Theologically Weak Sayings: “If You Want to Make God Laugh, Tell Him Your Plans”

download-7

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Have you heard this aphorism?  I saw it pop up on Facebook earlier today.  It’s not one I hear that often but one I know nonetheless.  To be honest, I don’t really like it.  I think it makes some gross generalizations about God which run contrary to orthodox Christian teaching and what’s found in the Bible.  Like many pithy, Christian sounding statements, it sounds vaguely true but if you take second glance and ask yourself, “What am I smirking at?” you’ll find yourself more than a little uncomfortable.

What does it mean?  The basic notion is simple, God’s ideas are greater than the plans we make for ourselves.  Is there anything wrong this idea?  The underlying idea is sound.  God’s grandness extends beyond humanity’s limitations.  Here’s the problem:  “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans,” distorts this and other basic theological premises.

I believe God has a sense of humor.  Biblically, this idea is supported throughout the text.  I think God wants us to laugh and laugh at ourselves.  Within this statement is the implied view that God’s laughter is directed at us.   Is that right?  I don’t think God is a bully.  Does God want to laugh at us, our faults, foibles, stupidity, and sins?   Is that the kind of God we worship?  A God that laughs at us each time we think for ourselves and come up with new ideas, whether they are good or bad?  Is God a God who mocks us?  I hope not.  I don’t want to worship a mocking God who laughs at me when I’m trying to make plans; plans I often believe are in Her divine will.  In the end, they may not be but that’s where I start:  in prayer, scripture, and study with God.  Why would God laugh at that?  That hurts to think of God laughing at me.  I want no part of a bully God.

What about our plans?  Anybody remember something called “free will”?  God gave us free will to make good and bad decisions.  Why would God laugh at us for using a gift God gave us in the first place?  That makes no sense at all.  Our plans come from our creative capacities; this is the “will” we were endowed with by a creator God.  Why would God laugh at free will-the best thing God ever did?  Assertions like this undermine free will and the importance of creation itself.  They casually affirm old notions of humanity as predestined robots, puppets to be controlled by divine strings.   I don’t think God is a puppet master bully who laughs at us like a passive aggressive child.

That’s why this makes me extremely uncomfortable:  “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  I’m not cool with this at all.

If you want to make God laugh, tell Her a funny joke or send a picture of a cat in Santa suit.  She knows your plans.  Be cool with that.

Merry Christmas,

Richard Bryant

I HATE THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY: BAD THEOLOGY AND BAD MUSIC

drummer1

I hate this Christmas song.  I know what you’re saying.  Hate is a pretty strong word. Why do I have to say hate?  I think hate is a fine word.  It’s a Biblical word.  God is quite fond of hate.  There are things worth hating:  Nazis, Stalinists, and crappy Christmas songs.  Chiefly among the later I rank the aforementioned “Little Drummer Boy”.  It’s the worse Christmas song God ever allowed to be written.   I could have equivocated there, but I went all in.

People acknowledge their distaste for music all the time.  My daughters listen to everything but like nothing I love.  I’m expressing my aversion for a time honored Christmas classic my wife really enjoys.  These reflections aren’t for the health of my marriage.  On the other hand, taste is subjective.  Speech is still free.   If you’ll hear me out, no pun intended, I’m prepared to be the villian on this one.   But ultimately I think there’s a valid theological point to be made.  Really, it’s not about the song itself. It’s about what the song implies about God and our relationship with God.  For me, this is why “The Little Drummer Boy” is so far off track.

I’ll begin in the Netherlands.  On May 13th, 1988 the great Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker jumped from a second story window of the Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam.  His depression was exacerbated by his addiction to heroin and cocaine.  Chet was a broken vessel.  Despite his many flaws, for over forty years, he brought genius to the trumpet.  Chet Baker, along with Miles Davis, defined west coast jazz.  Baker was one of the most important musicians, composers, and performers of the 20th century.  Imagine James Dean and Frank Sinatra, all rolled into one, playing a trumpet.  That’s Chet Baker.

Baker made this contribution on an instrument defined by three valves.  With those three valves, pressed in different combinations and the use of different facial muscles, dozens of note combinations can be achieved.  It’s miraculous experience to watch well-trained jazz trumpeters find music where music shouldn’t exist.  To the doubters and skeptics, it is possible to glimpse images of God’s presence inching toward humanities darker inclinations.  Good music opens up the possibility of God’s intervention in our lives in new and unexpected ways.  I’ve seen Doc Severinsen perform.  A good trumpet player will make you believe in God.

