the gifts of the anti-magi

This post has been a long time coming.  This time of the year is always difficult for me, as I feel torn between holiday cheer and resentful drear, obligation and celebration, hope and despair.

I am so very sick of the war on Christmas.

“Oh, good,” some of my Christian friends may be saying at this point, “me too!  Why can’t people just put Christ back into Christmas?”

No, dear friends and readers, that’s not what I mean.  I’m sick of the phrase “put the Christ back in Christmas” and all of the entitlement it entails.  I wish it would all just stop.  Now, I understand that may not sound terribly Christian of me, but hold on.  You may say that your anger and demands are for the sake of Christ, and I wouldn’t want to disparage your motives.  I’m not in your head and I don’t know what you’re thinking.  Yet there’s a painful sticking point in that concession, and it’s one that bears hearing out.  Saying “put the Christ back in Christmas” pretends, even for the space of that second, that Christ is something that can be moved and removed by man.  It implies that Christ’s presence in the holidays for us, as individuals, is somehow dictated by the actions of society.  I don’t like to believe that my experience of Christ this time of year is somehow beholden to the displays in Macy’s windows.  After all, the force of love I am enthralled by is greater than any one man, any one store, any one society.  How weak would I have to be if my sacred observances were somehow shattered by a greeting card?

“Now, it’s bigger than that”, someone inevitably says.  “The fact that people are no longer observing Christmas as a Christian holiday shows how secular society has become, and this is supposed to be a Christian society.”

Hold. On.  Please.

For one thing, the Christmas smashed all over billboards is hardly Christian.  The Christmas touted in the commercials telling our adorable little tots that this monster truck or that Barbie doll will somehow complete them are anything BUT Christian.  The promise of the holiday that society has started to hold on to is almost in direct contradiction to the Gospel.  The “spirit of Christmas”, as it is sold, is that the holiday itself has some ability to heal.  We’re told, in less than guarded symbolism, that if we buy the right things, eat the right food, invite the right guests, and have the right attitude that we will somehow achieve a transcendent state.  The holiday has become a spiritual act of reaching for sacred healing, but that sacred healing is not tied to God, Christ, or the ideals of Christianity.  It is a secular sacredness, and as such treating the holiday as holy is tantamount to idol worship.

After all, it is jolly ol’ Santa Claus receiving the sacramental cookies and milk, not God.

Christmas, the holy mass of Christ, was once not even Christmas at all.  You’ve got the Germanic Yule and the Roman Saturnalia blended in with Christianity, as the Roman empire expanded and brought in new territories and started to expand the practice of tolerance towards other religions.  In order to lower the amount of infighting between sects and oppression as people traveled from district to district, the Roman calendar morphed to overlap the holidays so that people’s observances were not as conspicuous.  It is ironic, then, that a holiday once tweaked to help avoid oppression and foster inclusiveness has become such a battleground.

Honestly, I don’t think Christmas is the real problem.  I think that Christianity has become the real problem.  In the United States, Christians have a huge entitlement complex that has become an idol above God.  We say that this is a Christian society and anyone that acts against that is out of line, ignoring the fact that we are all equal citizens under the law and Christians are not owed privilege or protection to any greater degree than their neighbors.  We act affronted when anything we deem as untoward is allowed to continue, no matter how innocuous it is.  We bicker and argue and fight constantly, sending our representatives to the evening news and gleefully hacking to bits anyone who dares to disagree with them.

Here, in this season of the Magi, when we celebrate the sacred gifts laid at the feet of Christ, I feel that Christians in America have started praising three other gifts, the gifts of the anti-Magi, laid at the feet of our own ego.  We have swallowed these gifts whole and they threaten to destroy us.  They are entitlement, disdain, and division.  Gifts like that are born of evil and exercised at great personal cost.  But open your eyes, brothers and sisters, and see how we worship them!  Hear the entitlement in the voice of the person telling the Jewish shop owner to put the “Christ” back in “Christmas” when they hand up a Happy Holidays banner.  Hear the disdain in the voice of the mother who, when hearing that a classmate of her child’s wouldn’t come to the Winter Program because they don’t celebrate holidays, says, “Well, isn’t that just what’s wrong with this country?” Look at the division when someone goes on Facebook to beg for tolerance and they are told that they are why Christianity is failing in this country.

I have so many friends who say they can’t stand to go to church, that every time they hear someone is a Christian they instantly feel uncomfortable around them, that they believe in Christ but not the church.

