Saturday, December 21, 2013

That Christmas Thing

Did that.  Glad it is over.  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, got you 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.

That’s my song this year.  OK, another quirk on its way.  Each season a Christmas song jumps out at me as somehow definitive of the season, or at least of the condition of my heart in this season.  This year it is Rev. Philips Brooks’ classic carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  And while the scene I witnessed this afternoon 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 fog and rain, but the streets were “shinething” 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 the carried along in the wake of Christmas.  Like the dad carrying to 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.  He 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 that he had to go, 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 obedient 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 the 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.  I took Rhys with me this time.  As we pulled into the slow-moving traffic at Jefferson Pointe, he said “wow, look at all the cars.  I guess it is because of that Christmas thing.”  Yes, indeed.  That Christmas thing.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Those of a Fearful Heart

I should have known better.  I should have taken the opportunity when it presented itself.  But I decided to wait, for another time, so as not to disrupt whatever it was that I didn’t want to disrupt.  And that time was supposed to be this time.  This day.  This weekend.  I put off doing the outside decorations - because I wasn't in the mood, because I had better things to do, because I didn't know what I was going to do.  So, I put it off.  And this was the day.  The kids come home at various times this week and I wanted to greet them with lights and greenery, a welcome, a light in the window saying we are glad you are home.  As well as our usual shout from the rooftops that Christ has come, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  That’s what outside decorations are all about after all.  Aren’t they?  And a couple of weeks ago when we first thought about it the temperature was warm, fifty something, as I recall.  

So, then, as I planned it out in my head, this weekend – well actually it was last weekend, but then we had tickets to the Notre Dame women’s basketball and other stuff.  We did get the stuff down from the attic, but it was so cold we had to let it warm up before attempting to put it up.  And then Monday came, my supposed day off, and a family crisis of sorts hit and it didn’t get done then either.  So, this was it.  This weekend.  I was going to try something new, something innovative, something that would make the folks driving by think, boy those people are clever, or artistic or maybe just wow.  They would say wow.  Or ooh and ahh like at the fireworks on the fourth of July.  This weekend.

I just turned around to check, and yes, it is still snowing.  Still.  I slipped and slid my way to church for the men’s group this morning and wondered if that was the smartest thing I ever did.  Not so bad at 7am, but getting worse by the moment.  Bah, humbug.  Maybe I won’t put out the lights after all.  Mumble, mumble.

Trees are up inside, with the lights on them.  La Donna has the candles in the windows, and is putting the ornaments on the trees.  Maybe that is good enough.  Maybe we’ll just be content with that.  Just pack away all the other stuff sitting on the couch – in the cat’s way, I might add.  Maybe we’ll just pack it away and wait for next year to try our new idea.  After all, who says we’ve got to do this anyway?  I mean, the shepherds didn’t hang tinsel from their crooks after they came to the manger.  The wise guys didn’t wear ugly sweaters as they rode from the east.  They didn’t put red noses or antlers on their camels as they drove.  The shepherds didn’t string lights across their sheep-folds scattered across the pasture.  So, why bother?  I mean it is cold.  And still snowing.  Still.

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 both lift us up and knock us down at the same time it seems.  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.

It’s still snowing.  Hmm.  There are, however, lights to hang.  Hands to strengthen, knees to make firm.  Gotta fire up the snowblower.  Merry Christmas!


Saturday, November 30, 2013

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 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 whoever 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 a 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 and 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 portico right now.  There are wanderers who has 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!


Saturday, November 23, 2013

What Have You to Do With Us?

Well, I’m all alone again.  And as much as I enjoy the solitude ... (Solitude relatively speaking, since I’m not really alone, I've got the crazy dogs (who don’t understand why I’m not worried about whoever it was that stole “mom” away this morning, since they are frantic, barking at the closed garage door which swallowed her up not all that long ago.  They bark and run into the office to get me out of my chair to come and worry with them, because they are sure some evil has befallen her.  That’s why they are so excited when she comes home (not so excited when I come home, but that’s another story) It is like Easter Sunday every time mom comes back from the dead)

As much as I enjoy the solitude ... (not really solitude, since I've got the upstairs cats too.  Who every now and then stage a vocal protest about the apartheid situation in our house, or not getting enough food, or someone closed the door to the bathroom, or the fact that there isn't enough sunlight streaming through the windows, or something, who knows what goes through cats’ minds?  Except some strange migratory behavior that causes them to gallop from one end of the upstairs to the other, sounding like a herd of wildebeests thundering across the Serengeti plain.  How two cats can sound like the armies of the Apocalypse, I’ll never understand.)

Besides, it is the week before Thanksgiving.  So, you can’t be alone, there is an air of anticipation, of imminent arrival.  La Donna is away because she has gone to retrieve Maddie from college.  She comes in like a force of nature ready to disturb whatever sense of equilibrium this empty-ish nest has come to settle upon.  A few days later Rhys will be gathered up from his college experience and brought into the mix to tell us what horizons he has explored and mountains he has climbed.  In the middle of that my sister from California flies in to join the festivities and spend time with mom and dad in their new setting in Warren.  So, she will be in and out for a time, hardly know she is there some of the time, at least until the dogs greet her not knowing is she is a stranger or a familiar one when she returns from a day with the folks.  I mean, come on, California!

And then on the day itself, we’ll gather up mom and dad from Warren.  And then my brother and his wife with their two grown daughters will drive from South Bend and the house will be filled to bursting (We are giving the dogs the day off with a couple of nights in the kennels, in case you are wondering).  We've already designated corners for folks to retreat to should the need arise.  We've been there before, you see.  For the most part, we enjoy one another’s company.  For the most part we get along like a house on fire - lots of heat, and yelling and running here and there.  How’s your holiday shaping up?

