Looking toward Christmas
Focusing on the eternal in an election’s aftermath
I’ve put together this Saturday Series piece before knowing the election results, but no matter what happens we’ll see lots of teeth-gnashing. That’s why I’ve moved up to now what I first planned as a December pre-Christmas special: Even though Christmas is still almost seven weeks away, we need to pay attention to what’s crucial rather than what’s ephemeral. So here are four columns—from 2002, 2005, 2007, and 2010—that may help us to concentrate our mind and spirit.
Physician Jerome Groopman, in The Measure of Our Days, tells how Kirk Bains, a highly successful stock speculator, was stricken with cancer and told by top specialists that nothing could be done for him. Mr. Bains pleaded that Dr. Groopman treat him with an experimental procedure: “Cook up some new magic. Make me a guinea pig. I take risks all the time. That’s my business. I won’t sue you.”
Dr. Groopman writes that he always tries “to learn the scope of religious feeling, the ties of the patient and his family to faith. God, whether positive, negative, or null, is an essential factor in the equation of dying.” Mr. Bains replied to such prodding, “I’m not a long-term investor. I like quick returns. I don’t believe in working for dividends paid in heaven.” But the night before the radical surgery, Mr. Bains was troubled, telling Dr. Groopman, “I know this is my last chance and I’ll probably die, and after death ... it’s just nothingness. … I don’t ask for heaven. I’d take hell. Just to be.”
The surgery was successful and the cancer went into remission—but only for four months. When it came back and Mr. Bains had an initial radiation treatment, Dr. Groopman visited him and said, “I’m sorry the magic didn’t work longer.” Mr. Bains replied, “You shouldn’t feel sorry. There was no reason to live anyway. … You read newspapers?... I don’t read newspapers anymore. I don’t know how to. Or why I should.”
Mr. Bains explained further: “Newspapers used to be a gold mine for me. They’re filled with what to you looks like disconnected bits of information. A blizzard in the Midwest, the immigration debate in California … information for deals and commodity trading. … And when I went into remission I couldn’t read the papers because my deals and trades seemed pointless. Pointless because I was a short-term investor. I had no patience for the long term. I had no interest in creating something, not a product in business or a partnership with a person. And now I have no equity. No dividends coming in. Nothing to show in my portfolio.”
Kirk Bains concluded, “How do you like my great epiphany? No voice of God or holy star but a newspaper left unread in its wrapper. … The remission meant nothing because it was too late to relive my life. I once asked for hell. Maybe God made this miracle to have me know what it will feel like.” Dr. Groopman writes that he felt “the crushing weight of Kirk’s burden,” because “there is no more awful death than to die with regret, feeling that you have lived a wasted life—death delivering this shattering final sentence on your empty soul.”
It’s a sad story, in part because Kirk Bains came to an unnecessary conclusion. He did not have to relive his life; what’s done was done. He still had, though, the future, whether that meant for him a few more days in this world or a few years. And the wonder of Christianity is this: Any one of us, no matter how close we are to physical death, can cross over to spiritual life.
Any one of us, no matter how close we are to physical death, can cross over to spiritual life.
Mr. Bains thought he had to relive his life because he saw Christianity as just one more exchange religion: You give to a god, he gives to you. Roman pagans 2,000 years ago, like Mr. Bains recently, understood liberalitas: Give to please a recipient who will at some point please you. The smart set in ancient Rome thought it was better to give than to receive, because by clever giving to wealthy friends they could receive even more later on. Christians, though, practiced caritas, help to the economically poor without expectation of anything in return. They did that to imitate Christ, who was unjustly abandoned, tortured, and killed for the sake of all who believe in Him.
Christmas is about God’s caritas. We view Christ in the manger as a happy picture, but the incarnation for God was an enormous comedown, like being born as a dog would be for us. (No, worse: a cockroach or beyond, a different realm of being.) And yet, Christ showed caritas right to the last, by telling one of the thieves dying alongside Him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Kirk Bains apparently did not seize his opportunity to cross over, and become in whatever moments he had left a monument to God’s caritas. But it’s glorious that many do come to Christ and receive, through God’s grace, a very merry Christmas.
