Monday, December 22, 2014

The Explosion of Christmas

(The necessary introduction)

An opening question: What is the biggest thing you can think of?
My mind (first and foremost) goes to mountains. They are so close around me, it seems natural. But there are bigger mountains than these. Everest is pretty big. Still, it’s not ocean big. And not Jupiter-big. Certainly not Sun-big, or Galaxy-big. And then there’s Universe-big. And for the geeky, Infinity-big.

Question two: What is the most powerful thing you can think of?
Lions. Bears. Blue Whales. Waterfalls. Tanks. Tornados. Missiles. Hurricanes. Nukes. Volcanoes. Gravity. The list goes on.

But there’s only one answer, really. And it is the same to both questions (and all of the others I cut out for the sake of brevity).
God is bigger. And more powerful. Than anything we can conceive of or grasp at. I have made the analogy before, and I shall make it again, that trying to comprehend Him is like tying to contain Niagara Falls in a little Dixie-cup.

Now this, I believe, is the best of starting places, and the briefest of introductions to bring me to the point of this post.
When we think of Christmas, what do we think of? Hopefully those of us with any form of Spiritual Meat on our Metaphorical Bones, can escape the smog of Santa and Trees and Traditions and such sentimentality as permeated our childhoods.
We think of Sweet Little Jesus Boy, Away in his Manger and furry-winged little angels (named Harold). We think of Naïve Nativities, cute little Marys and somewhat less cute Josephs, with the rosy-cheeked little Lord Jesus, smiling from his halo with a full head of hair and wide open eyes. (Yay! Donkeys! Sheep! Well-groomed Shepherds! A gift-giving plethora of multi-racial wise men!)
In the cases of most (at least in the case of myself), the images that come to mind are not the same as those listed above. Not mountains or oceans or galaxies, not waterfalls or volcanoes or explosions. Not universe-bigness and volcanic-power. Quaintness, maybe. That lilt of joy at the nostalgic arrival of Christmas again.
But bigness and power are what we should feel.
Try to imagine a Dixie-Cup, catching Niagara, containing it, every drop of its grandeur
Impossible, of course.
But a feeding trough—and more precisely, the loaf-of-bread-sized-squirming-pink-newborn-in-his-exhausted-mother’s-arms—contained the fullness of God, the God who was bigger than a billion universes and more powerful than a billion bursting suns. And more precisely, the fullness of a Gracious Christ, on a mission to restore creation to what it was destined to be.  
This is Christmas. Bigness and Power.  
(Necessary intro complete.) 

