Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Conspiracy of Simplicity

“The story of Christ's birth is a story of promise, hope, and a revolutionary love. So, what happened? What was once a time to celebrate the birth of a savior has somehow turned into a season of stress, traffic jams, and shopping lists. And when it's all over, many of us are left with presents to return, looming debt that will take months to pay off, and this empty feeling of missed purpose. Is this what we really want out of Christmas? What if Christmas became a world-changing event again?”

- From “The Advent Conspiracy

Mark Twain once observed, tongue-in-cheek, that an ethical man is “a Christian holding four aces.” I think I have some understanding of what Twain had in mind when he made that observation. I’ve sat at poker table or two in my lifetime and have some grasp of the machinations of the game. There were many times when bitter experience taught me that the master of the bluff, deception, deceit, and larceny was inevitably the one who went home with other peoples’ money. The emptiness of loss also taught me that, in order to succeed at the game, I had to out bluff the master, deal deception and deceit in spades, and become as ruthless as a cat burglar. Once I mastered those fundamentals I succeeded.

What does this have to do with faith and the Christmas season? A lot, I think.

Christianity was born in simplicity. Jesus was born in the humblest of places, in a stable. It’s true that wise men (the Magi) traveled a great distance to worship him as a king. It’s true that angels proclaimed his birth in song, for those who had ears to hear. It’s true that shepherds came to the stable to honor him. But, it’s also true that most people hardly noticed, or even cared. There were a few, beyond those who did honor him, who had more sinister motives. The powerful, fearing the possibility of their power over the people could be lost, sought to kill him. To that end, they ordered the murder of “Rachel’s children.” It’s recorded that her collective cries could be heard all over the land.

Not much is known about his early years. Some traditions hold that he performed miracles to amuse his pals. What can be gleaned from the New Testament was that he appeared to be a pretty serious minded youngster. Once, when his parents took him to Jerusalem, he stayed in the city when they went home. They found him three days later, sitting with teachers of the law, interpreting the law and answering questions to their utter amazement. When his parents expressed their displeasure at not being able to find him, he told them they should have known he’d be in his Father’s house. His parents didn’t understand what he meant. Few, if any parents, in any age, would.

He left the carpenter’s shop and became an itinerant preacher when he was about thirty years old. He never pastored a mega-church. He never was dependent on a political action committee for support. He didn’t have the luxury of mass media to spread his message. He never resorted to fund raising gimmicks. His hallmarks were compassion, wisdom, and a keen eye for the needy. His ministry and message bore the stamp of simplicity. He spoke of sight for the blind, freedom for the captive soul. He sought the hungry and thirsty. He took up the mantle of service and sacrifice while the wise and powerful of his day sought temporal power and privilege. When he displayed rare flashes of anger it was clear that it was a pure, righteous anger. Toward the end of his earthly life, in Jerusalem, he beat the fire out of the money changers and drove them out of the temple area. “How dare you make my Father’s house a den of thieves,” he roared as the whip came down on the backs of the merchants.

Jesus was clearly different, in a class by himself, and the kingdom he ushered in reflected his nature. The principles of his kingdom were simple, yet foreign to the paradigms of his day and ours as well. It was a topsy-turvy kingdom where up was (is) down and down was (is) up. It was a kingdom where the valley was (is) exalted and the mountain was (is) cut low. It was a kingdom with only one entrance, a gate. Jesus offered no alternate plan. There was a primary plan; there was no secondary or tertiary. In the vernacular of the poker table, Jesus was “all in.” His detractors and enemies thought he was bluffing and asked for a miraculous sign to prove his high sounding words were authoritative. Jesus’ response was to short, right to the point. “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.”

Was Jesus bluffing? Was he nothing more than another of those outrageous hucksters who pass through the portals of history from time to time? Was he just another Zeus or Osiris, a fable meant to amuse us? Or was he what he claimed to be?

