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A little girl walked to and from school daily. Though the weather that morning was questionable and clouds were forming, she made her daily trek to school.
As the afternoon progressed, the winds whipped up, along with thunder and lightning. The mother of the little girl felt concerned that her daughter would be frightened as she walked home from school and she herself feared that the electrical storm might harm her child. Following the roar of thunder, lightning would cut through the sky.
Full of concern, the mother quickly got into her car and drove along the route to her child's school. As she did so, she saw her little girl walking along, but at each flash of lightning, the child would stop, look up and smile. Another and another were to follow quickly and with each the little girl would look at the streak of light and smile.
When the mother's car drew up beside the child she lowered the window and called to her, "What are you doing? Why do you keep stopping?"
The child answered, "I am trying to look pretty. God keeps taking my picture."
We know God doesn’t live up in the clouds, is human or man-shaped, and takes photographs. Yet the story is appealing – especially the lack of fear the little girl displays.
The Christmas stories are about alternative concepts of God, the power these concepts have, and the virtue of fearlessness.
There is a great distance between Rome and a Bethlehem hillside. In kilometres its 2,657. In power it’s the distance between authoritarian power, with large resources and armies throughout the Empire, and the powerlessness of a Palestinian pregnant teenager and her soon to be born child. She has no resources and no army. In theology it’s the distance between the god called Caesar, that is the Emperor cult that Rome promoted, and little baby Jesus whom no one called a god and yet whose later followers would find in him divine truth.
The angelic choir sang words identifying Jesus as Lord and Saviour, plagiarizing titles belonging to Caesar. Who is the real Lord and Saviour? And, probably more importantly, what on earth can Lord and Saviour mean when used of Jesus? For he neither sought nor exercised power over others. He neither sought nor had an army. He never wanted to be worshipped, but wanted people to follow a topsy-turvy God who could turn the world upside down.
So these are the first two concepts of God: Caesar worship sanctioned and underpinned the hierarchical and oppressive authority of Rome. It was male, distant, and powerful. Manger worship though was something else. It was lowly, marginal, and without power.
Then there is the distance between the Jerusalem Temple and the defiled barn. In kilometres it’s 9.6. In power it’s the distance between an authorized religion that provided worship, sanctuary and order for most Jews, and the unauthorized Jewish religion that would grow up around Jesus. The Temple was holy. The barn, with animals and faeces, was defiled. The Temple was ordered. The barn deliberately upset the social order.
At the barn shepherds, best known for their crooked thieving habits, were welcomed. Keepers of the law, security and military personnel weren’t invited. At the barn Zoroastrians, regarded as heathen foreigners, were welcomed. Priests, the keepers of ordered certainty and orthodox faith, didn’t get an invitation. Outside of the safe and acceptable precincts of religion the Christmas stories point to a different God – one who is at home with the marginalized.
The Bethlehem saga was written by early followers of Jesus. Bravely they dared to question the assumptions of others’ religion. They challenged the entrapment of God in Roman finery and priestly piety. They challenged the power of that God over their lives. They wanted to set free people to recognize God among the little people, the ostracized, and the rebels. They believed in the last being first, and the first last. They believed that poor widows were more acceptable to God than the church-going well-heeled. They believed in the vision of a topsy-turvy God for a radically re-ordered world, and they [like the story of the little girl] exhibited fearlessness when clouds darkened, the heavens thundered, and lightning cracked.
When someone meets me on the street, in a café, or in my office I’m often asked about how one can experience the spiritual today. They are people who have often been bruised by religion, by the moral standards of others, and by life itself. In many cases the Gods of authorized religions have been the bruisers.
Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “Jesus said when we welcome children we welcome… God. So, get down on the floor, laugh like a train, and forget about earning a living. For this is God time – nurturing your soul.”[i] Many of us don’t have such opportunities with children, but the principles of playing, getting down, laughing, and forgetting other responsibilities are still good advice.
God is not just to be found among the serious and grown-ups. Indeed I often think God gets bored and goes outside to look at the trees or play in the dirt. God is not just found in churches, temples and mosques, but in backyards, community centres, and collecting cockles at the beach. God is not just found among those doing social and community work, important as those are. God is found among the unpredictable things, surprising us.
Christmas says that a suckling babe is a sacred site, a heart open to possibility is the playground of God, and a questioning mind is a holy one … no matter how tainted, rejected, and despised you might have been or feel.
So, as the angels said, ‘Don’t be afraid’. Don’t be afraid of being different, thinking differently, laughing and causing offence. For the caretakers of certainty, power, and religion will find anyone offensive who doesn’t conform.
Here’s another cute story of someone who isn’t afraid:
A Kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each child's work.
As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was? The girl replied, "I'm drawing God." The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what God looks like."
Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute."
[i]Taylor, B.B. Bread of Angels, p.35