What makes this night
different from all others?
Our faces lit before the fire,
we repeat the old stories
and count the constellations.
Or we sit
in the habit of silence
like someone long married.
Until the angel appears
with its stab of glory
and we are sore afraid.
We hear his shouted greeting
at once so jocular and familiar
and yet so strange and unearthly.
We hear too
the beating of many wings
like the sound of many waters
and the bleating of the frightened sheep
who scatter in alarm.
But we cannot
because we are struck
dumb with wonder.
Now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, I feel that I can listen to Christmas Carols in good conscience. Though to be honest, I actually started somewhere around Halloween. Yesterday I was reflecting on the line from O Little Town of Bethlehem which goes: “How Silently, How Silently the wondrous gift is given….” In this lyric Philips Brooks is comparing the stillness of Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth to the silent miracle of salvation.
“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
But Brooks’s lyric is also a reminder to me of how often silence is a feature of our experience with God. We know that God can speak. The Bible tells us that He spoke creation into existence. We read the Bible and regard it as His word. Yet for many–I would say most– of us it feels that God responds to us in silence. This is one of the things that tends to make prayer so hard. We feel as if we are engaged in a one sided conversation. We don’t know what to make of God’s silence and so misinterpret it, just as we might the silence of a friend or lover. We think that God’s silence is proof of His absence or we take it as a sign of disinterest. It is easy to see why. We have been taught to think that people who care speak up. Those who don’t speak don’t care.
That’s also why so much of the communication we hear these days seems to come in the form of a shriek. Whether it is an audible shout or an emoji filled, all caps, bold face post on social media, outrage has become our culture’s primary Love Language. So we naturally think that if God does not respond in some emphatic way to our pleas it must mean that He doesn’t care about us.
We equate God’s silence with disengagement. In Psalm 28:1 David says, “To you I call, O LORD my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit.” Notice the connection between silence and deafness. This is our fear when it comes to God’s silence. We worry that it means that God can’t hear us or even worse that He won’t hear us. One of the ironies of this is that in the Bible we find that God’s speech can be more difficult to bear than His silence. According to Exodus 20:19 when the Israel heard God declare the Law from Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as His go-between: “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die” (Ex. 20:19). God’s silence is sometimes a sign of judgment. But it may also be a mercy.
Silence doesn’t necessarily mean disinterest. It is also a mark of attention. Those who listen are silent. Silence is also emphatic. Silence often acts as God’s exclamation point, forcing us to focus on the situation at hand. Instead of speaking to us in words, God communicates through our circumstances. Silence is a feature of stillness and stillness is a characteristic of those who wait. “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him” Psalm 37:7 urges, “do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” Those who are still are waiting for God to act.
Such a strategy seems counter-intuitive in this age of activism. I mean we can’t do nothing can we? Surely we should do something! Of course the answer is that when we are still, we are doing something. We are waiting. We are expecting. We are trusting. Stillness is the atmosphere of Bethlehem, as God draws near in silence and relative obscurity. When the time had fully come, God sent His Son (Gal. 4:4). When our time is fully come God will act on our behalf. In the meantime, the best thing we can do may be to be still and wait.
When I was a pastor some people addressed me as “Pastor.” Others called me “Pastor John.” Some called me “Preacher” and a few referred to me as “Reverend.” If they asked what I preferred, I usually said, “My friends call me John.” But what about God? How should we address Him? Sir? Your Majesty? Some other title? He has several in Scripture. Jesus reveals the answer in the opening to the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9: “This, then is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven….”
Jesus frames our conversation with God in terms of relationship. Speaking of God this way was not something new. God is spoken of as a “Father” in the Old Testament. But there the title generally speaks of His role as creator and deliverer. When Jesus speaks of God as Father in the New Testament He takes it a step further. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus teaches us to address God as our Father. He teaches us to address God as our Father.
More often than not the thing that shapes our approach to God in prayer is the fact that we want something. It isn’t the only thing we are interested in but it is usually the main thing. It is why we are praying. We are interested in the request itself and the request is certainly not insignificant. But thinking about prayer only in terms of what we want from God can create a problem. Instead of bringing us closer to God, this kind of praying may actually drive us apart.
In his little book How to Pray, Anthony Bloom writes: “Let us think of our prayers, yours and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love, or something which matters in your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is recollected, in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject of your prayer matters to you.”
