The Secret of Life of Mascots

lion-and-lamb

The Teddy Bear is named after the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt – affectionately known teddy-bearas Teddy. Roosevelt was one of America’s most beloved Executive Chiefs. His grandiose personality merged opposites – combativeness and playfulness, tunnel-vision and curiosity, grumpiness and cheerfulness, fairness and stubbornness, shrewdness and innocence – and his furry mascot captured all that: a cuddlesome and dangerous predator, a creature that in the wild causes gasping terror but in the crib brings soothing comfort. For over 100 years, Teddy has helped children, and maybe a few adults, chase away nocturnal fears and fall into untroubled sleep, while for millennia real bears have done the opposite.

Roosevelt’s close friend and political ally William Taft succeeded him in the world’s highest office – indeed, Taft’s presidential win had much to do with Roosevelt’s unwavering support of him. The friendship fell apart 3 years later – one of billy-possumhistory’s saddest political fallings out. But before that rupture, when Taft was still only president-elect and the two men were still close friends, an Atlanta toymaker created a mascot for Taft that, they hoped, would replace the Teddy Bear in the affections of children. It was called Billy Possum.

It was a pointy-faced, beady-eyed rodent.

And it was an epic fail. Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her magisterial The Bully Pulpit, writes, “…expectations that Billy Possum would rival the Teddy in popularity were swiftly dashed when the stuffed creature, resembling a ‘giant rat,’ caused children to cry.”

And that was the end of that.

It’s got me pondering three things. One, what might be an appropriate stuffed toy to represent America’s current president-elect, Donald Trump? But all my thoughts on that turn cynical and gloomy, and so I best not pursue it.

So the second thought: what might be an appropriate mascot for me? If I had to represent myself as a stuffed toy, what would it be – what animal, or creature, or mythological beast? I know the ones I would flatter myself with: lion, horse, eagle, centaur, Jedi. I favor the noble, the majestic, the just, the wise, the strong.

But what might others suggest?

I think, maybe, a small loud dog. One of those wiry kind with a sharp bark. But maybe a small loud dog in recovery – a small loud dog trying to become a large quiet dog, a yappy Maltese aspiring to be a dignified Mastiff. The first part of me life has been about overcompensating for numerous deficiencies. The latter part has been about trying to stop doing this. I’m currently somewhere in the middle.

Which leads me to the third thought: what might Jesus’ mascot be?

That’s actually simple: a lion and a lamb. His life merges these extreme opposites. He is fierce, wild, kingly, dangerous. And he is gentle, tame, meek, vulnerable. He roars, and he baas. He conquers, and he bleeds. His growl is awful. His bleat is heartbreaking. He is not safe, but he is good.

And this: the more I meet him in both guises, the lion who rules, the lamb who was slain – the more I fear his terrible beauty and yet draw near to his tender weakness – the more I am freed to become my true self.

Who knows, I may just end up that centaur after all.

Confessions of an Imperfect Sabbath-keeper

 

Pentre-cwrt

Pentre-cwrt

My wife and I and daughter Nicola lived in Wales for 4 months, in winter and spring of 2012. Sarah, our other daughter, joined us for the last few weeks (alas, our son Adam was unable to get away from work). It was part of a sabbatical that the church I was serving then graciously gave to us.

We had been to the UK before, on brief visits, but my haste on those trips, trying to cover much ground and take in many sights in slivers of time, reduced my experience, and my subsequent memories, to blurry fragments. That’s the irony of trying to see too much too fast: it often renders everything forgettable.

Our time in Wales was different. It was a lingering sojourn. We traded houses, and vehicles – and even churches – with a pastoral couple who were just beginning their retirement. We had only met them, through a mutual friend, via email (and then face-to-face, for 30 minutes, at Gatwick airport in London, where we quickly exchanged greetings and keys). View from Kitchen windowTheir home sat high on a green hillside overlooking the endlessly twisting Teifi River and, beyond that, the tiny stone village or Pentre-cwrt, a place even most Welsh people are stumped to locate on a map. The house bordered a sheepfold, and every morning when we stepped into the kitchen to make our coffee, a dozen or so plump and skittish ewes, sometimes a haughty surly ram, then later in spring a few spindly and curious lambs, stared at us through the window, though scattered at our first greeting.

