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.

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.