longer see them for what they are, some so foundational to who we are we’re surprised when someone calls them into question. We hold narratives we assume are normative: Treat the world well. Watch out for your own. Go to a good school, get a good job, make as much as you can.

Somehow we believe our own constructs are the right ones, while simultaneously endorsing the idea that all faiths are equal and your truth is as good as mine.  If everything is equal, then Romney’s version of reality is equivalent to Obama’s, Rush Limbaugh’s rants as reasonable as Jon Stewart’s sly reflections. Are some things true, and others false? Are some valuations right, and others wrong?

Here’s a simple one: do you believe that what we see is what we get? That the material world is the measure of value, that life proceeds according to easily duplicated models, that there are natural laws that nothing can change?

Or are there realities beyond the physical realm? Does my value rest in something you can’t count? Are there times when natural laws are set aside by forces we can’t see?

Maybe not so simple.

Ideas have premises as well as consequences, and each plank in our platforms, each item of our creeds, rests on others, some explicitly affirmed, some studiously suppressed. For most of us, if we make the effort to clarify, we find contradictions, confusions, items of faith held in unacknowledged tension.

My goal in this blog has been to dig around in what I believe, to examine premises as well as consequences, to try to hear the half-heard words that form and inform who I am, what I do.

Advent lands me back at the foundation of that, as the narrative of a baby born two thousand years ago collides with the narrative of power, profit, personal value playing out in the stress and strain of an American December.

So I’ll start here: why would anyone care about the story of that provincial baby, nobody child of nobody, born in an occupied country, in a dusty nowhere town, in a stinking animal stall?

And what halfway intelligent modern person would believe, for even a millisecond, that that baby was the product of a deity’s word, spoken to an unmarried teenage girl, or that mythical creatures no one can document showed up in force to sing to some smelly shepherds?

Approach this as a scientist, and the narrative crumbles quickly.  No one can “prove” the facts of an individual’s conception, immaculate or otherwise, and what scientific evidence would support the songs of angels: undoctored photographs? Phonograph recordings?

The story of Jesus, like many stories of scripture, sits outside the realm of science, which is not to say that scientists can’t be Christians; many are.  But for those who insist on scientific naturalism, on a reality that conforms, is explained, can be proved, by the laws of science, the Christmas narrative is a fairy tale, a silly myth, of no more weight, and maybe less interest, than Seuss’s Grinch, or Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin.

But if science is the measure of meaning – we live in a very flat world indeed.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft speaks of “the radical insufficiency of what is finite and limited”, the “cramped and constricted horizon” encountered when “our best and most honest reflection on the nature of things led us to see the material universe as self-sufficient and uncaused; to see its form as the result of random motions, devoid of any plan or purpose.”

Advent is a reminder that we all, whatever we profess to believe, find ourselves constrained by the constricted horizon of "what is." Surrounded by broken systems, broken institutions, broken people, we surrender to the self-protective stance so deeply encouraged by an impatient, uncaring world. Even those of us who say we believe in an active God surrender to the finite, limited vision of reality, measuring our worth in taxable dollars. We fall into compliance with superficial valuations. We become complicit in the competitive enterprise. Our voices are silenced. Our hope for change is dulled.

At first, (as young adults, or willful dreamers) we rebel at the “radical insufficiency” of the current regime: we try to be generous, even though generosity looks foolish. We try to be honest, even when honesty is rarely rewarded. But slowly we cave. We blend. We realize that those ideals we held have no place in a material world.

Then God grabs our world and shakes it – like a child shaking a snow globe – and the scenery changes.

Yesterday I started rereading the gospel of Luke. Luke, the only Gentile writer represented in the Bible, was also one of the most educated: an upper-class Greek doctor, Paul’s “beloved physician”, and a careful historian.

He starts his account of Christ’s life with a promise to share only what he's researched himself and is convinced is true:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us . .  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account . . .  so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
After his quick introduction, Luke plunges headlong into the story of Zechariah, John the Baptist's father: names, dates, simple history. But in verse eleven, the narrative takes a turn: "Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear."

I love the detail. Not just an angel, but “standing on the right side of the altar.”

The angel explains what is about to happen:  Zechariah’s aging wife will become pregnant with a longed for baby. The child, a son, will be part of God’s plan of intervention for his people, and the world.

I identify deeply with Zechariah’s response: “How do I know this is true?” Religious leader though he is, he's asking for proof: Will you give me some kind of unassailable documentation? Will you come tell my neighbors, so they know I’m not crazy? Could you make this announcement in church next Sunday? So everyone else hears you too?

How do I know?

I love the angel’s response. Polite, but sharp. Let me paraphrase: “Seriously? You’re a priest, here we are in the inner sanctum of the temple, I’m standing here in front of you, straight from God’s throne, me, Gabriel, still God's messenger, the same one who spoke to Daniel, centuries ago. I'm here telling you what God has planned, and you’re wondering if you can believe me, even while you're shaking with fear. You still need proof? Really?”

I’ve never had an encounter with Gabriel, but I’ve seen God intervene in my life. And in the lives of others. I’ve seen the intervention that brings forgiveness, freedom, joy, healing, laughter in the place of pain, a deep sense of belonging for those who felt abandoned.

And still, five minutes later, or five weeks later, five years later, we ask: “How do I know that was true?” “Why should I believe in miracles?” "Where's the proof?"

There are some great discussions of miracles available: a quick overview by Peter Kreeft, CS Lewis’ book “Miracles,” chapter seven of Tim Keller’s Reasons for God, Two interesting websites, Christians in Science in the UK, and American Science Affiliation in the US, offer extensive resources on the compatability of  science and faith. The Biologos Foundation, founded by Human Genome Project geneticist and physician Francis Collins, offers a helpful mix of articles about miracles and science, and a new book by Collins and Karl Giberson, The Language of Science and Faith.

But, for most of us, questions of miracles aren't really the point. We have other things on our minds. We have our own un-examined premises, and that's good enough for now.

In those dark days of the Roman occupation, some of God’s people, like Simeon and Anna in the temple, waited for God’s intervention, and celebrated at the first hint of his appearance. Some, like Zechariah, went about the motions of religion, no longer convinced that God might show up.

My guess is that then, like now, most didn't give it much thought. Life is far too busy. There are Christmas presents to buy.

Earlier Advent posts:

Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010 
Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011 
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011