Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

He’s Here

Every year in this season I have a little fight with myself.  I dread the pressure of the Christmas gift-buying season.  I don’t feel very confident that my purchases will match loved ones’ expectations (though they are not at all hard to please).  Normally, I love being around people, but I feel intimidated and prickly around Christmas shopping crowds. 

My mind drifts to those who suffer from loneliness and grief, especially this time of year, even while I rejoice to gather with fellow disciples of Jesus to proclaim the “glad tidings of great joy.”  I tried watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” the other evening, but when the drunken druggist started slapping around young George Bailey (even though I’ve seen it dozens of times), I had to change channels.   

And yet… 

We can feel his presence.

All those store associates standing at cash registers no doubt are instructed to be extra polite for this season, but there is that one who seems to stand out.  Something about her says “peace” and exudes a little aura of extraordinary calm in the midst of the bee hive of shopping. 

And while I’m stressing over being late (again) with the Christmas letter, one arrives to us in the mail from a friend far away in another country.  It comes with the sweet aroma of a settled soul, one who has his priorities straight and, though candid about his own struggles, gives faithful witness to living in the presence of Jesus.

And in the middle of all the goofy Christmas songs that artists and performers feel driven to release and radio stations dutifully play, here and there we hear the strains of “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”  By comparison to the noise and glare of the commercial season, they fall quietly but powerfully on our ears.  If we’re listening.

Maybe this experience captures best for me the paradox of the season.  I now know what a “flashmob” is, thanks to friends and family.  I don’t frequent youtube much, but this one really got me.

I know it was staged.  I know it can seem contrived and even collectively narcissistic, but it got to me.  It happened in a foodcourt in a mall in Portland, Oregon (I think).  As one watches the video, one hears the strains of Handel’s “Messiah” coming over the mall speakers.  Then a young woman, feigning talk on her cell phone, stands up and starts singing the chorus.  And then a young man arises to join her, from across the foodcourt.  And then a man and a woman, up in years, stand to sing.  And then another and another, popping up all over the place, until there is a full chorus, as if in worship.

The camera pans around the foodcourt, landing on spectators.  Most of them have somewhat surprised smiles on their faces.  They enjoy the moment.  I want to believe that a few of the singers impromptu joined in the flashmob, because they know the songs from singing in the Christmas cantata.  But even if every person who stood to sing was co-conspirator, to hear that chorus made me weep.   

“For the Lord God, Omnipotent reigneth!  Hallelujah!” 

“The kingdom of this world has become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ.  And he shall reign forever and ever!”

Hallelujah!

December 24, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Like Being in the Colosseum

Most every morning while we are readying for the new day, my spouse and I keep one eye on either CNN or Headline News.  Yesterday, the stand-in for Robin Meade (I can’t remember her name) made reference to Nancy Grace’s investigation of the Las Vegas showgirl who has turned up missing.  And I began to think…

I admit, I don’t watch Nancy Grace, though I’ve seen her interviewed and caught bits and snatches of her program as I channel surf.  I want to believe her Intrepid Crusader persona and I’m sure she is sincere, yet the perpetual diatribe and the hysterical (or conspiratorial) tone wear thin quickly.  The steady stream of crimes, victims, police or lawyer incompetence, brutality or veniality gives them a fauxtragic quality that leave me alternately unmoved and sickened.  I really don’t want to sound too self-righteous, but, ironically, overdramatizing these stories makes them less dramatic, less real.

I sincerely hope the best for Debbie Flores-Narvaez, the missing showgirl.  The terror and potential tragedy of these moments should not be lost on anyone.

And that’s precisely my point.  It does seem to be lost on us.  I am struck by (1) the perverseness of trying to report such a story in a thirty second segment.  How often, in such newscasts (and here I’m speaking of Headline News) do we lurch from the tragic to “on the lighter side?”  (2) Worse, however, is the histrionic tone of the Nancy Grace approach, made ickier by her sitting in front of a TV camera playing the role of Intrepid Crusader.