Lots of food, lots of family fellowship, but space as well.  Lots of voices, stories told and retold, laughter and understanding and, let’s be frank, misunderstanding, and nerves and guilt and hurt feelings and words used to lash out, to protect, to wound even because pride gets in the way when we least expect it.  And the voices are less a comfort and sense of home and hope and joy and more like sandpaper on our soul.  The voices are less a welcome and more a burden, like they are pulling you in too many directions, like they are each wanting a piece of you until there is nothing left and you have lost yourself in the very place where you should be found.  You are uncertain in the very place where you should be sure.  You are nobody in the very place you should be somebody.

Well, you are saying, that escalated quickly!  OK, maybe I exaggerated.  But maybe not.  Family squabbles can be some of the worst.  No one gets on our nerves like family.  Still, it is not like they drive us completely around the bend.  I mean we don’t end up in a cemetery, howling at the moon and chasing away the folks who try to bind us in chains or anything.  Right?

Mark 5:1-20  They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.  2 And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.  3 He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;  4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.  5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.  6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him;  7 and he shouted at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me."  8 For he had said to him, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!"  9 Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" He replied, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.  11 Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding;  12 and the unclean spirits begged him, "Send us into the swine; let us enter them."  13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.  14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened.  15 They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.  16 Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.  17 Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.  18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him.  19 But Jesus refused, and said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you."  20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

 There’s a whole lot in here that would take weeks to unpack.  A whole lot of questions raised that I’m not going to even attempt to answer..  And yet, despite all that, there is a haunting familiarity to this story.  Maybe we are not out of our minds, but we know what it is to be pulled in so many directions we don’t even know our name anymore.  Jesus asks the man, what is your name, and the demons - the addictions, the responsibilities, the distractions, the  brokenness answers.  We are Legion, we are many, so many, too many to count, overwhelming.  He was drowning in them, whatever they were.  Couldn't keep his head above water.  Maybe he thought he could, maybe he had been swimming along, treading water, but then he lost it.  Caught in a lie, dropped something important, couldn't cover for himself anymore, and he went under.

Who knows, he was lost, drowning, and still he preferred the whirlpool he knew to the shoreline he didn't.  “What do you have to do with me, Jesus?”  You aren't going to take away my demons are you?  I've gotten used to them, they are comfortable.  Sure, I’m in pain, cast out, chained by family and friends, but still, I've managed to make a life, such as it is.  You aren't going to ask me to swim for shore, are you?  You aren't going to ask me to grab the lifeline that you throw to me?  Are you, Jesus?

Oh, that all the things that pull us in so many directions would go diving off a cliff and drown in the sea.  Oh, for those moments when we are clothed and in our right minds.  Praise be to God,  when those moments do come, they aren't an end but a new beginning.  “Go home and tell your friends.”  Jesus makes a big assumption here.  That he still has a home and that he still has friends.  Maybe he means the friends that tried to chain him when he was at his worst.  Maybe he means the friends that were so startled by his transformation that they asked Jesus to leave town.  Maybe he means those friends.

Or maybe Jesus just redefined friends and home both.  You notice it says he goes to the Decapolis.  That’s ten towns.  That’s a region not a home town.  He doesn't just go to where he used to live, he goes wherever he can reach.  He goes wherever they will listen.  Maybe he goes back to the source of the voices that once drove him crazy.  But now they are home, now they are family.  Part of the gift of new life is that home is redefined, even as you are redefined.  And then it isn't about proving yourself, or holding your own, or getting even.  It’s about loving, as he loved.  Happy Thanksgiving.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ears to Hear

You’d think that since we are talking about a blind man who receives his sight this weekend, that I’d title this “Eyes to See.”  But no, it’s about ears.  And not because that it the repeated statement by Jesus in the gospels.  Well, ok, partly because that is the repeated statement by Jesus in the gospels.  He spends a lot of time healing the blind, and only a little bit of time on the deaf.  But he talks about hearing as though it was a choice more often than either of them.  

Let those who have ears to hear, hear!  That’s what he says over and over.  Like it is a choice, a decision we make or don’t make.  Like we enter into the words and move around in them.  Like we try them on for size, checking the fit.  Is that me he’s talking about? We can wonder.  Where am I in this story?  Who am I in this teaching?  Jesus never forces us to understand, he just offers the opportunity and then leaves it up to us.

That’s why I titled this study the way I did, because I choose to listen this week.  Usually I’m doing the talking.  But this week Pastor Chris is preaching and so I get to listen.  And I am reading and preparing enough to be present in the hearing.  I’m trying to have ears to hear.

The danger is that I’ll sit there thinking, that’s not how I would have said it!  Or sometimes it’s “I wish I had said that!”  But this time, it is my intent to just listen.  To hear, to see.  

Mark 10:46 - 11:1   They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  49 Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you."  50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.  51 Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again."  52 Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.  

They told him to be quiet.  They told him to keep to the margins, to stay away, to not interrupt.  But he kept on shouting.  But here is the amazing part, Jesus asked him what he wanted.  I know, you’re thinking, what is so amazing about that?  He was shouting for attention.  Of course he is going to know what he wanted.  But I have found that that isn’t always true.  Sometimes the loudest shouters don’t really know what they want.  They only know that they aren’t happy, or aren’t getting their way, or are forced into some change, some position that they don’t want.  So, they may be able to answer Jesus if he asks them “What don’t you want?”  Or “Why are you unhappy?”  But Jesus doesn’t tend to ask what is wrong, he asks what would make it right?  What do you want me to do for you?

