A Caramel Cream Christmas

[Disclaimer: This was originally written for a devotional within LakeRidge’s 2018 Advent series. The author opened up this time for the past Sunday’s theme, Unexpected Gift. The following reflection was something of a fanciful invention by the author in order to stir up the imagination of the reader so as to contemplate the unexpected nature of the Incarnation.]

Have you ever reached into a pocket to find something you never expected? Was it some money, a note, a ticket, or just a piece of garbage? I remember one day reaching into my coat pocket to find one of the most peculiar things. I reached into my coat and found a caramel cream, tightly wrapped and looking like it had just come from the packing plant. A brief chuckle and bewilderment came from me, and I began to wonder about whoever placed such a wonderful, unassuming gift into my pouch. I didn’t necessarily assume it was of my own doing for I’m not one to leave candy around the linings of coats —I was chided as a boy for the neglect of well-made candy going undigested. Nevertheless, the culprit of this unexpected gift was the only thing my mind’s eye could savor.

I walked; I hummed; I yawned —all along meditating not on the candy, but the culprit. As I judged this candy, my dear mother came by to ask me what ever could be the matter. As I retold my story, she chuckled at her youngest son because I had done what many regularly do. I believed contemplating the giver without ever enjoying the gift would satisfy both the giver and myself. When in reality a reply in joy was what was needed because joy is the simplest form of gratitude. I obsessed over the giver and not the gift; my mother reminded me that participation in the gift took precedence over mere contemplation on the giver.

You see, many unwittingly forget that to receive a gift one must actively open up in the gift’s reception. An unexpected gift can only be given such a title when one opens up for the possibility of something willingly given without warrant or merit. Such is the birth of Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Human; it is an unexpected gift. It is like a caramel cream hidden unknowingly in a little boy’s coat lining — it is to be receptively enjoyed and actively savored. 

Text to Read:

John 4:10 (NET)

Jesus answered her, “If you had known the gift of God and who it is who said to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

I’m Not Sure…

Speeches are interesting. We never actually have one that is a home run, everyone is sitting there applauding and lauding you with the brilliance of your speech. Back in September, I got the chance to give the best man speech at my buddy’s wedding. For weeks, I ruminated on so many things to say about the couple, him, her, etc. I think I watched 5-8 hours of YouTube videos of best man speeches. I was disappointed and amazed by the words people use and the way people go about doing these talks. I did not want to be another statistic. Nor did I want to give one of those purely emotional speeches. I tried to carve out a statement that was unique to the kind of person I am, and I thought would be particularly meaningful to the couple, individually and together.

I think it went okay, but I’m not giving you the written speech. I study philosophy and theology. I believe words have weight. I believe words are actions and actions are words. I hope some people know that when I make a statement when I’m not trying to be humorous, I don’t make it flippantly. The words carry along with it time coupled with reason and in-depth consideration. I look for my words to be impactful, thoughtful. At least, what I have stated is the hoped-for goal. I mess up, more than I want to admit.

Anyway, as I searched for the words within me to proclaim to the people and the couple, I realized something. Most wedding addresses are the couple and the person running down memory lane. I had to find my niche. So, I would charge the couple with a hope I have for them while doing the unique observations and jokes about the couple. As someone who reads a reasonable amount, I turned to my trusted books.

Poets. Philosophers. Theologians. Scripture. Comics (not out of the ordinary for me). Movies. Short Stories. It all fell flat. Nevertheless, I think I wrote the script for this three to four minutes speech twelve to fifteen times. You laugh, but it wasn’t the same talk. I had six different addresses. None of them worked for me. YET! I came across one of my favorite books. One of the twelve books I read every year: C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves. Additionally, I turned to the dumb ox, Thomas Aquinas, and Elenore Stump, a philosopher par excellence.

The significant quote that focused my attention on crafting the speech was by Lewis. Lewis states that love and loving necessarily means a vulnerability for brokenness, pain, and conflict that can launch into deeper intimacy. Or, if we merely want safety, then we have begun to creep into a coffin that suffocates risk and being known by another.

“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” —C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I wrapped my mind around those first two sentences that “there is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable.” Most of the time weddings are whimsical, fancy, and a picture of pure love. Everyone mentions that marriage will be hard! Yet, we rarely hear a speech that encourages the couple to admit to not just dig into the difficulty but to be indeed present and see the other —to commune with the lover. Thus, I wanted to bring that reality of what they were doing before God, family, and friends into that moment. So, I hoped for the couple that they would find new ways to express vulnerability to and with the other because this is part and parcel of marriage or love, via Lewis.

Next, this vulnerability needs something else. I couldn’t put my finger on it. So, I randomly began to read Thomas Aquinas. Odd that I would go to a celibate monk. He has something within his Summa (Q20) that captures what I sought for the couple. However, I needed help teasing it out that is why Elenore Stump helped me. I turned to my notes for a presentation she did at Fuller’s Analytic Theology Seminars on Love. Summarized, to love someone is to desire or will the good of the beloved and union with the beloved. Thus, for love to happen, it requires shared attention where the lover perceives the beloved aright and vice versa. Or, it means that each seeks to view the other honestly. Thus, I encouraged the couple to find anew shared attention for the beloved.

So, there we go. I found the words through Lewis, Aquinas, and Stump. I encouraged vulnerability and shared attention. NOW! What is the point of this story of the condensed version of the immediate craziness of my mind? Well, I’ll do my best to make it quick.

As a Christian, I find it difficult to be vulnerable with God and have this shared attention, which I think happens through prayer. But, I could make that thought a post in of itself. I want to take to the horizontal angle, even though I readily wish to stick to the vertical (me and God or you and God).