It was magic. I think of it now – I thought of it then – as my season in Narnia. The days unfolded with unhurried ease. I learned to drive under the speed limit. Life’s slowness, its stillness, its deep quiet, made us, not drowsy, but fully awake. The stillness enhanced everything, made each colour brighter, every sound sharper, all movement more dramatic. Looking back on it now, almost 4 years later, I remember almost every walk we took, meal we ate, conversation we had, drive we drove, church service we attended, visit we enjoyed, with photographic precision. It lives inside me vividly.

That’s also what Sabbath is meant to do. It slows everything down, and so brightens everything up. It creates space and time – a stillness – for us to linger, to savour, to notice. It is one day, rung like a tuning fork, that makes all the other days sing on key.

I wrote a book many years ago – actually, while I was on my first sabbatical, given to me by the same generous church that let us go to Wales – on Sabbath. It’s called The Rest of God. I wrote it when I was still a rank beginner, stumbling through my first clumsy steps, babbling my first garbled words. The book did well in spite of all that, and for the past dozen years I’ve been asked to speak often on the topic, treated as something of an expert on the matter.

The truth is, I’m still mostly in a rush. I still wrestle wild impatience. Most of my days still go by in a blur.

But it’s not all that. I’ve been keeping Sabbath, in at least some cobbled-up way, for 14 years now. And it’s made a difference. It’s making a difference. The weekly slowing has made more room inside me. I listen better. I notice more. I’m more curious, more thankful, more receptive, more generous. Admittedly, I’ve a good stretch yet to go. And other things, including painful things, have helped in all this. And there are some areas in which I’ve made, it seems, little progress – maybe even fallen backward. But generally, Sabbath has been for me a long obedience in the same direction, to quote Eugene Peterson (who was quoting, improbably, Friedrich Nietzsche).

I remember reading many years ago something by Henri Nouwen in which he described his hurt over a friend accusing him of insensitivity and uncaring. Nouwen admitted to these faults. His defense was simply this: Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry – but please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a man of prayer.

I still move too fast. Still listen poorly. Still grow impatient over minor things.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry. But please, imagine how much worse I would be if I were not also a Sabbath-keeper.

Paul Simon, The Next Nobel Laureate?

 

paul-simon

I’ve been a Dylan fan for most my life, and so I was delighted to learn that this year’s Nobel Committee conferred on him the Nobel Prize for Literature – the first time a musician has received the prestigious award. He has been the sweet singer of (North) America for over 50 years, the troubadour beneath our window for three generations, who has managed to both stay true to some indescribable personal essence and yet re-invent himself a dozen times. And then there’s that voice – sinewy, reedy, throaty, cracking, pleading, warning, and inescapably unmistakably his own. You can never hear Dylan and think he’s someone else. Though his songs have been covered, often brilliantly, by multiple artists, from the Beatles to The Band, from Glen Campbell to Pearl Jam, from Clapton to Cash to Cher to Sting to Adele to Hendrix, and a hundred others besides, no one ever does it quite like the bard himself.

But now that the door’s been opened for musicians to receive the Nobel, I’m stumping (what with my massive influence with the committee) for another musician to be considered: Paul Simon. His reign is equal to Dylan’s (Dylan – as a recording artist – debuted in 1962, Simon, along with Art Garfunkel, in 1964). They both, Dylan and Simon, have spent half a century dissecting, documenting, critiquing, and celebrating American culture. They both continue to write music that breaks new ground. They both bring to their craft a poetic sensibility of extraordinary evocativeness. Simon adds to this an exotic musical eclecticism: he has looted virtually every culture’s musical storehouse – calypso, soca, zouk, polka, rumba, conga, mambo, Cajun, blues, bluegrass, soul, rock, folk, lullaby, and on and on – and fused it into something all his own.

As a lyricist, Simon has a knack for metaphor, often taking a commonplace idea and spinning it into something universal, transcendent, metaphysical. Consider 1986’s hit Graceland, which begins as the story of a roadtrip he takes with his 9-year-old son to Elvis’s home in Memphis but ends as a prayer expressing the universal yearning for heaven:

 

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland

in Memphis Tennessee

I’m going to Graceland.

Poor boys and pilgrims and families

and we’re all going to Graceland.

And I maybe obliged to defend

every love, every ending,

or maybe there’s no obligation now.

Maybe I’ve reason to believe

we all will be received in Graceland.

 

Or consider his newest hit, Wristband. It starts as a personal complaint about being turned back from a club in which he himself is playing the music:

 

Wristband, my man,

You’ve got to have a wristband,

And if you don’t have a wristband

You don’t get through the door.

