The Antidote to Loneliness

Thank goodness for Great Britain, our first cousins “across the pond.”  As the social and political fabric of our own nation has unraveled these past few years, watching the corresponding dumpster fire in England stemming from the Brexit morass has granted our attention a reprieve from our own dysfunction.  Or, at least, Great Britain’s mess has allowed us to say, “See, they’re as screwed up as we are!”  Misery loves company, I suppose.

Because of the way Brexit dominates news from Britain, we may have missed a New York Times headline from last year.  It turns out, as Prime Minister Theresa May was laboring futilely to craft a Brexit deal Parliament could swallow, she made another notable decision: Theresa May appointed Britain’s first ever Minister for Loneliness.  When making the announcement, the PM said, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”[i]

To some, such a position in the government might sound like the epitome of the nanny state, until one remembers that the Ministry for Loneliness is the creation of the most un-nanny Conservative Party.  But it is really necessary, this government portfolio to study and combat loneliness?  Loneliness and isolation among the aged, especially after the death of a spouse, has long been recognized as a problem, but in recent years it turns out the problem is not unique to the elderly.  Surprisingly, Britain’s Office for National Statistics reports that the 16 to 24-year-old age group report greater feelings of loneliness than those in the 65 to 74-year old age group.  Ironically, the digital technology that leads to connection through social media appears to be a primary culprit.  It turns out that electronic devices are a pale substitute for actual conversation and contact.  Virtual relationships are not real, and they do not nourish.  Ever-increasing connectivity is actually feeding social isolation and loneliness.

It also turns out that we share this, too, with Great Britain.  Late last year health care provider Cigna with help from U.C.L.A. released a large-scale survey in which “most Americans reported suffering from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships.  Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’”  Assuming that we are a representative cross-section, this applies to us.

Image result for isolated and lonely

Our loneliness is borne in part, I think, by the transience of modern life.  I lived for the first eighteen years of my life in the same small town, in the same house, with the same friends.  Since then, I’ve lived in eight cities in five states.  And even if we don’t change cities, we change jobs, companies, and firms like changing socks.  That experience is now the norm, and it will only become more so, as what has been called the “gig economy” grows.  The circle of friends and depth of relationships that develop from a rootedness to place are increasingly rare in our transient world.

Even when around other people, including people we know, we often feel unknown and lonely.  In their song “Nobody knows me at all,” the Weepies sing, “When I was a child everybody smiled; nobody knows me at all. Very late at night and in the morning light; nobody knows me at all. Now I got lots of friends, yes, but then again, nobody knows me at all.  Kids and a wife, it’s a beautiful life; [but] nobody knows me at all.”  Does this resonate with you?

We are psychosomatic creatures—embodied spirits—and it should be no wonder that the lived experience of loneliness manifests itself in us physically.  Loneliness is resulting in a social and health crisis.  In the U.K., official Mark Robinson says that loneliness has been “proven to be worse for health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.”  And here in the U.S., former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says loneliness is associated “with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”[iii]

What can we do?  Ben Sasse, the senator who was first a Yale-trained historian, says the antidote to loneliness is to identify, wherever one finds oneself, “a ‘thick’ community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.”[iv]  By virtue of our presence here, we have found such a community, even if we haven’t thought of it in that way.  It is the church, specifically, for us, Christ Church Cathedral.  Thick community may not be why we first walked through the doors.  We may have come because we appreciate the historic architecture and well-crafted liturgy, or find ourselves moved by the beautiful music, or want to be part of a place that engages in outreach to those who live on the margins.  But at the end of the day, each of these things is derivative of the church; they are what the church does, not who the church is.  The church, at its essence, is the community described in John’s Gospel by Jesus today in his heartfelt prayer to God.  It’s a dense prayer, with twisting language, but it’s super important.  Understanding it may change our very understanding of why we sit in these pews.

Today’s passage is the very end of a longer prayer Jesus makes on behalf of the disciples he will soon leave, and, it is important to note, on behalf of all those disciples who will come after.  In other words, us.  Jesus says, in prayer, that he has lived his life in complete communion with God, so much so that it is not really Jesus who lives, but God who lives in and through him.  Think of that!  This is what the Incarnation means at the end of the day.  We really don’t need to get tied up in knots about creeds and archaic doctrinal explanations.  The Incarnation means that Jesus knows God—really knows God—and God knows Jesus even more deeply.  And, if we want to know God, and what God is like, we must know Jesus, in whom God is and through whom God flows.  But in his prayer today, Jesus goes a step further.  He says to God, “Just as you are in me, I am in them, that they may be one, as we are one.”

This couldn’t be more profound.  Jesus is saying that in the same way he and God are intertwined, we are to be intertwined with him and with each other.  In the same way that God knows Jesus, Jesus wants to know us—really know us—and wants us to know him.  That’s not about architecture, liturgy, music, or even outreach.  That’s about the character of relationship we have with God.  We know God by knowing Jesus; and we know Jesus by knowing one another, deeply, thickly.  God loves us so much, from before the foundation of the world, that God wants us to be in relationships with one another that embody that love.  It’s not too much to say that we are the love of God to each other.  That’s what the church is.  That’s why the church does all the things it does.