Christmas was not a whisper, a little candle in the dark.
Christmas is an explosion. A shattering of the world, of the universe, the fulfillment and unwinding of time in an instant, in a burst of heavenly light, in a declaration of war and peace. The heir to the Throne of the Universe set down his crown, put aside his glory, and stepped into the world. Infinity entered a womb. The King had declared his war, and now he came to rescue his enemies from the coming fire.
 Jesus, all-powerful son, equal of the father, who saw the forge of the earth, is standing in the portal, the Keeper of the Gate between the past and the future. The First Son and the Last. He, who has stood before the fire and the water, before gravity was suspended in the void, who shall stand there still when it snaps, and the lights go out and a whisper of dust is all that’s left, he lies in wait. The time is coming for Grace to pounce, the invasion of earth, planned even before the earth existed. 
And then the moment came; a whisper that spread through heaven, that trembled in the courtrooms of the most high. The time had come. The bells chimed, a clamor, the alarm.
And to the Son: It is time.
Time for the silence to end. For the storm to break. The fullness of time, in one explosion. He is the Epitaph of the Explosion, the eye of the hurricane. Time for the change.
Christmas is Ground Zero. D-Day.
The prophets cry out, and the earth rumbles. In the silence before the storm, the earth slumbers.
But the angels appear, and the sky trembles. Something is coming. Something that none understood, and none could stand in the face of. The end of the silence. A virgin is greeted by the most blessed of messengers, pregnant with the salvation of the universe.
The thunderheads rise, and they tingle in the back of every mind. So this is what Isaiah spoke of! Jeremiah! Hosea! What Moses could not have fully understood, what Abraham could not have dreamed! This was the Promise of God, so long awaited, so long forgotten. This was the New Morning.
A baby leaps in a mothers womb, for it knows, like cannon-fire in the distance. An army is building its ranks, just out of sight. The months trickle by, and Mary’s wonder grows. What will the child be? What shall he become? This child, so long expected, so long promised? 
And then, the night. And the explosion. A baby wails in a stall, and the whole universe, holding its breath, is shattered. The world explodes. The legions pour into the sky, and blot out the stars.
Peace! Peace! The night has come!
And this was no subtle choir of soft-faced angels, with golden hair and girlish figures. The armies of Heaven were arranged. An invasion force. A doomsday force. In the face of one of those soldiers, none could stand, not even the mightiest of men. A single one of them could slaughter 185,000 men in a night, break the back of the Assyrian army, could send kings running in shame (2 Kings 19:35), and here stand the legions, their ranks drawn up.
But here, the invasion force, ready to fall upon the earth and lay it to waste, no swords are drawn. The trumpets blare, and the voices cry,
“Emmanuel! Salvation is born! The master of the Stars has been bound into baby-skin! Behold, the keys to death and life are on the belt of his robe, and the light of the sun is on his brow. But he has come, not in the splendor of the tearing sky, but in the humility of a babe, the father of the Most High in the stable of the Lowest Low.
“Not to be served, but to serve. To dirty his hands and to sunburn his back, to labor and to bleed and to weep. The Immortal has become Mortal. Death shall swallow him, and from within it he shall rise. He shall conquer the Beast, and save his beloved, to pluck them from the thorns of darkness!”
Christ is behind enemy lines.
Christmas is not an event.
It is THE event. The end and the beginning. The extraction. He has come for his lost daughter, for the wandering and the stolen and the rebels, for his Zion. He has come to take her home.
Light, order, understanding and glory, an explosion that shoots through time and space and fills it. Time has meaning. Every moment, pregnant with that same child, and the man he would become, with that same glorious God. The world is shattered with the moment, the declaration, spoken first to the shepherds—
“God is here! He has come, and dwells among you in flesh! The earth shakes, and the sky rattles in its pane, because fulfillment has come. He is here! The consumer of the earth, the breather of life, he is in your midst. Go to Him. Fall on your knees! Awe and terror are his to demand. The stars he hung, and the stars glow now, pointing the way to him. Find him there, where no prince has ever lain, this King of Kings.
“Behold, his robe; but touch and be healed. His name, but call upon it and regain your sight. Fall on your knees, for God is here. Flee from him, or flee to him. He has come to rescue His beloved. Peace! Peace, to those with whom He is pleased!”
The explosion of History, the Universal Climax is here.
Adam’s world is fading. The grip of sin and darkness is weakening. The halls of hell shudder, and the courts of heaven cry with joy, the warriors and saints who have put away their swords until their King returns with his beloved children once more.
Fall on your knees, for the King of Kings, He who summons the floods and who rests his feet upon the toppled thrones of men, he can be touched! He who holds time and death holds mercy and life, and from the fire he has snatched us.
Christmas is the day that the world changed. The arrival of God, the presence of him in the midst of men, as it was in the Garden. His Triumphal Entry that only the Shepherds and the Angels were blessed to witness. The King has come, and he cries in the manger, as all newborns do. The fullness of God in a babe that was born to save us all.
Fall on your knees, indeed. Christmas is the end, and the beginning. And we, like the Shepherds, have heard the call. We have seen his glory. The stars point him out, and the trembling power of his presence is with us.

"Come then to Him, Who lies within the manger,
With joyful shepherds, proclaim Him as Lord!
Let not the Promised Son remain a stranger;
In reverent worship, make Christ your Adored!
Eternal life is theirs who would receive Him;
With grace and peace, their lives He will adorn.
Fall on your knees!
Receive the Gift of heaven!
O night, Divine, oh night, when Christ was born, 
O night, O holy night when Christ was born!"
© 2014 Sovereign Grace Worship (ASCAP)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Invisible Train, Part 1: Beginning at the End