What can we say about this mythical tale of a boy, his drum, rhythmic bovines, and the savior of the world?  Not much.  A drummer boy hears of the birth of Jesus.  Somehow, he’s gotten it into his head, “our finest gifts we bring”.  Who told him this?  Has he met the wise men?  No.  Did he encounter a group of middle class Americans who said you can’t show up without a gift?  No.  He’s a first century child in Palestine.  Why would he have our social hang-ups and emotional baggage?

The little drummer boy wants to deliver this gift because he believes the way to honor Jesus is to place or “lay a gift before” him.  Again, where did he get this idea?  It’s certainly not Biblical.  Jesus never demands homage like Caesar, Herod, or some Persian King.   If you think this is Jesus:  YOU ARE WRONG!  How did we end up making the assumption that the “Messiah”, the anointed one was a king in the traditional sense?  Maybe we made it once, a long time ago.  After our first mistake, could we stop spreading the misinformation and singing songs about how ignorant we are concerning Jesus’ identity?

Not only is the theology royally screwed up, the music is repetitive and mind numbingly bad.  A new born King (a messiah), bring him gifts (which he doesn’t need or want), followed by pa rum pum pum pum. In case you missed his drum solo, let me do it again:  pa rum pum pum pum.  No variety, no musicianship whatsoever, just pum, pum, pum.  Excuse me if I’ve not taken to heights of Divine ecstasy.  The interminable chorus never seems to end.

The boy arrives at the manger and attempts to explain to the baby (God) why he doesn’t have a gift.  Why don’t we build the theological foundation for God and guilt?  Let’s teach the world, that from God’s entrance into the world, we have to appease God’s desire for things and stuff.  Let’s become our own worst enemy  by turning God into a reflection of our own self-interests and desires.  We, according to the song, need to give gifts fit for a Messiah.  News flash:  that is an impossible task.  No one can out give God!  You cannot match the gift of salvation.  You’re setting yourself up for failure, no matter cute your drumming sounds.  God doesn’t want our gifts.  God is more interested in our presence than our presents.   I’d like to say that message is somewhere buried beneath the ox dung and repetitive drumming but I can’t find it.

He won’t give up on the drum.  What is it with this kid and the drum?  He wants to play his drum for the baby Jesus.  How soothing is a drum for a newborn infant?  Did he consider this?  It may be his only gift but it’s wildly inappropriate for a baby.  The mother, Mary, probably in a desire to get rid of this kid says yes.  Play the drum, do what you came to do and leave.

Here’s where it gets weird.  I know the whole thing has been strange but this takes the cake.  “The ox and lamb kept time.”  Were they tapping their hooves, wearing Wayfarers, and wagging their tales?  Bovines have no sense of rhythm.  The little drummer boy wants his gift to be justified so much he sees two unbelievable things:  animals with rhythm and a baby’s smile in response to his drumming.  If I confused every time my dogs were exposed to music with expressions of rhythm, I’d be on Instagram.  The baby was so pleased the boy stopped playing an 18th century snare drum in 1st century Palestine he went pa rum pum pum poop; hence the smile.

The Little Drummer Boy is the worst Christmas song ever.  Unlike Chet Baker, it drives me further from God.  The theology is atrocious and the music is horrible.  On behalf of churches everywhere still playing this garbage, I apologize.

2017 is going to be a hard year.  We need to live our faith around the long game, which sees Advent as part of the larger expression of Christian faith.  Christmas isn’t the last gasp of emotional complacency in the waning days of December.  We need to be as close to God and each other as possible, without spiritual clutter blocking our access to God’s Good News.

Merry Christmas,

Richard Lowell Bryant

We Can’t Handle The Truth

you-cant-handle-the-truth-meme-generator-you-want-the-truth-you-can-t-handle-the-truth-9789dd

It’s officially begun.  Christmas has started.  How many times have you heard or read some variation on that theme over past week or so.  Someone, with no authority other than the power to make “Captain Obvious” level life observations, decides to tell the world, “it’s officially Christmas”.  This someone could be the TV weatherman, a celebrity, or a friend on Facebook who’s just seen a parade or play.  It might be anyone.  For whatever reason, this person has decided per their own standards, that Christmas has arrived.  They must tell the world.  Surely, the rest of us must be blind or ambivalent to the encroaching holiday presence.  We need to be told.  We don’t know what the criteria for Christmas’ arrival might be.  Other than a photograph or post which may accompany the “Declaration of Christmas’ Arrival”, we’re left guessing.