It is possible for the subject matter of our prayer–the request itself–to be so important to us that it overshadows God. The solution to this problem is not to set the request aside but to recognize that prayer is more of a relationship than a transaction. Don’t just approach God in prayer. Approach God as Father. Don’t just approach God as a Father. Come to Him as your Father.
Most of the people I know are disappointed with their prayer life. Ask them if they believe in prayer and they will say yes. Ask them if they are good at prayer and they will answer no. Usually we think that the problem lies in the mechanics. We don’t pray well. We don’t pray enough. We don’t stay on task. We get bored or distracted. But the root problem is really one of relationship. It is not that we have forgotten how to pray or even that we have forgotten that we should pray. Our problem is that we lose sight of the One to whom we pray.
Theologian Helmut Thielicke observed that we would all be orphans if it were not for Jesus: “There would be no one to hear us if He had not opened the gates of Heaven. We should all be like sheep gone astray without a shepherd. But now we have a shepherd. Now we have a father. What can ever cast us down, what can ever unhinge us as long as we look into that countenance and as long as we can say in the name of our brother Jesus Christ: Abba Father.”
The other day a group of us were asked to describe our ideal colleague. You wouldn’t have been surprised by the result. The person we came up with was winsome. Generous. Quick to forgive. Patient with everyone but not afraid to say the hard thing. In other words, perfect. It occurred to me when we were finished that the profile we had created didn’t look anything like me. To be honest, it didn’t look anything like any of us. It looked a bit like Jesus. Only shinier.
I am not against idealism. We all need ideals. They are inspiring. But I find that this kind of idealism doesn’t help me much when it comes to living in the real world. My heroes are my heroes precisely because they aren’t like me. I have people in my life that I admire very much. Some of them are my colleagues. But I admire them because I can’t do what they can do. In most cases, I never will.
The problem with our ideal colleague was that we did not really have ourselves in mind when we created him (or her). Not our true selves. Ours was a profile shaped mostly through reverse engineering and preening. It is easy to do. First you catalog the traits you like the least among your peers and describe the opposite. Next add the qualities you admire the most about yourself. The result will be an ideal person who does not look like anyone you hate but who looks like what you think you look like when you are at your best.
There is a word which describes this kind of idealism. I am reluctant to use it because it will seem harsh. This is not idealism at all. It is hypocrisy. The self-pleasure we took in completing the exercise should have tipped us off that something was wrong with our creation. We had been asked to come up with a portrait. Instead we produced a mirror. A false mirror at that.
The greatest challenge of living in community is not the challenge of living up to our ideal. It is the challenge of living together as we are. What we need is not a better ideal but a savior. We do not need better colleagues either. Only the grace to live with the ones we have.
I think that the experience of the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry was a lot like ours. The week started with such promise. As Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of acclaim on Palm Sunday, His disciples must have assumed that He was coming into His own.
On Monday Jesus cursed a fig tree and drove the money changers out of the temple. On Tuesday he denounced the religious leaders calling them “blind fools” and “hypocrites.” On Wednesday, at least as far as the biblical record is concerned, nothing happened. Instead of being swept into the city in victory–the whole project seems to have stalled out.
On Thursday there was that awkward Passover supper. The disciples fought among themselves about which of them should be regarded as the greatest and Jesus began acting strangely again, dressing like a household slave and washing their feet. Then, of course, the whole thing fell apart. Instead of being recognized as Israel’s rightful king, Jesus was arrested. On Friday He is tried, condemned, crucified, and buried.
Then on Saturday-nothing but silence.
And this, I think, is where many of us live in terms of our experience. We live in the silence of Holy Saturday. Things haven’t turned out the way we had expected–or the way we had hoped. It may even seem to us as if this whole “Jesus thing” has failed. Miserably.
Our problem, it turns out, is the same problem that the disciples had. We can see what God is doing (more or less) but we don’t understand it. We often wish that God would explain His actions to us. Why has He allowed things to unfold this way? But if the Gospels are any indication, we wouldn’t understand even if we were told. Because Jesus did tell His followers in advance what God was doing. They just couldn’t comprehend it.
