An Average Blog Post

three stars aveageThe first point of ten under the Stress Test Conclusions heading was, “Exercise capacity was good and average.”  Point ten concluded, “Findings consistent with … average conditioning… Exercise capacity was average.” There it was, three times in half a page, the same word. That gray, mundane, faceless, path to obscurity word – average.

Average movies don’t win Oscars, average people aren’t on the 10 Best lists, average runners don’t win gold medals, and Grammys aren’t awarded for average songs. In our culture that celebrates winners, is there a fate worse than being average?

Statistically speaking, average refers to what’s typical or the central value in a string of data. To determine the average height of the girls in a classroom, for example, take each person’s height in inches, add the measurements together and then divide by the number of girls. If the result is 66”, then the average height is 5 feet 6 inches.

The bell curve is a great visual of the concept. When a sixth grade class runs the 200-yard dash, there will be a few speedy students, a few slow ones, and the bulk of the class will finish within seconds of each other. A graph plotting the finishing times will be in the shape of a bell curve, a curving line with a big lump in the middle that slopes sharply downward on both sides. The lump? That’s average.

When the above-average walk the red carpet or stand on the podium or add a star to the restaurant sign, there’s an implicit assumption that they are worth more. Financially that may be true; attendance at last week’s Oscar winners and reservations at the hip restaurant will increase. But the actors and chefs aren’t worth more as human beings or suddenly more lovable because they broke out of the pack.

ashes in handAsh Wednesday and Lenten practices help me settle into that truth if I’ll let them. When the ashes from the burning of the palms from the last Palm Sunday are placed in a cross pattern on my forehead, the officiant repeats, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” When I walk back to the pew, my mortality stares back in the ashes that peek out from the bangs of the girl across the aisle or appear starkly on the bald head next to me. I’m dust, they’re dust.

The ashes remind me of our common humanity and equal value before God, and the shape of the cross of our common dependence on God’s work of salvation. When I accept Christ’s work on the cross, my strivings mean nothing. When I accept that God’s love for me, one of his dust creations, doesn’t depend on my bell curve position, that his grace isn’t reserved like an Oscar statuette only for the above-average, I can revel in being typical.

Without that mindset I stiffen like a porcupine when my average-ness comes to light, again. It takes the gritty cross reminder and Lenten reflections shared in community to usher me to my seat in the middle of the lump and find contentment. We’re not faceless and obscure; we are worthy because he loves your dusty face and mine.

Suggestions for Dealing with Medical News

comfort medicalLast week a well-meaning woman I didn’t know overheard me tell our yoga instructor that I wouldn’t be able to come to class for two months due to upcoming surgery. She was stricken, ashen, and continued the conversation as we walked out of the exercise room. She assured me, “Everything will be fine. Everything will be good.” Really?

Granted, she was trying to reassure me and likely herself that surgery is usually survived. Even open heart surgery is not likely to kill unless the patient is frail or infection sets in. Telling someone something you can’t know for sure is a  false assurance, and downplaying the gravity of the situation is not helpful. Neither was my yoga teacher’s reaction, “Oh, now you’re scaring me. But I shouldn’t be making you more nervous, should I?”

We like to think we’re in control, that with exercise and hard work we will live long lives without diminution of strength and vitality. We like to believe the title of the book, “Younger Next Year” and hope we can reverse the aging process on some scale. When someone comes at you with news of a life-threatening illness or major medical challenge such thinking loses potency like an expired bottle of Advil.

It’s the tough news that forces us to face our mortality and that’s a mirror we’d rather avoid. How much better to focus on the people still alive from the 1800’s, and to think our ancestors who were octogenarians ensure good genes and good fortune for us. How much better to look at medical advancements and focus on the hope that the early killers from the last century can be mitigated or eradicated.

When we hear that someone’s mortal body is failing and needs repair, our sense of control is challenged. It’d be great if we had a 100,000 mile or 10 year powertrain warranty and could trade in our bodies when rust corrodes, the struts sag, and the tires are nearly bald. But we don’t get to trade in this body until Christ returns and we get the only-seen-once resurrection version of flesh and bone.

