Saturday, January 20, 2018

Who You Gonna Call?

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Wow, a Shakespeare quote right out of the box.  Pretty impressive don’t you think?  This is a line from Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most quoted plays.  But it is also a play that has a ghost as a main character.  There is something, well, if not rotten, then just a bit strange in Shakespeare’s Denmark.  

It is interesting to me how many supernatural sorts of television programs and movies there are these days.  iZombie, and Supernatural, and Walking Dead, and on and on.  And I’ve been a Science Fiction and Fantasy reader from my childhood, so I love this fictionalized exploration into the unknown.  But what about our real world heaven and earth?  Are there more things than we have dreamt about?  Depends on how well you dream, I suppose.  

Well, before I get too far off the track, let me declare the subject for this week’s Bible study and sermon.  We are on the third statement of the Apostles’ Creed in our Credo series.  “I believe in the Holy Spirit.”  That’s our content, that is the object of our study.  We are going to dissect the Holy Spirit.  Umm.  We are going to try and pin down... We are going to try to define ... OK, we are going to amble around the subject of the Holy Spirit for a while and see what comes out.

The first thing that we note from the creed is how bald the statement is.  We don’t have any subordinate clauses to flesh out this word about the Spirit.  We don’t have any external references that will locate us in time or space.  We don’t have any descriptive adjectives that will give us handles on the Spirit.  It is like grasping the wind, like catching our breath.  Like capturing a ghost.

Every now and then you see an older version of the creed and notice that it talks about the Holy Ghost.  When I was younger, I thought that the Holy Ghost must be like Casper, the Friendly Ghost.  But holier.  Actually, I had no idea what it might be like.  But certainly not the scary kind of ghost.  Something good.  Something useful.  Something... that was just a little bit more than nothing.

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Spirit.  We are a bit skeptical of those who go overboard on the whole subject.  They strike us as odd, as unnatural.  And we don’t want anything to do with that sort of thing.  We don’t want to lose  control like that.

This might be a big part of the issue with the Spirit, who’s in control?  Jesus tells us the Spirit is like the wind, you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.  It is just there.  Or not there.  Out of our control.  Which makes it even harder to grasp.  And makes us less likely to seek the Spirit when we need it.  Or Him.  Or Her.  Or whatever.

So, what is it that Spirit is supposed to do for us?  If we believe in the Spirit, then we ought to understand at least a little, don’t you think?  Well, this is what Jesus told us the Spirit was all about during what has come to be called the Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John.  Take a look.

John 14:15-27  "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.  18 "I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."  22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?"  23 Jesus answered him, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.  25 "I have said these things to you while I am still with you.  26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 

There is a lot that we don’t know about the Spirit, no question about that.  But if we listen carefully to what Jesus tells us here there is a lot that we do know.  Or can believe in anyway.  

First of all, we can know, or believe that access to or awareness of the Spirit is a function of faith.  It involves a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “The world,” John quotes, “cannot receive” the Spirit.  The world doesn’t know the Spirit.  Not because they aren’t worthy, but simply because they don’t have this relationship of love that opens the door to the experience of the Spirit.  Oh, it is possible to have an experience of God without a relationship with Jesus the Christ.  But to know and be known by the Spirit takes something deeper, an act of will, an offering of self to the Lordship of Christ.  “I will not leave you orphaned” says Jesus.  I will not leave you Fatherless, out of touch with the Father.  There is a connection, a link to the Father that once came from the person of Jesus and now comes through the Spirit.  

The function of the Spirit, according to Jesus in verse 26  is to teach and to remind.  This Advocate (which is the Greek word “paraklete” and is sometimes translated Helper, or Comforter, or Counselor) is that abiding presence which connects to our sense of who we are.  We are reminded of what we already know.  We are reminded of the teachings that we learned as children but may have forgotten.  Or chose to set aside for a time.  It is the Spirit that comes and whispers in our ears to remind us that we are better than we sometimes behave.   It is the Spirit that comes to remind us even in the darkest of nights that we are not alone.  It is the Spirit that reminds us that we are loved - especially in those moments when we feel most unlovable.

It is not just what we already know that is recalled by the prompting of the Spirit.  We are pushed further, we are asked to climb higher.  The Spirit also teaches, calling us to new levels of understanding and experience.  The Spirit works with our spirits to claim deeper truths and new applications, we are stretched beyond our childhood faith as we grow and learn and live into the realm of the Spirit.  We have much to learn under the tutelage of the Spirit.

Which brings us back to the question implied in the title of this essay.  I know the reference is from a film that is about ridding us of the supernatural.  But here I guess I claim it for the opposite.  When we wonder who we are or whose we are, who you gonna call?  When we need a reminder of what we know to be true, who you gonna call?  When we need a boost, to learn more, to be more, who you gonna call.

