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December 2014

The Voice That Makes the Earth Shake

"'Well done,' said Aslan in a voice that made the earth shake.  Then Digory (the son of Adam) knew that all the Narnians had heard those words and that the story of them would be handed down from father to son in that new world for hundreds of years and perhaps forever.  But he was in no danger of feeling conceited for he didn't think about it at all now that he was face to face with Aslan.  This time he found that he could look staright into the Lion's eyes.  He had forgotten his troubles and was absolutely content."

(C.S. Lewis, in The Magician's Nephew)

There is a particular place on the hardwood floor in front of our refrigerator that creaks when you stand on it, creaks greatly. It's annoying. I know because one day shortly after its inception or, at least after I noticed it, I stood on it rocking back and forth - creak, creak, creak- transfixed, somehow, until my wife said "would you mind stopping that?" I stopped. I guess it annoyed her too.

Just for a moment, a fleeting moment, the thought occurred that maybe that creak was only the beginning of the end. The floor would eventually crack and collapse, carrying half the kitchen down with it into the abyss, my savings account following. But that's silly, I realize.

Or is it? It's that same feeling you get when you are driving down the road and just for a moment you wonder if the wheels might come off the car, or the axle break. Or that fleeting thought that a parking deck might collapse over your head. An elevator cable break. The Government be unable to pay its debts. The Walking Dead be cancelled. (I'm not really worried about that last one, but someone is.)

(You do get that feeling also, don't you? Don’t you?)

I realize this is how neuroses form. That if you dwell on such thoughts, you begin to be obsess and engage in irrational behavior about which you cannot be dissuaded. You begin avoiding elevators, parking decks, or even driving. Or going to the fridge. Which might not be a bad thing.

Now, grant you, neurotic is not pyschotic, at least. But then, it might lead to that, couldn't it? Couldn’t it?

I look around in my home office where I am writing this bit of paranoia, and I see that there are probably 200 books and as many CDs, in heavy bookcases, as well as my rather weighty desk, and not to mention my not slight mass, and a file cabinet, and a lamp, and. . . and. . . and while I know that contractors know something about building houses, I think about all that pressing down on a few perhaps splintered two by fours of wood, and the third floor and roof pressing down on that, and I wonder if it's possible that it might. . . well. . . break.

Sometimes, albeit rarely, these kinds of things are suggested to my pliable mind, and if any take root, anxiety blooms. And yet the Apostle Paul says “Have no anxiety about anything,” a command that seems nigh impossible to obey, if indeed it is a command. As Frederick Buechner says about Paul’s admonition, “In one sense it is like telling a woman with a bad head cold not to sniffle and sneeze so much or a lame man to stop dragging his feet. Or maybe it is more like telling a wino to lay off the booze or a compulsive gambler to stay away from the track.” We humans seem bent to it, predisposed to worry. Sick, lame winos, we are.

And yet what Paul tells us to do is to pray, in everything God bless him, and that as consequence, our hearts and even our minds will be kept in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t say the house won’t collapse or the economy go south, but he says Christ promises to keep us in a way that passes understanding, in a way that we can’t be gotten at no matter what.

Which is another way of saying that I’m really in trouble, or will be regularly, but He will be with me and guard both heart and mind. And in this Paul, imprisoned while writing such words, might have even smiled at the irony of his imprisonment: behind bars, guarded, unable to leave, and yet in Jesus, better guarded, free to stay in Him no matter what and even walk out of prison should God will it.  Or not.

Next time the floor creaks, and the Enemy makes a suggestion, I’ll pray.  I might also smile at the absurdity of the idea that he can get at me, guarded as I am in Jesus.  I'll remember I am kept in Him quite apart from what I can do with my thoughts.  Besides, eventually He'll fix the floor and everything else and say to me, "Well done," and a quivering I will go, shaken but loved.

Christmas Don't Be Late

In 1958 Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. (a/k/a David Seville) wrote a song called”Christmas Don’t Be Late.” The song rose to #1 on the Billboard charts and won three Grammy awards. The single sold 4.5 million copies in seven weeks and several times in the following years re-entered the Top 100. You know it, of course, as “The Chipmunk Song,” sung by the fictitious trio of Alvin and the Chipmunks and as a song played (and played one too many times) for comic relief. Bagdasarian sang all the lyrics, his main recording innovation being to use tape machines that could vary speeds so as to create more understandable dialogue. To me the song was always an irritant, and I thought it’s lyrics trite. And they are.

