December 27, 2004
Always pain before a child is born

I'm back home from the lovely and generally freezing Carolinas. Christmas went remarkably well considering that it looked for a while like it was going to be a disaster. My brother-in-law's medical situation still was not resolved (next time you're tempted to complain about your HMO, just be glad you don't depend on the Veterans Administration for your health care), and his health was badly deteriorated from last year. To make matters worse, just six days before Christmas he learned that his estranged sister had died. And just to ensure that I didn't miss out on trouble, a skycap managed to lose my driver's license in the chaos of the L.A. Airport before I left, leaving all of us to wonder if someone was stealing my identity and running up huge debts in my name or something.

But nonetheless, a kind of Christmas spirit emerged anyway. Since my family is nonreligious it wasn't quite in the Nativity spirit, but I found myself thanking God that my family is capable of enjoying being together so much. I was afraid my brother-in-law wouldn't feel like having all these in-laws descend upon him in the middle of everything, but he seemed genuinely happy to see us. And my sister was even happier, because she had been so busy with her husband that she was afraid she couldn't put on Christmas at all. But we pulled together and put up a tree, cooked Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, and gathered up a modest collection of presents for everyone. The result was a pleasant Christmas, if a slightly muted one. And when I came home, I discovered the skycap had found my license and mailed it to me inside a Christmas card.

I was just overhearing a conversation at the office about going to church on Christmas. I gather there are some Christmas-and-Easter Christians here. The funny thing is that I'm kind of the reverse of that: Christmas is about the only time that I don't go to church. I'd love to go to church one of these Christmases, but these days that means leaving my family and going into a strange Southern church where I don't know anybody, so I just stay at home and have the same secular Christmases that I grew up with.

Generally, when I'm visiting my family I drop the whole subject of religion. I have become known as a sort of cultural go-between, however, so often they will ask me questions to explain the exotic tribe's strange behavior. At Thanksgiving, for instance, my aunt asked me how people can believe the Bible is inerrant when it contradicts itself. And at Christmas dinner my brother-in-law, for some reason I don't remember, asked me why Christians still care about the rules in the Old Testament, when Jesus supposedly came and changed everything.

Their questions are prompted by the behavior of the Christian right, which I've had very little contact with really, so I doubt I'm as good a source as they think I am. And those are such complicated subjects that they can hardly be answered over dinner. But the fact that they keep asking tells me that our divided society needs liaisons. And maybe, if God really does operate with the sort of Plan that evangelicals keep talking about, I have been called to do something like that. I am in an unusually good position to speak the Gospel to the obliviously secular blue-state intelligentsia.

Telford is in a somewhat similar position, and can certainly speak the Gospel with more conviction than I can at this point. But I can see that I'm also tempted to the same communicational weaknesses that he is. My brother-in-law told me that he's stopped reading my blog because he gets lost in all the references and abstruse language, and I don't even have the excuse of being an academic. I also am aware, when my family asks those sorts of questions, how many assumptions they make that they aren't even aware of. But I know from having been on the other end of it with Telford that simply telling them they're making culturally biased assumptions doesn't really help anything. It does not make a positive case for why people should think differently outside of accidents of birth.

Anyway, the answer I basically gave my brother-in-law -- somewhat inspired by the blog discussion before I left -- is that the relation between the Law and the Gospel is a complex and long-disputed subject, but ultimately living the Gospel means living without fear of death, and that is very unnatural for people. Jewish law, however archaic, deals with recognizable problems and fears, and so Christians have historically continued to use it to one degree or another to keep society going until the Second Coming. I don't think he really understood what I meant, because he seemed to think following Jesus mainly means being a nicer person. I run into that attitude a lot among nonbelievers, actually.

Anyway, my holiday family visits still aren't over. On Wednesday my mother is flying out to visit me, as she does every year on her winter break. Generally she greatly enjoys the weather, though now rain is in the forecast for the indefinite future. Though it might actually be a good opportunity to visit normally crowded outdoor places around here; my mother is a mighty tough 60-year-old, whose idea of a good time is nude swimming in barely melted mountain lakes, so a little L.A. drizzle isn't going to bother her. At any rate, that means the blog will likely be further neglected for another week or so. I'll post when I get a shot, but if I don't, then have a happy New Year.

Posted by Camassia at December 27, 2004 01:31 PM | TrackBack

first, you do make an excellent go-between because you seem to be able to truely ascertain the guestions that are being asked - avoiding the surface muck and getting to the root of the matter so to speak, and secondly you have a gift of being able to break down complicated subjects into understandable concepts.

also, you don't try to give glib answers to hard questions...

as for our dinner conversation, i came away with a much better understanding of the relationship between jesus and the old testament.

i believe not that following jesus means being a nicer person but rather a christian should be one who tries to live their life in as much of a christ like manner as possible. afterall, they don't refer to themselves as godians or old-testamentians...

lastly, i very much enjoyed your visit and indeed felt much better having you and the others around. i was hoping that i could put aside my pain and grief so that i would not damper everyones christmas. to my surprise it didnt turn out to be a chore because i really did get into to a warm comfortabe space - enjoying family and feeling very grateful to be a part of everyones life.

thanks and have a wonderful new year.


ps sorry about the wierd typing - its hard to hold down the shift key and press another key when all you can do is grasp a pencil and press individual keys - exclamation mark here.

Posted by: David on December 28, 2004 10:40 AM

Thanks David. (And thanks for laboriously writing out the comment!) I'm glad the conversation was helpful for you.

I do think that imitating Christ is an important part of being a Christian, but it has its limits. If Jesus wasn't God incarnate, he was not the most exemplary human being. He told people not to judge, but did a lot of judging himself. He persuaded people to leave their families to follow him, and was sometimes pretty rude to his own mother. I think his followers only saw him as "humble and meek" because they expected God to act like the Father in the Old Testament. So they imitated him in certain ways, but stopped short of acting like they thought they were God's gift to humanity, if you know what I mean.

Posted by: Camassia on December 28, 2004 03:01 PM

actually, when saying christians should live their lives in a more christ-like manner, i am really meaning - and should be stating, that i believe they should be trying to live by the TEACHINGS of jesus.

not being a bible scholar, when i say the teachings of christ i mean the morals of all the gospel stories and parables that i heard as a young person during mass and in catachism.

basically i guess this boils down to - live like jesus SAID to live... not how he might have actually lived...

Posted by: david on December 29, 2004 10:48 AM
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