Saturday, June 30, 2012

Not Getting What You Expected

When I was in grade one I took a city bus to the parochial school I attended. My bus stop was in front of the Bank of Montreal at the corner of Geneva and Niagara. I had to cross a couple of busy streets all by myself to get to the stop, but I remember feeling pretty good about being street smart enough to meet the challenge.

In an era when my father took home barely forty dollars a week, the bus ride cost a nickel each way, 10 cents a day, 50 cents a week. Those nickels were precious. In spite of that, I was known to lose them from time to time. On those days, denied entry to the bus, my early-morning return home was not nearly as pleasant as my walk to the stop.

One morning, nickel lost, I decided that rather than go home and face my mother’s displeasure, I’d go to the Bank of Montreal for a loan. So at 8 o’clock in the morning I knocked on the big glass doors as loud as I could. Sure enough, a woman answered the door. I was a bit surprised to see that she had a mop in her hand, but I explained my need for a loan to her anyway. I asked her for a 10-cent loan and promised prompt repayment. She told me I had come to the right place. I followed her in, and she reached into a purse and gave me two nickels, one for the ride to school and one for the ride home.

I was a bit surprised that the nickels didn’t come out of a drawer behind the wickets. But when you’re in grade one, life is full of mysteries. The next morning, having raided the piggybank I kept on my dresser, I knocked on the bank door again. The bank lady showed up again, forgave my loan with a laugh, and sent me on my way. That afternoon, feeling quite pleased with myself, I spent the dime on a paper bag full of blackballs, three for a penny. A real feast.

In the years since, I’ve sometimes thought about that day. How often do we go to God in prayer like I went to that bank—as if we have to make some sort of a divine transaction? We pray for Aunt Sally, or even some personal crisis, intending that we’ll somehow make it up to God out of the little piggybank of good intentions we keep in a musty corner of our hearts.

But even for the spiritually mature, prayer turns out to be full of mysteries. You see, the one who hears us turns out not to be in the banking business after all. In fact, He may turn out to be a She. And She isn’t anything like what you expected, and She isn’t keeping tabs, and She isn’t even in the business of giving you what you want. However, the good news is, when you knock and the door is mysteriously opened, no matter what you ask for, or even if you’re tongue-tied, the main thing has probably already happened anyway.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Style and Class

 It is getting awfully close to Canada Day. And that reminds me that I'm of Dutch heritage, too. A favorite story told by Dutch immigrants to Canada and the United States, retold by Sietze Buning in his book of poetry titled Style and Class, concerns Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Juliana was the mother of the current Queen, Beatrix. Juliana ruled from 1948 to 1980. 

Early in her reign, in 1952, Queen Juliana made a visit to a college campus where a number of Dutch immigrants taught, and many more attended. Professors in cap and gown lined the sidewalks as an honor guard while the college president escorted the Queen and her husband Prince Bernhard into the chapel for a convocation.

One elderly professor, too deaf to realize how loudly he spoke, stood waiting for the queen to pass by. As she passed, he broke the honorable silence of the royal procession by saying, to nobody in particular: "Wat heeft zij tog dikke benen!" which translated means, "My, what fat legs she's got!"   

Everybody in the procession heard him. Queen Juliana too.
The queen stopped, backed up, faced the old professor, smiled, and said to him, with a smile: "Mijnheer, daar moet het hele Oranjehuis op rusten," which translated means, "Sir, these legs need to hold up the whole House of Orange."  Everyone who heard this cheered.

            Now, it seems obvious that most of the dignified professors who stood in cap and gown along the sidewalks had good style. The old professor who spoke too loudly lacked style. But nobody minded, because Queen Juliana had class.

            This little story is a kind of parable about what it takes to be a good Christian—though I’m sure the story could be applied to being a good Jew or Muslim, too. You see, on the whole, people call us Christians because we have a certain style. We dress up and go to church Sundays. We make sure our buildings are attractive to look at, preferably with a steeple or some stained glass. We have councils and synods and presbyteries. We pray before our meals, some of us even in restaurants. We resist the use of foul language. People see our style, and they figure we must be Christians. Big deal.

            We cannot do without this kind of style, of course. But there has to be more to being Christian than just style. Just as Queen Juliana rose above everyday style on account of her being a queen; so too, we Christians must rise above our everyday style. Christians, after all, claim to be ambassadors of reconciliation for the Lord of the Universe. We really ought to have class.

            What we need when it comes to authentic Christianity is faith, hope and love. But the classiest of these is love.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Land of Tears

Like most men in our culture I was not taught to be comfortable with tears.

So, for example, when I was a little boy, and fell and skinned my knee, someone was sure to pick me up and say, "Now, now, little man, don't cry!" By the time I was eight, I had figured out that if I cried in the schoolyard the whole class would laugh at me. By the time I was sixteen, whenever someone broke out in tears, everyone else stood around feeling awkward. In our culture we have made a secret place of the land of tears.

We’re not alone in this. The ancient Egyptians believed that when they died and they arrived at heaven's gates, the god Osiris would ask them two questions. The first question was, "Did you bring joy?" and the second was, "Did you find joy?" Answering yes to both was the only way into heaven. Not much room for tears in the Egyptian afterlife.

But these days even Christians tend to speak as if finding joy is the main thing in life. Health and wealth television preachers like Kenneth Copeland say awful things like "prosperity is a sign of divine reward" and "if you are not happy, then you lack the Spirit." Robert Schuller, the former pastor of California’s famous Crystal Cathedral, before it went caput, wrote a book about the Beatitudes entitled, "The Be-happy Attitudes." People sentimentalize the Christian faith. The whole sum of religion comes to be looking on the bright side of things and spiritual highs. And, in the meantime, we have made a secret place of the land of tears.

The Jews in the Old Testament, on the other hand, did know how to weep. In fact, large parts of the Old Testament are lament, songs of loss, sadness and tears: Job, much of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the book of Lamentations. One third of the Psalms are laments too. For example, “I am weary with moaning,” says the Psalmist in Psalm 6. And, "My tears have been my food day and night," (Psalm 42:3). 

The New Testament is much the same. Jesus groans to see a deaf and mute man and weeps at his friend’s, Lazurus’ grave. Paul had unceasing anguish because few of his fellow Jews were inclined to follow Jesus. And in Romans 8, Paul describes how the whole world groans under the weight of sin, how Christians groan as they wait for renewal, and how even the Spirit of God groans in wordless intercession on our behalf. There is no special grace that exempts Christians from shedding tears.

And why shouldn’t we weep? Over one hundred Syrians, including babies with pacifiers in their mouths, were executed in Syria this month, in a single incident. There are more than 1000 endangered species in the world today—even though the story in Genesis states that God created us humans with the express command that we take care of all of life. Gruesome and senseless murders made the news this week. People we love have died. 

The thing is, in the secret land of tears Christians can be agents and advance people for divine reconciliation. When Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted," he was instructing us to be open to the wounds of the world. Look at the world through tears. You will see things through your tears that dry-eyed you could not see and you will do things that are Christ-like. And then the world will be a slightly better place.