My next-door neighbor, in addition to being a photographer, is a fire dancer: she gets paid to perform well-choreographed tricks with hot flames while wearing sexy outfits. Yesterday several other parents and I were at her house to celebrate her son’s third birthday when another mother stumbled upon a set of books. They weren’t just any books. They were books celebrating the human body…naked…in pictures.
Lest there be any doubt, this was not “porn”- even if it occasionally blurred the lines. These were artist’s depictions, largely from the nineteenth century, of mostly naked women (some men) in a variety of creative poses, from the more subtle, erotically suggestive to the outright, tasteless, in-your-face unloading. There were the fat, large-breasted women, sidling up to the camera with the modesty of a woman in labor. Or, the shy, pubescent, young women, hiding their faces from the voyeuristic eye of the lens as they sat, sublimely unreachable, in their laced-up Victorian lingerie. There were the more athletic ladies who could just as well have belonged to the local “naked yoga” class- (apparently there is one in my neighborhood, and it is only for men)- and the women whose Victorian “body suits” left the impression that they were nude, only without the less aesthetically convenient nipples and pubic hair.
There we were the three of us, all of us mothers, ogling and giggling at the eroticism of a bygone era like school girls at a peep show. The only difference was that I happened to be a minister. Which made the proceedings a bit more funny when we stumbled upon the picture of the woman who stood naked in front of a large cross, her expression a pained, poignant one as she bared her whole front side to strangers. (I could identify at least a bit: while I’ve never posed nude and probably never will, I can appreciate the sentiment of baring one’s own naked soul from the pulpit for a crowd of sometimes voyeuristic listeners.)
What was it about these pictures that elicited a primal curiosity in us? Their boldness, for one thing. These women, even the shyest in the lot, had not been afraid to take off their clothes for the sake of art. Maybe, too, their beauty (and sometimes obvious lack thereof), which could not be summed up in any one shape or form. It left me convinced that God loves variety. But, finally, the unavoidable fact that underneath our clothes, we all (the hermaphrodite behind the counter at the local Target photo center included) have pretty much the same functional parts. At the end of the day, we are all bare, naked “flesh.” The very same flesh that we Christians affirm God loves a whole lot because of the mystery that we call the “Incarnation” and celebrate at this time of year: God, in the person of Jesus Christ, comes in the flesh to be with us in our deepest need, in the nakedness of our poverty.
Maybe what is most remarkable is that God, in coming into the world like every one of us, a naked, little baby, has in a sense undressed for us, too. It’s hard to believe that God says yes” to our bodies in their inherent “belovedness.” It’s equally hard to believe that God says “no” to all of the ways we defile, belittle, and mistreat our bodies. Only a God who deigns to take off the garments of royalty and put on our frail flesh has a chance at persuading us otherwise. Because of Jesus, our bodies- all of them- have the capacity to house God’s very Self; they are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
It’s hard to wear this kind of truth lightly (pun intended). Or to dismiss it in our prudishness. “God-with-us” is much more scandalous than one of us posing for the camera in nothing but stockings. If we believe it, it obliges us to tell our stories. To not be afraid of being seen as we are, without the fig leaves we often hide behind, or the lies we can tell ourselves or others about who we are. (By way of digression but in the same spirit, I want to make a little plug for friend Amy Frykholm’s newly published book: See Me Naked compiles the real, truthfully told, often messy stories of those who have found themselves exiled in American Christianity because of their sexuality.) It doesn’t get any realer than that. Because while those nineteenth-century nudes may not be air-brushed and Photo-shopped like today’s models, they are, in the end, still posing.
You can’t miss his gallery shack. It overlooks the ocean on a stretch of coastal highway near St. Petersburg, Florida. His driftwood sculptures are perched in front: an ensemble of rotted tree branches, old fish nets, rusty pieces of metal- anything that the sea coughs up somewhere along the Floridian coast, which is where Johnny Rice has spent all his life.
I happened to be jogging by one afternoon and decided to stop in for a visit, which proved not to disappoint. Johnny, who now in his seventies still lives to sculpt, was quick to procure an old, dog-eared album for a stranger; its pages boasted yellowed newspaper clippings about a younger, more virile Johnny and his makeshift, sea-swept creations. One article featured him on “Good Morning America” about twenty years ago.
He was eager to talk to this stranger whom he intermittently described as one of the many “goddesses” he had come to know in his life, memorable women who somehow had made their way into a divine pantheon at the center of which was Jesus. Each had their own name. Apparently I was Diana, goddess of the hunt: whatever the inspiration- whether it was the Spandex running shorts and a pair of well-worn sneakers or the sweaty post-run glow- I must admit I rather liked the new nickname. When he learned I was a minister (an admission that can elicit a wide array of responses) his tan, leathery face broke into a smile and he began to tell me in animated tones about his life. It was a life that in many ways was as washed-up but strangely beautiful as the creations on his front lawn.