I’ll stop there. You probably know the rest of the story anyway.

To be honest, this essay is less about him than it is about us, particularly those of us who claim his lordship in our lives.

I came to faith in Jesus back in the sixties. It was a time when a lot of us were looking for simplicity, peace, and power in our lives. The Christendom of those days reflected that longing. It was all simple. It was enough to love Jesus and to know that he had loved us long before we’d ever loved him. We seemed content to live our lives simply, waiting patiently for the time we’d see him face to face.

Then, something changed. The sixties became the seventies. Disco was in; inflation had gone through the roof. We were needy at first. Then, our wandering desires became needs. It didn’t take much after that to make Jesus the errand boy to satisfy those worldly desires. So, our prayer became, “Jesus, please give me this”…”Jesus, gi’mee this”…”Jesus, gi’mee dat.” To us, it sounded quite righteous. To our fellow players sitting around the table it sounded more like, “I need an ace to match the ones I have”…”Baby needs milk”…”Mama needs a new pair of shoes”…”Daddy needs a new bowling ball.” We’d blurred the line between bluffing and self deception.

Self deception morphed into a lust for power in the eighties. We were alarmed by the state of the world and decided we were going to fix things. We formed concerned citizens’ groups, moral majorities, and such. We’d had enough decadence. We were going to throw the reprobates out of office and start making the rules ourselves. We got ourselves galvanized around causes. We became king makers. The power we felt was intoxicating. Little did we realize that our grasping for the unclean things had made us every bit as corrupt as the lawbreakers we’d de-throned.

By the time the nineties rolled around we were absolutely drunk with power, so much so that we set about creating new visions of God and man. Mega-churches, preaching self realization, sprang from one side of the ecclesiastical wasteland. Para-church organizations were formed, with their roots entwined in lucre, using Jesus as if he were a marketing marionette, to be tugged and pulled at the whim of the organizational gurus. Not to be outdone by what they saw happening, others took to the airwaves, peddling Jesus like he was a shiny new car or Coca Cola. It was “Tell him what you want…he’s legally bound to do what you tell him” here and “Hundala kundala, send more money,” there. Still others sought to emasculate Jesus and enthrone themselves, weaving their spells with mantras like, “seek your inner god and goddess.” The masses bought it and the coffers filled to overflowing.

The page to a new millennium turned, ushering in more of the same. Powerful oratory, exalting self, continued to flow. The messages of a new age for a new man hissed across the airwaves. There were a few who sounded warnings, but their words most often went un-heeded. Dissenters were considered relics of the past whose trumpet calls were to be discarded like garbage at the end of the day. Words like service, sacrifice, and humility began to disappear from the Christian vocabulary. Then, self fulfillment gave way to full blown self worship. The cycle was complete. There was no where else to go. Man, in all his glory, sat on the throne.

This, I believe, is where Christendom in America stands today. It begs the questions. How far have we really come? Or, how deep into the pit of madness have we descended? Have we mastered the bluff so well that we can now discard God? Or, can we, given our fallen state, ever find our way back to the simplicity of the message proclaimed so long ago? – “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

Monday, December 07, 2009


Groucho: "That's in every contract, that's what you call a sanity clause."
Chico: "You can't a fool a me there ain't no sanity clause"
-Groucho and Chico Marx (from “A Night at the Opera”)

Groucho Marx, cited above, was an acknowledged master of the clever one liner. In one that relates close to home here in Emporia, Kansas, he is reported to have once said, “It isn’t necessary to have relatives in Kansas City in order to be unhappy.” Only Groucho could say something like that and make even the relatives in Kansas City laugh.

One of the enduring memories I have of him and his brothers is watching them cavort around in circles, skewering the high and mighty or the all knowing as they did. Even today, the sight of them circling relentlessly around their prey can make me howl with delight. No one did it better.

