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The Call of Christmas

Christmas is just a few days away and for people like me, the race is on to find those last-minute gifts on Amazon and pray that they will arrive on time. I do this every year; I think, “Oh I have plenty of time”, and then the looming specter of Christmas appears and I’m thrown into a panic. I’ve never been particularly crazy about the Christmas season, especially as it is celebrated in American culture. It’s just too stressful. There is so much pressure to have good cheer and to be obnoxiously joyful despite whatever reality you may be dealing with, and to pick the perfect present so your family and friends know how much you love them. It feels fundamentally inauthentic to me and so I get grumpy and cynical. It’s tradition.

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than the swirl of consumerism surrounding the entire season of Christmas. I know that everything that can ever be said about the destructive relationship between Christmas and money has already been said, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think it’s an important conversation for us to be having, particularly in light of a 2016 that has been, in a word or two, a nightmarish dumpster fire. Just this week we’ve seen atrocity and horror in the city of Aleppo, the assassination of a Russian diplomat, continued nonsense and dangerous rhetoric from the President-elect, and a string of violent attacks across Europe. And that’s just the stuff that’s made the news. So, as I anticipate the celebration of Christ’s coming into this broken world, I’m wondering, what is our response? Are we to ring in the arrival of salvation, personified in the vulnerability of a child, with debauched and wanton expenditure, and the monetization of our dearest relationships? Or is there another way?

My first semester at seminary came to a close last week, and I found myself, for the first time in months, able to read a book of my own choosing. I decided to reread Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, which might not be the kind of escape I was initially looking for, but which nevertheless brings me joy. In the early part of the book Tillich describes three primary types of anxiety and the corresponding periods in history when each type was dominant (to be clear Tillich’s view of history and the corresponding anxieties are reflections primarily through a Western lens): the anxiety of fate and death and its expression at the end of ancient civilization, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation predominant in the middle ages, and our modern expression of the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness. As I read Tillich’s description I wondered if this was still the true expression of anxiety for our time. Is it a fundamentally spiritual anxiety that we see infecting our politics, economics, and relationships? The pull towards nationalism and fundamentalism on a national scale seems to confirm this, and Tillich’s words seem to describe so much of our political landscape:

“The anxiety of emptiness is aroused by the threat of nonbeing to the special contents of the spiritual life. A belief breaks down through external events or inner processes: one is cut off from creative participation in a sphere of culture, one feels frustrated about something which one had passionately affirmed, one is driven from devotion to one object to devotion to another and again on to another, because the meaning of each of them vanishes and the creative eros is transformed into indifference…

…Then man [sic] tries another way out…he tries to break out of this situation, to identify with something transindividual, to surrender his separation and self-relatedness. He flees from his freedom of asking and answering for himself to a situation in which no further questions can be asked and the answers to previous questions are imposed on him authoritatively” 1.

Tillich’s assessment seems to me all too familiar as I consider the rise of the radical right, the proliferation of “fake news”, and the general defensiveness on all sides of political, religious, and cultural ideologies. The authoritative imposition of meaning on individuals seems to me to be a phenomenon encountered on both sides of our political and religious discussions, and I have myself felt the anxiety associated with this desire to have questions answered in a way that supports my particular community. This desire to combat the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness drives so much of our interactions as citizens, family members, and consumers. And, it is this final category where I believe our battle with emptiness comes into direct and powerful authoritarian conflict with our spiritual lives, and with our “celebration” of Christmas in particular.

In Tillich’s estimation, people who have had beliefs breakdown or worldviews blown apart are driven to devotion after devotion as the objects of their devotion inevitably prove to be lacking. However, it seems that the power of consumer culture and the idol of wealth is that where other objects of devotion seem to have limits or boundaries, our devotion to wealth and consumption simply draws us in deeper and deeper by offering more, ever more. We don’t seem to hit that wall wherein we experience the true emptiness of wealth and consumption because we have been convinced that there is no such wall. There is always more to be had, more to buy, more to accumulate. It’s a kind of fail-safe in the economic system; if you don’t feel fulfilled than just keep consuming more.

