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December 2013

So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?

220px-TheByrdsSoYouWantToBeARocknRollStarWhen I was young I wanted to operate the midway at the fair. I sat in church next to my Dad and drew intricate layouts of the midway during the sermon, checking my dad's watch regularly to see if the big hand was on 12 noon yet. I can still feel the paper and my Dad’s fountain pen in my hand, see the faded watch face, hear the pastor’s words in the background. I thought I had found my calling.

As a teenager I settled on the more “realistic” goal of being a rock and roll star. My friends John, Bobby, and I formed a short-lived band. In fact, it might only have existed for a couple days, and mostly in my dreams, encouraged by a bedroom lined with posters of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Yes. I wielded my late father's Gibson Les Paul Junior, a smallish electric guitar with a sunburst finish, which, combined with a ragged portable tube amp, produced wonderfully fuzzy, distorted sound as I whacked my way through "25 or 6 to 4," that great Chicago song. We stunk, really, and John's Dad, who actually was the drummer in a jazz trio, said I shouldn't give up the day job. Sage advice. We recruited fellow ninth-grader Wade, who we regarded as an authentic musician. Wade had shoulder-length hair, appropriately lazy hippie-speak, and walked over to John’s house, his “axe” (bass) slung on his back. After he heard a couple songs, he promptly left, shaking his head, and we quit the band, dejected.

As I moved toward college, after a semester in Mr. Darnell's technical drafting class, where he spent more time in wide-eyed discussions of extra-sensory perception and the mind-over-matter feats of Uri Geller (who slept in a pyramid) than in learning about drafting. I nevertheless decided I'd be an architect. However, I was not admitted to the School of Design. (But ask me anything about Uri Geller.) Then I declared a major in computer science. Nearly flunked out of that, staying up to all hours of the night or all night typing out punch cards and submitting them to the main frame computer which laughed and kicked them back to me. I switched to Sociology which, honestly, was a cake walk but without prospective employment. So I took up Social Studies education. One semester as a middle school teacher's aide cured me. I decided to go to law school.

So, you might say law was a last resort. I never even knew a lawyer before law school. I had seen Perry Mason, but that's about all I knew about the law.  (Well, I confess, I was picked up by cops for throwing rocks at a street sign once, but perhaps I shouldn't count that.)  I’m a case study of how one can fumble through school, majoring in everything and nothing, and yet, providentially, God planted me in a good place. 

I just wanted be a rock and roll star. In my weaker moments, I still do, kind of.

And yet it isn't given to many of us to have an exotic calling like that. Most of us work in ordinary jobs doing ordinary things which sometimes, by God's holy alchemy, come to extraordinary ends: some justice, some good, some beauty, some little light in the shadowlands of life. "Attempt great things for God," said William Carey. Or perhaps, as Frederick Buechner said, our "vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world's deep need?" No, all that’s all too grand, too world-saving. No, for most of us it's a regular persistence in works of small and regular obedience, of faithfulness in the little lives we lead in the little places where we live. Of love for the people and place in which we are planted.

In other words, to turn an oft stated maxim on its head: go small, and stay home, and you get to shine like a star anyway (Phil. 2:15). Don't worry too much about that big thing God may call you to do.  Just do the thing in front of you. Besides, having known a few, I can say that being a rock and roll star is not what it’s cracked up to be.

Like I said, I became a lawyer.  Bobby became an accountant.  John reached for the stars and became. . . a weatherman.

And all that's just fine. 25 or 6 to 4.

A Proper Scaring. . . at Christmas


“We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. . . . The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.”

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

If children know only happiness at Christmas, then we as adults can know an even greater happiness. We know, like children cannot yet know, the lack and lust of our own hearts, the countless sins of commission and omission. Our ledger is full of black marks and growing. And so, when we consider what God has done in His condescension, in his Incarnation, Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace” is not an option: we know our failings, we know what we deserve, and so we know that what we receive as gift is pure grace.

I am thankful that I had a good scaring as a child. In my childhood church, I recall watching prophecy films about the end of the world, the projector wheels turning, dramatic and sobering. On the way home in the dark once, I lay down in the floorboard at my mother’s feet, sheltered from what was sure judgment. Then, as a preteen science fiction reader, I was steeped in the fantastical and yet not so unreal as to be unbelievable stories of Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, so much so that I dreamed of terrors and, for a time, had to move into my parents’ room just so I could sleep. After that, Hal Lindsey’s pre-millenialist End Times manual, The Late Great Planet Earth, was a logical next step, a kind of Bible-based science fiction. The Antichrist. Armageddon. One world government.  Nuclear war. It was all coming true, in my lifetime. I just knew it.

While I no longer agree with Lindsey's interpretation of Scripture, I credit him (and perhaps Asimov and Heinlein as well) with scaring me into the Kingdom. I wanted to be among those raptured. I was frightened of being left behind. In the shadow of the Cold War, I lay awake at night sometimes wondering when the bombs would fall as part of the judgment. (I had a big imagination.)  I felt, as Bonhoeffer puts it, “the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse.”

