Paradox is Good for the Soul

A Christmas Meditation on Luke 2:1-20
© Stacey Steck

If you’ve ever shopped for a child, perhaps you experienced one of a parents’ greatest Christmas conundrums: do I buy the gifts my kids tell me they REALLY want, or the ones I know they will play with for a lot longer. For me, this makes the other pressing Christmas questions about trees (real or artificial?), fruitcakes (regift them or put them straight in the trash?), and eggnog (with rum or without?) pale in significance. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing a child’s face when they get exactly what they have been begging for months to receive. But there is also no greater disappointment than seeing that gift accumulating dust just a few days after the blessed morning because it was really more style than substance. I can’t say it is a conundrum that has kept me awake at night, but it is surely one that has consumed more of my time than is spiritually advisable. You see, I should be more concerned with the paradox of the season than its conundrums.

You will remember that a conundrum is a “puzzling question or problem,” the classic example of which is the riddle, “What’s the difference between a jeweler and a jailer? One sells watches and the other watches cells.” To be sure, the choice of a child’s gift falls into the category of conundrum. A conundrum makes you put your hand on your chin, grimace, and say, “Hmmm.” A paradox, on the other hand, makes you throw your hands up in the air in praise or surrender, and renders you speechless. A paradox, classically defined, is “a statement or situation that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd but that may be true in fact.”

Like “Life is not lost by dying.” Or “You gotta be cruel to be kind.” And maybe the first and still most notable, the Epimenides paradox, uttered by a native of the island of Crete, who famously said, “All Cretans are liars.” In a conundrum, there is a choice. In a paradox, there is only acceptance. We may have had to deal with a conundrum to get here this evening – which car should we take, should we eat dinner before or after the service, and should it be ham or turkey, that kind of thing. But once here, we are faced with the greatest of all paradoxes, the incarnation of God, God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in the person of Jesus Christ. My hope tonight is that at least for the time we are together, that the Christmas conundrums you may be facing will pale in significance to the paradox we gather to celebrate.

The Shepherds seemingly faced no such conundrum when confronted with the paradox of a savior baby. Luke records no debate about what to do with the sheep while the shepherds made haste to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” Not even their livelihood occasioned a “Hmmm” in the face of the angel’s awesome message. They ran on down that hillside to Bethlehem to experience a paradox. Mary’s treasuring and pondering all the Shepherd’s words reflect an admiration of the amazing paradox she had been experiencing, not an attempt by her to solve some kind of dilemma like should the diapers be cloth or disposable. And the angels had the best seat in the house, announcing the paradox and watching the others begin to enjoy it. They knew better than anyone what and who was coming into the world.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes the coming of Christ, the fulfillment of all of our most earnest hopes and dreams for peace, and communion with God, as a “shock to the system.” And although I agree with him, it is hard to see the most ordinary of events – the birth of a child, something that happens thousands of times a day all over the world – as very shocking. What happened in Bethlehem is not really so awe-inspiring as we might imagine or hope a Messiah’s coming to be. After all, what it really meant was another decade or two of waiting for things to change, until that child grew up and did what Messiah’s are supposed to do. A more apropos scenario for a Messiah’s shocking arrival might be the one Bill Murray and the rest of the Ghostbusters described a few years ago now: as a disaster of biblical proportions, yes, real Old Testament, wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the sky. Rivers and seas boiling. Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Now, that would be a shock to the system, one we could really wrap our minds around! But a baby? A baby can’t even lift its head! The only thing shocking about a baby would be if it wasn’t wasn’t crying. And yet a baby, not a lightning bolt, ushered in God’s shock to the world’s system. A paradox. While we might expect something with more pizzazz, God enters the world to judge and save it, and does it in the most unlikely of ways, by coming as “a child, wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger.” That which is utterly and completely “not human” entering fully into human life and existence is indeed a paradox of the best and most holy kind.

The funny thing about paradoxes is that in the end, they convict us not on the basis of their merits, but because they simply overwhelm us. We can never really solve them, so we have to settle for letting them solve us. Whereas with a conundrum we can weigh the pros and cons of each side, with a paradox the only choice we have is whether or not to fully appreciate it, to live in it, to be transformed by it. Our English word “paradox” comes from a Latin word that means something like “beyond belief” or beyond our ability to think about it, something which puts us in our place, which makes us recognize that we are not the center of the universe, that whoever created that paradox for us has something on us. And maybe it is precisely paradox that gives rise to praise, for praise is that natural response to something that overwhelms us. Think of the Grand Canyon, the first flower of spring, a newborn baby, whatever makes you drop your jaw or forget about everything else. That is stuff over which we have absolutely no control. And in each of these experiences, it is the authenticity, the genuineness, the lack of ulterior human motive, the fact that it is not contrived or manufactured that makes all the difference.

