I am no longer blogging here. Please check my new blog at:
Hi reader(s). In the next week or so I will no longer be blogging at this address. I will move to www.spacebetweenmyears.com. I’m trying to figure out if there is a way to export this blog and its comments to Wordpress since there has been so much discussion that I value and I would like to keep it in one place. I’m not sure this will happen, however. The reason for this uncertainty is related to my reasoning for the move. Namely, Blogsome, my current host has stopped updating its software, offering much support, and accepting new blogs. Blogsome does not make exporting easy and while Wordpress has simple import functions for other types of blogs (Blogger, Typepad, etc.), it does not have one for Blogsome. This has been a good home, but there are better. I have one blog with Wordpress already and enjoy that interface much more. I’ll let people know when the move is official, that is, when I will no longer be blogging here. Hopefully I’ll be able to import all that has happened on this blog over to the new one, but don’t hold your breath. If the import doesn’t work, I’ll leave this blog up, but it will basically be just an archive.
I lament that the deplorable and evil attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that killed six people and injured several others has been cynically turned into an opportunity for political factions to renew their mudslinging. Human beings have a seemingly innate drive to seek understanding of the reasons for events. When we do not have access to the reasons, we will make them up. The simpler the argument, the better. The temptation is, therefore, to create a narrative of events that is easily understood and, especially in cases of human tragedy, easily solved. If Gifford’s alleged attacker, Jared Lee Loughner, were moved to action because of inflammatory political speech, then, we tell ourselves, all we have to do is stop speaking like that and we can avert future attacks. If Loughner was under the influence of unbalanced chemicals in his brain, then all we need are better mental health services. Our drive to find simple causes for complex events is what creates conventional wisdom, as defined by John Kenneth Galbraith: “We associate truth with convenience – with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises to best avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life.” Many reduced answers for this attack have been simple and convenient. I am not saying that the political climate was not an influence on the attack, but we cannot know Loughner’s motives without his admission. That people were already “sure” of what drove Loughner to action within mere hours of the attack led to fairly specious conclusions. How in the world does someone sitting behind a desk in a television studio in New York know the motives of an attack in an Arizona parking lot without interviewing or investigating the attacker? Neither am I saying that mental illness played no part in the attack. From all accounts, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be a mentally unstable person. It seems to me impossible to reduce the motives or antecedents of Saturday’s attack to one reason.
Not only do we want simple explanations, we prefer it if others were more responsible than we were for those causes. Therefore, it is not enough to create a simple narrative of the causes, but we also need a single perpetrator. If the culprit is rancorous political dialogue, it is not our fault, our tongues are not to blame. It’s the other guy who said all the malicious things. Initially I was encouraged that the discussion of the antecedents and effects of the attack displayed how the uncivil and rancorous language in public conversation was inappropriate. I hoped that this event would give all people time to reflect on what it means to be neighbors and how we talk to and about our neighbors when we have very different visions of what is good and right for the nation. I wish that we could have serious political debate without impugning the character of others. It is one thing to say, “I believe you are wrong and your ideas are incorrect, but you clearly wish for the best for this nation.” It is something entirely different to say, “You want this country to fail,” or, “You are evil.” The discussion about how uncivil our dialogue has become quickly devolved into the ongoing pissing contest in American political discourse—I cannot think of a better term to express my disgust, so pardon me for using the expression. One side says the other is categorically worse in these sins and then the other side offers their rebuttal that those making complaints are just as guilty. It sounds childish. How I wish leaders and pundits would stop and say, “The call for civil dialogue and respectful disagreement is needed. I take responsibility and apologize for fostering an environment in which malicious and derogatory speech is the norm.” Someone please take the high road in this time.
The heated political discourse in which those with whom you disagree are not merely wrong, but stupid and evil is disgusting. While the heat may have been at a high in recent months—something I cannot substantiate—it is not altogether new in American or world politics. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, anyone? We always need to commit and hold each other accountable to civil discourse. I find it truly sad that it takes an elected official to be shot for people to say that we now need to tone down our rhetoric. Why are we not able to behave maturely without terrible events? Are we children who have to touch the hot stove in order to know that we should not put our hands on a burner? Whatever happened to Jesus’ wise words, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”? (Mt. 7.12a) Jesus was someone who could engage in deep disagreement and even heated debate without rancor and always with a love of his opponent.
