Saturday, December 31, 2011

What happens next?

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s autobiographical musical, “In the Heights,” there is a poignant scene in the second act. The characters have just survived a night of looting in the midst of a Fourth of July blackout. Usnavi, the main character, has lost his bodega because of vandalism, but his main concern in the sweltering heat is the health and safety Abuela Claudia.


Are you okay?

Paciencia y fe!
Paciencia y fe!

So we survived the night, what happens today?

What happens today? The question crosses all our minds, but there is no answer. We can’t predict the future. It would be futile to try.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money,’” writes the Apostle James. “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

In the musical, so much happens after Usnavi asks the question, “What happens today?” The musical is no longer on Broadway, but it is on tour, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t like spoilers. Before the day is over, Abuela will split her lottery winnings of $96,000 with Usnavi and his cousin, Sonny. Before the day is over, Abuela will die of heart failure in her bedroom. Before the day is over, Usnavi will make plans return to the Dominican Republic, the home of his parents. But before the day is over Sonny will arrange a special tribute to Abuela Claudia that convinces Usnavi to stay in the Heights. None of these events were likely when Usnavi began the day with the question, “So we survived the night. What happens today?”

Our lives unroll uncertainly before us. Maybe today will be much like yesterday, and perhaps yesterday was much like the day before. On the other hand, no one can suppose there will not be catastrophic changes in the soothing routine. When a family in Connecticut went to bed for a long winter’s nap late last month, they had no inkling that the smoldering embers left in a bag by the fireplace would burst to life and, before the night was over, claim the lives of three children and two grandparents. 

We tell ourselves that tomorrow is promised to no one but, in fact, nothing is promised to us. My Sociology Professor Tony Campolo – who, when I had him in class, did not know that in a few tomorrows he would become an evangelical superstar – used to say how scared he was by evangelists who sought to frighten you into salvation with familiar taunts: “You don’t have to come forward to be saved now, you can put it off until tomorrow or the next day. You can walk away tonight with hell fires crackling around your ankles and wait until some other time to be saved. But – But! – what if you walk out that door tonight and get hit by a bus?” We’d ask Tony, the existential sociologist, if the sermon made him afraid of hell fires, and he’d reply, “No! It made me afraid of buses!”

As we look around us today, at those we love, at familiar surroundings, common items we hold in our hands every day, are we missing invisible signs that might shed light on what happens next?

Some historians have said that one of the eeriest images of the television age took place on the morning of November 22, 1963, as cameras captured the crisp, full-color images of President and Mrs. Kennedy descending the mobile stairway from Air Force One. Mrs. Kennedy beams as brightly as the Dallas sun as she models her pink suit and trademark pillbox hat, and a Dallas newsman who has never seen JFK in person marvels at the charismatic young chief. “He’s taller than I thought,” he reports, “he’s tanned and lean in a well tailored suit and a light green shirt. He’s the prince of America.” In this glistening moment, the future seems secure, God appears to dote on the United States, and the unwary President bares his teeth in a grin of grace and domestic tranquility.

But as we know so well a half century later, these happy moments are fleeting. Within minutes of the grinning descent from Air Force One, as the motorcade heads into downtown Dallas, the President will be gone.

Blown away.
What else do I have to say?

I’m inclined to think it would be terrible if we knew how our lives will evolve, if OuiJa boards and botanicas provided spoilers of what lies ahead.

Who needs it? My maternal grandmother got it into her head that she would die on February 6, and all her life she would greet each new year with dread anticipation that this would be the fatal year. She passed so many years safely – more than 80 of them – that the rest of the family lost patience with her morbid annual observance. Then she died, on February 6. Perhaps Grandma had some divination of the day, if not the year, of her death. But what good did it do besides making her miserable every January and February?

As I write this, I’m flashing back to an old Mutt and Jeff cartoon I saw decades ago in the Syracuse Herald-Journal:

Jeff:  I Wish I knew where I was going to die.
Mutt: Why? What good would that do you?
Jeff: I’d never go near the durn place.

