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Monthly Archives: December 2008

Secrecy, Mystery, and Privacy

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Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.

Every year one of the highlights of Winter Carnival here in Saint Paul is the search for the medallion. It’s a winter tradition, a treasure hunt for folks well-versed in Saint Paul history and folklore. There is something in each of us that loves discovering and likewise something in each of us that dreads being discovered. In fact, I think fear of being discovered is one of the fundamental fears of human nature, so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that most of us barely notice how powerful and pervasive it is. We also rarely contemplate how foreign it is to the nature of God.

God has no secrets. He never dreads discovery, never fears being found out. He has no secret plans and no hidden agenda. Yet this is not to say that the truth about God is readily available or easily obtained. God has no secrets, but he does have mysteries. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Prov 25:2). When God conceals, it is to reward, not frustrate, the searcher. Searching out God’s mysteries is not easy. It is a fit matter for kings, requiring all their resourcefulness. God is like those who hide the medallion for Winter Carnival. He wants to reward the persistent and resourceful, those who make use of every clue and every tool available to them to discover what he has hidden. God plays a cosmic game of hide-and-seek with his children. Those who are not his children refuse to play and never find him.

Human beings have secrets. There are things they want to keep hidden from everyone, especially God. One of the devil’s most powerful lies is to tell us that we are alone in our guilt and shame, that anyone who knows our deepest secrets would be utterly repulsed by them. We dread being found out, being exposed. Perhaps this is why the story tells us that Adam and Eve realized they were naked and hid themselves from God. They dreaded his all-seeing gaze. They were ashamed of having disobeyed and preferred concealment to the open communion they had enjoyed before.

Taken to an extreme, secrecy—the dread of discovery—can itself produce terrible evils. People lie and allow others to be blamed for what they themselves have done. They become hypocrites, condemning in others what they secretly practice. Secrecy is appropriate for dark deeds, but God’s light eventually shines everywhere. The darkness is light to him, and every secret will ultimately be revealed.

It is symptomatic of our day that we confuse secrecy and privacy. Privacy is a kind of public modesty. It covers what is well-known in general but inappropriate for specific, public discourse. Privacy makes no attempt to hide but rather to be discreet. For example, my bank account number is hardly secret; it’s printed on every one of my checks. But it is private, no one’s business but mine and my bank’s. To varying degrees the same could be said of my address, phone number, email address, and Social Security number. These are all bits of information about me that could be used by someone wanting to pose as me, but I make no extraordinary effort to conceal them from those closest to me. However, if I were cheating on my wife or running a Ponzi scheme, I would make every effort to conceal such things from those who know me best. I would do so not because I have a right to privacy in sexual or financial matters but because I would be doing something I know to be wrong, and I would dread discovery and its consequences.

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Creepy Santa

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If there’s one Christmas song that gives me the willies, it’s Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. Just give a listen to the lyrics, and you’ll soon wonder why more children aren’t terrified by the big guy in the red suit. Consider the veiled threat behind these lines:

You'd better watch out
You'd better not cry
You'd better not pout
I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town.

It really gets creepy, though, when it describes the results of Santa’s spy network:

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

The old, fat guy has taken a page from 1984 and uses fear to keep all the little kiddies in line. And don’t forget about his naughty and nice lists. Number one on the naughty list? Santa himself.

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Prodigal Son

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“Prodigal” has so long been associated with the parable recorded in Luke that almost all its meaning seems to come from that association. So people might be forgiven for thinking that it means wicked or immoral. The primary meaning, however, is wasteful. Sometimes it is used in a less negative sense, as in the line from Emily Dickinson’s poem describing nature as a “prodigal of blue,” to mean lavish or extravagant.

In Jesus’ story the father represents his own Father, and the focus is on the welcome and unreserved love the Father lavishes on the returned son. Recently, however, I was thinking about the son in the story. He was young, and youth is itself a kind of wealth and privilege. When you’re young, you have such tremendous vigor and vitality that it’s hard not to think that your own God-given abilities are an inexhaustible treasure. You are irrepressible, and if you are also irresponsible, there is little a loving father can do to prevent you going off on your own and squandering your gifts and talents to please yourself.

It is a strange and oxymoronic fact that no pleasure withers so quickly as those you prepare for yourself. When I was a kid, I saved up lollipop wrappers for an entire summer until I had the requisite number to send away for a spy kit with a decoder ring. I don’t know what I hoped for, but I didn’t expect the cheap plastic ring and two-inch pad of twenty-something sheets I received. The instructions told how to use the ring for a simple substitution cipher, which I already knew to be worthless for encoding messages longer than four or five words. So it has been with all the pleasures I have carefully hoarded and managed for myself. They proved to be more pleasant in prospect than in fulfillment, and I have found the greatest delight in preparing delights for others, particularly those I most love.

Lavish liberality toward others requires just as much wealth as toward yourself. Eventually, you reach a point where you realize that your own talents, however great, are not enough to sustain you. You reach the end of yourself. The greater your talents at the beginning, the longer it may take for this realization to come: I am not enough for me and mine. It leaves a dry, bitter taste in your mouth. You realize that the fertile visions of what could be that you saw in your youth have become barren dreams of what will never be.

Then if you have any sense, you go home.

For me, going home was not about returning to my parents. I’ve always thought my parents did an excellent job of raising me, and, unlike many of my generation, I’ve never had a quarrel with them or blamed them for my own shortcomings. For me, going home meant returning to my Father, the one who had so carelessly let me go. I had heard him say, “Do whatever you want,” and concluded that he didn’t care what I did. In fact, he knew I would do whatever I wanted anyway, and he cared much more about having me than using me.

I found that God was glad to have me around. I found that he loved me and even that he cherished my shortcomings because he viewed them as opportunities for his own credit. Surprisingly, he didn’t upbraid me. On the contrary, he encouraged me in ways I hadn’t imagined possible. He gave me life that was life indeed and made it worth living. I still grieve at times for opportunities I lost, but I am so grateful for the real blessings I have found. In a time of economic uncertainty and dread of the future, I find myself bouyed by an inexpressible hope and an inexcusable good cheer. “God’s in His heaven —/All’s right with the world.

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