Being the church is not about creating then checking off items from a to-do list for either God or our community. That’s not church; that’s busy work with supposed moral undertones. Our lists and obligations are means, not the end. Because our vision is often shortsighted, we are unable to see the church as anything other than another community group doing “things”. We get caught up in the “things” and not where the things must ultimately lead. Building the kingdom of God is about creating a new understanding of how to live, connecting people beyond the superficialities which define their lives with communities where healing, love, reconciliation, and forgiveness are a way of life.
1. Mahler doesn’t take “no” for an answer. He wants his music to go places sound has never gone before. Mahler is determined to use the tools of tonality, the secrets of sound, and all the creative skill he possesses to move us away from comparing his work with anything we’ve heard before.
2. Mahler wants to use every instrument he can get his hands on. He has so many tools available and at his fingertips; why not have each one of them come alive? In Mahler’s 5th symphony, he writes five different horn parts. Five! Yet, there are times when only two will play; different horns alternating with each to ensure no duplication of a part. Everyone is playing something a part which augments the sound coming from their colleagues. How effective are we at using the instruments and resources at our disposal? Are there instruments in our orchestral arsenal that lie in touched or sitting bored in the back of a room? Do we try to insure that everyone around us has a distinct and complimentary role to play?
3. Mahler, as a person, represents civilization trying to move toward a better version of itself. His music is the soundtrack to great societal change. He saw the 20th century begin, dying only three years before the beginning of World War I. Even the Nazis could not silence Mahler some thirty years later. His life and career intersect with Ernst Mach, Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The culture of pre-war Vienna gave birth to some of the most important and exciting cultural and scientific discoveries in modern history. Science, society, medicine, philosophy, and world history all collide on the pages of his symphonies. We hear history when he we listen to Mahler. Are we listening to the world around us?
4. Mahler knew when to change venues. If Vienna wasn’t working, if the traditional Austro-Hungarian power couples weren’t into his work, try conducting or performing in other locations, like Graz or Budapest. In the outlying cities of the empire, audiences weren’t as tied to the strictures of tradition and musical form. There were people, in this revolutionary era, willing to embrace innovation (even musical) on all levels. Where will our best ideas work? Are we imposing our creative vision or sharing a new reality? The tension, for Mahler (and us) lies in the relationship between imposing and sharing.
5. Mahler is wrestling with the big issues. Not only is he confronting social change, he also explores the depths of the human spirit and psyche. In his Second Symphony, he explores the idea of life after death and the meaning of resurrection in a Jewish context. Mahler isn’t just describing the afterlife in the symphony, he’s wants to come terms with it in such a way that the people who hear the work will have an opportunity to embrace their grief and begin to heal. Are we afraid to ask the bigger questions?
The gifts we bring into the room,
are not ours to give,
three glittering boxes,
were given to Him,
now presented to you,
in impromptu ceremonies,
by hastily assembled cribs,
the gold of time,
the frankincense of love,
the myrrh of wisdom,
laid by our feet,
near the kitchen table,
where my grandmother stood,
hands with calluses covered,
she gave me these gifts,
and caused me to belong,
in a house surrounded,
and the whistling sounds,
of the afternoon train,
rolling it’s forgotten way,
east, through tobacco fields,
and pine trees,
this is the place,
where I learned to be me,
surrounded by the symphony,
of late afternoon peace,
told in Earth refined grace,
I am what I have become,
because of this place,
sweetened by the sugar,
left slightly ajar,
pickled by the vinegar,
kept in the mason jar,
This is my story,
It will never end,
the memories move,
on and on, again.
Every story, particularly those that center on the resolution of conflict (personal, social, international), needs a good villain. Villains provide not only a foil for the hero, but depth to the story and grist for the hero’s emotional mill. In many cases, the villain is the mirror image of the hero; as with Batman and the Joker. Both hide behind masks to conceal the tortured souls which motivate them to achieve power; albeit in different ways. The British novelist Ian Fleming created some of the most notable villains in 20th century literature. James Bond would be nothing without the evil forces which defined him. Bond, who was ethically conflicted and morally ambiguous on the best of days, was a hero by default, good because the others who surrounded him so diabolical. Perhaps the greatest literary villain of the past century and a half is Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. No two characters were more evenly matched in wit, skill, and intellect than two men. Like Bond, Holmes was defined by his struggle with Moriarty. Sherlock Holmes’ identity was built around the inverted parts of himself which he saw in his enemy, the professor. When good and evil join in a dualistic struggle to achieve moral supremacy, readers are more engaged and stories come to life in new ways.