And, that is the antidote to loneliness and the remedy to social isolation.  For everyone who walks through these doors, we are to be the thick community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.  We are to be the community in which no one is forgotten.  We are to be the body in which our shared life in God runs deeper than politics, economics, race, age, orientation, or anything else.  Church is not a place we go or a thing we do; it is who we are, and that identity is available to anyone who seeks to live through God’s love.

To return to Prime Minister May, in a siloed world of virtual connection, we are, each one of us, called to be Ministers for Loneliness.  We are called in love to relate in love to one another, finding and assuring one another that none of us is alone.  What we do here on a Sunday—raising our voices together in song, passing the Peace, kneeling side-by-side at the altar of God—these are rightly just the sacramental signs of the depth of our relationship: that God is in Jesus and Jesus is in us, that we are one as he and the Father are one.  In his prayer today, Jesus says that the community that lives this way serves as a witness to the world.  What a witness we could be.

_____________________________

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/opinion/loneliness-political-polarization.html

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/opinion/loneliness-political-polarization.html

Jubilation T. Cornpone (or, When Reality Mimics Art)

“Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “Toot your own horn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, a man who knew no fear!”

In July of 1968, my parents went on their honeymoon to a brand new Arkansas amusement park, Dogpatch U.S.A.  Dogpatch was themed for the Al Capp comic strip, “L’il Abner,” which drew from the lives of Southern country folk to offer subversive satire on wealth, war, and politics.  In 1956 L’il Abner became a musical play, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  I myself am Southern country folk, and I’ve loved L’il Abner since the summer the Greene County Fine Arts Council staged it in my hometown of Paragould, Arkansas, with my own mother playing the part of Mammy Yokum.  Lately, a particular tune from the show has been stuck in my head: “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

Image result for l'il abner musical

Within the world of L’il Abner, Jubilation T. Cornpone is Dogpatch’s town founding father.  He is a hero to the citizens.  The invocation of his name leads to cheering wild abandon and a dismissal of reason in favor of whoopin’ and hollerin’ support.   Dogpatch’s evangelical fire-and-brimstone preacher, Marryin’ Sam, is Jubilation T. Cornpone’s greatest supporter and advocate, singing Cornpone’s praises to all the people.  Marryin’ Sam says, “J.T. Cornpone didn’t know the meaning of the word fear.  Terror yes, but fear never.” (Let the reader understand.)

In addition to founding Dogpatch, Jubilation T. Cornpone was a Confederate general, and his claims to fame mostly extend from the Civil War.  With each stanza of the song, Marryin’ Sam sings about Jubilation’s heroic exploits in rip-roaring terms, but by each verse’s end, the listener realizes that those exploits have all turned to disaster.  Marryin’ Sam shares the names of the many and varied great battles against his enemies for which Jubilation T. Cornpone is heralded: “Cornpone’s Disaster,” “Cornpone’s Misjudgment,” “Cornpone’s Catastrophe,” and “Cornpone’s Humiliation.”  For example:

With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “September Morn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, the pants blown off his seat!

To which Dogpatch’s citizens cheer with an utter detachment from reality, “Hurray!”

Again and again, Jubilation T. Cornpone creates a crisis, addresses the crisis of his own creation with a “solution” that deepens distress, and then claims victory atop the layered heap of disaster.  And all the while, the people cheer (encouraged by the evangelical preacher).

The above stanza’s allusion to ruined crops is almost reminiscent of our day, in which a sledge-hammer trade war has led to a broad and severe crisis for American farmers, which is then heroically addressed by propping up farmers with subsidies paid for through borrowed money financed largely by the same country with whom the trade war blazes.  And the people shout, “Hurray!”

Ultimately, Marryin’ Sam tells us, Jubilation T. Cornpone ran for President.  (Because, why shouldn’t he? His track record surely supported such an idea!)

Who became so famous with a reputation so great, 
That he ran for president and didn’t carry a state? 
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “Wouldn’t be sworn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he made the country wait!

Marryin’ Sam’s last line drips with a final irony that the citizens of Dogpatch miss.  Because Jubilation didn’t become president, Marryin’ Sam sings,

Jubilation T. Cornpone, he really saved the day!

 

 

Clipped Wings

Occasionally I will enter this space early on a weekday morning, when the lights are off and all is still, and the spiritual presence of a dozen generations Episcopalians across one hundred and eighty years seems almost palpable.  I sit in a pew on the lectern side, about eight rows back, and allow myself to settle into the quiet.  Increasingly, these days my prayers are without words, and during my time in this sacred space I most often look to the Resurrection window above the altar as the locus of my meditation.