Christians like to use Scripture to sidestep the hard edges of physical suffering. Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 top the list of appropriate consolations. No, it’s not wrong to quote them, and I don’t mean to deny the truth that God does have a purpose. But when doled out like an enema they don’t allow the person facing surgery or chemo or radiation to feel their distress and acknowledge their humanity.

We’d rather sweep the prospect of suffering under the rug and reassure ourselves this won’t happen to us. We want the person to put on a smile and prove that trusting God will make everyday a sunny one.  We’d rather keep up the illogical belief that nothing can get us down when Jesus is our shepherd. We don’t want people to tell us about their fear and anxiety because we don’t want to go there ourselves. But those who’ve walked the way of suffering will explain that only when the fear and anxiety are felt, welcomed, and acknowledged can they be placed in God’s loving hands and released.

When someone shares their hard news, let’s sit with them like Job’s friends before they started blabbering. In distress and nervousness the platitudes will come to mind like honeybees to a yellow T-shirt, but they can sting as well as make honey. When you’re the one sharing the hard news, listen below the words and hear the speaker’s distress. Not easy when you’re shouldering your own, but they’re carrying a burden, too. Maybe someone recently passed away or a friend didn’t fare well with the same illness or they have a terrible fear of death and pain. Maybe they’ve “gone limbic” as a counselor friend would say and are responding out of their hurt rather than easing yours.

Together we can acknowledge we live in frail bodies that are marvelous and wonderful creations even in the throes of inevitable decay. Together we can acknowledge our mortality and dispensability as we acknowledge our uniqueness and desire to life. Together we can cry through the tough news and celebrate each moment. Together we can face the pain rather than evade it and still grab hold of hope.

Firecrackers and Epiphany

epiphany kingsFirecrackers pop, pop, popped. Young men on horseback rode down the street in groups of three whooping and shouting. A festive mood hung over the small Puerto Rican town our taxi driver drove through en route to the airport. It was January 6th, twelve days after Christmas, and I wondered why they were celebrating.

The driver told us the observance of El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, what we call Epiphany, was a big deal in Puerto Rico and most Latin American countries. Pueblos host parades where people wear giant wise men costumes, families exchange presents, and there’s lots of food including the Rosca de Reyes –a ring-shaped sweet bread to mimic the kings’ crowns. Children leave their shoes outside the door like Christmas stockings and some leave hay or grass in a box for the camels like cookies for Santa Claus.

A day set aside to party and commemorate the magi’s visit was a novel concept. My church upbringing lumped the three kings in flowing robes and their camels in with the shepherds, sheep, cows and donkeys, and Matthew 2:1-12 in with the Christmas readings. But from an historical perspective, it’s nothing new as liturgical churches have celebrated Epiphany since the middle of the fourth century.

What is an epiphany? One common usage is for the light-bulb moments when a special insight or revelation breaks through.  An epiphany is also a time when humanity catches a fresh glimpse of the divine as in each of the moments venerated in Epiphany celebrations. Western churches focus primarily on the epiphany of baby Jesus to the wise men from the east as the moment when Christ first appeared to the Gentiles. Eastern churches focus on multiple aspects of Christ’s incarnation including his birth, baptism (Mark 1:9) and the miracle at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine (John 2:1-11) in their celebrations.

In these epiphanies as well as the transfiguration and the seven appearances of the risen Christ, the theme is the movement from “ignorance to insight.”[1] For each person or group there was a moment when the puzzle piece clicked into place and they saw the divine in a new light. Each time the divine uncovered a bit more of the mystery for those watching. While they still saw in a glass darkly where smudges obscured the view, condensation hung in droplets, and imperfections distorted the image, the focus was a wee bit sharper.

