Nativity

I get depressed at Christmas time. Not for some traumatic reason. I just find it much harder to find solitude. It’s busy and stressful and just full. It’s not a relaxing time for me.

Then there is the whole hope, joy, peace, and love thing. The nativity story, as I read it, isn’t anything like the saccharine version most of us love to hear retold at Christmas. Mary is calm. Joseph is stoic. Jesus, no crying he makes. But I’ll bet he sure did. He was a human baby boy born in the stable not a sterile hospital bed. His little bloody head would burst from his mother’s body in a barn full of animal feces and stuck in a trough to sleep. Aww so sweet!

At least Bean’s version has some gore. That’s the real Christmas story.

Jesus entered the world suffering and was eventually executed by torture.

Certainly, the Christian faith includes all that peace, hope, joy, and love, but none of it is borne of anything but struggle. The good is borne of suffering. Jesus is crucified as a traitor and becomes the king of salvation. Our sacraments are steeped in this violence. We die to sin and rise to life in baptism. We eat the flesh and blood of Jesus as we re-present the torturous death of our Saviour week in and week out.

I’ll bet he was a beautiful baby, though.

Christmas reminds me of a truth I don’t want to accept. Despite years of trying to deny it, I have grudgingly accepted it as axiomatic. It is the way of the world. The good is borne of suffering. The problem is, I can imagine a possible world in which it is not. And I would rather be in that world. In fact, for me, it turns Anselm’s ontological argument on its head. Or side maybe. It’s also the primary argument against the God of the people of the book. It’s what puts the goodness of God into question.

Human beings grow through suffering. Suffering produces goodness but suffering in itself is not good. I think this is demonstrably true outside of Christian doctrine from the physical suffering of muscles gaining strength through strain to the aged having wisdom from a lifetime of mistakes. Perhaps, growth can come without suffering but I can’t think of any kind that’s worth a damn. But I can imagine a world where growth doesn’t have to include suffering.

Hell, isn’t that what we imagine heaven to be? A place that isn’t this place. You know, before it got broken. So why not just have heaven and skip all the bad stuff?

As Time Bandits‘ God responds to the the problem of evil, “I think it has something to do with free will.”

As any young pastor’s child worth their bible-study-borne cynicism does, I went to L’Abri in Switzerland. L’Abri is a cross between a kibbutz and a Bible College started by a b-list Christian philosopher named Francis Schaffer. That’s probably harsh, but I don’t think incorrect. He holds a kind of cultic status in the organization. Still though, I loved the place.

It was one of the best times of my life. And boy did I get to meet some kindred cynics embittered by Evangelical existential angst driven home by all of the TULIP petals of Calvinism’s purist purists. One particularly bitter young genius – whose name I wish I knew (a decade too early for Facebook) – said something like, “Sure, this is the possible world in which Adam and Eve ate the fruit but why couldn’t it have been the one which they didn’t?”

It’s not a dumb question even though it sounded like one to me at the time. I still remember it, though! I think the point is, if God is all-powerful, why couldn’t God have created a world where free will and paradise co-exist without the need for evil in the first place?

This is is what leads me to my issue with Anselm’s ontological argument summarized in a previous post. It’s all about God being a being greater than can be conceived. The problem is, I can conceive of a world better than the one God made and that makes me wonder if God can actually be the greatest being of which I can conceive. There’s a being I can conceive that made a better universe. Yeah yeah, I know. If God is greater than my conception, my conception can’t undermine the logic of Anselm’s stupid argument. I know. But I sure would like to conceive why good needs evil and with better answers than, “Something to do with freewill.”

In that mountaintop paradise in Switzerland, there was another person, this one a leader, who left me with a koan that has been krazy-glued to my soul:

“Everything of value has cost.”

His name, I do remember. It’s Jamie Shivers. But I’ve never been able to find a way to thank him for that sentence.

Everything of value has cost.

Combined with my favourite Oscar Wilde quote and you reach the soul of that pretentious young college student, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

I still see all the cost, but I’m trying to find the value too.

Everything of value has cost.

It is the way. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of the nativity. It is the way.

But why did it have to be the way?

The thing that still holds me to Christianity is that it is steeped in this truth. Jesus is the fully-God son of a fully-human woman of the nation of Israel, a people whose very name means “struggle with God.” He dies in profound agony. God’s people suffer and wrestle with him. In fact, we killed him. The Christian belief is that God turned that suffering we put his son through into the means of our salvation. We wrestled with God so much that we actually killed him. He turned that into the means of life for all humanity.

That is the good news. Goodness born of suffering.

It is the way.

But why did it have to be the way?

Thanks

I got the job!

