Sunday, March 27, 2016

Five Little Letters: An Easter Reflection

This was originally posted at my InterVarsity Press blog "Strangely Dim," Easter 2011.

The other day I found this sheet of paper sitting in the printer. About two thirds of the way down the page, about an inch in from the left margin, were five little letters in tiny little type: J-e-s-u-s. That's it - nothing else. Such a tiny little word, made more weighty by being surrounded by nothing.

It was an accident of formatting, I'm sure, that "Jesus" showed up all by himself on that page. Maybe a misplaced hard page break or a cell that spilled over the printable area on the page previous. These things happen in a publishing house. But it's an interesting way of looking at Jesus: five little letters, all by themselves, not where you'd expect them. It's arresting in its simplicity.

We're generally uncomfortable with simplicity attached to greatness. Simplicity isn't appropriate to superstars, we figure, and so we try to do them a favor by filling up the space with whatever gravitas we can. I'm reminded of King Saul, dressing up shepherd boy David in his kingly armor to the point that David couldn't even move. I'm reminded of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey, with random people making all sorts of obsequious gestures in his path. When simplicity is perpetrated upon us by people we admire, we overcompensate a bit; we offer what we can, even if no offering is solicited. Sometimes all we can think to contribute is our own beard-stroking, chin-tapping egos. If our heroes are going to be so stubbornly simple, we'll have to be pretentious on their behalf.

I'm reminded of one of the more remarkable meetings of the twentieth century, at least in terms of popular culture: John Lennon's first encounter with Yoko Ono. She, an avant-garde performance artist, was exhibiting at a gallery in London; he, a world-renowned singer-songwriter, was looking for a good time. Two giant personalities filling one room; simplicity was probably the last thing on anyone's mind.

Part of the exhibit was a white ladder to the ceiling, where the viewer would find a magnifying glass. Looking at the ceiling through the magnifying glass, the viewer would find three little letters: Y-e-s. Yes.

"You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" It was a stark contrast to the sort of hypercritical vibe that attends to much pretentiousness and characterized the time: "all anti-, anti-, anti-. Anti-art, anti-establishment." Lennon was hooked, and he soon came to be more identified with Yoko than anyone else in his life - even his songwriting partner Paul McCartney, even his iconic band The Beatles.

John eventually wrote "The Ballad of John and Yoko," a plainspoken chronicle of their relationship that compared their experience to that of Jesus: misunderstood, expected to behave in ways they were unwilling to behave, persecuted for being countercultural and having convictions and being, for lack of a better word, simple. "The way things are going," Lennon mused as he sang, "they're gonna crucify me." What sustained Lennon in the face of such pretentious backlash was those three little letters, that soft-spoken "Yes."

I'm reminded of the apostle Paul's declaration to the Corinthian church, an assurance that sustained them through the early decades of the church's formation, beset with persecution and misunderstanding: "No matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ." Yes is a hard word to come by, to be honest, particularly during a recession or a depression or a natural disaster or a nuclear calamity or whatever. I have a friend who once whispered to me gravely in the wee hours of the night that the world will be devastated within twenty years by at least one of three things: a global weather event, a global economic catastrophe, or a global war. So far it looks as though all he got wrong was the timing.

And yet still God has made these promises, and still by faith every Easter we declare with Paul that all those promises are "Yes" in Christ. It's an act of defiance that looks suspiciously like an act of naivete, even delusion, and yet what else can we say?

I'm reminded of three little days after the death of God, when a woman named Mary shuffled despondently, in her mourning clothes, into a garden to honor the dead. There, unexpectedly, she found Jesus--no big fanfare, no bold or italic or serifs or 40-point type; just Jesus, plain and simple, all five little letters of him. And while the Scriptures don't report this, I imagine when she cried out in awareness that she saw a resurrected Jesus standing there, he responded simply by whispering three little letters: "Yes."