I can tell you a lot about that window.[i]  It was installed after the great 1938 fire that destroyed the Cathedral chancel, and it is dedicated to the memory of George Alfred Taylor.  There is some dispute as to the window’s manufacturer.  Either the Gorham Company or Payne Spiers of New York created this work of art.  The window depicts Matthew’s rendering of the Easter story.  Matthew’s is the only one of the four Gospel accounts in which an angel meets the women outside the tomb of Jesus.  Matthew tells us, “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone…”

I can tell you all of these things about our Resurrection window, but none of these things enters my mind during my early morning meditations.  Rather, when I sit in the stillness of this church, I am captivated by an optical illusion the window presents.  You may have noticed it yourself.  Because of the greenery that flanks the base of the tomb of Jesus in the background and covers the angel’s wingtips, it appears as if the angel’s wings have been clipped.

Resurrection window-CCC

For over six years now, I have been preoccupied, and concerned, and curious about that notion.  What would it mean for an angel to have clipped wings?  What happens when an angel descends to earth but cannot return to heaven?  How does one destined to soar in starry skies make his way when the beating of his wings is only noise and folly?

Have you ever felt that way, like an angel with clipped wings?  Have you ever in your life felt as if you were supposed to soar but couldn’t seem to get off the ground?  Or, have you felt as though you should know God, and that God’s presence might make the very difference in your life, but that the distance between you and God, between you grounded on earth with clipped wings and God high in God’s heaven, is just too great?

I think many of us, perhaps most of the time, feel like that angel and are acutely aware of our distance from God.  We may have some deep intuition that we are created to be in close communion with God, that somehow God intends us to soar like angels.  But often that intuitions seems like a cruel joke.  Loss, and disappointment, and a world so skewed that fairness is a farce seem to be the normal markers of our days, and we catch ourselves wondering whether there is any transcendent meaning to life at all.

Other times, if we’re honest, we know that we clip our own wings.  We can be petty and small when we’re not being grandiose and self-absorbed.  We know the actions we take can be compromised by mixed motives.  We feel acutely the guilt and shame that accompany our decisions. Or else, we are apathetic toward the issues in this world that are of concern to God, preferring to keep our heads down, not even glancing up at the light of God’s heaven, and focusing on our individual, circumscribed present.

For those of us for whom none of this is operative, it may be because we’ve spent years willfully blocking out these thoughts, so that we’ve habituated ourselves to be blithely untroubled by our earthboundness and by God’s distance from us, almost convincing ourselves that if there’s a God at all, he doesn’t really matter.

The distance between God and humanity is the central motif in all of the theistic world religions.  God is “up there,” and we are “down here” metaphorically if not literally speaking.  Another common religious image is that we are separated from God by a great chasm, with no way to bridge the distance.  In fact, the very purpose of religion—all religion—is to bridge that gap.  The purpose of religion is to provide a conduit between God and humanity, and then to broker that contact.  We see this in ancient Judaism in the Jerusalem temple’s Holy of Holies, the space where God dwelt and into which the high priest entered once per year to intercede for the people.  We see it in native religions, in which the shaman with good medicine speaks to the spirits on behalf of the people and then foretells the outcome of events.  Even in Christianity, in the very design of our basilica-style churches (of which the Cathedral is one), the distance and elevation of the altar from the people was originally intended to emphasize the distance of God from us, and especially in the Middle Ages the priest was seen as the necessary intermediary between the people down there and God “up there” at the high altar.

Image result for temple curtain torn in two

Since the dawn of humanity, religion has provided an important coping function for the distress I described at the outset of living in the world with clipped wings, both the distress caused when the world acts upon us and the distress we cause when we act upon the world.  Religion, whatever the variety, has provided a means for us to plead with God for help or beg God’s mercy.  But here’s the thing: Jesus has no interest in religion.  Wait, that’s not quite accurate.  Jesus has great interest in religion, and his interest is to disrupt it entirely.  Because, Jesus says, the whole idea on which religion is predicated—the idea that we are distant from God and need a system to connect us from earth to heaven or across the chasm—is bogus.  In every act and every teaching, Jesus claims that religion’s very premise is wrong.  God is not distant from us.  God is as near to us as the very air we breathe.  God is never absent.  If we were fish, God would be the water.

On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, the tearing of the temple curtain in the Holy of Holies from top to bottom is the sacramental sign that nothing ever separates us from God, least of all the pretensions of religion.  In Acts today, through St. Peter’s vision of all animals being made clean, God declares that the ancient purity rules that gave some access to God and denied others are invalid.  And St. John the Divine, in his grand vision on Patmos, understands the full implications of Jesus’ truth.  John’s sees what the world can and will be when God’s children fully recognize that heaven is not a place far away, and God does not reside across a chasm.  John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

In other words, when we recognize that God is not up there, or over there, or absent altogether, but right here, always, surrounding us and permeating us with love, then the old world of distance, and loss, and disappointment begins to evaporate as the illusion it has always been.  And with the illusion, our despair evaporates, too.  It is impossible to remain petty or small, self-absorbed or apathetic, when we abide in the very presence of God.  There are no clipped wings in an Easter world.  The Church Jesus birthed is not intended to be another religion, brokering a distant God.  This is the end of religion.  The Church is to be the people who swim and soar through the very presence of God, both here in this sacred space and out there where God also is, and share this Good News in wonder and joy with all those we meet.