Johnny started out in Key West, which at one time was the playground of writer Ernest Hemingway, a former acquaintance, and other intellectuals. Then he made his way north, with various detours along the way. There was the time, for instance, when he let his friend, a cruise ship captain, smuggle him passport-free onto a boat bound for Brazil, and a long, ensuing period of, as he puts it, “becoming lost” to his friends in a maze of addictions, including alcohol, drugs and women. What saved him, he believes, was God- God through art, that is. As he exclaims, he gestures to his cramped, smoke-filled surroundings. They include a few different depictions of Jesus, from totem-pole-like head carvings to a large, yellow-bearded, Aryan face painted on canvas in bold, primary colors.
“I’m curious: what inspired you to make Jesus blonde?,” I asked.
“It’s like the color of the halos in icons, you know.”
“Huh.” (I’m chalking it up to artistic license.)
When the realities of sobriety, growing older and God’s Love had set in, Johnny had set up shop in this run-down, poor artist’s shanty. He says painting keeps his heart beating. He is in some ways the same little boy who used to sketch and collect things on the beach in Key West, only older, wiser and maybe a bit crazier. And now when he creates, he wants more than anything to “give it all away.”
I’ve been thinking more about Johnny and those mesmerizing, redemptive pieces of art cobbled together out of nothing (or at least the next closest thing). They remind me a whole lot about the way life can be. Like rotted, colorless driftwood on a beach, our many disparate, sometimes conflicting loves and desires can collect and become part of the same old scenery. Sometimes they so bewilder, confuse or even disturb us that we can prefer to leave them there- to let them blend in with our surroundings, as forgotten, untouched, inexplicable and meaningless as “nothingness” itself.
Broken dreams. Aching disappointments. Painful resentments. Wounds to our soul or psyche. The deepest, most angst-ridden existential questions that go unanswered. Lost loves that we have tried to grieve but never full recovered from. I suspect part of what it means to be human is to desire some sort of ordering to all that stuff we have collected through the years on the beaches of our souls.
A friend opined the other day that life would be so much easier and less painful if we human beings didn’t have to be plagued by desires. To some degree, she is probably right. But there is also a sense in which our desires, as the engine of our creativity, are the very thing that mirror God’s image in us and make us different from every other animal on the planet. The cooing infant in her mother’s arms, yes. But also the next crowning jewel of Apple technology. Or, the mapping of the human genome. Or, the uplifting sounds of Handel’s “Messiah.” Or, the writings of Dostoevsky. They, like the creations of a driftwood artist, can only spring to life with the first seeds of a desire that is as divinely planted as it is primal. Give me painful but spirited desire over the carefree existence of automatons any day.
Wendy Farley, in her book, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, describes desire as the “thread” that connects our gnawing emptiness, or resignation to the “nothingness,” to God’s work of redemption in us and our world. I think she is right. That longing to be re-made? That nagging sense that something is missing? That enflamed desire to make the world around us “right” or at least “better”? Maybe they are the very thing that God will use to make something beautiful out of the mystifying odds and ends of our existence. I would like to think so. I would like to think that one day God will stitch the old fishing nets, crumpled aluminum cans and dead tree branches into a boat that will sail away into the horizon of God’s Love. Or a house that will beckon us home, where, finally, we can see ourselves a bit like God sees us. Strange, beautiful creations made out of straw, “beloved” because a Lover has called us so.
Probably most of us know commentator, author and actor Ben Stein from his taking attendance in the 1986 movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Here Stein, a God-fearing Jew, shares his views on the merits of Christmas and why at this time of the year we do well to reconsider faith in God (or lack thereof) in American public life:
“My confession: I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.
It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.
I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.
Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God ? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.
In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.
Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina).. Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’ In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.
Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said okay.
Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.
Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’
Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.
Are you laughing yet?
Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.
Pass it on if you think it has merit.
If not, then just discard it…. no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.
My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,
[Source: Robert E. Mims, “The Preacher’s Kid,” Beliefnet, http://blog.beliefnet.com/preacherskid/2011/12/christ-not-born-on-dec-25-merry-christmas-anyway.html]
Apparently my last post is as “shockingly original” as Tim’s “tebowing,” because my husband just drew my attention to this cartoon by Mike Luckovich which appeared December 16 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I”m chalking it up to the fact that maybe great minds think alike. Oh well. Even the greatest of ideas are recyclable, anyway. Merry Christmas!
