Saturday, December 24, 2011

Describing the Indescribable

How do you describe the indescribable? How do you explain the unexplainable? It is beyond our capabilities, to be honest. It escapes us. And yet we try. We see a glorious sunset and we want to describe to someone who wasn’t there. We wax eloquent about hues and shading, about cloud formations and transitions, and when we are done they say “sounds nice.” Nice? we think, nice? It was mind blowing, heart stopping. And you think it was nice?

Tell them about a landscape you saw, or a concert you heard. Tell them about an intimate moment with the love of your life, and if you are lucky they will smile and say “nice.” Or something equally deflating. Because it doesn’t transfer. You can’t recapture the moment and pass it on to someone else. No matter how good you are with words, you can’t describe the sight you saw or the experience you experienced in a way that transfers it into someone else’s mind and heart.

The best you can hope for is that the description you provide allows them to recall a similar sight or moment in their own life. Association sometimes works. They can say, well, I remember a sunset I saw from my cabin on the coast, it was ... And then your eyes glaze over as you begin to think, it couldn’t possibly be as spectacular as the one I just saw. You can’t describe the indescribable.

So, have some sympathy for John. He is trying to give us the essence of the Christmas story. He doesn’t want to tell us the surface of the event, like Matthew and Luke. They were interested in happenings, in personalities. Who said what when and where. They are like journalists. Which, though complicated - which is why their stories are so different - it is still easier than what John sets out to do.

John wants us to see the grandeur of this sunset - or sunrise, which might be a bit more descriptive. He wants us to understand the nuance of the symphony that God has composed and conducted and played in our presence. Wants us to not just hear the notes, but to follow the story, to see beneath the surface into the intentions and purposes, the meanings and the applications. He wants us to not just see the landscape, but to be a part of it. To stand in awe of it even as we walk through it, abide in it.

So, of course he falls back on poetry. Of course he sings a song, he tells a story. There aren’t enough facts, there isn’t enough reality to contain a thesis on incarnation. Instead we get this.

John 1:1-18 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He 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. 5 The 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. 14 And 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.

And I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The only way I know to say this same thing with even simpler words is this: Merry Christmas.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Keeping Watch

OK, here’s the deal. I barely have time to breathe this weekend. It is the last weekend before Christmas and we seem to have put all our eggs in this basket. Once I wade my way through this bible study and get it sent to all the waiting masses (that’s you), I have to finish preparing a narration to the Music department’s Christmas Spectacular, which begins at 3:30pm, and then is followed by a chili supper fund raiser for the Youth Music trip to Kentucky this summer. Once that is consumed, it is back here to complete preparations for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Services here at Aldersgate Community United Methodist Church.

Once those services are over (in the can, as they say in the biz) then I hightail it to the Finance Committee meeting which is trying to finalize the church budget for 2012. Then it is home to prepare to help Ellen Rhoades, our Parish Visitor and Senior Adult Coordinator lead a “Blue Christmas” worship service for those who are struggling this season because of loss. Then it is back home to help host the Youth Christmas Party at our home. I think my job will be to keep the crazy dogs from actually eating anyone. (Just kidding, youth! They won’t eat you. Come on to my house!!) Which also means that somewhere in the midst of this I ought to be doing my part to help clean up the house in preparation for company. (And figure out where to hang a pinata - really? A Christmas pinata, Amanda? Hmmm, too bad the ice is gone from the pond.)

Now, I suspect that many of you are thinking “that’s nothing, look at this list!” And you can pull out your own schedule of craziness. I know I’m not the only one who has too many things to do this season - although it sometimes seems like it! “Nobody knows the troubles I see.” But I’m not the first to put too much on his plate at this time of year. You’ve got a schedule that makes you shake your head, don’t you? Well, if you don’t, I can always look back at the shepherds.

I know, we are used to thinking that they were lazy, relaxing in the fields, dozing and drinking, time on their hands. We aren’t the first to think that of them. That’s why they were considered unclean. They were rough characters, kept from proper worship and proper interactions with the “good people.” When Luke tells us that the people were “amazed at what the shepherds had told them” we rightly think about the wonder of the story itself. But the added ingredient to their amazement was the source of the story. It was the shepherds who told this story. The shepherds who, according to them anyway, got a voicemail from God. No, a direct message, better than a telegram, a visitation. A manifestation. An angel, a whole host of them, singing and dancing in the heavens, about a baby in a manager. Uh-huh. Just what did they keep in those leather flasks all night long anyway?