But wait. If you listen to the contemplative rendering of the song by Rosie Thomas, who adds a couple verses, you’ll understand why it is one of my favorites this Christmas (along with others on her Christmas album). Under Rosie’s care, the song is transformed. It begins in a child’s perspective, as it always did, longing for Christmas to “hurry fast,” for a “hula hoop” and a “plane that loops the loop.” But then the perspective broadens, first to a concern for others in the family, for Someone or something (Christmastime?) to “please bring joy to Mom and Dad,” to “help my brother, he’s been sad,” all of which immediately makes you wonder what weighs on Mom and Dad, and why is brother sad? And then the longing broadens to include a concern for everyone, it seems, for “love for all and peace,” to “comfort those who need a friend,” to “fill their hearts with happiness.” And then the zinger of longing, the “may they know He came for them.” All the while there is a continual longing for a Christmas to “please don’t be late,” it needs to come now because “the world cannot wait.” And when I hear that — particularly when I hear the plaintive voice of Rosie Thomas sing it — I hear a longing for a Christmas beyond what we know, a coming not only of the Jesus child but of a Jesus King who will dry up every tear and set things right, who will not be late.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who knew something about sadness and waiting, and who preached many a sermon on Christmas under the shadow of Hitler's Germany, said in one of those sermons that “God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon himself the punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. . . . Now there is no more reality and no more world that is not reconciled to God and in peace.” He spoke of “the unfathomable mystery of the love of God for the world.” If that sounds too universal in scope, perhaps it expresses God's heart for all Creation to be made whole even if not all people come, even if some settle for Christmas now, lights and snowmen and presents and Santa.

He came. For a Mom and Dad who are weighed down by too many Christmases of disappointment in themselves, in each other, in life. For a brother who is sad. For a shop-clerk whose feet are tired and mind weary of “and so this is Christmas, and what have we done,” and longs to go home. For the man at Waffle House nursing a cup of coffee at midnight on Christmas Eve. For a trucker on the highway early Christmas morning, alone on the freeway, Merle Haggard on the radio singing “Sing Me Back Home Again.” For a Christmas that, in the end, on December 26th, didn’t live up to what it promised, that didn’t make you happy but merely distracted you from life for a moment. Or one that even in its finest moment, when your gaze is on the Infant Lowly and the miracle of Incarnation, the longing for a Kingdom come but not yet come in fullness remains.

But I can tell you this: When I wake up the day after Christmas, a trio of chattering chipmunks will be in my head, still asking that Christmas not be late, and Rosie imploring that the world can’t wait. Hearing them, I hear “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” I hear promise and hope. I hear the mystery of of the love of God for the world and the unwinding of the curse. I hear the promise of Christmas to come. I can hardly stand the wait. 

Angel-Tracks in the Snow

When I was twelve, I was lying in my bed, presumably asleep, and I heard a voice speak my name. I sat bolt upright in the darkness. I believed then that it was God that spoke my name. Nothing else happened. There was no visible appearance, no light, no revelation. Just a single word.

I know that this kind of experience is, if not normal, at least not rare. My wife recalls sitting in her bedroom as a teenager and sensing the presence of Another in the room with her, one she believed was Christ. One member of our Presbyterian church — a church not given to fascination with extraordinary manifestations of God’s presence — once called the elders to his home to pray, as he and his wife and young daughter were rattled by an ominous presence in their home. Another woman told of a visible demon appearing in her bedroom.

Forty-four years later, time has muted the power of the voice that spoke my name. Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe I heard a voice because I needed to; I was an adolescent on the cusp of a larger awareness of my unsettling smallness in a world of intractable problems. And yet God knew my name. Maybe a post-modern cynicism peppers remembrance with a dogged doubt, makes me question my own perception. Yet, while faith is rooted in Word, not voices and visions, scripture is full of the regular if not common impingement of the unseen on the seen.

When I read missionary narratives, I am commonly confronted by the miraculous, by the permeable barrier between the physical and spiritual world. Reading At the Foot of the Snows, the late David Watters’s story of his Bible translation work among the Kham people of Nepal, I was reminded again that God does work in uncommon ways. Watters, a linguist, his wife Nancy, and their young sons Steve and Daniel, settled in the remote village of Taka-Shera in Western Nepal in 1969. Caught in a blinding snowstorm about 12,000 feet up while doing initial reconnaissance, his guide balked at proceeding further. As he tried to decide whether to retreat or go on, he writes of the mysterious appearance of footprints that led them through a mountain pass:

We stood at the edge of a great chasm separating us from the pass that was now hidden by gathering, swirling snow-clouds. The chasm was about five hundred feet deep, and the narrow ledges of of the near-vertical precipice wall were piled deep with ice and snow. As we peered over the edge, afraid of getting too close, we noticed on a narrow ledge straight below us faint foot-tracks, almost covered over from drifting snow. From there they disappeared.

As Watters and his companion proceeded, the disappearing foot-tracks would strangely reappear, just ahead. Reaching the base of the precipice, he describes conditions as a total whiteout, visibility zero. He says “We stumbled blindly into drifts of snow, unable to even see them. But just ahead, fifty feet away, we could make out the faint indentations of the foot-tracks. . . . On they went without the slightest deviation, straight towards the pass 1,500 feet above us.”

When I read such accounts, a little voice whispers “Really?” I begin to wonder if time and remembrance has morphed the true (perhaps, “a” footprint) into disappearing, reappearing “angel-tracks,” if the story has passed into legend. And yet context militates against such a reading. Watters’s account is not focused on the extraordinary, recording such occurrences but not dwelling on them. He is intelligent, articulate, honest when he need not have been, and not given to exaggeration or the fantastical. His Christianity is matter of fact, not sleeve-worn, and his account is like that of an anthropologist, not a missionary. I believe what he saw.

And I believe the voice I heard 44 years ago. I need to stop reducing God to the manageable, qualifying His work so as not to be disappointed, and believe that He can show up any time, walking across the surface of my day, disappearing and reappearing like angel-tracks in the snow.