Friday, December 19, 2008

Santa, Aslan, Harry Potter, and God

It's C-day minus 6. Are the decorations up? Presents bought and wrapped? Meals planned? Cookies baked? Sugar-high children restrained?

In all the rush, has Christ gone missing again?

You might want to make a pot of spicy tea, settle down in an overstuffed chair, and read a fairy tale.

That approach would make sense to Tony Woodlief, a management consultant and writer who, in his wonderful op-ed piece in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (thanks, Molly, for the tip), pits Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, Rowling, and St. Paul against "puritans and atheists" who prefer their truth straight up.

St. Paul?

There's "a seeming paradox in St. Paul's letter to Roman Christians," Woodlief writes:
"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. . . ." How does one see "invisible attributes"? Only people raised on fairy tales can make sense of that. It belongs in a terrain where magic glasses can illumine what was heretofore hidden, where rabbit holes open into wonderlands. No wonder some atheists like Mr. Dawkins want to kill Harry Potter.
Many years ago my daughter Heidi was walking home from school when she overheard this earnest exchange between two first-graders walking a few paces behind her:
First Child: Did you know that there are people who don't believe in God?
Second Child: That's nothing. I know people who don't believe in Santa Claus!
That child would be in her thirties now. I hope she still believes in magic.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tapas vs tuna noodle casserole

Yesterday Mr Neff wrote about the value of small. Confidentially, I thought his article could have been smaller. But I really liked these paragraphs. Maybe because they involve food.

* * * * * * * * * *

From "A Perfect Pearl: A small gospel can be a beautiful thing" by David Neff

Last January, Mark Labberton began this final series of Christian Vision Project essays by comparing the gospel many of us live by to a bland bowl of lima beans. "Many have the impression," he wrote, "that the gospel is small, smooth, and tasteless."

When I re-read Labberton's essay, I began to think of a different kind of "small" food. I thought of tapas, the small portions of intensely flavored dishes that have long served as appetizers in Spain. Over the last quarter century they have become an entire cuisine in some American restaurants. The first time friends invited me to a tapas restaurant, I was not intrigued. It was the 1980s, and American culture still celebrated the all-you-can-eat buffet. The idea of going to a restaurant to eat small portions didn't seem special to me. But my first tapas bites were a revelation. An epiphany. The intense tastes of garlic or cumin or chilies brought such a rush of flavor that it reoriented my whole approach to eating. This was food that could not be wolfed down unthinkingly, like the 1950s American cuisine of my youth: tuna noodle casserole, Jell-O salad, mashed potatoes. These little dishes demanded that I nibble slowly, chew thoughtfully, and savor.

Hear the parable of the tapas menu. God offered us something that could have been small, obscure, and forgettable. He didn't offer us some grand universal principle. His gift was the life and death (and resurrection!) of just one person in a small country repeatedly crushed and occupied by foreign powers. He does not give us love or peace or brotherhood. He gives us Jesus, who died like a common criminal.

But when we pay attention to the small thing God gives us, it changes our entire approach to life. We see the world differently. What had seemed insignificant now demands our full attention. What had seemed ordinary now seems interesting. What had seemed a dead end now promises great potential—the redemption of the whole world.

(c) 2008 by David Neff
Used without the author's permission or even awareness

Friday, December 12, 2008

Vinita Hampton Wright on presents and presence

Vinita Hampton Wright is a dear friend, publishing colleague, and exceptionally wise woman. She is the author of many books, fiction and nonfiction, including the just-released Days of Deepening Friendship: For the Woman Who Wants Authentic Life With God.

This article by Vinita will be posted on Loyola Press's web site next week. It's a wonderful meditation on Christmas joy in a crumbling economy.

Presence in the Midst of Crisis

Of all times for the financial health of the world to end up in Intensive Care—just as the holidays entice us to splurge, to buy a little beyond ourselves because gift-buying and gift-giving are expressions of care, appreciation, even remembrance. We bake richer foods at Christmastime. And wrap things in shinier paper. And we like to spend a little more, just because this time is special. It is a time for feasting and lingering. It is a time for extravagance.

There is some justification for extravagance at this time of year. We are celebrating the love of an extravagant God. The Christ Child is the ultimate gift. God’s love is lavish, overflowing. God did not hold back from us, in sending Jesus, the son of God. In that birth we were given God’s very self.

And so, this year in which money is especially the focus of stress and strategy, perhaps we should think in terms of giving the self instead of stuff. God gave God’s self in fairly plain wrapping—the infant of two pilgrims with limited resources. No fine blankets or silky bassinet for Jesus. No huge basket of Ghirardelli’s chocolate treats for his parents. But the presence of that child was so rich and fine that poor shepherds, great intellects from far countries, a pious widow, and an old prophet were all drawn to him with tears and joy.

What kind of presence am I to those I love? If I can’t give a hefty gift certificate or even a nice set of bathroom towels this year, how can I be more present to that person for whom I’ve been willing to pull out an overextended credit card in years past? If I can offer no great cash value, then what is left? My stories? My welcome? My precious time for a phone conversation? My visit that lasts longer than it takes to exchange wrapped boxes?

This has been a stressful autumn for my husband and me. Unemployment, then underemployment, then major house repairs, and family too far away to travel to easily. And what we are discovering is that, to come home in the evening and eat a simple meal together, to give a long hug and a word of encouragement, to spend a little more time with our dogs and cats doing nothing but petting and cooing—all of that is lavish enough for us. There will be no expensive dining out this year, no big party thrown for friends. There will be cooking together in the kitchen, looking for the best price on clementines. There will be one trip to a family wedding and brief stops at other relatives on the way back. On each stop we will enter the home and be there with smaller gifts but a bigger sense of us—us coming in the door, giving hugs, having a relaxed conversation, enjoying the presence of those we don’t get to see very often.

We tend to forget, don’t we, that God’s presence is enough. God’s grace is sufficient. We forget that and follow after the big pay-off, the nicer car, the gadget that will make life more convenient, the vacation that will be more romantic and exotic than all the others. We hanker after finer and pricier presents, when the only answer to our real desire is that awesome Presence.

This Christmas seems like a great time to spend more time in that Presence. And more time exploring the power and wonder of our own presence with others.

(c) 2008 Vinita Hampton Wright
Used by permission