I’m sure that is what went through the minds of at least some of those hearing this tale. These are shepherds after all. But what if we’ve been a bit unfair to the shepherds? I read a commentator some years ago who said that we ought to see the shepherds as small business owners. They were hardly the only occupation who had to deal with ritual uncleanness, those rules were almost impossible to keep. Certainly there were some in the business who were disreputable characters, but what business doesn’t have their share of disrepute?

Maybe the issue was they were busy. Luke doesn’t say they were lazing about in the field. He says they were keeping watch. It was an important job. Someone even speculated once that perhaps this was not an ordinary, run of the mill flock of sheep. That maybe this was a group of the Temple lambs, ones raise spotless, unblemished so that they would be worthy of that sacrifice. It seemed likely that in Luke’s mind at least this was symbolic, that the announcement of the child born to be the perfect sacrifice would be announced with full angelic accompaniment to those who were keeping watch over the sacrificial lambs. Keep watch, says the child grown into a man, for you do not know when the day will come. Maybe he remembered the story as he said that. The story his mom told when he was little and would sit and soak up every word she said. The story about that night after a long trip to Bethlehem. The night when the stars seemed brighter than they do today. The night when a manger was the only refuge from the dark and the cold.

The night when they came, the shepherds, bringing with them the smells of the animals in their care. And how they told anyone and everyone who would listen what had happened to them. How they were keeping watch, doing their job, worrying about the predators and the hazards out there in the darkness. Worrying about how they were going to get the sick ones to eat, and the angry ones to live in peace. Worrying about the fluctuations in the price of temple lambs, how they used to make a good living but now were just getting by. Worrying about how long it was going to be until their next day off, when they could go and see their families, and wash the smell of sheep off of them for a little while at least. When they could pretend to be just like everyone else.

And then the sky exploded. They thought their hearts would stop beating in their chests. They thought it was the end of the world. They thought they would never hold their little babies, or kiss their wives, or laugh with family ever again. They thought all their mistakes were coming back to trip them up, all their failings, all their doubts and brokenness, they thought what the villagers thought of them was going to be their legacy. They thought they were doomed to disappear into the dark like all the others they tell ghost stories about around the fire in the middle of the night, when they are trying to keep one another away because the wolves are prowling.

As quickly as all these thoughts raced through their minds, came another, fast on its heels. Fear not. The voice spoke in their heads without having to go through their ears somehow. Good news. They heard or felt, or just somehow knew. To you is born a savior. To you, us? They thought. Surely not, maybe the “good” people in town. Maybe the priests and leaders, the rich and powerful, they thought. A sign to you, a babe wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger. Now mangers they understood. Mangers were their business, their language. Mangers and saviors seemed to make some odd kind of sense to shepherds.

Then the song began, and glorious one it was. It brought tears to the eyes of these rough and burly men used to the hazards of the wilderness. It made their hearts light, their minds rest, their hope soar. It was glorious. When it ended they didn’t dare to breathe for a long moment. When they did they looked at one another, hoping they weren’t the only ones to hear this message. But they could tell by the look on each face that it was real, and it was theirs. Let us make haste they said. They made room in their busy schedule, they made their way, breathless and hopeful, like Moses and the bush, they turned aside to see.

What are you keeping watch over? What will you make room for?

Luke 2:1-20 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Guide My Feet

I am suffering from list withdrawal. An amazing confession, I know. I have indicated in this space that while I am not a list-maker myself, I married one. And she is an expert to say the least. This time of year is usually list-a-palooza. Or list-orama. Or list-normous. Or ... well you get the idea. Her list-making traits kick into hyper-drive and we all have lists aplenty. And then there are usually lists of lists to keep track of the lists that were handed out, and often a master list on big pieces of paper or white boards in conspicuous places. You can’t brush your teeth or get a snack from the fridge without checking the list in front of your face.

But this time, nothing. OK, not nothing. As she prepares to leave on Tuesday morning to spend time with her dad, she tells me things I need to remember. Tells me. As if I were going to remember. And I do. Mostly. Well, at least I think I do. Can’t really tell, I guess. If I don’t remember them, then I can’t really remember to do them, can I? So, I do what I remember and when she comes home she asks about the ones I didn’t remember. Argghh. How she remembers, I don’t really know. But she does.

What is worse she remembers the things she didn’t tell me to do because she thought I would just know to do them. “Did you tell me to do that?” I’ll ask. “You should have known,” she’ll reply. “It happens every week.” Or “It needed to be done.” Or something like that. Which implies if I had been paying attention I would have known and done it. And she is right. But I have become dependant on her lists.