Not only that, but our economic system and the producers of goods actively facilitate the kind of anxiety we are discussing so that a solution can be sold to compensate. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Being Consumed, says:

“This is more than just a continuing attempt to make a product better; it is what the General Motors people called ‘the organized creation of dissatisfaction.’ How can we be content with a mere two blades when the current standard is five? How can we be content with an iPod that downloads two hundred songs when someone else has one that downloads a thousand? The economy as it is currently structured would grind to a halt if we ever looked at our stuff and simply declared, ‘It is enough, I am happy with what I have.’’ 2

The anxiety of emptiness has become a tool of marketers and producers and is used against us as a way of propping up a fundamentally empty idol. And yet, it is this idol that we lift especially high as we celebrate the coming of Christ into the world. Let me be clear, I am in no way criticizing our desire to give good gifts to our friends and family. I am not suggesting that we all renounce wealth and material goods. I am simply asking that we examine the cognitive dissonance between commemorating the birth of Jesus (who spoke far more about the dangers of wealth and unjust economics than he did any other topic) with devotion to the principles of consumption. I think we may be missing the point. We consume at astronomical levels to honor the Christ who said, “…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” This is something I simply cannot reconcile, and yet I do this very thing every single year. I stress and agonize over what gifts to get for family and friends, making up arbitrary dollar amounts in my head that, somehow, are supposed to accurately convey my feelings of love and affection. I spend money that, frankly, I don’t have because I would be ashamed to say I can’t afford that. I day-dream about the gifts I might get from others, and feel disappointment if I do not receive what I expected. I contribute to an inequitable and immoral economic system that targets particular communities, and makes silent the voices of the oppressed. And yet, in the midst of this I sit in the pew and sing praises to the Christ who has been born in a manger, and who’s life and call will challenge me to a radical reexamination of my world and my place in it. For the love of God, there must be a better way.

I have been watching coverage of the siege of Aleppo and wondering what it means for me to be a Christian, at Christmas, in this particular time in history. Is there, perhaps, some greater responsibility calling out to us from the story of the Nativity, the flight to Egypt (this story should give us all shivers right about now), and the slaughter of the innocents? Can I celebrate Christmas in the way I always have if I am aware of the incomprehensible suffering of the Syrian people, or the suffering of those neighbors nearest to me? After all, what is it that I am celebrating? Christmas is not a birthday party. Christmas is the declaration that hope has entered a broken and frightening world in the person of Jesus. That “…a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christmas invites us to participate in the saving work of God, as the hands and feet of the very Christ we celebrate. This invitation is to serve, and to serve those among us who need it most. This requires generosity, but unlike the false generosity of consumption and wealth, the generosity exemplified by Christ is sacrificial and self-emptying. This generosity seeks justice and is generally unconcerned with our own comfort. This generosity is hard, but it is what we are called to do.

This is what Martin Luther spoke of in his famous Christmas sermon on the Nativity:

“There are many who are enkindled with dreamy devotion, when they hear of such poverty of Christ, are almost angry with the citizens of Bethlehem…and think, if they had been there, they would have shown the Lord and his mother a more becoming service, and would not have permitted them to be treated so miserably. But they do not look by their side to see how many of their fellow men need their help, and which they let go on in their misery unaided…Why does he [sic] not exercise his love to those? Why does he not do to them as Christ has done to him? It is altogether false to think that you have done much for Christ, if you do nothing for those needy ones.”

Ouch. So, as we gather with our family and friends this Christmas, and as we sit in the pews on Christmas morning, consider the ways in which you might declare the hope of Christ in the world. How does our celebration of the birth of Christ inspire us to embody that hope in our own lives? Can we take a break from our culturally-crafted-consumer-Christmas and consider instead where it is that hope and light are needed? How can we engage a world as people emboldened by the compassion, mercy, simplicity, and justice of Christ? I think that if we begin to reframe the ways in which we celebrate and remember Christmas, we may find that the anxiety and fear that pushes us ever deeper into the idolatry of wealth and consumption begins to fade, and that we discover instead the true implications of the Christmas story; hope, generosity, love, and justice.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have presents to wrap…

Merry Christmas.

 


1.Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1952. Print.

2.Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2008. Print.

3.Luther, Martin. Sermons Of Martin Luther The. Ada, MI: Baker Group, 2000. Print.

Aleppo

Aleppo and the Absence of God

I woke this morning to news that pro-Assad forces were leading an assault on the city of Aleppo in Syria, in the hope of wresting control away from rebel forces who have held part of the city for nearly four years. There were reports of civilians, including children, being murdered in the streets and widespread brutality and carnage. NPR reported that there may be as many as 100,000 people still in the devastated city. And across social media, citizens who remained in Aleppo filmed farewells, unsure if they would ever make it out of the city alive. The UN has been unable to act to evacuate survivors because of Russian dissent, and the unwillingness of Western governments to commit troops to the effort, though it seems that a few hours ago, (as of this writing) a tentative cease fire was reached, and a plan for the evacuation of civilians from the remaining rebel-held areas was called for. I am praying that those people remaining will be safely evacuated, and that most of those farewell videos won’t be necessary.