All of this prognostication gives power, perhaps, to the story of the ancient woman and man encountered in the temple by Mary, Joseph and Jesus when they went there to designate their first born male as “holy to the Lord,” and for Mary’s purification as a woman who had recently given birth. (Luke 2:18-40)

Simeon and Anna had gifts of divine discernment, and when the young couple and new baby boy came to the temple, the old ones knew exactly who they were.  They also knew what the future held for them, and it was not all good news.

Before she met Simeon and Anna, Mary’s knowledge of her prospects was that they were spectacular. The angel said she was with child by the Holy Spirit, and the shepherds tramped down from the fields to tell her what the angels said about the birth of the messiah, the Christ child. And “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

But while Mary was treasuring the future in her heart, a harsher reality awaited her and her family, and the old folks knew it. Because the messianic franchise is not all bliss and glory.

Both Simeon and Anna had taken up residence in the Temple, and both of them knew for whom they were waiting. When she saw the baby, Anna “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Simeon discerned God’s promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and he, too, recognized the baby immediately. He held the child tenderly in his arms, and praised God:

“Master, now you are
dismissing your
servant in peace,
according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your
which you have prepared in
the presence of all
a light for revelation to the
and for glory to your
people Israel.”

But it was to Mary that Simeon turned on a more somber note.

“This child,” he said, “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”

And then:  “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

This is a spoiler about events to come that had yet to be revealed to Mary, the teen-age mother who was still pondering the glory of being the mother of God’s son. God, who had kept this information from her until now, called upon a kindly old man in the temple to tell the whole truth: blessed are you among women; but an anguish of spirit akin to a sword in your soul is your fate as well.

The agony that ameliorates the ecstasy follows shortly afterwards, when Joseph, Mary and the boy Jesus are forced to leave behind everything they know in order to escape the death sentence imposed on all newborn boys by the murderous King Herod. There are few hints, in canonical scripture, what it may have been like to raise an adolescent Messiah, but the attitude of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple is suggestive. Jesus had gone missing amid the Passover crowds in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph searched frantically for him. “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Mary demanded. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Clearly an apology is in order, but the boy’s response is slightly arrogant, or would have been if he had been your kid: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must have been in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49).

A few verses later, Luke reports that Jesus “was obedient to them,” but perhaps this only meant he was turning over a new messianic leaf. Disappearing from one’s parents is not an act of obedience.

At this point, the future still held many incidents of soul-piercing intensity, including the adult Jesus’ departure from Mary’s home, the sermons that convinced Jesus’ own siblings and friends that he was nuts, the angry crowd that followed him with the intent of throwing him off a cliff, the hostility of the religious authorities who felt threatened by his authority, and, ultimately, the arrest, flagellation, and crucifixion. Mary, who had once pondered God’s goodness and her son’s glory in her heart, ultimately sat at the foot of a Roman cross and watched her son die a slow, excruciating death by asphyxiation. The only pain that could have equaled that was the figurative sword thrust so cruelly in her soul.

On that day so long ago, when Mary took her infant son into the temple for his dedication to God, would she have been better off if there had been no Simeon to warn her about the future?

Perhaps not. She would have discovered the truths about life soon enough. She was still a teenager when she gave birth to Jesus, but as a young girl in a family oppressed by a malicious foreign rule, she must already have known life has equal portions of joy and pain. As she grew older and experienced more of life, this reality would have become more certain.

But Mary was also witness to the fact that there is more to life than joy and pain and the finality of death. She also played a major role in the decision of the Creator of the Universe to experience the misery and agony of human life in such a way that pain might be forever expunged from the soul’s eternal essence. Because Jesus suffered on the cross, the sword that pierced Mary’s soul – the swords that pierce all our souls – are forever removed.

It is always tempting, as we live out our lives, to want to know when the inevitable pains of living will come, or when death’s sting will come to us, or where. Some of us would welcome the spoilers, the mystical predictions, which will lay it all out before us. And others will be just as glad to go through life never knowing when that belligerent bus will put a quick end to all we know.

