Thursday, December 27, 2012

And After Christmas, What?

Everyone who met Jesus was changed by the encounter. From the beginning of his life to his death on the cross he was a presence that could not be ignored. Always there was the freedom to reject him; to deny his claim upon one’s life. But there was also a revelation of God. Those with eyes to see were transformed by what they saw.

The Gospel writers were spare in the details they gave us concerning Jesus’ birth and early life. Only Luke tells us of the angel’s visit to the shepherds, the temple encounters with ancient Simeon, and Anna the prophetess, the astonishment of the doctors of the Law at the precocious child, Jesus, when he visited the temple at age twelve. And only Matthew tells us of the magi’s visit. But from these few accounts, sparsely populated with details, we can weave a thin tapestry depicting the first advent of Christ. Thousands of such attempts have been made to do so, some more successful (more true to the intent of the Gospel writers) than others.

T.S. Elliot in his poem, The Journey of the Magi, imagines the arduous journey of the magi, the inhospitable world through which they traveled to arrive at the manger, the wonder of the magi as they looked upon what was at once a birth and a death – the birth of hope and the death, through death, of death itself – and their return to a world they no longer desired to be a part of. They had, as Matthew’s Gospel tells us, been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to journey home by “another route.” And once returned they began to long for that death that would remove them from the alien cities they once called home.

At the other end of Jesus’ earthly journey the final blow is dealt to death by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. And there, at that brutal scene of human suffering, we find another wise man; a young man, we presume, being crucified next to Jesus. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that the two “rebels” who were crucified with Jesus heaped their scorn on him along with the soldiers, the priests, and others around the cross. But sometime during that long and pain-filled afternoon one of the rebels began to see what others could not. By the grace of God he was given faith to see in the bloodied man who hung beside him, not death, but life itself; not the failure of a rebellion but the inception of a kingdom. He rebuked his fellow rebel reminding him that they were dying for their own sins but Jesus was dying innocent of any crime worthy of the death he was suffering. Then he turned and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Often, when Jesus met unusual faith he acknowledged it with words like, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel.” But this time, perhaps because of the extreme effort it took to speak at all, he merely said, “I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.” And another “wise man” returned to his intended home by “another route”.

The Christian religion is marked by its two great holidays, Christmas and Easter. Both are paradoxes.

Christmas seems to be the celebration of a birth but its deeper meaning – the meaning that the magi knew, in T.S. Elliot’s view – was about death. Only those who came to the manger willing to surrender their life to a dying Savior really understood the meaning of his birth.

Easter, overshadowed by the events of Good Friday, seems to be about death, but even before the glory of the resurrection one wise man saw that all of it – Good Friday through Easter Sunday morning – was about life.

Millions of “Christians” are spending these days, immediately after Christmas attempting to go back to their routine lives by the same route they took to get to the manger. They are returning gifts not wanted, returning to jobs no more exciting than they were before, returning to ways of dealing with life that never fully satisfied, not knowing that the birth of the Child marked the death of the old ways and opened “another route” by which they can journey home. They fail to connect Christmas with Easter; to see that death – the death of self-seeking self-confidence – is the “other route” to life as it is meant to be lived.

If you feel that the world is more alien in this week after Christmas it may just be a sign that you have glimpsed the true meaning of the event. Nothing is the same now. Those who truly know the meaning of Christ’s birth refuse to go back through toxic Jerusalem; refuse to collaborate with the Christ-killing Herod. They will find their way into Christ’s kingdom by “another route”; through a death that leads to life.

To all who say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” he will reply, “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Who Is To Blame When Things Go Terribly Wrong?

The Source of Good and Evil
By Jim Rapp
To be given only the “choice” to be good
would be no choice; would lock the way
to freedom so, even if we would,
We could not take evil Pleasure’s way.

We would be like the beasts around us,
hounding and hounded, predator and prey;
driven by desire and cunning to thus
increase our territorial sway.

