God, We Need a Silent Night
Christmas is noisy. Noisy with sounds for sure, the honking and hum of a mall parking lot, the rock concert version of Joy to the World, the overstuffed rooms will so much talking and so little listening. The collected volume of our “I can’t believe its almost Christmas.” And “I’m sure glad the weather has been nice.” And “Have you figured out what to get for Dad yet?” all in one cacophonous cloud.
But it’s not just the ears that are assaulted in these our Christmas days. Our eyes are attacked by endless light (day and night), color, shine, sparkle, overstuffed display cases and over-decorated mantles (not the least of which mine), our peripheral vision squeezes the sight of it, in hopes of capturing all of the things in one panoramic view. We took the boys to the city’s amusement park to see the light displays sponsored by dozens of local businesses. My oldest son’s prophetic words ring out, “I don’t want to go. I have already seen the lights.” We ended up having a very nice time, but isn’t he right, haven’t we already seen the lights?
The churches of our American religion aren’t particularly helping. Inundating us with one more volume 11 chorus on repeat, one more movie clip, one more command to stand, to shout, to take in the smoke machines and lasers. Our church services built for such saturated anonymity that we would never even know we’re there. The music so loud we can’t hear our own voice, the lights so dim that we cannot see our neighbor, the multimedia so invigorating that we needn’t be in church at all. Wouldn’t all this hoopla be better delivered through my home theater system? Celebrity pastor D.J. Soto launched the first virtual church this year. Hopefully the virtual communion can sooth the virtual souls of the virtual people in attendance.
I love a good hand-raised, shout-for-joy-to-the-Lord moment in church as much as the next guy, but over a period of decades, the volume has gone up, the lights have gone dark, the media has gone in motion, the smoke has filled the room and our nervous systems have gone on overload. You look around the room and the limbic systems of people react in their bipolar options. Some lean into the mania inducing stimulus, assuming the caffeinated hum running through their body is always synonymous with the Holy Spirit. Others are so overun their eyes glaze over; they stare off into the darkened room, face alit by the glow of a musician’s face on a 50’ screen. A church I worked at 15 years ago when building a new auditorium proudly touted that the resolution on the screens were so high that the pastors would now need to wear make-up, lest they look washed out on the screen.
Between the bangs of gar-ginkas and the beating of trum-tookas of this Who-Feast something else is happening. We are losing jobs. Facing health crises, fighting our kids. Failing as parents. We are buried in tax bills, requisite requests for year-end giving, wondering whether Mother really can take care of herself as well as she says. Our bodies ache from all the pressure, our sleep schedules ragged, our calendars bloated, our marriages short of meaningful things to say. We are getting by and getting through, but getting to where? The idea that at the end of this tunnel is rest and retirement is ephemeral at best and self-deceptive at worst. All the retired people we know are wondering what to do with themselves now that they have all this time and no noise with which to fill it.
In 1966 the editors of Time magazine predicted, “By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the US will, in effect, be independently wealthy.” We are 19 years on from the sell-by date of that prediction, and households spend more of their hours working than any other time in American history. All while the standard of living for the average American household in steady decline. Americans between the ages of 35 and 50 spend more than 7 hours per week on social media. Inundated by opinions, advertisements, and the Insta-worthiness of former college classmates, our nervous systems again, are stimulated to the point of despair, seeping out the last drops of serotonin the brain can muster. Terrifyingly social media is still not our primary medium, with TV consumption still more than twice that amount. Now that we can get TV anywhere—including church—who are we to decline?
This is not a finger-wagging blog post about turning off your phone or cutting the cord on your TV. This is an Advent reminder of how lost in the woods we are. Our American religion—an unsubtle hybrid of consumerism, manufactured optimism, and prosperity gospel—has led us to believe that a positive attitude and an upwardly mobile lifestyle are the signs of God’s affirmation. The message of Jesus an inspiring draft of, “Undeservedly you get to go to heaven someday, in return get your butt to work while you’re here.” We are chronically sick with the primary contagion being our own distraction. We go to church to find a physician who can cure this insomnia, and are too often met with the response, “That sounds very painful, have you tried some of our noise?”
