Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christ's Bounty

Four or five years ago, one of the departed saints of Nineveh, Doris White, began a program that she called Christmas Town. It has since come to be called Christ's Bounty, but the content is mostly the same: a winter giveaway of food, clothing, and toys to local families in need. For the first week in December, the sanctuary fills up with boxes of food. It turns out that the pews are the best staging area for the boxes before they're given away on a Saturday morning.

 Christ's Bounty is probably one of the top two or three programs done by Nineveh Presbyterian Church in terms of participation (not counting Sunday morning worship). And it is one of our actions that comes closest to James' description of "true religion" for the early Church (James chapter 1); for this I am proud of our little congregation of saints. God certainly does good work through them.

There are corollary benefits, as well. You may be able to make out my son Micah being carried on his mother's belly as she works amidst the other box-loaders. Gwendolyn, too, loves to be a part of the set up for Christ's Bounty, in no small measure because she likes to ride on whatever cart is currently carrying goods from here to there. But in the meanwhile, they are being exposed to a central mission of the Church: to  care for the poor, the widows, and the orphans.
It is my hope and prayer that this work will become a core part of their Christian spirituality as adults. Christ's Bounty, I think, gets them off to a good start.

~ emrys

Gifts from Friends

A colleague of mine is an avid textile artist, and along with a couple of other colleagues from my presbytery, enjoys producing works of art for members of the next generation as they appear. Here are the jacket and cap made for Micah--fitting just right his six-month-old frame. (Big Sister could not help but get in the way of the camera's eye.)

Thanks, Barbara, for your gorgeous work!
~ emrys

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lay of the Land

Two resources were always available in my dad's house: the Encyclopedia Britannica (the full set) and a globe. These things had a more certain place in Dad's abode than a home-cooked meal or sufficient toilet paper. When my brother and I came to Dad with an off-the-wall question (and there were more than we could count), Dad never responded by saying, "I don't know." If our question started with "Where is . . ." then Dad took us to the globe to point to exactly where Timbuktu, Beijing, or Nicaragua was. If the question began with "What is . . ." then we went to the Encyclopedia.

Perhaps as a result, I have always loved maps. During my Dungeons & Dragons days, my favorite part of my Dungeon Master's work was creating maps. Maps provide the opportunity to see history, movement, and possibility laid out in brilliant lines and color. Geography is so important, in fact, that some students of the art, like Jared Diamond, have asserted that the most powerful guiding force in history and culture is the lay of the land (see Diamond's book Collapse).

When I inherited my part of Dad's estate, I took into possession Donald Matthew's Atlas of Medieval Europe (1986). It sat on Dad's shelf all of my high school and college years; over the past few months I finally read it. Far from an "atlas" like the ones we used to buy at Walmart to navigate US highways (before the Garmin made paper obsolete), the cover of Matthew's Atlas boasts 75,000 words of text and 25,000 words in captions (with a relatively sparse 64 maps). The book reads more like a survey of medieval history with a heavy seasoning of maps.

I shan't review the book here. If you are not presently yawning at the idea of this Atlas, then it's for you. All others would probably find the dizzying survey of place-names, persons, and historical events to serve only as a cure for insomnia.

What impressed me about Matthew's work was its sheer scope: the book offers a "view from space" over the shifting landscape of one thousand years of European history. (He does well, by the way, to include the oft-neglected Arabic side of the Mediterranean.) And over the course of its pages I re-discovered one of the blessings I glean from reading history: the present comes into better perspective. I don't mean here a trite "lesson of history" that may keep me (little singular me!) from falling over some great precipice of cultural error. Rather, I take comfort that the great vicissitudes of human events that seem, in a moment, to threaten everything we live for, have in fact been going on for a very long time. Though media pundits would have us believe that today's election, today's crisis, today's war could be the pivot-point of all civilization . . . none has been so. Neither will this one be. We humans are, by nature, slow; the God who created the globe is a slow God; even the fulcrum of human history--the resurrection of Christ--takes years to change a single generation. Until the moment when Christ returns in glory, everything will take longer than we wish, or than we fear.

The silent backdrop of geography, when one allows the scurrying ants of humanity to fly across it in time-lapse acceleration, reveals the geologic nature of great change. Time is a river into which one can only set foot once; history is the river's sediment which takes eons to make new land.