But none of that really matters. It’s enough to know that pain and death will come, whether we know how or when.
But just as certain, as made clear to Mary by Simeon and Anna, the ancients of the temple, is that God has a plan to take away our pain, and the day will surely come when we can praise God for a long-promised blessed release,

for my eyes have seen your
which you have prepared in
the presence of all
a light for revelation to the
and for glory to your
people Israel.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shock and Awe

The first 20 verses of the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel are sheer poetry, and many of us don’t get into the Christmas spirit until we hear them read aloud in the King James version:

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The words make our spirits soar as much as any Christmas carol and most of us can recite them by heart.

Perhaps Luke, the dear and glorious physician who wrote these words, is using a little poetic license.

The shepherds who, with their ancestors, had been expecting God’s Messiah for generations, were probably not expecting it to happen in quite this way. They were expecting God to intervene in human history with dramatic timing, certainly with angels and trumpets, probably with earthquakes, presumably with wind and fire. And then would come the Messiah on a gargantuan fire-breathing steed, his brawny hand grasping a glistening sword, slashing heads and limbs from their Roman oppressors and hated polytheist neighbors. They were expecting something akin to the way Donald Rumsfeld predicted the opening salvos of the Iraq War: shock. And awe.

But no. Nothing like that. No earthquakes, no fire, just an ordinary night sitting downwind from the scent of the sheep. Most scholars believe it wasn’t even December, a date arbitrarily chosen by the early church because it fit in with other feast days.

And hidden from the shepherds’ gaze, in a small barn, redolent of animal droppings and compost, an ordinary woman in labor crouches over the hay. In one of the humanity’s most common functions, this woman pushes out a baby boy.

How many other babies were born that night within a 50-kilometer radius of Bethlehem? Tens? Scores? Hundreds? Whatever the volume of natal activity that night, one more birth would hardly have been noticed. The incarnation of the Creator of the Universe into human flesh took place in a manner no different, perhaps even less dramatic, than the manner in which you and I were born. Did persons outside the barn even hear the cries of a newborn struggling to fill his lungs with unfamiliar air? Did the lowing cattle quickly lose interest in the human drama and resume the bored chewing of their cuds? Was there ever a night so quiet, so devoid of drama and astounding events?

This is where the angels come in. The heavenly host awakens the shepherds in the middle of the silent night and scares them to the brink of infarction. While the shepherds are clutching their chests and catching their breath, the angels point to a malodorous hovel which the shepherds knew well. 

“Behold!” the angels say. “This is not the hut you think it is! This is delivery room of Christ the Lord.”

I can’t begin to imagine what the shepherds must have thought. No doubt they were frightened out of their wits, and no wonder. How often does one encounter even one angel, let alone the whole heavenly host. And how disorienting, how counter-intuitive it must have been for the shepherds, transfixed by heavenly fireworks in the sky, to follow the angels’ orders to avert their gaze to a crude little shed at the edge of town? Were they too frightened to say aloud what they really thought? “What? This lousy little lean-to is where you want us to seek the Messiah?”

One suspects that without the angel chorus, humanity might have entirely missed the big event. The sheer ordinariness of the occasion was one reason the early church went out of its way to exalt the importance of the Messiah’s lowly birth.

In addition to angel choruses, the church also stressed the significance of the affair by tracing Jesus’ ancestry back to some major players in Jewish history.

Matthew – famous for the “begats” which many Sunday school students were forced to memorize – begins the family tree at Abraham, moves on to King David and King Solomon, follows the royal line through Jeconiah, and ends up with Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus. Luke’s more audacious genealogy goes all the way back to Adam and includes the Prophet Nathan and also leads to Joseph.

This is the point at which some wise ass seventh grader in Sunday school raises his hand to point out that Joseph was not a blood relative of Jesus, so what difference does it make?

The point, perhaps, was to persuade us that the incarnation of the Creator in a baby boy in Bethlehem was a bigger deal than it looked on the surface. But one also has to wonder – as wise ass seventh graders often do – why the lineage would make a difference.

