The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tragedy, Mental Illness, and Christmas

My initial response was to not to comment on the tragedy of the shooting of twenty elementary school students and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. I decided in the beginning that part of being a responsible blog owner is knowing when to lay off an issue when it doesn't pertain to your area of specialty. 

This blog is a pastoral response. 

The gospel reading for church this weekend is based on Mary's song of praise, after finding out that she is pregnant with the Messiah. She sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior." I'm preaching on this text in a few days, shortly followed by Christmas Eve services where we celebrate the birth of Jesus who is Christ the Lord. It's a happy time.

Jesus has come. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. 

But tragedy still finds us. 

I have friends who like to put the phrase "post" in front of everything. We're "post"modern, "post"christian, "post"9/11. The idea of "post" is that life is new now, that we have become self-aware of how wrong modernism/Christianity/9/11 was. "Post" means we want to define ourselves in a new way. It means that whenever we experience something, we learn, and adapt our behavior so that we do not make the same mistakes of the past.

Every generation is "post" the previous generation, destined to succeed where others have failed. But for every two steps forward, we fall one step back, because self-awareness does not lead to perfection. 

Call it sin, imperfection, or brokenness- but the human condition is like a piggy bank that has been smashed and hot-glued back together over and over again.

The problem of human suffering is called Theodicy. It is often posed like this: 

God is all powerful
God is loving
Human suffering exits. 

The theological puzzle is to have more than two of these statements be true. If God loves us, and can do anything, then why not stop people from suffering? 

There are volumes written about the problem of Theodicy. You ought to be weary of anyone willing to give you the easy answer. 

But here's a hard answer. Do we really know what it is like for God to love us? We imagine God as a grand parent, who, will spoil us any chance He gets. Without repercussion, God coddles us, spoils us, and yields to us for all of eternity. 

Is that love? 

In your version of heaven, are we all consumers taking holy handouts?
 Or is the greater love the love of a parent, who video tapes us while we walk for the first time only to watch us fall. In the long run, giving us free will is showing us the greater love.  
The shooting of beautiful children of God by a mentally ill child of God is just about the worst thing I can think of. This is a time when the whole notion of free will seems like a failed experiment.  Tragedy of this magnitude is so horrible that the desired response is to react quickly to ensure it will never happen again. 

We must fight the notion to become "Post" Sandy Hook by buying weapons, beefing up security at elementary schools, or shielding our children from all people with mental illness.

We will never fully get over this. Just like we were never "post" Columbine, or 9/11, or Oklahoma City, or the Holocaust. 

We must remember to breathe. We must be committed to each other's humanity for the long run. We're all in this together. 
Look at the outline of human history: the journey from learning how to use tools, to building pyramids, to establishing currency, to the evolution of medicine, to the beginning of democracy, to the end of slavery, to the end of the cold war, to the rise of the internet. 

We're getting better and better at a lot of things.  

But human suffering still remains. Sometimes those with Mental Illness know only suffering.

As my favorite theologian Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr says in his letter from Birmingham jail, "The arc of history bends toward justice" 

Do you know who Dr. King was writing the letter from Birmingham Jail to? 

Clergy who opposed the Civil Right movement. Even clergy sometimes fail to see the justice that we are being called to.

The world is united in the 21st century in a way that it never was before. Lives change quickly as we move on to the next big thing. We are never really "post" anything, because the past is never really gone. We carry the memories of the past forward as we continue to love each other for the long haul.

 Building the Kingdom of God is a marathon, not a sprint. This Christmastime and every time, we weep with those who weep, and we rejoice with those who rejoice. We live in hope. We love in hope. 


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Santa Claus is coming?

There I was opening my big fat mouth in a recent Sunday School class designed for parents with young children.
As a pastor I have a certain credibility because God and I are close. As a parent, I'm less experienced than many of the other parents in the class. But that didn't stop me from talking too much about what to do about Santa.

I don't believe that parents ought to perpetuate the lie of Santa Clause. Realizing that your parents lied to you is awful.  Then turning right around and lying to your own kids is just plain cruel. So, I spoke with some authority about what I think parents ought to do.

Here's what I said:
"Don't spread the lie. Tell them that Saint Nicolas was a real person, a really good person, and one we ought to emulate. But he died. When we lie about Santa being real, and that lie is revealed, it causes our children to question if Jesus is real, too. If your kids already believe, help them realize on their own that Santa is a myth"

My wife Ashley was sitting next to me. She is my biggest critic, especially in public. Sure, she loves me without ceasing and in the privacy of our home tells me how much she enjoys my sermons and is my biggest supporter.  But she doesn't put up with BS. After my Santa smear campaign, Ashley grabbed my arm as if to get me to shut-up, and said politely to the group that we have not talked about this much as a couple and still haven't had to make up our minds on the idea of Santa and our kids, as if to soften the blow of my anti-Santa stance. She was perhaps right to do so.

