No, you aren’t the only Jesus some people will see…

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jesus_in_mirrorYou’ve probably heard it one time or another. Someone, well meaning, says, “You know, lots of people will never darken the doors of a church or go to an evangelistic meeting. So if you are working with someone, or going through the line at the grocery story, remember, You might be the only Jesus some people will see.”

There’s even songs written to this effect. Like the old Imperials song, “You’re the Only Jesus.”

But is that true?

Karl Barth, in a remarkably short sentence (for Barth), puts it this way (with light edits for quotability):

“Jesus is immanent in the Church only as He is transcendent to it.” (CD 1/1, 100-1)

Barth’s big point, I think, is to remind us that while indeed Jesus is the one who is present to and in his people, the Church, he is always and only the transcendent Lord of the Church.

I happen to think Barth has it right here. There is an asymmetrical relationship between Jesus, the Head, and the Church, the Body of Christ. We can’t put a big equal sign between “Head” and “Body.” They are vitally (literally vitally!) connected, but they are far from being the same thing.

So if Barth is right, that means:

  • Jesus is a self-giving Gift to the Church, but he is never a “Given.” Just because the Church is Christ’s chosen covenant partner doesn’t mean that the Church can presume that Jesus is present in all of the church’s witness and actions. Indeed, there may well be times when the Body acts independently (and rebelliously) against the Head. In those instances, we should be thankful that we aren’t the only Jesus people can see.
  • Jesus works and acts in the Church, but is not constrained only to work and act in the Church. It is true again that Christ has chosen the Church to be his primary covenant partner by which he carries out his Father’s mission in the world. But we should be under no delusion that somehow Jesus is restricted to working only in the church and no where else. If God could use Balaam’s ass to speak his word then, he can surely use some other ass to speak his word today.
  • The Church can point others to Jesus in their midst, but they can only point to the Jesus who is in their midst. That is to say, we shouldn’t think that by introducing people to ourselves as Christians that we have somehow automatically introduced these people to Jesus. Just because he’s in the room doesn’t mean people know him just because we are there. You might see something of me in my children, but there is no way you would make the mistake of assuming that because you’ve met my children that you’ve met me. Now if you’ve met Jesus, on the other hand, then you have met his Father (John 14:9)…but that’s a little bit different story!
  • No, you and I aren’t the only Jesus some people will see. Actually, if Barth is right, people may very well  see Jesus in our midst. But it is nearly blasphemous, or at least we are putting a little too much faith in ourselves and a little bit too much pressure on ourselves, to think that somehow we “need to be Jesus” to others.

Let’s make it simple this Christmas Season. If we want people to know Jesus, let’s be sure to do our utmost actually to introduce them to Him. In the words of the Samaritan woman,

“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!” (John 4:29)

 

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Thinking about Faith and Politics: A Non-Partisan Reflection

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IMG_4537Last week, I was asked to participate in a Faith and Politics faculty forum here at Briercrest. We had a good representation of college and seminary students attend. It was a great experience! We were asked to prepare answers to three questions. Although I didn’t end up reading these verbatim, I thought I’d share them with you.

Question #1: Should faith inform our voting? To what extent?

Yes. Fully.

Christian faith, as I understand it, is founded upon the confession of God’s divine sovereignty revealed most fully in his Son, Jesus Christ. For Christians, the fundamental and primal confession of our faith is “Jesus is Lord.” Lordship, as confessed in the first century context, was fully political in its connotations. Roman citizens of Jesus’ and Paul’s day were encouraged to declare, “Caesar is Lord” and so the confession, Jesus is Lord, was undeniably political, and indeed, confrontational to the political powers of the first century. Beyond that, it would be difficult to understand what Christ could have meant when he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” if political authority was somehow not included in the “all.” Jesus is Lord means that every authority—political, ecclesiastical, familial, cultural, corporate, etc.—is ultimately answerable to Christ.

Although in some sectors of Christianity through history “faith” has been compartmentalized or isolated from public and political life, I believe such privatization of faith cannot be legitimately sustained. So, in my view, not every issue is necessarily directed by matters of Christian doctrine or by Scripture, but no issue can be viewed as being irrelevant or inconsequential to our faith–political issues no less.