I believe in the Holy Spirit


Saturday, January 13, 2018

That Jesus Thing

Bishop William Willimon tells of meeting with a young couple while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke University.  They came to talk about marriage.  They were in love and therefore sure that any barriers could be overcome.  But their parents weren’t so sure.  See, he was a devout practicing Jew, she was a Christian.  True to her culture the young woman spoke, with some exasperation, “but surely there isn’t any real difference in what we believe.  Is there?  Except for that Jesus thing.”

Ah yes, that Jesus thing.  In one sense it is such a small thing.  Such a one off thing.  A minor point in a complex theology.  A single figure in a rich history full of amazing people.  What is one person more or less in that line?  

Of course, we could argue that this one person was a pretty special person.  Wise beyond description, brave in amazing ways, uniquely self-sacrificing, and loving in ways we would dream of being.  But a person, exemplary, but a person.

And we would be right.  Yet wrong at the same time.  This is why the Jesus thing is so difficult to comprehend.  There is always a “yes, but” when it comes to Jesus.  Or maybe it is a “yes, and.”  Words fail us in the end.   Words capture pieces and pictures, but not the whole of that Jesus thing.  Even the creeds wrestle with a description of Jesus.  The longest part of the ancient creeds is devoted to Jesus.  Not simply because they had a lot to say about him, but because there was always more.  

The Apostles’ Creed says : And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Whew.  You have to draw a breath after the Jesus thing.  It is both a statement of who He is, but of who He is in relationship to God and us.  As if He exists for Himself and yet chooses to be defined in community with God and with humanity.  “His only Son” and “our Lord.”  And then what God did with Him and what we did with Him, it’s all there, in this complex and yet terse statement, that overwhelms us in its simplicity and depth.

But if you think this is something, check out what the Nicene Creed does:  We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. 

They wanted to try and define him, they wanted to comprehend him, they wanted to nail him down.  But they should have learned from the first attempt to nail him down.  This Jesus thing defies definition.  This Jesus thing is beyond our comprehension.  He defies our attempts to categorize him.  Simply because once we have him figured out, then we wouldn’t need him any more.  This Jesus thing would become one more thing that we have conquered, one more thing that we have figured out and then left to the side as we move on to other puzzles to solve or other mountains to climb.

So, what is left?  We need some handles on the Jesus thing, don’t we?  We need some way of grasping, of clinging, even if we don’t have full comprehension.  Without a place to grab onto, then Jesus becomes another of those incomprehensible realities like black holes and quantum physics that wrinkle our brows but don’t really impact our lives.

What’s left is poetry.  At least that is John’s response.  When explanation fails, go for poetry.  Or for music.  Our text for this week is a song of praise to the nature of Christ.  It is a theological doxology.  Well, what would you call it?

John 1:1-18  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2He was in the beginning with God.  3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being  4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.  9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.  10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,  13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.  15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'")  16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. 

We could, of course, analyze these words to wring out every thought.  That would be a way of approaching understanding.  And there are a few things I want us to notice together.  But in the end it is the power of the words that speak most profoundly.  Or if not power, then beauty.  There is something here in this Jesus thing that catches our breath when we gaze at it.  There is something that makes our hearts pound and tears come to our eyes.  It may be unexplainable, but it speaks clearly to the deepest longings of our soul.

In this hymn that John has written we discover that it is about us as much as it is about Jesus.  Yes, it adds a layer of eternity to the man from Nazareth.  And it wrestles with that thorny doctrine called Trinity.  (Is He Son or is He God, separate or the same - or somehow both?) 

But when the song begins to include us, we move to the edge of our seats.  When John sings of the life that is the light of all people, we hold our breath because we have both seen and touched it and have wept for the lack of it.  We lean forward toward that light, like a plant seeking sustenance from the sun.  We have beheld that glory.  And we have known him not.  We are both - acceptors and deniers - often at the same time.  Too good to be true, we find ourselves saying.  Too good not to be true, we hope.

We have tasted, we have received grace upon grace, and sometimes it is enough.  Other times we wrestle with the world, with our doubts, with our sin.  We do lose our grip from time to time.  And we wonder what it is all about.  We wonder if it is worth the struggle, the misunderstanding.  Don’t we all believe the same thing in the end?  Wouldn’t the world be better if we just stopped worrying about what it is that we believe?  Couldn’t we give in a little bit on that Jesus thing?  

That Jesus thing, according to John, is nothing less than life itself.  Life in all its fullness.  Life in all its depth and meaning.  Life as we long to live it.  We can’t be who we are, or who we long to be without  that Jesus thing.  


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Search Me

I don’t even know if we say that any more.  “Search me!”  Shows you how far out of coolness I am these days.  Ah, well.  But, I remember saying it all the time.  Search me.  It has probably been replaced by the ubiquitous “whatever” by now.  Search me.