Those aha moments will come to us, and we need to be on the lookout for them. We won’t see Epiphanies like the magi or John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, but lower case epiphanies will interrupt our world. They might show up after we’ve released an old grievance and felt God’s forgiveness afresh. They might surprise us when we read a familiar Scripture and have a new depth of understanding. Maybe we’ll see God’s love through the caring embrace of a friend or sense it more deeply when we find joy in a period of suffering. When the awareness of our foolishness is about to overwhelm and grace nearly drowns us, when an addiction loses its hold, whenever the divine breaks in, that’s an epiphany.

And the time to light the firecrackers.

[1] Ryken, Leland; Wilhoit, Jim; et. al. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic edition. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1998.

New Years and Resolutions – Do You Make Them?

OdometerThe start of a new year is like an odometer rolling to the next ten thousand mile marker. There’s a big number followed by a slew of zeroes, and you don’t know where you will travel before the next rollover. That’s why I don’t make resolutions, usually.

If some optimistic party-goer feels compelled to load more on the new year than it’s already carrying and wants company in self-flagellation, I am a good sport. One year I resolved to read Don Quixote, the next year War and Peace, and finished both. I did study Spanish in a now-defunct adult education program, but I didn’t make the hand-bound books I bought the paper for nor tackle gluten free baking from scratch. Nor did I master the slow cooker. My rationalization? It’s not good for a non-morning person to handle knives or make precise measurements early in the day.

I don’t remember making any resolutions for 2014, though I had a goal to finish my masters and graduate in May. Travel plans did include a trip with a group from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to Taize, France. Nestled in the hills of the Burgundy region, about 100 hundred brothers lead a simple, self-sustaining lifestyle funded by sales of their pottery, books and music. Thousands of young people from across Europe and around the world are drawn to the peaceful, loving community where they’ve heard God’s presence can be felt. For a week in early March, the seven of us joined this wonderful community.

Our mornings began when the Taize bells called the community to an hour of worship before eating a simple meal together. After a teaching time led by a brother and small group discussion in groups arranged by language and age, the cycle repeated. Cleaning, cooking, and maintenance jobs were assigned after lunch, and the community joined together again for dinner. The day closed with a third service, and people often remained for hours praying, meditating, and singing the Taize choruses.

Once the daily rhythm became habit, the sense of peace and calm from the morning service permeated my entire day, and in a deeper way than my usual devotional. It was unsettling. One evening when a ring shone around the full moon, I wrestled with God. As I paced back and forth across the grassy field, I asked, “Why don’t you seem this present back in Illinois?” Intellectually I knew God is spirit and fully present everywhere all the time. But my heart sensed a difference that systematic theology, my degree program, couldn’t explain.

I couldn’t transport the community to a Midwestern cow pasture and regularly join them; God has them in Europe for a reason. What taste of Taize could I pack home? I thought about how I start my day and how the community starts theirs. The news radio station is the first thing I listen to each morning. In ten minutes I hear the latest news, disasters, scandals, deaths, and weather report. (When you live in Chicago that last one is key.) What if I dropped the radio habit and waited to hear the bad news?

It was two months late, but I made a resolution. The weather app provided the daily forecast, and I begin the day with a God-directed, positive focus instead of doomsday reports before I pulled up the shades. Surprisingly I grieved the loss of my friends’ voices, Pat Cassidy and Felicia Middlebrooks, who had joined me weekday mornings for years. I didn’t know how poorly the Cubs were doing and was ignorant of the hottest news. One woman in the health club locker room asked me what rock I had been living under when I didn’t know the latest about Hurricane Sandy. There are risks to being uninformed.

But the benefits outweigh. I didn’t start a chocolate for breakfast habit nor use only a spoon for all meals or spend three hours a day in prayer and worship, but the new routine brings a wedge of Taize-peace to each day. I find comfort in remembering God’s presence before the negative news flows in, and the positive, eternal focus reshapes my perspective. The bad news is still bad and there’s still pain, suffering and hurt all around the world. Yet I know the God who met me in France, who meets me in Illinois, is in those places, too.