When I speak with people (usually it takes 30-40 minutes for the usual over-stimulated conversation to abate) I find that behind all of this is a tenuous tangle of life, held in place by terrified strands, waiting for the wrong gust of wind to tear it to shreds. Graphic imagery, but not so graphic as the honest fears that run through our hearts. No wonder we love the noise. We know all this distraction, even our religious distraction, isn’t good for us, but its better than the tum-tum-tum of self-defeating drums beating within.
A Four-Part Disharmony
We are not the first civilization to mix our idols and our Jesus. When I look carefully, the same four strands of disharmony have been plaguing us since the beginning: Flight, Shame, Image, and Noise.
Being human means we:
Run from our real lives, (Flight)
Believe things are worse than they really are, (Shame)
Talk ourselves into making things look better, (Image) and
Glaze over the difference with distraction. (Noise)
From the Garden of Eden on, we have been about this game. We are running and hiding alone in a garden where we were made to walk with God. We so easily believe days spent tending the Garden in which we’ve been placed, loving the people along which we travel, could not possibly be enough for a good life. We collude with garden monsters whose primary poison is embarrassment and regret, sending us in Flight from the life we were meant to live, and into hiding. God arrives and we cannot believe He is for us, so we go on the run, hiding behind plant leaves and professional designations.
All this running depends on a lie, an insidious lie at that, which says that we must run because things are really coming apart at the seams. The second part, our Shame lie tells us that we are one tragedy away from falling apart, we are one sin away from being unredeemable, we are one stolen dessert away from being too fat and too far gone and we very likely deserve it. Because we too often do not believe the Bible, we must run from the darkness. Run from our fears, run from our doubts, run from our pain, run from any sign that things are not as they should be. This the Shame doing its business, validating our Flight.
Instead of living within the dark of night, we white-knuckle grasp at volunteer positions, job promotions, perfect parties, kid successes, bigger and better churches, moral high grounds and virtue signals indicating that things are looking up (despite all evidence to the contrary). Really, we are quite well assembled after all. Just don’t look to close. The third voice in the chorus, our Image-making, saves us from the trouble of image-bearing, or at least we think it might. We be what everyone else wants us to be—cheerful, productive, only slightly religious, and attractive. These are so much better; being ourselves is far to great a weight to bear.
Image-making and Shame pin us between a rock and hard place. On one hand, Shame, our Auntie with too much eye shadow is looking down its nose at us, reminding us that yet again we’ve put on a few too many pounds and its too bad little Johnny hasn’t learned the alphabet by now. On the other hand, Mr. Image, our life coach who just finished his third Iron Man is hooting about how believing is achieving or some other such drivel. They are, of course, siblings and business partners, injecting you with the poison and then making a killing off the cure.
Among these three, Flight, Shame, and Image-making, no surprise that Noise looks like soloist we’ve been waiting for. As our American religion becomes more and more a mix of Shaming do-better messages and self-help laden strategies to look the part, the fatal chorus in so many churches is anchored by a bass line of Noise, apparently necessary distraction to drown out the cacophony within.
Jesus Among the Noise
To truly see what God is up to at the first Christmas we have to strip away much of our ideas about that night. There likely was no barn. No motel with it’s No Vacancy neon alit. The familiar Luke 2 story, read not as a 16th century mythology built by English translators and German theologians, but read in light of what we know about Jewish families and censuses and first century society, looks much different.
We start, of course, with a woman. It is imperative in understanding the Jesus story to see that it all begins with a woman who makes a choice. A choice to say yes to God. She lived in a society where nearly no choices were offered her, she had little practice in consent. But she says yes to God. If you read Mary’s Song (the Magnificat) in Luke 1 you see that she is a prophetess, assuming the voice of her ancestors Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel and others to claim that the arrival of a Messiah would mean good news for those who drowned out by the world’s noise.
She, too, has been drowned out by the world’s noise. Absent our projections of teenage romance, betrothal was a business deal with little room for sentimentality. Mary was sold by dowry from one household to another, destined to leave her family home near Nazareth to join Joseph’s family heritage, wherever that should lead. The journey’s first stop was Bethlehem.