As for Loughner’s motives and influences, I do not know them and will not pretend to know them. They will come to light in time as he is interviewed and analyzed. I think we should have a discussion concerning the language we use when we discuss our neighbors with whom we disagree. I think we should take a hard look at our mental health services and how we as a society help those who are mentally ill. I think we need to look hard at access to firearms—how in the world was Loughner able to legally purchase a gun? These are worthwhile matters for all of us to explore and we should not have to wait for tragedy to first happen. The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once famously said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Scot McKnight has written the one piece of commentary on this affair that I have found the most persuasive. In his post, “Looking in the Wrong Place,” he writes:
The problem is that human beings are cracked. What happened in broad daylight, in broad premeditated daylight, in Tucson was sickening to the stomach and destructive of the human spirit. But that didn’t happen because he was a right winger or left winger — and a case has been made for both. And it didn’t happen because the Left or the Right had gotten inside that young man’s head and spoiled it….
But the problem, Mr and Mrs Pundit, is not the Right or the Left. The problem is You and Me. Let’s quit the blame and look inside.
The problem is right where Solzhenitsyn said it was: the line between good and evil runs through the heart of each of us.
For the last post of the year, I offer my list of favorite things seen, heard, and read in 2010. The items on the list didn’t have to be released in 2010, I merely had to experience them for the first time this past year. There isn’t a 2009 list because I was apparently lazy last year. These lists are in no particular order. Anyway, here it goes.READ more
At a recent class for ordination, one of our instructors described the symbolism behind what is found on many church altars and the description was news to me. Look at the front of many sanctuaries and you will see placed atop a table two candles and in between either a Bible or a plate and cup, or all of these items. The Bible represents the ministry of the word and the plate and cup represent the sacrament of Eucharist. These items are not there because churches years ago agreed to a standard decor. Instead, they are physical reminders of the Christian life and have deep significance for the season of Advent. The first candle symbolizes the Incarnation of Jesus and the second candle symbolizes his eventual return. In between his first coming and second coming, the ministry of the Church—word and sacrament—take place. (Aren’t those great symbols? I wonder why they were never explained to me before or how their meanings were forgotten.)
In an earlier post about Advent, I wrote that the season has become one of my favorites for its mixture of celebration and longing. Put another way, Advent is a season of thanksgiving and hope. We are thankful for Jesus’ coming to the world and hope with expectation and longing for his return. While I find my faith re-energized during this season with its rich songs, prayers, and symbols, it is also a season where my greatest doubts about the Christian faith emerge. I have little trouble with the celebration and thanksgiving aspects of Advent and Christmas. That Jesus arrived, changed the whole world, and called people to follow him is not difficult for me to accept—to live accordingly, however, is another matter and another post altogether. My wife and I display creches from different cultures, which remind us of the largeness and universal implications of the Incarnation. We also remember to read the birth narrative in the Gospel of Luke with its historical particulars to remind ourselves that Jesus was born in a specific time and place, a member of the Jewish people, coming to fulfill the specific promises God made to the children of Abraham and to call Gentiles to worship the one true God. I love re-entering this story every year. I love learning about the particulars of it, wondering what these flesh and blood people like Mary and Joseph must have been thinking as they awaited the birth of Messiah. Using the image of the altar again, I’ve got no problems believing the reality of the first candle and the current ministry of the Church.