I feel like my soul is just shredded, absolutely shredded, by the holiday season.

la pieta

Christianity is not owed anything by society.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Because you are Christian, everyone ought to respect you, respect everything you say, and never cause negative consequences for any of your actions.”  In fact, it says quite the opposite.  It tells us not to be surprised when we’re hated and persecuted.  So why are we so surprised?  Because we have idolized our own society.  We idolize the constitution, idolize free speech, idolize the symbolism of our holidays.  We worship those things as sacred and then react like vipers when they are threatened.  Because we blindly believe they should be perfect, we accept nothing less: even when, or perhaps especially when, the evidence all around us says otherwise.

We bear a tragic consequence for that behavior, but society bears one even worse as people turn from love to disdain and hatred.

So in this time of year, as we dream of the Magi traveling by the light of a sacred star, carrying gifts of adoration and penance to a pure and holy infant king, let’s think about the gifts that we ourselves need to offer.  Not the perfect consumerist presents wrapped in expensive wrapping paper and laid down at the altar of a tree whose symbolism we’ve forgotten, but the gifts we offer each other.

Let’s stop being the anti-Magi.

Photo from Daniela Munoz-Santos

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Passing for Middle Class

After  my last post, a friend sent me a link to this piece on the Huffington Post, in which a woman so eloquently explains some of the reason why poor people make “bad” choices and how hard it is to pass for middle class.  I can say from my own experience that the mentality that Linda Tirado writes about in that article is precisely what plagues so many families that live on the edge of homelessness.  The biggest barrier for many of them, aside from the lack of money, was the fact that they were perceived of as poor.

Oh, come on, you might say.  “Lindsey, they were homeless!  What else were they supposed to be perceived as?”

I can remember one time where a guest of ours was on the phone talking to a collection agency.  With the snap of a finger the way she was sitting in her chair changed.  Her voice became silky-smooth and her diction even changed.  She sounded perfectly middle class.  She thanked the collection officer profusely for his patience and understanding while she worked out her “momentary problems” and promised to get back in touch.  After she hung up the phone, her boyfriend asked her how it went and she said, “We’re never paying that f&^%ing moron.”

But, for just long enough to get the collection agency off her back, she’d passed for middle class.  I’d talk more to her later about why exactly she didn’t work harder to look and talk the way middle class people did if she clearly understood how it worked.  She’d laugh it off and say that it wouldn’t make a difference in the long run.  “I can pretend to get what I need,” she said, “but I don’t want that to be who I am.”

I write about that story because it’s something that niggles in the back of my mind.  It’s one thing for me to walk and talk middle class while being poor, because my family is middle class and poverty for me is a transitional period.  We weren’t always this poor, and we won’t always be.  We’re recession-poor.  For other people, who were born poor and feel that they will die for, passing for middle class feels more like a betrayal.  It is, to put it simply, pretending to be something that society continually tells you that you are not.

I had a weird moment the other day. I was closing the gate behind me after driving into my drive.  Instead of wearing the ripped jeans, battered sneakers, and badly stained t-shirts that I normally wear around the house, I was wearing my work slacks, my hair was pinned up, my makeup was on and my school ID badge was pinned to my tie.  My neighbor was out working on his car.  Normally I get a “nice day” or “what’s going on?” from him, but in that moment he said, “g’day, ma’am”, and I had to blush.  He blushed too, and said, “you’re like professional, it’s a reflex.”

Right, because I deserve deference in the moment I pass for middle class, instead of just being the girl next door who shares gardening advice and whose kids constantly kick their ball into his yard.  I felt more respected by him when he was joking about my nice melons.

Respect for the middle class is so deeply engraved into the way that people in poverty think.  It’s a respect for the persona, the clothes, the air of competency which you never feel you can pull off when you’re changing your own oil or struggling to just, you know, get through another bitter day.

And the backhand of the respect for the middle class, of course, is the fact that when you are in poverty you feel beholden, like a burden, less than.  Like a dog with it’s tail between it’s legs you “ma’am” the world and then hope to go unnoticed, because the thought of another patent-leather loafer kicking you in the face is never far away.  You feel loyalty to everyone else who runs in your pack and you feel as if you are betraying everything, even your own morals, by being anything else.

Desire to make it is always bitterly paired with resentment, and this clinging need to want to remain exactly as you are and still be loved.

Meffing Goatsheads: or, all I need to know about sin I learned from my garden.

