Insurgent Savior

because-jesus-faith-ceramic-mug-root-1kei1018_1470_1This year, if you are truly struggling for something to buy for that relative back east whom you hope not to see more than a couple of times a decade, you could do worse than take a look at hallmark.com. For instance, there is the ‘Because Jesus’ mug. Indubitably, if you wish to confound Great Aunt Mabel, send her one of these and she will never speak to you again because all of her time will be occupied with trying to figure out ‘what’ because Jesus… Of course, that’s the trick, isn’t it. Jesus is best consumed, it would seem, when most open to modification. One could imagine an entire evangelism campaign centered on the ‘Because Jesus’ slogan. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, I will stand on your street corner preaching loudly to the neighbors. ‘Because Jesus’ is happy to be Jesus, I will be happy to play Christian rock on my car stereo at high volume with the windows down at busy intersections. ‘Because Jesus’ is Jesus, we will invade your country until my Jesus is also your Jesus – although I suspect that last one might pre-date the mug by a year or two.

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The ‘Because Jesus’ mug intrigued me when I discovered it because it speaks to how pervasive the customization of Christ has become. For instance, the other day, I went shopping. One of my great shortcomings as a preacher is that I rarely ever shop. It might count as a spiritual discipline – I’m not sure. Either way, unless someone is talking about ‘what happened in CVS this morning’ on NPR, I can feel from time to time that I might be missing something important about life in America. It was reassuring, therefore, to have the opportunity to go shopping this week at my local grocery store. At last I was in the mix with everyone else, navigating meter upon meter of wrapping paper and Christmas tree decorations.

christmas-greeting-cardsI had gone shopping to look for a couple of Christmas cards. The first thing that struck me was how very difficult it was to find a card that was just about the birth of Christ and not also about something else. Card after card read something like this, ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come…May Your Christmas be as Bright as Your Smile’. I couldn’t send that. I’m an Episcopalian, we’re not supposed to encourage smiling. I kept on looking, but in vain. I could feel the color drain out of my face as yet another promising piece of artwork was undermined by the reminder that the real reason for the season isn’t Jesus; it is me. I was everywhere, and there was little I could do to stop it. ‘Treat yourself to something special this Christmas’, it said as I tried to make my escape down the cosmetics aisle. Towering letters hung over me as I made a left down by the wine – ‘Have an extra merry Christmas on us’. It was all I could do to make it back to my office at church and put BBC‘s ‘Lessons and Carols from Kings’ on a repeated loop on YouTube.

img_5887I lived a cocooned life, and I liked it, I guess. Yet, following a period of lying down in a dark room for a while, I realized something: Jesus was cocooned too. The Lord of all creation, lost somewhere between the super sale on candy canes and dashboard bobbing Santa heads. From this dark epiphany, the day only descended. That evening, my family and I went out to see a neighborhood nearby which at this time of year can be seen from space. We knew that we had arrived at the right place because the kids no longer needed to ask if we were there yet. In fact, they could no longer speak at all, such was the mesmerizing bedazzlement of the several million lights that twinkled in the night sky in San Diego suburbia. ‘Why are we here?’ I mumbled faintly to myself, but it was too late, I had been sucked into their sinister game. I too gawped and gaped and guffawed.

IMG_5880.JPGIf you have ever imagined a scene that you would construct outside of your house if neither money nor sanity were an object, then you would have imagined it too late – because it would have already happened here. My family and I had stumbled upon another reality altogether. Frosty was there, and the entire cast of Frozen, many times over, were with him. Santa was a staple, as were his reindeer. Yoda made a surprise appearance. One resident had even stuffed his car full of soft animals and pretended that this counted as a Christmas display by crudely placing a couple of fluorescent stars on his hood. I knew that should this man – for it had to be a man – ever came out of his house, eye contact would have to be avoided at all costs. It was at this moment, somewhere near to a giant Homer Simpson trapped in a giant Manhattan-themed snow globe that I decided that perhaps it wouldn’t be all that bad to give up the priest thing and move into illumination sales. This street alone could pay for my kids to go to college.

IMG_5885.JPGAnd then it happened. The renegade house. Simple. Understated. A crib. A message. A name surround by light. I was saved from what surely would have been a disastrous career as a salesman. Jesus was back; a holy insurgency amidst the festival of festivities. I stood there and admired it for a while. As I did, I imagined that in centuries gone by, perhaps it was so that the great, towering cathedrals of medieval Europe dominated the local landscape so much that it was the Church that made the locals’ heads swing as religion sought to dominate the cultural imagination. Perhaps, then, this is a fitting circle – that we have come back to the backwaters, to the one, anomalous house that had room for a family in flight and great need. The Light of the World born behind the main thoroughfare, in a place fit for animals and their muck. An insurgent God, whose love will not extinguish a dimly burning wick. There it was. Grace upon grace.