Tonight is New Year’s Eve and you may be compelled to make a resolution. Go ahead and make one, but keep your ears open for the ones God adds as you travel in the new year. They might be the ones you keep.

How Do You Handle Surprising News?

"Annunciation" by Fra Angelico. Altarpiece in the Prado Museum

“Annunciation” by Fra Angelico. Altarpiece in the Prado Museum

The angel Gabriel plays the combo messenger/home pregnancy test role twice in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke. First he visits the aged priest Zechariah when he’s serving in the temple and tells him he and his barren wife, Elizabeth, will have a son. A little more than six months later he finds an engaged virgin in Nazareth, Mary, and tells her she will have a son, the Son of God.[1]

Without cellphones and Facebook status updates, it’s unlikely word had spread from Jerusalem to Nazareth that God had broken his four-hundred year silence. So Zechariah and Mary each had a fresh crack at writing a script for the scene, “How to Respond to a Silent God’s Message Sent via Angel.”

When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, he is troubled by the angel’s mere presence. Mary is troubled by his words, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” The angel tells both not to be afraid, and gives details for each child’s conception, their name and what role they will play in God’s plan for redemption. Gabriel tells Zechariah this gift of a son is in response to prayer, while Mary has found favor with God though what that favor consists of is unknown.[2]  Zechariah is concerned with how long this will take as he’s no spring chicken. Mary is concerned with how quickly this will happen as she is a virgin.

It’s highly unlikely an elderly couple could conceive, but a married man and woman getting pregnant is a common occurrence. A virgin conceiving is impossible which adds another layer of complexity to Mary’s response. Zechariah asks “how” in doubt and demands a sign so he can be sure. Mary asks “how” this could be with bewilderment, and awaits an explanation. Gabriel gives Mary a sign–her previously barren relative, Elizabeth, is now six months pregnant. Zechariah is rendered speechless, a sign he hadn’t considered, for not trusting the angel’s words; Mary is told God’s word will never fail. Zechariah physically can’t reply, while Mary humbly declares, “I am the Lord’s servant… May your word to me be fulfilled.”

Same angel, same God, two sons promised, two different parents-to-be, two different responses. On paper, Mary has the most right to doubt, ask questions and require a sign. Zechariah’s family will celebrate his hand-signed news, Mary’s family will question her story and possibly her sanity. Elizabeth will rejoice and know God has answered her prayers (Luke 1:25). Joseph will wonder about his betrothed’s integrity and consider a divorce which was required to end an engagement (Matthew 1:19.) Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, will come after his son’s birth when he regains his voice. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, will come when she visits Elizabeth to share her recent news. Zechariah’s song will burst forth after more than nine months of silence, Mary’s after her four-day journey[3] to Elizabeth’s home.

Zechariah and Mary stepped into roles no one in history will have again, but the opportunity to respond to surprising news is a part we play repeatedly Unfortunately I wear Zechariah’s sandals  more often than Mary’s. Her humble trust in God’s word and surrender to his plan still astonishes me. I’d like to chalk her attitude up to youthful naiveté as she might have been about 14 when Gabriel appeared. (We aren’t told, but it would fit with first-century practices.) But her joyous praises for God reveal a depth of understanding and relationship I yearn to mimic at quadruple her years.

She knew this long-silent God to be faithful and powerful, and that was sufficient for her. May it be so for us, too.

_____________________________________

[1] The actual site of the annunciation is unknown, but since the fourth century a church has stood at the site established by tradition. Today a Roman Catholic basilica is the fifth church to stand at the location. In Greek Orthodox tradition, Mary was drawing water when the angel came, and the Orthodox Church was built at a nearby spring.

[2] Leon Morris, Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, v. 3 (Nottingham, England?; Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2008), 89.

[3] Ibid., 92.