At the table of the Lord’s Supper, in our fellowship, on the streets toward our homes, we live and move through the God who is right here, always, making God’s home among mortals so that we need not reach for God, nor fear any chasm.  God is here, enveloping us in love.

__________________________

[i] The Windows of Christ Church Cathedral

Cognitive Closure and the Road to Damascus

Herman, distracted by his cell phone, ended up entering the freeway on an exit ramp and traveling the wrong way down a crowded Interstate.  A quick glance at his GPS suggested to Herman that he was on the Interstate, just as he’d intended, so he kept driving as cars swerved around him at seventy miles per hour.  A news helicopter quickly noticed what was happening and began covering the story.  Herman’s cell phone rang, so he answered, and his wife’s voice said, “Herman, I just heard on the radio that some fool is driving the wrong way on the Interstate.  Keep a lookout for him and be careful!”  To which Herman replied, “It’s worse than the radio says.  There’s not one car going the wrong way; there are hundreds of them!”[i]

We are loathe to admit when we are wrong.  And that’s not just because we are superficially stubborn.  Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has pioneered work on what he calls “cognitive closure,” which is that moment when a person makes a firm decision, closing the mental filters to any new information that might change one’s mind.[ii]  It’s easy to see why a degree of such closure is necessary.  If someone lacks all cognitive closure, then ambiguity becomes the norm and important life decisions are never made.  Such a person waffles through the world, with events buffeting him back and forth.  But a high need for closure can be even more dangerous, shutting down one’s discernment too soon, settling for what seems preserving and safe for oneself, but blinding oneself to more far-reaching consequences.

Image result for wrong way sign

Especially in times of high anxiety and stress, Dr. Kruglanski says, everyone’s need for closure increases.  When things seem uncertain, our we crave certainty.  In an ambiguous and frightening world, we want simple and clear solutions we believe will preserve us.   Cognitive closure has two stages, according to Dr. Kruglanski: seizing and freezing.  “In the first stage, we are driven by urgency, or the need to reach closure quickly: we ‘seize’ whatever information we can, without necessarily taking the time to verify it as we otherwise would. In the second stage, we are driven by permanence, or the need to preserve that closure for as long as possible: we ‘freeze’ our knowledge and do what we can to safeguard it…And once we’ve frozen? Our confidence increases apace.”[iii]

This can quickly devolve into destructiveness.  In our individual lives, we may cocoon from the world, cutting off complex but important and life-giving relationships and avenues for living in favor of the simplest tasks we can manage, and which grant us a feeling of control.  In the world writ large, we may give our allegiance to leaders who make simplistic but certain promises, who paint the world in terms of black and white, who present a crisp and compelling narrative of us against them.  So long as we are among the “us” and not among the “them,” the leader’s message is a relief from our anxiety, and we accept his or her worldview, closing ourselves off to any other perspectives.  (It is worth noting that for Dr. Kruglanski this is not only an academic study.  He was born in Poland in 1939 and grew up in a Jewish ghetto under the Nazis.)

Cognitive closure is powerful.  It leads otherwise rational people to believe things patently contrary to evidence.  It leads people to say and do things—or acquiesce to things—that in a different time or circumstance they themselves would find abhorrent.  Traveling north on the southbound freeway, cognitive closure can convince us that all the other cars are driving in the wrong direction.

Cognitive closure is also a compelling way to diagnose Paul, who would become the apostle.  In first century Judea, in which the occupying Roman army was a constant source of anxiety and uncertainty, and in which the nascent but growing Jesus movement was an easy target, Paul became a leading voice identifying Christians as the problem, as the embodiment of all that was wrong in society.  (Acts 7 and 8 chronicle second-hand Paul’s vicious and violent persecution of Christians.  Looking back in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, Paul admits it himself.[iv])  In the face of anxiety and stress, Paul identifies the first Christians as the problem and himself as part of the solution, blocking out any other evidence, closing his filters to any other explanation.  Dr. Kruglanski says, “That’s what makes certainty so dangerous: When you dismiss other points of view; when you ignore information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment.”  Paul—a highly educated and faithful man—refuses to see those who do not share his vision of reality as being worthy of consideration, and he becomes zealously cruel in his approach to them.

But then we arrive at Acts 9.  There, Paul is literally knocked off his horse and onto the ground.  A thunderous, white light blinds him, both literally and figuratively.  The vision he has obstinately set before himself and claimed as true vanishes in the white light of God.  The voice of Jesus speaks aloud to Paul.  “You are not righteous, as you believe yourself to be,” Jesus says to Paul, “In your demonizing words and actions; in the pain you cause and abet; in your zeal and certainty, you are persecuting me.”  Paul’s cognitive closure has led him down a path on which he is persecuting the Lord of grace and love.  Nothing short of an intervention of grace and love by that same Lord can stop Paul in his tracks, fell the scales from his eyes, and open his mind anew to God’s reality that runs deeper than our anxieties.

