Friday, December 20, 2013

Room at the Manger

"Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." (Matthew 2:2)


starSo in case you were wondering, an astrophysicist at Notre Dame University is pretty sure he can tell you what the star that Matthew says announced Jesus’ birth to the Magi really was.
     After years of consulting NASA databases to look for supernovas, novas, comets, planetary alignments, and other astronomical events that seem to have occurred between 8 and 4 BC, Grant Matthews is pretty sure that he knows what the “star” was. It wasn’t actually a star at all, he says, but an alignment of the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon in the constellation Aries. 
     If you accept the assumption that the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers from what is now Iran, Matthews says, then they would have believed that the alignment of the planets in Aries was a sign that a powerful leader had been born. "In fact it would have even meant that he was destined to die at an appointed time,” Matthews explains, “which…may have been why they brought myrrh, which was an embalming fluid.” 
     Matthews can even tell you the date of the event: April 17th, 6 BC. 
     What, you were really expecting December 25th?
     Based on my extensive knowledge of astrophysics – I can spell the word without using my spell checker – Grant Matthews’ observations sound pretty valid. He’s done his research, that much is certain. I like that he seems to be operating from a perspective of faith and taking the Gospel accounts seriously as history. And I like the bit about the Zoroastrian beliefs and how they connect to the story of Jesus. I have to admit, I was interested to read about Matthews’ work. But I came away with a couple of questions.
     The first is this: If Matthews had found no record of any astronomical phenomena that had occurred within the correct time window, what would have his conclusion been? That’s the double edge of reading the Bible with a scientific eye. Sure, it’s cool when the science supports the text, as it does in this case. But what do you do when it doesn’t? Do you dismiss the text, or do you recognize the limits of human understanding?
     And the other question I have is related to the first one, though maybe even more relevant. As I said, I was interested in Matthews’ research. Still, after reading it the question came unbidden into my mind. 
     So what?
     Oh, don’t get me wrong, I have no quarrel with Dr. Matthews. He’s a man of intellect and faith who as far as I know has more of either than I ever will. So when I ask “So what?” I’m not disparaging his work. Maybe it’s just me, but when I read the Gospel of Matthew my first thought isn’t to wonder what that star really was. It’s to wonder at the power of God to set such a sign in the heavens in the first place. And it’s to wonder at the event that it signified, and at the love and grace in the gift.
     Maybe it’s because I’m not a scientist, but I’m less interested in the nature of the astronomical phenomena in the skies over Bethlehem that night, and more interested in the person to whom the star pointed. Come to think of it, though, the wise men don’t seem to have been that interested either in whether the “star” was a comet or a planetary alignment or a supernova or actually a star that wasn’t there the night before. Matthew doesn’t tell us that they holed up in a lab or observatory to debate the nature of the event. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” What that star was didn’t seem to matter to them nearly as much as their response to it. 
     The same, I think, is true for us. Again, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong about Dr. Matthews’ work. It’s interesting and fun (for a theoretical astrophysicist, anyway) and ought to make a good paper. Surely Dr. Matthews won’t make the mistake of getting so wrapped up in data about the precise nature of the event that he forgets the meaning of it, or what his response to it should be. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Surely in this age of computerized databases and scientific breakthrough there’s still room at the manger for people who know when to leave their scientific instruments and come to worship.
     We can’t forget that we’re talking about a story in which a virgin gives birth to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit in order to deliver people from the power of sin and death. We can’t forget that the chief player in all this is the God who created the stars. Is it so difficult to believe that the God of creation who incarnated his very nature in a baby carried by a young virgin couldn’t have put anything he wanted – comet, supernova, or star – in an empty corner of space to direct people of faith who wanted to come and worship in the place where it was all happening? Listen to Matthew again: 
     “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:9-11)

     In the end, at least for me, it comes down to this: Dr. Matthews’ research doesn’t fill me with joy or make me want to worship and open my treasures in tribute to Jesus. As interesting as it may be, it seems to me to be ultimately very much beside the point. Even a distraction. The wise men didn’t come to explain the star, but to worship the Lord. That should be our order of priorities as well, I think.
     So no thanks. I don’t think I want to explain the star that shone in the sky over Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Instead I’d rather just follow its lead and bow before the Lord who made the stars, lying in his manger. 
     There are some things that don’t need explanation. 