When the Silence is Broken — Zechariah and Gabriel

the-archangel-gabriel-announces-the-birth-of-john-the-baptist-to-zechariahHow long will you wait for a response to your voicemail, text, email, marriage proposal, bid on a house? How long will you wait for a customer service employee to come back on the phone or for a doctor’s office to call with test results? Seconds, minutes, a day, a week, a year, years?

Zechariah the priest gets a bum rap in commentaries and sermons when he asks the archangel Gabriel for a sign, for proof, that he and his barren wife will have a son (Luke 1:18). Not only is she barren, but they’re both “well along in years”– likely she’s post-menopausal and he’s eligible for the senior discount. That would be shocking news and hard to fathom even with an angel fresh from God’s presence playing the FedEx messenger role. Even harder when no Israelite had received a prophetic message from God for four hundred years.

During this four-century span known as the intertestamental period, no written or spoken words came from God, no prophetic voices were heard. God had gone dark; he was silent. This doesn’t mean the Jews abandoned their faith and observance of religious rituals or that people stopped thinking and writing about God. Though not included in the Protestant canon, apocalyptic writings describing how the world would end and how God would destroy the kingdom of evil flourished in this era. Twelve of these writings are included in the Roman Catholic canon as the Apocrypha; the remainder are considered pseudepigraphical writings (say that three times quickly.)

The Jewish priests continued to perform their prescribed duties in these gap years. Luke’s gospel describes Zechariah’s priestly division as being on duty in the temple, and Zechariah as the one chosen by lot to offer incense.  As there were more priests than duties, most priests offered incense in accord with Exodus 30:7-8 once in their lifetime.

Zechariah, having his hole-in-one day as a priest, “was startled and was gripped with fear” when he saw the angel standing by the altar of incense. Gabriel calmed him down, told him the boy’s name will be John, and gave details no modern ultrasound exam could rival. Then Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this?” Boo. Hiss. How could he doubt a visit from an angel?  I know I could.

For four hundred years, God’s direct line to his people was disconnected and now he’s talking again? I would want photo ID and an explanation. An angel is a good start. Gabriel promised a son like he did to aged Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 15:4. When Abraham asked precedent-setting questions after he received the good news in Genesis 15:2, 8, it seems fair that Zechariah could ask one. But his question is more a demand than a request, and the angel did not take his unbelief lightly.

For Zechariah had 1600 more years of God’s covenant faithfulness to fall back on than Abraham, the starter dough for the Jewish nation. He also had the written testimony of the Old Testament canon. When Zechariah questioned the angel in unbelief, he was rendered silent (mute and possibly deaf based on the Greek word) and stuck with hand signals and a writing tablet until John’s bris or circumcision ceremony.

Gabriel’s words portray an angel accustomed to standing in God’s presence frustrated with a priest’s unbelief. God had broken his four-hundred-year silence, Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers for a child would be answered in an “above all you could ask or think” kind of way, they would play a role in God’s redemptive story, and Zechariah got stuck on “how.” I know that address.

And I’m encouraged. God still used Zechariah’s seed, and let him keep his front row ticket and backstage pass to the unfolding drama. Another benefit? Zechariah’s faith deepened during his exile to silence. His first recorded speech is captured in the Benedictus song, Luke 1:67-79. Notice his praise and adoration for God and his faithfulness. Notice how his prophetic words echo Gabriel’s message.

And he’s not asking “how” anymore.

 

Over the Hill and Then Some – The Pluses of Being on the Back Side of the Hill

over the hill plateTurning forty is a milestone birthday, the first of the dreaded biggies ending in 0. Greeting cards and decorative paper napkins don’t ease the pain: “Happy 40th! You’re Over the Hill!”  Friends still in their thirties rag you for being in your forties as if they’ve retained their youth and you’ve gone to seed in one day. Soon, they warn, you’ll have reading glasses stashed everywhere like boxes of Kleenex and wear ear plugs to rock concerts. Is turning forty or fifty or sixty or seventy all bad?