Image result for road to damascus

The Road to Damascus, by Rubens

Cracking open our cognitive closure requires such a jolt, and that is what Jesus intends to do in and for us just as much as in Paul.  I worry so about the world today.  I worry for us individually and our tendency to close ourselves to relationships that check and challenge.  I worry for us corporately and the ways we increasingly consider others as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, as paper tigers we can demonize and against whom we rail.  Arie Kruglanski speaks the truth when he says, “We should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness.  The alternative is the abyss.”

The words of Jesus ring out for me—to me, and to us all: If ever we demonize in words or actions, in the pain we cause and abet, in our zeal and certainty, we persecute the Lord of grace and love.

Paul hears and heeds the words of Jesus, and he is given new life and a new purpose.  It’s a harder life, trading circled wagons and a lashing anger for vulnerability and a willingness to speak grace and love even when those to whom he speaks do him injury.  But it is a truer life, one centered in God, and a life on whom the survival of the world ultimately depends.

This day—this very day—can be our road to Damascus.  We can be knocked to the ground, our closed minds jarred open, the white light of the God of love scattering all other images from our vision and replacing them with a vision of discipleship in which we become apostles, those whose whole lives are given not to self-righteousness or certainty but to Jesus and his love.  That is Good News.  Thanks be to God.

____________________

[i] From the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/opinion/the-price-of-certainty.html?login=email&auth=login-email

[iii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/why-we-need-answers

[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:6.

Unboxing

A few weeks ago I was having lunch at a civic leaders forum, half-listening to the conversation around the table, when I heard someone say, “The kid is six years old, and he earned $7 million last year.”  That made my ears perk up.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You know, Ryan,” the speaker answered.  I did not know, but I assumed Ryan must be a child actor of some sort, 2019’s Shirley Temple or Macaulay Culkin.  It turns out my assumption was incorrect, and the conversation became one of the weirder ones I’ve had in a while.  Ryan does have his own show, but it’s a YouTube internet series.  And it’s not a sitcom, or even series of music videos.  No, the show “Ryan’s World” is simply Ryan, the six-year-old kid, opening boxes on camera to reveal hidden toys.

It turns out Ryan is not alone.  For the past several years, while I’ve been blithely visiting YouTube to watch country music videos and thirty-year-old clips of Saturday Night Live, other people have been getting online to watch people open boxes, all sorts of boxes, which contain all sorts of things: toys, electronic gadgets, shoes, live reptiles.  CNN reports that “Since 2010, the number of YouTube clips with ‘unboxing’ in the headline has increased 871%. Last year alone, 2,370 days, or 6.5 years, worth of unboxing footage was uploaded to the site.”[i]

I suspect that some of you still aren’t following what I’m talking about.  After that lunchtime conversation during which I was introduced to the world of unboxing, I still didn’t comprehend it, either.  So, let me say it again, in simplest terms: YouTube, by far the internet’s largest video streaming website, has an entire category of videos which consist of nothing other than people on camera opening boxes to see what’s inside.  And hundreds of thousands of people spend hours online everyday doing nothing other than watching these videos, doing nothing other than watching other people open boxes.

Even more bizarrely, the craze surrounding unboxing videos has turned into an industry.  Toy manufacturers have begun creating new toys in inventive boxes designed to be opened on YouTube unboxing channels.[ii]  The industry is leaning into the phenomenon.  And the video makers are cleaning up.  It turns out six-year-old Ryan didn’t earn $7 million last year.  He made $11 million. [iii]

Image result for unboxing

What the heck is going on?  I wish I could now tell you that this is all a prank, but Easter fell on April Fool’s Day last year, not this year. The unboxing craze is real.  My next thought was that it must be some sort of aberrant fetish, so I got on YouTube and checked the videos out for myself.

I watched one episode of Ryan’s World, in which the little boy’s real life mom wakes Ryan up to the surprise of a giant, papier-mache egg sitting in the middle of his room. Ryan excitedly tears open the egg to find a cache of toys from the Pixar “Cars” movie franchise. Ryan spends the next ten minutes playing with the toys, but for the viewer the novelty wears off within a minute or two, and there is an admittedly almost hypnotic impulse to click on the next video and watch Ryan open a new box.