There is a town called West End, and to those who were not born there, I suppose it is not much. It is a place of very old buildings and very old hills, a circular place, and a mossy one. It straddles a road, which crosses a brook in the middle, so that the town would be divided into quarters, if you were to view it as the birds. Pinched between the border of Wales and the lapping sea, which throbs on the slopes only a few miles away, it is not a very tidy place.
To use a popular, if unoriginal turn of phrase, “if you blink, you might just miss it.” I suppose that this is true, especially considering the modern rate of blinking and missing things both. 
As I said before, if you were not born there, you might not appreciate it for what it is. I suppose the same could be said for much of the country. It is damp, and cold. Then, we had rain. Now, I suppose there is golf.
I myself was not born there. But through a process that I like to call “geographical osmosis,” I daresay that there is as much of that rain in my blood as there is in any native. I spent a total of thirteen years in that town, between the age of nine and twenty-seven. It was a long stage without blinking, I suppose. I was frozen in a time and place quite separate from the rest of the world.
This account is not, technically, about West End. And it is not technically about me, either. It is about time. And particularly, it was about the time that I spent in that place. So in that manner, I suppose we are all star characters, West End, Time and I, each playing our parts. But more on this later.
As I said before, it was a circular sort of place, as many places are circular, I have found. There were two churches, one at either end of town, and on opposite sides of the brook, into which the entire population were divided. I would be lying if I said that the population was divided equally. And I would be lying if I said that I found myself in less popular of the divisions.
Suffice it to say that one was Catholic, and one was Anglican, and I was one of the two. If there were any members of the township who did not frequent either one or the other, they kept themselves well secret from the public eye (though I do not doubt, now, that they existed).
There was, behind the Catholic church, the graveyard. And here, I would draw all attention, before I drew it anywhere else.
The dead outnumber the living, in West End; the graves are far more than the houses. And there, where the great memorial stones are all heaped up and sloping, the ground uneven and the whole world painted green by the rain and the moss, are three stones that I have found my feet at many times.
To read the names from them would be to give away the ending to this story, and if I were to do so, I am afraid that I would find it hard to see a point at all.
But I am of the opinion that I must start at the end. While it may seem to defy tradition, are not all stories told from the end? Indeed, I submit that they are all told post res, after things, with the exception of, I suppose, diaries.
This is not a diary. Neither is it, though I suppose it shares characteristics with, an autobiography. For you see, this story is not about me. In particular, perhaps this story is not about much of anything. But, while I am not its center, I must bear the misfortune that it does, in large quantities, feature me as a character. I suppose, as a play features an actor. But this is not about the actor; I intend, rather, to capture the story as a whole. And therefore the events I shall record are those that depict the merging of life; where my story encountered others, and I was changed by it.
You see, this is a story about Time, Death, Rain, Love, Old People and Young People and a Circular Town at the end of the world. It is a story about tombstones and not blinking, about staring at stars and being bitten by horses. It is a story about life, but not my life; all life. And simply how I came to understand my place in it. 
If I must describe it more, I must make the premature declaration that all lives are stories. I shall not defend this assertion quite yet. But if you bear with me for a while, imagine this particular manuscript to be a collection of highlights. Mere scenes and images.
For, while many of us like to imagine our own stories as great, complex tomes (written in muscular verse of some High Greek or Hebrew), they are more like picture books than anything else. Simple enough for a child. (But dear God, such stories as all children must be kept from.)
I shall not recount, in this story, all the endless hours I spent, in that year of rain, or those that followed, wasting my time in endless bouts of solitaire, or the whole afternoons lost in the limbs of the beech tree in the garden, or the days I spent hunting the cat beneath the furniture with the broomstick in my hand, or later the whole nights I spent beneath that moon, watching eyes that were surely not as impressed with mine as I was with them.
They are chapters to be skipped, in this account, for they are not the point. Rather, I would show pages. Glimpses at a life, at the turning points that it encountered. If one were to skim the entirety of my life, as one might skim some haughty volume of the classics (I flatter myself), I believe that these are the dog-eared-est, the worn-est. To them I have turned often. To them, I turn even now.
And I know not how many times I shall turn to them again.
And therefore, we must begin not at the beginning, but at that point where, finally, the beginning seems clear.
We start at the end. In a graveyard, in a circular town, where my feet know the path to three graves, and shall learn their way to a fourth, and eventually find themselves permanently at a fifth.
I stare at the names, and try to imagine what sort of people were (and are) attached to each. Like trying to guess books by their cover. But with people, it is still more impossible.  I see whole lives jotted down in inscribed letters, as though they could be entirely summed up in only a few words.
Names and summaries. Synopsis. Book titles. A line, or two, in verse or in prose, to determine the entire measure of a life. To determine the complete worth of an existence.
Amidst a horde of planted corpses, a garden quite the opposite of the sacred Eden, standing before that grave I stood before when it was filled, now years ago, there are words that I knew. Words that I paid to have inscribed.
Words about time. About me, and a circular little town, and about a man who is now looking up at the sky and smiling. Those words were his words, and he wore them like the suit he was buried in; proudly. Uprightly.  
The invisible train is coming, and it rattles the tracks. Its whistle blows for each and every man, in turn. You can either climb aboard, or be run down in its way. But it comes.
It is the beginning, and the end. That phrase. My feet in the moss, which were once bare, and are now bundled.
And now, you have seen the end. And I daresay, I grow ever nearer to seeing it myself. And so, we must return to the beginning, once more.