I do have problems at times believing the reality of the second candle on the altar, the candle symbolizing Jesus’ promised return. The difficult part of Advent for me is the hope, the longing, the waiting for Jesus to come again and set everything right. Hope is always a challenge because we do not presently see that for which we hope. As Paul says in Romans 8.24, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” We hope for Christ’s second coming, we are waiting the second Advent. We long for Messiah to return, to bring the world to right, to end oppression and enmity, and to restore beauty and love. We are stuck in the in-between and that is a hard place to be. Being between the promise given and the promise fulfilled is a wilderness place. As the years have grown and Christ has not returned, doubts begin to plague me. Why is Jesus taking so long to come back? Has there not been enough pain? Has there not been enough beauty? I think of the drug wars along the US-Mexican border with their terrifying stories of violence and greed and I wonder, Jesus, why don’t you come back now and put an end to that conflict? I think of the fact that millions are dying from HIV-related illnesses, and I pray, Jesus, come back now and save them. Or I consider that nearly a billion people in the world do not have access to clean water and I ache for Jesus to return and give living water to all these thirsty people. Those are just a few current examples of the brokenness in the world that need God’s healing. What of all the violence and evil that have occurred throughout history? Why hasn’t Jesus come back? Is his return merely a Christian belief, as some biblical scholars postulate, that was either made up after Jesus or something about which the biblical authors and perhaps even Jesus himself were wrong? Am I reading the Bible correctly, am I understanding the Church’s story accurately when I believe that Jesus is returning? Am I delusional to believe in Christ’s return or even to believe in Jesus at all? This waiting period is a time in which all sorts of doubts and questions emerge. Thankfully we can look back on the first coming of Jesus, but it is still hard to wait for the second coming.
To be in that liminal space is to have good company, though that does not always comfort me. Think of the big stories in the Bible and how many of them spend their time in between the promises given and the promises fulfilled. Most of Abraham and Sarah’s story takes place in between the promise that they will have a son and when Isaac is finally born. Even then they never really see God’s promise that their family will be a great nation fulfilled. In the Torah, the Israelites spend most of their time after being rescued from Egypt in the wilderness and don’t even get to the Promised Land until the events in Joshua. The prophets ache for the people to return to faithfulness or for God to end the Exile or for Messiah to come.
It seems that to be a person of biblical faith means to be in a state of waiting in between the promise given and the promise fulfilled. In Advent, we remember that God fulfilled that first promise, to send Messiah and save God’s people from their sins. We also stand in the in-between, waiting for the second promise, when Jesus will return and bring the new creation to its fulfillment and defeat sin and death completely. We stand in between two candles, looking back and looking ahead, remembering that we can look ahead with hope because of what has happened in the past. It may be a hope that is hard to see at times.
This past Sunday, the Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary brought us to the story when Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, receives news about Mary’s miraculous pregnancy. We read this in Matthew 1.18-25:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)I found this passage surprising and challenging as I reflected on it last week. The Gospel describes Joseph as “a righteous man,” a man who follows God’s will. To give a sense of how important a designation it was, at the time of Matthew’s writing, the term “a righteous man” was often used to describe the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Here is a person who is close to God, who knows God’s heart, whose character and reason were shaped by God’s teaching over time. Matthew appears to insinuate that Joseph’s plan to dismiss Mary quietly when he discovered she was pregnant with someone else’s baby was the compassionate thing to do and under normal circumstances, would have been godly. Yet despite all that formation, despite being a righteous person, Joseph was going to do something that went against God’s plan. How could that happen?
This story challenged me because I realized I held a skewed view of spiritual formation. Namely, I believed that with enough training, with enough shaping by God, we could reach a point in our lives in which we would no longer need God’s guidance—like the apprentice painter who studies and practices under her teacher for years, but eventually learns enough and develops enough that she no longer needs the teacher and can paint and create on her own. Joseph had been developed by God so much that he was recognized as “a righteous man.” One would think he could use his God-shaped reason to plot his life’s course in a way entirely in line with God’s will. We do want God to form our reasoning and characters, but I realized in reading this passage that no amount of reasoning and wisdom can take the place of prayer. I have to be reminded that maturity in the Christian life is not like how we often view maturity, in which we become self-sufficient, independent beings who do not need others for anything. The Christian understanding of maturity actually works the opposite direction. As one becomes more mature in Christ, one understands and seeks to foster a deeper need on God and community. This is not to belittle our reasoning or spiritual formation, but to acknowledge God’s vastness and our constant dependence on God’s revelation.