Goatshead thistles, or puncture vine, is the most obnoxious weed in the world (according to myself) and one I never had the acquaintance of until I moved into our current home.

goatshead

 

That’s a picture of a bucket of the stuff.  I’ve spent the last year trying to figure out how to get rid of it. I suggested burning all of the stuff growing in the driveway and was met with laughter.  Why?  The seeds are so waxy that burning them only helps them germinate faster.  You can spray the vine with weed killer but if it has already seeded, the weed killer won’t affect the seeds.  You can pull it up as it grows but you’ll be doing that for years, and years, and years.  The seeds can live for ten years or more in the ground, and it’s only a matter of weeks from germination to seed.

So what do you do?  There’s one thing that most of the gardening blogs seem to agree on:  Goatsheads thrive in acidic or base soils but don’t do well in soils that are well balanced.  They do poorly in competition with other plants, so planting another kind of groundcover and fertilizing the hell out of it will quickly crowd the weeds out and prevent them from seeding.

Yep.

The best way to get rid of them, to put it simply, is to make sure that your yard is a healthy place for other things to grow.

Which is tidily the best analogy I’ve ever heard for how to deal with sin.  Want to get rid of anger?  Focusing on your anger will never work.  Focusing on your anger will only amplify it. The only way to get rid of your anger is to make your heart the right condition to cultivate gentleness.  Want to get rid of judgmental attitudes?  Trust me on this, focusing on sin will only lead to more judgment and deep hypocrisy.  You weed it out by planting other things there: understanding, love, trust.  This is true of so many other things.  Greed can be treated with giving, addiction can be treated with self-control or self-knowledge, jealousy can be treated with self-care, and bitterness can be treated with grace.

If I had an empty plot in my yard and I thought I had to get rid of all the goatsheads before I started my garden, I’d spend the rest of my life cultivating nothing but mud.

It’s gotten easier to keep them at bay the more the garden has grown in, and for the most part now they are only growing at the edges where they are easily pulled.

And I think about the times I’ve spent in dark depression spiritually, growing nothing but figurative mud as I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole I thought I’d never grow out of.

And the whole time, God was throwing me situation after situation full of the seeds that I needed to hold onto and cultivate for myself.  Constantly I threw the seeds back and then petulantly asked God why he wasn’t helping me.

I imagine God was much like I can be when I serve my kids a great healthy meal they just don’t want to eat.  An hour later, their plate is still sitting on the table full of food and they are whining, “what can I eat?  Mom I’m hungry!”

And I’m trying very hard not to roll my eyes and very patiently saying, “you can eat the meal I have made for you.”

God must shaking his head and trying not to tap his foot and saying, “you can grow the things I want for you.  Seriously, kid, stop worrying about that sh**.”

So you can spend your life giving yourself splinters and sores pulling up a weed that can multiply faster than you can kill it, throwing acid and poison on it and killing everything good and beautiful while it burns and doesn’t even care,

or you can think about what kind of garden you want to grow.

Like I said, it’s all I feel I ever need to know about sin.  Because, like with my yard, it’s not the bad things that you should be focused on anyway.  It’s the good fruit that you can grow there anyway that really matters.

It’s all that matters.

Don’t tell me about what needs to be killed.

What needs to be cultivated?

Overcoming Obstacles: Think as David Thought

I’ve seen two “interpretations” of King David in the last few days.  The first is the David of the new NBC primetime show, “Kings”.  The second is the tiny squeaky little Dave of Veggie Tale’s “Dave and the Giant Pickle”.  Both of these Davids, different from each other as they may be, have one thing in common:  they see themselves as little in the face of giant obstacles.  They doubt themselves and their call.

In that way they are as different from the David of the Bible as context would make them appear.  Our Biblical David had a tremendous amount of faith.  While the people around him saw him as small and unspectacular,  he did not see himself that way.  While his role was mostly as a court jester cajoling Saul out of his more vicious moods, David himself knew his true potential.  So when Goliath came and no one fought him, David saw this as an insult to Israel’s position as God’s favored people.  And he said, (paraphrasing) “If no one else is going to remove this offense, I will.”

People were incredulous.

So David confidently said, “I’ve been tending my father’s flocks.  And when the bear and the lion came, I delivered my sheep from their mouths.  The God that gave me that strength will give me strength for this as well.”

No, “they’re big, I’m little.”  No, “I’m just not as brave as you think I am.”  No, “I know this sounds ridiculous.”

Just, “God gave me strength enough then, and he’ll give me strength enough now.”