Friday, December 13, 2013


He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
-Luke 1:51-53

You might have seen the story this week of the North Texas teenager who avoided jail because his family is wealthy.
     That accusation is made pretty much anytime someone of means avoids punishment for a crime. Usually, you can’t tell for sure that it’s true. In this case, you can say it unequivocally: he got off because his family is rich.
     That was part of the defense, after all.
     The teen’s defense attorney argued that his client is the victim of a psychological disturbance called “affluenza.” According to his attorney and a psychologist called to the stand as an expert witness, the young man was incapable of taking responsibility for or understanding the consequences of his actions because he grew up in a privileged, entitled environment where he got whatever he wanted and his bad behavior was cushioned by his parents’ wealth. 
     His bad behavior, in this case, being the theft of two cases of beer, driving with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit (with seven passengers in his pickup) and, finally, slamming into and killed four pedestrians.
     “Affluenza” is not a recognized disease, disorder, or syndrome. It’s a term coined to explain the way children from affluent families sometimes act, but it’s not intended to justify their behavior (or to be used as a defense in a criminal trial). In short, it’s just a slightly nicer way of saying “spoiled brat.” But, based on his defense, the judge sentenced him to 10 years probation and a $450,000 rehab center in California. 
    I wouldn’t want to have to, well, defend that defense. I certainly don’t think that a person’s wealth should make him less responsible for a crime, any more than I think a person’s poverty should excuse him. It feels like a wrist slap, based on the fact that the poor child is, well, rich. “Since he’s wealthy, he doesn’t know any better,” is the message the disposition of the case seems to send.
     There are explanations, and then there are justifications. The teen’s wealth, in this case, seems to fit solidly in the first category. It might partially serve to explain why he acted as he did, with no regard as to how his actions affected others, but it doesn’t justify it.
     That said, I do think affluenza is a real thing. 
     When I use my relative wealth to build a nice little cocoon around me and my family that leaves no room for helping the poor, I may have affluenza.
     When I resent how immigrants move into “our” country and take “our” jobs, I may have affluenza.
     When I feel frustration over the way kids from “bad” neighborhoods in my city get some degree of preference over kids from “good” neighborhoods for seats in the best high schools, that may be a symptom of affluenza. 
     When I turn up my nose at the way someone is dressed on Sunday in my church, I may be suffering from affluenza.
     When I feel just ever-so-slightly superior to someone who has a menial job, or who’s chronically unemployed, it suggests a diagnosis of affluenza.
     When I explain away my unwillingness to help the poor, justifying myself with judgment on their motives or character, I may be dealing with a bad case of affluenza. 
     And when I preoccupy myself with increasing my holdings, upgrading my portfolio, and acquiring the latest and greatest of everything, it may be because affluenza has taken over my system.
     Ironically, at this time of year affluenza seems to peak as an epidemic. Retailers depend on the fact that their customers, and those for whom they’re buying, have galloping cases that have progressed to the point where shoppers would rather go deeply into debt than skimp on presents. This time of year brings the acquisitiveness and materialism that are the symptoms of affluenza into stark relief with what we know Christmas should be about, the one it should be about. 
     The Magi, the Wise Men, came to Bethlehem with gifts. Reminds us of us, doesn’t it, stuffing the SUV full of kids and presents and heading to Grandma’s? But, before the Magi, the shepherds, before the angels singing and the manger and no room in the house for the tired young, expectant mother and her husband, that girl sang a song. Better to call it a prophecy. She talked about the meaning of the baby growing in her womb in terms of power and weakness, privilege and humility, wealth and poverty. “(God) has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble,” she said. “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
     From the beginning, almost from the moment the angel told Mary what part she would play in God’s great work of redemption, she knew that it was about reversal. From the beginning, Christmas has been about God upsetting the social order, lifting up the marginalized and bringing down the movers and shakers of the world. He didn’t call it Christmas, of course; that was our idea, centuries later. The trees, the decorations, Santa Claus, the feasts and the gifts - that was all us. Mary knew what it was: it was reversal. Redemption. It was God forgiving the sins of his people and then raising them from their humble condition to take the places of wealth and power held by those who oppressed them and failed to obey him.
     The problem, of course, is for those of us afflicted with affluenza. Mary figured out what the disease is. It’s about power. Security. Who’s in charge. And when you’re in charge for any length of time, even if you’re a Christian in name, you have to watch out for the signs of affluenza: the lack of compassion for the poor, the anxiety that someone might take away what I’ve earned, and the erosion of trust in God’s goodness and mercy that trust in wealth and power - at least buying power - brings. 
     The good news is that there’s a treatment path, a way to beat affluenza.
     One word: Give.
     Give sacrificially. Give radically. Give indiscriminately. Give to your friends and family, but also give to those you don’t know and even those you don’t like. Give without a thought as to what you’ll get in return. Give of your money, your time, your prayer, your store of emotional energy. 
     The only way to stop affluenza, once and for all, is to take part with those for whom God cares in particular: the humble, the poor, the marginalized. To align ourselves with those whom his Son came to serve. And no better way to align ourselves with them than to take their burdens as our own and to see our wealth as ordained by God to help them.

