Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gift Exchange

Are you ready for Christmas?  I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked that question.  Most often by retail sales folk who are trying to make conversation, to come across as friendly.  Well, and the woman cutting my hair.  An occasional member of the church passing me in the hallways or out in the world somewhere will sometimes ask me that too.  A few of the askers are, I believe, interested in a deeper, more spiritual readiness.  Am I ready to celebrate incarnation, do I have a sense of the presence of the holy, am I in touch with the joy of more than a season - that’s what the few are asking, I believe.  Most however, want to know if I have spent enough money yet.

OK, cynical, I realize.  Yet, when I engage these folks in conversation the next level often goes to a discussion of whether the presents have been purchased and wrapped and hidden, or whether we are still stumped by schedules or crowds or the loved one who is incredibly hard to buy for. 

Everyone has at least one of those, I am sure.  You know what I mean.  It’s not that they have everything and there is nothing left to get them.  Rather it is more like they don’t want anything.  Drives me crazy.  “Do you have a list?”  “Well, no.  I don’t know what to put on it?”  “Everyone else has a list.”  “I know.”  “We want to get you something.”  “I know.”  “Well?”  “I’ll think about it.” Argghh.

OK, the not wanting thing is probably good.  Who am I to tell her she needs to want more stuff.  Sometimes I wish I had a similar attitude.  And actually, I think I do pretty well with the wanting, or the not wanting.  What I struggle with is the giving thing.  Or rather the wanting to give thing.  And I don’t mean I don’t want to give.  The exact opposite in fact.  I want to give a lot, everything and anything.  I’m not usually given permission to go shopping for the kids, because I’d get everything on the list and few things that weren’t there but should have been.  I almost can’t help myself.  I love giving stuff, losing myself in the exquisite agony of selecting something that says just what you want to say to someone who means more to you than you are able to put into words.  I feel as though I carry them with me as I am out and about, looking for that something special, that will make their eyes light up, that will let them know that someone was thinking of them.  But not just them in the generic, but in the specific.  The someone who likes this, who thinks this way, who hopes this hope, who rejoices in that joy.  I want them to feel known and loved by the whatever it is that gets wrapped and slipped under the tree in the front room. 

I know, a lot of weight to a gift that you pick up off a shelf somewhere.  Or point and click on.  Or make a phone call to get.  Which is why there is often a vague sense of disappointment when the gift is opened and the life transforming moment doesn’t occur.  Gratitude, yes, even joy at times.  But not ... well ... not a life changing moment, or life affirming moment.  A confirmation moment.  That’s what we want at Christmas time.  That’s why we give the gifts we give.  That’s why the gift was given.  THE gift.  You know, the “reason for the season” and all of that.

Our gift giving is a reflection of God’s giving.  And though we know we can’t out give God, we want to give with as much investment as we can muster, with as much commitment as we can generate.  We want our gifts to redeem lives, or relationships, or at least make those we care about feel good about themselves. 

But maybe that is too much for a gift to carry, any gift, no matter how carefully chosen or constructed.  Maybe we are wasting our energies, hoping in the wrong vehicles to communicate love and joy and hope to those we love around us.  Maybe we ought to rethink Christmas.

This season we’ve been asked to think differently about Christmas.  To remember that “Christmas is not your birthday!”  Which, by the way, I believe is true even for those few who are born on December 25th.  Their birthday is December 25th, not Christmas.  Christmas, or the Mass of Christ, is about someone else.  And it is that someone who should shape our celebration of this day.  But not just in the background, not just the reason for the season, but the motivator, the shaper of the celebration itself.  Not just the pale outline, but the focus, the object of our devotion and gift giving.

What does Jesus want for Christmas?  That’s the question of this fourth week of Advent.  And since the snow shower of catalogs we receive in the mail each day isn’t really going to be much help, maybe we ought to look elsewhere.  Like to Matthew.  Maybe he can give us some insight into finding the right gift for the guy who has everything.

Matthew 25:31-46   "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'  37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'  40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'  45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Of course, you sigh, we knew that.  Jesus wants us to get out there help people.  OK, right, get to it.  Another responsibility, another task, another chore to get done before we can get to the business of enjoying our holiday.  Work it into our busy schedules to make Jesus happy.  It is his birthday after all. 