Most people aren't on board with killing Santa. Maybe I'm not either. Santa can be fun and magical. I just don't like lying to my kids. I'd like to think that I could let my kids down about Santa honestly and sincerely, and then tell them that we're going to go on pretending just the same.

But what will they think about how we should view Jesus? I dare say there are many Christians who treat Christ in a similar fashion.

We talked in code in the car on the way home:         

Ashley: Our kids already believe.
Me: Not because of me.
Ashley: So what- they learn about it from kids at school, still they believe.
Me: Let's call him St. Nick. At least that way there's a historical figure.
Ashley: Is he alive?
Me: No.
Ashley: Good luck with that. 

Later that night my son Jacob asks me a question to check my resolve on the issue of Santa. He's always a critic:

"Daddy, what if Santa dies before Christmas? How will I get my presents?"

Ashley looks on with the grin on her face, and offers up support for Jacob, "Yeah Daddy, how can you answer that?"

Before I give my answer, I'd like to point out that I've had solid motives here. I don't want to perpetuate a lie only to disappoint my kids later. I also don't want to disappoint them now, only to have them be the ones to ruin "the magic" for all the kids at their schools. Imagine the phone calls that would come pouring in if Jacob's dad- the Minister- ruined Christmas for everyone...

So, I caved- but just a little.

I said; "I can't tell you what would happen if Santa died, but I can tell you that Mommy and Daddy would make sure you got your Christmas presents. Do you believe that?"

He said, "I know. I was just wondering. Thanks, Dad." And then he hugged me, unprovoked.

Nailed it.

The fact of the matter is, each parent has to negotiate their own traditions with their kids. It wouldn't be helpful to set your child as counter-cultural. They'll have plenty of time to do that in their angst-y  teen years. But here's where I think I have firmer footing: We don't have to always give our children answers. The number one thing that happens when you grow up is learning how few things in life have easy answers. When you're a kid, the world can seem simple. But the older I get, the simple things- like how eating gives you energy- have become extraordinarily complex answers.
Imagination is a good thing and arguably a dying art in our culture.
So I say this: Resist the impulse to give answers to mystery. When your child asks you how Santa can be at every mall at one time, or how reindeer fly, or how Elves survive north-pole winters, or how Santa reaches people who don't have chimneys, ask them to imagine it. I've even heard it said, "Well, how do you imagine it?"

If you have to say something about Santa, why not use the words, "The story goes" or even better "The legend goes" to preface your explanation. Because that's what it is: A Legend. We don't use legends much because our culture demands that we take a harsh stance on the historicity of everything.

The Real St. Nicolas was a wealthy man who felt convicted to give all his money to the poor after reading Jesus say, "sell all of your possessions and give your money to the poor." He was later made a Bishop at a young age, and eventually went on to be a the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where they wrote the Nicene Creed and established a universal church that believed in the trinity and the divinity of Jesus. Because of this council, they were able to have another council in 333, which decided the books of the Bible.

The Legend of St. Nick usually involves a story of a man and his three daughters. The legend says that the man could not afford the dowry for his daughters so that they may get married. Hearing of this tragedy, Nicolas came at night and tossed a purse of gold coins in the window for the first daughter to get married, on the night before she came of age to get married. He returned the night before the second daughter came of age and tossed another purse of gold coins, which landed in the stocking of the daughter that was hanging to dry above the fire place. The father wanted to know who the benefactor was, so he stayed up all night before the third daughter came of age. On that night- the legend goes- Nicolas climbed up on the roof and dropped the coins down the chimney so as to go unseen.

This story is great on so many levels: a minister living up to his vows, daughters who get the life they could not afford, and a parent in distress who is aided by a Saint. Does it have to be true down to the last detail to send the message of near miraculous intervention by one of God's agents?

The reason for the season is to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. The spirit of the season is to spread peace and goodwill to all.

The real St. Nick died on December 6th, 343 AD. His spirit lives on in our imagination.

So my advice regarding jolly old St Nick.

1. Tell children about the real St. Nick.
2. Let their imagination be their guide- not you.
3. Learn to love legends again.

Merry Christmas to All, and to all a Goodnight.