Sunday, November 30, 2014

Short People: An Advent Reflection

For the first Sunday of Advent, a throwback post from 2010.


My first creative writing assignment (at least first in my memory) was a short story, a wildly meta fantasy in which the protagonist (whose name was, most likely, "Dave"--or perhaps "Danny," which as a kid I considered an objectively better name than "Dave" and thus a better name for myself) was soooo much smarter than his peers that he kept being advanced into later grades. Eventually his precociousness took him to high school, where he could no longer reach the handle to his locker. So he returned to the hoi polloi of his age-appropriate class. Poor Dave/Daniel: the one thing he lacked on his rocket to success was a growth spurt.

I was as proud of that story as I was of my presumed advanced intelligence. I wrote songs, short stories, book reviews--you name it--all before adolescence. Even as I shifted my self-concept to "musician," I kept writing. I was proud of the essays I wrote for my college applications, proud of the essays I wrote in my literature class (I very nearly failed that class), proud of the one-liners I'd come up with on the fly to defy my teacher and entertain my French class. I bragged about my wit and mastery of language during a parent-teacher conference, to which my eighth-grade Basic English teacher responded, "Well, I suppose you have to be clever when you're small."

Ouch. In the narrative arc of the hero's journey, this moment might be considered my passage through the first threshold, "which is crossed in such a way that it appears to be death."

That's really the way it works, though, isn't it? Our fantasies about ourselves (which likely have some base in reality) clash with the more common perceptions of us among our peers:

* "I am smart," despite the fact that I had not qualified for advanced English and was stuck in a remedial English course with an insensitive teacher.

* "I am known as witty," despite the more immediately obvious designator for me as "small."

I find myself identifying with another short but otherwise impressive fellow, Zacchaeus. A tax collector in first-century Palestine, he gets nine verses in Luke's Gospel--not enough to really know him, but we get quite a sense of him, because in meeting Zacchaeus we once again encounter Jesus.

Jesus always drew a crowd, and Luke 19 is no different. Everyone in Jericho wanted to get a good look at him, including Zacchaeus. We learn two things about Zac right off the bat:

1. He's the chief tax collector.
2. He's rich.

So in matters of wealth and accomplishment, he's a big deal. Bully for him. But one more detail colors our perception of Zacchaeus*:

3. He's short--so short "he could not see over the crowd."

I imagine the citizens of Jericho begrudgingly paying their taxes to Zac and then consoling themselves by ridiculing him for being tiny. Zac has, conceivably, a Napoleon complex, aggressively and myopically chasing success as a way of compensating for being small. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Napoleon had a Zacchaeus complex. Maybe I have a Zacchaeus complex. Maybe all of us "fun-size" (to borrow a term from my friends the Heuertzes) humor the taller among us with reaches that exceed our grasp.

Anyway, Zac didn't get rich and accomplished by giving up, so he climbs a tree, at which point Jesus sees him and invites himself over to Zac's house for dinner. This audacious act by Jericho's newest big thing must frustrate the townspeople. Wee Zac comes out on top again. To quote the band Midnight Oil: "The rich get richer, the poor get the picture. The bombs never hit you when you're down so low." Zac's neighbors give us another description of who Zac is:

4. He's a lowdown sinner.

But Jesus knows there's more to Zac than what his neighbors think; there's even more to Zac than what Zac thinks.

In a move that nobody saw coming, Zac offers restitution for his unjust (though not illegal) practices in collecting taxes, in keeping with the commands of Torah.** Beyond that, he publicly pledges half his wealth to the poor folks in Jericho, again honoring the spirit of Torah. This is so out of keeping with who Zac knows himself to be, who the townspeople know Zac to be, that it can only be thought of as a miracle. But in the eyes of Jesus, this miraculous Zac has simply returned to normal, because Jesus knows a fifth thing about Zac:

5. He's a child of Abraham.

Zac is a child of Abraham just like all his neighbors, which means he is a beneficiary of the promises of God, a member of a covenant community that, according to God its head, takes care of the poor and treats one another justly. The children of Abraham, the scriptures tell us, love God and love their neighbors as themselves. Jesus tells us that these two rules sum up all of Torah. So this is who Zac is, who his neighbors are--or, more accurately, who they would be if they lived like they were born to live.

Jesus doesn't demand that we be something other than what we are--he didn't lay hands on Zac and make him tall; he didn't take his ill-gotten gains from him by force or expel him from the covenant community for violating usury laws. Jesus called it as he saw it, and he saw more clearly than anyone what needed to happen and indeed what had happened for Zac:

6. He's saved.

Today, then, as Advent begins, let us wait together with joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who will deliver us from the prisons of our reputations and the cells of our self-concepts, and restore us to our original identity as children of a loving God--with all that entails for us, and all that demands of us.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

* My friend Ruth tells me that some scholars speculate that it's actually Jesus who is short--so short that Zacchaeus has to climb a tree to look down enough to see him. That's cold.

