Monday, January 2, 2012
Christianity-Lite®, Suffering & Confronting Christmas
Many people think that being a Christian – especially during our more festal seasons such as Christmastide – is the silver-lining, that is, the lucky charm to an abundant life in an otherwise lifetime of pain and suffering.
Christianity-lite®, as I’m keen to call this mind-set, is marketed – particularly in the world of mega-church evangelicalism – as the ‘feel good about yourself’ religion of the moment that, like a rabbit’s foot tucked in the proper pocket, is the ticket to paradise on earth, or, at the very least, is an amulet bestowed upon all who earnestly seek wealth, happiness and really white teeth.
Being a christianette, which is really what this movement produces, means adoring those indispensable talismans hidden deep in the treasure chest of our prideful self, the ego and the Western god of individual choice. Hubris is the withered fruit this movement produces.
‘You gotta unlock your inner-you’, is the deceptive wisdom du jour. ‘Banish unhappy thoughts’, says this movement. ‘You can do anything you put your mind to’ and ‘go give it 110%’ are the movement’s favourite one-liners.
Certainly, this watered-down fairytale of the ‘faith once delivered’ appeals to all those looking to reach their highest potential in this thing called living life to the fullest – whatever the world says that may be at any given moment.
And all does, undeniably no less, go ‘well’ for these folks till such time as the ‘S’ word, like a thief in the night, enters the story of life.
When suffering strikes, the world of the christianette shakes and wobbles violently; the tectonic plates of rabid individualism and self-aggrandisement collide and an existential earthquake ensues. The snow globe of life, an appropriate metaphor for the season, gets jostled just a tad too much and it simply shatters under the weight of acute suffering. The barriers the christianette thought they crafted to guard against all calamities simply collapse like papier-mâché.
But wait. We’re all supposed be happy little christianettes™, right? ‘Tis Christmas after all, Tiny Tim!
Others, however, who would be fervent believers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ had not the world jerked them around unmercifully, hear the sappy carols – all of which I do love – and think that all we Churchmen are doing is pretending all is well when, actually, something is terribly ‘rotten in the State of Denmark’.
‘Are we in denial’, they might ask?
With so many ash heaps upon which to survey the ruins of life – think wars, rumours of wars, injustice, violence, oppression, broken relationships, relentless grief, physical illness, etc. – how could someone be genuinely joyful? ‘How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?’, shrugs the Psalmist (Psalm 13:2).
Indeed, prima facia evidence of suffering all around us certainly seems to give these fair-weather believers, these christianettes, at least some credibility. I mean, be honest, life is filled with suffering, even and especially during great seasons of rejoicing.
Just ask anyone who has lost a child unexpectedly this year whether or not Christmas is all joy and no pain? Ask the lady whose husband walked out Thanksgiving weekend never to return. Oh yeah, ask the man who lost his job back in September but still drives into the city every morning simply to save face on the family front. Ask the single mom about her daughter who just left for Jackson Hole to ‘find herself’ for the third time, with her third ‘life partner’, how she feels about singing ‘Joy to the World’ this Christmas? Don’t forget to ask the uncle who struggles with drugs how his sixth stint in rehab went.
Just go: go and ask them all if they’re feeling that ‘Christmas cheer’!?! But be forewarned: you’ll probably hear Ebenezer Scrooge’s thunderous catchphrase, ‘bah, humbug’!
The truth of Christmastide, however – the sheer unadulterated genuine profundity of the Incarnation of Jesus the Christ – does, despite all the push to ‘be happy at all costs’, offer something of lavish joy amidst plentiful suffering.
In fact, the birth of the world’s only Saviour has everything to say to those who suffer this Christmas, whether by their own actions or because of other reasons.
And what is does not say is this: think positive thoughts you who feel down, channel your energy and try harder next year to be happy. In other words, it does not say ‘save yourself’ while you still have time, nor does it say that Christians are always happy all the time.
In fact, the message of Christmas is the exact opposite. The message of Christmas, above all, is the message of the angels, the heavenly decree that means ‘the elevation of our creaturely existence, by the very fact of God’s will to unite Himself to it and to bring us into coexistence with Himself’ (Torrance). ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’, scream the angels (St. Luke 2:11)!
And this message, this divine proclamation, proclaims that right smack dab in the middle of life’s hullabaloo – think ‘debt, diapers and divorce’ (Bp. Fitzsimmons Allison) – the Saviour is born.
Read that again: the Saviour is born. Not a guru, not a general of the armed forces, not a homeless shelter operator, not Ann Landers – though all are fine things – but the Saviour of the world is born.
He has come down in the midst of chaos to redeem and restore. It means that ‘we are capable with intimacy with God – not so that God can gain something but so that we may live in joy’, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, reminds us.
However, at this moment you may be thinking: okay, I get it. Christ came to redeem. But suffering is still all about me, Charleston. What saith you about that?