I’m suffering from list withdrawal. Knowing what to do is a tricky thing. Almost as tricky as knowing what to say. Just ask Zechariah. And he had nine months to think about it. Remember him? He was John the Baptist’s dad. Zechariah the Baptist. From the Jerusalem the Baptists. Good family. Long history. Usually involved in church work. In fact that is where he was when this part of his story really begins.

He was doing his duty, tucked out of sight in the Holy of Holies, supposedly in conversation with God on behalf of the people, when an angel shows up. Gabriel, he says his name is, at least he says that eventually, right after he gets honked off at Zechariah for not doing his job.

The encounter starts innocently enough. The angel appears scaring the wits out of Zechariah. And this messenger proceeds to give the message. “Your prayers are answered! You wife is going to have a son, and you are going to name him John (which means “God’s Gift” - so that you and everyone else will know how this whole thing happened) and then you will dedicate him to God’s service.” Pretty cool, really. Just the sort of thing you’d expect to happen in God’s sitting room, wouldn’t you?

Well, unfortunately, Zechariah didn’t expect it. Didn’t trust it. Tried to push it away, probably cleaned his glasses on his robe and stuck his finger in his ear and did the wiggle thing that everyone who isn’t sure about what they heard does. Then puts his foot in it. His mouth, that is, not his ear. He had managed to gather a part of what was scared out of him earlier, but only manages a half-witted response: “Prove it.”

The angel rears up to his full, divine warrior height and puts his hand on the hilt of his sword and leans in to Zechariah and snarls “You don’t know who you are messing with, bud. But because I’m one of the nice ones, instead of separating your head from your shoulders, I’m only going to stop up your tongue in your head. And you will be unable to utter a single word, a tiny sound, until you learn a little obedience, Priest-dude.”

This weekend’s reading is the first thing he says after all that. For nine months he has been gestating a response to the Lord’s angel, and now he is about to deliver. And this is what he says:

Luke 1:67-79 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: 68"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

A different tone, to say the least. One of humility and praise. But most importantly for Zechariah, a note of hope. Confident hope. Like Mary’s song of a few verses earlier, Zechariah sings as though what he and we have longed for has already happened. “The Lord has looked favorably, the Lord has redeemed, the Lord has raised up a mighty savior for us.” Where, the onlookers might reasonably ask? And with a grin Zechariah would point to the swelling belly of Mary and say “Right there!”

The crowds would roll their eyes and cluck knowingly at one another. Nine months without a word, it would drive anyone a little batty. And Zechariah was a preacher, for heaven’s sake. Can’t think of a worse punishment for a preacher than telling them to shut up for nine months. Might as well have separated his head from his shoulders. Gabriel had a mean streak in him. So, Zechariah could be forgiven for spouting nonsense, his relatives and friends allowed.

But it wasn’t nonsense. He was doing his job. He was living in hope. A confident hope. A powerful hope. A transforming hope. A hope that gives direction.

It’s a list-making hope, it seems to me. He concludes his recitation, after the praise and the confident celebration of the completion of God’s promises, after the marching orders to his new born son who had a role to play in this salvation drama, whose name was going to be John by the way, despite the relatives complaint that no one in the family had been named John. Or, we’ve never done it that way before! But Zechariah concludes his delivery on the most auspicious of birth days, with God’s promise of light. And this light is a comfort, a guard against despair and hopelessness. This light is a comfort against the inevitability of death. This light is a comfort because it will show us how to walk.

Guide my feet is a list receiver’s plea. Help know where to go and what to do. Guide my feet in the ways of peace. Give me a list so I know how to please you. Give me a list so I know how to keep my life right. Give me a list. I’m suffering from list withdrawal.

Maybe Zechariah’s proclamation is asking God for the grace to make his own list. Guide my feet so that knowing where to walk is bred into me. So I don’t have to wonder. So I don’t have to wait. All I have to do is walk where the light is. Serve without fear, serve where the hope is.

I’m making a list.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

Upside Down

It is Saturday morning as I write this. A day of scurrying around and putting things away. Things that should have been put away days ago. But no one seemed to care all that much. Just pile it up, let it sit, no big deal. Except this morning it looks like a big deal. It looks like no one cares. It looks like no one lives here any more. Like something better came up and every dropped - literally dropped - whatever they were doing and headed out. It looks like the Visigoths swooped in and set up camp in our family room and kitchen.

OK, before I get email from the Visigoth Anti-Defamation League, let me quickly say that some of my best friends are Visigoths. No, better yet, some of my teenagers are card carrying Visigoths. Well, if they could keep track of their cards. We stumble across all sorts of stuff that we had lost track of these past few days. It’s that kind of day around here. And now, it is raining too. Great.