 

But it moves from there into a prophetic warning about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots:

 

The riots started slowly

with the homeless and the lowly

and they spread into the heartland

towns that never get a wristband

kids that can’t afford the cool brand

whose anger is a shorthand

for you’ll never a get a wristband

and if you don’t have a wristband

you can’t get through the door.

 

And this from a man who just turned, last week, 75.

For 50 years Simon, like Dylan, has been our balladeer, our troubadour, our minstrel. He has given voice, often accompanied by infectious hooks and beats and rhythms, to our heartaches and myopia, our longings and our losses, our bigotries, our absurdities, our fears, our hopes, our moments of greatness. Listening to him is often for me a more spiritual experience than listening to worship music or sermons. It confirms hunches, evokes old grudges I thought I’d long ago dealt with, imparts wisdom for things I find bewildering, awakens hunger for things unseen. It faces me with myself, both rebuking me and welcoming me. I want to stop beating myself up, and yet I want to stop making excuses for why I am the way I am. His music makes me want to live better than I do, which is to say, more honestly and faithfully and generously.

Consider this my memo to the Nobel Committee: I think all that deserves a prize.

Giving Good Gifts

Where has the time gone?

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? …. you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children….”

(Luke 11:11-12).

 

My 3 children came home for Thanksgiving. Nothing makes me happier than having all of them under the same roof, even if only for a few nights. Of all the roles I play in the world – writer, professor, terrible cook, kilt-wearing, brogue-speaking, bag-pipe playing Scottish warrior (well, maybe not, but there’s always room for dreaming) – none is more foundational than husband to my wife and father to my children.

I wish I was better at both, husband and father. I have a decent idea what excellence looks like here. I just struggle to attain it. Like Jesus says, I know, despite the evil within me, how to give good gifts to my children. The same could be said of my relationship with my wife: I know how to cherish and honour her. But it seems to me that Jesus’ emphasis here is on the phrase “know how to.” Knowing how to do something does not always lead to doing it. I know how to change oil, too, and fix dripping faucets, and caulk and paint molding installed 2 years ago. But knowing how to do these things and actually doing them are not the same thing.

So my children come home for Thanksgiving, and I want to give them good gifts, heart gifts, soul gifts. And to some extent, I do. But honestly, my vision of the father I want to be and the father I actually am are still too far apart.

And that has me thinking about the Holy Spirit. When Jesus says that fathers, despite our evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, he isn’t really talking about us. He mentions us simply as a point of comparison. Jesus is talking about our Father in heaven:

 

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

 

How much more.

The whole point is that God always delivers on this request. God the Father knows how to give the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he never fails to give in full when we ask.

And that has me thinking about being a father to my children, a husband to my wife. There is a gap between my vision of these roles and my actual performance of them – between knowing how to give good gifts and actually giving them – but that gap is not closed by trying harder.

It is only closed by asking for more of the Spirit.

O Lord, fill me up.

The Church as a City of Refuge

le-chambon2

This June, my wife and I visited the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon, in the mountains of France near the borders of Switzerland and Italy. It is small hamlet in a remote place, surrounded by deep valleys and dense forests, with a shallow reedy river bending through it. It is far from any major centre.

Which was what made Le Chambon perfect for its one claim to historical significance: it was the only community in Europe that sheltered Jews during WWII. There were individuals who did that. There were organizations that did so as well. Two countries, Denmark and Bulgaria, took heroic stands against Nazi deportation of Jews. But Le Chambon alone worked together as an entire community to protect Jewish people, as many as would come, from the tragic fate that otherwise awaited them under the Nazi-controlled Vichy regime of France.

Altogether, the villagers saved over 5000 Jewish men, women and children – mostly children, who not only survived but who received a first-class education during those years.

Why did this single community act this way? At the centre of Le Cambon, figuratively and literally, was a church, and at heart of that church was a pastor, Andre Trocme. Trocme, along with his formidable wife Magda and his faithful associate Edouard Theis, forged the vision for what Le Chambon could be, and then through their preaching and leadership persuaded the entire community to put everything at risk for the sake of total strangers. It was remarkable feat, though the people of Le Chambon, so grounded in the gospel through Trocme’s preaching and their own deep roots of faith, nurtured by centuries of suffering, didn’t think they were doing anything extraordinary.

Isn’t this what all Christians do? That’s how they saw it.