Somehow, these dream like snippets of Groucho and his brothers this morning got me considering the circular nature to almost everything we do these days. Here in America, for example, we seem to be caught in a vicious circle. We complain that our government has gotten too big and too powerful. We hold tea parties to protest. Then, some politician mentions the possibility of dismantling government programs close to home and the bureaucrats running the programs and the programs’ beneficiaries howl. The politician, seeing his or her re-election chances diminishing, recants and the programs remain in place. Politicians, ever clever, see that their collective fates are inexorably caught up in programs. Hence, they invent more programs and hire more bureaucrats in order to expand their support bases. The programs are codified in law, the people lose more control over their lives, the protests mount, the politicians make half-hearted attempts at putting the proverbial meat cleaver to the programs, the beneficiaries howl once more, the politicians recant, and the programs are kept in force.

A little over eight years ago we were all in an angry frame of mind, and we were right to feel the way we did. We took it out on the Taliban, then Saddam for good measure. But that didn’t seem to be enough. We couldn’t find Osama so we started, rhetorically and politically, slapping each other around. It was a valiant attempt at displacing our anger, but it fell flat. This all brings us to today. We’re angrier today than we were on 9-11.

This pattern of behavior is also called running around in circles. And, the pattern keeps repeating itself, mystically re-energizing when we come back, full circle, to where we began, primed to start the whole process over again. It would be an amusing way to live life if it weren’t so tragic. In fact, the only thing funny about it is the way it makes us looks more like Groucho’s foils than reasonable people.

The pattern has many manifestations, including circling the wagons, talking in circles, or using circular reasoning. We run around in circles, like chickens with their heads cut off. We try to run circles around those who oppose us. We’re so angry we’d fight a circular saw if we could. We circle around like vultures, looking for someone to attack. Some of us get a good laugh at the expense of UFOlogists who interpret the playful stomping out of crop circles in farmers’ fields as extraterrestrial visits

Then, when all is said and done, we try to reconcile it all by squaring the circle.

I think the Marx brothers were right – “there ain’t no sanity clause.” At least not in America these days.

Years ago, while I was attending Ohio State University, I found myself sitting next to limestone lion, taking a break from the boredom of sociology, geology, and the like. It was a cool spring day. The birds were chirping, giving thanks in their way for the beauty of the day. There was a refreshing breeze and the scent of freshly mown grass in their air. Off in the distance I could hear a contingent of R.O.T.C. cadets marching to a familiar cadence. “Hup two, hup four, hup two, three four, your left oh right a left.” I sat there, taking in the nature’s sights and sounds and the odd counterpoint of the martial rhythms over at the parade grounds. Then, a young voice broke through the rhythms. “Mind if I sit here?” “No, be my guest,” I responded without looking. I went on musing, not saying anything. A few minutes passed and his voice once again broke through the rhythms. “Marx was right!” he announced proudly. He’d gotten my attention. I looked over at him. He was young, under twenty-five for sure. He was unkempt, dressed in tattered jeans and what appeared to be a tan mohair winter coat. The coat looked like something I’d seen once in a Brooks Brothers advertisement. The most striking thing about the coat, however, wasn’t what it might have once cost. It had what appeared to be mechanic’s grease slathered strategically like barbeque sauce on a pulled pork sandwich from top to bottom and front to back. The greasy coat and the introductory statement made it pretty clear to me. This young man was anti-establishment. I gathered my thoughts. “Which one?” I asked.
“Which one what?” he responded.
“Which Marx?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Was it Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, or Harpo?”
The deadpan in his voice told me that he was quite peeved. I built up a bit more courage and followed up. “What was he right about?”
“You know…religion is the opiate of the masses.”
“What does that mean?”
You know, man. Religion is…Like it’s the…opiate of the masses.”
It was time to leave. My parting words of advice to the young man were, “Fella, you’d better be careful. You’re liable to bite your butt off chasin’ yourself around in circles like that.”