Bartimaeus didn’t hesitate.  Let me see again.  Not, solve all my problems, or make bad things or bad people go away.  Let me see again.  Then from there, I’ll follow you.  For there I’ll let your will become my will as I daily search out the path that you would have me walk.  Let me see again, so that I can be about the business of opening eyes to who you are and what you have to offer this world that clings to its blindness.  Let me see again, so that I can find you whenever I need to.

That’s my prayer this weekend.  Let me see again.  Let me hear again.  I come to sit at your feet, Jesus.  Join me.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

What Are You Talking About?

Well, Maddie has found her circle.  The group of folks who know her best, who call her by name and meet her in her need.  We all need to find where we belong, don’t we?  The problem here is that this circle is made up of folks who work in the Emergency Room of the hospital in Springfield, Ohio.

OK, she has other friends, college friends, she is really doing well on that front.  But he has made multiple trips to the ER and now they know her by name.  The latest occasion was for what was self-diagnosed strep that turned out to be tonsillitis.  A pack of college girls and the internet can be a dangerous thing, just sayin’.

But she is fine, got some medication, took some time to rest and now is back at it.  The phone calls continue, however.  See, Maddie likes to talk.  When she is nervous, when she is excited, when she is anxious or hopeful or just plain Maddie, she likes to talk.  Sometimes when I got pick her up, I don’t have to say anything for a couple of hours of the drive back home, she will gladly fill the space with the sound of her own voice.  

Now we have a new description of when Maddie likes to talk - when she is on drugs.  Now, hold on there, that’s not what I mean.  After one of her visits to the ER, she came away with a prescription or two; one of which sent her just a little out of phase with reality.  She called and chattered away to both La Donna and me and neither of us had a clue what she was talking about most of the time.  And when we did know, we had no idea what that subject had to do with anything else we might have been saying at the time.  It was hard to follow, and yet entertaining at the same time.  And it made me feel like I was in a conversation in the Gospel of John.  

There is a surreal quality to most of the conversations that take place in John.  Especially these early ones.  Like if you were listening in your expected response would be along the lines of “huh?”  Sometimes it seems to be Jesus who is off track, at least that was last week’s experience.  Jesus comments kept coming out of left field and Nicodemus’ head was spinning trying to keep up. 

This time, however, Jesus seems to be a little more focused in the moment, it is his conversation partner who keeps coming in from somewhere else.  Almost like they were trying to avoid talking about the issues at hand.  Take a look and see what you think.

John 4:5-26  So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.  7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."  8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."  11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?"  13 Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,  14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."  15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."  16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back."  17 The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband';  18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"  19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem."  21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."  25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."  26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you." 

John likes pairs – dark and light, spirit and flesh, Kingdom and world.  Some scholars argue that this conversation is supposed to be a pair with the one in the previous chapter.  In chapter 3, we have Nicodemus, the named, leader of the Jews, a male in a male dominated society, but wealthy and powerful who comes to Jesus at night.  Here we have an unnamed woman (it is troubling how many unnamed women there are in the bible - so many that we can’t help but notice and pledge to not overlook those our society deems unimportant), who is an outsider with the troubled history who encounters Jesus at high noon.  

But she is far more than just a cipher, a symbol with no ultimate value, a zero.  She is the object of Jesus’ love, though she tries her best to avoid it.  That is what is going on here.  Jesus wants to love her, to heal her and save her.  But just when he gets closer she moves away.  She distracts him with questions designed to change the subject. Designed, we might assume, to protect herself from unwanted attention.

What do we know about her?  Not a lot.  She was a Samaritan, hated by the Jews for polluting the bloodline and for worshiping in the wrong place.  She was at the well at the wrong time, which turned out to be the right time.  Water drawing time was morning.  The women of the village would gather together and visit and catch up, the social intercourse that made small town life so wonderful and so painful at times.  And, oh yes, they would draw the water needed for the day.  But this woman chose to avoid all of that social interaction.  To come at the wrong time so that she could avoid the conversation.  And what did she find?  Conversation.  A frighteningly intimate conversation.  A troublingly informed intimate conversation.

That’s what else we know, she is not very good at marriage.  Centuries of tradition tell us that she was a woman of low morals, running from man to man, not taking wedding vows very seriously, she was a bad person in need of redemption.  Recent thinking wonders if perhaps she was a victim, treated as property, tossed away when she no longer entertained, or the consequence of bad luck passed from brother to brother until the latest refused to do his statutory duty and marry her, thus forcing her to live in shame, the object of gossip and disdain; a broken person in need of redemption.  

Does it matter?  Well, in one sense, no.  Jesus was here to love her regardless of her past.  She needed a new start, she needed transformation, she needed to be convinced that she was capable of being loved.  She needed someone to listen deeply enough and persistently enough to not be distracted by her words and to hear her heart.

And that’s what she got.  The story continues, as you know.  The disciples come back and are shocked by the scene - just as the woman was shocked at the beginning, and they interrupt while she slips away.  But she doesn’t go and hide.  After this exposed encounter she goes to the very ones she was avoiding and invites them to come and see him.  “He told me everything I had ever done!  Can he be the messiah?”

Now what are you talking about?