When we take these two elements together—the Lordship of Christ and his all-encompassing authority received from God—it seems to me that voting, like every other aspect of our life, needs to be informed by our faith. Paul understands this when he claims that he is seeking to take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ. If voting is about making an intellectually, morally, and civic decision, then it is about making such a decision in obedience to Christ as part of our discipleship.

[I also made a point that the exercise of voting, of course, would have been foreign to the NT audience. Although I believe that Christians should always consider voting, I also believe that under circumstances, Christians should also be prepared purposely not to vote as a form of protest. I’ve not yet faced that scenario in my voting years, but it isn’t inconceivable that at a local level, I might be uncomfortable voting for any of the members running in my riding, and federally or provincially, I may believe no party deserves even qualified support.]

Question #2: Should a specific area of a political platform take priority in a Christian’s decision in voting? E.g. economy, military, foreign affairs. How much should an individual moral/ethical issue influence a Christian’s vote?

I’m of firm conviction that there are indeed specific areas of attention to political platforms that should have heightened priority for scrutiny in a Christian’s decision to vote. But I am the first to admit that sorting that out can be a very difficult thing to do. Nevertheless, I believe that we have to do our best to sort through the political platforms and promises, and discern what a political party’s fundamental priorities are. Is it about safety and comfort—whether economically or social? Is it about wealth creation? Is it about a sense of fairness? (and don’t assume that fairness equals justice—I don’t think it does, nor do I think the Bible does). And so on.

Furthermore, I believe that Christians need to realize that our own context is constantly shifting and issues that might be the most pressing in a previous election campaign may not be the most pressing issues today, no matter what the parties themselves state. For me, especially in the current election we are about to engage in, I am more interested in what the parties are not saying rather than what they are saying. Silence is more often an indicator of what a platform is either not concerned about or what they may be wanting to avoid or hide.

Martin Luther (supposedly) said, “‘If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” That means that Christians need to discern, by the Spirit’s help, what issues may need to take priority in an election and push the representatives to speak about those issues and reveal their stances on their issues, even if the party platforms dictate that they would rather talk about other issues.

In practice, I think this means starting with a sense of realism about political parties and making sure that we clearly understand the dangers of seeing political parties as the primary instrument of bringing about Gospel justice or some form of Christian moral ideals. They are not replacement Messiahs. There are no perfect political platforms other than God’s own sovereign purposes, but I do think there are better and worse platforms. Therefore, I think we need to think in terms of a hierarchy of issues facing us and decide which issue is indeed more important—morally, theologically, even politically—than other issues, and then choose to vote for a party (or a person) who best represents that stance.

[Related to the above, one of the panelists made reference to Winston Churchill’s famous quip, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”]

If I may speak a bit more personally, for example, I believe we are in a position in Canada where NO political platform of the main political parties speaks about protecting the most vulnerable lives, the unborn, as a priority. God seems especially concerned for those without a voice, and the unborn are the most voiceless of all. To me, that is simply unacceptable from a Christian point of view. Canada is one of only a few countries in the entire world—we are in same club as North Korea—where protection for the unborn is completely unlegislated. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most dangerous and unprotected places to be in Canada is in a mother’s womb. In that regard, difference of opinion on economic policy or social programs or even medical or employment issues, seem to me to pale in significance. Consequently, we may have to realize that we will need to vote for those who at least are most likely to take a stance, or have taken a stance, where such justice and protection of life itself is most likely to be advocated or protected. Personally for me, that means that I will plan to vote for an individual in my riding that I can count on to take that stance rather than voting on the basis of a political platform of a Party per se.

As for the second part of the question, I suppose I would want to reword it differently. If by “individual” we mean a matter of individual conscience on a disputable area, then I would say, we should not vote primarily on the basis of convictions on issues that Christians can genuinely disagree about, e.g, economic policy; level of  support of business or arts, etc. If by “individual”, though, we mean, an issue that is clearly spoken to by Scripture and which pertains to the sanctity of life or the freedom for worship, then, yes, we may and probably should allow that individual issue to influence our vote.

Question 3: How does our faith shape our expectations of what government should do/what a party should promise? I.e. what is the role of government from a Christian perspective?