We could take the angle that Joseph, though being a righteous man, was still sinful and proud and his pride of being close to God clouded his vision of what God was doing. That view of the text, however, still carries with it the assumption that we can get to a point in our walk with God where we no longer need God. As if all we need is to have God help us shirk off our sinful tendencies and then we would be able to see things completely from God’s vantage point on our own. Another option is that we could despair and wonder if we could ever truly know what God wants of us in our lives. The text does not support those interpretations. Rather, the text seems to say that what God was doing in the incarnation was so big, so radical, so surprising, that even “a righteous man” like Joseph could not understand what was happening without God revealing the plan to him. Yes, the text makes it clear that there was centuries-old prophetic hope in Messiah coming, but few would imagine it would be their fiancée who would be the virgin carrying God’s anointed one. Because God was up to something so far beyond anyone’s imagination, even righteous people would be surprised. Joseph is a hero in this passage because he is righteous, he is close to God. As a person who is close to God’s heart, he understands that the God we read about in the Hebrew Bible is full of amazing surprises. To have a character shaped by God means that one would not only act compassionately and justly, but that one would also be open to surprises. If we read these verses and worry whether we could ever know God’s will, let us remember that one of the pieces of good news in a passage just dripping with gospel is that God does give revelation. Joseph can know God’s will because God makes that will known. The tasks for us are to remain open to God’s revelation, to be humble when we believe we have received that revelation, to act accordingly with the values and character God has already shaped in us, and to pray that God will continue to reveal himself to us.
My prayer is that in this last week of Advent we would be surprised by Jesus’ continual incarnation in the world and through prayer, we would receive a greater sense of our need for God and divine revelation.
I have not always been comfortable with doubt, or even with exploring the notion of doubt. Granted, doubt is by its nature a discomfiting place to be. Earlier in my faith I viewed doubt as signifying weakness, a questionable character, or the beginnings of apostasy. I spent much of my time building my certainty in the Christian faith. And did I feel certain—I had all the answers for my problems and other peoples’ questions. I must admit that I sometimes miss that certainty. We humans seem to like certainty. We like the feeling of knowing that we know that we know. Given the choice between doubt with its unsure footing and certainty with its rock-solid foundation, we generally choose certainty.
When I take a look at my past in those “certain” times, however, I see that my faith was not so much in God, but in the amount of certainty I felt. I found assurance and comfort in the fact that I knew the truth. My faith rested on my ability to gain knowledge, to trust that knowledge, and to ultimately defeat challenges to that knowledge. To put it another way, my confidence rested on the fact that I felt confident. My own ability to muster up a sense of certainty was the object of my faith and I was the ultimate subject of my faith. I would not have said this then, but I now see that much of my faith lay more in my own convincing myself rather than in trusting God. And so I built structures and rules of knowledge.
I can hear the opponents of any religious faith proclaiming, “What you describe is what all religious faith is: human-built systems of rules and knowledge stemming from peoples’ heads.” I am not here to make a defense for Christian or religious faith against those objections, but to say that my faith in my ability to make myself feel certain was not necessarily what the Church has proclaimed for centuries. Perhaps I am being a bit hard on my younger faith since I would not be here without it. Borrowing from C. S. Lewis, my faith was a house of cards and God graciously knocked it down only to allow another house to be built, one with hopefully more faith in the surprising God of the Bible rather than in my limited view of God. The Church has believed our faith does not rest in our abilities to be sure or convinced or convincing. Rather, our faith rests in God, in the three persons of the Trinity. God is the ultimate object of our faith. What is more, the Church has proclaimed that we did not create God in our minds, but that faith came to us through acts of God’s self-revelation, primarily and most fully in the person of Jesus. Therefore, Triune God is also the subject of our faith, or, as the author of Hebrews puts it, Jesus is, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (12.2) Without Jesus and his gracious self-revelation, Christians could not believe. Without Jesus and his glorious self-revelation, Christians would not have anything to believe in.
The English translations “pioneer” and “perfecter” capture well the original Greek text. Jesus is the source, the founder, the pioneer of our faith. Jesus creates our faith and gives us it as gift. Jesus is also the perfecter of our faith, bringing it to wholeness, to its intended goal. To believe in Jesus is not the same as believing that 2+2=4. Rather, belief in Jesus is akin to believing in a friend—that they are trustworthy, that they care for us, that mutual love exists. That kind of relational faith is impossible to nail down with mathematical certainty. In fact, we get ourselves in a mess when we try to reduce the God of the Bible to formulas as I used to years ago. Just when we think we have God all sorted out, we read something in the text that surprises us or we have some new experience of Jesus, that challenges our previous picture of who God is. That is not to say God is capricious or that we can never truly know anything about God. Any other friend I have is not completely unknowable just because he can surprise me and I cannot possibly know everything about him.