Monday, March 21, 2016

Heart of Felt: The Little Lady with the Divine Calling

You meet some interesting people when you exhibit at Christian conferences. I've met people who think they're doing the Lord's work by firing t-shirts with Bible verses on them from a cannon, by printing Bible verses on frisbees and selling them in packs of five. I've been given a sewing kit by a woman who works at Dollywood. I've helped a fellow exhibitor take coins (with Bible verses printed on them, of course) out of one ziplock bag and put them in another.

Recently I met a woman who was in the midst of accepting a divine call on her life — the kind of woman who generally would rather be called a lady than a woman, but who will generally accept whatever you call her because, you know, boys will be boys. She was a little freaked out by this commissioning she was in the process of experiencing, to be honest. Her family had entered the orbit of a cottage industry of complementarity — resources designed to help men reclaim their God-ordained leadership role in the home. Her family was traveling up and down the coast, telling their story and selling their books. They had discerned together that the women benefiting from these newly actualized men — these women freshly relieved from the burden of leadership in their homes, only recently delivered to the promised land of making meals and deferring to daddy — needed their own resources to orient themselves to this brave new world. Her husband had given her the nod: she was to suit up and enter the fray. She was to write a book.

Normally I run from people who feel God has given them a book to write, and particularly when they feel God has given them a book to write about something with which I strongly disagree. Normally they're looking for an editor to write them a contract, pay them an advance, and suffer through the birthing pains of their divine mandate, and generally speaking, that doesn't interest me. But when you're hawking your own wares at a conference, there's nowhere to run. You're stuck with your neighbor, and as the Good Book says, you have to love your neighbor as yourself. Dang it.

TWEET THIS: You're stuck with your neighbor, and as the Good Book says, you have to love your neighbor as yourself. Dang it.

But in this case there was nothing to run from. This woman didn't have the wild eyes of the prophet seeking publication. She had the wide eyes of a deer in the headlights. She was just this side of panicked at the thought of writing this book.

After I wrote Deliver Us from Me-Ville, my missive against a culture of narcissism (bully for me!), a friend pointed out a problem he had with it (bully for him). His concern was this: A highly narcissistic culture notwithstanding, for many modern women, the besetting sin seeking to devour them isn't self-absorption but self-annihilation — actively suppressing their own desires, even their sense of vocation, even their voice, out of a sense of obligation to their relationships.

TWEET THIS: For many modern women, the besetting sin seeking to devour them isn't self-absorption but self-annihilation.

For such women, my friend told me (too late, I might add, for me to revise my manuscript accordingly), the accusation of narcissism reinforces their self-suppression, adding to their sense of guilt and responsibility to reduce themselves for the greater good. They suffer from that self-suppression, and because their voice and vocation and God-given desires are suppressed, so do the rest of us.

I don't know if that's what was going on in this woman's mind — writing a book is a pretty daunting undertaking in and of itself — but I found myself thinking about it as we talked. I found myself trying to give her courage, to affirm this sense of calling — ironically, cheering her on to accept this leadership role in helping women abdicate their leadership. She won me over in spite of my reluctance to engage weird writing projects, in spite of my strong disagreement with one of her core convictions. I wanted to reward her for believing in something, to encourage her to believe in herself.

You encounter shocking displays of earnestness when you hawk your wares at Christian conferences. You encounter a fair bit of cynicism too; you may mark me in the record as exhibit A. I imagine that if this woman were to write about our conversation, she'd express some degree of sadness for my soul. In that respect, despite my eager encouragement of her, I suspect I got the better end of the deal in our interaction: Earnestness is generally more edifying than cynicism, and certainly more endearing. (I did notice that a lot more people hugged her goodbye at the end of the conference than hugged me.)

TWEET THIS: Earnestness is generally more edifying than cynicism, and certainly more endearing.