** My friend Sean tells me that this text in the original language suggests that Zacchaeus isn't announcing that he will offer restitution but that he already is regularly directing his profits from collecting taxes to the betterment of his society. According to this interpretation, Zacchaeus isn't a lowdown sinner; he's a child of Abraham the "righteous" people of Jericho have decided they don't have to accept. In that respect, they're the sinners, not Zacchaeus.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving (For Every Wrong Move)

Somehow I find myself far out of line
from the ones I had drawn.
Wasn't the best of paths -
you could attest to that -
but I'm keeping on.
Giving thanks is sometimes an act of faith.

There was no pot of gold,
hardly a rainbow lighting my way.
But I will be true to the red, black and blues
that colored those days.
To all of you who are acting on faith this year ...

I owe my soul to each fork in the road,
each misleading sign.
'Cause even in solitude, no bitter attitude
can dissolve my sweetest find.

Would our paths cross if every great loss
had turned out our gain?
Would our paths cross if the pain it had cost us
was paid in vain?

Thanksgiving for every wrong move
that made it right.
Happy Thanksgiving from Loud Time.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Shazam! Hallelujah!

My wife recently introduced a friend to the most important mobile-platform application ever devised. With this app you can instantly identify any recorded music overheard in any environment. No more "What is this song?!? I know I know this!" No more "Note to self: Remember to purchase this song hours after having heard it." No more delayed gratification or missed opportunity. Now there is only ... Shazam!

Shazam! Hallelujah!

Our friend was awestruck by the Shazam app. And rightly so. It is truly awesome. The world of sound, right there at your fingertips. You may be thankful for your friends or your family; me, I'm thankful for my app.*

There are some limitations though - or, to be fair, some limitations on the devices where this precious app is stored. Shazam! works by listening to broadcast music and comparing what it hears to a digital music database; if it can't hear the music, it can't make the match. So if your device is too far from the music source, or the volume on the music source is set too low, or if there are other ambient noises overwhelming the song, Shazam! can't identify it. When that happens your best bet is to lift your device up to the music.

This limitation can lead to some awkwardness. For example, imagine that you're in your favorite local coffee shop, and you hear an unfamiliar song piping through the PA. You don't know the song, but you like it, so you Shazam! it. Unfortunately, you're sitting right next to one of those ubiquitous men's Bible study groups crowding every coffee house. They're all "Bro" this and "I just wanna" that, with their big macho Bible study voices, and Shazam! can't hear the music. So you raise your hands in the air, as you might in an act of worship, and you try again.

Shazam! "The HIV Song." You just worshiped Ween.

Not really, of course, but it does strike me as funny how the songs we invest ourselves in carry messages that, in another context, we would never admit to believing. If songs of the people (which is, essentially, what pop songs are) mirror the moment in which they're written, then they do in fact reflect what we're preoccupied with. And frankly it's not a big leap from preoccupation to idolatry. In these ways, the pop songs we find ourselves humming to, find ourselves laying down money for, tell the truth about us in uncomfortable ways. Who can deny what we learn about ourselves when we learn what song has burrowed its way into our brain? Shazam! "I wanna be a billionaire so freakin' bad ..."

TWEET THIS: It's not a big leap from preoccupation to idolatry.

Our money, our power, our prestige, our friends, our family, our Bible studies, our Bibles, our coffee, our apps, ourselves - all of these have the capacity to lead us into idolatry. We bend our knees before all of them without stopping to consider the cost; we close our eyes to their shortcomings, their incapacity to do what we expect idols to do - to save us from ruin and misery and worse. All of these are songworthy; none of these is worship-worthy. Sometimes it takes Shazam! to catch us in the act.

I'm not freaking out about idolatry, for what it's worth. If everybody does it all the time, it's hardly worth freaking out about. But still, being reminded that we're doing it is a gift: it's an opportunity to redirect our focus, to let our idols off the hook and let them be simply human - or simply things, as the case may be. Idolatry is silly; the Bible demonstrates just how silly it is:

The carpenter ... makes an idol
and bows down to it.
Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
over it he prepares his meal,
he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
He also warms himself and says,
“Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
he bows down to it and worships.
He prays to it and says,
“Save me! You are my god!” ...
No one stops to think,
no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
“Half of it I used for fuel;
I even baked bread over its coals,
I roasted meat and I ate. ...
Shall I bow down to a block of wood?” (Isaiah 44)
If it's silly, we can laugh at it. And if we can laugh at it, it loses its power.

TWEET THIS: If it's silly, we can laugh at it. And if we can laugh at it, it loses its power.

So I'm not complaining; I'm just pointing out something funny. I'll leave you with my most recent accidental act of idolatry, a song I discovered via Shazam! when I lifted my iPhone up to the heavens. Hope you like it.

*For the record, I'm thankful for friends and family too. Relax.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...