Friday, December 21, 2012

Hoping for the End of the World

Artistic depiction of what didn't happen today.
If you have a Facebook account and you've checked it today, you will have discovered two things:  the world was supposed to end today, and people are somewhat disappointed it didn't.  While this disappointment might be our sarcastic, sophisticated 21st century way of mocking a primitive 16th century prediction, there is some peculiarity with how fascinated we are with the end of the world.  Whether it cometh in fire, in water, in zombie plague, in earthquake, in nuclear annihilation, in financial collapse, or in alien invasion, we are fascinated by a topic which should absolutely terrify us:  our own demise.  Our hearts are shattered when we hear of a shooting in a school or a mall, but we are absolutely fascinated, perhaps even thrilled, by the prospect of the collapse of human civilization.  Why?

We want the world to end, not because we crave the death of our neighbors, or because we want to watch the world burn necessarily, but because the destruction of the world is so very very real.  Humans build things of every shape and sort.  We build structures and institutions, we build cultures and civilizations, we build ideologies and philosophies, all for what?  Humans are the only species that, when faced with adversity in nature, do not adapt, but adapt nature, even to the extent of absolutely eliminating the natural setting completely in some cases.  We're a creative species, but somewhere deep within we know it does not last.  We look back on our history as a species and see decrepit ruins, temples which have crumbled and palaces which are no more than excavation sites, and we realize a very cold and real fact:  None of it lasts.  The reality of our creations is the same as the reality of their creators, that all of it will inevitably fall some day.  New York City, like ancient Rome or Greece, will be ruins, and everyone who ever built her will someday be dead.  It may not be the most pleasant of thoughts, but its certainly real.

We go about day to day living in our created world.  We drink coffee in a Starbucks, both of which are human creations.  We drive cars on highways, also both created.  We work in jobs making money (created things, both of them), we struggle to receives wealth and power (both ideas we invented).  Everywhere we turn, we see a world crafted entirely of human hands, and a creeping worm of an idea in the back of our mind reminds us that, like the hands which created it, this world will not last.  It may be "real" now, but will not always be so.

Generally speaking, we like living in our cozy, man-made world.  Its comfortable, its convenient, its suited to our flavors and preferences.  However, its not real.  Every Starbucks is no more subsiding and eternal than the people who build it, every ideology no more sustainable than those who hold it.  We're comfortable in the created world, but we hunger for a world that is real, one indifferent to human creations and their temporal nature, a world that is honest and brutal and lasting.  We wouldn't enjoy the suffering and death of billions, but we do crave the chance to stare reality, timeless and eternal, in the face.  We want eternity because eternity is real.  With great irony, we want the death of everything because we want to live forever.  Rather than dwell in our own illusion, we want to be stripped of our weak creations, we want to watch our skyscrapers tumble and our false ideologies fall, and see what about us and about the world is really real.

So don't feel guilty when your apocalyptic hopes are dashed and you feel disappointed, for its a craving for truth you feel.  This same desire that makes us crave the thrilling reality of zombie doom is the desire that drives to pursue the truth, to hunger for heaven, and to seek the coming of the Son of God, wrapped in cloths and laying in a manger, this Christmas season.  We crave God, because more than anything or ever could be, God is real.  Our creations will fall, and those who created them will fall, but He who created us will never fall, and when all that is false has fallen, all that will be left is us and Him, and how very real an experience that will be.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What Newtown Taught Us About Advent

I admit, I feel a bit uneasy using the recent tragedy in Newtown, CT as fodder for my sub-par blog, because, for obvious reasons, this tragedy is abhorrent on an entirely different level.  Nobody appreciates the slaughter of other human beings, but the massacre of innocent children is nothing short of abominable.  If this is our reality, a reality in which children are executed in their classrooms, I vehemently reject it.  This is not the reality for me, no thank you.  Such an abomination causes even the most hardened skeptic to purse his lips and whisper, "Evil..."  However, because we the unhappy survivors left to cope are, invariably, human, we ask the question all human ask: Why?  Human beings seek the light of understanding, even in the darkest of horrors such as what unleashed upon this quiet school.  We seek meaning to this meaningless suffering, and in that, there is a lesson to be learned.

If ever there were a good argument to spite God with, it would be this:  How could an all-knowing, all-powerful, good, and loving God allow such evils as Newtown to happen?  You would think (and you'd be right to think so) that any truly good, able, and knowing person would stop Adam Lanza from pulling the trigger that morning; that his mother, the staff and students in Sandy Hook, and himself would still be alive had somebody intervened.  Who better than the Almighty himself, who is praised as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and completely good, to swoop down from the High Heavens and stopped the madness before it ever began.  In fact, why wouldn't he do so in the case of every evil ever?  If God exists and God is good, why are we so brutally confronted with the horrible reality of evil?