I believe this is one of the central questions of political theology because it is asking the question of how we believe God uses the secular state in the outworking of his providential plan. Fundamentally, I think there are really only two main starting points or assumptions by which we can answer this question. Every Christian tradition would agree that the State is under God’s authority, but traditions differ on whether the State is a part of God’s good creation as originally instituted, or whether the State is instituted by God as a result of the Fall of humanity into sin. How you answer that question will answer the question of what you believe the Government should do and what we expect the Government to do, and of course, give us insight into when we think the Government is failing. In the first view, the State is a gift of God to mediate good things to humanity, even while ideally protecting humans from the evils of sin. In the second view, the State is also a gift of God, but is given primarily to protect from the evils of sin, and secondarily and incidently (and sometimes accidently) to mediate good things to humans. These two positions might seem only to be a difference in emphasis, but the end view of what Government should be expected to do has resulted in great differences. Thus, those who see Government primarily as God’s post-Fall means of restraining evil will likely have far less confidence in seeing government doing much more than punishing wrong doers and keeping people relatively safe. Those who see Government as part of God’s original creation, however, believe the Government, fallen as it is, still has responsibility to be doing what it can to bring about common good for all peoples.

I personally believe that State is part of God’s good creation (and here we distinguish between the State and particular governments) and that even mankind had not fallen into sin, there would have been need to “govern” how people lived together in harmony. Indeed, the biblical concept of the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God present in both OT and NT scriptures, indicates that even in the eschaton, things will be “governed” and God will Reign forever. In the meantime, however, humans and Governments and States are fallen, but are nevertheless accountable to God. So it is the Church’s job to remind the State of what it is supposed to accomplish.

Interestingly, in 1 Tim 2, Paul enjoins his readers to pray for all the authorities “that we would live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” I think that encapsulates the fundamental and central reason that the State is supposed to exist: To ensure peaceable relations amongst all peoples, regardless of their faith stance, and to allow the Gospel of God’s righteousness and holiness to be proclaimed freely to everyone because, as Paul says shortly after, God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth of salvation. Thus, where the preaching and promulgation of the Gospel is hindered, the State is, by definition, not doing its job. Thus, for me, the State’s fundamental role is to ensure that all peoples, regardless of religious affiliation (or not) are free to worship (or not), to speak of their faith in freedom without fear of persecution. When the State fails to ensure these conditions are met, the Church is obligated to resist it, and when necessary, obey God rather than men. In that regard, there is going to be tremendous differences of opinion on how best to take care of social issues like health care and employment insurance, how to run the economy, whether to balance the budget or to be in deficit. But I am going to be especially attuned to the question of whether the Church is, in smaller or greater ways, being hindered legislatively to carry out the task of proclaiming and living the Gospel, including restrictions on speech and carrying out good deeds.

John Calvin and the “Selfie”

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I recently saw a collection of pictures from people around the world using selfie-sticks. (Think of the potential for infinite regress: pictures of people taking pictures of themselves taking pictures of others taking pictures of themselves, etc….but I digress.)

What is it about this whole phenomenon?  Why do we like the selfie, let alone the selfie-stick, so much? Are we just a bunch of narcissists? Narcissism is probably a part of it, but I don’t think that descriptor says enough.

Here’s my guess: The selfie (and by extension, pun intended, the selfie-stick) allows us to present ourselves to others as we have chosen to frame ourselves, that is, as we want them to see us.

Recently, I took part in a family photo session to celebrate my Mom’s 80th birthday. Problem is, I had no control over the pictures. I just had to try to smile nice and not close my eyes (which is near impossible for me, it seems). But the selfie-stick changes all that. It allows me to take a picture of myself–repeatedly even–until it is framed just as I want, even to the point where my eyes are actually open! The selfie lets me show myself to others as I would hope they would see me.

But here’s the thing: Does it really matter about how I frame myself? Is it really so important that I try to convince others to see me as I want to be seen?

At this point, you probably are thinking, “This is a theological blog, so obviously Guretzki is leading up to a theological point.” (Indeed). And you might think that my conclusion is,  “No, it doesn’t really matter how others see me, because what is more important is that people see God (or Jesus), not me.” Well, you would be thinking wrongly.