So, I don’t think I’m the only one when I say it takes a lot to be vulnerable and be attentive to another. Loving our neighbor, whether that be wife/husband, family, friends, community, etc., is hard and takes time. It isn’t safe. It isn’t scary either! The love poured out for us in Jesus Christ calls in us to bring out a quality love over quantity to our neighbor. Only God can give the quantity and quality love that each human heart needs. We are tasked with loving our neighbor where we are at with what we are given. We are to love our neighbor with a quality that points to the love of Christ. That kind of quality is an investment in the person. We are by nature very contingent beings. Thus, an investment of time is an expression of that vulnerability. While it takes patience and a lot to gain shared attention.

The point of my speech for you is to ask yourself how do you seek to love, in particular as a Christian to mirror the love of God found in Jesus Christ being a witness. Have you asked yourself how you attempt to invest in your neighbor and indeed perceive them as God’s creature? Have you asked yourself that question? Consequently, not everyone is asked by God to be Mother Teresa, D.L. Moody, or Jim Elliot and many others. Instead, we are asked to love faithfully in the smallness of our lives because the ripples of the small faithful love ring as the Kingdom bells coming nearer. Read 2 or 3 John. Read the OT prophets, cf. Micah 6:8. You’ll see my point.

Last, my guess, if you’re like me, is that you don’t do a great job at loving your neighbor. Nevertheless, you and I cannot let that be the end of it. “I just do a pitiful job, c’est la vie.” No! God forbid! But, we need to start again wherever we are at with our neighbor. As a Christian, the good news of the Gospel is that you daily get the chance to participate in God’s love for you, for me, and for the world. I’d say that good news, and it is worth being perseverant, even when you fail.

 

I could be wrong, but, for now, it makes sense to me.
“It is our best work that God wants, not the dregs of our exhaustion. I think he must prefer quality to quantity.”
— George MacDonald

Do We Understand Friendship?’

“I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

 

 

“Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden). The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

 

“The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question “Do you see the same truth?” would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a Friend,” no Friendship can arise – though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.”

 

“Eros will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.” 

 

“But in Friendship, being free of all that, we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing.”

 

All these quotes are from the section on Friendship in C.S. Lewis’ book called, The Four Loves. It is a superb book, one of his lesser widely read. Lewis did such a great job, and I kept trying to write something but to no avail. So, the quotes should help getting you to think about what it means to be a friend, have friends, and finding a friend. The last quote is the best, because he connects it to Jesus. BOOM!

Forgiveness

 C. S. Lewis, one of my favorite authors, wrote a copious amount of essays on the Christian life. One, I think, needs to be read by any believer every so often. It is on forgiveness. You see, I don’t “do” forgiveness well. This probably sounds like a complete “Un-Christian” thing to say, yet I fully mean it. 

But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses. What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.” We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable. And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves without own excuses. They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.

So, forgiveness is harder for us to ask for and give than we think. We very flippantly, as a natural reaction, proclaim forgiveness over someone without thinking what we offer, or when we receive forgiveness. (I hate this thing) we say, like any good Christian should, “You know, I have forgiven them in my heart already.” Ehhhh, you sure there shooter? It is a cop-out, most of the time, because we the next minute flip out on the hearer about what the person did. The reality of forgiveness is that forgiveness takes account on how much it is being forgiven. Forgiveness is hard, but God counted the cost and forgave us of much more than we know. 

So, here’s the thought, anytime we come before God, let us just bring ourselves dirty and messed up—no excuses and long winded prayers. God knows, and he is not shocked. He has healed us in Jesus Christ, and He will heal us because of His Son, when we bring ourselves before Him. He is faithful.

C.S. Lewis on Originality

“No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” 
                                                                                     —C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis is one of the apologetical and Christian thinking giants of the past 70+ years. This one quote from Lewis hit me in the face while re-re-reading through one of the many of his essays entitled, “Members” . From a young age, I hated being compared with other people. If you ever wanted to see me blow a fuse, all you had to do was mention myself in the same sentence with someone else. As I have grown older, I realized, it is natural for people to compare and contrast other people with people who are familiar, and they do not understand explicitly what they are doing. So, in reaction to that, I was always seeking (confession: I still am) to be original.

I do not want to build on people’s work. I want all the glory; I never want to share it. You think I probably should use a past tense, but it is not in the past…it is a present issue. It has always been my thing to make a name for myself, I mean it is part of the American Dream. When I read these lines from C.S. Lewis, God sucker punched me in the face*. Most of my life, I have been uber focused on being original, different from everyone else. Because I have been so focused on it, I take my whole identity to be wrapped up in my originality. Now, I am already different from everyone else: the parents God gave me, the education, my genetic makeup, and a laundry list of other things. Yet, the Christian Life is not about being original from everything else.

My obsession for originality, thus having other ascribe a high value to me is completely and utterly a perversion of my identity; it is absolutely based upon what I or you think I should do or be. God is nowhere to be found in it. It is sin, let us not be coy about it. Sin is a perversion, a twisting, of what is good into something for what it was never intended to be. Yet, here is the great, amazing news. Jesus knows. It is the whole reason why the Son of God came. Jesus is my originality. I do not have to be original, God has already done it. I can, now, be a simple guy, doing my work.

 

*(Sidenote: I believe God speaks through many things other than just or only the Holy Scripture, yet normatively, authoritatively only through Scripture. All the other speech are pointers back to Scripture where the Word of God is revealed, i.e. Jesus Christ. There is loads more to say about it…and I’m still working it out.) 

(Some of the thoughts in this post will be updated, teased out more, or otherwise corrected. Blogging is an ongoing process.)