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Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Mystery and Marvel

In his book, Miracles, C.S. Lewis writes  that the “Central Miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. . . . Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.” And yet, Christians—perhaps because of familiarity, but also perhaps because of ignorance—seem to take the miracle of the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth for granted. Part of this may be due to the safe, superficial, and sentimental telling of the Advent narrative.

From the virgin’s womb, the eternal Word became flesh. How can we not marvel at such a profound mystery?

No wonder that church history is replete with heretical notions concerning Jesus and the Trinity. The Nicene Creed was hammered out in response to modalism (Sabellianism), adoptionism, and Arianism. Later, the Council of Chalcedon gathered to refute Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism. Such battles for doctrinal purity and precision were not motivated by mere academic nitpicking or dispassionate intellectual inquiry; no, these heresies struck at the heart of who Jesus is in relation to the triune Godhead.

Perhaps one of these advent seasons we shall be treated to more substantial “Christmas sermons” to stir us to marvel more at the mystery and majesty of the Miracle of the Incarnation. In the meantime, our hunger will find some satiation from our poets if not our preachers.

They sought to soar into the skies
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
But you came down.

You dropped down from the mountains sheer
Forsook the eagle for the dove
The other Gods demanded fear
But you gave love

Where chiselled marble seemed to freeze
Their abstract and perfected form
Compassion brought you to your knees
Your blood was warm

They called for blood in sacrifice
Their victims on an altar bled
When no one else could pay the price
You died instead

They towered above our mortal plain,
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain,
But you were born.

Born to these burdens, borne by all
Born with us all ‘astride the grave’
Weak, to be with us when we fall,
And strong to save.

— Malcolm Guite, “Descent”

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Peace on Earth

Between the crass commercialism and consumerism of secular society and the Church’s safe and sanitized celebration, it is a struggle for me to get through another advent season.

This Christmas, I chose this passage to reflect on:

Then Herod, when he realized that he had been outwitted by the wise men, flew into a rage. He gave orders to massacre all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in keeping with the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
and she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.
—Matt. 2:16-18; CSB

Though we sing of “joy to the world”, we must never forget the sorrow all around us and that bereavement is never far from blessings. While Matthew cites only Jer. 31:15, the verses immediately following are full of hope: “There is hope for your future” (vs 17) in the promise of return from Exile. Ultimately, Jeremiah will express this hope later in the chapter (vs. 31–34) in the language of the new covenant, which Jesus came to inaugurate. So although “weeping may lodge for the night” as we sojourn in the now and the not yet, “shouts of joy will come in the morning” (Ps. 30:5; ISV) with the dawning of the eschaton.

Secondly, Herod’s heinous act failed to hinder God’s redemptive purpose (Ps. 2). Christians today need to be reminded not to react so pitifully at every little opposition, and not to fall into the temptation of trying to court favour with Empire. As Rachel Held Evans rightly asserts:

The incarnation isn’t about desperately grasping at the threads of power and privilege. It’s not about making some civic holiday “bigger and better.” It’s about surrendering power, setting aside privilege, and finding God in the smallness and vulnerability of a baby in a womb.

— Mary, the Magnificat, and an Unsentimental Advent

Finally, may we not let the sentimentality of the season distract us from the reality that for the vast majority, the King was rejected: He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11; CSB), and that is still the case today.

O King of our desire whom we despise,
King of the nations never on the throne,
Unfound foundation, cast-off cornerstone,
Rejected joiner, making many one,
You have no form or beauty for our eyes,
A King who comes to give away his crown,
A King within our rags of flesh and bone.
We pierce the flesh that pierces our disguise,
For we ourselves are found in you alone.
Come to us now and find in us your throne,
O King within the child within the clay,
O hidden King who shapes us in the play
Of all creation. Shape us for the day
Your coming Kingdom comes into its own.

—Malcolm Guite

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On Categories and Cages

Churches exert a homogenizing influence on its members as unity becomes confused and conflated with uniformity. At the same time, we consciously or unconsciously group members according to our narrow categories. Michael Foley notes that “Our categorizing tendency likes to put people in pigeon holes (often contemptuously, as ‘the careerist’, ‘the philistine’, ‘the slob’, ‘the shrew’, etc.), then notices only behaviour that fits with the simplistic classification and finishes by dismissing people as superficial, limited, predictable and boring.” (Life Lessons From Bergson, Macmillan; 2013)

In particular, those who are different, who march to the beat of a different drum, who are outspoken, and who are not yes-men, are viewed with discomfort,  fear and suspicion. We think, Why can’t they be normal like me?  Once labelled, it is hard to escape from other people’s perception of you, unless perhaps, you go out of your way to act out your life according to another carefully chosen script. Foley goes on to say that “It is common even to want others to behave badly in predictable ways in order to confirm our own good judgement and enjoy superiority and righteousness. Conversely, because we hate change and want people to stay in their labelled boxes, unexpected developments can be irritating.”

I find it challenging therefore, to navigate the tricky balance of behaving according to biblical norms, church cultural expectations and one’s authentic expressions of self. No doubt I am not doing a good job of it.

What’s the answer? I think we need to be more curious, make less assumptions about others. We need to slow down and open our lives to each other, something that is sorely lacking in the superficial chit chat that too often passes for genuine conversation during the coffee time at church.

For me, my love of the arts has been helpful in arresting my own instinctive reflex to cast premature judgement or be unthinkingly dismissive. As Foley rightly observes, “A crucial function of the arts is to prevent, or break down, dismissive labelling and reveal the singular instead of the similar, the peculiar instead of the familiar, and the inscrutable instead of the understood.”

It is sad that there is no room in many churches for the arts.

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Parker Palmer gives a wonderful illustration that resonates with my own “journey toward an Undivided Life”:

Palmer describes how as we grow out of childhood, the wholeness of our lives gets divided into onstage and backstage lives. In our outer (onstage) life we are concerned with things like influence, image, and impact, while our inner (backstage) life is characterized by intuition, instinct and insight. Over time as we become more concerned with “surviving and succeeding in the external world we slowly lose touch with our souls and disappear into our roles”.

We discover that it is not safe to reveal too much of who we are and so we end up building a wall of separation. The result is disconnect and causes us pain and yearning. It is only when our outer and inner lives are seamlessly one, that we experience life that is flourishing and genuine.

I would also add that when we realize our identity in Christ, then we have the courage to connect our lives with other believers who share that same identity. Sadly, many Christians still have their walls up, which is why authentic Christ-centered community is so elusive.

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