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Questions in the Night

Nothing good happens in the middle of the night.  The phone rings at 3:45am, and ninety nine times out of a hundred it is bad news.  Something has gone wrong.  Someone is in trouble.  Somebody is desperate.  Or lost.  Or alone.  Or afraid.  Count on it.  

On the other hand, sometimes babies are born in the middle of the night and the news is too good to keep until the sun rises hours later.  Breakthroughs are made by those burning the midnight oil.  Love is found, hearts are mended, peace is waged, and  journeys begun in the small hours of the night.  

Are you a morning person?  Leaping out of bed at the first slivers of light on the horizon, ready to embrace the possibilities that lie before you?  Certain as the noonday sun, unfolding like a flower under the life-giving rays of light, grabbing the gusto of each bright moment, living where there are few shadows and fewer doubts?  Are you a person of tasks to accomplish and lists to complete, going and doing and connecting and relating?  Is this you?  God bless you and have at it.   Or... 

Are you a night person?  Ready to ponder the meaning of existence under the influence of the stars, writing deep thoughts while the moon waxes and wanes?  Does the darkness inspire the poet in you, or the wee hours raise questions you have to pursue despite the wagging finger of the clock hand ticking away precious seconds when you should be sleeping?  Join the club.  There are thoughts to think in the middle of the night.

Of course it is nonsense to believe it has to be an either/or.  No one is summed up so simply, no one is defined so completely in one or the other.  No one fits in simple categories, do they?  Of course not.  Well, then, neither does Nicodemus.

Who?  You know.  That guy in the Gospel of John, who just shows up and doesn’t have the decency to wear an identification badge.  So, we don’t know whether he is a good guy or a bad guy, or worse, a guy who can’t decide.  Those twilight people (not “Twilight” - not talking Team Edward here), neither one thing or the other.  Wishy-washy: that was the worst thing Lucy could think of to call Charlie Brown.  Pick a side Nicodemus, will ya?  Or did he?

John 3:1-17  Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."  3 Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above."  4 Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?"  5 Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.  6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.'  8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."  9 Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"  10 Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?  11 "Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony.  12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?  13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

It was the coming at night thing that got him into trouble.  Was he ashamed to be seen talking to Jesus?  Was he afraid of what his companions would say?  He was a leader of the Jews, John says.  Probably in the Sanhedrin, the governing body of Israel, not priests or rabbis necessarily, but also not divorced from religious issues.  The whole church/state divide was not a issue for them.  They were God’s people so to govern was to care for souls as well as bodies, to run the state was to be concerned about the purity of the faith and about obedience to God.

So maybe it was a junket, a fact finding mission that politicians are always taking.  Maybe he was sent by the Committee with Oversight on Delusional Messiahs to check into this Jesus thing.  Or maybe that was just the time of day he functioned best.  So, after clocking out and telling his secretary that he was done for the day and picking up his briefcase and checking his email he headed out.  Glancing at the clock tower over the statehouse he realized that it was too late for supper at home, his wife had already gone to bed.  So, he headed to his favorite diner that was open late for something that would upset his already churning stomach.  His favorite waitress was still on duty and brought him his usual without even having to ask.  When she came back to fill his water glass and plunk down the pink antacids he lived on, she said “That Jesus guy is in town.”  

He sighed when he heard that, and debated pretending he didn’t.  It sounded like work, going to check him out.  He thought about ignoring the tip and making his lonely way home.  But sitting on a subway at this time of night didn’t appeal to him either, so before he talked himself out of it he said “Where?”  She told him what she heard and how some of the other girls were going to see what he was all about in the morning.  And that she was thinking maybe she would go too.  Just to see, she shrugged, knowing that her best customer wouldn’t like it very much.  He gave his usual generous tip anyway and shambled out into the night.  He headed toward his subway stop, but then just keeps walking.  Heading toward the edge of town, he finds himself hoping.  What he can’t decide is if he hopes he is there or he isn’t.  

He works on his approach as he walks.  Butter him up, he thinks, start with a joke maybe.  “I’m Nicodemus, I’m from the government and I’m here to help!”  That’s always good for a laugh, to break the ice.  But no, he decides, flattery, that gets them off their guard and I can perhaps find out what his story is.  Flattery with a touch of “we’re watching you,” that’ll get him.  “We know you are a teacher who has come from God...”  Yeah, that’ll get him.

Well, it didn’t.  Jesus took control of the conversation from the start, answering questions he didn’t think to ask, tripping him up with metaphor and image, and then boldly claiming who he was, reminding us all that we are in the Gospel of John, no Messianic Secret here, that’s for sure.  Even a cursory read of the Gospel makes it feel like Jesus is trying to pick a fight.  And Nicodemus is on the ropes throughout this whole conversation.  “Can one enter into the mother’s womb and be born a second time?”  “How can these things be?”  His head is spinning, he is lost in the rhetoric, in the commands, in his inability to grasp deeper truths.  Even Jesus wonders at his ignorance.  “Are you a teacher and you don’t get it?”   How should he respond to that?  

He doesn’t get a chance.  Jesus bull rushes on, trampling over whatever thoughts he might have had and plunks down what is probably the most remembered verse in the whole New Testament.  And Nicodemus’ world was turned upside down, or right side up.  And he was never the same again.  He appears two more times in the Gospel and both times it is to stand up for Jesus, it is to take his side, regardless of the tide of opinion.