It was a “I don’t know” kind of thing.  It was an admission of ignorance, and maybe of complacency.  Search me.  It refers to what we don’t know.  We are starting as Epiphany study on the Apostles’ Creed this weekend.  For the next six weeks we will be examining the light that this statement of faith brings to us here in the 21st Century.  I know, it seems like a long time.  But others divide the Creed into twelve statements - so it could have been worse!  

I’m just going with six articles of faith.  And this week we start with the beginning of the Creed.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.  So, we are looking at God.  Better yet we are studying God, we are analyzing God, we are, in short, doing theology.  Cool.  What do you know about God?  What do you think about God?  What do you believe about God?  Search me.

One of the problems the church has these days, I think, is that we are no longer sure what we believe.  We want to move beyond a childish faith, and we want to incorporate all that human beings have learned about how the world works - and how we work - and yet we keep being told that what we’ve learned about the world can’t fit into what we believe about God.  They don’t match, the bump up against each other and something has got to go.  Unfortunately, for most of us, what has gone is diligent theological thought.  Which isn’t the same as saying we’ve lost our faith.  We just don’t think about it all that much any more.  We can’t make it work, so we don’t bother.  What do you believe about God? Search me.  That’s what many have come to these days.  It is just easier.  Search me.

Of course, search me is also used in another way.  The way that Psalm 139 uses it.  And maybe it is that searching, or the acknowledgment of God’s searching that might help us reclaim our faith as a reasonable part of our existence.  Faith can be reasonable?  Does that make sense?  Search me.

No, wait.  I didn’t mean that.  Of course it can.  And our examination of the Creed just might help us make it so.  Luke Timothy Johnson, biblical scholar, presents in his book called simply The Creed that faith as an existential response of the whole person characterized by trust, obedience and loyalty (faith  is what we do not simply what we think), but that he “has come to appreciate how critical the role of belief is in structuring that response.”  In other words, if faith is about doing, our doing has to be driven by our believing.  And the church is the “gathering of those committed by faith to a radical response to God.”  But that response, Johnson argues, grows out of a communal sense of identity that is hard to grow without something like a creed.  

The Creed, then is that statement of belief that defines us as a community of faith.  It identifies us for ourselves and for the world at large.  We are the people who believe ...  And because we believe we live, we serve, we act, we love.  

The guiding scripture for this first statement from the Creed is Psalm 139.  The problem with starting with the doctrine of God is that it is, in the end, too large a subject to grasp in its entirety.  Every statement, every image, every description about God is only a part of the whole.  And the whole is beyond our reach.  Which is exactly what the Psalmist says.  Take a look:

Psalm 139:1-18  O LORD, you have searched me and known me.  2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.  4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.  5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.  6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.  7 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  9 If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,  10 even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"  12 even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.  13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.  14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.  17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!  18 I try to count them-- they are more than the sand; I come to the end-- I am still with you. 

The Psalm ends with an admission that knowing all of God is beyond us.  But it begins with the affirmation that being known by God is the nature of the relationship.  In fact the essence of the Psalm is the declaration that the only knowledge of God accessible is in relationship.  

The Creed reminds us that we call God Father.  This is not to reduce God to a human role, but to lift humans by acknowledging that the parenting role is a part of the divine.  So, whether we are father or mother, whether we care for birth children or adopted children or children baptized into the family of God, we reflect an aspect of God.  We believe that God cares and so we do too.

The Creed also reminds us that God is creator, and that all of creation has a single point of origin.  However we understand that creation to have taken place, we worship God as creator of all there is.  We can argue methodology, and we do, but there need be no conflict with the article of faith that claims God as creator.

The Creed echoes the Psalm with a single word - Almighty.  What does that mean?  Search me.  No, wait.  It means that there is more to God than I can grasp with my understanding.  It means that I trust in the power of God even when I can’t sense it.  It means I believe in the power of God even when it seems God has lost a grip on the world God created.  It means I will spend my days seeking evidence of that power and that presence with confidence and with hope.  

O Lord, you have searched me, and known me.  Let me in my own small way return the favor


Saturday, December 23, 2017

Making Room

Long time readers of my Late Night Bible Study might remember that I have this strange quirk when it comes to the Christmas season.  Well, ok, at least one.  One I intend to tell you about right now anyway.  Unless something else comes up in the conversation.  Cause, I mean, you never know.

Where was I?  Ah, yes, quirk.  I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.  There, I said it.  Laid it out right there in front of God and everybody.  Like a twelve step group or something.  “Hi, my name is Derek and I like to go shopping on the Saturday before Christmas.”  “Hi Derek!”  I’d say I was in recovery, but I’m not.  I love it.  Weird, I know.  To say that you enjoy shopping on a day where you spend more time creeping through lanes and searching for parking spots than actually shopping; to claim some satisfaction when standing in long lines of people most of whom ran out of Christmas spirit a few stores ago, and the clean up on aisle nine is a meltdown of apocalyptic proportions; when the check out clerks flinch when you clear your throat because they have been yelled at and complained to and snubbed in disgust so many times they are wary of the slightest sign of displeasure; who in their right mind would venture out on such an expedition?

