Finding direction in Christmas

December 19, 2005

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“It’s madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares. They should lash us to our pews.” –Annie Dillard, American author

Ever wonder why Jesus asked Peter to walk on water?

Of course, like the miraculous account of the first Christmas, not everyone believes, or even knows, the story. But the same gospels that tell one, tell the other: a man Simon Peter jumped from a boat to walk on water one night some 2,000 years ago, apparently with some success, in a kind of reckless joy in seeing Christ himself on the waves.

I’ve never found it hard to let such stories speak for themselves. The God of Christmas pursued me early in life. He’s encouraged me in ways that I can’t express; surprised me too many times to remember; given me enough evidence about his reality that the jury of my heart reached its verdict long ago.

My problem, if you can call it that, is indifference. You know how hard it is to leave bed some days, never mind a boat. Maybe lunch beckons. Or the bus is coming. I have things to do.

So it’s been good to live in Africa, because for all their daily challenges, many Africans freely worship God in that dangerous, Peter-like manner. Now it’s hard to know what anyone might mean by the word worship these days. I can say I worship the ground my wife walks on, but that’s not literally true.

In more honest moments, some of us might admit we tend to worship ourselves. But I was reminded about meaningful worship on a recent night after dropping into a small chapel at the Ugandan university where I live.

Unaware that I was listening from the back, a student sat alone in the brick and wood sanctuary, at a simple piano, pouring out her heart in song in such an intimate way that she reminded me of the woman who once poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, before she washed them with her tears and dried them with her hair. Appropriately, beside my rear-pew seat stood a sign: “Caution, worship in progress.”

I felt a similar spirit when once watching an Ethiopian youth baptized in Yemen. His joy was so deep and so overwhelming one could easily forget this was in a Muslim country without a single Christian church for millions of indigenous Yemenis, where outsiders, especially underclassed African refugees, take their chances with any public expression of Christianity.

“Caution, worship” – that vulnerable giving of our deepest selves – “in progress.” What’s one to do with a warning like that? Think of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the C.S. Lewis story now in theatres around the planet. “Then he isn’t safe?” asks Lucy when first hearing about the majestic lion.

“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe,” responds Mr. Beaver. “But he’s good.”

So good, that Christmas came to our world.

And if Christmas is for children, which it surely is, then all this has something to do with walking on water. The message from Peter’s boyish jaunt is just what the mystics say: we are more than we know. Over time we’ve simply forgotten our real identity, forgotten our real home, forgotten that, as Lewis once said, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

And isn’t this the story of the postmodernwest? It’s grown so mature, so sophisticated and comfortable, so safe, entertained and distracted, that it hasn’t really killed God, as Nietzsche said.

It’s just domesticated him. The spirit of the age isn’t skepticism. It’s ambivalence. A hero-less, broken and aimless ambivalence. Into that, Christmas still comes around to give direction, if not a good shake.

With that thought, I’m anticipating my own holiday home in Canada. In fact, it’s very possible that as you read this, Jean and I and our two little squirts, Elizabeth and Jonathan, are flying over the sea. But one day, in another place, I’m going to walk on it. No, I’m going to run. It will be a blast.

And I hope you’ll be there beside me.

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December 19, 2005 • Posted in ,
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