But how I long for certainty and an end to my questions and doubts. To enter the journey of the Christian faith does not eliminate all doubt—this faith does not provide all the answers to life’s questions. As I listen to and read the stories of the famous and inconspicuous saints, I see that doubt remains a key aspect of their faith. They firmly believe in the Father, they trust Jesus deeply, they know they have experienced the grace of the Holy Spirit, but they cannot become omniscient. Over time Jesus shapes their faith into one that rests more on him. Jesus therefore challenges their former certainties, which is never a happy experience for the believer. He calls them to believe him, to believe in him, not just to believe things about him. This is a messy process with lots of unknowns. We let go of many of our certainties about Jesus and become certain in Jesus himself. That faith is therefore a combination of knowns and unknowns, or a combination of certainties and doubts. This is the kind of faith that is open to mystery and surprises and continual learning.
God continues to challenge me to have faith in God, not to have faith in the things I believe about God. That has been difficult. There are times when my certainties are challenged by spiritual dryness or painful experiences and I wonder if I ever knew God in the first place. I find later that it is in those seasons of doubt that God is working in me, working in my faith to believe more in God than in my ideas about God. The more certain I am in God, I find the less certain I am in my ability to completely understand God.
I’m reading about this movement of Christians who have a surprising and fresh encounter with God. Because of their awakening to God’s desires, they find themselves drawn to make deeper commitments to Jesus. Unfortunately they find their churches to be fossilized institutions, lacking energy or passion and with bureaucracies that hinder responsiveness to the Spirit’s leading. It seems the churches are full of Sunday Christians and pastors who prefer the safety of the job to the adventure of being a part of God’s mission. The passionate but dissatisfied disciples grow frustrated because they want to swim in the deep end of Scripture, not have intramural debates on doctrine. They have experienced God’s grace and want to express their gratitude with fresh poetry and songs, not sing the same old tunes that no one cares about. These Christians find like-minded brothers and sisters who also strongly desire to glorify God with their whole lives through prayer and Scripture-reading, telling the good news of Jesus Christ to their neighbors, and serving the poor in their cities and towns. They wish the churches of which they are members would do these things, but they see no real effort made by the leadership or by many of their fellow congregants to do anything different. They want to be around those with real faith, not around people who think they are Christians just because they have always gone to church. So they start studying the Bible together in their homes and evangelizing their neighbors. Their actions make the leadership of their churches nervous in part because they say how one lives is just as important as what one believes. Also, they begin to question whether a person really needs to be ordained in order to preach the good news or administer the Sacraments. The official church and denominational leaders take action to rein in or, in some cases, even stop these home groups from gathering. The Christians in the home groups grow even more frustrated and begin to ask why they need to be a part of the older, institutional church in the first place? If God is moving among them as they meet in their homes, why do they need to go to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings? They are doing the things that God wants them to do—spreading the good news, helping the sick and poor, studying the Bible—without any help from the institutional church, and in fact the institutional church is often a barrier to them doing these important ministries. Why should they remain a part of that church or denomination if it tries to stop them from following God’s leading?
Reading about these Christians reminded me of George Barna’s 2005 book, Revolution. In that book, Barna looks at the American Church and says, “Millions of devout followers of Jesus Christ are repudiating tepid systems and practices of the Christian faith and introducing a wholesale shift in how faith is understood, integrated, and influencing the world…. They are seeking a faith experience that is more robust and awe-inspiring, a spiritual journey that prioritizes transformation at every turn, something worthy of the Creator whom their faith reflects.” (11, 14) These Christians gather in living rooms, coffee shops, and even online for Bible study, prayer, and service to those in need. They may or may not be a part of traditional churches. In fact, Barna offers data showing more and more American Christians are leaving traditional church structures behind and are finding greater resonance in smaller settings with other like-minded believers who are less impressed with graduate degrees from seminaries than with leadership that is in tune with God’s leading. They want to passionately follow the Spirit’s movement today, not adhere to some tradition that no longer holds meaning for them. This change is happening now and is shaping the landscape of American Christianity.