David’s real brilliance was not in his beauty, his grace, or his cleverness.  It was in his absolute faith in who God made him to be.  It was in that trust.  But that trust is not the trust that other media portray it as.  It wasn’t the faith of saying, “I know I’m weak but you make me strong.”  Cross out the first part of that sentence, let it read as only, “I know I’m weak but you make me strong.”

So my first path to overcoming obstacles?  Have absolute faith in who God made me to be.  Strangle the internal editor.  Black out all of the voices that remind me of my weaknesses.  Search for a true vision of who I am: the Lindsey that delivered the sheep from the mouth of the lion and the bear, the Lindsey who has always been sufficient for the task in front of her.  Apply that knowledge of being properly made to every obstacle before me.  So that, like David, when I see an offense to the call of God’s children, I can stand up with confidence and say, “if no one else is going to remove that, I will.”

Thaw.

Where I live right now, we’re going through our first thaw of spring.  This is my absolutely least favorite time of year.  My favorite time of year comes when the ground is warm and the seeds are being planted and the world is full of potential.  These things take time.

The first thaw isn’t about the potential of spring.  It’s about revealing the reality of the world around you.  The snow, that beautiful blanket of glistening white, is drunk into the ground, and it leaves nothing but mud and trash behind.  Everything is gray, brown, and wet.  The ground has an unpleasant odor.  The days are dingey and raining.  The world is shown to us in it’s true nature- the trash and odd McDonald’s bags that had been covered by snow, the grayish brown slime of salt that covers the sidewalks, everywhere wet and cold.

Snow doesn’t purify, it hides.

Sometimes our “salvation” feels the same way.  We say we are washed white as snow by the blood of Christ, but that concept is always dueling with the fact that we are left gray and muddy by our own choices.  We aren’t made perfect in an instant the way the songs imply.  Salvation is something we must work at continually, by our choices day after day.  We can accrue the trash and McDonald’s bags and cover ourselves with Christ’s blood and pretend it’s all okay, but at some point the sun will come and the thaw will begin and our true natures will be revealed.

I always find it interesting that Easter falls around this time of year, in the waiting period, when we are still expecting the miracle of spring and the renewal of creation.  I find it interesting that we stand outside in the cold and the mud and watch the sun rise and feel that hope.  I find it interesting because the hope doesn’t ever seem quite there for me yet, the ground isn’t warm enough, the magic hasn’t started.

The renewal of creation is bought by the revelation of how cold and barren the world really is.  Our own renewal is the same- we can’t play at being pure, we need to see ourselves in all of our salt-streaked splendor, we need to face the smell and the muddiness and the despair of the change of seasons.  We need to die to self and let ourselves be warmed again by the sun and the rain.

I suppose none of this makes very much sense to anyone but me.  All I’m really saying is that, like the changing of the seasons, it’s all a process.  Spring doesn’t come because the ground thaws once, neither does Salvation happen in a moment.  First the world is revealed, and then it is renewed.   It’s all about the process.

The Bible is a Book.

The Bible is a book.  It is words on paper.  In and of itself, aside from the presence or essence of God or true revelation, it is only a tool.  It is incredibly dangerous to think otherwise.  Perhaps by saying that straight off and not giving context I’m doing my readers a disservice, but when trying to decide how to write this particular stream of thought I just kept coming back to starting with what I really believe.

I really believe that the Bible is a book.  It is a divinely inspired book, and it is capable of giving life and truth and hope, but simply because something is capable of doing another thing does not mean that it does it all the time.  Water is capable of preserving your life but can also take it.  Many things can be one way but are also another way in another context- and likewise the Bible can be used to give life but has also been used as a defense for taking it.  It can be used to share truth but has been twisted into lies.  The Bible can be used to find God- but that doesn’t mean that the essence of God is always found there.

Maybe I should talk about this another way.  I write.  And as a writer I know that no matter how carefully chosen my words are, I have no control over the way people interpret them.  There’s what I mean, there’s what I write, and there’s what you read.  And the Bible is like that: there is what God inspired, there is what men wrote, and there’s what the reader interprets.  And just because God inspired the original text doesn’t mean that He meant for you to interpret it the way you did.

