Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dreaming of Christmas

Forty degrees?  On Christmas week in northern Indiana?  Forty plus degrees?  Something ain’t right, folks.  Wait, did I say forty?  Well, according to my weather app it will be almost fifty on Christmas Eve eve.  I know that isn’t an official designation, but still, I’m bummed.  That’s just too high!

Mom and I watched White Christmas when I was in Tennessee a week ago.  Well, dad was there too, but mostly sleeping.  And there was Bing starting and ending the whole movie singing that song we all know.  “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know, where the tree tops glisten (sing with me) and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.   Sorry kids, Santa can’t make it.  No snow!!  Grumble, grumble.  And I know that snow is a hassle and that our snow removal budget at church was gone by mid February last year and how much better and safer it would be if there weren’t big piles of the frozen white stuff to move around.  But still.  Me and Bing, we’re dreaming.

Seems to me there are two kinds of dreams.  Yeah, OK, Dr. Freud, maybe there are more kinds than just two and if we were spend time unpacking them all we would be ripe for intensive therapy for years to come.  But for our purposes in this space, just go with me here.  There are two kinds of dreams.  The dreaming of white Christmases dream is a dream of what once was.  A dream of what we remember, what we long to return to.  Just like the ones I used to know.  It was better then, safer, friendlier, happier, better then.  If only we could go back.  This was the dominant dream of many of the Hebrew refugees in the time of the Exodus.  Oh, it used to be so much better.  Why did you bring us out here to die, they complained to Moses.  We had everything back there.  It was nice, we weren’t so hungry, so lost, so afraid.  Here isn’t so hot, let’s go back.  There is always a back to Egypt committee in every organization, in every church.  There are those who are convinced that if we only went back and did things like we used to do them, then everything would be just fine.  That was a much better way to go, a better way to be.  We’re dreaming of the Christmas we used to know.

Then there are the dreams of what is not yet.  What might be, what could be.  There are dreams of moving forward into an uncertain future.  Dreams that break the rules, dreams that change the status quo, dreams that just might get us into trouble.  Right Joseph?

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. 

I’ll admit it, I’ve always thought that the Christmas story was unfair to Joseph.  Mary gets a visitation from an archangel.  Joseph gets a dream.  A dream that came because of a restless night of worry and frustration, added to anger and despair, I have no doubt.  A dream that came with an outlandish request.  A dream that said maybe he could set himself aside long enough, maybe he could risk the ridicule and the shame, maybe he could claim what everyone else would see as a horrible mistake and call it his own.  Maybe he could.  No, he should.  He needed to, he was part of the plan.

See, the dream didn’t say just go along with this Joseph.  It didn’t say let it play out and see how it goes.  Hedge your bets.  Wait and see.  No, that wasn’t the dream, that wasn’t the angel from God.  No, Joseph woke up with a certainty.  Whether the certainty was his or was from beyond him we may never know.  But it was there.  And Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  

The dream called for action, it called for commitment.  And not just a go team, jump aboard the bandwagon kind of commitment.  No, this was a swim against the tide, a drive right into the flow of traffic invitation.  Everyone is going this way, even the law says go this way, society says go this way, common sense says go this way, but darn it all if God doesn’t say go that way!  

This doesn’t mean that everything that goes against the mainstream must be of God.  But there does seem to be this disturbing trend of the followers of God being asked to launch off into the unknown, whether anyone comes along or not.  And a surprising number of these forays into the undiscovered country are set off by a dream.  

Jacob woke from a dream and went off to build a nation, confident that God was with him.  The OT Joseph woke from a dream and rescued a nation about to starve to death, confident that God was with him.  Daniel woke from a dream and danced with man-eating lions, confident that God was with him.  The magi woke from a dream and saved their own necks by going home by another way, confident that something was now different in their understanding of how this world was ordered. 

Joseph woke from sleep and claimed a savior who would not just rescue him from the life that was about come crashing down on his own head, but would bring hope to a world where all the lights seem to have gone out all at once, confident that God was with him.  Confident?  Must have been, because he did what the angel, what the dream told him to do.

So, why don’t we dream such dreams?  Why doesn’t God send an angel to us so that when we wake up we can do what the angel of the Lord commanded us?  Well, I don’t know.  It would be easy to say the there are angels all around we just aren’t listening.  But maybe it is more complicated than that.  Maybe there is something else we need to hear before we dismiss this story as a once upon a time fairy tale that just doesn’t happen in the “real world” any more.