As I listened to the news segment yesterday morning and thought of how the story is being handled, for some reason the gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome came to mind.  For a fleeting moment, I imagined the spectators’ bloodlust as they watched the gruesome contests.  And then I thought, “That’s what TV does,” to stories like this one.  Especially “always on” cable TV.

So, we watch with morbid interest, feel passing pity and go grab a coffee.  I know there are both sociological and psychological explanations for this response.  But it still seems a lot like the Colosseum to me.

December 23, 2010 Posted by | Religion | Leave a comment

Advent Neglect

For some time I’ve puzzled over the way we Christians (who observe Advent) engage the themes of this season.  The puzzlement quickly turns to lament.  In worship yesterday, the Old Testament reading came from Isaiah 7 – the famous vision of a young woman with child who will be nam

ed Emmanuel.  We Christians love this text, but for King Ahaz, the word afflicts rather than comforts.  How did we get from there to God-with-us meaning unambiguous comfort?

The Gospel of Matthew tells us of the angel’s word to Joseph, that the child born to Mary will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.  Since Jesus is Savior, we take great comfort in God-with-us.  But if you keep reading Matthew, God-with-us is definitely a two-edged Presence.  Yes, Savior, but what kind?

What did God-with-us mean to King Herod?  He understood that the Magi’s news to him threatened his power.  John the Baptist’s words about God-with-us remind us to repent, not relax.  God-with-us does say “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”  But he says lots of other things, too.  As a religious leader, I am particularly fond of Matthew’s description of Jesus speaking about and to the religious leaders: “Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.”  “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”  There is much more.  Ouch!

I know it’s bad form to seem so gloomy during this season, but Advent gets neglected every year. We should be preparing for the coming of the King, who is the Prince of Peace, to be sure, but still his coming is ambivalent.  It throws down the challenge to follow or not to follow.  If we professed followers of Jesus practice the Lordship of Jesus, God-with-us is a comfort.  If no

t, then God-with-us is a threat.  This is especially true for religious leaders.  Are we paying attention?

These Advent texts also remind us that history is not a forever thing.  We mainline Protestants don’t think too much, it seems, about end-of-the-world scenarios, justifiably uneasy by Left Behind-esque distractions.   But everyone must have some kind of eschatology, some vision of the end of all things.  Consider non-religious visions, for example.  Some people, deeply troubled by the ominous signs of climate change, predict a very troubling end for planet earth and are calling us to repentance.  Last night on “60 Minutes,” I heard dire predictions about the financial futures of States like New Jersey and Illinois and what their defaulting would mean for the nation.  The predictions ominously make the phrase “of biblical proportions” seem not so hyperbolic.

Hence the necessity of Advent.  It reminds us of history’s trajectory and of the Lord of history, whose ends take precedence over all our ends.  Advent calls us to watch and pray.  Most importantly, it reminds us that we can get on the wrong side of God’s purposes.  And that possibility is not to be taken lightly.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Religion | Leave a comment

“Pony Excess” Forgot Part of the Story

It is the morning of the Lord’s Day and my mind ought to aim elsewhere, hence I’m feeling a little sheepish about this blog.  But last night’s ESPN 30-30 documentary about SMU, called “Pony Excess,” is still on my mind.

I’m a relative newcomer to SMU, but have quickly become a fan.  I had read, when I first came to campus a year and a half ago, of the excesses of the ’80s and the so-called death penalty.  As I got acquainted with campus, I bumped into people here and there who were witnesses of this great tragedy.

So, I watched, last night, feeling the pathos, especially for all the people affected by the NCAA judgment who had nothing to do with causing the problems.  Whatever else may be wrong with college athletics (especially football), I hope the NCAA never, ever, makes such a draconian decision again.

Fortunately, “Pony Excess” ended on a hopeful note.  The Mustangs are winning again.  I’m confident that the program is run with integrity.  I’ve been privileged to chat with a few of the people who appeared in last night’s program.  SMU has a good team, from the coaches to the administration and, while nobody’s perfect and we can find fault with any system, I’d bet that SMU’s football program is as clean or cleaner than any in the land. 