I also watched a video posted by a twenty-something YouTube phenom who goes by the moniker SSSniperWolf.  In the video, SSSniperWolf purchases for $5,000 what is advertised on eBay as a “mystery box.”  That’s right.  She spends $5,000 for the experience of opening a plain cardboard box with unknown contents.  The box arrives, and SSSniperWolf opens it on camera only to find a disappointing array of clothing, pet toys, and junk exercise equipment.  As she peruses the box’s contents in disappointment, SSSniperWokf asks into the camera, “Am I missing something?  Is there…a hint in this?  No, there’s no hint. There’s… nothing, no secret message.  There’s just misery and deceit.”[iv]

And there it is, the key to deciphering the unboxing phenomenon. It is, I’ve come to believe, a digital metaphor and bellwether for the deep alienation of our culture.  We are all seeking something, but we don’t know what.  We crave deep and abiding meaning—meaning that will give a life structure, and purpose, and a horizon toward which to live—but we don’t know where to find it.  We’re not even equipped to go on the search for it.  So we settle for the shallowest possible substitute.  Hundreds of thousands of people now go online to watch other people open up mysterious boxes, wondering what they’ll find; perhaps dimly hoping that it will be something that endures, that fits the shape of the hole in our psyches and souls.  But we know, deep down, that the novelty will wear off quickly and we’ll move on to the next thing, that all such searches will end with SSSniperWolf’s dejection.  Like her, we will end up saying in exasperation, “Am I missing something?  Is there a hint in this?  No, there’s no hint. There’s nothing, no secret message.  There’s just misery and deceit.”

On the first day of the week, the women were just as desperate.  They and the disciples had searched for meaning in all sorts of packages, most recently in the ministry and message of Jesus of Nazareth.  But like everything that had come before Jesus, following him had led to disappointment and emptiness.  He was dead, and there was nothing left to do.  Nothing left, that is, except to do what good people do even in their despair and tend to the body of the teacher who’d let them down.

The women go to the tomb—its own kind of opaque box—and when it is opened, their dejection is heightened.  The box is empty.  Not even the remnant of Jesus remains, not even the body that can remind them one last time of the promise in which they briefly held all their hopes.  One cannot almost hear Mary Magdalene whisper to the others, “Is there no hint in this?  No, there is nothing, no secret message.  There is just misery and deceit.”

Rolling stone tomb, Nazareth

But just as hope dies, the world changes.  Suddenly, the mystery box is not empty but filled to overflowing.  Forget subtle hints; the women are surrounded by dazzling light and two messengers with a clarion call.  “Jesus is not dead,” they say.  “Jesus is resurrected!  Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And we should ask, on this Easter morning, why do we?  Why do we seek our meaning, the structure of our lives, the horizon of our hope in dead things, in things destined to pass away?  Whatever avenue, whatever door, whatever box we may open—no matter how much it costs us—so long as we seek ourselves in the finite and the failing we will, eventually, find ourselves mired in misery.  Our alienation from this world is because we seek to find our deepest meaning things that are meaningless.

But it is Easter Day, and again the God of grace and glory reminds us that the superficial novelties and distractions we pursue are the illusion, not the reality.  The reality is that the love and power of God will not be boxed in, even by death.  Jesus is the embodiment of that love and power, and Jesus is alive.  That is the great mystery!  The love and power of him is risen and awake, even here.  That is no idle tale.  If we, like the women at the tomb, will go forth with that living love in our psyches and souls—if we will tell the others what we have come to know—then we will experience resurrection.  The old ways of living, the old places and things in which we’ve furtively sought meaning, will die, but we will not.  We will live newly in the God of love—with meaning, purpose, structure, and a horizon of hope—and our joy will be complete.

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[i] https://www.cnn.com/2014/02/13/tech/web/youtube-unboxing-videos/index.html

[ii] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/3/22/18275786/youtube-video-unboxing-toy-industry-lol-surprise-dolls

[iii] https://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2123939/meet-ryan-six-year-old-who-made-us11-million-year-reviewing-toys-youtube

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cIOuNMG0ao&t=256s

Gliding an inch off the ground

When I was ordained, I received many useful gifts.  I received a Prayer Book-Hymnal combination embossed with my name.  I received an oil stock, in which to keep holy oil with which to anoint the sick.  I received a stoles of every liturgical color, so I would be appropriately appointed throughout the church year.  But the most memorable gift I received was not a bible, prayer beads, or even a gift card to a restaurant.  It was a Jesus action figure.  (Yes, you heard that correctly.)  The Jesus action figure was 11 inches and 5.6 ounces of glossy, molded plastic salvation.  His posable arms could be raised to heaven in prayer or forward to bless the masses.  Most spectacularly, Jesus action figure was equipped with what the manufacturer emblazoned across the packaging as his “gliding action.”  The figure had at its base tiny casters, so that Jesus rolled from placed to place, hovering, God-like, a millimeter in the air.  Jesus’ feet never touched the ground.

Image result for jesus action figure

In case you’re thinking that a Jesus action figure is unconnected to reality, we might ought to look again at today’s Liturgy of the Palms Gospel.  This is the year we read from Luke, and Luke’s palms narrative is different from that of the other Gospels in one very important respect: In it there are no palms!  Did you notice that?  In Luke, we have no mention at all of the people waving palms fronds before Jesus.  Instead, in Luke the people take off their cloaks and cover the road in front of Jesus.  And so, it turns out the Jesus action figure is, at least in this instance, biblically accurate.  In Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative Jesus’ feet never touch the ground.