NT Wright has a really intriguing article about Biblical Authority in which he basically says that when Christians talk about the Bible as an authoritative work they rarely mean what they say.  Either they mean to say that their interpretation of it is authoritative, or Christian belief is Authoritative, or actually that God is authoritative.  But you can’t sincerely say that the Bible, in and of itself, is authoritative.  Now, back to my own opinion: the Bible is a narrative.  It’s not a set of rules, regulations, or formulas that can be plastered across everyone’s life to the same affect.  While all of those things can be found in the Bible, I must say (with fear and trembling) that they have little intrinsic worth.  And I mean that sincerely.  The law, absent the revelation of God’s love, will bring only death.  That is why Christ came to the earth to die- to free us from the law of sin and death.

And it’s really a shame that we’ve taken that sacrifice as an opportunity to institute more of the same.

But I’m losing myself.  I came to talk about the worth of the Biblical text.  And what I want to say is this: It is worth little without the revelation of God’s love for you.  If you read it looking for God’s love, you’ll find it.  If you read it with God’s love in your heart, it will give you life.  Otherwise it’s just words.  Because, as NT Wright so brilliantly stated in his article, the Bible doesn’t turn to itself as an authority.  The Bible turns to God and revelation of God as the final Authority.

We as Christians should do the same.

Blind faith is folly

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom.

Though it cost all you have, get understanding  – (Proverbs 4:7)

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My son, preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight;

they will be life for you,
an ornament to grace your neck.  – (Proverbs 3:21-22)

The entire book of Proverbs is like a love letter to Wisdom, whom the author personifies as a woman of endless worth. It’s a good book of the Bible.  I still prefer Ecclesiastes, but Proverbs has it’s high points as well.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.  I’ve been spending a lot of my time in meditation about the things that really, really bothered me about church as a teen.  This and the book of Proverbs walk hand in hand.

I hate the whole principal of “faith by formula”.  I hate the idea that we think we can boil the mysteries of God down to simple equations.  I hate the fact that so many pastors and youth leaders  buy in to the concept that the journey to God is a set path with predictable markers- because it often means that people who are truly seeking God have their faith killed in the crossfire when they stray off of what people expect their path to be.  A kid who realizes he is gay is told that he has a secret sin and his sexuality is a judgment for said sin.  A girl who likes dark music is told that she does so because of demonic opression.  A boy who feels the spirit of God filling him and comforting him in love is told that he won’t have TRULY felt God until he speaks in tongues.  A single mother is told that God doesn’t want her children to be raised without a father- she then feels betrayed by God when relationship after relationship fall apart, and judged horribly when she’s told that she won’t be “allowed” into a relationship until she fixes some sin in herself.

Time and time again hearts are broken and faith is tested not by God, but by God’s people.  As the bumper-sticker sarcastically says “I love Jesus- it’s his WIFE that’s the PROBLEM!”.

We are taught that we are to have a “childlike” faith.  I don’t believe that childlike faith and blind faith are the same thing.  A child believes because it is natural to believe.  They expect the best, they are unashamed in their love, they glimmer and glow over the simplest things.  To love Jesus as a child would love him means to love fearlessly, with abandon.  But a child is not blind or stupid- they will stop to question if they see someone getting hurt.  When I punish my son, my daughter will come and try to intercede on his behalf.  She asks me why he is crying, if I wanted him to cry, she says she doesn’t care that he hit her, she forgives him, why can’t I forgive him?  That is the love of a child- not unquestioning, but DESPERATELY wanting the best for all, happiness for all.

Our faith in God should be the same.  We SHOULD question, we SHOULD cry and beg and plead for the souls and happiness of our fellow man.  We should not snap to judgment or accept formulas that leave others out in the cold- we should wrestle and struggle with the formulas, we should test and test and test, we should attempt to perfect.

But most of all we should seek wisdom, good judgment and discernment.  We should learn to recognize what God’s spirit looks like when it manifests in a way we don’t expect.  When the gay man starts crying and professes that he feels God’s love and embrace, we shouldn’t say, “ah, but you won’t TRULY feel God until you stop being gay.”  When the single mother says that she is trying to provide a holy and stable life for her kids, we shouldn’t pressure her into marriage and claim we know what life God wants for her, we should walk at her side, protect her from danger, and help to seek and discern God’s individual voice for her life.  When the young girl shows her propensity for Gothic music and make-up, we shouldn’t scream “DEMON!”, we should seek to help her find the voice to describe what she’s really experiencing- and if all she’s showing is an artistic taste, let her have it.

The world would be a boring place if life were homogenized into predictable norms.

Like a child, we should crave the excitement that comes from difference and discovery.

And like the writer of Proverbs, we should hunger and thirst for Wisdom the way a young man hungers for a beautiful and perfect woman.