After Hurricane Katrina, an atheist asked in the British left-wing Guardian Weekly why Christians “are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others.” You can almost see the synapses sparking in the writer’s brain: “It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity a la carte. Yet … it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand.”
That’s right, and add evangelism to the mix: Faith leads to works and works lead people to ask questions about faith. As the works of the faithful diminish the pride of the faithless—the British journalist concluded that Christians are “morally superior to atheists like me”—Christian charity plows the ground for an evangelistic response: No, not morally superior, just touched by One who was.
Even hardcore U.S. anti-Christian publications couldn’t help noticing the difference Christian belief made during the post-Katrina days. A New York Times story described how “from sprawling megachurches to tiny congregations, churches across the country have mobilized in response to Hurricane Katrina, offering shelter, conducting clothing drives and serving hot meals to evacuees, many of whom have had difficulty getting help from inundated government agencies.” The Times didn’t even object (this one time) when those who “finish clearing debris or doing temporary repairs on damaged houses … give the homeowners a signed Bible and say a prayer with them.”
A long time ago a nation faced a disaster even greater than Katrina. Enemy soldiers occupied the land and imposed toady officials on a resentful populace. It seemed that God had been quiet for centuries, and some said He would never speak again. Then the ultimate act of Christian charity transformed every aspect of life. That deed began the transformation of everything around us, as God changes hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Merry Christmas.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O captive Israel.
Why are we rejoicing? I’ve been to baseball games where the home team led throughout the game and held on for a slim victory; that brought sighs of relief but not rejoicing. Rejoicing comes when the home team is behind … a win seems out of reach … and then a ninth-inning rally concludes with a walk-off home run and victory. That’s rejoicing.
We rejoice when we recognize that we need something like a miracle—and it comes. Those rich in money or power or academic degrees often are reluctant to come to Christ because it’s hard to see yourself as needing a come-from-behind victory when the scoreboard says you’re ahead.
So what is the gospel? My favorite summary is still that offered by J.I. Packer: “God saves sinners.” A person who sees himself as a sinner knows that he’s trailing in the late innings. I also value the words of Anne Lamott, unorthodox though she is in theology: “I don’t understand much, but I understand how entirely doomed I am without God.”
That’s good to remember as we follow the results of presidential primaries next year. Many Christians will be caught up in the excitement. It’s important to care about politics. It’s even more important not to care deeply. As Gutenberg College professor Charlie Dewberry notes, “If politics can fix a problem, then Christianity is a lie.”
It’s important to care about politics. It’s even more important not to care deeply.
So God fixes problems, but at times He takes His time, and we ask questions. When Elijah was in despair over Israel’s political and ethical condition, why did God tell him that help would come only over a long and convoluted series of events, which would lead to much mourning before improvement came? Why, when the next-to-last verse of the book of Revelation ends with the plea, “Come, Lord Jesus,” have two millennia gone by without His return?
Maybe we need to learn and relearn our lesson: Nothing works apart from God. Politics doesn’t work. Moral renewal by itself doesn’t work. One of the Bible’s most revealing descriptions of how the world works comes in chapter 6 of 2 Kings, when Elisha’s servant fears enemy troops and Elisha asks God to “‘open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire.”
What’s striking is that those horses and chariots are there all the time. By doing God’s will, the angels who drive them make the world work. If we could see them, we would think differently. But blessed is the man who believes without seeing.
Curiously, one of the best depictions of how seeing changes everything comes in the loopy but lovely movie Field of Dreams (1989). For those who haven’t viewed it: Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) uproots his lucrative cornfield and puts in a baseball diamond to which long-dead players mysteriously come. Ray, his wife, his daughter, and eventually a disillusioned author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), can see the players, but no one else can.
