2011-03-29

Misdiagnosing Normal

Almost everyday, we are beset with news of daily atrocities, murders, and tragedies that continue to shake us. I sit in a somewhat curious state as I hear certain phrases so often repeated. "They seemed like such a normal person." "My kids played at his/her house regularly." Then the reporter chimes in, "How could such a normal person do such a thing?"

I guess what intrigues me in this constant replay from daily and weekly life is the surprise. The reporters genuinely seem surprised (by the actions committed) and in joining in with the social narrative's rules, so do we! Many centuries ago, the ancient writer Herodotus wrote, "The most hateful torment for men is to have knowledge of everything but power over nothing." This is perceptive.

The modern era was birthed in the consciousness of rational men and women in control of their own destinies. It was the age of reason; we can and would figure everything out. It was the age of man; no need for god, the gods, or superstitions of any kind. It was the age of science; the new insights, techniques, and technologies would allow us to build our brave new world. It was the age of progress, as many believed we would grow from good to great, and perhaps end up in (something like) Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek future, where all need has been eradicated and all live for justice and the good of all.

The problem with this, and with all utopian dreams, is that they are illusions or delusions. They are fantasy constructs of the very sort Schopenhauer and Freud attacked in terms of religion. Despite promethean promises, guru advice, or our deepest sincere desires, wanting it badly enough does not make it so. What kind of a world do we live in? Who and what are we? What is wrong in life and with me? How can anything be improved? These are world and life view questions.

 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come" (Mark 7:20). Jesus pinpoints the human dilemma. The issue is not merely heritage, biology, sociology, politics, or economics; it has a fundamental root. As we learn from medicine, the wrong diagnosis leads to the wrong prognosis. This brings me back to the news, to the surprise at the latest outrages, endlessly paraded on our ubiquitous media. Are we misdiagnosing normal?

We all need heart surgery! We all know (in our deepest thoughts), that there are things in life and within us, over which we have little or no power, and for which we have little or no comprehension. The great physician, as our Creator and redeemer, specializes in the heart business. Broken hearts, angry hearts, selfish hearts, greedy hearts, and all kinds of hearts, can find an answer in Christ. All he asks is that we come to him and turn from our self-defined ways. Thankfully, the power to change rests in the hands of one whose power and goal it is to change us.

2011-03-25

Another Transaction

Another Transaction


There are a great many companies that think very highly of you and all that you deserve. You deserve the best. You deserve a vacation. You deserve to splurge on this because you're worth it. Even in the midst of economic downturn, flattery remains one of the most effective psychological drivers that compounds debt. In an HSBC Direct survey conducted not long ago, forty-two percent of the consumers interviewed said they had splurged on themselves in the past month. Twenty-eight percent cited their reason for the splurge, simply "because I deserve it."(1)

Of course, each of us who has ever bought into the idea that L'Oreal thinks I am worth it or BMW believes I deserve the ultimate driving experience probably realizes that we have done exactly that: we have bought the idea, paid for both the product and the flattering suggestion. No one is giving away these things because they think we are worth it; their flattery is quite literally calculated. In effect, it's not that they think so highly of us, so much as that they want us to think highly of ourselves. Whether we see through the empty sycophancy or not, Geoff Mulgan believes it is working: "'[B]ecause you're worth it' has come to epitomise banal narcissism of early 21st century capitalism; easy indulgence and effortless self-love all available at a flick of the credit card."(2) The enticing words are an invitation to reward ourselves, and it just so happens we agree with L'Oreal that we're worth it—and they're glad.

There is of course much that can be drawn from reflecting on the intemperate desires of a consumer culture, and the season of Lent, as some attempt to resist some of their own intemperate desires, provides the space and invitation to do so. The days before Easter present the world with an opportunity to strip away the psychological drivers of empty flattery and consumer seduction. And while the worldview of a consumer may not be as easily shed as chocolate or shopping, the message of the cross gives a startling commentary on a similar kind of compliment, but a very different transaction. Choosing the cross, Christ has indeed proclaimed our worth, but there is nothing required to accept the unfathomable gesture. In fact, there is nothing one could bring to Good Friday that would ever cover the cost. Christ has both given the affirmation and paid for it in full.

Accepting this undeserved accolade requires a dismissal of the very banal narcissism that epitomizes our numbed consumer hearts. When it comes down to it, we may find that we in fact prefer the consumer transaction, that there is something comforting and familiar in paying for our sense of worth and value. We might find it baffling to accept the idea that something deemed a gift could come to us broken. Or maybe it is the personal nature of his brokenness that we find altogether unnerving—namely, he was not simply broken, he was broken for you. It is far easier to accept an empty compliment.