So, you might well ask, what brought about this change in perspective. If clutter and disarray was acceptable, almost unnoticeable yesterday, why the concern now? La Donna is coming home this morning. Funny how the world looks different because that advent. It is as though we found our glasses, or rubbed the sleep out of our eyes and were finally able to focus on the rubble and a rising panic puts wings on our feet as we scurry around trying to bring order to the chaos. Even the dogs seems to be arranging their chew toys in some semblance of order. Granted it is an order that only makes sense in a canine perspective, but order is order.

Let me be clear, it isn’t fear that motivates us. Well, not completely. I mean no one wants to hear that “Guys!” of exasperation, the “what were you thinking?” as she salvages what once might have been edible from under the coats that should have been hung up and sorts out the paper for recycling from the receipts to be filed away. That eye rolling enhanced sigh can cause many a stout heart to fail, believe you me!

But is more about the joy of the reunion, more about wanting to provide a bright and shiny welcome. It is also about not adding to her burden by getting the feeling that we are unable to function without her. Because she is coming back as a respite from her own vigil, her own waiting. She has spent these past few weeks with her dad as he navigates his final journey in this life. Not every advent is anticipated with comfort and joy.

Luke 1:46-55 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Mary didn’t write this song, but it was still soul music for her. It came from the depths of her new experience. Mary was be all accounts very young, a teenager or even preteen. And yet there is a depth here. A surprising prophetic depth that can barely be understood, let alone explained.

A few verses earlier in Luke’s account she is standing with a puzzled look on her face in front of an angel. “How can this be?” she squeaks. It is beyond her, this whole event, this Annunciation, and you can hear the capital A in the description. Certainly Mary could. She knew, somehow, that this was big, bigger than her and for some unexplainable reason including her. “How can this be?”

And now, in the presence of another, a woman too old to be a mother, more suited for the geriatric ward than obstetrics, Mary - too young to be a mother - sings with a wisdom beyond her scant years. Sounding like a prophet of old, she should have slipped in a “thus saith the Lord” somewhere along there, then we wouldn’t have had reason to doubt where she stood. She stands in a line of proclaimers who want us to know that God is about to turn the world upside down. And she does it with a song. A song of praise and hope, a song of confidence and glory, a song of blessing and presence. A song of completion though all is just barely begun.

It is because she now sees differently. The life within her has affected her vision, and she sees what is out of place but she is also able to see how it ought to be - or can be - or will be. And she sees it so clearly it becomes an is. Notice all the past tense verbs in Mary’s song. “He has shown strength... He has scattered ... He has brought down and lifted up ... He has filled the hungry, He has send away the full. He has. Not he will, or He might, or maybe someday something like this just might occur. He has, Mary sings. From her soul. The soul now giving life to God, the soul now housing the savior, about to birth the hope of the world. No wonder she sings soul music.

Soul music, according to one definition is gospel music that has gone to town. The styles, the forms, the passion of gospel music burst out of the church and began to address the world, secular themes and issues and became known as soul music. The gospel at loose in the world. What better description for Mary’s song can we find than that? This isn’t simply a song about spiritual themes and churchy attitudes. This isn’t a song about faith development divorced from interaction in a messy and broken world. This is soul music, echoing the cry of a heart longing for redemption and the hope of a faith resting in the promises of God while working through the body of Christ to bring this hope to reality in the world in which we live.

No doubt there are some music afficionados out there who are thinking to themselves, “I’ve heard some of what is called soul music and it sounds about as far from the gospel as you can get.” And you’d be right. That’s always the danger when you take your faith to work outside of the church, it can get messy, it can get confusing, it can lose its way. It happens at times, that’s part of the risk of living your faith. But it can also get deeper, get stronger, get more real. Listen closely, those themes, that hope is still out there, being sung by those who wouldn’t call themselves churchy types, in fact go out of their way to distance themselves from us. And yet the passions, the hopes still bubble away out there. And maybe our job is to see with new eyes this world in which we live. See it as something worth working in, something worth cleaning up, because someone is coming home.

La Donna got home in the midst of writing this. We managed to clear some of the surfaces before she got here and her homecoming was less painful than it might have been. It looked a little like someone had bothered to prepare the way. We got caught up, choked back some tears, laughed at our feeble efforts to maintain equilibrium in this advent time. And we proclaimed the goodness of God, who has given us this gift of precious time, even while we long for peace and for rest. But do not doubt that it will come, it is here, in God’s own time. The Mighty One has done great things and holy is His name.