Archive for July, 1999

Sunday Week 16 Year A

Someone famous—whose name of course escapes me at the moment—someone once said that you should pray with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Apart from the problem of not having enough hands to turn over the pages there’s something missing from that advice. No one ever says where in either publication you’re supposed to start.
I’m thinking of making my fortune by developing a personality test based on just that, because you sure can tell a lot about a person based on which page they first turn to in the morning paper. I have a friend who would sit at breakfast joyfully sad each morning reading the New York Times obituaries. All those obscure people, nothing to me, for him cast a light of celebrity and fame that warmed his day. You’d think he was on first-name terms with the famous dead—”oh, he was the leading Broadway choreographer of the 30s.” Many in my all-male household turn first to the sports pages. One guy goes for the op-ed page, another for the local news, yet another for the food section. It is left to me to go first to the pages for which the newspaper was invented: the TV listings!
Part II of my proposed personality test would have you list your top three TV shows. And then when you’ve got the lies over with to list your real favourites—cheesy and embarrassing though they may be. Hands up guilty admirers of “Days of our Lives.” “Xena, Warrior Princess”? “Celebrity Death Match”? “Touched by an Angel”?
Well, this week saw a treat for we “turn-first-to-the-TV-guys.” In the middle of an ocean of re-runs there arose an island of originality—long awaited, unjustly delayed—the season finale of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”! Buffy is undoubtedly the best thing on TV—at least from a theological point of view. OK, the dialogue is as sharp and witty as you’ll find anywhere, the plots handle the serious stuff of life, from running away from home, or loving someone violent, to coming out to family and friends, or the difficult task of getting demon blood out of your new frock.
For those of you ignorant enough to know nothing about Buffy let me fill you in. Buffy Somers lives in Sunnydale, California, which just happens to be at the mouth of Hell, and as such has a higher than usual population of vampires, demons, and other nasties. Though she is still a high school student, Buffy has a vocation, she is The Slayer, the one called from her generation to fight evil. So each week she faces a new threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aided only by her friends, who happen to include a seriously cool werewolf, a brooding hunk of a vampire, and a trainee witch. The season finale should have shown in the weeks after the Littleton massacre but was thought to be inappropriate. Now I ask you, just because the student body turns against the town’s mayor on graduation day and in the ensuing bloodbath the school gets blown to pieces. But, hey, the mayor had just turned into an enormous demon, eaten the school principal, and was about to snack on the new graduates.
Now there’s a question: is the high-school violence of Buffy related in any way to the real-world horrors of life? Does one cause the other, or what? But you’ve heard those questions before and are probably tired of them so let’s ask a theological question. The world Buffy lives in has two faces. On the surface it is bright and beautiful—this is Sunnydale, this is California—the lawns are neat, the PTA is active, and what families may lack friendship seems to supply. But when night falls all hell breaks loose: vampires rise for their graves, monsters roam and only Buffy is there to save the world for daylight. Buffy’s world, maybe the world of all young Americans, is like that. It is two-faced, prosperity built over violence. The richest nation in all history, at the peak of its cultural ascendance, but built on a hellmouth. If God made the world and God is all good then how come the world isn’t all good? How come there is poverty and pain and violence and betrayal? How come the rich oppress the poor? How come disease and death claim our lives? Theological questions. And Buffy seems to offer both a diagnosis and a treatment. Let your eyes be freed from the illusion of ordinariness to see the unnatural enemies ruining our lives. Let your eyes be opened to see the violence on which our civilisation is built and hear your call to fight with your life. And there she is right and she is wrong. Right, because the world is stranger than we care to believe by daylight. Right, because we are called to take sides. Right, because the kingdom of heaven is built here … or nowhere. But wrong too. For Buffy’s world pits good against evil as though they were equals, as though the outcome were in the balance, and neither is true. And wrong because in Buffy’s world the vampire wears a nasty face and can be reduced to dust with a quick thrust from “Mr. Pointy,” as Buffy calls her favourite wooden stake. But in our real world the weeds among the wheat are pretty much hidden and modest. Hell! … half the time they look better than the wheat! Only time will tell them apart. Only the harvest. And God gives this advice to would-be Buffys. “I know the pain, the violence, the heartache, yes and the sheer evil that hides in the heart. But I am not willing to risk a single good seedling to root out any number of weeds. Not one!” To which I say “stupid!” and God agrees … but adds, “trust me.”

