Award-winning author and teacher John Koessler's podcast looks at God, the church, and life in general from the perspective of someone who knows what it feels like to be at the edge of the lunch table where all the cool kids sit. After more than four decades of following Jesus, John still feels like a stranger in the house of God.
A Season of Ghosts
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Ebenezer Scrooge is the ghost of Christmas past. Scrooge notes the spirit’s small stature and asks, “Long Past?” “No. Your past,” the ghost replies. Dickens is on to something here because this spirit often visits us at this time of year. The season of Advent, by its nature, implies a forward trajectory. It celebrates humanity’s long wait for the arrival of the promised seed of Abraham. In reality, we seem to spend most of it looking back. The conviction that drove old Marley, though “dead as a door-nail,” to haunt Scrooge was the hope that his appeal would procure his former partner a better future. But we expect the ghost of Christmases past to heal the present.
Eternity Shut in a Span
December is the season when tinsel-haloed angels draped in bedsheets announce the birth of Christ to bathrobe-clad shepherds on the church stage. There is a kind of charm in the way we tell the nativity story that might fool people into thinking it is merely a rustic folktale. But the Bible's account of the birth of Christ is not a children's story.
Holy Days, Holidays, & Christmas
Christmas was important to me even before I called myself a Christian, though admittedly, this was mainly for non-religious reasons. I’ve long suspected that I have always loved Christmas more than any other holiday, not because of its spirituality but because it purchased my affections. It’s true that I loved the music and the pageantry. The glow of the lights and the smell of evergreen seemed to transport me to another world. But it was the presents that clinched the deal. When it came to gifts, Christmas was the motherload. Far better than birthdays or any other holiday.
Imagine There's a Heaven
Heaven has fallen on hard times. In Christian thinking, looking forward to heaven is no longer fashionable. Jeffrey Burton Russell observes in his book Paradise Mislaid, "Heaven has been shut away in a closet by the dominant intellectual trends of the past few centuries." There are a number of reasons for this. To some, the idea of looking forward to going to heaven seems frivolous. They feel that it is an exercise in self-absorbed indulgence. A quest for "pie in the sky by and by." For others, notions of heaven are too abstract. It seems too wispy. Not the kind of place that those who have only ever known flesh and blood would feel comfortable, let alone happy. Mark Twain speculated in Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, "Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it's as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive." Twain's skepticism has uncovered the root of the problem. Either our imagination is too small to truly grasp the things that occupy our time and attention in heaven, or our nature must be radically changed before we can even endure the experience, let alone enjoy it. It seems likely that both are probably the case.
It's getting to look a lot like Easter. Which, frankly, isn't saying that much. Between Christmas and Easter, it's plain to see which holiday is the favored child of the church calendar. If Christmas is warm, Easter is cold. As it approaches, we don't seem to know whether to be happy or sad. The reason is that Easter makes us feel guilty. When we look at the cross and the tomb, we see ourselves. But Christians should not feel guilty about the suffering of the cross. The apostle Paul saw it as a reason to boast.
The Trouble with Meme Activism
I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: "Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." In most cases where it appears, the quote stands as a comprehensive indictment of anyone who has not yet expressed public outrage over some event that has captured the attention of the current news cycle. The meme is a cultural syllogism: A terrible thing has occurred. You have not said that it was terrible on Facebook or Twitter. You are a terrible person. The reasoning seems to be that if you have not publicly condemned it on social media, you are complicit in its terribleness.