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Matthew 2:11
“Tebowing,” or that characteristic bow in reverent prayer on the football field that derives its name from Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, is not as shockingly original as we might be inclined to think. It turns out that the three wise men who journeyed to the baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh “tebowed,” too. And if we think it a bit amusing, laughable or even offensive to our sensibilities to see a fully grown man in his football jersey and spandex tights kneel to give God the glory, imagine the scene just over 2,000 years ago: three otherwise dignified aristocrats bending down on arthritic knees to worship a newborn child in a make-shift crib of straw in a dung-smattered stable. It is hard to think of anything more ridiculous- maybe even worthy of contempt- than that.
The magi’s audience was not a stadium full of loud, cheering fans. In addition to the sheep, maybe a cow and a few noisy chickens who were there to witness the men’s somewhat embarrassing, worshipful stoop, there are all of the millions and millions of people who across the centuries have read the wise men’s story. A story about three guys “from the east” who if too proud to ask for directions were content to see a star and follow it all the way to a dump in Bethlehem- and then fell to the ground in worship. They may not have worn helmets, but I imagine they sported some sort of exotic head gear which they would have had to remove a bit clumsily in order to bow so dramatically.
Many of us are uncomfortable with such public, overtly self-effacing displays of worship. We are quick to label them as only for show- another demonstration of that regrettable tendency among public figures to wear their faith on their sleeve, as a kind of secret handshake for all truly God-fearing types. Our discomfort here is understandable. When politicians like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin make their latest big cause the Obamas’ holiday card and its regrettable omission of the Christian code words, “faith, freedom and family,” we have good reason to be suspicious.
The sad thing, though, is that our justified discomfort can leave little room for an appreciation of the nature of true worship when it happens, which is usually spontaneous, with little consideration for how we look. If you’ve ever gazed at the sky on a clear, dark night, marveling at the eternity of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy and the trillions of stars in the many other galaxies beyond ours, then you know what I’m talking about: chances are your jaw dropped open, agape in awe and wonder at the magnitude of our universe and your own smallness in it. Chances are that a passerby walking by would have thought you looked a little silly as you stood there, your mouth hanging open like a kid in a candy shop.
Critics find “tebowing” too much “PDA,” or “public display of affection,” for God. They sound a bit like Jesus on “Saturday Night Live” when he implies Tim Tebow should “tone it down” a bit. And, if “tebowing” is just another gracefully scripted play on the field, then I suspect these critics are right. Tim Tebow can find another place to “tebow.” Didn’t Jesus say, after all, that when we are to pray we should go into our room and shut the door (Matthew 6:6)? (The locker room would probably suffice.) But if “tebowing” comes from the same place of worshipful awe that causes you and me to marvel at the breadth of the universe and brings three grown wise men to their knees in stupefied wonder, then we will have missed something important in what it means to be human.
If you missed the “Saturday Night Live” episode, here it is for more LOL:
Some friends in a recent Christmas letter joked about their search for just the right present for their newborn baby. After scouring Amazon.com for gift ideas, they came up with a number of questionable gift ideas for young children, the likes of which appear below. If you’re still searching for just the right gift, you might find it here, thanks to consumer-parent researchers Seth and Molly Phelps:
A moment of lucidity. Then she was back in her own world, her eyes beholding some distant shoreline, her mutterings only understandable to some imaginary friend, and her expressions those of one sometimes confused, sometimes afflicted.
She had wandered into the Wendy’s where my family was grabbing a quick bite to eat after a day of driving. Then she had sat down at a table next to us. Something- probably some faint consciousness of hunger- had drawn her there, but now she was in her own, little world again, maybe only dimly and occasionally aware of the fact that she had wandered into a fast food restaurant and was now sitting at an empty table by herself.
“Susie” was her name. I asked her if she’d like a meal. “No, thank you,” in another rare moment of clarity before lapsing again into another unreachable dimension of space and time. And then within moments she was back again. “Okay, you can buy me a burger and a coke,” she said.
I had. And then this strange, lovely gesture of gratitude. Which was itself a kind of proclamation: “Thank you for resurrecting me.”
And what if the meaning of Jesus Christ’s resurrection is just this? That we can in the power of the Holy Spirit help to “resurrect” one another? And what if resurrection could really be this simple? A burger and a drink for a homeless person. A meal for someone who for all other intensive purposes has largely ceased to exist in reality and for whom the reminder of her bodily needs is a kind of “rebirth” of sorts. A deliverance from invisibility in an invisible world, and a grounding in the here and now of what is real, so that she is reborn to existence.
For skeptics of Christ’s resurrection, the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal put it this way: “What reason do atheists have to say that one cannot rise from the dead? Which is more difficult, to be born or rise again? That what has never been should be, or that what has been should be again? Is it more difficult to come into existence than to return to it? Habit makes the one seem easy to us; lack of habit makes the other impossible: a vulgar way of judging!”