Had he known of the renewal movement I am studying, Barna could have used their story to support his thesis about the changing American church in Revolution. He could, except for two issues. First, these Christians come from Sweden, not America. Second, and more importantly, I am reading about Christians who lived in the 19th century. In his book, By One Spirit, Karl Olsson details the beginnings of my church denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. In my experience church history is often one of the topics Christians are least-excited about. Who cares about a bunch of old, dead people when we need to pay attention to what God is doing now? As I swim through the pages of my denomination’s history, I admit all the names and dates are hard to keep straight. I cannot shake, however, that sense I have had in every church history course I have taken. Namely, that the challenges and opportunities we face in following Christ usually are not all that unique, save for some specific details. In fact many of our challenges look just like the old challenges. Similarly, many of the solutions we create look just like the old solutions. Take those Swedish Christians I’m studying. Like the contemporary American Christians Barna describes as forming an altogether new movement of the Church, those Swedes wanted a deeper faith that brought them closer to God and reflected the life they read in the Bible. In order to facilitate this greater commitment they created small groups, worshiped in their homes instead of church buildings, and did not rely on clergy to do all their Bible-reading, praying, and ministry for them—just like the Christians in Revolution are doing. Reading church history is often a humbling experience for me because I see that the world and the Church did not begin with me, I learn that God has been active in powerful and personal ways throughout history, and I discover that those older and dead Christians who I think of as stagnant and foolish were trying to respond faithfully to God’s leading and often did so in very creative and wise ways. Church history reminds me that I’m a part of a story that is larger than my story or even my congregation’s story. It’s not so bad to be humbled sometimes.READ more
Like many people, I greatly enjoyed the video of the Opera Company of Philadelphia singing the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah in Macy’s during the last weekend of October. Seeing that music performed outside its normal context of church sanctuaries or concert halls with the choirs either in robes or formal attire reminded me just how beautiful and powerful that piece of art is.
Later I found I could not make up my mind concerning the event and its spiritual implications. I vacillated between two competing views, which I have decided to share here. The first view is that the event was a beautiful in-breaking of good news, a surprising Christian proclamation in the midst of consumerism. The second view is that the event was a further commodification of the gospel, a further example of taking something spiritual and using it for commercial purposes. I’m curious if people agree with one view or the other, or if like me, they find themselves conflicted.
The singing of the “Hallelujah” chorus at Macy’s is a fantastic example of the way in which the gospel works. Here are these people, immersed in the contemporary economic story that their primary identities is that of consumers. They are told over and over again that their worth comes from how much they make, spend, and own. Their value is found only in what they can produce and buy. Our holidays have also been captured by this narrative and thus the season in which we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ has been transformed and reduced to the biggest shopping season of the year. The Macy’s in the video is decorated with Christmas festivity even before November has begun in order to extract more money from their customers. So the people in the video do what they are indoctrinated by our society to do: they shop for better deals for clothing and accessories they, or the ones for whom they are shopping, do not likely need. They are lured to Macy’s by the gospel of discounts and an extra ten percent off their purchases if they open an in-store credit card. Then, an announcement of truly good news overtakes them without warning. As the organ and choir begin the first bars of the “Hallelujah” chorus, everyone in the store stops, puts down the sweaters or perfume, and, like the shepherds shocked by the choir of angels in the Gospel According to Luke, they hear the announcement that God is the Lord. The music ushers the shoppers into a different reality—a reality in which neither Caesar nor Madison Ave. are the rulers of the Earth, but Christ, “shall reign forever and ever.” The chorus confronts the shoppers to no longer see themselves as the servants of profit margins or slaves to gross domestic product. Rather, they are invited to be citizens of the kingdom, a kingdom created by a gracious God who loves them, who loves the world, who does not see the people as a means to an end. The choir wakes the crowd up to the “King of kings! and Lord of lords!” So while Macy’s may think they were only partnering with an Opera Company to give their customers a pleasant surprise, they were unknowingly opening the door to a subversive message to their customers that those shopping in the store are actually a part of a greater reality, a greater Christmas than Madison Ave. could ever imagine.