Well, you got me there, that right mind thing.  Never promised that.  Still, I find some joy in the adventure.  Call it a search for ... well, a search.  For the last minute gifts that I’m always trying to secure, there is that of course.  But that’s not it completely.  There is something else that sends me out, even in a driving rain, to observe, to catch a glimpse.  Something out there, bigger than just me and my wants and dreams, my hurts and my needs.  Something  beyond pettiness of the politics of division.  Something beyond the frustrations of family over-familiarity and frayed fellowship.  And something beyond the ravages of consumerism and the confused notion that spiritual hungers can be satisfied with material goods.  

That’s what folks have told me over the years when I share this odd quirk with them.  “It is materialism on overdrive, don’t you know?” they tell me.  “It is the worst of us in the season that should bring out the best in us.  It is the opposite of what Christmas is all about.”  And they are right, these voices that I hear.  I can’t really argue with them.  Yet ... I go, and watch, and listen, and enter in the melee, the scrum, the .... hopes and fears of all the years.

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is Rev. Philips Brooks’ classic carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  And while the scene I witness out and about just before Christmas is the exact opposite of the opening verse, it still seemed to speak to me about what I was wandering through.  

O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.

The stillness was replaced by the flurry of activity both motorized and pedestrian. Instead of silent stars there were the long lines of headlights and taillights piercing the gloom and gray, snow that was more drizzle than flakes, but the streets were “shineth-ing” something fierce.  But was that everlasting light there?  That’s what I went to see, that’s what I hope to find.  Hopes and fears aplenty, met in the latest gadget, in the thing of beauty that just might somehow convey to friend or family member something of what they mean to us.  

Something to search for, something to name.  That’s what we hope for at Christmas, something we can name, something we can claim as real, as ours, something that puts all the pieces of our lives together.  That’s what we’re looking for, even when we don’t always know it.  Even when it catches us by surprise and, frankly, scares us a little bit.  Or a lot.

Matthew 1:18-25  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. 

Joseph seems like one of those carried along in the wake of Christmas.  Like the dad carrying the coats in the big box store, with a glazed look on his face waiting for his wife to make all the important decisions.  He is just supposed to nod along when asked his opinion.  Joseph doesn’t even get a visitor like Luke tells us Mary gets.  He gets a dream.  And in the light of morning who can trust in a dream?

Joseph can, apparently.  He was, Matthew tells us, a righteous man.  Up to now, that usually meant he followed the law.  He was obedient to what God had outlined in the law and described by the prophets.  Joseph was a law-abiding man.  Until now.  When the dream told him to not follow the law.  The law said get rid of her.  The law said she has shamed you, she has broken the covenant, and the punishment was separation, dismissal, humiliation, even death.  Joseph was a righteous man, and his righteousness said what he had to do; she had to go. But he could be compassionate too.  He made up his mind to be as kind as the law allowed.

But the dream wanted more.  The dream wanted faith that goes beyond law.  The dream wanted hope in the midst of despair.  The dream wanted a future in the face of dissolution.  And perhaps that was what Joseph wanted too.  Maybe that was why he could be transformed by a dream, he could redefine righteousness as obedience to God who is the law, and is doing a new thing.  Do not be afraid, the dream said, to take Mary as your wife.  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in you tonight, Joseph.  Name them.  Claim them.

So he did.  As simple as that, he did.  As amazing as that, as outrageous as that, he did.  Matthew says that God wanted Jesus to be a part of that line, that line of faithfulness, of those who were righteous not because they stayed within the boundaries of polite society, but because they ventured out into the wild world and took a risk.  Joseph was in that line and now Jesus was, because Joseph claimed him.  Those last words, seemingly insignificant, what’s his name?  It is more than just naming, it is claiming, it is saying he is mine, my son, my savior.  

That’s what we’re looking for, out and about in the busyness of the world around us.  Something that will define us, something that will remake us, transform us.  Some relationship, some hope, some love that will make us new.
O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born to us today / We hear the Christmas angels / The great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us / Our Lord Emmanuel

What I go out to see in the muddle of our world is not necessarily the Christ child, or the light that glows within.  No, I think what I’m going to find is the world that he came to save.  The masses of humanity who think they can find salvation in the stuff of this life, like I know I do sometimes.  When I forget.  A world that has room for a Savior, even when we’ve forgotten it.  And part of what I’m trying to see is whether we can make room.  Room for grace, room for joy, room for peace, even at our worst.  At our most needy.  Except.  In the end, we aren’t the ones making room.  Like Joseph, we’re called to claim the room that God has made for us.  And to proclaim to the hurting world that there is room for them.  