Forgive me for being a bit philosophical in this next part.  To understand better the problem of Evil, we must ask what evil is.  Evil is not a thing, but the absence of a thing.  Just as darkness is the absence of light and cold the absence of heat, evil is the absence of what ought to be.  We were so disgusted and repulsed by Newtown because we know, in the depths of our souls, children ought to be safe and innocent.  It ought to be that no child is executed in the corridors of their school, and when cold harsh reality strikes us with the news that what ought to be is not so, we feel the cold, dark chill of Evil.  

Where does evil come from then?  Where did reality split from what ought to be to what, unfortunately, is?  Put simply, choice.  The power to choose makes derivation from the right path possible.  Human beings have the power of Will, we can choose Good or not Good (Evil).  Rock have no choice.  A rock cannot stop behaving as a rock should.  That's why we cannot seriously accuse it of being a bad rock, its just a rock.  Humans do, and because of it, we are capable of magnificent good or horrifying evil.  A person, through the power of choice, can be Gandhi or can bring a nation to its knees in horror.  Newtown showed us, as Virginia Tech, Columbine, Sudan, Rwanda, the Holocaust, and so much more have showed us, that we live in a reality in which people do choose evil.  The repulsive reality we live in is one which resulted from our choice.  

So where does our suspiciously silent God lie in all of this madness we call "reality"?  I suppose we would prefer to see a Superman-like God, one who in unmatched power and total nobility swoops in and stops evil before it happens.  We would want a God in unparalleled strength, with Heavenly armies pouring from the skies and laying waste to all the evil men and women.  Indeed, if God were good, he'd crush the power of sin and darkness with resplendent glory.  Unfortunately, there was no angelic garrison barring the doors of Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Nor did St. Michael swoop from the clouds and put Lanza to the sword before opened fire.  No, cold, harsh, terrible reality took place in Newtown and God and his great might were nowhere to be found.

Or were they?  We hunger for the great and powerful God to come and destroy our violent world in even greater violence, and we forget that we may be looking in the wrong places.  We look for God in a throne, but not in a manger.  We seek to find him with glittering crown, but don't think to see him wreathed in thorns.    We expect God to fight evil, and rightly so, but we expect him to do so oppressively, defeating power with greater power, crushing violence with greater violence.  This is because all we know in this world is the threat of power, violence, and oppression.  However, fighting evil with such tools is merely fighting it on its own terms, something God has little interest in doing.  Violence is not defeated violently, nor is evil toppled in destruction.  Evil, that which brings violence to our schools and destruction to our homes, is defeated from within by the light of Goodness, which is what brings me to Advent.  In Advent, we draw our focus to the coming of Christ, an event swimming in peculiarity.  The nativity scene might be cute and idyllic to us, but in reality, it is Earth shattering.  Think of the famous Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel".  While it might be pleasant and Christmas-y for us, this song is a cry for help, wrought in bitter tears.  This ancient song speaks to exactly what we've been talking about, our desperate cry for God's intervention in a world held captive in evil.  Advent is not just about decking the halls in preparation for Christmas.  It is a season to remind us of this very deep yearning of our very broken hearts:  We need God with us.  Our hearts shattered and bound in in an evil world, we need God, in his goodness and might, to free us from this world, and how peculiar is the way he chose. 

Christ, God Incarnate, came, not as a conquering hero, but as a baby.  He did not bind the forces of evil, but  lay bound in swaddling clothes, not on golden throne but in a manger, the trough from which the animals would eat.  Here is our conquering God, on glorious campaign against evil, who from the very beginning of his assault on the powers that be is completely undermining them.  Here is a God who, at the pinnacle of his war march on evil, does not conquer with great oppression but in total surrender.  Humanity asks for a conquering hero and we are given one even better:  A God like ourselves, born, raised, and died in suffering and evil.  God is no stranger to suffering and evil, and rather than crushing it in force he juxtaposes himself in the midst of it all.  When we see tragedy like Newtown, we rightfully ask "Where were you God?"  However, God has given us an answer in Christ crucified; he was not indifferently aloof, but at home in the midst of the suffering, a God who knows how incredibly hard it is to be human.

When we see unspeakable horror and experience despair from tragedies like Newtown, they ought to remind us of Advent, of our world long captive to the power of evil, desperately yearning for God with us.  We ought to think of Christ, not as one who conquers in great gusto but one who has the audacity to enter into the experience of suffering and evil in our lives.  Here is our answer to Evil's problem, Christ's conquest of it from its very heart.  Like Frodo toppling Mordor from within, Christ enters into our world of suffering and actively undermines it from within.  For the remainder of this Advent, we ought to think about this, about our desperate cry for a savior and the revolutionary response we get in the infant Jesus.  We ought to think about this child, bound helpless in a manger, yet set out to conquer the universe, not in strength but in surrender.  Here is the paradox of Christianity, here is the heart of our bold and fantastic faith, here lies your salvation. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why You Really Are Great

If there is one thing that we, as a society, struggle to comprehend, it is the value of a human being.  This critical misunderstanding drives virtually every debate, every argument, every conflict, every war; every confrontation in the modern world comes from the fact that I do not understand why I should find you worthwhile.  Abortion, sexual ethics, racism, poverty, discrimination, warfare, all based on the misunderstanding of human value.  People are great.  You'd struggle to find someone who completely disagrees with that premise, but you could very well spark a bloody war (or even worse, an internet flame war) trying to identify just why people are great.