There are, of course, innumerable instances in literature where a cloak is placed on the ground to prevent earthly contact with someone’s feet.  The most pronounced examples are from the Age of Chivalry, when dashing knights protected the feet of lovely maidens by laying their cloaks across muddy paths.  Those maidens are always surrounded by a heavenly aura, as chivalry insisted that they are something more than merely human, that the knight must protect them from being sullied by the world.

That is exactly what’s going on in Luke.  The Evangelist even adds that the people laid their cloaks on the road and praised Jesus “for all the deeds of power that they had seen.”  In other words, the people want Jesus to be God-like, something powerful and other.  They don’t want Jesus to be like them, and they create a pretense to the contrary, so that Jesus is not sullied by the dirt and grime of the world.

Christians today very often might as well be those gathered on the downslope of the Mount of Olives in Luke.  Too often, the Jesus described by churches and yearned for by people is the one who glides a half inch off the ground; the one who performs deeds of power on request; the one who, though he looks like us, isn’t quite the same thing.  Indeed, such a Jesus has been desired throughout Christian history.  Two huge movements in the early Church, Docetism and Apollinarianism, each in its own way claimed that Jesus wasn’t really like us, that he wasn’t of the mud and muck of this world.  Jesus was God pretending to be a person, akin to the Greek god Zeus taking on human form.  Jesus glided above us, so to speak, full of power and never quite human.

But it turns out that Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and will not perform deeds of power.  Instead, he gets angry, and then sorrowful, and then anxious, “sweating tears like blood,” as Luke describes him in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The people see this, and suddenly the illusion they’ve constructed is dispelled.  Jesus doesn’t exist above the fray; he charges into it.  Jesus doesn’t stand apart from the things that vex us, and weaken us, and bring us to the ground on our knees; he opens himself to the full range of human joy and pain.  Jesus doesn’t glide above the dirt; he lives in it.

I think that’s why, later in Passion Week, the crowd so quickly turns on Jesus.  That’s why the joyous hosannas so easily become enraged cries of “Crucify him!”  The crowd is looking for a particular kind of messiah, and once Jesus gets down off that colt, he just looks and acts human.  In their disappointment, disillusionment, and disgust, the crowd encourages Pontius Pilate to treat Jesus like the dirt in which he plants his feet.  And as Jesus succumbs to being humiliated, scourged, and hung on a cross, the crowd feels justified in abandoning an all-too-human messiah.

Image result for palm sunday in luke cloaks on ground

But here’s the thing: Docetism and Apollinarianism were both declared heretical by the Church, and the Jesus action figure is, too.  Rightly, the Church can have nothing to do with a Jesus whose feet don’t touch the ground.  Such a Jesus is good for the occasional parlor trick, but not for real life.  We don’t need the Jesus of Southern Sunday school portraits, with doe-y, upcast eyes and a gauzy glow.  We don’t need the Jesus who glides around in, but is not of, the world.  We need the Jesus who shows up in the ambulance bay, and after the hurricane, and when we feel abandoned as the world around us is crashing.  We need the Jesus who embraces us because he has known our joy, our sorrow, and our loss.  We need a fully human Jesus, who steps, deliberately and repeatedly, into the muck and mud.

That Jesus is not one who hurls a lightning bolt or wrenches us out of the world, but he is the one who will walk through the world with us, from the hosannas of the Mount of Olives to the agony of the Mount of Calvary.  He himself makes that trip this week.  I hope we will walk with him.

A Prodigal Love

This past Wednesday at the Cathedral, as I had finished the early bible study I lead and Flo Ray was preparing for the late morning bible study she leads, I asked Flo if she had any nuggets of wisdom to share about the Prodigal Son.  Flo chuckled and acknowledged that it is difficult to find a fresh word on a story so commonly known and often told.  Indeed, Flo is correct.  There is perhaps no other of Jesus’ stories that so deeply pervades our consciousness.  Consider a small sampling of the films over the years that draw inspiration from, if not direct correlation to, the Prodigal Son: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Legends of the Fall, The Notebook, even The Lion King.  What more can be said?

Image result for the prodigal son

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The parable is customarily titled the “Parable of the Prodigal Son,” but as several biblical scholars have pointed out, it would be more accurately titled the “Parable of Two Sons.”  The story itself does not privilege the character of one son over the other; it is as much about the elder son as it is the younger.

Here is a fresh way we might approach this ancient story: Tim Keller argues that the two sons in Jesus parable represent extreme examples of the two basic ways people seek happiness and fulfillment in life, both then and now: the way of self-discovery and the way of moral conformity.[i]  Each of these paths can be life-giving to be sure, and yet in the parable, we see that each path also has its dark side.