As I watched video from Aleppo, and listened to the reporting on the ground, I was struck suddenly with an image of Jericho, that story in Joshua of the Israelite’s “victory” and the subsequent slaughter of all the city’s inhabitants. It seems to me that the narrative in Joshua, and the description of the toppled city walls, must have looked something similar to present day Aleppo in the minds of the authors. From Joshua:

“On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city…” … As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.”

I heard this story told as one of triumph when I was a child. I was instructed to look at the miraculous victory God had provided for the Israelites. I don’t remember reflecting too much on the divinely sanctioned genocide that follows the tumbling of the walls, but such is the way these stories are told. But, this is the story that suddenly jumped into my mind as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning. I imagined the fear of the citizens of Jericho; that their families outside the walls might never see them again, that they may not make it through the day. I thought of the shock and terror a parent must feel at the sight of their murdered child. Suddenly, this story felt monumentally different, because I was now confronted with the real horror of the story in the images from Aleppo. But, there is no message about a benevolent God taking sides in Aleppo. There is no meaning to be plucked from the very real apocalypse being faced by the Syrian people. There is only abundant and continuous violence.

At a staff meeting this morning at the congregation where I work, we reflected on the Christmas story, and on the name Immanuel; God is with us. We were asked to consider what these words mean for us. God is with us. All I could think about was Aleppo, and the Syrian people. I thought, “I have no idea what meaning these words have for me in a world where that level of violence can take place”. I considered all the answers that I was supposed to give. God is with us when we care for our neighbor. Or, God is with us when we forgive someone. Or even, God is with us in the midst of tragedy. But, I couldn’t bring myself to say any of those. They felt wholly inadequate. They felt like lies. I’m not attempting to get into some kind of “problem of evil” conversation. For me the problem of evil belongs to humanity, not to God. What I was troubled by was the language of God is with us, when the world just simply doesn’t seem to allow for that.

I’ve mentioned before that in the season of Advent there is a tacit admission that the world is not right as it is. If it were, we wouldn’t await the arrival of a savior with such fervor and anticipation. A savior simply wouldn’t be necessary. Our world is hurting, and as such we await the coming of Christ, trusting in the hope of a future world of possibility. But that waiting isn’t necessarily going to be joyful. Not only that, but as we wait for Immanuel, for God is with us, we may actually feel instead the utter absence of God. The abandonment of God. The Bible is loaded with language for this feeling of lack. The Psalmist cries out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever?”. And in Habakkuk, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?”. Even Christ on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. There is a fear among Christians to admit that often in our lives we are feeling abandoned by God, and that we experience a world that routinely reflects the seeming absence of meaning of any kind.

This is the absence I felt as I watched the coverage from Aleppo this morning, the modern-day Jericho. I cannot imagine the absence the people of Syria are collectively feeling as the fighting continues, and more and more people are killed or displaced. Not only that, but so many refugees face rejection and persecution in those places that are meant to provide sanctuary. The U.S. has been locked in a political battle for years about whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into the country, based on some irrational fear that we will inadvertently smuggle in terrorists along with them. Are the Syrians supposed to express some kind of feeling that God is with them in the midst of all this suffering? Are we, from a distance, truly comfortable professing that God is present despite the reality on the ground? What might happen if we allowed ourselves during this season of Advent to experience that feeling of absence, of abandonment. What if we forgo our need to avoid the troubling theological implications of suffering, oppression, and injustice? What if, rather than quickly reminding everyone that things will be OK once Christ appears, we put on ash and sackcloth and cry out “Where are you God?!”.

We are living in a frightening world, and in some ways this season of Advent is perfectly timed. The world is broken, as it has always been, and we need saving. We await the coming of Christ, not as some magical repairman, but as a vision for the future world of possibility that we hope for. We remind ourselves that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30). This is our hope, but our hope must not suppress our true feelings of absence and abandonment, but must spring from them. This absence may also remind us that the world’s brokenness does not mend with our inaction and our silence. We can lament God’s distance while bringing ourselves ever nearer to our neighbor, and the victims of violence and oppression. We can cry out “How long, O Lord?”, while creating safe spaces and sanctuary for those who have been displaced here and now. Let us offer comfort and safety, to the best of our ability, if it seems that God is not, and in this way, we may get a glimpse of the hope we are waiting so desperately for.