It is All Saints Sunday this weekend.  Which is a time for remembering that all of us, any of us have mixed motives at best.  We aren’t called saints, those we remember aren’t called saints because they did everything right and always had the right reasons and the right intentions.  If that is how we remember those who have gone before, then our memories are fuzzy at best.  No, what makes us and them saints is that they were loved, by us, yes, but more importantly, by the one who came that we might have life, by the one who invites us into eternity.  What makes them and us saints is that we came with questions, maybe the wrong questions, but we came and we heard and maybe, by the grace of God we learned.  And we tried to love like he loved.  Night and day.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

First to the Lord

My son is magic.  Well, not really magic, to be honest.  But there is an odd little quirk that seems to happen around his birthday.  He gets to be home for his birthday.  His birthday is October 25th and so you would think that he would have to be in school, unless it fell on a weekend.  But sometimes it is fall break on his birthday, one year it snowed and school was closed, another year there was a fog delay that became a cancellation.  It is weird.  I’m sure that there were some years when he had to go to school on the actual date, but I don’t remember any at the moment.  And there have been a lot of them.  Twenty to be exact.

It startled me just writing that.  Twenty years!  I still remember meeting him at Chicago O’Hare Airport, looking like he just woke up - a look with which we are still familiar - but wide-eyed in wonder at the world which must have been incomprehensibly different from the one he left behind.  

In the wash of emotions that gripped me in that moment – from joy to fear, wonder and anxiety, hope and helplessness – the one that overpowered them all was gratitude.  I was just so thankful for this life, even though I knew I didn’t have a clue how to care for him.  I was giddy with gratefulness, I thanked everyone I passed.  The couple who brought him over on that long flight from South Korea, they too looked like they had been up all night, thank you.  The members of the crew, of any crew, I didn’t know who flew his plane and who didn’t, so I thanked them all.  Workers in the airport, travelers looking for their connections, drivers of taxis and busses, pedestrians and parking attendants, I thanked them all.  Above all, I thanked God, the author of this happy ending that is still in process, who deemed us worthy of claiming this gift, one of God’s precious ones given up by a mother who couldn’t keep him and put on a list that made its way around the world so that we could be blessed by his presence in our lives.  I am forever grateful to that mother, who we don’t know and never will know, but who also didn’t know how she blessed us and how we took her gift and made it a part of us.

Because in that moment I knew I was in debt, deeper than I could ever repay, even though repaying was something that I had dedicated my life to in those busy corridors of one of the world’s busiest airports.  You don’t need a sanctuary colored by the streams of soft light through stained glass to recognize your indebtedness, airports work quite well for me.  And I know it sounds odd, but every time I have flown in the past twenty years I walk through those terminals as though in a sanctuary, a holy place of connections and destinations, of tearful farewells and joyous homecomings.  

And I’m grateful.  In the deepest corners of my being, I am grateful.  I know I forget sometimes, or fail to recall.  And yet it is there, when I gaze across the table or read the text message that comes or the phone call because he is bored at college, and usually at the most inconvenient of times.  But underneath the irritation or the distraction or the repetition of the same banal questions, there swells up in me a thankfulness that longs to burst forth in acts of generosity and sacrifice.  I want to give him, give them joy, to give them love, to give them me no matter the cost.  I want to give God glory for what I have been blessed to receive, I want to shout from the rooftops until the whole world knows that life is a gift and that we are privileged to not only receive but to give, not only to be blessed but to bless others.  

Underneath all the rhetoric of our passage for this week, Paul is wanting the same thing.  Wanting his readers to give with that kind of passion, that kind of understanding.  

2 Corinthians 8:1-15   We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;  2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints--  5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,  6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.  
7 Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.  10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something--  11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have.  13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between  14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  15 As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." 

“For if the eagerness is there ...”  What a phrase to use to talk about stewardship.  Instead of duty, instead of responsibility, Paul uses eagerness.  Eagerness to give.  He primes the pump by talking about Macedonia, and how they begged him to let them be a part of the collection.  But he doesn’t present it as a competition.  Rather it is an opportunity for them to let some of the joy that has been poured into them leak out and bless others.  

In Philippians, Paul writes what has come to be called the Christ hymn.  (Phil 2:6-11) Here he condenses that great poetic theology into one verse: “ For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  But in that verse carries the church’s theology of grace and response.  And after that he gives some advice.  Advice?  Paul, giving advice?  Yes, what an amazing thing.  He makes a suggestion, doesn’t lay a command on us.  And what is that advice?  Let it out.  Let out the joy that is within you, let out the gratitude that is in you.  Let it out in generosity.  Let it out in giving.

This offering that he is collecting here is for the saints in Jerusalem.  The mother church has fallen on difficult times and now it is the privilege of the new, upstart churches in the Gentile world to give back.  There is more than just a church mission operation here.  Paul is helping the church be one.  There is not, for Paul anyway, a Jewish Christian church and a Gentile Christian church and each can take care of itself.  No, there is one church and like the beginnings of the church in the book of Acts, his vision is that there are none who have need among them because they each give what they can.  

In addition to telling them to be prudent about their giving, but to trust in the providence of God (that was why he tossed in the verses about manna - about trusting that there will be enough, whether a little or a lot), Paul also tells them to finish what they started, or to follow through on their intentions, depending on how you read verses ten and eleven.  But even there, it isn’t as an obligation, but an outlet for the joy of responding to the blessings of God that drives the giving.  “So that your eagerness may be matched by completion.”  Just do it, but do it with joy, do it with gratitude, do it as a way of making real the gratitude that lives within you.