I think about that young man occasionally when I hear this generation’s outhouse lawyers accuse us Christians of circular thinking or believing fables when we use the ontological argument for the existence of God or dream about pie in the sky.

I find it all quite amusing, watching scientists, politicians, the wise men of our day and their faithful flocks use sleight of hand or gambler’s logic as they thrash around in the dark. It’s been said that if you have an infinite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters that one of them is bound to write King Lear. The base operating assumption today is that there is no God. It’s just chance, extraterrestrials or politicians fiddling with the dials. As that young man might have put it if he could today: “You know man…it had to be extraterrestrials…I mean…Where did all those crop circles come from?” “And there’s an infinite number of planets out there…need I say any more?” “And you know that Barack Obama and the Democrats are going to fulfill every wandering desire we have.” And, if they don’t we’ll elect the Republicans and they will.”

Who am I to refute such impeccable logic? I think it’s best that I just keep playing the fool. I’ll maintain my little circle of friends and watch the rest of the world running around in circles of their own making. I’ll keep pinning my hopes on the satisfaction faith brings today and the glory of the promised world to come that will one day be revealed to those who wait patiently its coming. The ancients called it the “consolation of Israel.” They named it well. In this world of crazy circles spinning out of control I find great comfort in knowing there’s a place being built for us beyond the blue where the circle of love, life, and fellowship will be forever unbroken.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Johnny Verbeck's Machine

A few days ago, during one of those moments pregnant with hope on one hand and cynicism/anxiety on the other, the words to an old campfire tune came to mind. The song was about a man named Johnny Verbeck, a butcher by trade, who had invented a very special sausage making machine. The refrain went something like this:

“Oh, Mr. Johnny Verbeck, how could you be so mean?
I told you you’d be sorry for inventin’ that machine
Now all the neighbors’ cats and dogs will never more be seen
They’ll all be ground to sausages in Johnny Verbeck’s machine.”

Here in Emporia and the rest of America it’s the season of hope. Or, put more appropriately, it’s supposed to be the season of hope. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the mood in America right now. Cynicism and anxiety seem to be the prevailing realities. I think we may be suffering from Johnny Verbeck syndrome. We have a nagging sense that we’re being ground to sausages in some machine not of our own making. I think we want to escape its clutches, but it seems to cast some Svengali-like spell over us. We feel, simultaneously, terrorized, mesmerized, and hypnotized.

I read a report from Reuters this morning that we Americans no longer live in the world’s biggest houses. The Australians have overtaken us, by two hundred square feet per house. I’m not sure why Reuters reported the sad statistics. Was it to demonstrate that we Americans are losing our grip on the world? That things are bad and getting worse? If so, what should we do about it? Declare war on Australia, perhaps? Could it be that this is just another of those small gears in Johnny Verbeck’s machine?

A while back the Chinese shipped tainted baby formula to this country, about the same time AIG and the other big banks were on the verge of collapse. Two administrations fired shots at the Chinese across the diplomatic bow. One of the Chinese executives involved in the scandal committed suicide and two were recently executed. The AIG and bank executives got billions in taxpayer money and handsome bonuses to boot. It looks a lot like Johnny Verbeck’s machine to me.

The President recently criticized the Chinese for unfair trade practices and using monetary policy to keep the value of their currency artificially low. Here in America the Federal Reserve is furiously printing money, then giving it away while our politicians slap tariffs on goods shipped from China. The Chinese are awash in money and getting flusher by the day. America, the bastion of free markets and worldly wealth, seems to be sinking under the weight of debt and creeping protectionism, all being ground out like sausage in that infernal machine. Those who seem to know are telling us that within a generation we may owe more than we can produce or pay for.