Recently I was reviewing the opening of John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion and I began to wonder, “Would Calvin take a selfie?” Ok,  not really, but I think his discussion may help us here.

In book 1 (1559 edition, Battles’ translation, McNeil’s edition, pp. 35-39), Calvin leads off with a nice three point sermon. (To be clear, the headings are supplied by theologian Otto Weber in his German edition of the Institutes.) Here it is:

  1. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. (35)
    What?? Shouldn’t we expect Calvin to start from the other direction? Wouldn’t we expect Calvin to start with the claim, “Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self”? Yes, we might expect that. But he doesn’t!

    Even though I’ve read this passage dozens of times, I have to admit, even I was surprised. Calvin is so often portrayed as a theologian of God’s glory that he is underappreciated for his positive anthropology.  You see, Calvin recognizes that it is possible, justifiably, for humans to be aware of their own unique giftedness and the great advantages they have over the rest of creation. Humans are indeed glorious creatures.

    So Calvin doesn’t start by denigrating the human, but by acknowledging their created glory. However, Calvin goes on to observe that it is only once we begin to understand “these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us” that we shortly thereafter start to become disillusioned with an increased awareness of our imperfections. For all of our giftedness, we quickly become painfully aware that we lack something–that we don’t quite measure up.

    But this is good, Calvin says, because as we become aware of this lack, this want, this failure, we are actually in  a position, hopefully, to contemplate that all this goodness has a source. The dew of heaven, hopefully, leads us to the spring itself (36), Calvin says.

    In other words, after looking at a thousand selfies, we begin to realize that no angle, no longer selfie-stick, no better pixel depth, will reduce our feelings of failure or inadequacy. But make no mistake, Calvin insists, having that self-framed portrait of ourselves is a good place to start, because it is through our own self-awareness that God “leads us by the hand to find him” (37).

    He goes on…

  2. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self. (37)
    Ok, that is what we expected! In good “Calvinist” fashion, Calvin makes the point that we cannot truly frame ourselves properly as humans apart from a knowledge of God.

    Most of us who have come up in Protestant churches have absorbed very well this truth of Calvin, even if we don’t realize it. But unfortunately, our understanding of this claim usually comes out, tragically, I think, this way: “Compared to God we are nothing.”

    Some have justifiably called this perspective “worm theology” (i.e., we are but worms) and many have associated worm theology with Calvinism. And although worm theology may in fact be Calvinist, I’m not sure it is from Calvin. Certainly the opening of the Institutes does not bear this out. Indeed, every human is endowed with “mighty gifts.” This doesn’t sound like a worm to me.

    So it is important to note well: Calvin does not start with an axiomatic understanding of the failure of humans (that is where, far too often, popular presentations of the Gospel start), but with an acknowledgement of the goodness of humans. Sure, it is followed quickly with a clear statement of the subsequent failure recognized within ourselves. But let’s not miss Calvin’s actual starting point.

    You see, for Calvin, it is not a simple, “Human is bad, God is good” contrast. Rather, Calvin says, set alongside God, whatever we might think of as pure and perfect and righteous shows itself to be “miserable weakness” when compared to the glory of God’s perfect goodness. Human knowledge is, in other words, dialectically derived by a relationship of comparison to God, not by delving either into the depths of the human essence or condition, neither by flight into the contemplating the depths of the divine mystery. In fact, these have been the twin theological temptations theologians have faced throughout Christian history: Either theology ends up being anthropology, or theology ends up being abstract divinity, disconnected from human reality. On the contrary, Calvin helpfully reminds us, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves as human go intimately together.

    In short, if we don’t have a point of comparison, mainly, comparison with God, we wouldn’t know that our self-framed “perfect selfie” isn’t, well, perfect.

    Moving on…

  3. Man before God’s majesty. 
    In essence, Calvin goes to note the various stories in Scripture where men and women–saints even–came into contact with the presence of God. It is clear, Calvin observes, that wherever and whenever God’s glory is revealed to humans, they are invariably “shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death…almost annihiliated.”

    And so, Calvin says (or at least, I infer that he says!): No amount of self-framing, no “selfie stick”, will be up to the task of helping us either to know ourselves, or to present ourselves to others in such a way as we really are created to be: To live before and in the presence of God. As Calvin points out, “We must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty” (39).