On the other hand, now we know, so this must be it, “My friend’s attendance at the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting with a group of people that didn’t include me marks the beginning of the seasons remembering the birth of Jesus.”  If we were waiting for our family’s benign traditions of a Christmas tree purchase, the arrival of a bonus to purchase presents, or something to do with church; we were wrong.  The decision was made for us by someone on social media.  Christmas now arrives when people decide for it to appear in ways they deem appropriate to their already packed social calendars.  Christmas (as it has become in the realm of digital fascism) has nothing to do with images of a marginalized teenage mother in a Judean backwater.

Our best Christmas pictures are rarely captioned with, “It’s officially time to tell the story of social deprivation, refugees, poverty, and genocidal  imperial power.”  To paraphrase Colonel Nathan Jessup in “A Few Good Men”, not only can Americans not handle the truth, we don’t want the truth.  We don’t talk about the truth at Christmas parties (or at church) because it makes us uncomfortable.  To bring up the truth at Christmas is to be labeled a Grinch or Scrooge; you become someone who’s stepped off the train of the cultural, feel-good secular gospel.

Truth tellers are easily forgotten ornaments.  The arbiters of Christmas may decide to include you in the story but your presence comes at a price.  You will be at the back and you must be silent.  You wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s holiday by telling the truth about Herod’s genocide, Jesus’ unwed mother, and the refugee baby born so far from home.  After all it’s already Christmas and there’s not enough room in the inn for the truth.

Jesus’ Family Reunion in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:1-16)

3207142121f6e7e0f7cfd8e61b87288b

You can’t get to Bethlehem without attending a family reunion.  What do I mean? Is anyone ever comfortable at a family reunion?  Who doesn’t ask, upon arrival, “You mean to tell me I’m related to these people?” Here’s the bad news.  We are related.  I am related; to the cousin who got shot in the behind fleeing the scene of an extra marital affair while climbing through the window of a double wide trailer.  I am related to people who always call me by a name other than my own.  No matter how much I protest, or DNA tests I may take, I will always be related to the people at these reunions.  In order to be me, I have to go through them.  They help make me, me.  Like it or not, I am defined by these relationships.

Our family reunions are usually in the summertime.  Christmas (and Thanksgiving just before) lets many families sneak an additional reunion in under the radar.  It may be a little smaller than the traditional summertime bash.  Perhaps there is more turkey and ham on the table instead of fried chicken.  But make no mistake about it, it’s a reunion nonetheless.  Same people, same stories, and the same basic question:  “Exactly how am I related to these people?”

The first seventeen verses of Matthew chapter 1 are Jesus’ family reunion.  Now I know your eyes tend to glaze over at best (and roll back in your head at worst) when you hear a preacher or reader start going through a long list of Biblical names.  You’re sitting there thinking, “Is this really necessary?”  “Aren’t all these names just unpronounceable place holders bearing little or no significance on the story of Jesus, Christmas, or anything else in our life?”  I’ll answer both questions.  Yes, it is really necessary.  These names are vitally important.  Matthew 1:1-17, the genealogy of Jesus, are some of the most overlooked verses in the entire New Testament.  They are also critical to understanding Jesus.  In fact, I would argue it is impossible to get to Bethlehem without going through these names, that is, attending this reunion.

This is the lesson of Matthew 1.  Sure, you could do it, skip to Luke 2, go straight to the manger, and plop down in Bethlehem but it wouldn’t be like altering the time space continuum. Everything would look the same but in crucial and critical ways, things would be very different.  Imagine the movie “Back to the Future”.  The house is the same, the street is the same yet Marty’s dad is now a successful writer and Biff the Bully is washing his dad’s car.  If you skip Matthew’s list of Jesus’ family history and simply show up in Bethlehem, who knows what we’re going to see?  Can we truly appreciate the reality we’re encountering?