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Sand Dancing

Last minute.  I heard advertisements for last minutes gifts at the end of November.  That didn’t seem like last minute to me.  Miles to go, I thought, weeks and weeks to get things accomplished.  Yes, I had Christmas Eve services to plan in a new place with new people who couldn’t be sure I knew what I was doing, but I’ve got lots of time.  Sure there are gifts to get and decorations to put up, there is time aplenty.  Don’t worry.  Except now we’re a week out.  The clock is ticking.  Decisions still to be made.  Questions to be answered.  Jesus to be found.

Yeah, well, that’s a story too.  The Nativity set at Southport seems to be missing a vital ingredient.  A central cast member of the drama of Christmas seems to be missing.  The central cast member.  We’ve looked everywhere, even contacted the previous pastor who kept it in his desk throughout the year for some reason.  In my desk.  But it isn’t there.  And I’m struck with the panic that in the transition I tossed it out.  Him out.  But, no, I wouldn’t have done that, would I?  Throw away a baby Jesus in the manger because it was in the wrong place.  A desk drawer is an unexpected place.  I mean, of all the places to keep a baby Jesus figurine, a desk drawer seems the least likely.  The center drawer, the junk drawer where you throw the stuff you don’t know what do with but don’t want to throw away.   The hidden stuff, the forgotten stuff, some broken, some given by someone but you’ve forgotten who, knick-knacks, odd bits, the island of misfit toys, that’s what’s in the middle drawer of the desk.  Not a place for baby Jesus. A desert of stuff, some useful, some not, but unorganized and lost, just there, in the drawer.

But then is there any place where He doesn’t belong.  The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great idea to keep the baby close to me all year long, in amidst the rubble of my life, until He can be brought out at Christmas time to say - See, He’s here! He’s been here, all along.  Right along side, through the joys and the heartaches, through the struggles and the accomplishments.  Right there, maybe out of sight for a time, but close by.  Within reach.  Even in the desert.  Even in a place of exile.  Of uncertainty.  Right there, all the time.  Emmanuel.  

Isaiah 35:1-10   The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus  2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.  3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you."  5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;  6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;  7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.  9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.  10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

Chapter thirty-five of Isaiah is considered a transitional chapter.  Though they aren’t named, most scholars talk about three different Isaiahs all contained within the sixty-six chapters of the book that bears that name.  And this chapter is a transition between First Isaiah and Second Isaiah.  First Isaiah is largely about warning, trying to get God’s people to see that their present course is going to lead to disaster, that the political relationships they have created will be their undoing, that their economic policies are unsustainable, that the road they are on will lead to destruction and exile.  And Second Isaiah, written during that time of exile, is largely about hope and a promised return.  

“Largely”, because there is hope in First Isaiah and there is warning in Second Isaiah.  But in the middle section of the book we are looking longingly for home, that much is clear.  From about chapter forty on there is this sense that all is not right, that we aren’t where we are supposed to be and we aren’t who we are supposed to be.  But overriding that sense of unease there is a word that says it won’t always be this way.  But this message doesn’t come in some vague, impersonal way.  It comes with exuberant joy.  It comes with lushness and excess.  It comes with promise and with security.   It comes with applause.

The desert blooms and blossoms to usher us back home.  The waters, normally such a temporary thing in that climate, will break forth, splashing up, pouring out, rising high, like the dancing waters at Disney World, like an open fire hydrant at on a hot summer day, like a cold bucket of Gatorade dumped on the winning coach.  We’re all winners on the road home.  We are all celebrated on the journey to where we belong.  

But do you see the promise?  Not only is there a route home, but it is safe and secure, protected from all sorts of enemies, and it is well provisioned, there is water to quench our thirsts, and there is some sort of divine GPS, we simply can’t get lost.  And better than that, our aches and pains, our brokenness and infirmity will disappear on this journey.  Our disabilities don’t limit us, don’t handicap us.  We can dance and sing, we can see and we can hear, because this journey is one of beauty and of joy.

Best of all, however, is we are not alone.  This is not a solitary journey where we cross the miles and work our way into the preparations to face family who seem to both lift us up and knock us down at the same time.  Not a “find your own way” and then the party starts once you get there.  No, indeed.  

First of all, God has come.  That’s the reason for all the celebration anyway.  God has come to bring us home.  God has come to escort us home.  God has come to walk with us every step of the way.  No wonder there is joy on our heads.  No wonder sorry and sighing shall flee away.  No wonder there is all the dancing and singing and splashing around in the courtyard fountains.  John Wesley’s dying words were reported to be “best of all, God is with us.”