I skipped the President’s address last night. This morning I read the transcript and the media reports. I can’t for the life of me figure it out. Are we sending our sons and daughters to win or to fight to a draw? And, where’s Hamid Karzai going to be in eighteen months? In Vienna, sipping coffee and munching on apple strudel, with millions of U.S. foreign aid dollars to spend? In the Congress some are proposing a war tax to pay for the billions needed for this surge. Does that mean the families sending their loved one’s into harm’s way may have to pay for the privilege of offering up the husbands, wives, children, and loved ones? Is that the price they must pay for their loyalty, honor, and patriotism? Are they the ones who might well wind up in the teeth of Johnny Verbeck’s machine?

My principle reason for skipping the President’s speech was to go downtown and watch the Christmas parade (or the Seasonal parade if that’s your pleasure). It seemed to be an appropriate diversion in the light of world events and Emporia’s annual debate about whether we should have a “seasonal” or a “Christmas” celebration.” I left my house hoping that in an hour or so downtown I could find someplace in America where Johnny Verbeck’s machine wasn’t going full bore. I got back home a bit after eight, tired and disappointed. The procession started pleasantly enough, with marching bands, kids on floats waving to the spectators, fire trucks festooned with Christmas lights, and old veterans still strutting their stuff, albeit occasionally out of step. Then, Johnny Verbeck seemed to take over. There was a long string of commercial floats hawking cookers, replacement windows, lawn services, and so forth, followed by politicians pressing the flesh. The subliminal messages seemed to be either the right vote or the right purchase would bring Christmas its true meaning. The piece de resistance was a small group of marchers under a hand written banner reading “ABATE,” the acronym for an organization called “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.” As soon as I saw that I sensed someone had put the last dog or cat in the sausage machine. I felt helpless against the tides of the times. It was time to go home.

My wife and I have frequent discussions about how to counter-balance all of this. Lately we’ve been reading the work of C.S. Lewis and talking about a sense of longing; the type of longing that doesn’t attach itself to some past joy in life, nor is it contingent on some worldly bauble. It’s a longing for something we haven’t seen yet, the place where moth and rust don’t corrupt.

A couple of thousand years ago, Johnny Verbeck’s machine was going full tilt in the once magnificent kingdom of Israel. Hope was in short supply. The price of temple sacrifices was skyrocketing. The glory of the Babylonian empire, one of Israel’s early conquerors, had long since faded. Alexander the Great, who was purported to have wept because “there were no more worlds to conquer,” was only a memory, as was the empire he established. Rome now ruled the world with an iron fist. People, quite naturally, felt oppressed. The voices of Israel’s prophets and sages had been silent for three hundred years. Then, a child was born. Some believed he was the fulfillment of a Divine promise. Others scoffed at the idea, as many do today. Some just went about their business. A few, in high places, felt threatened enough to attempt to kill him. He grew up in relative obscurity. He never owned much, other than his robe, which Roman soldiers cast lots for as they watched him die. He once told his followers, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”

There’s not much need to go into great detail now. You know the story – wonderful sermons, profound stories, miracles, misunderstandings about the nature of his kingdom, a criminal’s death, followed by a resurrection. It was a life offered up as proof that the wonderful “treasures laid up somewhere beyond the blue” were far more than wisps and figments of overactive imaginations.

The older I get the more I sense that longing for the things I haven’t seen yet, the things promised and embodied by this one Man. I know they’re there and I know they’re good. I also know that in the current national climate my sense of hope and what/who it rests on must seem quite foolish to those who prefer the pleasure of being ground to pieces. And, that’s alright; we’re all free moral agents. I’ll continue in my foolishness; they can continue in their “superior wisdom”

I guess this brings it all full circle. I’m not going to spend my time this year looking for a forty six inch flat screen or some political messiah in the manger to replace baby Jesus. I want to find myself focusing on what the scoffers call pie in the sky. That probably makes me more a dreamer than a realist, again grist for the scoffer’s mill. I have no clever defense. I’m guilty on both counts. Once again, that’s alright. I’m at a place in life where I far prefer pie in the sky over Johnny Verbeck’s machine.