Sunday after worship we will take Rhys back to university.  It is a long drive and he’ll probably fall asleep.  I’m sure it will be somewhat low key as these things tend to be.  But for me it is always a reminder of how some gifts that  we are given are not ours to keep, but to give away.  The grace remains, however, the grace of receiving and the grace of giving.  And maybe that is the magic, such as it is.  That we are made complete even in the giving away.  Happy Birthday Rhys. I am blessed to be your dad.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bring My Sons

The nest is full again.  We were just getting used to the emptiness, to be honest –  La Donna, the menagerie and I.  But now it is fall break and after many miles over the past couple of days, we have them safely gathered in.  And it is good.  Nice.  A little odd, frankly.  Seemingly crowded.  But just right.  You know?  

How could you?  I don’t even understand what I just wrote.  Or this interesting experience going on around here this weekend.  They are the same as the ones we delivered to their respective institutions of learning, and yet they aren’t.  It is exciting to watch, to see them grow and change and develop into something faintly recognizable.  Exciting and troubling, wonderful and unsettling, making me long for the future and for the past all at the same time.

Yeah, weird, I know.  But there it is.  Or there I am.  Treading water, which seems to be my usual state these days.  Not always sure which way to turn, afraid that whichever way chosen only leads to deeper water.  Hmm.  

Hang on a moment.  That isn’t really the tone I intended for this piece.  I’m excited about the kids return from college.  It was fun to sit around the table and listen to them relate the experiences of their lives and to know that we had prepared them well, or as well as we could.  And now we get to enjoy them as the adults they are becoming.  What could be more satisfying than that?  Can’t think of a thing.  I am proud.  More than proud, I am blessed.  

So, why is there an ache in some random corner of my soul that wishes we could go back?  Why is there a longing to be who we were rather than who we are going to be?  I wouldn’t begrudge them their adventures and their explorations, I anticipate good things for both.  Watching their eyes light up as they talk about favorite subjects, and connections made, opportunities seized is exciting and heartwarming and just as it should be.  It is almost as though I can hear the Spirit drawing them off onto their own paths to who knows where, as thrilling and terrifying as that is.  

Isaiah 43:1-7  But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;  6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--  7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." 

Isaiah speaks a word to people who are longing.  And underwater.  Or walking through the rapids of loss and exile, of war and death.  And the word he speaks is one of hope.  It is a word of redemption.  It is a word of comfort.  Just what they need.  But maybe not what they want.

What they want is a rescue.  Take us out of here!  Fix it, fix them, fix us.  Make it right.  That’s what we want in desperate situations.  But what we get instead is Presence.  I will be with you, thus says the Lord.  OK, a good thing.  No, a wonderful thing, but ... why don’t we get what we really want?  Why don’t we get a wave of the divine hand and circumstances change?  Why don’t enemies get sent packing, and good guys get sent home?  Why doesn’t God  just get up and do something about everything that is wrong is our world right now?

Why doesn’t it say in the forty third chapter of Isaiah that when you sign up for God’s team there won’t be any waters?  Why doesn’t is tell us that following God means you won’t have to walk through fire?  But it doesn’t say that, does it?  No, it says, when you walk through fire!  It says when you pass through the waters!  When?!  It is like it is inevitable.  Like a safe bet.  Like you’d better just count on it.  Well, thanks.  Thanks a lot.  If God followers aren’t any safer from disaster or catastrophe, then what’s the point?  If we don’t have some divine protection from harm, why bother?

That “what’s in it for me?” question really gets under my skin.  It sounds like a consumer approach to faith.  I’m only interested in what I can get out of it.  But once in a while, it is a question that needs asking.  What do we get, Isaiah?  When the chips are down, when all seems lost, when the questions outnumber the answers, what do we get?

Presence.  John Wesley’s last words, it is reported, were “best of all God is with us.”  Best of all, he said.  Presence is the greatest gift.  Presence is grace at work within us.  Presence is what enables us to endure whatever the waters bring, whatever the fire burns around us.  We are not alone.  And not only that, but this Presence is a loving Presence.  We are precious to that Presence.  We are known by name.  And the promise is that wherever we go, wherever this life drives us, for good or for ill, we will be called home to the one who loves us.

It is only in this light that we can make sense of the second passage for this week.  Yes, there are two this time, a rare thing.  But I wanted to dwell on this first one before turning to Peter and his very first sermon in the book of Acts.  It happened on Pentecost day, and we have read it many times.  But since we are usually distracted by the sound of the mighty wind and tongues as of flame, we forget that Peter stood up to speak that day.  Here is what he said:

Acts 2:14-21   But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' 

Here again we can get lost in the blood and fire and smoky mist if we aren’t careful.  We can get caught up in the interpretation, in looking for the signs, in proclaiming the end times.  But Peter says this isn’t a future event that we need to look for, it is happening right now, right then.  What was interpreted as drunken revelry was in fact fulfillment of prophecy.  This is the Spirit reminding us that we are not alone.  We who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we who were certain that all our hopes and all our plans were nailed to a cross and cast to the winds of tyranny, we are not alone.

That is what salvation is, says Peter, Presence.  The Spirit is present as they walk through that valley.  The Christ is present as they take up his mantle of proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives.  The Father is present as they hear their names called and rise up to follow – and teach and preach and live the gospel with their last breath.  Not because they are promised safety, but because of the Presence.  

Best of all... I’m glad they are home.  Despite the disruption to our new schedules, despite the fact that they insist on continuing to become different people than the ones we sent away, despite that I am lost at times when I try to comprehend where they are going and who they will be ... still I’m glad they are here for a time.  Best of all ... God is with us.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

And There Was Morning

I’m all out of sorts this morning.  OK, it isn’t morning anymore.  It was when I started this process.  Not much of morning to be sure, but a little bit of morning was left.  But that has now been frittered away.  Frittered?  Does anyone use that word anymore?  Frittered, means to break or tear into small pieces, to waste away piece by piece.