Luke’s story is cool.  It’s the one we all know.  If Christmas were a TV show it’d be called “Everybody Loves Luke”.  Linus retells Luke’s version in the Charlie Brown Christmas each year.  Starting with Luke mirrors our own desire for a “clean start” at Christmas and New Years.  It feels right to start with Luke.  That’s not how the Bible says it works.  No matter how much we want to start over and be “instant Christians”, without the work of getting to Bethlehem,  part of us always knows there’s something not quite right about “just showing up” and expecting Christmas to happen.  The idea of the clean break seems to start with Paul.  He fell off his horse (which the Bible never mentions) and started out on his new life.  Jesus, on the other hand, realizes we are born, live, and die in muddy waters-like the muddy waters of the Jordan where the wild man John brought sinners to be baptized.  Like the muddy waters of our lives.  To get to Bethlehem, we go through the muddy waters of Jesus’ own familial past.

Look at the muddy waters of Jesus’ own family that brought him to Bethlehem.  These diverse people made Jesus who he was, is, and became.  Listen again to the muddy rhythm of the names. Like a blues song from the Mississippi Delta, they form a chain of stories, some extremely personal tales of suffering and woe; linking one generation to another.  We must go into the water.  If we want to arrive in Bethlehem and have just the right kind of Christmas, we must, to paraphrase the late Muddy Waters, reorient and restart our Mojo in a new direction.

She’s hiding right there in verse three.  If you blink, aren’t paying attention, or don’t know it’s a woman’s name, you’ll miss her altogether.  Her name is Tamar and she’s got her mojo working.  Tamar was a good Israelite girl forced who had trouble getting remarried after her first husband died.  Her former father in law didn’t want to allow it.  She had to pretend to be a prostitute to keep from being denied an inheritance and being kicked out of the tribe; an extreme action in any day an age.  While pretending to be a prostitute, she became pregnant by her father in law, who didn’t know his new girlfriend was his daughter in law.  When daddy found out his daughter in law was pregnant he sentenced her to death. It was then Tamar revealed that the baby’s daddy was her father in law.  Her life was spared. Sounds like Jerry Springer?  Yes.  Sounds like a crazy family reunion?  Yes.  Is it all in the Bible? Yes! Tamar, her father in law, and their descendants are all great grandparents of Jesus of Nazareth.  Wow!  What a muddy water story to tell around the manger!  “Do you remember the time great great great great great grandma Tamar slept with her father in law Judah?”  Joseph would ask that question.  And we think we’ve got the monopoly on eccentric and weird.

Did you see Rahab in verse five?  Rahab first shows up in Joshua 2:1.  After Moses dies, Joshua takes control of the Israelites and is preparing for the Battle of Jericho.  He sends two spies into the city to get an idea of the opposition they’ll face on the inside.  Verse 2:1 says the spies, “went and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and spent the night there.”  Rahab could have been an innkeeper in a really sleezy part of Jericho or she could have been exactly what the Bible says, “a prostitute”.  But remember, this is Jesus’ relatives we’re talking about here.  Rahab became a spy and was invaluable in providing military intelligence to the Israelites when they invaded the city.  We see a series of anonymous, unpronounceable names with sordid pasts.  These are the living relatives of Jesus.  People Jesus learned to love.  Each person has a story of leaving a legacy more important than their gender, job, or society’s first impression.  Those are the kind of things Jesus would come to value when he began to preach and teach.  Where did he learn them?  He learned them from his own family.

There is a second name in verse 5 which is more familiar and easier to recognize:  Ruth.  She has her own book.  Ruth is important for so many reasons.  She is the grandmother of King David.  Grandmothers shape our lives, character, and beliefs.  Secondly, Ruth is not an Israelite.  She is a foreigner.  Ruth is from Moab.  She is not a native Israelite.  A perennial outsider among those who were born in the Promised Land and the faith of Abraham, Ruth choose to be among Israelites.  It was hard for her.  She was constantly reminded of her outsider status.  But she stuck it out.  There was something about God’s promises, which she believed extended beyond those born and raised in Israel.  Some people thought this was crazy.  Then her grandson, a shepherd, who became king, wasn’t even 100% Israelite.  Then, imagine this; one of her great grandchildren talks about God’s all encompassing love for lost things everywhere.  Where would the son of Joseph the carpenter find such radical ideas?  Maybe he found them at the family reunion, around the holiday table, or by the Christmas tree in Nazareth?  Perhaps God working through broken, fallen, ordinary sinful people wasn’t anything new at all:  it was just the holiday tradition in the Jesus household.