Pascal is right when he notes that “returning to existence” is not habitual to us. We don’t have to be talking exclusively here about resurrection after physical death, either. Resurrection of the kind to which Susie refers is also not a common sighting for most of us.
But the beauty of Christ’s resurrection is that it invites us into the unending newness of life for ourselves and one another- a new way of being that finds embodiment in the physical here and now of reality, not some other ethereal dimension that is the product of our imagination. Like the resurrected Jesus, who on the road to Emmaus appears to his disciples in the simple act of breaking bread, we, too, can point others in the direction of being born again when we invite them to see God’s in-breaking new life in the simplest, most bodily of functions. When this kind of thing happens, it displays a kind of spill-over effect- serendipitous new life for Susie, yes- but for me also, and hopefully for you. And if this kind of eschatological moment can happen at a Wendy’s in a strip mall in St. Augustine, Florida, it can happen anywhere and everywhere…to anybody.
I promised you a Christmas story. This one is a Christmas story in several unique ways. It’s a story about God’s grace not as a distant ideal but as an embodied, tangible, very personal encounter. And it’s a story about how God makes God’s home with those who are most aware of their need. This magical thing, when it happens, has the power to stop violence in its tracks. The ceaseless striving for more in the world around us? The warring in our own hearts? For at least a moment they find rest. For at least a little while they are obliged to stop their violence and pay homage to the God who has been born in their midst. This story is about just this sort of miracle. It is about how God met one ordinary woman in the place of her deepest need, and transformed her own, very personal war into a love that saves.
Meet Pastor Rosa. Rosa had a son. One day, Rosa’s son, a bus driver, was shot to death by a couple of inner-city teenagers. Albert T. Mills became yet another casualty of the war on our streets, a young life full of promise prematurely snuffed out by one meaningless, random and irreversible act of violence. His killers? They were young lives, too, the only difference being that their only teacher and mother and father had been the dead-end reality of drugs and gang violence in a blighted inner-city neighborhood.
Pastor Rosa in her inconsolable pain and grief had a choice. Her Christian faith had taught her to forgive. But what did forgiveness look like in her circumstances?
She decided to minister God’s love to children who came from the very same neighborhoods as her son’s killers. That resolve led her to found in honor of her son the Albert T. Mills Enrichment Center, a holistic, pre-school environment for the poorest children from Atlanta’s inner-city homes. For thirteen years now, Pastor Rosa has sacrificed even a salary in order to find and rescue these most vulnerable of children, providing for their most basic needs, equipping them with an education and investing in their spiritual development.
Recently, a friend of mine learned that many of the children at the center are without even coats or blankets- in apartments that are often without heat. She and her friends managed to marshal a large donation of jackets and blankets, so that each and every child received their very own coat. Since that time, God’s provision has made itself known in a string of similar “loaves and fishes” moments: “On Thanksgiving, a group of women decided to do Thanksgiving baskets for all the families. On Monday, they had 42 baskets. Our goal was one for each of the student’s families and the staff – or about 60 baskets. So we were 20 short. On Tuesday, additional folks started coming up with baskets and turkeys and volunteers and the long and the short of it is that they ended up with 74 baskets! Plus some extra turkeys on top of that. Truly a loaves and fishes moment,” my friend wrote in a recent e-mail.
I would have to agree. And this, I suspect, is the very sort of thing Christmas is about. The tangible abundance of God’s provision in our neediest places. The nearness of a Love that really can empower us to make love not war.
To learn about how you might get involved in the work of the Center, either by financially giving or volunteering, contact Pastor Rosa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had wondered a few days back whether there can be anything more kitsch at Christmas time than those loud-colored, ceramic nativity scenes, one of which graces our coffee table and has become my two-year-old daughter’s play toy of choice these days. Apparently, it does get more kitsch and our creche is tame by comparison. Thanks to a recent Beliefnet inventory of off-the-wall nativity sets from around the world, marshmallow shepherds and mini-frankfurter baby Jesuses have put our kitsch to shame. Are these the product of just way too much time on somebody’s hands or what?
Next, stay tuned for a touching true Christmas story about the power of Love. Then don’t miss the final countdown of our “Weird Jesus Sayings” series.
The Old Testament story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son, Isaac, (Genesis 22:1-19), has flummoxed many a thinker. The great nineteenth century theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote Fear and Trembling as a response to this disturbing story, which in turn has brought many a seminary student to her knees in her efforts to “decode” it. Which may be one reason why I find comedian Louis CK’s interpretation of the story so funny. If you can stomach the irreverence and a bit of crassness, then you may find this piece redeeming both as theological provocation and a “LOL” moment.