how the grinch, an infant, + a dusty prophet saved christmas
oh god, oh god, oh my god.
it feels as if you’re asleep at the wheel and try as we might, no one seems able to wake you.
some, like the prophets long ago on a mountain named carmel, danced, and cried, and cut themselves all in an effort to get the attention of a distant, emotionally unavailable, cantankerous deity.
they cried out
they poured their libations upon the earth
and they waited in hopeful anticipation much like a kid after soccer practice confidently waving off ride after ride after ride,
but no one showed up.
Elijah, the prophet standing quietly on the other side of carmel mountain, had the ball boys at this divine standoff assemble a pile of sticks and logs that would be your entrance music (the first century equivalent of “enter sandman”)
he had them pour 4 buckets of water on the wood to dampen it’s burning capabilities
he had them do it again
and finally followed up those earlier bucketfuls with just a few more.
oh god, oh god, oh my god
the text then outlines Elijah’s simple prayer inviting god to join him on the mountain named carmel…answer me, O Lord.
instantly, the flames from heaven came down and flooded the mountain, licking up the wood, the sacrifice laid upon the wood, and the trench holding the water from all those buckets.
at which point the prophets of the god who got stuck in traffic, stood shamefaced like the recipients of yet another rap battle defeat at the hands of a relative unknown rapper named rabbit.
(vomit on your sweater already, mom’s spaghetti…the rhymes are so tight)
these revered and politically recognized prophets, priests, and pastors stared down at the blood they had shed
the drinks they had poured
recalled the dances they had danced
the hours they spent praying
reading sacred texts
and giving up saturdays and sometimes sundays, all in service to a god who seemingly couldn’t make a simple lunch date.
often this story is told to bolster our confidence in you, the hero. To remind us that even when the wood’s wet, the heavenly flames can still muster enough heat to burn up all the water.
reminding everyone, of course, who’s really in charge.
oh god, oh god, oh my god.
However, more often than not these days, I find myself on the other side of the mountaintop. Rather than roasting kosher marshmallows with Elijah and you, the one true God, I find myself shamefaced and wondering when my god’s going to remember that band practice ends early on Thursdays.
I too stare down at the blood i’ve shed
the drinks i’ve poured
I recall the dances i’ve danced
the hours spent praying
and reading sacred texts
(all the saturdays and sundays!)
I wonder quietly to myself, what did i miss?
In the aftermath of a connecticut friday, there has been a crater-sized vacuum of explanation, reason, and meaning that has swept our country and our world, leaving those of us desperate to get our sea-legs back, grasping at any lamppost that seems sturdy enough to support our weight.
“And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.”
-Christian celebrity, lifetime listener to the Kenosha Kickers, and Focus on the Family founder, Dr. James Dobson
“We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?”
-Former pastor, presidential candidate, and current Fair and Balanced Talk Show Host Mike Huckabee.
In the absence of meaning, it’s human nature to latch on to something that seems safe and familiar and sturdy enough to hold us up. The issue I have isn’t with this impulse, it’s with who ends up having to bear the brunt of our weight in these instances.
There is nothing more senseless, meaningless, and confusing that what took place last friday.
To attempt to wrap something like this up in a sentence or soundbite or blog post or Facebook status update or tweet is the height of ignorance and vanity. Simply speaking aloud in moments such as these, no matter what it is that we’re saying, is itself irrelevant and selfish.
A grieving mother doesn’t need you to defend your god and his (or her) control of the world. She needs you to remember the name of her 6 year old son.
A widower doesn’t wait in anguish for you to finally decide which political route to take on your Facebook post, he needs you to buy his dinner and sit with him while he weeps.
The Bible as a whole, I would argue, is one giant tragicomic narrative that follows the successes, failures, hopes, and sometimes love interests of perhaps the most dysfunctional people in human history. My favorite book in this murderers row of people who didn’t quite understand how to make heads or tails out of life, is Job, the most tragic and comic of them all.
Now, once you get past the narrative flaws and weird eccentricities of the opening chapter or so of the book, you discover a truly beautiful picture of human community. Upon hearing that Job had literally lost everything: family, housing, livestock, occupation, his 3 best friends endeavor to comfort him as he sits upon a “dung heap” (not sure if it’s his dung or that of the dogs of his irresponsible apartment neighbors) scratching his boils with broken pottery shards.
you can almost feel the depeche mode jumping out at you from the page.
how Job’s friends comfort him, rather than the tragic situation itself, is the most fascinating aspect of these early lines. The text says they sat with their anguished friend for seven days and seven nights, never speaking a word.
no quotations from psalms
no donations to the red cross
They just sat beside him, and listened to him weep on a huge pile of poop for a week.
For thousands of years, using this text as inspiration, the Jewish community has had a similar response to death in their midst. At the death of a member of their synagogue, the congregation takes it upon themselves to sit with the grieving family until the body is laid to rest 7 days later, never leaving those left behind alone for even a minute. A unique aspect of this ritual is that none of the mourners joining the family speak aloud until a word is requested of them by those in crisis. At this request, the support community is then only allowed to recite a few psalms quietly.