To view the events in Bethlehem in sweet, splendid isolation is to miss the grandest, biggest picture of all.  The story of Jesus’ birth didn’t begin with shepherds, angels, or a story about no room at the inn.  It started with the relatives most of us would prefer to disown, disavow, and downright forget.  It began as it ended, with the very people Jesus was trying to save; the marginalized, like the men and women in his own family.  So my friends, if you want to keep the Christ in Christmas, keep room for the whores, harlots, adulterers, murdering kings, immigrants, people who muddy our perfect waters, and messy relatives.  In the middle of that motley crew, you’ll find the one guy reality checking our annual orgy of consumerism and self induced holiday stress:  Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph the Carpenter, son of Mary the Teenager; a brother, a grandson, and also the Christ.

Santa Claus vs. Jesus

A Merry Xmas - Santa holding Jesus

For Christmas, I need to wait these many days,
My story is one that must be told while I pace,
Round the busy aisles, hours, rows, and ways,
Between here and now, a time, one moment in space,
And the expected ending of the Santa and Jesus race,
Our tribe pretends to know not how it ends,
Who arrives first and is born without sin,
Who wears red and moves to the cookie bin,
This subtle game outwardly extends,
From church, home, to school and back again,
Is the elf winning or does the child stand a chance?
Since late on Thanksgiving I’ve seen no evidence,
Beards, hats, belts, and sleighs are found in abundance,
No baby is heard offering a mystical indulgence.
Eight strapping reindeer have no pregnant mother to carry,
Perhaps Joseph was left behind, a mere Holy functionary,
Remaining in Nazareth to carve figures of Santa from pieces of Cherry,
While his wife Mary attempts to be Merry,
And their son Jesus writes letters to a magical elf,
To convince him to send a strange doll to put on the shelf.
This must be why Jesus is absent,
This is the purpose of Advent,
How can I see who’s not been sent,
So I’ve been told,
He’s getting ready to save my soul,
Though Santa’s Claus has a powerful hold,
But he’s not the greatest story ever told.
He just a guy who’s always been old.

–Richard Bryant

A Visit from Saint John of Wesley (An Adaption of “The Night Before Christmas”)

lead_large

An adaptation of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”

A Visit from Saint John of Wesley

Twas the Night before Christmas, When all through the church
Not a Heretic was stirring, gone from their perch;
The stockings were hung, the fireplace was bare;
In the hope that Saint John would soon be there;
The Puritans were nestled all snug in their beliefs,
With visions of Asbury singing so sweet;
And Mama in her gender role and I in my miter,
Had just settled an argument to see who was righter.
When I said Whitfield, not Calvin, there came loud clatter;
I sprang from my knees, to see what was the matter;
Away to the window, not wanting to seem rash;
For dignified Methodists are rarely ones to dash;
The moon shone bright on the convoy below;
It looked like moving day, except in the snow.
What to my laser corrected eyes appeared;
But a horse riding preacher with a goatee beard;
A little old rider, so short and testy;
I knew in a moment it was Saint John of Wesley;
More rapid than angels his praise band came;
And as he whistled, he introduced their names;
“Now Perfection! Now, Sanctification! Now Traditional Marriage!
On Discipline! On Covenant and on Inerrant!
To the top of the Conference, please heed my call;
If you disagree, dash away, dash away, all;
As I drew in my head and turned around;
Down the chimney, St. Wesley fell without a sound.
He was dressed in black, from his head to his feet;
And his face was a clean as a chimney sweep’s;
Books of Discipline were bundled on his back;
And he looked like a salesman, opening his pack,
His eyes, how they stared, like they could not care;
I already owned a Discipline and didn’t need a spare;
Nor did I need St. John of Wesley to pray for my soul;
My feet and head were already cold;
And I laughed when I saw him, despite myself;
For this reforming Englishman was no jolly elf,
With a wink of his eye and a page from his Bible,
He offered me a Covenant that promised revival;
I looked, thought, and ran words through my head;
No, I wouldn’t sign, this gave me too much dread;
He spoke not a word and left me for other work;
“I can’t do this Saint John, I see no real perks;”
And with no adieu, he gave the band a whistle;
And away they flew like an evangelical missile.
But I heard him exclaim, as he rode out sight;
Merry Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!

Richard Bryant