But, beasts only we would be,
made in no higher image than our own,
serving no purpose than to be –
defined by our instinctual zone.

By a wisdom far beyond our ken –
for a purpose we can only guess –
thoughtful thinkers we’ve been
made to be; aware of awareness, no less,

spelling freedom for our kind.
     Knowing good and evil – knowing
     which is which – stands the mindful Mind,
     the Source, its good and evil ever flowing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why are Republicans in Such a Funk?

In November 1952 the bottom fell out of our world. “Our” refers to the Rapp family and others like us who had come to believe that the Democratic Party and its “New Deal” represented the pillar upon which the present and future prosperity of the nation rested. Dwight David Eisenhower had been elected and would be sworn in soon. It was a sad and fearsome day as we contemplated the Republican’s reinstatement of all the policies that had led to the Great Depression and the dismantling of those policies that had led us out of it.

Sixty years later I can see how foolish we were to believe that Eisenhower, and his supporters in Congress, would, or even could, flip the nation on its head in the course of one or two presidential terms. First, Eisenhower had no intention of doing so. And second, even if those in his party who might have wanted to do that had tried, there was still too much power in the hands of the Democrats to allow it to happen overnight. Our fears were over-blown at best.

Today I read that Republicans are suffering in a funk similar to that which my family felt sixty years ago. A Gallop poll released today shows that the gap between Democrat’s optimism for the future and Republican’s pessimism is greater than it has been since Gallop began measuring such things. In 2008, a year before the economy collapsed sending the nation into a recession almost equal to the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the survey showed just the opposite; Republicans were more optimistic than Democrats. But now, even with the economy slowly recovering, the mood among Republicans is dour to say the least. And all because President Obama won re-election a month and a half ago.

As one who views President Obama positively, it is very difficult for me understand the despair expressed by Republicans . . . until I think back to 1952. I am no Pollyanna; I know that we have many intractable problems to contend with, not the least that our two political parties, and those of us who support them, are about as divided as we have ever been in my lifetime. It is a challenge to govern such a people as us.

It may well be that Republican pessimism is justified; that we are perched on a fiscal, social and political cliff over which we will ultimately tumble. But it isn’t inevitable that we will. The nation did not collapse into chaos after 1952; instead the economy grew. We began the construction of one of the world’s most impressive interstate highway systems and expanded the government sponsored “safety net” programs like social security. The expansion of the “welfare state” continued apace. Looking back, that era is viewed by many – Democrats who feared it, as well as Republicans who welcomed it – as an idyllic and prosperous period in the 20th Century.

So what’s to fear today? If one truly believes that President Obama is an evil, divisive, conniving man, that certainly predisposes one to gloom I suppose. But even if it is true that he is Muslim, or an illegal alien, or that he faked his grades at Coumbia and Harvard, or that he has plans to confiscate all guns in the country, or that he wants to round up all Christians and put them in concentration camps, Republicans have shown themselves capable of thwarting his devious schemes over the last four years and will most certainly be able to hold him at bay for another four years. And, though it must be difficult for those who fear him to admit, being in the deep funk they are in, it is just possible that he is a decent man, with the best interests of the nation at heart, in which case history might look back on the Obama years with the same approval it now judges those Eisenhower years that I feared so much.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Grieving for Sandy Hook Elementary Victims

A Haiku for Sandy Hook Elementary
Twenty 5 – 10 year olds and six adults gunned down
by Jim Rapp
Guns don’t kill, they say.
Then what’s to grieve; was no child’s
life cut short by guns?

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Where Have I Been?

A friend of mine has taken on several volunteer assignment in his retirement days, serving as a worker in his church’s youth program and doing various tasks for the Feed My Children program in his community. He illustrates both the luxury of retirement and, paradoxically, the irony of retirement. On the side of “luxury” he has the time to devote to causes that he believes in but, on the side of “irony” he is locked in to those duties by his strong sense of obligation and sometimes finds himself unable to be fully retired; i.e. fully able to direct his time.