First the only description we have of Joseph tells us two things, one he is addressed by the angel as “son of David.”  The only other human being to carry that title in the Gospel is Jesus.  Select company.  The second thing we know about Joseph is that he is a righteous man.  Righteous means faithful, but faithful to relationships, with God, with community, with neighbor, with loved ones.  Joseph was faithful to those he loved, to those with whom he was in relationship.  That’s why he was torn the night he had his dream.  He was torn between his faithfulness to Mary and his faithfulness to God through the law.  So, he had decided to take the least painful steps he could take, and dismiss her quietly.  Until he had a dream.  And suddenly a new opportunity arose, a new direction, a new possibility.  God shows a way where there is no way.

That might explain why he was able to do this incredible thing when he awoke.  It was what he wanted to do anyway.  It was what his faith told him even though his experience said there is no way.  It was what his hopes told him though his fears told him no way.  It was what his heart longed for though his social standing would take a blow from which he might never recover.  So, he chose the looking back to what has always been path.  He chose to believe that “we’ve always done it this way” was what was carved on those stone tablets and made his choice.

Until he had a dream.  He dreamed of Christmas.  A Christmas that just might be.  And chose to follow that dream.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Angels in the Living Room

The season continues apace.  And if you’re anything at all like me, you feel as though it is going to roll right over you.  Like it’s a train and you’ve stalled on the tracks, and you know it’s coming and usually that’s a good thing, at least in the past it has always been a good thing, and you can still find it in you to hope that it is a good thing that’s coming at you like a South Korean bullet train.  But even a good thing hitting you at two hundred miles per hour is going to hurt.

Advent is all about getting ready.  No, check that, Advent is all about being ready.  But we’re not.  Are we?  No, no way.  Ready for what? Umm, now that’s a poser.  What exactly are we supposed to be ready for?  Because most of the things that are rolling my direction this holiday season aren’t things I would have chosen to be ready for.  Frankly, most things that are rolling in most people’s direction aren’t things they would have chosen.  Am I right?  We’ve all had plans, we’ve all had dreams, and suddenly things take a turn.

You’ve been on those curves, haven’t you?  The road bends in unexpected directions.  As if there was a detour, road construction, bridge out.  Right?  What could be worse than an interruption on your journey?  A roadblock to your destination?  Well, how about a disturbance that comes to meet you where you live?  How about an angel in your living room?  Huh?  How about that?  Right Mary?

Luke 1:26-38   In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."  34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God."  38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. 

One biblical commentator wondered just in how many living rooms did Gabriel have to make an appearance before he found one who said yes?  Never thought of it that way before.  I mean we assume God knew who was going to say yes.  That it was all worked out, a no brainer, a slam dunk, God had it in the bag before Gabriel ever set out.  But if that’s true, then Mary’s response is somewhat diminished, isn’t it?  If there wasn’t at least the possibility that she would say no, then her yes doesn’t count for much.  And for centuries the Church has celebrated Mary’s yes.

She’s the model for what it means to be a follower.  She shows us what surrendering to God is all about.  She is the quintessential disciple of the one she is about to give birth to, if that doesn’t mess with your head a little bit.  But it wasn’t an easy yes.  It wasn’t just a “sure, whatever you say” kind of thing.  It was startling, it was an angel in the living room, for heaven’s sake!

Luke, in his usual understated style, says that she was much perplexed.  Not just perplexed, but much perplexed.  I’m not all that sure that perplexed would cover it if I had such an annunciation.  Perplexed is what happens when you don’t know what your next move in chess ought to be.  Not when an angel is standing in your living room asking to take over your life.  She was much perplexed.  

And wondered at what sort of greeting this might be.  Like she looked over her shoulder in case the angel was talking to her mom or something.  Surely, this word wasn’t for her.  Hail favored one.  She couldn’t be favored.  She was just ... Mary.  A kid.  A young woman giddy at her engagement.  The Lord is with you.  Really?  With me?  The Lord doesn’t have more important things to do?  More important places to go?  More important people to see?  What sort of greeting was it?  Was it for her or someone else?  Well, yes.