But the story told last night missed one important piece – the role of United Methodist bishops in helping to right the SMU ship.  In the wake of the scandal, a football coach, an athletic director and a university president resigned.  The documentary made an allusion or two to the school’s board of governors.  A very important part of the story attaches to the overhaul of the school’s governance structures.   

Southern Methodist University belongs to the South Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church.   In terms of how the school runs day-to-day or how professors teach their courses or what kind of students come to SMU (all kinds), this fact means little.  I am employed at SMU because of this church relationship and I hope the presence of religious life organizations makes the school better than it would be without us.  But that’s not the point here. 

The bishops had a significant hand in helping to reorganize the school’s governance.  No more figurehead board while the good ole’ boys pulled the strings from the back room.  And yes, the Christian commitment to equity, integrity and transparency did, in fact, guide the values that helped to put SMU organizationally back on the road toward a vision of its better corporate self.  The church – through its episcopal leaders – stepped in and did the right thing.  And today’s SMU is much the better for it.      

None of this was mentioned in last night’s documentary.  Just a sentence or two in the narrative of the aftermath of the death penalty, in the changes that took place, would have satisfied me.  

Since religion is one of those topics that we’re not supposed to discuss in polite company and because religion has been relegated to the realm of private opinion, I understand why people don’t think of it as having anything to do with matters like college sports.  But it did.  And it does.  And we should notice.

December 12, 2010 Posted by | Pop Culture, Religion, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Prophetic Reminder from a Christmas Past

Well, I have taken quite a vacation from blogging, but for good reason, I hope.  I’ve been working on a book manuscript and have submitted a proposal to a publisher.  I’m waiting to hear.  But I’ve been thinking about this blog and feeling ready to climb back into the saddle.  Nearly at the same time, Pastor Robert Jefress, of First Baptist Church, Dallas, hands me something to think about.  Perfect!

You may have seen Dr. Jefress on CNN this morning, answering questions about the controversial web site that lets people grouse about businesses saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”   The charge of cowardly political correctness lies behind this internet effort as well as the call for people to proclaim their faith openly.

Which made me think of a journal entry of John Wesley’s that I read just a couple of days ago.  What was Mr. Wesley doing on Christmas Day, 1777?  I’ll let him tell us: “Thursday, 25.  I buried the remains of Mr. Bespham, many years master of a man-of-war.  From the time he receive d the truth in love, he was a pattern to all that believe.  HIs faith was full of mercy and good fruits; his works shall praise him in the gates.”

That’s it.   A burial.  Whatever else Mr. Wesley might have written in his private diary about this day, he mentions in the Journal only this one act, drawing attention to the legacy of a man who died full of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

This little historical snapshot reminds us of how modern our Christmas traditions are, therefore how odd some of our concerns are about how people celebrate Christmas.  Though bits and snatches of modern traditions can be traced to more ancient times, most of what passes for Christmas celebrations these days are American traditions, most of which got started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Remembering this point humbles and chastens our opinions about what should happen surrounding the day.  And it’s especially good to remember that deeply committed Christians who are our forbears essentially did not observe December 25 at all.  They were too busy burying people and doing other necessary things.

Without wanting to sound crabby or cynical or Grinchy or Scoogy, whether we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” seems ridiculously, embarassingly superficial as a way of witnessing to our faith in the Incarnation.  Even our overtly religious expressions of Christmas these days are too laden with the wrong emphases.  Which is why I can’t get too worked up about the stuff to which Pastor Jefress has drawn attention.

I do not want to set up some sort of false dichotomy with my fussing about Pastor Jefress’ concern over political correctness.  Still, I’d rather have words spoken over my grave like Mr. Wesley said of Mr. Bespham, rather than that I “kept the faith” by setting up some web site that lets people gripe about whatever it is that they think other people are doing wrong with this time of the year.

December 9, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , , , | 4 Comments