Best of all.  But the second is like it.  Isaiah tells us what we will do when we are on our way home, to this home of all homes, the home of our heart and soul, the home that will make us whole again for the first time.  And what we do is share it.  Say to those, he tells us, strengthen, he proclaims, make firm, he encourages us.  He isn’t talking to God here, he is talking to us.  And he isn’t telling us to strengthen our own weak hands, or to make firm our own feeble knees, though God knows they are feeble and in need of strengthening.  God knows our hearts are fearful even at the best of times, it seems.  We are hardly the best ambassadors of God’s grace and hope, hardly the best witnesses to comfort and joy.  And we are what God has to work with.  We are the sign that the journey home has begun.  We are witnesses to God with us - to Emmanuel.  We are the light in the darkness, announcing to any and all that the season of joy and light, of peace and goodwill, is here.  Say to those of a fearful heart, be strong, fear not.

He’s right there.  God’s right there, as we walk on the road, through the desert that might not yet be blooming.  The seeds are there, hidden away, behind the paper clips and the rubber bands, covered up by the stacks of post-it notes that you couldn’t use in a lifetime, the business cards, the note that someone scrawled on the back of the bulletin telling you what a poor excuse for a human being you are and then didn’t sign just to mess with your head, underneath the drawing at a bored child did of you up there in front, with your head too big and your hands swollen to an incredible size, and a word bubble coming out of your mouth saying “Jesus loves you!”  Yeah, He’s there.  Emmanuel.  God-with-us.  Even in the desert.  

Which is why we dance, this Christmas dance, this desert dance of celebration, this sand dance as we shuffle along this highway of hope and peace and joy.  Gaudate, the third week of Advent, gaudate - Latin for joy.  Join in, shall we dance?


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Peaceable Kingdom

The natives are restless.  Well, the transplanted natives here in the house.  The dog and the cats all seem to be wanting something we can’t quite figure out.  Nick, the three-legged rescue terrier mix thinks he’s in charge of the world.  As far as he can see, he is responsible for everything, every intruder real or imagined, every foot crossing into line of sight, and woe be to any other dog that saunters past the house.  At the same time, he is sharing a residence with two cats, Dora the substantial cat and Cato, which is short for Catastrophe and who does her level best to live up to that name.  Cato doesn’t care a whit about Nick’s opinion and gallops through the house with abandon, upsetting the carefully maintained piles of things in strategic places, and even tries to cuddle up next to Nick, who looks at us like “can you do something about this?”  Dora, on the other hand, though she is more than twice Cato’s size, is a little more skittish.  She slinks around hoping the dog won’t appear and then skitters up the stairs when Nick comes exploding into the room.  

La Donna is convinced that if the cats would only give the dog a swat on the nose now and then they could occupy the same space.  I’m skeptical, given the demeanor with which the dog approaches anyone and everyone, sounding as though your liver just might be on the menu.  But who knows, maybe it is all a show.  Maybe they really are friendly beasts and could live together in peace and harmony, holding paws and singing the animal version of kum ba yah.  

Yeah right.  Tell us about it, Isaiah.

Isaiah 11:1-10   shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  3 His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;  4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  10 On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 

Admit it, you thought it was the lion and lamb, didn’t you?  Not sure how that became the prototypical image of the peaceable kingdom.  But Isaiah says it is the wolf and the lamb and the lion and the calf.  The fatted calf.  The calf ready for eating.  Impossible.  Outrageous.  Like Democrats getting along with Republicans.  Won’t happen.  Tea Partiers and Gun Control Advocates.  Can’t happen.  Social conservatives and the live and let live sort.  Nah, unimaginable.  Well, maybe if they were allowed to give each other a good swat first... No, bad idea.  Our differences are too great, aren’t they?  Our divides too deep.  Until someone comes and points to a higher truth, a deeper reality, then all those things that separate us will continue to have us drawing up battle lines.  It is the nature of the beast.

Isn’t it?  We are convinced it is.  And yet there is a small glimmer of hope deep down within us that only dares show its face at this time of year.  We dare entertain the idea that peace on earth is possible during Advent.  And then quickly shake our heads and say it is kid’s stuff.  Like Charlie Brown and his poor excuse for a tree and the Grinch and his heart that grew three sizes one day, it is the stuff of cartoons and sappy seasonal specials.  Only there does it really work out.  Only there are the teeth not bared and claws sheathed.  Only in our dreams and fantasies, not in our living rooms and boardrooms, not in the marketplace or on the battle field.  Not in the real world, where we live and move and have our being.  Only in our holiday imagination.

Unless there are people willing to work and suffer for a different way of being in community.  But who would want to do that?  Who would sacrifice that much, endure that much to bring about a new world, a new peace.