There is a bakery, in West End, on the north side, closer to the pastoral abode of the Anglican minister, in which there lived a baker who was well known for giving away his bread, when it was a day old and he was aware he could not sell it. He was generous, all things considered, when many were not.
On the side of his shop, where hung a sign, welcoming all newcomers to the township, there was suspended the quote, “Once you’re here, you’ve reached the end.”
This declaration was supposedly issued by the founder of the town, a famously hopeless sort of clergyman, who was renowned, his less renowned explorations into the realms of alcoholism not withstanding, to be quite a clever fellow. (Though I must say, I have little reason to believe that he was clever, having had the privilege of knowing several clever fellows myself.) I have always assumed that he meant, ‘the end of the road,’ for the road ends at the sea, but I cannot be sure.
But West End was not an end, for me, though I might have felt so, at first. No. It was a beginning. And much more than a beginning. If not where my life began, it is where I caught a flame to live it.
And that flame was lit, first and foremost, at the end of a street called La Colline Ave, in a house called Highcaster. And in the house called Highcaster, my story begins with a woman, whose first name, I suppose, was Lady, but who would have been called Eleanor, by her friends, had they been alive.
Her friends would have called me Harrison, I am sure. They would have been a formal bunch; sipping on tea and nibbling on gossip, and they would have made me wear one of those intolerably stiff neckties. As it was, I escaped the neckties, and I was called John. I escaped Lady Highcaster’s friends entirely. And I imagine, so did she.
The invisible train had come for them already.
And so, the story begins here. iHighcaster

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Cathedral (An Image of Brokenness and What it is For)

An Introductory Thought (Statement of the Thesis): 

This world is broken. 
And so is everyone in it. 

The proof? Look around. Just open your browser, or if you’d like, find a newspaper, or a magazine. And there’s no need to go searching. Just glance at the news; skim headlines and flip through the pictures. Look at people; at their faces, at the stories in their eyes and the scars on their bodies. Look at the darkness that follows them like a cloud, the shudder in their bones because something won’t let them sleep. The proof, if you need it at all, is everywhere.

If you still can’t see it, then there’s another strategy. Don’t look around; look back. Look at history. A history of maniacs and genocides, poverty, desolation in every shape. Some from nature. Earthquakes, swallowing cities. Volcanoes burying them. And others, from us. A history of war after war, death after death after ruined life, a legacy of destruction that traces itself back to one moment. From those radical enough to blow up buildings in the name of religion to those radical enough to massacre jews in the name of eradicating it, there is no aspect of us untouched by this great curse. 

And if you still, somehow, need proof, then there is a final strategy: Look inside yourself. I guarantee there is brokenness there. Look hard, and not at that facade that you call a soul. Not at that bulwark of strength you imagine yourself to be. Look at yourself honestly. At a heart that is marred. 

If any of these apply, then that is proof enough, and we’ll go on. 

The world (the universe) is sick. It fell. And it fell a long way. 
And when it landed (as things that fall tend to do) it fell too far, and it broke when it hit. We contracted a disease called death and sin, and it has plagued us ever since. It has set our world spinning into darkness, a rotting, festering orb, tied with fraying yarn to a sun that could sputter out, a sun that will eat itself cold one day. 

The world is broken. 
It makes sense, then, that it’s citizens would be broken too. And we are. Everyone and everything in this world. We are all dying. From the moment we enter it (to a chorus of pained screams), and suck in its air, we are already dying. Sometimes it just takes us a long time to realize it. 
But we enter this world broken. We were broken even before we entered it. We’ve always been broken, and so long as we are members of this world, we are still. 
(So far so bad, right?)