Which brings us to the mall, and my original conundrum. I have never been a big fan of shopping for Christmas gifts. I’ve always a general feeling of unease about the whole matter. I used to think it was a question of money, but since the feeling hasn’t gone away even with more disposable income, I’ve had to eliminate that reason. It is not that I have so many gifts to buy because my family and circle of friends is pretty small really. And I am not averse to gift-giving or receiving. (I’ve tried giving no gifts at all, trying to find the perfect gift, even trying to get everything on someone’s list.) But in spite of all those things, Flora and I have observed that if you send us out to go Christmas shopping for others, you can be pretty well assured that we’ll come home with things mostly for ourselves.

But finally this year, as I walked through the mall, I came to a realization about this hangup I have about Christmas gifts. It occurred to me that what bothers me is the expectation of gift-giving during the holidays, an expectation which seems to betray the very idea of a gift, at least from a Christian perspective. After all, a gift given under duress is no gift at all. That’s called extortion. A gift given from guilt or to avoid some consequences is no gift at all. That’s called blood money. A gift given for something in return is no gift at all. That’s called that a bribe. And so, the only gift worth giving is the surprise gift, a gift offered unexpectedly, a gift offered with “no strings attached,” a gift like the Christ Child in the manger, given unexpectedly to Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and “all the people.” The best gifts then are the paradoxical gifts, the ones which when given cause their recipients to throw their hands up in the air in praise or surrender, not because it was what they wanted, but simply because it was given to them. Maybe my conundrum is solved. No gifts for the kids this year. Hmmmm.

I want to close by sharing a poem by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. It is called “The Last Bargain.”

“Come and hire me,” I cried, while in the morning I was walking on the stone paved road.
Sword in hand, the King came in his chariot.
He held my hand and said, “I will hire you with my power.”
But his power counted for nought, and he went away in his chariot.

In the heat of the midday the houses stood with shut doors.
I wandered along the crooked lane.
An old man came out with his bag of gold.
He pondered and said, “I will hire you with my money.”
He weighed his coins one by one, but I turned away.

It was evening. The garden hedge was all aflower.
The fair maid came out and said, “I will hire you with a smile.”
Her smile paled and melted into tears, and she went back alone into the dark.

The sun glistened on the sand, and the sea waves broke waywardly.
A child sat playing with shells.
He raised his head and seemed to know me, and said, “I hire you with nothing.”
From thenceforward that bargain struck in child’s play made me a free man.

Although it is usually best to let poetry go unanalyzed, it is important that the point not be missed. “Come and hire me,” says the main character, “Give me a place, a role, an adventure in which to invest myself.” He is willing to give himself completely, yet none of the comers, with their offers of various kinds of payment, seem worth the effort, no matter how enticing, except for the one who offers nothing in the world. And the child is the only one worth following. The paradox of Tagore’s poem is that he who went seeking work, and passed up reward of all kinds, ended up working for nothing yet experienced it as freedom. So it is with Christ.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for all of us is that we come face to face with fewer conundrums and more paradoxes, and that we will see anew that even amid the crassness and the commercialization of our holy day, Christ still offers us an authenticity, a genuineness that bids us follow. Neither power, wealth, nor romance have the power to draw us near. But approaching, and being approached by, the Christ child, we find ourselves willing to follow that child. In the story of Christ’s birth, may you find a surprising and unexpected gift, may you be overwhelmed by the love God has for you, may it be a shock to your system, and may you be taken in and transformed by the great and wonderful paradox of the eternal God entering into a human life, so that we humans might find eternal life. Amen.

The Blessings of Unrecognizeable Reality

Matthew 11:2-11
© Stacey Steck

We might imagine the dismay with which Jesus received John’s messengers bearing a question as inane as “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” But gentle Jesus, meek and mild, takes it easy on John and sends back the message, “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” along with a catalogue of the events inaugurating the inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus is nothing if not long-suffering.

But what are we to make of the fact that John the Baptist, the one who leapt in his mother’s womb when the fetal Jesus came near him, the who could describe so clearly Messiah’s coming, the who could chastise the Pharisees and the Sadducees for failing to read the signs of the times and make straight the paths for the one who would soon be coming to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit, the one more than anyone else who should have known, how come this John can’t see the forest for the trees? How could he not make sense of so many powerful signs taking place around him? Maybe it was the jailhouse food that suddenly made John the Baptist soft in the head. Maybe he just didn’t want to be disappointed. Maybe he just couldn’t trust his own judgment since his own judgment had landed him in jail. Maybe there are other ways to explain away John’s question as something other than an inability to put together two and two, but what remains the simplest and most likely explanation, if for no other reason than it describes us pretty well too, is that John struggled with imperceptible reality. He had the human tendency to miss seeing what’s really right in front of us all the time, especially of the divine kind.

Of course, imperceptible reality is not limited to the divine realm. Take the human body for example. As we all know, blood flows through our veins, oxygen is received by our lungs and is transferred into our blood stream. The brain processes billions of tiny messages that control all of our essential functions as well as our emotions, our creativity, our compassion. But we can’t see any of that. Even when we cut our fingers and see our own blood, we don’t really come any closer to fully comprehending what the blood is doing in our bodies. The same is true for machines, especially computers, if you’ve ever encountered the blue screen of death on your PC or the endless spinning wheel on your Mac. We know when it works and we know when it does not, but even if we tried to wrap our minds around their circuitry and electrons, our computers would still remain, at least for me, an imperceptible reality.