Well, the morning began with the crazy dogs.  La Donna is gone at a Conference UMW meeting of some sort, left last night.  I had to pill the cat before going to bed.  Fun.  Especially since both cats are grumping around, wrecking all kinds of havoc, ever since Maddie left.  They seem to think we have done away with her in some nefarious manner and now they are making us pay.  We have to cover the bed with a shower curtain.  Yeah, that kind of havoc.

Anyway, I had to get up early (after 13 innings of the first game of the National League Championship Series - go Dodgers) to walk the dogs.  Which I apparently have forgotten how to do.  They kept stopping to look at me as if they were saying, “Now what are you doing?”  Then I either went too slow or too fast.  Didn’t perform the right rituals when we got back to the house.  Didn’t say the right words when I saw them in the morning.  Fed them the wrong food, or put it in the bowl wrong.  Or something.  When crazy dogs give you a look of disdain, it can be hard to take early in the morning.

Then I had to go get my tire fixed.  Somewhere I picked up a nail in my tire that caused a slow leak, not a blow out, thankfully, but a slow leak.  Added air a couple of times (paying for it, nothing is free anymore - I bought air), and it would be ok for a while, but then went out and saw it was completely flat.  So, a tire plug and rotation and oil change (since I was there anyway), then I was back ready to start.

My Saturday of preparation was blown out of the water before I even got started.  Plus I was gone for over a week and got back and walked into the buzz saw of the necessary day to day stuff, effectively snuffing out the excitement that had been building over the plans for 2014.  

Chaos.  That what is feels like.  Like there isn’t any order, any sense of rightness about my life today.  I know, get over it, right?  There are folks tons worse off than you.  There are places in the world today that are light years more chaotic than yours.  We’ve got a world holding its collective breath over whether the United States will default on an almost incomprehensible debt, which would trigger an economic collapse that would dwarf 2008, some say.  We’ve got a super storm threatening the Indian peninsula.  We’ve got the remains of a twelve year old war in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Add to that our usual crushing poverty and human exploitation on a global scale, and you’ve got chaos that staggers the already staggered imagination.  

Genesis 1:1-5   In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  

What’s this?  Order, out of chaos.  Light in the midst of darkness.  And the light was good.  And there was morning.  When you didn’t think there could be another one, there is morning.  Thanks be to God.

Genesis 1:6-8   And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."  7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 
The waters represent chaos, the unknown and unknowing.  In the ancient world, sending sailors to sea was a traumatic experience.  The ritual for sending was like a funeral, the return like a resurrection.  Who knows what is going to happen out there, who knows whether those who are sent will ever be seen again.  Now we have tamed the sea.  At least we think we have.  Until the storm surge reminds us what power is, until the threat of rising waters troubles our easy confidence.  What will our coastlines look like in fifty years?  In a hundred?  

By separating the waters, God was staking a claim as Lord of chaos and order.  Saying “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”  Our God is in control.

Genesis 1:9-13  And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.  11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so.  12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

Let the earth put forth.  God enlists the aid of creation in the act of creating.  God invites partnership.  Work with me here, God is saying, get on board.  Though perfectly capable of creating solo, out of nothing, God instead chooses to invite participation.  Let the earth bring forth... it was good.  And there was morning.  It goes on.

Genesis 1:14-19   And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so.  16 God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars.  17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,  18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 

The Genesis story stands in opposition to other creation stories.  Many have pointed to the similarities, and believe that this diminishes the story somehow.  But Genesis makes its claim regardless.  God is the only deity, notice that the sun and moon are not named in this story.  In other tales, these are gods themselves, but not in Genesis.  God is the only power, the lights “rule” only because God put them there.  And it was good.

Genesis 1:20-31  And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky."  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.  24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 

The story goes on, of course.  For sixty-six books and for thousands of years.  It goes on until today, where we find ourselves in the midst of chaos attempting to throw off order.  It goes on until the day where we find ourselves forgetting that there is a purpose to our existence.  It goes on, the story, the mornings go on.

That’s the blessing here.  It was evening and it was morning, a new day.  Another day.  When you were sure that your failures meant the sun would never shine again, it crawls over the horizon even so.  God set it all in motion, and invited us to be a part.  Whatever dominion meant, it now must mean caring for, it must mean stewarding.  We participate in God’s act of creation by making sure that it lasts as long as it can.  Whatever subduing meant, it now must mean partnering with the earth to bring forth enough to feed the teeming billions.  

And why?  Why are we called to participate in this act?  Why are privileged or burdened with an extra responsibility or promise?  Because we are made in the image of God.  And we are given the story, so we know.  We know that everything there is did not come about because of us.  We know that our main mode of existence is one of gratitude.  We know that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who said “let there be light.”  

Did I mention that our Stewardship Campaign begins this week?  It is called “Investing in a Sure Thing.”  And we start, not with us and what we can do, or should do, or will do.  We start with what has been done for us.  We start with the One who invested everything that we might have life.  And then called it good.  

And gave us another morning.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

There Will Come a Time

The vast hall reverberated with silence.  The stunned students sat looking vacantly toward the man who stood before them, seemingly unwilling to speak.  Perhaps he could explain the events of the past few hours.  Perhaps he could give meaning where there seemed only madness.  The silence dragged on, and none dared to breathe, or look at the one bruised and beaten boy who sat among them but was obviously not with them.  He was somewhere else.  Reliving some dark moment, some unspeakable truth, carrying a weight none of them could imagine.