July 18th, 1999

Sunday Week 14 Year A

Two score and six years ago on this day my mother and father married. He used to say it was the day he lost his independence. He also said it was the day he began to lose his hair. Somehow subconsciously, over the years, I came to believe in that connection. Bald is bad—and not just cosmetically—in my mind lack of hair is associated with lack of freedom, lack of independence. A self-serving philosophy to be sure since I’m the only one in my family who has preserved his hairline and thus, by watertight reasoning, the only one who has preserved his independence. Religious life is a great way to preserve your independence—obedience is a small price to pay for autonomy. And come to think of it poverty and chastity help too. They provide the perfect excuse to live without the entanglements of living and above all to do so virtuously—because God wants it.
“Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” All the paradox of our lives is wrapped up in that invitation. All you need to be free is to choose to wear the yoke of slavery.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuge of your teeming shore.” Another invitation. Shining across a dark ocean. No forms to fill, no standards to meet, no quotas, no questions. All the paradox of a nation’s life is wrapped up in that invitation. All you need to be free is to choose to wear the yoke of welcome.
When I first came to these shores I made a big mistake. I thought this was a nation in the same way that countries in Europe are nations—long family squabbles stretched out in soil and blood for longer than anyone remembers, where we all laugh at the familiar jokes before we ever hear the punch-line and we all cringe in unison as Uncle Harry says once again “Have I ever told you …?”
It took me a year or two to realise that the United States isn’t a nation at all in that sense. Here instead is something new, something self-consciously new—an experiment in living, working itself out on the clean surface of a new world. An experiment in freedom with all the funding provided by God. A messianic destiny to be light for the world.
Then I began to see the paradoxes unfold. I’ve never been anywhere with such a self-conscious sense of having an ideal to live up to—the inalienable rights of all people to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. But right alongside it an amazing amnesia about the disgusting treatment of those who were already here when America arrived.
Such hospitality alongside such violence. Such a thirst for freedom alongside such a tendency to rescue the rest of the world whether it wants it or not.
I don’t understand America. You fought a bloody war to be free of the yoke of English kings yet you are more obsessed with the English Royal Family than any Brit. You are famed for your practical, pragmatic, down-to-earth attitude but half the shows on TV are fantasies of an uncanny present or of a future with America writ large on the stars.
I don’t understand America but I do love her. She speaks to my soul too. Whispers a dream of how a world might be if we let God dream in us.
Like Zechariah’s dream of a ruler who comes to us riding on a donkey, not just because it is the transport of the poor—which would be startling enough—but also because she won’t associate herself with the war-horse and the chariot and the bow—the stealth fighter and smart bomb of her own age. Isn’t that a dream worth dreaming—of a world at peace, with the terror of violence only a forgotten memory?
Or what about Jesus’ own dream? Of a world where the little ones—your tired, your poor, your huddled masses—are not only tolerated but put first. Where politics and policy favour the weak, the lost, the vulnerable, where they get first choice and not just the leftovers.
Dreams. How many of the coming candidates for national office are dreaming God’s dreams? Our dreams stay dreams because we know there is a price tag we are unwilling to pay. Whether it’s higher taxes or added responsibility, there’s a yoke to shoulder. And a yoke doesn’t just mean work it means shared work. It means restricted freedom and lost independence. It means pulling alongside another for the common good. And if Jesus is right it also means rest for our souls.
Somehow in the last dozen years my unconscious dreams of religious life have been shattered. It has not meant independence. It has meant entanglement and passion and pain and joy and freedom abandoned for freedom’s sake … and yet I’ve still got my hair. Though now I’d gladly give it up for what I’ve found.
This morning, an ocean away, my mother spoke wistfully of marriage and my dead father. “Four more years,” she said, “and we’d be celebrating our golden wedding… but let’s not talk about that.” She’d gladly give all the freedom she’s found since his death to taste again the freedom she knew when he was yoked by her side.
Jesus is the same. He’d gladly give up all his freedom to wear your yoke and be at your side.

July 4th, 1999


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