Come, Emmanuel.

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The Truth Shall Set Us Free

hot-news-illustrationI was listening to a radio piece on NPR this week about the role of fake news in our country. A segment from the Diane Rehm Show was played wherein Scottie Nell Hughes, political editor of RightAlerts.com, claimed the following: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts”. Syntax would also seem to be on the way out, but that is another issue. The first thing that struck me about this statement was that it was, rather ironically, not a fact. It was itself a piece of ‘fake news’. Facts, it turns out, are still with us. For instance, it is a fact, that now in my early 40’s, if I run around a soccer field for 90 minutes trying to keep up with players in their 20’s, I need to lie down in a dark room the following day while my body responds to the shock. No amount of fantasy will change that reality. I am no longer as spritely as I once was.

It turns out, though, that Ms. Hughes wasn’t really talking about facts but belief: “And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.” For Ms. Hughes, the possession or not of the facts is not the operative thing; it is whether people believe they have facts or not, even if they don’t have any at all. If they believe that a claim about the world we live in can be supported by facts, then that belief in the possibility of facts is as good as having the facts themselves.

5c91cf319caeaf5979c47a452a3b262bThis certainly seemed to be the train of thought that North Carolina resident Edgar Maddison Welch utilized when he fired his assault rifle in the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington last weekend because he believed it lay at the heart of a Democratic Party child sex-trafficking operation. Mr. Welch had apparently been motivated to carry out the attack by false allegations made on multiple social media sites. It is a living study in the power of persuasive falsehood. Mr. Welch seemingly believed that there were facts that supported the theory about the pizzeria being part of a sex-trafficking operation, even if those facts were not actually at his disposable the day he decided to carry out his own ‘investigation’.

Inscription_Theatre_Leptis_Magna_Libya.jpgOf course, people have always been economical with the truth if it has suited them to do so. Adam and Eve didn’t get us off to a good start with that one. However, the current shift away from fidelity to the facts presents a certain crisis for society at large in an age when information is not only so readily available online, it is also disseminated across vast swaths of people via media that is able to influence individual and collective views and actions at a whim. The Roman Empire was good at propaganda. They emblazoned it amidst their civic spaces in the form of great archways and inscriptions making clear to the populations that they had subdued, that life in the Pax Romana was a life worth embracing. Resistance was not only futile, it was suicidal. What the Romans did not have was the ability to tweet or post or ping millions of people in a single communication. They did not operate on the principle of media saturation as a means to enter the minds of possibly otherwise reasonable people capable of discernment. Falsehood erodes our capacity for discerning truth. The more we are immersed in a universe of falsity, the harder it is to discern reality from the construction.

191942Truth matters. Counter to Ms. Hughes’ assertion that we are in a post-factual age, the Church must take up a role that has always resided at the heart of its theological life: the practice of truth-telling. Liturgically, the act of truth-telling takes the form of confession. There can be no reconciliation, no real relationship, no opportunity for mercy to birth authentic forgiveness without that which we have done and that which we have failed to do being laid out in the open. Human beings need the light of truth-telling as fundamentally as they need air and water. Truth does indeed set us free because it provides us with the opportunity to start over again in our lives amidst the complexities of  friendship and love, of common life and individual ambition. Truth enables grace to be felt in our lives as a living and transformational power. Without truth, grace remains only an abstract hope, not a present gift.

truthu-png_1_20150221-394Dorothee Solle once remarked that the phrase, ‘The truth will make us free’, is an invocation to God so that the truth may not be forever buried in lies. We live in a time when the truth is indeed in danger of being buried. For every falsehood that is uttered about the ‘dangers’ of certain immigrant groups living in America, the promise of America   as a nation of all-comers is diminished, until the values that we may have assumed were held in common are no longer visible in our life together; they are buried beneath a facade of fear and exclusion. Solle incites the Church to take up its vocation of truth-telling trusting in a God who does not stand in power over the world, but who is ‘grieved as we are’, ‘small like us’. It is in this ‘small God’ that we must place our hope, for the struggle to proclaim the truth about one another is a struggle that most often begins from the underside of history. The Church will need to sharpen its skills of attentive listening if it is to be a conduit for truth that has the capacity to set us all free. We will have to listen and we will have to speak, over and over, until our hearts beat with the longings of God himself. Truth upon truth, one life at a time.