They call this act sitting shiva, because they literally “sit beside” death without resolution, answer, or defense. Because, in Jewish tradition during times of great loss, God needs no defense, but God’s people, which is all of us, do.
So, as I get on Facebook and read through Twitter, I see response after response after response to the massacre in Connecticut from those on the left, the right, the center, and the online gaming community. All of them attempting to “wrap up” and “explain” what is at the core of something like this. It’s a natural human response that’s as old as that mountain named carmel.
Like I said earlier, sometimes I feel as if I’m on the wrong team every time I thumb through that ancient story of competing prophets. I pray fervently, I give generously, I wait patiently, I work tirelessly, all in an effort to get the attention of a deity I believe can solve my problems once and for all.
I’m heaving, and sweating, and explaining, and theologizing.
And just on the other side of the mountaintop, a confident Elijah goes so far as to add insult to injury by jokingly consoling us with the truth that perhaps our god is “in the loo,” and as such, we should shout louder. All the while (much like Fuller after a few too many Pepsis) he just keeps wetting the wood.
There’s 1 of him and 450 of us, all the rest of his kind have been discredited, killed, and run out of town. Our government vehemently opposes his faith, and this is his final chance to reveal the legitimacy of his God…so he halfheartedly builds an altar, twiddles his thumbs, and has some folks hose it down for an hour. While the four-hundred and fifty or so of us respected, government sanctioned, educated, and well payed professional prophets put on quite a show.
oh god, oh god, oh my god.
it’s in the midst of this shouting and petitioning that I finally start to realize god doesn’t need any intro music to enter our story.
And not only that, but to claim that anything could keep god from showing up…
whether that “anything” be:
stringent government crackdowns
a relative lack of nationwide “faithfulness”
the absence of ecclesial infrastructure
the election of the “wrong” politician
the college football bowl system
christian television, publishing, blogging, and filmmaking
even the death of a charismatic leader who claimed to be the Son of God
…is to woefully misunderstand those “merry christmases” folks keep hurling at grieving bystanders.
How else do we explain the global explosion of the young Jesus movement just after this Son of God’s death and resurrection, in the midst of one of the most oppositional climates ever to face the christian faith?
what else could be behind the absolutely mystifying spread of the jesus story throughout communist China without paid, educated, or experienced professional christians, not to mention a government that imprisons people for gathering in their homes and sharing stories about a crucified Nazarene in his early 30s.
So, to now claim (like so many radical Muslim clerics after 9/11) that here in America, God’s judgment is being visited upon us in the form of 20 year old gunmen for our lack of faithfulness to right wing, evangelical shari’ah law is not only politically incorrect, but reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the book we claim allegiance to and the god it elucidates.
The christian story, is one that wheezes to life with an unwed teenage mom giving birth in a drafty barn in the midst of nationwide poverty, political oppression, and widespread infanticide. It’s a story that sees god enter the world not through the front gate with trumpets blaring, priests wailing, and those eyes that scream “I told you so,” but rather through the rickety back door of empire.
The god of the christian story invites those with spears and swords and WMDs to realize the futility of their struggles for prestige, power, and honor and utters hauntingly that those who live by tools of violence and oppression also die by them.
The god of the christian story, when encouraged to lead armed insurrection against the pagan nation that was oppressing his family, his land, and his people, eschews this path to the point of frustration and death at the hands of his very own compatriots.
but that’s the thing about this god, even when his way becomes moribund, dusty, and confined to a borrowed burial tomb, it has a way of seeping out through the cracks of the stone blocking the exit.
So, as we sit at our keyboards and smartphones with the impulse to defend “our” god in the wake of tragedy with shouts and swords and sacrifices and tidy answers and government elbow twisting, remember the work of Job’s friends and the role of their shiva.
remember the sweaty, dumbfounded prophets, and the quiet confidence of the world’s worst bonfire builder.
and remember the impoverished wailing infant who would later, because of his alternative view of the world, be killed by the professional pastors and priests and politicians of his day.
very little has changed in 2000 years.
politicians and professional christians are claiming that we aren’t doing enough to wake the distant, emotionally unavailable, and cantankerous deity we have entrusted our lives to. Because this god, much like middle schoolers everywhere, has been offended, and unfortunately for an Connecticut elementary school, has taken his ball and headed home.
it’s in the darkness and the pain of times like these that I try and recall the calming words of the poet and prophet Theodore Geisel.
His words reminding us that no matter what’s been stolen from us or pulled off it’s hook.
No matter how many cans of who-pudding and who-hash have been pilfered from our fridges.
No matter if those trees with the lights that won’t light just right, never return to our living rooms.
His words that softly, quietly, barely audible over the sounds of the lowing cattle and commotion of the barn, proclaim to us confidently with tear stained cheeks and the absence of reason that nothing
nothing, much like the grinch discovered, can keep christmas from coming.
which, i would argue, is why the first hearers didn’t call this news fair + balanced, but they did call it good.