Yet in these days before Easter, we are given good reason to try out the harder road. With the worth of the world in mind, Jesus chose such a path himself. He took the way of the cross, and he did not come down except to go to the grave. Of course, if God could raise him from the cold tomb, God could certainly have empowered him to step down from the cross. In the very public viewing of his own crucifixion, he could have come down in glory and power for all to see. It would have silenced the chief priests and the soldiers; it would have proved that he was not a force to be trifled with. And it would have made him a God to whom we could not say no, even if it was only to say yes out of fear or force. No instead, he was fully broken for you. He was brought down from the cross with the dead weight of lifelessness. He was crushed and he was buried. When we are battered by the great despairs of the world, when we take the piece of broken bread into our hands and are given strength for the journey, when we turn to him with nothing to give but love, we know why.

It is a transaction that makes every other seem empty, narcissistic, or fleeting at best. And it is worth expending everything to claim it. In my hand no price I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.

2011-03-21

The Common Cross

The Common Cross




"The cross," someone once said, "has become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore." The thought struck me as I walked through a shop with items to buy stashed in every crevice: frog-shaped garden statues, multi-colored curios, inventive d├ęcor made from soda cans, beach glass, and refurbished car parts. Occasionally surfacing through blanketed floors and ornamented walls were cross-shaped or cross-adorned objects, so ordinary in a shop so out-of-the-ordinary, they were almost hard to notice at all. The cross has become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore. The thought altered the remainder of my browsing. How can this be true? How can an image once shameful enough to bow the proudest heads become ordinary? Could the gallows ever be innocuous? Would the death sentence of someone near us ever fail to get our attention, much less blend in beside earthenware and figurines?

Theodore Prescott is a sculptor who has spent a great deal of time thinking about the cross. In the 1980's he began working on a series of crosses using different materials, forms, and processes hoping to reconstitute the cultural and scriptural imagery of the Roman cross. In a sense, Prescott attempts to portray the incongruous. The Roman cross was a loathsome manner of execution that inflicted an anguished death; the Cross of Christ held a man who went willingly—and without guilt. Though a reflection of beauty and sacrifice, the cross is also an image of physical torture, inseparable from flesh and blood. There was a body on these beams. Its image bears both startling realities—the presence of outstretched limbs and the mystery of a now vacant cross. These contrasts alone are replete with a peculiar depth. Yet, our daily intake of the cross "precludes contemplation," notes Prescott. The cross has indeed become so ordinary that we hardly see it anymore.

Maybe he is right. But if the cross has become merely a symbol of Christianity, an emblem of one religion in a sea of others, it is still a symbol that stands secluded from the others. Even as an image among many or an image buried in bric-a-brac, it remains conspicuously on its own. The symbol of the cross is an instrument of death. Far from ordinary, it suggests, at the very least, a love quite beyond us. Perhaps it is we who have become ordinary, our senses dulled to unconsciousness by the daily matters we give precedence. Even in his own time, the apostle Paul lamented such a blurring of the cross, calling the world to a greater vision: As I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.

For those who will not look carefully, the cross can be perceived as foolish or not perceived at all. It can be stripped of meaning or emptied of beauty, hope, and depth. But it cannot be emptied of Christ. "If any want to become followers," said Jesus, "let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." The message of the cross may be nothing to some, but to those who will stand in its shame and offense, scandal and power, it is everything.

Moreover, where the cross is obscured, Christ is still near. Ironically, what started Theodore Prescott thinking about the absence of the cross's meaning was a piece of his own art in which many people saw a cruciform image, though this was not his intention or vision when he started. For those who will see, the cross of Christ is expectantly present in every moment and every scene. In its beauty, we are changed. In view of extended limbs and a broken body, we discover a present, physical aspect to the way of Christ. In the scandal of its emptiness, we are left yearning for the face of the risen Christ again: "I want to know Christ," said Paul, "and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead."

The Gospel of John reports that Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the beams of the common cross that bore the radical rabbi. It read in three languages: "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS." There is nothing ordinary about the manner in which this king died, the cross on which he hung, or the symbol of death on which he inscribed a hope that would be carried throughout the nations. There was an ordinary cross in history with his name on it, and he went to it with nothing short of changing the world in mind.
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