We were deeply moved to visit the place. We walked to the eastern edge of town where the railway line still exists Jewish children rescued in Le Chambonthat in the 1940s carried to the village hundreds of Jewish children, sent by parents in a last desperate attempt to save them. I tried to imagine those children, alone, frightened, weary, embraced by the robust welcome and generosity and courage of the Chambonais. Many of those children later said those were the best years of their lives.

Because of a church. Because of a pastor.

Today, the home where the Trocmes once lived is no more than a memorial. And the church where Andre preached has suffered the fate of so many of the churches of Europe – an old building where only a few, mostly elderly, folks still gather.

The lessons here are both inspiring and sobering. Without that church, without its leaders, Le Chambon would have likely been no different from all the other communities throughout Europe – perhaps personally opposed to Nazi policies, but not inclined to put their own welfare at risk for the sake of strangers. But because of that church, and its leaders, Le Chambon made a literal world of difference for over 5000 people. And, I imagine, it transformed the hosts and much as the guests.

Le Chambon ChurchAnd yet the church’s vitality didn’t survive much beyond its moment of crisis or the succession of its leadership. Maybe, given the remoteness of the village and the general drift of Christianity in post-war Europe, the church’s diminishment was inevitable.

But I’d like to think it wasn’t. I’d like to think that the vision that the church rose to and that the community rallied around – to be a City of Refuge, a place of welcome and generosity and courage for frightened and weary and lonely people, to be the welcoming arms of Christ himself – is still the call of the church here, now, always. We’re still in a moment of crisis. It just doesn’t look that way on the surface. But it’s those churches, and those leaders, who know it, and rise to it, that flourish.

This past December, my son and I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. That museum is a long zigzagging tunnel filled with grim relics that document a dark and violent history. But near the end of the tunnel is one room of hope. It tells the story of various acts of defiance and heroism, of those who risked their lives to save Jewish people. Prominent among the memorials is a tribute to Le  Chambon, and its church, and Andre Trocme, its pastor. We were deeply moved to visit the place.

But I find myself more and more praying for more churches and leaders like that, here, now, always.

Better Living through Indignation

Alabaster Jar

I’m trying to become more indignant.

And also less so.

It turns out indignation – not its presence or absence, but its cause and its object – is one of the best measures of spiritual health.

Saint Mark, almost back to back in the same chapter, tells two stories about indignation. One story is about the collective indignation of Jesus’ apostles toward two of their own, John and James, when they ask Jesus for elite status in his kingdom – one wants to sit at Jesus’ right hand, the other at his left, when Jesus comes to his throne. “When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:31).

Indignation – being ticked off, put out, riled up – is typically a sign of sheer pettiness. It’s no more than hissy fit. A melt down. A tantrum. It’s the behavior of a spoiled child. It’s what the small-minded do when they don’t get their way. It’s a symptom of an overfed ego and an undernourished heart. And usually that’s all it is – a rant over some perceived slight or inconvenience.

We see it elsewhere in the Bible: the same disciples are indignant when Mary breaks a jar of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet, priests and lawyers are indignant when children make too much noise singing in church, synagogue rulers are indignant when Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And we see it in ourselves: I get angry over a stranger cutting me off in traffic, feel resentment toward a colleague getting recognition I think I deserved, become irritated at a child squalling on a plane.

Sheer pettiness, all of it.

And we might leave it at that, except for the other story Mark tells:

 

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them (10:13-16).

 

When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. And it happens more than once. He’s also indignant – the Bible uses a different word, but describes the same emotion – when the Teachers of the Law oppose his healing a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6).

The sum of it: Jesus loses his temper with people who try to keep other people from experiencing a touch of God, especially if they are people who lack influence – children, the sick, a woman with a shady past. He waxes angry with anyone who throws up obstacles to someone else’s need and hunger for God. “Do not hinder them” is his watchword.

And what, usually, hinders the child, the sick, the beggar, the woman? Ironically, tragically, it’s the false indignation of the entitled. It’s those of us who try to defend our little patch of turf.

What am I indignant about? That is a penetrating spiritual question. My indignation is too often self-regarding, connected with my lust for winning or my fear of losing. It’s a defense mechanism for my own sense of entitlement. It’s a protective gesture to any threat to my status or privilege. I get indignant over losing out.

Jesus gets indignant – grieved, burning, spoiling for a fight: all that is caught up in this one word – over someone else losing out, especially if it’s someone who has little or no voice being bullied by those who already have enough.

Oh, I long to be indignant like that.