So, I am put off at times by the sentimentality and sweetness of Christmas. That helpless baby lying in a manger is also the one who will come with fire and judgment. On that terrible day, left on our own, none of us could complain. Justice will be done. The Christ in the manger points to the Christ on the cross, the One resurrected, the one who comes on that Great Advent to make all things right. We best approach the helpless babe first on our knees, trembling, as He is our Judge. He is the one who will separate the sheep from the goats, the one who will "make all things new" (Rev. 21:5). We must absorb the bad news before we are quite ready for the good news. You hear little of this “proper scaring” during Advent.

At some point in my teenage years, I understood more fully that the God who judged my sin also covered it, that the baby Jesus was more than judge. He stood between my sin and God. He was not only judge but savior. I could walk through the hallways of my high school not weighed down by failings but free. All the Falls of my life were overthrown by Springs. The ledger may continue to fill with what I owe and yet "Jesus paid it all," in the words of the old hymn.

Rightly understood, this first Advent is a harbinger of a terrifying Day. But for believers, like children, we have all the more reason to be happy. We need not fear judgment. We are the recipients of a present of grace that has no bottom.  Bonhoeffer says that

God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. . . . We are no longer alone; God is with us. We are no longer homeless; a bit of the eternal home has moved into us.

In a final letter, written on her deathbed, author Flannery O’Connor admonished the recipient to “be properly scared, and [to] go on doing what you have to do, but take the necessary precautions.” Christian, I hope at some point in life you have had a proper scaring. If not, consider anew the Great Advent. Look to a baby in a manger who will bear all our sins away, as far as the East is from the West.

Happy Christmas, all. For the love of God, Happy Christmas.

A Red Bike, Advent, & the Everlasting Lodging of the Father

Red bikeIf I'm given to somewhat mournful, melancholy Christmas music, I come by it honestly.  Take Sufjan Stevens' beautiful Christmas song, entitled "Justice Delivers Its Death," and the even more beautiful, edenic video that accompanied the song.  With words like "Lord, come with fire/ Lord, come with fire/ Everyone's wasting their time/ Storing up treasure in vain/ Trusting the pleasure it gives here on earth" you know that this isn't "Silver Bells," and yet the song captures a longing for something more than the rank materialism that prevails this time of year, longs for an end to it.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend from his prison cell, "A prison cell is like our situation in Advent: one waits, hopes, does this and that - meaningless acts - but the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside." We're waiting for something that only began with an incarnate birth.  We're waiting for deliverance.  And we are not the key to that.

One Christmas morning when I was about six years old, I received a red bicycle from Santa.  It had 20-inch wheels and a basket on front.  I took the bike out for a ride on our street in Greensboro, and I immediately felt the sensation of freedom, of not being limited to just where my feet could take me.  This land is my land.  This ribbon of highway.  Surry Drive lay before me like Route 66.  And when it began to snow, I remember thinking something like "This is as good as it gets," felt some inarticulable sense of. . . of. . . deliverance from, if not a jail cell, at least from the cloistered life of childhood.  Free.  Bound for glory.  Only I couldn't put Guthrie's words to it then.  I squeaked out a mere "Cool!"

You think about such things in this season of  good cheer.  As Bonhoeffer preached on an Advent Sunday in 1928,

When once again Christmas comes and we hear the familiar carols and sing the Christmas hymns, something happens to us, and a special kind of warmth slowly encircles us.  The hardest heart is softened.  We recall our own childhood. . . . A kind of homesickness comes over us for past times, distant places, and yes, a blessed longing for a world without violence or hardness of heart, for the safe lodging of the everlasting Father.  And that leads our thoughts to the curse of homelessness which hangs heavy over the world.  In every land, the endless wandering without purpose or destination.

Bonhoeffer goes on to note that what weighs heavy on us in Advent is the reality of sin and death, and I would add that its our longing for justice, for a God to come and set all things right, undo the curse of homelessness, and bring to end the slog of the shadowlands.  Cheery?  Hardly.  For Bonhoeffer and most Christians throughout the ages, Advent has been a sober time.  The real celebrating starts with the Birth.

I rode my red bicycle a lot that winter.  Though this was before ET's screen debut and the dreams of every kid with a bike were visualized, at times I felt as if I could soar just so slightly above the pavement, hovering, indestructible.  And yet, I had accidents.  I ran into a parked school bus.  Showing off for a girl, I turned my red bike over, scraped all the skin off my arm, and yet contained all tears until I had furiously pedaled the half mile to my home.  Home.  Delivered.  The place where you can let it out, where you can be yourself, where, if you are blessed, your mother waits with open arms.

The "everlasting lodging of the Father." I had (and have) a great home, both cities of refuge for one who is sometimes fainthearted.  Still, I'm homesick.  Aren't you?

Comforting his disciples, Jesus said that "if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am" (Jn. 14:3).  Some of us will leave our busted bikes where they crashed and bleeding run home crying.  For others it may be a call to dinner, like my Mom yelling out the kitchen door "Stephennnnnn" and even above the click-click-click of the playing cards on my tire spokes I hear her and throw down my red bike and come running.  And yet for others it's an incredible invitation to a party where all the uncool and poorly dressed people get to come too, where the the fans of Portlandia, Duck Dynasty, and Lawrence Welk break bread together.  It's the everlasting lodging of the Father.  Underneath the tinsel, colored lights, and holiday parties, that's what we're waiting for --- a place of our own. That's Advent.