Well, I submit to you the song of the angels once more; this time as the great hymnist Edmund Sears heard it and gave it to us in the great carol 'It Came Upon A Midnight Clear':
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
Do you hear the angels singing? Can you hear them singing? Will you hear them sing again of Christ, the God-Man, who has come to redeem?
Or is this just too grand, too much of an eternal action, seemingly removed from your own time? Are you convinced that because this happened so long ago, that it says nothing to us today? Are you still convinced that thinking happy thoughts produces happy people?
Well, consider that this proclamation wasn’t too much for the shepherds who watched their flocks by night; they ran with bateless breath to greet their Saviour. And it wasn’t too much for Our Lady, Mary the Mother of God, who ‘treasured in her heart’ all the angels said only to later have a sword pierce that same heart that was saturated in sorrows. And it wasn’t too much for suffering Bartimaeus, blind from birth and a lowly street beggar, who cast away his only security blanket – itself a filthy quilt – to seek the Incarnate One amidst all his travails. It wasn’t too much for St. Peter, who cried out ‘You are the Christ the Son of the Living God’. It certainly wasn’t too much for the dying thief – who lay nailed to a cross beside our Suffering Servant – when he asked for mercy.
And what about Job, who stands in stark contrast to the ‘think happy thoughts’ crowd of post-modernity? He didn’t even know about the Incarnation, yet after losing everything he cherished – certainly things we esteem in our own time – all he could say is, ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord’. And it wasn’t even too much for St. Paul, who, despite experiencing a life overflowing with sufferings, famously remarked: ‘For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Rom 8:38-39 RSV).
What about you? What about us?
So, brothers and sisters, if the Incarnation – the real story of Christmas – doesn’t give you joy and comfort amidst all of your suffering, I honestly have no idea what will.
But hold on; that’s not to chastise. I’m not talking about sentimentality, thinking that suffering doesn’t matter to God or that your suffering somehow isn’t genuine. Nor do I mean suffering doesn’t have it place. Oh yes, suffering matters greatly to God. And, oh yes, Christians have long known that as a direct result of the Incarnation we can, yea verily, unite all of our sufferings to Christ’s, allowing Him to heal us and transform every scar. ‘Gaze we on those glorious scars’, beckons the Advent hymn. To look to the crèche, then, is to always look to at the Saviour who suffers for us, His beloved children. When Jesus says ‘come unto me all ye who travail and are heavy laden’, He’s talking about journeying to the heart of the Christmas story – to the holy house of Nazareth where God takes on flesh to reconcile the world.
For this is the meaning of Christmas: Jesus came into the world - the eternal Word was made flesh - so that ‘all who receive him, who believe in his name, He gives power to become children of God’ (St. John 1:12).
And it is this news – this festal flourish – that is quite simply the most comfortable chorus we could ever hear or be privileged to sing, even if we sing it with a wounded voice – one that’s horribly out of tune from the cacophonous melody of life.
And, heck, before you know it we’ll be singing a new song even while we’re suffering! We'll sing like the Psalmist: ‘He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God’ (Psalm 40:2).
Now, that is true comfort. And that is the peace, joy and healing that only Christmas can bring.
And these last days of Christmastide are also the perfect time for considering comfort food. And there is hardly a dish more comforting that twice-baked potatoes. I’ve made these many times, and I can assure they will comfort you and greatly enhance your joie de vivre.
Charleston’s Twice-Baked Potatoes
4 Idaho baking potatoes
2 TBSP olive oil
2 cups grated Cheddar cheese
1 cup grated Gruyere
4 strips of bacon
1/2 cup of half and half (use more if desired; you may use whole milk, buttermilk or even heavy cream)
1/4 cup fresh chives (finely chopped)
2 TBSP fresh cracked pepper
1 + tsp. salt (potatoes use quite a bit of salt)
1/2 cup sour cream
8 TBSP of unsalted room temp butter (one stick)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook bacon in a skillet on medium heat for 10-15 minutes or until it's crispy. Set bacon aside on paper towel to rest. Rub olive oil on potatoes and place on a baking sheet in the oven for 1.5 hours or until the potatoes are tender to the touch; they should give a little when you gently squeeze them. Make sure you poke a couple of holes in the potatoes with a sharp knife before baking so they don't explode in the oven.
Remove the potatoes from the oven, and, using an oven mitten, slice the top third lengthwise off of the potatoes. Using a spoon, scoop out the potatoes and place in a mixing bowl. You want to make a sort of canoe or boat shape in the potatoes.
Mix in all other ingredients except the gruyere cheese and bacon with the potatoes in the mixing bowl. You may opt to use a potato smasher, a hand-held mixer or just a fork. This depends on the consistency you like. I, personally, use a food mill for the potatoes after they've baked and then mix in the other ingredients, but I like the fluffiness the milled potatoes produce.
Spoon this mixture back into the hollowed out potatoes, top with the gruyere and the bacon and bake on 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Serve right away.