Christian contemplative writers including Richard Rohr, Albert Haase and Thomas Keating, consider forty to be the age when we can begin to swim in the spiritual depths. Until then we’re busy accumulating, procuring, managing, and maintaining the stuff needed to construct the hill. Building blocks like education, sports, hobbies, career, marriage, children, family, real estate, physical assets, and retirement accounts consume our time.

We create different personas for the roles we play in family, church and community, and develop defense mechanisms to prevent further pain. Throw in cultural mores, societal expectations, spiritual beliefs, and the unspoken “this is how we do things”, and hill assembly takes decades. In our early years, we need all these components to avoid failure, look good, feel secure and survive what comes our way. Unfortunately this hill we’ve built becomes our version of our identity, our “false self.”

At forty we stand atop the hill with an invitation to travel down the unmapped back side of this heap. Some of us stubbornly cling to the hill we’ve amassed, and do everything possible to stay at the peak or continue construction. Others shrivel like dessicated beef stroganoff. A minority of us accept the invitation and start the journey.

When hiking in the Rocky Mountains, I’ve found the route down to be more challenging than the one up. My body is tired, the steep spots are slick, and little used leg muscles start to rebel. But little treasures await as I find things I’d missed on the way up or see them differently. The spiritual path is similar.compass treasure hunt

Prayer is a downhill treasure. On the way up, prayer is primarily us sending God our wish lists. There’s a multitude of things we want him to do, people and situations we want him to change, and we ask. On the way down our understanding of prayer expands and shifts inward. Now we learn to listen to God, to enjoy being in his company and become more aware of his presence. We seek inner healing and spiritual transformation rather than altered circumstances.

Comfort with doubt and ambiguity is another. On the way up, we look for the right path to success and are comfortable with black-and-white answers to complex questions. On the way down, gray answers are often the most appropriate response. Now we’ll consider other trails and even choose one we’re not certain about.

Growing acceptance of limitations and imperfections. On the way up, we thought we could avoid our ancestors’ mistakes and overcome all personal limitations. On the way down, we humbly acknowledge our humanity and yours. I’ll admit to owning the semi-trailer filled with my brand of boo-boos parked in the driveway.

Then there’s community. On the way up we’re busy, hurried, keen on efficiency and productivity, attracted to structured programs and the new-fangled whatever. On the way down, we appreciate company and conversation, watching people grow, and letting things happen. New isn’t always improved.

Each downhill treasure gives glimpses of our “true self” buried underneath the stockpile. That person created in God’s image who knows she is deeply loved by God and finds security and significance in that awareness. That person who receives God’s grace in surrender, and lets go of delusional attempts to control life. That person who knows who he is and who he’s becoming in Christ. That true person.

Turning forty or fifty or sixty or seventy isn’t the end of the world; it’s an invitation to spiritual adventure and a treasure hunt. How will you RSVP?

Opening Doors to Pass the Time

Advent Calendar

Advent Calendar

When we were kids, my younger sister and I pulled back the numbered paper doors on the Advent calendar at breakfast. To prevent daily squabbles, one of us had the odd days, the other the even. The doors were hidden within the decorative scene like multiple Waldo’s. Often the chimney concealed one or the candle-lit window in the village church or the hay piled by the stable. Behind each of the twenty-four doors was a drawing of a treasure like a bicycle or a glittery kitten playing with a red ball.

Twenty-four days is a long time to wait when you’re six or eight or ten, and the calendar was a creative and beautiful way to count down to the day I could open my presents. The anticipation built and built, and every day I wanted to ask, “Will Christmas ever come?”

Finally Christmas morning dawned, and it was wonderful. Ripping off the wrapping paper to find the number one item on my wish list was a moment of pure joy. Though I’d hardly slept the night before, the expectancy-fueled adrenaline kept me going all day.

For about a week the unwrapped gifts brought delight, but then the warm fuzzies dissipated. The items gradually lost their appeal, the new car smell wore off, and the initial glow of satisfaction faded. Maybe it was ingratitude; maybe it was a child’s seedling awareness that stuff doesn’t satisfy. Maybe it was a preview of the “now and the not yet” struggles of the Christian journey.