But here’s the Good News….

We do not have to frame ourselves with our phones and selfie-sticks, because God has already framed us in his own self-portrait–a self portrait named Immanuel, Jesus the friend of sinners. You see, God is no narcissist because he elected, from eternity past, to include us, his human creatures, in his selfie from the start.

It is just too bad that we keep trying to duck out of the family portrait.

Christmas Story Redux

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I’ve been working on Luke 2:1-20 for a Christmas sermon. My study of the passage led me to consider the response of Mary in verse 19: “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” If we ask how it is that we should respond to Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, it seems to me that he is saying that the right response is going to be something similar to Mary’s: to treasure up all these things and ponder them in our heart.

But as I thought about Mary’s response (and ours),  I asked myself: What exactly am I supposed to treasure and ponder from this story? I think if we are honest, it can be easy to assume that Mary’s pondering of the events which had just unfolded was somewhat sentimental and nostalgic. Yet when I read both Mary’s own song (the so-called “Magnificat” in Luke 1:46-55), I am convinced that Mary’s ponderings were anything but sentimental. I think here especially of 1:52 where Mary declares, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” This isn’t the language of sentimentality. Mary was beginning to perceive the monumental event which the birth of Jesus was.

However, I think that we have actually ended up far too often sentimentalizing the Christmas story. It might in fact explain why we have gradually embellished the narrative with details that serve well to fill out the story but actually detract from (Luke’s, at least) biblical narrative. And so I ask,  Might the traditional embellishments to the Christmas story (Mary riding on a donkey, the grumpy innkeeper, the animals in the stable, etc.) actually work against Luke’s simple telling of the story? Is not the birth of Jesus according to Luke to be understood as nothing less than the culmination of OT history (Cf. Luke 1 and the long story of the birth of the Baptist prophet) and the invasion and inversion of secular history (cf. Luke 2:1-3 – Caesar’s global census)? All the details we add to Luke’s account makes for entertaining Christmas plays but might actually unwittingly undercut Luke the historian’s (Cf. Luke 1:1) main point: That history serves Jesus and not the other way around.

Isolating Luke 2 from Luke 1 and then proceeding to embellish the story with details to meant to fill out the sparseness of Luke’s natal account may actually serve to defang the cosmic and political force of the story. For in doing so, we make the birth narrative into a comfy tale or legend rather than the earth-shaking, history-altering, divine-invading event that it is.

Philippians 2 Restated

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I’ve been working through the first couple of chapters of Philippians with one of my seminary classes this week. The following is a paraphrase and prayer of response in today’s vernacular that I wrote as I reflected upon the great christological hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.

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Jesus, you didn’t come from God’s side as a big shot, going around trying to prove to us that which you already knew to be true. You knew you were God and didn’t see a need to chase after our accolades. Instead, you blended in amongst us as God incognito. We didn’t even recognize you, you were so much like us. Yet something about your pure humanity repulsed us, so much so that we thought the best thing to do was to get rid of you. And so, we acted the judge and sent you to the executioner. Yet you went willingly and quietly. To us, such willingness to die is human folly. But to you, it was God’s sovereign will that you should accomplish what you did by submitting yourself to torture and the grave.

But…no sooner were you gone when God took action and by His Spirit brought you back to life and recalled you to his side. Once there God appointed you by his authority to the highest political office—the King with jurisdiction over all kings, dictators, presidents and tyrants alike. Indeed, a day is coming, and is nearly come, when your simple name, Jesus, will mean that no one—no one who has lived, is living or ever will live—will be able to deny what you long ago already knew: That you are God. You are King. You are Creator. You are Judge. You are Saviour and there is none like you. And even in that highest of all positions, you now rule in humble honour to God your heavenly Father.

But you say our attitude should be like yours.

If that be the case, then guard me against the pride that makes me want to impress people with greatness, when all you ask of me is to live as I was created to be—a human creature reflecting your image. Rather than seeking ways to stand out, help me to seek ways to stoop alongside others, to perceive, and to accomplish, what needs to be done in service to them. But above all, let me be ready to share in your death. Even if it doesn’t mean I need to die a martyr’s death, nevertheless let me be a living martyr every day—a witness that continually says, “Not I, but Christ.”