     So watch out for the signs of affluenza this holiday season. And remember to inoculate yourself by giving.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Extra Gifts

    “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
    “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!
-Matthew 7:7-11 (NIV)

My grandfather remarried after my grandmother died, so I had the rather unusual experience of having a step-grandmother. (How many people can actually say they were a groomsman at their grandfather’s wedding?) Though it took some adjustment, we were happy that he remarried; he would have been lonely had he not. And had he not, I wouldn’t have one of my favorite memories of my him.
    On birthdays and at Christmas, my grandfather and his wife, Mary, usually gave my sister and me money. Not knowing what to get two hard-to-please teenagers, they would write out checks and tuck them into cards so we could buy what we really wanted. Mom coached us, of course; we were to read the cards and comment on them before going right to the checks, and most of the time I think we managed to do that. But, sooner or later, we’d put the checks in a pocket or whatever and go on to the next gift. Then we’d wait for the rest of the gift.
    I don’t know about my sister, but I really did come to expect it. It usually happened in the garage. Granddaddy would motion for me to walk him out through the garage. (Come to think of it, it seems like it was usually just me. I imagine he handled the rest of my sister’s gift some other way.) Anyway, de’d hang back a little, on some pretense, and let Mary get a little farther ahead. As soon as she’d get out the door, while my grandfather and I were still in the garage, he’d stop and put a hand on my shoulder. The other hand would go to his pocket.
    “Here,” he’d say as he handed me the folded cash. “You don’t have to say anything to Mary about this.”
    I always liked that line, “You don’t have to say anything to Mary about this.” Made it seem more conspiratorial, more cloak-and-dagger. But, see, Mary had grandchildren of her own. To her, they were dividing their gift-giving between four kids. I appreciate the fact that she considered us her grandchildren, too, in some way, though I imagine she did a little extra for her biological grandkids, too. Certainly, to Granddaddy Hoyt, there weren’t four grandchildren. There were only two. Hence the extra cash when Mary wasn’t looking. (I wonder if she ever found out.)
    Granddaddy’s been gone for sixteen years now. It’s been twenty-five years, I guess, since we played a scene like that. Yet the memory’s still vivid, almost like it happened yesterday. It’s one of my favorite memories, because it tells me how much he loved me. It wasn’t the money; the original checks were always generous. It’s the fact that one gift couldn’t express how he felt about my sister and me.
    There no doubt have been times in your life when God seemed silent and the doors to Heaven barred. You’ve probably had the experience of praying and hearing only your own voice. You will probably have the same experience again. If you’ve lived this life for any length of time at all, you have likely felt that God was very far away. Maybe you’ve even doubted that he’s there at all.
    If so, then Jesus has a word or two for you. “Keep asking,” he says. “Keep looking. If you ask, you’ll receive, and if you look, you’ll find. If you pound on the gates of Heaven, soon enough someone will hear and come to see what all the commotion’s about.”
    And that can be encouraging in itself. But what about the times when you can’t ask, seek, and knock indefinitely? What about the times when you only have enough strength for one hoarse plea, or one feeble tap? What about the times when your faith won’t survive a prolonged search?
    For those times, Jesus turns to his favorite image for God - Father. Fathers (and grandfathers) know how to give to their children. A father doesn’t hand his daughter a live rattlesnake when what she wants is a frozen fish stick. He doesn’t give his son a lump of limestone when he needs a couple of slices of Wonder bread and some peanut butter. Even human parents know how to give to their children.
    “How much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.”
    The God we call Father through Jesus is a God who loves to bless his children. You don’t have to convince him. You don’t have to prove anything to him. If you ask for something that’s good for you, your Father in heaven will happily give it. If you ask for something that’s bad for you, he will give you what’s better. I know, it doesn’t always seem that way, but what parent gives a child everything they want, right when they want it? Look back over your life when you get to the end. You won’t find a time when God wasn’t aching to be generous to you.
    He’s given us all so many blessings. And just when it seems that he’s finished giving, he reaches into a pocket and pulls out something more. He could have stopped with life, but he’s given you family and friends. He could have stopped with a meal for today, but he’s given you choices and quantities most of the world never sees. He could have stopped with shelter, but he’s given you luxury. He could have stopped with a job, but he’s given you a career.
    He could have stopped with his word, but he sent the Word made flesh.
    He could have stopped with a law, but he gave you a cross. He could have stopped with a cross, but he gave you an empty tomb. He could have stopped with salvation, but he gave you the church. He could have left you with his promise, but he sealed it with his Spirit.
    That is the God you serve. That is how much he loves you. Will you remember that? Will you be reassured today of his love for you and of his desire to bless you, in spite of what life’s random ugliness might tell you? And will you live your life in gratitude, always looking for the gift he’s holding out to you and always thankful for the ones you’ve already stashed away?
    The gifts tell you he loves you. His generosity reminds you how much.