Many of us are aware of notable ancestors and we drop their names to suggest that we, too, are bigger deals than we look. My paternal grandfather, eager to prove he was more than an Oneonta bureaucrat, meticulously probed his family tree to identify impressive antecedents. His main goal was to prove he was a Mayflower descendant, which many Euro-Americans can do by tracing the elaborate web of the millions of people who were connected by endless marriages and intermarriages to the 102 souls who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. My grandfather concluded the Jenkses were descended from Mayflower pilgrim Elizabeth Tilley, who married her fellow passenger John Howland. The inscription on Auntie Elizabeth’s grave gives hope to all would-be lineage enhancers:

Here ended the Pilgrimage of
who died Dec 1687 at home of her daughter
in Swansea - ELIZABETH married
Pilgrim JOHN HOWLAND who came
with her in the Mayflower Dec 1620.
From them are descended a
numerous posterity.

I’ll take Grandpa’s word for it that the Jenkses are indeed among that numerous posterity. A less obscure ancestor (because we share his surname) was Joseph Jenks, Jr., the Royal Governor of Rhode Island Colony from 1727 to 1732, and a Baptist benefactor of Roger Williams. One would have thought that would have made me Baptist royalty when I worked for the American Baptists in Valley Forge, but that honor had by then been relegated to bureaucrats who traced their ancestry to Sweden.

Actually, Governor Jenks is my favorite ancestor because he literally stands out among his peers. He was reportedly 6 feet 7 inches tall – freakish in 1727 – and none of his American-made clothes seemed to fit. According to one legend, Grandpa Joseph sent a hand-written note to England to order a 6 feet 7 inch cloak befitting his office. Months later, a package arrived at the colonial mansion: a 6 feet 7 in clock. Clearly I was not the first in my line with illegible handwriting.

My mother, Mary Emerson, traced her line to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and it would be nice to imagine that a corpuscle or two of his transcendental genius courses through our family veins. Every Thanksgiving I think of his succinct and eloquent prayer,

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

What a cool guy, that Uncle Ralph. It’s fun to think my family swims in his gene pool and, who knows, maybe yours does, too. But I can assure you, there isn’t a weaker pick-up line than, “Hey, Babe, I’m related to Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

And when you come down to it, what difference does it make? The late mystic George Carlin rightfully chastised those who are prideful of attributes they had nothing to do with, such as being Irish or having red hair or being descended from Zulu chiefs. It’s all good, but it has nothing to do with how you use your own life for better or ill. You can’t blame your larcenous tendencies on being descended from John Dillinger, or attribute your virtues to being a scion of Baptist royalty. How you live your life has nothing to do with those who came before you, and everything to do with you.

In the same manner, it didn’t matter a whit that Jesus was descended from King David, and I’m sure his royal line didn’t add a mite to his stepfather’s livelihood as a wood worker. It may have pleased some early church bureaucrats to claim Jesus was the latest in a long line of Jewish monarchs and prophets, but it doesn’t seem entirely relevant. The only familial relationship that really mattered was God, and it was God Who Jesus addressed as Abba, Father.

Into the feeble human flesh of the frail babe in the manger was poured all the power, authority, creative energy and omniscient power of the Creator of the Universe. Isn’t that shock and awe enough? The host of angels was a nice touch, and the impressive genealogy is interesting (so long as we are not required to memorize it). But the most breathtaking development here is that on one ordinary night, the Creator of the Universe was born in a barn without a perceptible whimper.

It makes you pause to catch your breath.

But it is truly something to celebrate, an event that brings all of us to our feet for a rousing chorus of “Joy to the World.”

Christmas Day has come, and soon it will be gone for another year. But let’s not allow the season to depart without reflecting on the quintessential quietness of the incarnation.

Amid all life’s challenges, stresses, sorrows and pains, we will occasionally find it tempting to call on God for dramatic intercessions, miraculous visions, stellar signs that we will be rescued from the travails that plague us. Like our ancestors who yearned for the dramatic rescue of a mighty messiah who would be attended by earthquakes, wind, and fire, we will pray for clear solutions and unambiguous remedies.

But the God in the mundane manger seems to prefer a more subtle approach. The ordinariness of God’s entry into human history is a powerful reminder that God is with us constantly, even on the most run of the mill days.

And when we need to cry for help, we know God will be there in time of trouble, too.

We may just have to listen very carefully amid the tumult to hear God’s still, small voice.