It was for her and for someone else.  Or rather it was for the someone else she was being called to be.  See, that’s what sort of greeting this was, a life changing one.  A nothing will ever be the same again kind of greeting.  She was asked to give birth to the Kingdom through her own flesh and blood, through her own sweat and tears.  She was invited to have faith in something beyond her understanding.  She wasn’t given a whole lot of information.  Oh, she asked - How can this be - I’m not qualified, I don’t have the credentials, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know what in the world I am doing.  How can this be?  And you can’t help but feel that Gabriel was embarrassed by the question.  His answer is specific but lacking in detail.  It is a declaration of faith and not a gynecological arrangement.  He basically says, God’s got it covered.  You can trust in that.  Nothing, and when I say nothing I mean to include such outlandish things as this rather messy incarnation business, but nothing is impossible with God.  

Which apparently is enough. Because the next thing that happens is Mary says yes.  Without any more to go on than that, she says yes.  Without a blueprint or signed contract, without an escape clause or planned compensation, she says yes.  To the inconvenience of making God real enough to touch.  To the imposition of surrendering her peace of mind, her quiet, cozy and hard but comfortable life.  To the disruption of her plans and preferences, the way she had imagined her life might go.  She said yes.  And the angel left.

And she wondered, had to wonder, did she imagine it all?  Was it really going to happen?  So she ran to cousin Elizabeth’s house.  That’s what happens next.  She hightails it out of town.  But not to run away from her yes.  At least not completely.  She went to see the other one who got an angel, although Elizabeth’s angel was a second hand angel.  Still it was unsettling enough.  That’s what they do, these angels in the living room.  They’re like a force of nature, beautiful and awesome but they leave a mess behind them.

So, how do you deal with the mess from an angel in the living room?  When we launched the year long fruit of the Spirit study, I thought it was ironic that during Advent and Christmas we end the study with the last on Paul’s list: self-control.  Sorely needed in this over merchandised season of excess, self-control.  And yet, self-control seems an odd summation to a list of attributes that are given like gifts.  The fruit of the Spirit is the result of God’s activity within us, not the efforts of our own wills.  We can’t generate more love and joy and peace, all we have is what comes to us from God.  We can’t create patience and kindness and goodness, it has to be placed within us by a loving Parent.  We can’t even make ourselves more faithful it has to be given as a gift.  We can’t choose to be gentle if the Spirit doesn’t act gently with us.  So, how in the world do we expect to have any hope of self-control?  The name itself seems wrong.  Self -control.

Some argue that Paul put self-control at the end of the list as the ultimate irony of faith.  A life in the Spirit, he seems to be saying, is a life that best fulfills the self.  But it fulfills the self by giving the self away.  The self is controlled because the self is found in the other, in God and in neighbor.  Self is found in service.  Self is found in sacrifice.  Self is found in the surrender of self.

It’s such a complicated idea, running against every natural impulse within us, that it takes something dramatic to make us grasp the concept.  Or maybe not even grasp the concept, not even understand, but to say yes to this life of faith that brings hope to a whole world, through ordinary folks like Mary, like us.  It takes a power beyond us.  It takes a faith given to us like a gift at Christmas.  It takes nothing less than an angel in our living room.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Answers to Forgotten Prayers

I have to run to Tennessee next week.  No specific crisis, just the general ones.  The on-going ones that come with caring for parents long distance.  Mom’s dementia progresses and now she has some severe arthritis that causes her pain with every movement and we are unable to explain or relieve that pain in a way that makes sense to her.  And dad who loves her in his way thinks he can give better care than the professionals we have chosen to place her with and he threatens to take her home and care for himself.  And we keep trying to talk him down from that cliff edge.  I just need to be there.  And I’m not quite sure why.

Someone asked me when I said I was going “What do you hope to accomplish?”  That stumped me.  So much so that I almost decided not to go.  There is nothing to accomplish.  There is nothing I can do to change the situation, it is what it is.  There is nothing I can do to change minds, mom’s is in some ways lost to us and to her and has become a new thing we are still trying to understand.  And dad’s ... well ... dad’s mind gives mules a bad name.  It is intractable like the proverbial donkey, unassailable like a high wall of certainty without cracks or handholds, impenetrable like ... well like the coffee table leg you stub your toe on in the middle of the night because you didn’t bother to turn on a light in order to properly navigate the room because the dog won’t shut up.  Yeah, like that.  So, nothing is the answer.  