Except that just saying it that way makes us realize we are still missing something.  What is really asking for in this story?  What are we supposed to get?  The goats missed it, but then you would expect them to, they’re goats after all.  But, is it surprising that the sheep seem to have missed it too?  “When was it that we saw you hungry...?” 

Maybe their surprise is the whole point of the story.  Jesus is saying that the goal is not to complete some task, like competing in a reality show of some sort, but rather to be the kind of person who loves like Christ loved.  Not because we’re supposed to, but just because we do.  What Christ wants for Christmas is for us to give the gift of who we are, the loving, caring, giving person that he has enabled us to become - or that we are becoming, since we are all in process.  Which, I guess, is all anyone wants, the gift of ourselves.  Our better selves, our true selves, our Christ-like selves. 

So, are you ready for Christmas?


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Other Side of the Manger

How do you receive bad news?  I’m sorry.  That wasn’t the question I meant to ask at all.  That wasn’t the entry into this moment that I was looking for.  That question was a throw away, an unintentionally benign time-filler to while away a long drive or a late night dorm room bull session.  That question was more along the lines of what would buy first if you won the lottery? Or if you were stranded on a desert island what three things would  you want with you?  An ice breaker game in a small group meeting, or a baseline psychological assessment before getting into anything serious.

Let me try again.  When your world shatters from words delivered like a sledgehammer to your gut, how do you stand?  When you are plunged underwater by news you can scarcely comprehend let alone respond to, how do you take your next breath?  When all your visions of a joyous tomorrow are spoken out of existence by whispered words of tragedy or denial how do you put one foot in front of another on your way into the void?

We watched in horror as yet another well armed individual destroyed the comfort and joy of a quiet community, tipped the scales from hopes to fears of all the years in a few moments of terror, a modern day slaughter of the innocents.  The echoes from the weeping prophet all too evident – Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15) 

One of the threads online last night was a story headed “How the father of the shooter got the news.”  His wife was dead, shot by his son who was also now dead.  Do we need to know how this father heard this story?  How does it help us comprehend a world gone awry?  Besides, I hesitate to even mention, but we’ve been there.

No, not such news.  At least I pray that you have never been told such a thing as this poor father and husband was told.  Though, in my years of ministry I have sat alongside those who have been told some devastating news.  I’ve watched them stagger under the weight, like a lifter who has taken on more than the body can bear.  I have whispered “breathe” into the ear of one gasping for meaning in the vacuum of a terrible moment.  I have felt my soul vibrate in sympathetic pain to the keening a mother needing to give voice to her pain. 

Though we shrink from comparing, from measuring suffering, but it is a rare soul who has known none.  And it frequently reorders one’s existence in unforeseen ways.  So, the question remains, how do you live into this new reality?  How do you go on when you stand in the rubble of your hopes and a step in any direction is a step into the unknown?  What do you choose when there aren’t any choices to be made?

It had to be a long night for Joseph as he wrestled with a terrible decision.  As usual, the Gospel account leaves so much unsaid that we can’t help to try to fill in the gaps.

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.

You’ve heard the word “betrothed” defined before.  Even our newer translations turn it into “engaged.”  But it was a fully legal designation.  They belonged to each other, even though the formalities had not yet been performed.  It was a binding covenant.  But now it was broken.  Joseph’s hopes spilling out into the night like a clutch of eggs dropped on a concrete floor.  He planned, Matthew tells us, to take the high road, the quiet, unassuming, sweep it under the carpet route and just step away.  It was within his rights to do so much more, to take revenge, exact a punishment for embarrassment, for shame, to present himself as the injured party, unsullied by this sordid affair.  But in the dark of the night he chose distance.  Just get out, get away, try - as impossible as that would be - to forget, to move on.  Having made up his mind, he slept.

As disturbed as his waking moments had been, so too was his sleep made uneasy, as choices were given to him.  Here’s a question I have never heard discussed: did he already consider and dismiss this option?  Did it even come to his mind that he could have simply accepted her wild narrative that stretched any normal mode of thinking to the breaking point?  Or did he simply refuse to even let that thought enter his conscious mind, so that it could only be considered when he was asleep?  Was the angel - from a word that translates as both message and messenger - his own beating heart that wanted to hope what was impossible to hope?