And Lord, give my spirit the hope that you yourself had. Yours wasn’t a hope that sought for more stuff and greater comfort, but a hope in the raising of this corrupt and fragile body from the dead. And give my me a yearning for your true justice today in the midst of all present injustices perpetrated by human judges and criminals, and indeed, myself, alike. Let my voice be one that exalts your name above my own, a life that seeks God the Father’s Kingly purposes. And let me do it all in your mighty Name. Amen.

Thirsty?

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I’ve been trying to eat and live a bit healthier in these past few months. One of the things I’ve been forcing myself to do is to drink a lot more water than I have been accustomed to doing. It hasn’t always been easy, but something I read in a health email newsletter recently reminded me of the importance of water to physical health:

The human body is comprised of about 70% water. Next to air, water is the most vital substance our systems need to function properly. Water is involved in every aspect of the body’s functions . . . The human body can survive for five weeks without food, but only five days without water.

Many of us no longer experience the urge to drink, making water consumption feel like a chore. If you no longer get thirsty, this is the most important time to hydrate. A lack of the thirst sensation is an indication that the body has adapted to its state of dehydration and no longer tells the brain to trigger the thirst signal. Once you begin to hydrate yourself with water on a daily basis, you will find your thirst sensation is quickly restored and drinking water will become part of your normal routine.

The last line certain seems somewhat counterintuitive, but I can personally attest to its truth. Yes indeed, it is true: the more water I’ve been drinking lately, the more often I actually “feel” thirsty. There really IS something about actually taking in more water which makes you more sensitive for your need for it.

This little “H20 factoid” reminded me of Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel of John: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink” (John 7:37b).

If we accept that physiologically, it is possible to be thirsty and not even know it, it isn’t difficult to think that this could also happen to us spiritually as well. You see, the problem isn’t that we really aren’t thirsty (we are!) and don’t need Christ’s Life Giving Spirit (we do!); on the contrary, we may be so desperately thirsty that our own bodies and souls have actually shut off the signal telling us of our need. The less I’ve eaten and drank of Jesus body and blood (cf. John 6:55), the more likely it is that I may be in danger of losing my spiritual thirst sensations! (Kind of makes sense why some ecclesiological traditions are so committed to observing the Eucharist each Sunday, doesn’t it?)

For me, at least, it is a startling realization to discover that the times when I am most “spiritually dehydrated” are precisely the times when I may be least likely to recognize it. Furthermore as a teacher of the Gospel, I probably shouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t clear evidence of the “streams of living water flowing from within” when I am living in such a spiritually dehydrated state.

So today, I ask, “Are you thirsty?”

Jesus Evicted: A Short Advent Story

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While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

It was the usual row which came up year after year on town council for the past 10 years straight: Could the crèche be located on the lawn of City Hall or not?

Lines were drawn, as usual, between the “pro” and “con” crowds. Prominent on one side was cranky old Bartholomew (“Bart”) Collins, a part-time Social Studies substitute teacher for Bethel High, who faithfully reminded everyone on council of the principled need to keep “church and state” separated. His position was clear:  City Hall is no place for Baby Jesus! On the other side was Miriam Dominique (or as more commonly known, Sister Mary), well known as the town’s longest-employed and most beloved kindergarten teacher at St. Peter’s Elementary. Not surprisingly, Sister Mary argued consistently and vociferously to “keep Christ in Christmas”!

Every year for the past decade,  Sister Mary’s sensible voice had prevailed, and every year for the past decade, Baby Jesus lay quietly, but prominently, on City Hall lawn. But every year the vote edged closer and closer toward a “secular upset.” Two years ago, the usual 8 to 1 vote had been 6 to 3, and last year, Jesus had only narrowly avoided being ousted with a 5 to 4 vote.

Given this history, the city’s council chamber this year was buzzing with both nervous and gleeful energy. Whether one was nervous or gleeful, depended on which side of the hall one sat: Sister Mary’s “Bible thumpers” occupied stage left and nervously fidgeted and frowned across the aisle toward Bart’s fellow “commies” clustered in strategic spots on the right. But tonight, the Bart-contingent was poised for a well deserved victory. Victory indeed! For rumour had it that Bart had successfully swayed the new-comer and youngest member of council , one Lisbeth Johnson, to the cause. But only time–and a fateful vote–would tell.