Advent is a pre-Christmas observance that keeps those post-Christmas tensions of childhood alive.  Last year, my first Advent in a liturgical church setting, the dearth of Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, purple and blue bows, and the sense of expectant waiting felt as unsettling as a wobble board. Not that Advent is a “Bah, humbug” mindset for four weeks, but it’s more sedate than the de rigeur flood of red poinsettias, sparkling lights on Christmas trees in the sanctuary, and elaborate Christmas productions found in many evangelical churches.

The haunting carols, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” remind us of the pining of the pre-incarnation remnant, and awaken us to our dormant post-incarnation yearnings. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), and we rightly celebrate and sing “Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The grace gift is wonderful, and the joy found in receiving it a sweet treasure to cherish. Salvation has come, and we rejoice.

But we still experience suffering, the creation still groans, outwardly we’re wasting away, and evil people still succeed in their ways (Romans 8:18-23; 2 Corinthians 4:16; Psalm 37:7).  Advent mysteriously brings the “now” of the Incarnation and the “not yet” of the promised Second Coming together. The prophets and faithful waited centuries for the Messiah, and the centuries roll by as we wait for Jesus to return and complete the restoration promised in Revelation 21 and 22.

Like paper doors on a calendar, the rituals of Advent ease the waiting, and renew our hope as we continue the watch. We unwrap the gift of Christ on Christmas with joy, and still we say, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

When a Piece of Art Won’t Let You Go

Rene Magritte - The Therapist

Rene Magritte – The Therapist

It wasn’t Magritte’s paintings of bowler-hatted men, the pipe that isn’t a pipe, or the steam locomotive puffing smoke, suspended in air, emerging from the walled-in fireplace that pinned my feet to the exhibit floor like a butterfly in an entomologist’s collection; it was “The Therapist”.

Magritte’s 1937 painting portrays a man sporting a walkabout tan hat seated on a sand dune with beach grass sprouting from the ridge. He is seated with his back to the calm water that extends to the horizon and from side to side. His right hand covers the knobby head of a brown walking stick, and his left clasps the top of a roughly sewn cloth bag on the sand by his left foot. From underneath the hat, a dark maroon traveling cape drapes like a theatrical curtain over his arms, down his back, and onto the sand.

Then comes the Magritte twist–the man has no head. His torso isn’t constructed of ribs of bone, it’s the black metal ribs of the birdcage balanced on his lap that give him shape. In the cage, one white dove anxiously leans forward from a perch at the back toward a second dove calmly roosting on the wooden platform that extends forward from the door. The raised birdcage door hangs over the opening like a guillotine.

Initially I wanted to shout to the birds, “Claim your freedom! Fly away!” The cage door yawns open, why don’t they fly away to explore the sand dunes, catch the winds birthed over the water, and peck for bugs in the beach grass? Why are they still in the cage?

Then I thought perhaps the birds had found Cage Man (my name, not Magritte’s) and joined him. Maybe curiosity about the dashing cape, the prospect of shelter and the perch in the treeless landscape attracted them. Maybe they’re already free.

Then there’s Magritte’s title–“The Therapist.” Perhaps the outside bird is like a patient therapist waiting for her client, the inside bird, to interact with her. Perhaps the therapist has done all she can and waits with the man for the perched bird to venture outside.

What is Magritte’s message? Maybe he’s saying we are both therapist and patient. That we are both the calm and anxious birds, the adventurous and the cautious, the wounded and the healer. That within ourselves, we can find healing if we take the time to get away from away from the world and sit. Yet Cage Man’s hands are not relaxed; he holds tightly to his visible worldly possessions. He seems ready to move on, but still he sits. Why?