The younger son follows the path of self-discovery, chafing against the lifestyle of his father, his family, perhaps his culture.  He wants to pursue his own identity, his own sense of self, his own self-actualization.  He breaks free and leaves, and though the results in his case are extreme, some lesser variant of him is not uncommon to us.  In our own day, the wing-spreading and experimentation that at first feel like freedom can ultimately become just a different kind of captivity.  At the end of the road of self-discovery, we can end up, like the younger son, alienated from what we’d known and loved and dependent upon things (sometimes controlled substances) and people that are not good for us.

The elder son follows the path of moral conformity.  He seeks happiness and fulfillment by putting a premium on carrying out life’s duties (even the smallest and most incidental), upholding astronomically high standards, and—though he may not be conscious of it—insisting that others maintain his standards as well.  It is a form of control that he desires, of himself, his world, and, he hopes, his father.  As a result, the elder son becomes, as we can do, frustrated and angry when the world around refuses to conform.  Like the elder son, we can become resentful when the world fails to commend or reward us appropriately for our rectitude in playing by the rules.  In extreme cases, that resentment can lead one to find a secret release valve of non-conformist behavior, which if it comes to light may be potentially more destructive than the younger son’s wide-open rebellion.

It is clear, from the beginning to the end of this parable, that the father loves his sons, and his love is true.  Why is it that they seek their fulfillment apart from him, either by rebellion or control?  What is it about his love that from which they seek a barrier?

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The most remarkable person I’ve ever known, the one to whom I look up the most, was not an elected leader, a celebrity, a titan of business, or a priest of the church.  Her name is not etched on any wall, or included in any book, and in a generation those who remember her at all will be gone.  But she was, in my life, the closest thing I’ve known to Christ Incarnate.  She is, for me, very often the only lens through which the stories of scripture finally take on flesh and become compelling in my own life. She is my maternal grandmother, Beulah Barkley, whose last name I wear as my first name, and who was known to me only and always as “Boo.”

When I was a child, Boo granted me sophistication of understanding that I did not deserve.  When I was a teenager, for my safety she broached uncomfortable subjects with me that no grandmother would enjoy discussing with her pubescent, hormonal grandson.  When I was in college she wrote me letters in pencil, offering deeply wise counsel and guidance.

boo teaching me

Boo, wearing the green shirt, teaching me some important lesson.

Whenever I describe Boo, I fear that the description comes across as syrupy and Pollyanna-ish.  Boo was neither of those things.  Boo was also not naïve.  She knew full well who I was, and how I could and did fail, and wherein I needed to drop to my knees and ask for God’s forgiveness.  And yet, she also looked upon me with her eyes of love and saw the “me” God’s goodness intended.  She believed I could, with God’s grace, be that person, and she saw me as if I already was.

That is the way God gazes upon us, and it is not an easy thing to be seen in that way.  Sometimes one wants to rebel against that vision, to test whether in can be clouded and the love behind it proven untrue.  Other times one wants to control that kind of love, to manipulate it in order to be master of one’s own life.  Sometimes that love is simply too much; knowing ourselves as we do, we cannot fathom that we are so loved, and therefore we cannot bear it.

In the novel A World Lost, Wendell Berry imagines a time at the end of time when all those who have lived and died emerge in the light of that gaze.  Berry says:

“I imagine the dead waking, dazed, into a shadowless light in which they know themselves altogether for the first time.  It is a light that is merciless until they can accept its mercy; by it they are at once condemned and redeemed.  It it Hell until it is Heaven.  Seeing themselves in that light, if they are willing, they see how far they have failed the only justice of loving one another; it punishes them by their own judgment.  And yet, in suffering that light’s awful clarity, in seeing themselves within it, they see its forgiveness and its beauty, and are consoled.  In it they are loved completely, even as they have been, and so are changed into what they could not have been but what, if they could have imagined it, they would have wished to be.”[ii]

My grandmother Boo loved me completely.  She saw me through eyes of grace, and somehow because she could see me as God hoped I would be, I wanted—and I still want seventeen years after her death—to be the person of her vision.  Her love for me was prodigal, which means, after all, extravagant.  And even now when I recklessly stray, it is Boo’s love—which is, in truth, God’s love—that brings me to myself like the Prodigal Son and orients me toward home.

Boo’s love, which I am forever grateful to have encountered, is but a flicker compared to that shadowless light of love God has for us.  It requires vulnerability to be gazed upon with that kind of love.  It requires giving up the option of running away.  It requires relinquishing control.  It requires a willingness to see ourselves as we are and exhale, knowing that we are loved even so, and then wanting to be the people of God’s greater vision.  And when we allow that gaze to wash over us, and we accept that love, the possibility of becoming the people of God’s greater vision becomes real.

God’s love is prior to repentance, prior to doing any duty. It is a love that has its eye always oriented toward the path looking for the younger son, that longingly expects our return and is ever-ready to embrace us.  It is the love that says, as to the elder son, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours,” without condition, without exception, and without earning.  God’s love, it turns out, is the most prodigal of all.

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[i] Keller, Timothy.  The Prodigal God, 29.

[ii] Berry, Wendell.  A World Lost, 104.