I just got back from an amazing, incredible event at my own church, no less.  It’s called Jubilee Christmas, and it was a monumental work of planning and giving.  Twenty one families were able to have Christmas for their children because of the generosity of a congregation of people who know what it is to be blessed to overflowing.  I know what you’re thinking, OK, so they gave Christmas gifts, big deal.  A whole lot of people give Christmas gifts to the needy this time of year, it’s a regular occurrence.  The truth be told, Jubilee Christmas is like a lot of other giving programs and ministries at Christmastime.  But watching this one unfold just seemed to feel a little different than other attempts at giving.  Because it wasn’t really about giving, it was more about sharing.  Yes, giving happened, and for a lot of those who helped make this event happen, their involvement was bringing in items to give away.  But the team and the hosts of the families were there to do something more than simply give.  They wanted to share something significant, they wanted to offer an experience, not just a gift.  They wanted to share the joy of Christmas, the warmth of Christmas, the love of Christmas.  They wanted to share Emmanuel, God with us, in as tangible a way as they could.

It’s kinda complicated how it all happened, and I don’t even know all the story to be honest.  It’s a well oiled machine, honed with hours and years of practice.  But it didn’t feel machine-like.  Nor did it feel patronizing in a way that mission work sometimes does.  It felt real.  It felt good.  And here’s the amazing part, barriers were crossed in this sharing.  Barriers of language, of culture, of economic status, and just those we no longer know how to be neighbors with, the strangers next door barriers that trip us up all the time – none of that mattered today.  Because God has put on flesh and chosen to be born among us, so we don’t have to live in fear of one another, if we but take the risk of wanting to share.  Wanting to live in the peaceable kingdom.

When you hear those words - the peaceable kingdom - you think of a painting.  A painting of animals clustered around a small child.  The animals seem to be smiling, childish in their depiction, primitive we call it.  And in the background of the painting there is a European man gathered with a group of Native Americans offering a hand of peace.  That’s the famous Quaker William Penn and the peace treaty he made with the occupants of the land.  The painter was Edward Hicks, a Quaker minister and painter.  And it was his favorite subject.  He painted over a hundred different takes on this image, and some 60 plus still exist.  What historians have noted was that there was a subtle change in the depiction of the animals.  In the older ones, they are kind and even playful as they lie together, predator and prey.  But as time went on, the teeth grew sharper and the snarls more pronounced.  Hicks was said to have begun to lose hope in humanity as he watched the barriers grow higher and stronger, the animosity grow deeper and more violent.  In those later paintings, however, the child, the Christ, tightens His grip on the lion’s mane and the bear’s neck.  Holding them in place with strength when their will was not with him.  Hicks though he began lose hope in the workings of human community, he began to cling even more tightly to Christ.  In Him Hicks would put his hope.

Isaiah speaks of death, the stump of a nation, of a dream cut off, destroyed, ended.  But not ended.  Out of that death comes a sprig of life.  Out of that dream denied, comes a new dream, a new hope.  That’s what Advent reminds us.  Not that a festive season and a small celebration is returning once more because the calendar pages have turned; but that hope out of despair is possible, that life out of death is real, that a dream of a way of living that honors God and neighbor both is not only possible, but is within reach.  If we but set aside that which keeps up apart, those differences that make us suspicious of one another, and hold on to the common humanity that makes us so similar.  That’s why we love our neighbor as ourselves, because they are ourselves, just like ourselves.  They may sound different, and look different and act different, but they are us.  And we can learn to trust, even as we choose to be trustworthy.

Now, if I can just get the crazy dog and the grumpy cats to read this, we’ll be on our way.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Path to Your Door

“What’s new for Christmas?”  That’s not a question you ask very often.  We don’t want what is new in this season.  We want the familiar, we want the traditional, we want the comfortable.  We want the rituals we’ve performed for year after year, almost forgetting why we do them the way that we do, except that this is how we’ve always done it.  And this time of year, that seems good enough.  Not just good enough, it is the very reason for doing what we do.

In any other part of our lives, at any other time of year we would be bored.  We crave innovation, we want the new, the improved, the latest upgrade, the bells and whistles.  Yesterday’s news isn’t worth the paper it is printed on, or the bandwidth is it occupying.  If it sits at the back of the closet and hasn’t been worn for a while, throw it out.  If it doesn’t match the new decor, toss it away.  If it doesn’t fit with the new you, get rid of it.  And go find something new.

Except at this time of year.  Now the back of the closet is a treasure trove of memories and history.  The corners of the attic hold the magic of time travel, back to a simpler age, back to wonder and amazement, back to when families were peopled with giants and wisdom, back when security was a strong arm holding you up, and comfort and joy were found in laughter around a dinner table.  These dusty old objects that take you back across miles and years, to first Christmases and last ones, to family reconfigured and relocated, to houses occupied and then emptied.  All these memories come tumbling back every time a box is opened and the childish scrawl is read again, or the date recognized.  “That was the year that ...”  You have to tell the story, if only in your own mind as you unpack, or to whomever will listen.  “Remember when we ...” we ask to everyone and no one in particular.  Some of the memories make us smile, some bring a tear to the eye, but they are all precious in their own way.  