His paintings stir the psychoanalyst within, but in response to such attempts Magritte said, “If one looks at a thing with the intention of trying to discover what it means, one ends up no longer seeing the thing itself, but of thinking of the question that is raised.”  Instead of analysis, Magritte wants his viewers to see the visible details in his works and accept that “they evoke mystery”, a mystery he claims is “unknowable.”

Magritte’s perspective paralleled my seminary experience with the study of God, theology, and the subject of study, God. I could ponder the subject of general revelation– how God reveals himself through nature, humanity and history–and miss the crimson sunset, a child’s unguarded smile, and the magnificence of a medieval cathedral. I could ponder special revelation—God’s path to salvation revealed in the incarnation and the Bible—and miss the blessings of the spiritual riches (Ephesians 1:3; 3:16-19). I could debate about the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture and miss the poetic qualities of a Psalm, and the wonder of 40 different authors co-writing the greatest story.

Not to say that inquiry is wasted, but the subject of analysis needs to shine more brightly than the analysis. When analysis overshadows, Magritte would tell us it’s time to turn off the questions and let the eyes feast.

 

Conquer Difficult Subjects and Reap the Benefits

bell curve - standard deviationA statistics course was a requirement for my undergraduate economics degree. Without an economics professor qualified to teach the subject that year, the econ majors enrolled in the psych department’s statistics class.

After several weeks, the few could-be statisticians were easy to distinguish from the “I don’t get it” quadrant. Similar to economics, statistics is one of those subjects that either comes easily or requires concerted effort. Graphs with guns and butter, interest rates and bond prices on the x and y axes either make sense or they don’t.  The same goes for the statistical concepts of mean, average standard deviation, sample variance, probability and margin of error.

During the quarter, potential future counselors of serial killers worked to grasp the theories alongside future analysts of boxed cereal sales. While we all could employ statistics to better understand people’s thinking and past patterns to forecast future behavior, we came to statistics with different mindsets.

Studying God is like studying statistics. We know he’s a required subject for spiritual growth, but theology (defined here as the study of God) is daunting. The vocabulary is different, and the abstract concepts difficult to grasp. And when we choose to jump in, we discover the way we’re wired influences our understanding.

One area this shows is how we look at God’s distance (transcendence) and his nearness (immanence). Depending on our personality, theological bent, church background, and emotional make-up, one of these will stick like Velcro to our cerebrum and the other will be as slippery as a wet infant.

Accepting that “God is separate from and independent of nature and humanity”, that he is “not simply attached to, or involved in, his creation. He is also superior to it in several significant ways”[1] makes sense to me. Seeing God as powerful, sovereign, all-sufficient, greater and different than me, wanting to show reverence and accepting I won’t comprehend him isn’t a struggle. Arguments and proofs for his existence and creation of the world and universe by some means bolster my faith, but they aren’t the birthplaces of my doubts.

Mine grow when his nearness escapes my grasp. Immanence is defined as “God’s presence and activity within nature, human nature and history.”[2] The Bible describes God talking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Abram in Ur, Moses on Mt. Sinai, and Jesus when baptized by John the Baptist. God used seas, gnats, frogs, sheep and goats to illustrate lessons about himself. He used dysfunctional families, adulterers, impatient people, and deceivers to accomplish his kingdom purposes, but sometimes I lose sight of his love and work in my life.

Gerald G. May in Addiction and Grace proposes that it can be our compulsions, our anger, or our hurts that distract us from the truth of God’s immanence, but he is confident that over time our brain cells can be rewired and “habituate[d] to the constant reality of God’s love.”[3] The weak spots won’t be removed entirely, similar to the challenge an addict continually faces to stay clean and sober, but sufficient deliverance through God’s grace and mercy to change our thinking is available (Romans 12:2).

Our professor wanted us to learn; we wanted to pass. In the end we all did.

How are you wired? Any statistics stories? Where on the continuum between immanence and transcendence do you struggle? What verses and truths help you keep your footing?

[1] Millard J Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1998), 338.

[2] Ibid, 329.

[3] Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace, 1st ed, (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 123-124.