Tis’ the season to be jolly. “For behold, I bring you good news of Great Joy for all people...” Hold that thought. And, come with me to the Great Plains of the Midwest, to, say, Eldon, Iowa, the location of Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. You remember the work, a stern, rigid, lifeless woman and man, dressed in the practical working clothes of the day. He is holding a three pronged pitch fork in front of a farm house with an arched gothic-cathedral-inspired window beautifully placed between, and above, the pair.
Ah, yes, these folks know how to put in a day’s work. But they can’t remember the last time they had a good time. Good times are not something they let roll. A wheelbarrow is about it with them. Church socials, with a bit of ice cream, and maybe one of those chocolate chip cookies, that one there, without too many chocolate chips. You don’t want to over do it, you know. God is watching, and God is not too high on high times.
And, how do we know about God and high times? It is interesting, and instructive, to note how our views about the nature of God reflect so closely the nature of our lives. It is tempting, of course, to see it the other way, to say that our view of God gives us our life. But, I think, the reverse is true. Our life gives us our view of God. God is the way our lives are. Or, to put it another way, we can see only what our lives allow us to see. Or, to put it another way, our view of life, and God, and all things bright and beautiful, is limited by our experience with life. We cannot see what our lives do not permit, or prepare, or enable, us to see.
American Gothic was painted in the early 1930’s, depicting life in the late 19th century. The couple staring back at us from the painting are not too far from scraping by, and they know it. There is fear in their hearts. They know what life can do. They know it doesn’t pay to live without a care in the world. They know you can’t be too careful. You can’t hold your cards too close to the vest. You can’t count on anything in this world. It all can be taken from you in a wink. You have to be guarded in this world. You have to be shut tight in this world. You have to be steeled against the encroaching hazards, ready for anything, because life is full of nasty surprises. It comes at you with enough grief and sorrow to turn the most hopeful heart to stone.
There is nothing like a life time of experience to teach you how things are. There is nothing like a life time of living to enable you to know what’s what, what to expect, what the deal is, and what’s going on. If you have been where this couple has been, and all those like them; if you see what they have seen, and know what they know, you know what it takes. You know you have to live with your head down and your nose to the grindstone; you know you have to take care of business and make hay while the sun shines, because times are tough, and the wolf is never far from the door. And, don’t call attention to yourself by laughing too loudly, or flaunting the rules that hold things together. Just do you part and hope for the best. You’ll be lucky if you get something you can live with.
Living can take the life right out of you. It can skew your perspective. It can destroy your ability to relax and trust yourself to your future. It can keep you from ever being able to believe that you have it made; that you have nothing to worry about; that you can borrow money and expect to pay it back; that you can afford a little frivolity, a little jocularity; that you can take a vacation; that you can enjoy yourself and have a good time, that God doesn’t hold it against you if you laugh.
Our life experience is the truest truth we know. Our life experience is how it is! We have lived it; we have seen it with our own eyes; we know what we are talking about. You cannot tell us anything our lives haven’t prepared us to hear. It is a mistake to think that we hear with our ears, that we see with our eyes. We hear with our lives, we see what our lives have shown us to be true.
What would you tell the couple in American Gothic to break the spell cast by their lives, wake them up, and restore them to life? What would you tell them to put a light in their eyes and a smile on their faces? What would you tell them to relieve them of their burden and enable them to step freely and unrepressed into the rest of their days? What Good News of Great Joy would it take to bring them alive?
“To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord”? Would that do it? Do you think they haven’t heard that, every Christmas, for as long as they have lived? There is a remarkable disconnect between what we know with our heads and what we know with our lives. “To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” “The moon is 186,000 miles away.” Both of those statements mean roughly the same thing to the couple in American Gothic. The truth that directs their lives was formed in the heat of their experience with life. Tell them anything, it won’t change their minds, or their lives. If you were going to change their lives, you would have to ask their permission. You would have to ask them to look at their lives and decide if their lives were satisfactory. Are they good enough lives? Good enough for whom? Good enough for them. Are their lives good enough for them?
We don’t need the old constructs about sin, and Satan, and death, and hell, and the wrath of God, and grace, and forgiveness, and the sacrificial death of Jesus, and our having to believe in it all, and “straighten up and fly right,” in order to atone for our sins and square things with God We only need to clarify for ourselves what it means to live well. We only need to know who and how we want to be.
We only need to recognize Christmas as the symbolic birthing of our souls. Never mind what has gone before. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come. Christmas is the reminder of the ever-present possibility of newness. We gather at the manger to behold the Christ we have the capacity to be.
Do you think the development of the Christ is accidental? That the Christ just grows up as we grew up, without meaning anything with his life, bouncing from one thing to another, playing baseball, and basketball, and football, trying a little pot, perhaps, or smoking cigarettes behind the barn, making out in the back seat of a 55 Chevy, wondering about college and a career, being drafted, going to Nam, coming home to drift through the west and travel to the far east to find himself, getting married, settling down… With no intention anywhere? With no guiding vision, no centering core, no grounding focus, no idea on earth of who and how to be?
Jesus did not have to be the Christ, you know, any more than the couple in American Gothic had to be who they were. Where do you think the intention, the vision, the core, the focus, the idea of the Christ come from? From Mary? From Joseph? From the local rabbi? From the outside? Do you think you can change the couple in American Gothic from the outside? By threatening them with hell? By punishing them severely for not smiling? By yelling loudly at them to lighten up and have a little fun? Do you think you can pull the Christ out of Jesus, or force the Christ into Jesus, from the outside? Well. If not with them, why with you, why with me, why with us? Why do we think we need to be compelled to be who we need to be from the outside? Why do we think we need to be beaten, and molded, and shaped, and formed, and preached, and lectured into somebody else’s idea of who we ought to be?
Come to the manger. Look at the child. How will that child become the Christ? Where will the intention, the vision, the core, the focus, the idea come from? It is entirely up to the child. What does he want? Who decides that for him? He decides it for himself. How does he want to live? Who does he want to be? Who decides that for him? He decides it for himself. The Christ becomes the Christ by intending to be the Christ—by envisioning Christ-like-ness and living to align himself with the vision. Who sets that goal for him? He sets it for himself. As with Jesus, so with us.
We come to the manger to behold our soul aborning. What happens next is up to us. Who do we want to be? How do we want to live? What would it take for us to be truly, deeply, completely, absolutely satisfied with our lives? We have to know. To avoid becoming the couple in American Gothic, we have to know. To become the Christ, we have to know. The spiritual task is envisioning the self—the Christ—we are built to be and taking up the work of aligning ourselves with the vision.
It does not matter what has gone on before. “To you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” Every day is Christmas day. Every day we are saved by the vision we serve of the Christ. Every day we are put back on track by the vision. Every day we begin again to become the Christ.
The future is more important than the past. Our work is to become more than we have been. To be more like we ought to be than we are. And who says who we ought to be? We do. We decide for ourselves who and how we shall become. Our future is up to us. And so, we have to decide who the Christ should be and live to effect the vision. Without living intentionally toward the vision of who and how we ought to be, we become who our lives make it easy to be. We take the path of least resistance to Eldon, Iowa and take our place in the long line of those waiting to pose for the next rendition of American Gothic.