The good news: But we won’t always be.

The Image: 
Souls are like broken glass. Shards and splinters, broken and crushed and filthy. Our Eden-spewed legacy is one of brokenness. One of glass souls, once perfect, now cracked; shattered. 
Life breaks us. It beats us down, stomps us into the ground, scatters our pieces. We are buried, spit on, battered, stained, and dirtied beyond repair. 

But there is a tinker. A Divine Tinker (if you will permit me). The same one who strung solar-systems like beads and carved mountains with his fingertips. He breathed the world into one, he forged it with his sweat and in his love, and he set it spinning like a great inventor at work. He made us perfect. Yet, we broke. 
Sometimes, we are broken by something outside us. Other times, we break ourselves. We have been caught in a system of pain, of darkness, ever since that first moment, when we thought that stepping off our shelf would make us more like him, and we tumbled onto the floor. We have been rotting there, ever since. 

But (more good news) his great delight is in repairing the broken. 

Because it is all broken. Everything snapped, the whole world went mad, turned itself onto its head, in one instant. And soon, he will come back to fix it all. But first, he is collecting glass. 
He is rummaging through the dirt for every piece of brokenness that is you, and he is storing them up. And he is casting them. He is binding and smoothing, chipping away the imperfections and melting off the impurities until each broken piece shines like a gem, and each one is twisted into place into an image of stained glass too glorious to look away from.

And here, in the midst of those blinding colors, the Tinker has painted a portrait. A portrait of Himself. An image of Star-Breather. Soul-Snatcher. Your broken heart bears his face, now, and a fraction of that immeasurable glory. 

Because when the light comes, and when the glory of God himself pours through your glass, the chips and breaks and shattered parts do not seem so accidental. They seem perfect. Because every break and scratch makes that image clearer. 

God is an artist. He did not give up on that piece of pure glass when it shattered. He doesn’t scribble it out, wrinkle it up, and toss it into the trash can in the corner. (He didn’t with me. And he won’t with you.) 

(He who has begun a good work in you will see it through.) 

The brokenness that we have become, that mangled mess of busted bits and garbage, that which you were certain was too hideous for anyone to love, is loved beyond imagining. Is loved beyond all reckoning. 

And I can prove that, too. The God who made you, who cast you and watched your perfection break (as he has watched every perfection break), went looking. Where we tumbled from the shelf, where we rolled into darkness and dust, he dug. He crawled into the pit of hell itself to find us, to dig up our pieces from where we’d thrown ourself, and it was his own tears, his own sorrow and blood, that washed the stains from our edges and our scrapes. 

He made you. And when you were stolen, he paid the ransom price. And when our captors still refused to release us, he came to rescue us. He came with open arms to take us in, with nails in his hands, that new and perfect Sampson pulled down those great pillars and drops the roof of hell. He died, just to find your broken soul. And he lives again so that he can carry you back to the home you were made for. 

This is, I believe, how we will see God. Like a window sees light. Like we see it pouring through us, and see it in different colors peering in through others. We see him and feel him, not all of him, but part of him. Enough of him. Like all glass, perhaps, grapples to understand light more. His light comes through us, and mingles with that great light that falls from those all around. We are the walls, the windows, in that great Hall of Heaven. 

For through our brokenness restored, the radiance of God shines even brighter, and the image of his power, mercy and love all the clearer. (Remember that, when you wonder why the world is so broken, why there is so much ruin. God is coming. He will put it all back together again. And it will shine that much brighter.) And remember that no matter how broken you are, or how broken you have been, there is a Tinker who loves you more than he loves stars and supernovas. (Proof: He fixed you first.) 

And no matter how you have been stepped on or how close we have been to the dirt, His hands have dug for your broken bits, and his tears have washed them. And now, his light comes. His light pours through you, and it is that light, as it falls in blazing colors on all that you see, that I see you for what you really are. You are (becoming) the most beautiful in all of creation.

The proof? You are the universe made right. The prelude to the perfect healing that is coming. A perfection of patchwork. And though it takes time (as healing must), restoration comes. And you are being made more like him, every day, as your broken pieces are found and polished, and put back in the place where they belong. 

As windows in that Cathedral. 

A revised thesis; a closing statement: 
This world is broken (but won’t always be). 
And everyone who has ever been in it has been broken (except One).
Healing comes. And so comes beauty.