I find myself increasingly, in the wake of such interactions, wondering why I'm not more earnest. Or, maybe more to the point, what I am (or could be) earnest about. As much as I disagree with some of this woman's views on things, she was undeniably heartfelt about it. And heartfelt is a truly lovely word. It evokes real, authentic feeling. It suggests a softness, a suppleness, a heart of felt that absorbs the shocks of circumstance and sustains a person through hardship, helping them keep their eyes in the prize. A soft heart is, in fact, a key aspect of the beatific vision: A day is coming when "I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh" says the Lord to the prophet Ezekiel, "and give them a heart of flesh.”

‭‭ I'm actually confident I'm annoyingly earnest about a few things. Even cynics have blind spots. Please feel free to call me on it when I'm overly earnest. But also please feel free to let me be soft and supple of heart. It costs you nothing, really, except a temporary suspension of cynicism.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Keep Easter Weird

There's a conspiracy afoot, people. It extends to the highest offices in the world: the British government, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, the Orthodox primates—"and," undoubtedly, in the words of the great film So I Married an Axe Murderer, "Colonel Sanders before he went teats up."

The conspiracy is to set a permanent, fixed date for Easter.

We simply can't let that happen.

"For one and a half millennia," writes Nick Miller of the Sydney Morning Herald, "for Anglicans and Catholics, Easter Sunday has been the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox – a convoluted formula which means the date can vary by more than a month from year to year."

This is the problem as leaders of Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches see it: Easter is too wild, too unpredictable. You have to work too hard to let people know it's happening. Schools have to excuse too many unscheduled absences. Stores have to concoct too many algorithms to schedule their sales. Such chaos is beneath a society as well-heeled and commercialized as ours. Thus say our religious authorities and corporate overlords. I imagine some cabal of evangelicalati is giving their nod to it as well: Rick Warren, John Piper, and whoever else everyone seems to think speaks for me.

But I'd like to nip this thing in the bud. It's a good thing that Easter is hard to schedule. We are blessed by the confounding of our calendars represented in Easter. It makes us harder to subjugate. It provides the last line of resistance against the commercializing forces of modern materialism. Keeping Easter a moveable feast keeps Christians on our toes. It keeps Christianity untamed.

TWEET THIS: Keeping Easter a moveable feast keeps Christians on our toes. It keeps Christianity untamed.

As I learned from Michelle Van Loon, whose book Moments and Days explores the Jewish feasts and Christian calendar and will release this fall (just in time for Advent!), the lunar calendar informs the Jewish feasts, and those feasts inform the Christian holy days that followed them. Easter is tagged to Passover because Jesus was commemorating Passover when he was arrested, and Passover is celebrated in accordance with the cycles of the moon. The birth of the church takes place on Pentecost, a Jewish feast that is similarly rooted in the agricultural year, tied as it is to the lunar calendar. These celebrations were born in a time when empires had yet to colonize time itself: that would come a few centuries later, when holy Roman emperors deemed it expeditious to bind time to the sun rather than the moon, the better to systematize their empires with.

Holidays tied to the lunar calendar are more organic than those tied to the solar year. They remind us that calendars are social constructs. They force us to pause and think about when, and why, we celebrate and commemorate. They reassert that there are rhythms more natural than the ones we have acquiesced to, that our sacred celebrations transcend communal or corporate convenience. Our holidays should be weird because, as the apostle Peter tells us, we are a "peculiar people" (1 Peter 2:9, KJV)

TWEET THIS: Our holidays should be weird because, as the apostle Peter tells us, we are a peculiar people.

I'm not calling for anything radical here. I'm not saying we should dress funny for Easter (although, frankly, some of you do). I'm not demanding that Christmas be untethered from December 25 (although has celebrating Christmas every December 25 really helped keep Christ in Christmas?) any more than I'm demanding that civil holidays like Independence Day no longer be fixed to particular days, like July 4. (I think if you're going to blow up a bunch of stuff one day every year, you should keep it as predictable as possible.) I'm simply suggesting we leave well enough alone, that we keep Easter weird. It's one of the cooler things about us, I think.

TWEET THIS: Keep Easter weird. It's one of the cooler things about us.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

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