It’s just about time for Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin to ring in the New Year from Times Square in NYC. If I could swap Anderson for another ‘newsy’ celebrity, I think I’d pick Stephen Colbert. He makes you laugh, but he’s been incredibly transparent about his own election hangover. Similarly, I’ve struggled to find the usual levity and joy that accompanies the holiday season.
I’m about half-way through Accidental Saints, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. She contrasts our idealized, Normal Rockwell Christmases, with the actual story in the Bible. I love her takeaway, saying this of the first Christmas:
It reveals a God who has entered our world as it actually exists, and not as the world would often wish it would be. God’s love is too pure to enter a world that does not exist, even though this is often how we treat Jesus, like we are trying to shelter Him from reality. We often behave as though Jesus is only interested in saving and loving a romanticized version of our selves, or an idealized version of our mess of a world, and so we offer him a version of our best selves.
I have a long ways to go, but I feel like this has been the year when my eyes were opened and my heart was broken, by the world as it actually is.
The bad news is that the world is still messed up. The good news is that God is in the mess. Just these last few weeks, that’s been the painful truth for my family. My mom is over a year into her battle against cancer. We were so glad she was well enough to make it out to California for what we’ve dubbed ‘Turkey Christmas’ (gift exchanges done at Thanksgiving). But, the day after her return, she was admitted to the hospital and she’s been back and forth between the hospital and rehab ever since. Just to add to the medical drama for our family, my daughter fell and broke her ankle in 3 places, the day after Christmas. It is dangerous to sugarcoat hardship; you cheapen the real pain of the folks closest to the suffering. But, it is also dishonest to omit the very real ways God showed up in the midst of it all.
Just when things looked bleakest for my mom, the pieces started falling into place for my Mom to get to Mayo, with friends and family moving mountains to facilitate this endeavor and provide care in between. For my daughter, there have also been some mixed blessings. A little backstory to her injury helps…
She went upstairs to get her little brother, when he failed to show up and set the table (after being called no less than 23 times). And, long story short, she tripped and fell, carrying him down the stairs. Like all big sisters around the globe, she’s frustrated by her brothers’ frequent reluctance to pitch in and help. But, it’s been baptism by fire since the day she broke her ankle. I wouldn’t call either of them ‘Martha’, but they’ve definitely shouldered a larger chore load, and have even displayed more compassion and care for their sister, since the accident. I have no illusions about the long-term durability of these lessons; it’s likely they’ll be back to their usual quarreling selves, about 5 minutes after the cast comes off. However, that doesn’t take away from the lessons we can learn when we’re forced to just stop for a moment. And, this moment, as we start a New Year, might be a good time for all of us to pause.
John Dickerson interviewed Stephen Colbert on Christmas Day. Among other things, they talked about the 2016 Oxford Word of the Year: Post-Truth, an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. Here’s a snippet of their post-truth exchange:
COLBERT: That scares me, the idea that facts don’t exist anymore is actually scary to me, whereas if there are no facts anymore, then there is nothing to agree upon and so we can’t agree. You can’t build anything.
DICKERSON: You’ve got to agree on the measurement of things if you’re building (INAUDIBLE)…
COLBERT: What is one kilo?
Or one cubit?
What is a cubit?
Exactly…..what’s a cubit?
As Dickerson puts it, if we want to build something, we have to agree on the measurement. in. I think this is part of the reason why these last few weeks have been so disorienting. It’s not just that we disagree on facts, our worldview or preferred prescription for the world….it’s this sense that everything has been turned upside down, and truth doesn’t matter. What can you build when you can’t define a cubit?
The Bible talks a lot about weights and measurements. Proverbs 11:1 states, “A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, But a just weight is His delight.” Too often, the church has either turned a blind eye to or been party to false balances. And, the church will inevitably continue as a diverse body, with a huge variance of perspectives and prescriptions (and, this is good!!!). However, if we are to maintain any shred of credibility in 2017, we must agree on the cubit. We must seek some common ground upon which at least a critical mass of Christians agree. The church must go back to its Biblical roots to welcome the foreigner, protect the oppressed, help the poor, heal the sick, respect the elderly, defend women and children, etc. If we can find that critical mass in 2017, maybe we can move closer to the tipping points that affect broader change. We might not always agree on the details, but let’s not let politics or ideology of earth stand between us and the heaven’s plea to be light in the darkness. And, quick clarification: light in the darkness has a lot more to do with those folks I just mentioned (poor, sick, foreigner, etc.) than it does well-crafted worship services or Bible programs. The book of Amos has some harsh words, on the topic of scales:
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”—
skimping on the measure,
boosting the price
and cheating with dishonest scales,
6 buying the poor with silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
selling even the sweepings with the wheat.
The chapter continues with this admonishment:
7 The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.
8 “Will not the land tremble for this,
and all who live in it mourn?
The whole land will rise like the Nile;
it will be stirred up and then sink
like the river of Egypt.
9 “In that day,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your religious festivals into mourning
and all your singing into weeping.
I will make all of you wear sackcloth
and shave your heads.
I will make that time like mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.
11 “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign Lord,
“when I will send a famine through the land—
not a famine of food or a thirst for water,
but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
12 People will stagger from sea to sea
and wander from north to east,
searching for the word of the Lord,
but they will not find it.
Part of my pivot for 2017 is to look for the people and organizations doing the best work to help these groups, and then go join them….whether they’re affiliated with a church or not. Being the church doesn’t require a steeple – just hands and feet. In fact, we have spent far too much time quarreling with each other (case in point, recent criticisms of Russell Moore) or point a finger at others, when there’s so much common ground with both religious and secular groups that we could have used as a foundation for being hands and feet. Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way:
That is the surprising scandal of the gospel, the surprising scandal of the kingdom: it looks like the same crappy mess that bumps us out of our unconscious addiction to being good, so that we can look at Jesus as he approaches us on the street and says, Man, you look like you could use a good meal.
I hope that the church will lean into those messy places, in bolder and more courageous ways than we have in a long time. But, there will come a day when I am accountable. And, on that day there will be nothing else to blame; ideology, theology, my calendar nor my finances, and all of life’s countless demands and perceived constraints….you name it….they won’t matter. I, and I alone will be measured. So, I’d better figure out what is a cubit.
Politicians and pundits might not agree on much, but I think the Bible is pretty clear on
measurements. We are called to love God and love people. And, we’re known by our fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And, the places where these commandments ring true and our true selves are revealed, are in our responses to the broken people and messy places.
The real question is not, what’s a cubit….the real question is what’s a person worth? God’s already shown us what a person is worth to Him. But, what’s a person….a young black man, a Hispanic housekeeper, a Syrian refugee, a homeless child or female pastor worth to us? Is there room in our 2017 gospel for them? Let’s make it so.