The general consensus of our society is that we are valuable because of things about us:  our appearance, our abilities, talents, beliefs, histories, possessions, personalities, etc.  A great man or woman might be great because they are intelligent, or rich, or powerful, or have a strong personality.  A mediocre person might be mediocre because they sit on their couch all day and have a crappy resume.  We evaluate each other based on utility, on traits, on ability the ability to express oneself upon the world around us.  This is why Alexander the Great is "the Great" and you cousin Alexander is not "the Great", because your cousin didn't conquer the better part of the known world in his early twenties.  This is why the United States is a great nation and Eritrea is not, because the United States expresses its influence all around the world and Eritrea does not.

This idea of greatness has its merits, one can't really deny that.  Our gifts are not given to us without reason, and our society runs because people use the gifts their given to express themselves upon the world their in.  However, human beings are not merely the value of their gifts, because gifts do not last.  Madonna was a great musician... once.  Madonna no longer tops the charts because her music isn't as good and her looks aren't doing all that well, in other words, her gifts are fading.  Our abilities come and go with the passage of time, they change, they get better or worse depending on where or when we happen to be.  Or, to streamline the process, insert me, with a pick up truck.

4,000 lbs of instant inevitability
If Madonna were crossing the street and I, who just so happened to be rocking out to "Material Girl", was not paying attention and (with great irony) hit her with my truck, I could quickly hasten time's inevitable decay, a la brain damage.  We are all one hit and run away from vegetative states, and what becomes our gifts (and therefore, our value) then?

Mankind is great, not because of any extrinsic trait, but because of intrinsic value, a value that is infinite and incomparable.  And here's where it gets interesting.  You see, you and I are both valuable, intrinsically and regardless of our differing traits and abilities, but we're also uniquely valuable.  Most people like to find value in their abilities because it reaffirms their individuality, it tells them that they are one of a kind, that they are special and unique, which is why we tend to scoff at anyone who tells you that your value is independent of your unique traits.  Being valuable is not just merely finding worth, but finding worth that is entirely and completely unique.  Thus, some of you might scoff when I say "You are valuable regardless of your supposed individuality." because being equally valuable as everyone else just doesn't seem all that valuable.  But that's where you'd be wrong.

You are uniquely and infinitely valuable, not because of what you have done, are doing, or can do, but because of who you are.  Period.  Each and every person is unique, not in what they do, but in who they are.  Every human being is a unique creation of God, valuable in a respect completely unique from any other person.  This is why the king is worth no more than the slave, the CEO worth no more than the hobo, the master worth no more than the servant, because, in God's eyes, there are no kings or slaves or CEOs or hobos, just people.  Human beings.  Each of them absolutely and uniquely crafted and purposelessly loved by God.  People aren't valuable for what they have made, but because of Him Who Made Them.  You could change the world if you really believed that about everyone you met.  Yeah, its hard.  Our entire culture disagrees with this; it undermines the competitive system that our entire world is based on.  But it is the fundamental truth of human life.

If we, as Christians, are to understand our place in the history of salvation, we ought to first understand this very basic truth: you're not worthwhile because of what you have to offer, but because of what God has offered you.  Christianity is not like the rest of the world, which is constantly struggling to prove yourself worthy for the things you have and the things you want.  Christians have nothing to prove, for God's not interested in trading your good deeds for eternal salvation.  For Heaven is not a prize one by moral greatness, but a gift given to those who will receive it.  God does not admit into eternal peace those who have "earned it", for one cannot earn love, they can only receive and reciprocate it.  Heaven is for God the lover and we the beloved to love each other for all eternity, not because we're useful to each other, but because we delight simply in the fact that the other exists.   This is the heart of Christianity, not competition for greatness, but delightful, loving relationship with God.  Why are Christians supposed to be good people?  Not because our goodness proves our worth, but because the true recognition of our worth in God makes being good so delightful and effortless.  Goodness, to the Christian, is not so much a duty but a response, a consequence of the realization of just how loved we really are.

If you want to be a better person, if you want to be a better Christian, the best place to start is the contemplation of just how loved by God you really are for no reason other than the fantastic fact that you exist.  The growing realization that you are infinitely and eternally loved by God will change you, will cause you to return that love to God and to fellow man, will make Goodness inevitable and irresistible for you.  Think about it.