Moving a little closer to divine imperceptible reality, take nature. Despite our best efforts at understanding it, watching it with satellites, breaking it down with electron microscopes, it remains something which constantly surprises us and makes us appreciate how little we know. If we really completely understood the natural world, perhaps we’d manage it or control it a little better, but the truth is that there is nothing we can do about the sun rising and setting, the tides washing onto the shore, or the freezing and thawing of the earth. The Christmas carol we sang earlier reminds us that God’s creation is part of that realm of imperceptible reality: “Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled. Even the hour when wings are frozen God for fledgling time has chosen. People look east and sing today, love the bird is on the way.” Each spring’s nest of eggs will hatch, and little birds will grow feathers, spread their wings and fly away. You can count on it even on chilly days like today.

And then there’s stuff like love and grace and forgiveness, the real intangibles in life, the real gifts of God that are too often, it seems, imperceptible reality. Would that we always knew how God loves us or how much others love us! Would that we always experience grace as fully and abundantly as we affirm it to be available! Would that forgiveness and compassion touch us as easily as December’s frosty wind! Oh, at times we glimpse these things, but for the most part, we, like John the Baptist, question God, asking, “Is it real?” or “Is that all there is?” not because it’s not real or because there isn’t enough to go around, but because we suffer from John’s affliction.
The good news of the Gospel, at least today’s Gospel lesson, is that there are blessings to be found in and around imperceptible reality. First and foremost, there is the opportunity to give thanks to God that we can’t see everything. Our little minds, hearts, and souls couldn’t handle it. We’d be so overwhelmed by all that information, emotion, and Spirit that we’d be paralyzed. Our consciousnesses have enough trouble putting together coherent sentences, much less being mindful of which chamber of the heart to pump. Some of you may have seen the movie, “Bruce Almighty,” in which the main character is endowed, for a short time, with the rights and responsibilities of the divine. Like Bruce, imagine being party to all the prayers of even one city, much less the whole world, and being unable to shut them out. Thank God for your feebleness, for your limited ability to perceive reality. If we find ourselves complaining about our inability to have access to enough reality, may Jesus say to us as he said to the mother of James and John, when she asked for her sons to sit at Jesus’ side in the Kingdom. “You do not know what you are asking!”

The other blessing of imperceptible reality I’d like to share with you this morning is the one demonstrated by what happened after Jesus sent word back to John that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Despite receiving an ignorant question from one who ought to have known better, Jesus does not rebuke John, neither to his messengers nor those who remained behind. Instead of judgment, Jesus goes on to extol John as a prophet, as one superior even to kings. Indeed he says, “Truly, I tell you, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” John can be forgiven his inability to observe the signs of the times. But more than that, when Jesus says, “yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” it is a reminder to us that we who may have even less ability than John to observe the in-breaking of the Kingdom that which we celebrate at Advent, are still valuable in God’s sight, that what we would see if we could see is that God’s mercy and compassion and grace are the only things able to overcome our shortcomings.

Believe it or not, the world goes on despite the fact the we don’t know or see everything. Thank you God. Thank you for shouldering the burden of running the whole world while we learn little by little, slowly but surely to see the reality you have placed among us, the reality of Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. You see, the greatest blessing of imperceptible reality is the permission is gives us to slowly expand our vision, at a human pace to develop the capacity to experience God’s reality in the way my favorite photographer DeWitt Jones describes when he says, “If you believe it, you’ll see it.” It takes a while to believe it, but the view is worth the wait.

When I think about imperceptible reality, I am reminded of the way the famous Trappist monk and contemplative writer, Thomas Merton, described the special work of the monastic community. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this: “Monks, praying, hold the world together.” You can’t see them and you don’t know exactly where they are, but somewhere in the world, every minute of the day, there’s a monk lifting up the world to God’s mercy, carrying on in the humble and routine act of prayer. It’s an imperceptible reality, for we can’t see those prayers rising to the heavens, but I thank God that in the course of my life and my experience, I have come to discern the truth in Merton’s statement.

A wise person once described discernment by calling it “the uniquely human capacity to know something without knowing how one has come to know it, and to bring what one knows in this way to what one has come to know in other ways,” and, by doing so, to discover the truth.” Discernment is different than learning. Learning is that process of bringing together your perception and your ideas and your behavior. But discernment means be able to experience what can’t really be captured in books or laboratories or telescopes. Discernment requires the eyes of faith. That kind of vision in human beings may not always be 20/20 but as we grow in faith we can come gradually closer to participating more fully in God’s reality and our own humanity. I don’t know how I know Merton is right that “Monks, praying, hold the world together,” but I do know that God is calling them to do their part, and that God is calling me to do mine and that that’s what it means to be human.

I want to conclude with a famous prayer written by Merton that speaks to these blessings of imperceptible reality: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

May our waiting this Advent please God and help assure us of that sometimes imperceptible reality that God is truly with us. Amen.