The singing of the “Hallelujah” chorus at Macy’s, while aesthetically beautiful and surprising—which should not be discounted—is ultimately nothing more than the further attempt to render an already co-opted Christian holiday even more submissive to the whims and desires of the dominant American narrative of consumerism. The obvious gifts of Handel and the singers do not actually confront the shoppers or the selfish desires of Macy’s. If anything, the singing of the chorus further assimilates the shoppers to the kingdom of consumerism. They may be shocked to hear the beauty of Handel’s music, but the shock comes primarily from the context. That is, they are shocked only because they did not expect to hear world-class choral music as they sought a deal on a pair of pants for their loved ones. They are not shocked by a challenge to actually change their behavior, to use their money in ways that genuinely help those in need, or to switch their allegiances from the kingdom of consumerism to the Kingdom of God. Macy’s is far too smart to let something truly subversive infiltrate and undermine their goal to make a profit during the last quarter of the fiscal calendar. The likely effect of the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s flash mob—and the one likely desired by Macy’s when they agreed to the idea—was to put shoppers in a better mood, to give them a better opinion of Macy’s, and thus increase the chance that they would spend money. Imagine someone debating whether to purchase a sweater before the singing started. Maybe they don’t need it or maybe they are uncomfortable with Macy’s starting the Christmas season early just so that the store can increase its bottom line. The music starts and it is surprising and delightful. After the chorus ends, is the shopper more or less likely to purchase that sweater? Does the person hear, “The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth,” and receive it as a call to live in another kingdom, or do they think, “It is cool that Macy’s would do this”? This was an opportunity for Macy’s to quiet those critics who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” by having perhaps the most Christian-y of all Christmas choral pieces sung in their store. Now those uncomfortable with the commodification of the Church’s celebration of the Incarnation are placated, their guilty consciences mildly assuaged so that they can return to the core practice demanded by the dominant societal narrative: shopping. They can now feel like they support a store trying to do something good during Christmas—i.e., surprising people with beauty and praising their Lord in song—rather than using their money to help others. The glorification of Jesus’ birth is cynically and shrewdly utilized to shape people into better consumers.
Here is another video of a flash mob singing the “Hallelujah” chorus at a foot court in a mall in Niagara Falls, Canada.
The Christian calendar begins a new year this Sunday with the start of Advent. I have always loved Advent and Christmas. I love the decorations no matter how simple or ornate. When my brother and I were children, my grandmother made us an Advent calendar with a Christmas tree and ornaments of felt that counted down the days until Christmas Eve. It was a fun tradition where we took turns hanging one little ornament per day. As Christmas grew closer, my sense of expectation became more unmanageable. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning to open my presents.
In recent years Advent has become one of my favorite seasons of the Church year with its mix of celebration and longing. My love for it is thankfully more in line with the Church’s celebration of the Incarnation than with Madison Ave.’s celebration of the year’s biggest shopping season. In Advent we remember and celebrate the first advent, when Jesus came into the world and we look forward and long for the second advent, when Jesus will come again, bring the new creation to fulfillment, and “righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85.10b) Just as we remember the longing for Messiah before the first advent, we now long for Messiah’s return. Last year Carey and I made it a point to turn our Advent wreath into a prayer, a physical reminder of the great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”
Each week we decorated our wreath with stories and pictures of injustice around the world along with prayers and Scripture that reminded us of God’s great mission to save the world. We let these stories and verses shape our Christmas expectations. We decorated our home last year with the traditional tree and its celebratory ornaments, our creches from different cultures, and poinsettias and garland. Those decorations created a sense of festivity in our home and I loved it. It was also helpful to have the Advent wreath sitting in the center of it all, however, reminding us of the important longing inherent in Advent. While it may seem like a downer to be reminded of injustice in the world, I found the wreath drew me into deeper prayer. It is a struggle each year for me to step out of the busyness of the season, to filter out the noise of the commercials, and to pay attention to God. I find I need reminders, physical reminders of what God values and what God promises to do. I need to remember that as we celebrate the glorious, miraculous, joyous, and history-changing event of the Incarnation, we also pray with sighs and groans for the return of Jesus.
How do you celebrate Advent and make it meaningful?