Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas and the Light in the Darkness

The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:6)
Sometimes we can't stop looking at the darkness. Sometimes it seems overwhelming. When we think about the direction of the world, it is easy to focus on the darkness, easy to lose hope.

But how many times have I been tempted to lose hope -- sometimes, have lost hope -- then later discovered that I was wrong? When I hear that "hope" is a virtue, in darker hours I mock that idea, thinking hope is baseless. And yet later events prove: really, it was the despair that was baseless. That has happened time and again over the years. If I have sometimes wrongly laughed off hope as baseless, when is the last time I laughed off despair as baseless?

Christmas -- Jesus' birth -- reaches a world where there is plenty of darkness. But there is also a lot of wallowing in darkness. "Hello, Darkness, my old friend" begins the haunting and resonating song -- we understand exactly what he means. We have lived there. There is a lot of seeing the world through dark glasses in order to be serious, and to be taken seriously. And there is a strange comfort in embracing the darkness.
The world loved darkness better. (John 3:19)
Today we light festive lights which cheer up the darkness. It's a visible reminder that the light is more lovely than the darkness. We remember that lights -- decorative lights on the tree or the home, candles, firesides -- are also our old friends. And in the light, we can remember what we did not see in the dark: that our old friends are also our old friends, that despair has often proved false. That there may be a lot of enmity towards that child in the manger -- and to the Holy Immortal that would light the world -- but there are many who hold his name dear, along with the hope he brings us.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas: Holding an infant changes us

When was the last time you held an infant? Newborns bring out the best in many of us. There is such overwhelming tenderness and compassion. The connection has a heartbreaking intensity. It overwhelms our other thoughts and feelings. Each detail adds to our awe: the tiny fingers, the perfect miniature fingernails, the wobbly-uncertain movements of the new arms. People simply like to hold an infant. We can hold an infant for hours.

In this world, an infant is the closest we see to a pure heart: someone who has never been bitter, never schemed, never manipulated, never held a grudge, never laid a trap, never plotted payback. The innocence of childhood is something that we hope that each new child can maintain because that innocence has both beauty and power. In some measure we adore the innocence and the possibilities for good that come from it. We admire it because we desire it. Holding an infant re-awakens all that we hope for, all that we ever hoped for.

It re-awakens our knowledge of what God hopes for: Peace on earth, goodwill towards humanity. We hold onto a child because it re-awakens the best in us too.

It is easy to let the mockers win the day. We don't fully trust the good to last; since when did we have enough strength to withstand the mockers without becoming tarnished ourselves? But when we have a child in our arms, it is easier to say: I will enjoy this moment and its promise. And so God comes to us in a way that not only holds all the promise of what he can be, but renews the promise of what we can be.
"The weakness of God is stronger than man's strength."

Monday, December 12, 2016

If anything is worthy of praise

Finally, brothers, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there is anything of virtue/excellence, and if there is any worthy of praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
When I read this, I have often been shamefully dismissive of it. There is a cynical part of my mind which sees it as wishful thinking, or a sort of determined naivety. The more open-minded voice inside me recognizes and acknowledges the value -- and then wants credit merely for speaking up against the cynicism, without actually doing what we are here encouraged to do.
  • What is true? The sun came up this morning. 
  • What is honorable? Those who stand by their convictions with modesty and reason.
  • What is just? The Day when hatred will cease.
  • What is pure? The hope for a spark of joy.
  • What is lovely? The out-of-season lily that is still blooming under the crepe myrtle.
  • What has a good reputation? I had to think really hard about this one. I'm going with: Green vegetables.
  • Is there anything of virtue/excellence (older translation: any virtue)? Joy.
  • Is there anything worthy of praise? The skill of a certain pianist that I have in mind.
Think on these things. Take inventory of them. Take stock. Some good things fade away for lack of recognition, or lack of care. May it not be on our watch.

Update 12/14/2016: Dr Platypus has added a list of his own, which is truly worth a read.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Sorting-Hat Questions: Fighting against polarized discourse

In our era, civil discourse is rare. And as we have seen, heated rhetoric can spill over into widespread violence. Over the last few years, riots have become more common than I have ever known them in my lifetime. Some of them are sponsored, and they have become increasingly coordinated, which is troubling. Once the infrastructure has been established for nationwide demonstrations-on-demand, will it ever be deactivated? Will its exercise make a fragile situation even more unstable? (How many would welcome that goal?)
                        
Against this background, in a seemingly-civil conversation, a greeting is often followed by a question: What do you think of such-and-such?

In my experience, there is typically no interest in learning what the other person thinks on the topic: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. The question is not asked in order to gain understanding of the topic or of the other person. It is asked in order to sort the person into Gryffindor or Slytherin according to the views of the person asking. Possibly the questioner has already decided that people failing to give the "right" answer are defective and dangerous -- deserving of hatred, according to leading voices. There are some in Texas who have considered secession as a way to preserve the right of self-determination; there are some in California considering the same. In our so-called culture war, the two sides may not be compatible. What is considered progress by one side is seen as a shocking devaluation of life by the other, and that cuts both ways. In our nation, if we can be said to have peace right now, it is a fragile peace.

Against this background, while there is hope for peace, I think I should work for peace. While there is hope for understanding, I think I should work for understanding. Which means that, when someone asks me: "Halt! Gryffindor or Slytherin?" I would like to find out, "Do you want to understand my reasons?" And if not, I think that the time is more suited to pushing back against the practice of judging people without hearing them, rather than the long list of things over which people judge each other.

I hope to write posts that honestly reflect the things that are overlooked in a "Friend or foe!" challenge: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. I hope to be fair and honest even about views that I firmly believe are wrong (not supportive, mind you, simply fair and honest; that shouldn't need justifying). I have no wish to relativize the truth on divisive topics; I do wish to place the humanity of both sides at the forefront of the conversation. Right now there's not quite enough goodwill or trust to move the conversation forward, and so my focus is on those. I hope we can de-legitimize the "Friend or foe!" challenge; it assumes we're already at war.