Make no doubt about it, Herod is a villain. He is our villain this week. Far from being the caricatured creation of Christmas plays, Herod is someone we must meet before we (interloping guests with seemingly no idea of what to get a baby) get to find Jesus. I’m hoping to take him seriously because he takes Jesus seriously. For us today, Herod is much more than a man on a puppet throne in Roman occupied Palestine. He is system, a way thinking and looking at the world through the lowest common moral denominator. Herod realizes that both he and Jesus cannot occupy the same physical space.
Like all good villains, Herod has an outstanding intelligence network. He not only employs analysts but he has human intelligence assets on the ground. He is actively searching for the birthplace of the baby mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies cited by his analysts. Obviously, he trusts his team to a point. Herod knows that knowledge is power. Yet, he needs to be able to act on that knowledge with the appropriate means. When we meet Herod, his ability to act has been stalled. The team of analysts has reached the limits of their ability to interpret the data at hand. Like America consulting Cuba in a delicate policy matter; those who come to Herod’s aid will be from beyond his culture, country, and tradition. With Herod, there is only emotional manipulation to make us believe that compromise and coexistence possible. This is what he tries to tell to the Magi. This is what the Herod systems of today are attempting to say to us.
The wise men function on so many levels. Outstanding research has been done to explore the roots of the Zoroastrian astrological tradition and the possible background of these “kings”. Most of the meat on the wise men story was invented during the Middle Ages. What we believe to be true or factual about Matthew 2’s material was created by commentators a thousand years after the event. It’s a good story, someone thought, why don’t we create some names and back stories for these guys?
At the most basic level, we believe them to be holy men from Persia. They are not Jewish. They do not speak Aramaic or Hebrew, most likely. Mathematics and spirituality were probably their primary areas of interest. The bottom line is they were foreign, important, smart, different, wanted to know more about the new reality Jesus represented. Clearly, the Hebrew concept of “messiah” or anointed king isn’t completely foreign to them. They understand kingship. However, no one fully comprehends what Jesus is going to mean by the word. Even Mary, who’s heard from angels and wise persons about what her son represents, is probably not in a place to grasp the message. To be honest, it’s a message we’ve been struggling with for 2000 years.
The wise men come on the scene and they offer us with a choice. This is a choice which breaks into two questions that we face today. How much are we willing to buy into a particular system, story, or narrative of power? Which story, system, or idea of power are we going to embrace? Here are the options: Herod’s or Jesus’. There are many (such as Herod) who conflate the ability to dominate the world around with also being the sole arbiter of religious, political, or social truth. If you have power, money, weapons, the police, a military, or intelligence then you get to decide what’s true. People like Herod manufacture lies and through their power, force others to see them as truth. Herod, like all people in power, can also manufacture consent. He creates conditions (by manipulating the truth) so that people will do things against their own best interest. By acquiescing to the notion that power is truth and truth is power, we are complicit in the actions of King Herod.
Herod wants the wise men to see him as an honest broker, someone who only seeks truth. He needs the wise men to believe that his intentions for this child are honorable. As the “elite” of one culture meeting with representative elites from another country (Persia); they would understand the ability to dominate others and remain in power is a truth (in and of itself) which is rarely questioned. Herod wants them to believe this no matter what the outcome of their search reveals. Even if their search leads to what we call “genocide”, it must be ok; because power equals truth. Isn’t that they way the world works?
What the wise men don’t realize is that God is going to break their identification with that way of thinking. You don’t find meaning in your life by handing over control of your life to someone else. We don’t discover meaning and purpose in life by accepting the conventional wisdom of the world from someone like King Herod. Until God breaks the connection between what they see in Bethlehem and having faith in the reality that power represents truth, their lives will not change. When the break occurs, after encountering Jesus, they see that truth is a defenseless child without an army, money, or an intelligence network.
Now, that they have encountered Jesus and the identification with truth and power is broken, the Wise Men realize their assumptions about Herod were wrong. If this story teaches us anything, unquestioned assumptions are the real source of Herod’s power. If we don’t question the assumptions we think are sacred, power can and will manipulate us to do evil things. Questioning assumptions saves lives. It could be something simple as fact checking or looking up a story you’re about to repost on a social media site. So many of the things I see posted on Facebook as Christian anecdotes which are presented as true are actually urban legends. A simple visit to Snopes.com will reveal the truth. While these stories may be interesting parables and make a moral point, they are not true. We present them as true. Aren’t their enough factual stories about what God is doing that we shouldn’t have to make up lies in order to convince people of the truth of Christianity? I would think so. Are we going to question the assumptions we’ve been given or keep spreading ones of our own? I would hope the former and not the latter.