Matthew doesn’t relate and further struggle.  He woke from sleep, did Joseph, and did just what the angel commanded.  Just did it. Against what had to be opposition from family and friends, he did it.  He took Mary in.  That’s how these things were sealed.  After a betrothal, she legally belonged to him, but it wasn’t sealed until he took her into his own home.  The old translation “he took his wife” sounds almost embarrassingly intimate.  So we changed it to “he took her as his wife.” 

But the truth is, it is embarrassing, it is intimate.  He took her into his house.  He declared in a public way that he didn’t care what was being said behind his back, he took her in.  He announced that while he might not understand the story, he chose to believe it, and he took her home.  He took a step that he couldn’t even comprehend before.  And chose to love with an unexplainable love.

Pastor Mike Slaughter, in his book Christmas is Not Your Birthday, titles this third week of Advent “Scandalous Love.”  He tells of other moments in the story of God’s people where God asks for a love that seems beyond belief.  He writes about Hosea who loved a woman who was unfaithful, and then to love her again when she wandered away.  That seems to be God’s M.O.  To love the unfaithful, to love the undeserving.  To love when nothing else makes sense. 

Joseph took Mary home and loved her.  More than that he claimed a son not his own.  When the child was born Matthew says “he named hm Jesus.”  That’s not just a sweet moment in the delivery room with proud dad and exhausted mom.  No, this is a statement, a proclamation.  This is scandalous love lived out.

In any life event we have a choice.  We can rage, we can crumble, we can become bitter and withdrawn.  Or we can love.  We can love the wounded and grieving into wholeness, we can love the broken and the damaged, we can even, if we are bold enough, scandalous enough, love ourselves when it seemed no one else will.

 We can, like Joseph choose to look at life from the other side of the manger, and see love be born.


Friday, December 7, 2012

When a Plan Comes Together

I’m kinda grumpy, just be warned.  But only kinda.  Out of sorts.  Off track a little bit.  Forced into patterns different from my norm.  It is Friday and I’m working on my Bible Study.  That’s not right.  This is supposed to be a Saturday morning thing, that helps get me in the mood for preaching on Sunday morning.  It is a journey that begins a long time ahead (September of 2011 to be precise) and then gets specific a few weeks out as we finish up one series and look ahead to the next.  Then the process really heats up each week as one sermon is completed and immediately I begin to work on the next one, gathering information and images, reading, reading, reading, listening, writing, thinking, until Saturday when it all gels in my head (or is supposed to anyway) in preparation for Sunday morning.  That’s the way it is supposed to work.  That is the image of the perfect preparation for preaching that I carry around with me week by week.

And now we are off track, and it is unsettling.  Here’s the deal, one of the legacies we inherited from La Donna’s dad, who died this past January, is a couple of season tickets for Notre Dame Women’s Basketball.  Don and Beverly wanted to support Notre Dame, but were more interested in the sports that didn’t get all the attention, so they chose women’s basketball.  They were attending ND games before they were good.  Even before Muffet - that’s the coach, Muffet McGraw, who has taken them to the tournament and won it at least once recently.  I watched them lose to Baylor on Wednesday night (again, Baylor beat them in the tournament finals last year - darn those Texas Bears anyway).  So, I’m all in favor of the team, would love to attend the game.  But it is Saturday.  And because we don’t live in South Bend, it means losing most of the day.  Traveling, parking, watching, lunching (because I’m going with Maddie, so you know we are going to eat most of the day too).  No promises for a sermon that makes any kind of sense on Sunday morning, just sayin’.

It is unsettling.  There are just certain ways that my life is supposed to go, and when they don’t ... well, it isn’t pretty.  But you know that, don’t you.  I don’t mean you know my life, I mean you know yours.  Besides, this is Christmas time, we’ve all got plans.  We’ve got order.  We are going to make this one work out the way we envision.  We are going to have just the right presents and just the right decorations, we are going to serve just the right meals at just the right time and everyone is going to have the Christmas of their lives!  Right!?!  This is going to be the Christmas that they talk about forever, the one they measure every other Christmas by.  And, frankly, all those others are going to pale into insignificance compared to the one that we are going to put on this year!  As God is my witness, I’ll never mess up Christmas again!!!