A couple of years ago a fellow writer (a female “fellow”) told me of the blog that she had established. It sounded interesting so I pursued it and The Cottage On The Moor was born. It has been a wonderful outlet for me to express things I’m thinking about; even things I’m “stewing about” as my mother used to say. But I’m finding myself caught in the same paradox that my friend is in; having the “luxury” of retirement which allows me to write, but some days having to violate my sense of obligation because of more pressing duties, or because I simply lack the energy to write as well as I want to. (It does take energy to think and write at the highest level one is capable of.)

When The Cottage On The Moor was born it was my intention to write one piece per day for at least the first year. I guess I had a lot of pent up ideas, so I was able – barely – to accomplish that goal. Then I decided that I would try to post at least a couple of times a week. I’ve been able to do that most weeks. But I’ve found that there were stretches covering several days, or a couple of weeks, in which I either lacked the time, inspiration, or energy to write. This last week a stay in the hospital interrupted my good intentions and lengthened the gap between blog entries.

But there may be an upside to my recent interruption. Perhaps my encounter with the wonderful people who cared for me during my time in the hospital will provide the subject for an essay or two.

Meanwhile, I’m glad to be back in circulation again. The world became enfolded in a deep blanket of snow while I was “away” so it is a good time to renew the invitation to visit The Cottage On The Moor when you are in the neighborhood. I’ll have a “cup of warm” for you as often as I can. If you don’t find a fresh cup there will be something there you can re-warm if you like.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Are Christmas and Easter Christian Holy Days?

It is interesting that the New Testament – the only contemporary record we have of the early Christian church – gives us no indication that believers celebrated either the birth of Christ or his resurrection as specific holidays (or holy days) in the first century B.C. The birth of Christ, despite all those wonderful stories in the early chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, is subsequently completely ignored. And, although the life proclaimed by Christ’s victory over the grave is a central part of the Church’s message, there is no indication that early believers celebrated it more elaborately on any particular “Easter Day” than they did every time they gathered to worship.

Some have attempted to show that the celebration of those Christian holy days (especially Christmas) are merely the adaptation, by Christians, of pagan holidays; attempts to convert “heathen” practices, to which many converts insistently clung, into Christian-themed celebrations of events at the beginning of, and end of, Christ’s life. It seems that there is good evidence that such is the case, and especially, as I say, in the case of Christmas.

So what? Assuming those critiques of Christmas and Easter are true, do they diminish the “truth” those days represent to believers in Christ? It is rather like asking a young couple who has chosen as their wedding day, the same day their grandparents were wed to each other, if the fact that they are being wed on a “borrowed” sacred day diminishes the validity of their love for each other. Of course it does not. It could even be argued that it gives richer meaning to their special day. We are always changing the meanings of days. With only 365 days per year and thousands of years-worth of events to celebrate, all days must be prepared to serve multiple duty.

So Christmas and Easter are not “merely” adaptations of previous – sometimes pagan – holidays; they are, or at least have been for several centuries, days set aside to remind us of God’s great gifts to us. If, in order to remind us of the birth of the Savior, the death and resurrection of the Savior, we have turned attention away from previous pagan superstition and practice, it is only for the purpose of presenting the very truth and joy those days were feebly reaching toward.

The danger in our day lies not in the “discovery” that our sacred holidays are celebrated on days previously devoted to pagan ideas; it is that we will allow them, once again to become “pagan” in nature rather than proclamations of God’s love for us and provision for us through His Son.

The vast majority of the world, even in “Christian America,” still celebrate pagan holidays while the Church – when it is truly being “the Church” – insists that Christmas and Easter are spiritual holy days, not because they are commanded in Scripture, but because the Church has sanctified them (set them aside) as days of thankful celebration of God’s greatest gift to the world.