1. Realize you’re dealing with an idiot or idiots. Whatever expectations you might have about your encounter with the given idiot should immediately be lowered. Remember, this is an idiot you’re talking to. They may be prepared to go to great lengths to argue the greenness of the sky or the blueness of the grass. If you have an expectation of changing their idiotic minds, it’s probably not going to happen. People who’ve bought into absurdity will invest themselves wholly in the idiocy which defines their positions. Don’t expect too much.
2. How much of your time are you prepared to waste on a hopeless cause? When dealing with idiots set boundaries; lines you are not prepared to cross. The most important boundary you can set is “time”. Don’t spend all day arguing or hanging out with idiots. Non-idiots are infused with a sense of hopeful optimism which often leads us to believe that if given enough time, we can “get through” to the idiots in question. We can’t. No amount of shouting, YouTube videos, or PowerPoint presentations will convince the most committed idiot. Idiots will suck time away people and things we value most. Don’t let them do it.
3. Limit the information you give to the idiot. Idiots like to take facts and twist them to suit their idiotic ideas. When dealing with idiots, do more listening than speaking. Idiots are always prepared to dominate a conversation. Idiots are always more interested in talking to you than hearing what you have to say. When you speak, talk about things that can’t be brought back or twisted by the idiot. Let them talk, listen actively, and try to keep your responses to one word answers.
4. You can’t take idiots personally. Idiots are usually shallow people. The depths of their arguments and ideas can be seen in the first few minutes of your encounter. They are there for the moment, the shock, and the drug like thrill of their idiocy. Don’t take the idiot home with you! It’s not worth it. The idiot would love to come home with you in your backpack, briefcase, luggage, or car. You have the choice whether to make permanent room for their idiocy in your life or move on.
5. Idiots are unable to take social cues. Forget looking at your watch or clearing your throat, idiots won’t pick up the hint. When you’ve been trapped by an idiot, words like, “Well, I better be heading off now,” go in one ear and out the others. This social deafness isn’t unique to idiots but it is certainly more pronounced. Idiots are unaware of the obligations, constraints, and responsibilities of others. In idiot-land, their self-deluded pronouncements about upcoming sporting events or “the weather” trump your need for milk from the store or how you’re coping with the recent loss of a loved one.
6. Idiots don’t know they are idiots. Idiots lack the self-awareness needed to understand how much of idiot they are. The thought, “might the words coming from my mouth be dripping with slow-marinated idiocy,” never crosses their minds. Idiots don’t realize how they sound or how they might be perceived. In the realm of the idiot, obliviousness is the air that fuels the idiot fire. If you’ve ever considered, “might I be an idiot at this moment?”, you’re probably not an idiot.
7. When in conversation, idiots will believe you to be ignorant of the facts they are trying to impart. Even if you wrote two books on the subject in question, received a Nobel Prize for your work on the same subject, and are widely regarded as an expert; the idiot knows more than you do. The idiot assumes you know nothing. Conversations with idiots are more like lectures or one-sided shouting matches. Again, it’s helpful to simply resist the urge to engage with the idiocy on display. Nod, (think of it as an affirmation of their idiot status), agree demurely, and be on your merry way.
8. Idiots can’t appreciate context. This links back to their lack of self-awareness. Here’s what I mean: their idiocy is always on display. Because idiots lack the ability to know they are idiots, they are also unable to pause or stop their idiocy when others are no longer willing to tolerate their idiocy. For instance, at funerals, public functions, church, weddings, and other important social occasions most people understand the need to not be an idiot (for that period of time). Ironically, these situations seem to exacerbate the idiocy of most idiots. The world is truly their idiot oyster.
9. While idiots cannot spot the idiocy within themselves, idiots are quick to call the rational and normal behavior of other human beings idiotic. People who think clearly, weigh multiple options, and exercise a degree of caution in daily life present the idiots among us with great challenges. Idiots want others to agree with their twisted validations and senseless ramblings. If we don’t agree with them, we become the idiots.
10. It is OK to be an idiot in the eyes of an idiot. If you’ve ever been called an idiot by someone who is an idiot, you’re probably not an idiot.