Sorry, not sure where the Gone With the Wind misquote came from there.  But you get my drift, don’t you?  We don’t always deal well with things that come along and upset our plans.  We want things to go a certain way, we want to take charge of our lives, our plans, our events.  And then stuff happens.

That would be a good title for our text for this week.  Stuff happens.  Remember this incident?

Luke 1:30-34  And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,  33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."  34 And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?"

Just a snippet of a story this time.  Just some key verses, the core of the dialogue for us to dwell on for a moment.  Don’t go skipping ahead to fill in the rest of the story.  Don’t be too quick to turn to the resolution, to the all’s well that ends well part of the tale.  No, just sit here with Mary, in the rubble of her wedding plans whatever they might have been and wonder “what now?” with her. 

What now?  A question you’ve asked before, maybe recently.  What now?  A very human question, to be sure.  One that we get thrust at us from time to time.  One that comes unbidden to our lips or that echoes in the silence of our minds as we face again the news that has turned our lives upside down.

It may be something simple, a disruption in your carefully planned out patterns of behavior.  It may even be something good and pleasant, something hoped for that you never thought would come, and therefore causes disruption.  Or it may be an unimaginable tragedy that shakes you to the core.  That angel in your living room might have news you can barely comprehend, let alone consider “good news.” 

“How can this be?” seems the most benign of questions in this situation.  And yet it speaks of being turned upside down, or inside out.  This isn’t they way these things are supposed to work.  This Christmas was supposed to be the way it looks on the cards we send.  Our family was supposed to be healthy and happy.  This job was supposed to be a career for my whole life.  This relationship was supposed to last into our twilight years.  “How can this be?”  How can this be that I’m left alone?  How can this be that it didn’t work out?  How can this be .. this disappointment, this hurt, this humiliation, how can this be?

You have to wonder if there were moments in the weeks and months and years to come where Mary remembered the words “you have found favor with God” and had to suppress an inclination to snort with derision.  If this is God’s favor - when she gazed into the confused and disappointed face of her betrothed, when she heard her beloved son say “Who is my mother?” when she came to retrieve him from his madness, when she felt the nails drive into his hands and feet and then knelt underneath him as he handed her over to another even as he died - if this is God’s favor maybe she should have said thanks but no thanks to the angel standing in her living room.

Thanks be to God, she didn’t.  Though the passage ends with the question, we know how the story goes.  The angel gives a less than satisfactory answer - little detail except that God is in charge - and she says yes.  God knows why, but she says yes.  God knows how she had enough information, enough wisdom, enough moral courage to say yes to a life of uncertainty, but she did.  She does.  And so do we.

Don’t we?  Only every day, when we set out, plans in our mind and hope in our heart.  We say yes to the presence of the Spirit who sometimes blesses our plans and sometimes doesn’t, sometimes lets us determine our paths and sometimes takes control of events.  Because God knows we can’t.  Control events, that is, even the events of our own lives.  As much as we would like to, as much as we want to shape our lives and the lives of those around us into pleasant patterns and comfortable networks of safety and contentment, it is beyond us to do so.

When we realize that, then saying yes to God makes the most sense of all.  Why not lean back into the arms of the One who loves you more than you can imagine?  Why not trust that these convoluted series of unimaginable happenstance we call our lives just might have a meaning bigger than we can see in any one given moment?  Why not follow the One who invites us into the greatest adventure that there is? 

In the end plans do come together, they just might not be our plans.  I’m willing to trust that they are plans worth keeping, however, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  So, we let go of our need to control. 

And go with God. 


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Walking on Sunshine

The fog has finally lifted and it looks like a glorious start to December in Indiana, sunshine, warm, just beautiful.  Take that California!  Just what you’ve come to expect for Advent!  Right?

Well, no, frankly, not in the least.  Advent comes in with cold and grey and even the lights and tinsel can’t really break through the dreary progression of days on their inevitable and much to speedy march to a Christmas we aren’t really ready for or in the mood to celebrate.  Oh, we give it a try.  And there is usually some joy to be found.  But it is at best a thinning of the clouds for a momentary glimpse of a light that seems thin and pale and not at all warming.