As if suddenly coming to himself, the headmaster began to speak, but not the hoped for words of comfort and assurance.  Instead he confirms for their already shaken souls just how ugly the world has gotten, just how their simple dreams of safety and security were shattered.  “Dark times,” he breathes as though hesitant to even speak the words he knows he must.  “Dark times lie ahead of us,” he pauses as if to gather up the gaze of each fearful face gathered before him, “and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

Of course, that was fiction.  The final chapter of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Albus Dumbledore speaking to the gathered Hogwarts students after Harry’s encounter with the returned Voldemort, the evil of dark wizards.  Just typing it here makes me feel a little silly.  Wizards and magic, not something we have to deal with in the real world.  Kid’s stuff, fantasy, dismissible.  Let’s get to something of significance, something that makes a difference in how we live our lives each and every day.  We’re not surrounded by trolls and dark wizards or elves and orcs, but duties and responsibilities, joys and heartaches.  So, how shall we live?

Luke 9:23-25   Then he said to them all, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.  25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Which book of the bible uses the word “choose” the most?  Surprisingly, it is Deuteronomy, that book we skip over in our read through because we think it is full of the rules of regulations of an ancient and nomadic culture.  And, to be frank, I haven’t spent a lot of time in Deuteronomy either.  Sure there is the heart of the law there, the second  listing of the ten words given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and the core statement of the faith called the “Shema” in Hebrew after the first word “Hear.”  “Hear o Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  To that Jesus added the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves to give us the Great Commandment.  That has its roots in Deuteronomy.

But aside from that?  Well ... Apparently there is a lot of choosing.  It is as though inherent in the design of being the people of God there is choice.  Well, duh.  Scriptures are full of choosing, and the memorable ones are more dramatic than what we find in the book of Deuteronomy.  There is Joshua – “Choose this day whom you will serve ... But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”  Ah, there is the terrible enemy Goliath (the “He who must not be named of the nation of Israel) – “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me.”  Makes you shiver just to imagine him bellowing those words across the valley of Elah.  There is the taunt of Elijah to the priests of Baal – Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first for you are many, then call on your god.”   There is Isaiah singing the song of Emmanuel, saying “he will know how to refuse the evil and choose the good” while still a toddler, just beginning to eat solid food, our great hope.  

Then there is the man who reminds Jesus that he has a choice to make too.  “Lord, if you choose you can make me clean.”  And the response “I do choose.  Be clean!”  He chooses the twelve.  And then reminds them that he chose them they didn’t choose him, just as he is about to leave them and send them out to choose how to live their lives without him at their side as he had been for these all too few years.  Then the church chose a replacement for the one who chose wrong.  The grand sweep of choice reverberates through the whole bible.  Wrong choices and right one, and many left un-chosen as examples for us.

The church has grabbed hold of choosing, and laid it out like a diploma we can grab, like a mountain that we climb and then have conquered.  Have you chosen, we ask, in lots of different ways.  “Are you saved?”  “Are you born again?”  “Have you said yes to Jesus?”  We present it like it is a one time thing.

Luke’s version of Jesus saying presents a different though.  These verse appear in all four gospels, that makes it somewhat unique.  Adds a little extra weight to the words by the repetition.  But Luke’s remembrance is a little bit different than all the others.  He is the only one who adds the word “daily” to the call to discipleship.  “Take up their cross daily” Jesus says.  Them, us, the followers who would be.  The ones trying to make our way in this world.  The ones who face a mind-numbing array of decisions on a regular basis.  Daily, one could say.

And most of those decisions don’t seem to matter much in the greater scheme of things.  No big deal, really.  What difference does it make, we ask ourselves, here and there if we choose this and not that, if we go one way or the other.  How will these little choices lead me astray or get me off track or make a hill of beans kind of difference in the world around me or within me?

Hard to say, really.  Maybe it won’t, maybe they don’t make a difference.  Except that Jesus seems to be describing a life here, not just a choice.  Not just a one time are you in or are you out kind of checkpoint we wander through.  But something more like orienteering.  Something like finding our way through the wilderness of living.  In which case every choice, not just big ones, but every choice serves to move us closer to where we want to be.  Or away from that goal.

A step here or there, doesn’t seem like it would matter all that much.  Until Jesus begins to talk about end results.  “What would it profit to gain the whole world and lose your soul?”  Hey, Jesus, how about just a little off track?  How about mixed up, or distracted, or confused, or angry, or hurt?  Why not focus on something smaller?  Something less ... eternal.  Lose your soul.  

That’s what’s at stake, Jesus says.  In all these choices, even the ones we don’t stop to think about.  The ones that don’t seem to matter all that much.  The ones that don’t seem to hurt anyone.  And maybe they don’t matter all that much.  But what if we saw them as training for the big ones?  What if we saw daily living not as something to get through, but as a part of the bigger picture, the vision of the kingdom?  And that our joy is to be able to contribute to the kingdom by the choices we make?

And what if we decided that we were going to choose not what we wanted, but what was good for others and for all?  What if we chose to set our desires and inclinations aside long enough to hear what the crying needs for the community around us really were.  What if we chose to do not what is expedient, but what is healthy for us and all of creation even if it meant giving up what we’ve come to take for granted?  What if we chose to find ourselves by not putting ourselves first, but by not thinking about ourselves at all?  

What if we chose not what is easy, but what is right?

Maybe Dumbledore was on to something after all.