Go in peace across this soil; it was long before we set foot on it, and it shall claim us before we have even scratched its surface with our plows.

~ emrys

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Shadow

Last week I had the privilege of viewing part one of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit. Among so many other things, Jackson’s works capture on screen one of the characteristics of Tolkien’s work that I find so appealing: they are epic. In scope of timeline, breadth of detail, and depth of meaning, the Tolkien/Jackson fusion is epic. Epic works have, in the short-attention-span theater of our present media climate, become almost antiquated. The reductionistic assumptions of contemporary intellectual and artistic endeavors look askance at attempts to paint the world with anything but pointilistic strokes. Today’s commentators speak of overarching metanarratives the way historians refer to the naming of “The War to End All Wars.”

I have been influenced by this reductionistic tendency. I gained sharper awareness of this when I watched Ian McKellan’s Gandalf the Grey sit at table with Saruman, Elrond, and Galadriel. As he tried to convince them that a greater darkness then the Pale Orc loomed over Middle Earth, I felt my soul shudder under a foreshadow of world-consuming evil. And then it occurred to me that I may have been lured into something just a bit over-the-top. A nameless necromancer who seeks to take over the world? Melodramatic, said my inner postmodern critic--or at very least maybe a bit too much.

Perhaps--until yesterday, when a man shot his mother and drove to a local elementary school in order to murder unsuspecting teachers and young children.

The social, emotional, and legal contours of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, and Columbine remain too fuzzy to define well. Perhaps they will become clearer in the future, but as far as I am presently concerned, they are beyond speculation. What has become clear to me again is the shadow whose reaches extend farther than we are aware until we look up from our reduced microcosms. Tolkien had his inkling finger on something inescapable: evil has epic proportions.

The fact that we cannot discern clearly the emotional and social roots of the behavior of those like Adam Lanza, and the fact that the scene at Sandy Hook bears an appalling resemblance to the news from northern Mali or the Lord’s Resistance Army, bear witness to the fact that the depths of evil are beyond our comprehension. They give the lie to trends of contemporary voices who would prefer to treat evil as only so much lint which may be easily cleaned out of our own navels, if we would just examine them long enough. The terrifying hiddenness of these atrocities choke us up with the possibilities that my neighborhood may be cultivating future shootings, that my family systems may be empowering the next shooter, and that I may tomorrow find myself to be, if not perpetrator, then victim.

We mourn not just the loss of life and innocence, but we shiver under the cold Shadow from which the Balrog emerged and whose presence heralds the work of a Necromancer.

But—and I write all of the above only as preamble to this—we do not mourn as those who have no hope. When, according to Matthew’s account, King Herod of Judea slaughtered the children of Bethlehem, he did so in order to extinguish hope. Yet Hope persisted, growing in the person of Jesus, until his innocence was finally slaughtered by unjust execution three decades later. By then, however, Hope could not be quenched. Jesus Christ rose from the dead to reveal that despair cannot conquer Hope, that the Shadow cannot grasp the Light no matter how far its reach, and that death does not get the final word over Life. The only question that remains, to those of us who reduce life and death to disjointed icons in a shattered world, is: Do I believe in the epic Life of Christ?

To say Yes is not to oversimplify the massive challenges before us. The tragedies of Sandy Hook, Oklahoma City, Martin Luther King, Matthew Shepard, and Malala Yousufzai--just to name a few--will not brook glib platitudes designed to administer opiate for our souls. Christ is not palliative care for a society on hospice. To say Yes to Hope, Yes to Resurrection, Yes to Christ’s unquenchable Life means penetrating pain like smoke jumpers into the fire. Saying Yes means venturing into the mazes of society to slay dreadful minotaurs. Saying Yes means choosing to enter the Shadow of Mordor armed only with Hope that Gandalf the Grey will indeed return as Gandalf the White—in time to save us from the armies of darkness. Saying Yes means volunteering to suffer our own executions for the sake of those who did not choose theirs, because we know that someone greater than our own lives is at work here.

We cannot escape the epic character of evil. We can, however, embrace the epic Good which has been offered to us.

~ emrys