“I now moo-ve to the last item of bizness,” the Chair drawled. “We have here a motion on the floor from thuh last meetin’ which reads, “Moved by Councillor Dominique that a Nativity scene be located on the East Lawn of City Hall for the full month of December to commemorate the Christmas holiday.”

As was the custom, various members of council rose, one by one, to speak for or against the motion. The speeches were short and to the point, and civic respect marked both sides of the debate. By now, virtually everyone in the room knew Bart and Mary’s speeches–neither had bothered to change a word in their argument from year to year. Consequently, few really listened to their arguments while they spoke, including the town reporter who momentarily suspended her scribbling to sip her Starbucks and send an SMS message.

Beyond Bart and Mary, everybody else’s position also became clear: three Councillors each supported Bart and Mary, leaving only one more to speak–the newcomer. Now, the commonplace gave way to suspense, as if there were an invisible scoreboard showing a 4 to 4 tied hockey game! Onlookers sat on the edge of their seats, waiting for sudden death overtime to decide the game!

And then, Lisbeth rose to her feet to speak.

Mary looked down with despondency. Word on the street was that the newcomer would come in like an clumsy ox and upset the manger. Sister Mary prayed silently that the onslaught of evil forces pervading the room would be vanquished by the heavenly host, while Bart’s countenance shone brighter than the star in the East as he already sensed victory!

“Most of you are still getting to know me,” young Lisbeth began. “So let me tell you just a bit about myself before I argue for or against this motion.”

“I was raised in a little town, not too far from here, where every Sunday I attended a little white church with my parents. There I heard weekly the stories of the Bible. Of course, you won’t be surprised that I heard the story about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen over and over again. And to be honest, I loved that story and I still love it today. In fact, the Christmas story really gives me a warm feeling inside whenever I hear it. And whenever I see a Nativity scene, I get that same feeling all over again.”

Sister Mary raised her head, pondering these words. Perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps Lisbeth would rise up and support the Christ Child!

Bart, on the hand, nervously nudged his pen back and forth on the desk. Was Lisbeth going to cave in to emotion and nostalgia over against clear-headed rationality and civic principles? Would she give in to the self-righteous duress imposed by those–those–fundamentalists?

Lisbeth continued. “But today, the decision to put a crèche on the lawn of City Hall cannot be decided by memories of days gone past or of personal nostalgia, even my own. Rather, we must decide on the basis of what really is for the good of all us citizens, whether Christian or not. And those of you here today who claim to be Christians, I don’t think I need to remind you that Christmas story itself says something about having ‘peace on earth and good will amongst all the people’.”

Lisbeth paused. Those in attendance held their breath. The clock ticked more slowly than it ought to have.

“I realize that my vote on this issue will likely be a tie-breaker, and that whatever I vote, I will likely be vilified by the other side.

“But today, let it be known here and now that I will vote against my own warm feelings, and therefore, I will vote against the motion to allow the crèche on City Hall Lawn. Not everyone in this town is a Christian and since City Hall is a public space, I declare my conviction that the Nativity does not belong there.” And with this, Lisbeth  sat confidently down.

The room was, momentarily, silent, only to erupt a full 3.5 seconds later with a grand cheer from the right when Lisbeth’s intended vote sank in! Bart and company had finally won! Council had finally seen the light. Time to send Jesus packing!

On the left, Mary’s supporters were sullen. A few even sobbed quietly. Moments later, when the chair called for the vote, the crèche, for the first time in a decade, was prohibited from occupying public space. 5 to 4 against the motion. The motion was defeated!

The next morning, a busy businessman,  having finished his morning newspaper, latte and cigarette, stuffed paper, cup and butt into the garbage can on the corner.

Emerging from the alley, a frail,  straggly-haired, old man, reeking of urine, shuffled toward the receptacle, grabbed the paper, snatched the cup and rescued the smoldering cigarette.  Pausing momentarily, he scanned the paper’s front headline: “Baby Jesus Evicted!

“I know the feelin’,” he muttered as he stuffed the newspaper into his jacket, if only to battle the bitter cold yet one more day.