We want to go home at this time of year.  Or we want to be home.  Or we long for a taste of home.  We’ve been too long away, too unsettled, too distant and we want to make our way back.  This season calls forth from us a desire to return, to the way it was, at least as we imagined it.  Or to the place where we were most at home, most content, most at peace with ourselves and the world.  That’s why every holiday season we talk about making the journey.  About hitting the road, the trip to Bethlehem, the path to the manger, let us go over and see this thing that the angels have made known to us.  And so they went.

I love that image and have used it many an Advent season.  This year however, it seems to me that Isaiah is asking us to think differently about that journey.  That maybe it isn’t about packing up and getting on the road.  Maybe we aren’t the travelers in this story, at least this time.  Maybe we serve a different function, maybe we are to take a different role in the drama of Advent this year.

Isaiah 2:1-5  The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.  2 In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! 

I know what you are thinking.  There is that heading out image again.  Let us go, it says.  So, come on, lets go!  First of all, I’m not arguing for status quo.  For sitting still like righteous bumps on a log.  No, there is motion, there is activity, there is work to be done in Advent.  Even though the keywords are watch and wait, there is plenty to keep us occupied.  Stay with me here.  But I’m asking us to rethink our direction.  Well, Isaiah is, anyway.

Notice the passive tense?  We have trouble with that.  Especially in busy times.  We want to be doing, to be moving, to be deciding.  But all this is not our work.  This mountain raising and nation calling work isn’t ours.  It is God’s It’s going to happen, we can count on that.  In fact that is our job, counting on it.  Holding on to the hope, to the conviction that God is in control. And if you don’t think that takes effort then you haven’t really tried it.  When the world around you has given up on hope, to hold fast is to take a contrary stand.  To say that you believe that there can be such a thing as peace is to make a radical declaration.  To live confidently, that despite all evidence seen with the eyes and heard with the ears, you will trust with your whole life that healing and wholeness is around the corner.

So, why is it so important to hold on to hope?  Why not just be surprised with the rest of the world?  Well, we could say that living in hope is a better way to live.  We could say that a life filled with confidence and joy is much more rewarding and satisfying than one shaped by cynicism and distrust.  

But that isn’t Isaiah’s argument.  Isaiah simply announces that there will come a time when the nations will stream to the mountain of the Lord.  There will come a time when people will want to learn God’s ways and will want to walk in God’s path.  And he says that this will happen because there is teaching happening, there is the Word being proclaimed.  This will happen because there are those who will welcome.  This will happen because there are hosts on the mountain of the Lord.

That’s us.  Company’s coming.  That’s what Isaiah is telling us.  Yes, in part, we know that it is the Word made flesh that comes to dwell among us.  We know that the King is coming.  And we make ready by preparing Him room so that this time He isn’t turned away at the inns of our lives, left to sleep in a feed trough out back where no one but some smelly shepherds and wacko wise guys from out of town drop in on Him.  We know that this is a part of our task this Advent season.  

But Isaiah isn’t satisfied with just that, as important as it is.  There is a world out there hungry to learn, and they just might be beating a path to our door.  There is a world out there dying for justice, and they might be huddled under our awning right now.  There are wanderers who have strayed down so many paths that their feet are sore and their hearts are broken, and they sometimes stumble their way into our hallways and aisles.

Company’s coming, are we ready?  Are we ready to host, to teach about the ways of the Lord, to guide them into paths of right living?  Are we ready to welcome them into the presence of the Lord of life, the Prince of Peace?  Are we ready to love them like he loves them, to embrace them, to connect them, to claim them as brothers and sisters?  This hosting thing isn’t easy.  And there are days when we want to be left alone, when we want everyone to find their own way, follow their own paths.  Yet, holding on to hope means that we have signed up for this duty, for this joy.  Joy?  Well, of course.  Throwing parties is all about joy.  About making others feel welcome, feel wanted.  It is about setting aside our own comforts for the joy of another.  The joy of including.  The joy of growing the family with the one we’ve been waiting for, without even knowing who it was who was coming up the path to our door.

So, how do we do that?  How do we sweep the paths and light the lights so that those who wander near might know that they will find a welcome here?  Isaiah seems to think it is simple.  He switches from the passive to the active at the end of the passage.  He switches from God’s task to our task in one verse.  Come, he says, O house of Jacob, come you who inhabit the family of God, you who serve as hosts on the highest mountain, you who let the teaching flow out and the welcome be all inclusive, come.  Let us walk in the light of the Lord!  In other words, we live our welcome.  We must be the light that we set in the window so that the path to the door can be found!