When Joseph returns with a very pregnant Mary to the hometown of his extended family, he’s not in search for a motel to stay the night. The word translated “inn” by so many is the same word translated “upper room” when Jesus comes to Jerusalem 30+ years later for His final Passover. The houses of the time were built with spare rooms (if wealth allowed) for a steady stream of family guests. There is no concept of isolated nuclear families as we know them today. “Family” extended to multiple generations and providing housing for one another was a way of life. The reason the Spare Room (a better translation across both texts) was full is likely because it was full of family—Mary’s new in-laws—probably not too keen on this strange girl with her strange pregnancy. There was much noisy chatter to be had.
Because most babies born ended in premature death anyway and because Herod’s genocide was threatening, the more probable story is Mary and Joseph crowded into a noisy family gathering, giving birth where every they could find square inches, the baby’s opening cry shrouded by the noise of life carrying on. The animal quarters were also often in the same structure as the family home, yet again, making our Medieval nativities more sentimental than accurate. The manger where he lay was the last soft(ish) place available in a house full of troubles, cares, worries and judgments. Aunt Mabel posturing for attention while Cousin James is picking on his sister again.
A knock on the door in the night (an unwelcome sound as families are ghettoized to be head-counted for taxation and potential extermination). A ragtag group of day laborers crowd in.
“We heard a baby was born here.”
“I can see that.”
“We think the baby is the unrecognized King of our nation, set to overthrow the government, and possibly the person to set right all that is wrong with the world.”
(sarcasm heavy) “Oh please, then by all means, come inside. You know the boy’s a bastard right? We don’t know who the Father is?”
“God is His Father. God is Your Father. We are not alone.”
Unwed mothers turned prophets. Field laborers turned priests. The world turned upside down.
And yet somehow, the God-in-Flesh sleeps. Much like He would three decades later in the middle of a gale-force seastorm. While the world spins madly on, the King of the World sleeps. No frayed nerve endings. No adrenaline pulsing through his veins. Pinned between the shame of his birth and the pressure of family and friends to clean up His image all His life, His life drowned out by the four-part disharmony we know.
A Flight to Egypt, running for survival.
The Shame of His family, His lack of credentials, His misunderstood intentions.
An Image manage; we can hear his own mother shouting to him as adult, “Would you stop acting a fool! People think you’re insane!”
The Noise. The noise of others needs, His own exhaustion, His friends’ betrayals, the rise and fall of His fame.
And yet, in all this disharmony He sleeps.
The Silence Within
If you listen and look, there was no silence to that night. Kids were fighting. Jewish mothers were doting. Joseph was hand-wringing. Shepherds were sermonizing. Cattle were lowing. (What the heck is lowing?) On top of the audible noise was political noise. A threatening census, the rumors of a Jewish genocide brewing, Hebrew Twitter ablaze with #RomanResistance. Synagogue is no better. Warring factions take to their corners during the coffee break. The finger-wagging moralists, the ecstatic hand-wavers, the tattooed activists, those strange toga-wearing Essenes who usually meet out in the desert. Church is a place full of distraction and shockingly short on God, no wonder everyone was on the hunt for a Messiah.
Jesus enters a world so much like our own, full of tumult and chaos, fear and distraction. He enters it powerless, not with a silencing of His foes, but a silence within Himself. When Dallas Willard was asked the one word he would use to describe Jesus, he chose one so accurate and yet so unfamiliar it sends chills down my spine even years after hearing it:
Relaxed. Before the Messiah’s great power to raise the dead, heal the sick, vanquish the demons wowed the crowds, He came into the world with the silence of heaven. The silence within which characterizes a heart held by God. It is Jesus’ silence throughout His life which jars us to His strange ways. The silence in the storm, the silence before Pilate, the silent rejection of vinegar wine on the cross. His hope serene within Him, His grief over the world, unflailing. Relaxed.
I know very little of this internal silence. I, like you, have spent the bulk of my life making nice with the noise. But in seeing these two noisy Christmases side-by-side, the one we noisily make and the one 2000 years ago made silent within the noise, I know which one I want.
We are not so very silent. In our hearts or our minds.
We are not so very still. In our bodies or our culture.
We are not so very settled. In our souls or Your love.
As we finish one year and enter the next, grow within us what was always true in Jesus, the heart of a silent night.