Monday, September 17, 2012

Looking at the Small Picture

When a town is about to be flooded, everyone turns out and helps to fill sandbags to hold back the floodwaters. When a battle is about to be engaged, each man in the army picks up his weapon and does what he has been trained to do. When a large choir is about to sing, everyone stands up and sings with his or her one voice to make beautiful music together. In each of these events, each individual is needed in a small way to do his or her small part. In each of these events, if one person did not come there would be little difference in how bags were filled, or the outcome of the entire battle, or the beauty of the one musical sound. In each of these events, it is a temptation for the one individual to say to himself or herself, "I do not matter so much that if I do not do my part, the outcome will not change." This is looking at the small picture.

There is a way in which the individual is correct. One person will not make much difference. However, in all of these activities, it is a group of individuals together that makes the difference. It is for the common good that people work together to stop a flood, or win a battle. It is for the common good that each individual sings to make beauty. When we just look at ourselves, we lose the big picture and only see a picture of ourselves. We lose the vision of working for the common good--a good that may mean a great deal to us as individuals. People can exhaust themselves filling sand bags. People can die in battle. People can go unnoticed in a big choral event. When we lose the big picture, our concerns become indifferent, and selfish at the worst.

Christians should recognize that they are, by faith, thrown into a great spiritual battle. Often we forget that the  eternal outcome of the battle is already determined. We will be victorious. But while we are still present in time, the cost of the battle that we are in, and the outcome of our particular skirmishes depends on our efforts. Battles are not won by people doing their own thing. They are won by coordinated effort. A division of soldiers that decides not to obey orders and pick their own fight, endangers themselves, but also the other soldiers they have split from. They may think they are doing damage to the enemy, but because their efforts are broken off from the main army and uncoordinated, they are submitting to the "divide and conquer" rule.

Elections are coming up. You may be thinking to yourself--my vote will make no difference. It hardly matters. You are right, only if you are the only one in the fray to put down their single weapon and go home. If you just look at your small picture, like many others tempted to do so, the big picture will get grim indeed.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mystery of Joy

The steps up to the temple did not fill Simeon with trepidation that day. It seemed a great burden had been lifted from his aging body as he mounted the steps with a lightness and joy that he had not experienced in years. He was lean and spry and free of the decrepitude that ravages most men of his years. Not stooped or faltering in his gait, he was known in the temple for his vigor and zeal for the house of God. But joy had not been his for long stretches of his memory. Today was different. An eagerness distracted him from the normal civilities he paid to temple authorities, and many a beggar along his route was disappointed to find that, though he blessed them with a small coin as usual, he did not smile at them and bless them in words. Long before he reached them, his mind had raced ahead, and he was inwardly smiling at what was to come. He was not present to the beggars’ needs that day, but they did not mind. He unconsciously strewed a trail of wonder and anticipation along the way that strengthened them, and they followed him with their eyes for as long as he was in sight.
     Simeon turned as he reached the top of the steps and looked back over the crowds swarming and heaving below in the courtyard. His eyes searched like a beam trying to spot the object of his attention, and he put a hand to his heart to steady his rising excitement. No, he was not mistaken. This was the day. How was he to get through it? How could he wait even one more second? But the discipline of long years of duty embraced him, and he found he was able to function quite normally, though within him a bursting heart seemed barely capable of continuing to beat. He knew not what he did, and only a few of his closer friends detected his distraction. Among them was his younger brother, who immediately noticed a brightness in Simeon’s eyes, a slightly upward curl at the corners of his lips, an indefinable glow about his countenance. But even the brother’s thoughts lingered only momentarily, shrugged, and went back to absorption in the cares of the day.
     Simeon had not long to wait, and in the end, the moment took him by surprise after all his years of vigilant waiting. He simply turned around and found himself face to face with a couple. A man in the strength of his maturity stood before him. He was a typical working man—strong and confident and decidedly poor. He gave his name—Joseph—and stated his purpose, circumcision for their boy. Simeon nodded and turned to the woman. She clutched a child in her arms, a bundle that contained her whole world. It was only a moment that she held her gaze on the child before she looked up at Simeon. Then, he knew. Her eyes revealed to him the deep longings of his heart, and he was caught up in a terrible dismay of confusion. It was the child! The child! But why did he also long for the mother? She was just a child, too—and yet she was all mother. And he knew that she knew what she held, and he wanted her to love him like she loved her own babe.
     And then he discovered the babe in his arms, he knew not how or cared how it got there. He was staggered by the weight and groaned aloud in amazement. Joseph quickly grasped his arms, as if he feared the baby would be dropped, but Simeon found that he could bear it, and the man stepped back assured of the child’s safety. The next few moments were so full that he could not afterwards make an account of it. He knew he fulfilled their request, he knew he spoke to them, but he could not repeat what he said. Words, strange to his ears, flowed over his tongue, and he gave them utterance. Words he would never have chosen, never even thought, nor dared to speak. Words that filled him with both fervor and profound grief. Words that came like the tide which cannot be held back. Words to that sweet girl-woman face that clouded it with care. He could not have stopped those words, and afterwards he reproached his Maker for choosing him to say them. And his Maker simply said, “Peace.” And then the little family was gone.
     It was still early in the day, but Simeon could not go on. His strength had left him. He made his excuses and stumbled home. Weariness swept over him, and he could just barely drag himself to his mat. He lay there used up, and his years were heavy on his bones. He wept and laughed and wept some more, and then he closed his eyes. His breathing became very quiet and he settled into a peaceful rest.
     Later that evening, in a humble stable, the young mother cooed to her baby as he nursed at her soft, warm breast. When she had finished suckling the child, she laid him in a straw-lined crib and covered him tenderly. Leaning back, she thought about the strange words spoken to her in the temple. The old man was another one gifted with the secret. First there was the angel, then Elizabeth and Joseph. Somehow even shepherds knew, and wonder of wonders, wise men from far away had come to acknowledge the Lordship of her babe. Her thoughts wandered back to the old man, and she prayed for him in this, his hour of need.