Since the field of dreams is not producing a cash crop, Ray is going bankrupt; his brother-in-law pressures him to sell the farm. A nearly fatal scene ensues as Ray’s daughter almost chokes on a hot dog: At the moment a doctor helps clear her windpipe, the brother-in-law who was blind suddenly can see the players on the field. His immediately transformed advice is: “Don’t sell this farm, Ray. Do not sell this farm.”
When we see the array of forces lined up against Jesus and those who try to follow Him, we are often tempted to sell the farm. That’s when we need especially to pray that our eyes be opened, so that we can see what Elisha urges: “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
“He rules the world with truth and grace, And makes the nations prove, The glories of His righteousness, And wonders of His love.”
Let heaven and nature sing.
Every workday morning for three years I’ve passed by the front of the Empire State Building and encountered three groups of ticket-sellers who wear their company colors: red, blue, or yellow. A block away from the ESB they start asking anyone who looks like a tourist, “Going up?” They discourse on the heavenly views that come with a trip to the 86th and 102nd floor observatories.
Most religions are a lot like that. Priests and imams tout ways to go up to heaven in exchange for the performance of various rituals or the pronouncing of certain words. Christianity is different, since we have nothing with which to buy grace. Jesus offers us His living water for free, but the cost to Him was enormous. In gratitude believers learn to think of serving God and serving others: We cannot put aside our self-interest, but we can lose our selfishness.
Moses before the burning bush told God that the people of Israel would demand to know God’s name. God told Moses to say, “I AM has sent me to you.” I AM, of course, means God who is neither past nor future but everlasting, making every moment throughout eternity the present one, always focused. What a contrast with his human creations: We think woulda/shoulda/coulda about past opportunities and then chase future fantasies.
I AM, of course, means God who is neither past nor future but everlasting, making every moment throughout eternity the present one, always focused.
So here’s a question each of us should ask, especially as Christmas approaches: Do I care most about God’s I AM or my own I am? The human I am stands for the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. The A is for ambition: Magnify my name. The M stands for money: Maximize it. But neither ambition nor money buys us a ticket to God’s observation deck.
We go up only through the grace of Jesus Christ, whom the apostle Paul called the second Adam—but we live by working, following what God set forth for the first Adam. God’s pronouncement to Adam that he would sweat to earn his daily bread was a punishment, yes, but also a severe mercy: When we don’t need to serve others by working, we typically start obsessing about our own I am. With our sinful natures, it’s harmful for poor human beings to live on welfare, rich human beings to live on trust funds, or 60-year-old Frenchmen to live on pensions.
Chapter 3 of Lamentations displays the contrast between I am thinking and I AM. The first part of the chapter describes the individual reflecting on his own afflictions: He is in darkness without any light, he is walled about so he cannot escape, he wears heavy chains, he is on crooked paths, a bear and a lion are ready to attack him, he is torn into pieces, his kidney has become a pincushion for arrows, he is drinking wormwood, his teeth grind on gravel, he is cowering in ashes. It’s the march of a million groaning metaphors.
In the next part of the chapter, nothing in the author’s troubled situation has changed, but he has moved from I am to I AM: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.”
I imagine red, blue, and yellow salesman each accepting different currency for their tickets. The rich man’s money, the scribe’s knowledge, and the Pharisee’s reputation for morality are all legal tender. There’s nothing wrong with having money, knowledge, or a reputation for morality, but those who have it often know they have it and pride themselves on it. Those who have no money for tickets are far readier to accept the offer of free grace that provides ascension to a far greater observatory.
The goal of life is to move from the baby’s first cry of I am to the wise maturity of allegiance to I AM. Our human I am is born of fear: My position and my bank account give me a haven in a harsh world. God’s I AM requires trust, which is very hard for those of us who grew up amid suspicion and worry—but if it were easy we wouldn’t need the Redeemer born on Christmas.