In his book A Cross Shattered Church, the late Stanley Hauerwas observes, “We say that ‘seeing is believing,’ but it seems in matters having to do with God that ‘believing is seeing.’ But believing does not mean that we must accept twenty-three improbable propositions before breakfast. Rather, believing means being made participants in a way of life unintelligible if Jesus is not our Lord and our God. To so live is not to try to make the world conform to our wishes and fantasies, but rather to see truthfully the way the world is.” Hauerwas goes on to say that before we can see the world as it is, we must be transformed. Or to use Paul’s language, we must be transferred or translated into the Kingdom of God’s Son (Col. 1:13).
In other words, the only view which enables us to make sense of the strange things that God has done with our lives is the view from above. It is a view from the cross. It is from there that we can see, not only the cross itself, but also the empty tomb which lies beyond. It is not a vision of life which comprehends God but one that comes from Him. Hauerwas was right. Believing is seeing.
Now that Advent has arrived, I suppose it is time for my annual Christmas lament. I am reluctant to speak. I am afraid of adding another shrill note to the year’s collective shriek. Everybody, it seems to me, is up in arms. Every word is an affront. It is tempting to blame our national mood on the election, but I believe its roots go deeper. If the outcome of the election had been different, I do not think that the tone would have changed. It would only have meant that different voices would be singing the same parts. We are all outraged now.
Outrage, of course, is often appropriate. It was the chord struck by the biblical prophets. An ancient aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine says that hope has two daughters: anger at the way things are and courage to see that they do not remain the same. Without a doubt there is much in the world that deserves outrage. But I am struck by how little modern outrage is able to accomplish. For all its heat and fury, it has not proven to be an especially powerful engine for driving change. Perhaps this is because we are really enamored of a different set of twins. Proverbs 30:15 declares, “The leech has two daughters. ‘Give! Give!’ they cry.” The cry of our age is not the cry of love or even of justice. It is the cry of “measureless ambition,” a voice which says “me first” and “I’m here now.”
I cannot help being struck by the difference in Jesus’ tone. It was predicted by the prophet Isaiah who declared, “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets” (Isaiah 42:2). Despite the shout of joy that Heaven uttered at His birth, Jesus came into the world in relative obscurity and deliberately refused the limelight. When they tried to make Him a king by force, He opted for the path of solitude and suffering instead (John 6:15). This was not because He shunned royal office. Jesus knew it was His by right. Rather, He took this route because He knew that the only way to put things right was to take the wrong upon Himself. The beauty of Christmas is not the romance of a babe in a manger but the mystery that poet Richard Crashaw celebrates when he speaks of “eternity shut in a span.” It is the astonishing fact that God became flesh and lived among us in order to take our sin upon Himself, working justice by His own death and resurrection.
I realize how foolish such measures will seem to those who are focused on tales of power. Yet it is God’s own self-admitted folly, designed for those who would rather exclude Him from their world than make room for His definition of justice. As for me, I will kneel in silence with Richard Crashaw and wonder at the sight:
To thee, meek Majesty! soft King
Of simple graces and sweet loves,
Each of us his lamb will bring,
Each his pair of silver doves;
Till burnt at last in fire of thy fair eyes,
Ourselves become our own best sacrifice.
Now that Christmas has come and gone, I have a confession to make. I am happy to see its back. Christmas is one of those guests who look better from a distance than then they do close up. The holiday is resplendent in its approach, drawing near in garments that speak of transcendence. But upon closer inspection they prove to be threadbare and garish. More gaudy than gaudia. Christmas is a high maintenance guest with an extravagant diet. It takes over the whole house, declaiming like the duke and dauphin in The Royal Nonesuch.
Don’t get me wrong. There are moments of transcendence. But they come at awkward moments during the holiday and in unexpected situations. They are more likely to occur when Christmas drops its guard. They show up in the grace notes more often than they do in the melody line. They are more liable to happen in the car than in church. The glory manifests itself the silence of familiar companionship more than in the buzzy conversation of celebration.
I confess that I am relieved when Christmas finally departs. I watch it trundle off with all its packages and my anxiety subsides. But I suppose I should not blame the holiday for the stress. The fault is my own. I am the one who is distracted. The expectations are mine. I am the one who thinks that one magical day can wipe away my disappointments and reset the years. Now that it is past, I can lower my expectations. Everything can go back to normal.
At least for a while. In a few days we will have another visitor. It is that insufferable brat New Year Year’s Day, which will announce its arrival with fire crackers and dissipation. But at least New Year’s Day is less demanding than Christmas and departs more quickly. In a matter of hours I will have forgotten all about it. And begin counting the days until Advent approaches once more.