What with all my hand-ringing last week, how am I supposed to feel about it all? I didn’t pray for it but my parents did. In fact, they put out a prayer ABP for others to, as well. So did their prayer work and now I have to worry that it actually wasn’t me that earned it? I don’t know. I am genuinely thankful, but if God didn’t intervene, who do I thank?

I prepared for the interview. For someone like myself, the interview process in the bureaucratic world of teaching means that they have strict rules guiding the process. There is a point system and the interviewers (usually two principals, one from the school and another from a different school) are supposed to record everything the candidate says. At the end, they tally up a score based on whether your answers referenced the “right” concepts. Note: it’s not whether the candidate understands the concepts and how to incorporate them into their job. Rather, it’s simply a matter of buzzword bingo. Did you drop enough jargon into your answers? You get the points.

I hate corporate speak. I don’t have an issue with the research behind the concepts or the concepts themselves. But the words are simply names that some academic or guru has given to the concepts. The names they give are not relevant as long as the concepts are understood and, more importantly, actually implemented. The problem with corporate speech is that people think knowing the buzzwords and using them is enough. That’s where it all falls apart. Doing is better than saying, every time.

I instinctively rebel against this stuff. I would rather not say the words but answer honestly and in a way that reflects how I would do the job than simply throw out as many of the right words as possible. So what I did was research the words and ensure that I had them at the ready so that I could use them to explain what I would do. I must have done enough since I got the job. But it was me that did it. Wasn’t it? I did the research. I did the interview. What did God do?

Part of the reason I have stopped praying is that I want to do things for myself. I want to grow and feel that I had agency in the process. I don’t want miracles. I want to improve myself and earn my rewards. I’m sure this isn’t inconsistent with God acting in the world. Prayer doesn’t have to be a simplistic zero sum game. God can encompass the contradictions we formulate. I’m sure there is some way in which both God acts and we act and our responsibility is shared. After all, the most consistent name we give God, as well as the one Jesus used, is “Father.” What is a father but a man who raises a child to become an adult? The jargon we use for that process in the teaching world is “gradual release of responsibility.” See what I did there? I’ve just shown you that I know the words, understand the concept, and can apply it which the interview process doesn’t measure.

The problem with this way of seeing the process is that it is hard to know where God ends and I begin. I guess it’s not that important, but it is meaningful for me to know that I earned something. Perhaps I don’t need to know exactly how much of me earned it as long as I can claim some agency in the process.

All this being said, there is another more deeply held need for me. I need someone in whom to direct my thanks. I am thankful. I have a job. I have a permanent job. The anxiety around changing careers is now over. The risk I took a few years ago to shift careers in middle age with a large family seems to have paid off. I have a good career in a stable sector. I will have benefits and a pension. I am thrilled with the position and hope that it will be as fulfilling as I think it will be. So to whom do I direct my thanksgiving?

In the earlier days of loosing my religion, I felt a loss at the idea that if God didn’t exist, I would have no one to thank for this world we live in. That has always been an important aspect to my spirituality. The most significant “mountaintop” experience I have had was literally on a mountain in the Swiss Alps. As I gazed across the valley before me, it struck me that if I love all this, I love the creator of it too. This was a significant realization because it solved a question I had long had about how to love God unconditionally. If I love the creative spirit that made this world, then I love the who of God as opposed to loving God for what I get out of him.

The natural response to that beauty is giving thanks. But if there is no God, who do we thank for all this.

Thanks too implies responsibility. That is, if we are thanking God for the world, then we are laying the responsibility for its creation in his lap. That means God also bears some responsibility for the things we lament too. This is very Old Testament. The Psalms and the prophets constantly shift from praise and thanksgiving to lament and pleading.

The glass is full. It’s neither half empty nor half full. It’s full but the contents are a muddy mess. The pure spring water of beauty, love, and joy has formed a cocktail with the stagnant muck of evil, pain, and sorrow. It’s a messy business life. However, at the risk of letting the metaphor get away from me, if you are still enough to let the mixture settle, it will separate enough to enable us to see the good for what it is despite being contaminated by the bad.

I am thankful for the good. I am furious at the bad. I don’t know how to rationalize or make sense of this cocktail of contradiction, but I can both thank God for the blessings and rage at him for the curses. The Psalmists and the prophets did. So I guess I’m in good company.

However it all came to be, I am thankful. I am thankful for the good stuff in my life. I’m thankful too for some of the bad. The bad has made me into the man I am. I still resent some of the bad and cannot see how it has had any positive affect. There is so much evil that hasn’t led to good. Some things are just evil beyond any redeeming. So I name that for what it is while I give thanks to God for the good.

I have a job. I am thankful.