Especially here on the threshold of Advent.  The season comes roaring in like a lion, scattering our pretensions and startling us out of our complacency.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding” Jesus reminds us, standing in a long tradition of prophets declaring fire and brimstone from on high.  “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?  He is like the refiner’s fire, he is like fullers’ soap.”  Advent will burn you up and then scrub you raw.  Yikes.

No wonder we are hesitant about entering into this season.  No wonder we’d rather run headlong into Christmas, hoping for a softer landing, a more jolly reception.  No wonder we’d rather get to the buying and giving, than the preparing and the being; the celebrating and not the waiting, the receiving and not the anticipating.

Advent doesn’t have a lot going for it, really.  Not in our instant gratification kind of culture anyway.  It is an important spiritual discipline, Advent.  It can reconnect us to the longings of our hearts, the unspoken unsettledness we have from living in a world that isn’t quite like what God had in mind at the beginnings of creation.  It can help us lift our heads above the clamor of a world full of shiny baubles vying for our attention as the solution to our hungers. 

But, frankly, it also makes us a little out of step with the world around us.  As pastor and preacher Lillian Daniels reminds us in a blog post (linked on Aldersgate’s Facebook page), the decorator colors around us have been red and green for weeks now.  But in the church it is the deep contemplative blue or the royal and penitent purple, inviting introspection and reflection.  Out there is a celebration of excess and in here it is   ... what?  Quiet?  Sheltered?  Grey and dreary and lost in a fog?

What is Advent anyway?  Maybe we’ve been off base a bit.  Maybe we need to turn things around.  Maybe we should be the ones who know what celebration really is, maybe we have something to teach the world.  Maybe the real party ought to be in here after all.

Isaiah 7:14   Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:2-7  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

I read Isaiah 9 and heard Katrina and The Waves.  No, not the hurricane, the pop group.  You remember “Walking in Sunshine” don’t you?  OK, yes it was a few years ago, but it got remade fairly recently.  It’s one of those unforgettable pop songs that just gets in your head and you can’t get it out.  Yeah, sorry, I just put it back there, didn’t I?  “I’m walking on sunshine, wooah.”  Gripping chorus, I know.  “I’m walking on sunshine, wo-o-oah.”  Wait, it gets better.  “I’m walking on sunshine, wo-o-o-ah, and don’t it feel good!”

OK, it doesn’t get better.  But it is catchy, it is upbeat.  The opposite of Advent mood it seems to most of us.  I don’t know why the song came to mind, exactly, but I had to look up the lyrics to the verse.  “I used to think maybe you loved me, / now I know its true, / and I don’t want to spend all my life / just in waiting for you / now I don’t want you back for the weekend / not back for a day / no, no / I said baby I want you back / and I want you to stay.”

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.  We used to wonder if God loved us.  And now - because of Christ - we know it is true.  We know.  We don’t wonder, we don’t wander in the darkness.  We know.  What better reason for celebration can there be than that.

And we don’t want to spend our days in just waiting.  Katrina had in mind something else, I know, but I couldn’t help but think of Advent.  If the waiting of Advent is just empty, just wondering, just who knows lets see what might happen, just ... I don’t know ... just just.  If that’s all it is, a distraction, then we don’t want to wait anymore.  But if our waiting is full of the knowledge of God’s love for us, and we move forward living in that love not just on the weekends, not just for a day, but for now and for the rest of our existence.  We can live surrounded by that love, secure that the fulfillment we wait for is tasted in the joys of living in this moment.  What we wait for is what we already have, but even more confident in the knowledge and Presence and joy.

The light that the people of God have seen, is a light we can live in each day, whether the light is still visible to our eyes or not.  We can walk on that sunshine even on the cloudiest of days, we can bask in that glow even in our dreariest moments.  Advent can be, and is a reminder of what we already have, as well as a reminder of what once came and is promised again.  Isaiah reminds us that though the light has shined, the establishment is still in the future, the authority has to grow so that we can make our way to endless peace.  We don’t have to look hard to be reminded that we aren’t there yet.  And yet, there is peace within us, there is peace among us.  We just have to choose to make it last, to make it our priority, our vision and our goal.  We just have to walk on the sunshine of peace right here and right now.

It is a beautiful December day here in Indiana.  A perfect start to an Advent season of hope and of joy.  On them, on you, on me, on us has the light shined.

And don’t it feel good?