I’m going to accomplish nothing.  Because there is nothing to accomplish.  Just things to manage, or observe.  It is a maintenance visit.  A going through the motions, doing one’s duty, making an appearance and performing the rituals with a crushing lack of expectation but an overwhelming sense of responsibility.  Just do it.

Right Zechariah?  That about sum it up?  Have I got the picture, grasped the mindset?  Am I there with you in the Holy of Holies?  How one can pass through that curtain with a sig of resignation instead of a gasp of wonder not to mention the requisite fear and trembling, I just don’t know.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s remind ourselves of Zechariah’s story, shall we?

Luke 1:5-23  In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.  7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.  8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty,  9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.  10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."  18 Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."  19 The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."  21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary.  22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.  23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 

Sorry, long story.  And we aren’t done yet.  But that’s enough for now.  Zechariah found what he forgot he was looking for and almost killed him.  That’s the summation of this story.  I know I’m reading into the story, but when Luke tells us Zechariah entered the sanctuary while the people waited outside, there is no emotion until he sees what he didn’t expect to see.  That angelic appearance terrified him, overwhelmed him.  Not being in the Presence of the almighty God.  It was old hat, it was routine, until it wasn’t.  And he almost fell over.  Poor Zechariah, a preacher who saw someone’s life being changed because of a word spoken, a pastor who watched salvation happen in a soul thought lost for sure, a chaplain visiting a patient not long for the world who proceeds to get up and walk out of the hospital on two strong legs.  It just doesn’t happen.  You don’t go into the Holy of Holies expecting to encounter God do you?

Well, you should.  We should.  We should ease our way into the sanctuary as though we were passing through rows of highly volatile explosives, we should bow our heads as though we had a little inkling of the power we were invoking, a little trepidation that the soul we bring tucked away in the confidence of our beings just might get flash fried by the transforming power of the Spirit.  We might walk out of worship limping because the wrestling match with God put our hip, our self-image, our same old same old approach to faith out of joint.  This just might be the time when you are struck blind by the blazing appearing of the Risen Christ and knocked off your horse and sent on a mission to the gentiles in foreign lands, or the next cubicle, or next door.  Or this might be the day your prayer is answered.

Yeah, that prayer.  The one you stopped praying years ago because it hurt so much.  The one you’ve become convinced could never be, will never be.  The one you don’t even know how to pray anymore.  And have pushed so far into the back of your mind that it is like it isn’t there anymore.  That prayer, answered by an angel standing next to the altar of God.

You wouldn’t do any better than Zechariah.  Forget it, he snapped, at an archangel no less.  Ain’t gonna happen.  I’m too old, she’s too broken down, we don’t have the energy or the wherewithal or the equipment to handle a baby.  Forget it, Gabe, can I call you Gabe?  Where were you twenty years ago, forty years ago, for God’s sake - excuse my French.  We needed it then, we needed an end to the disparaging looks - a priest of God who cannot even produce a child, what good is he.  She needed an end to the ache she carried every day of her life.  But now we;ve learned to live with it.  Forget it, it ain’t gonna happen.

Shut up preacher.  Admit it, you’ve wanted to say that a time or two.  Shut up, because you didn’t know how to receive a gift when it came.  Because you didn’t know how to claim the faith when it fell into your lap.  Because you gave up waiting on God because the waiting seemed too long to you, but was just right for the purposes of God.  Then you can just shut up.  Believe me there is no worse punishment for a preacher than to have to shut up, and for nine months no less.  

The angel said, your prayer has been heard.  I wonder when the last time he prayed that prayer was.  He was an old man, surely he stopped the prayer when it no longer made any human sense to keep praying it.  Maybe he forgot the hole in his heart and was trying his best to learn to live with it.  Maybe the brave face he put on became the only face he knew and he forgot his prayer.  A prayer for a son, which in those days was a prayer for eternity.  Eternal life was lived through offspring.  No children, no continuation, no life that goes on.  But Zechariah forgot his prayer.  

But God answers forgotten prayers.  Maybe not when we want them.  Maybe not in the way we would prefer them.  But God answers forgotten prayers.  Just ask Zechariah.  

I don’t know what I’m going to accomplish.  I don’t know what to pray for as I drive the eight hour trip to Paris Tennessee.  I’ve forgotten how to pray in this situation.  But I’m going.  And maybe there’ll be an angel at the end of the journey.