This time of year always strikes me deeply. Somehow the idea of paradox sits closer to the surface for me than at other times of year when I can stuff it down. The Christmas story has it written all over it. A Baby King. A Suffering Messiah. The King of the Jews with Gentiles in His lineage. The place of Joseph fathering a child who appears on the outside to be illegitimate, yet is God. The “Yes” of Mary that results in not only joy, but scrutiny and pain. Simeon who now can die because He has seen the fulfillment of promise. The outcast shepherds whom are the first to hear The Good News. The richest of Kings laid in a feed trough. The Huge Empire that hunts the small baby who in the end will rule over all empires. The learned Magi from a land far away who come to kneel in front of a baby. The Almighty confining Himself as a limited human being. The list goes on and on. Jesus’ coming is laced with paradox through and through. There is contrast after contrast in His story.
But, it doesn’t stop there. Paradox continues in Jesus teachings, in whom He hung out with, in His promises, in both how He performed miracles and to whom He did them. Read the beatitudes where paradox is at every turn. Paradox is alive and well in the message of The Kingdom being already here, but not yet in its fullness. Paradox is the thread that then weaves throughout the early church and the writings of Paul. The tension of paradox…it is messy, unsettling and always challenging us to reexamine and gain perspective.
The problem is that I did not learn within an environment that welcomed paradox. My learning was done within a system that was black and white and always reducing things to the lowest common denominator. If tension was present, then I was to think and work until the tension was resolved…kind of like a movie that wraps up all of the loose ends before the credits roll. This perspective then flowed over into how I learned about who God is and what He is doing. I learned that there always is a “simple” or “neat” answer and that there was only one answer – a right one or a wrong one. Paradox was not welcome. (Before you think that I have slipped into relativism…that’s not what I’m saying).
We live within a system that crowds out paradox by making us “for” or “against” but that does not leave us the room to be both. We love labels – are you liberal or conservative, pro or anti, in or out? We love the predictability of knowing who stands where and who is inside our circle and who is outside. The problem is for me I am finding that life is not that simple. I am finding that there is a Both / And to theology as well as practical life. This tension is not meant to be resolved so much as it is to be embraced…and in the middle of it I find myself discovering new lessons about who God is and the love He calls us to.
As someone schooled in The West, I struggle with this more than people from some other parts of the world who embrace paradox much easier than I do. Take for instance theologians in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church who have at least 10 interpretations of the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. All are considered true interpretations without judgment of others being false. They are able to hold a radical form of paradox that does not need to reduce things down to the simplest particle. This is not relativism, but rather it is paradox being exercised…seeing the possibility of God being at work in all of the interpretations. While reductionism works in the laboratory (or at least used to) it seldom is our friend in real life.
Here are some of the paradoxes that I find myself dealing with on a regular basis:
– While the area where we live is a slum, it also has a certain beauty to it. How can it be both/and?
– There is a joy that only comes through suffering. Hence the reason that those in extreme poverty have a joy that I can never touch in my experience.
– I am a sinner and a saint…at the same time.
– The Church is at times ineffective, yet remains The Bride of Christ, the hope of the world.
– As a missionary there are times when I seem to bring about good while at other times bringing harm. I live in a perpetual tension of O God, may we do less harm and more good.
– Those with the least have the most. Those with the most have the least. Typically those with the least are also the most gracious.
– Healing occurs…as does death.
– Love my enemy. Bless those who curse me. Do good to those who hate me. Pray for those who harm me. Those are hard paradoxes to swallow.
– I am both a conservative and a liberal.
– I spend more of my time learning that I do teaching….more of my time receiving than giving.
– Doubt is a friend of Faith. It keeps me seeking.
– God uses imperfect people like me while moving us toward perfection.
Wrapped in all of this paradox is a sense of beauty. Somehow it is tucked away in there. The contrasts bring about a beauty of who God is and the mystery of how He works. The contrasts show that God truly is at work – even in unexpected places – bringing all things in under His rule and reign. In Glimpse after glimpse we are able to see His heart expressed. I am finding that The God who has chosen throughout history the unexpected and the unusual to bring glory to Himself…continues to show up and deliver beauty in the most unexpected of places.
Jesus, may your glory shine through the paradoxes of this world that You are actively redeeming and renewing.