Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why Were You Searching?

Christmas Day has come and gone again.  Lots of activity, lots of stress, good and bad.  Lots of preparation and planning.  Lots of schedules and events.  It was good.  Grand and glorious.  The most wonderful time of year, according to some.  Difficult for others who deal with loss and change in a season of tradition.  A season of excess, which can be good or bad, as you well know.  But now it is gone, the calendar page pulled off, to reveal ... another day.  And another.  They march on.

We’re in the assessment phase now.  “Did you have a good Christmas?”  I know for the most part that is just polite conversation, intended to get on to the next item on the discourse list.  But I tend to over-analyze things.  Just ask anyone.  So, I sometimes pause before answering.  Did I have a good Christmas?  Hmm, let me think.  In what terms?  Presents given and received? Check.  Food desired and prepared and eaten?  Check.  The right combination of sleeplessness and naps?  Check and check.  I guess I did have a good Christmas.  

And a good Advent season too.  The preparation for the Coming, and the Eve celebrations as well.  They were good.  Busy, exhausting, creative, challenging and good.  I had a good one.  All around, it was ... good.  So, why the hesitation?  Why do I pause when asked the question?  Why do I have to consider before responding?  

Well, like I said, I over-analyze.  I think too much, sometimes.  And I think about what it was all about.  The call of Advent to watch and wait, to long for a savior, to long for completion, the glory of Christmas Eve in all of its declaratory joy, and the quiet acceptance of Christmas Day where we bask in the glow of the One Who Comes, when we remember God with us.  All of that, and more.  And while I had a good Christmas, it isn’t over yet.  We aren’t through with it.  The waiting and the longing but also the proclaiming and the glorifying.  We’re still in the midst, we’re still on the way, we’re still far from where Christmas calls us to be.  Or to quote U2, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Luke 2:41-3:1 NRS Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." 49 He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.

This is the only childhood story we have in the four Gospels.  Some thirty years of life is reduced to a couple of baby stories that are just different enough to drive us crazy, and one story of an incident when he was twelve.  That’s it.  That’s the whole life story of Jesus growing up.  Not terribly satisfying.  We want to know more.  What kind of kid was he?  How did he wield such amazing power when he was barely able to reason?  Or did he have such powers?

Some scholars have argued over the years that the purpose of this story is to combat the adoptionist theories of Christology.  Some began to suggestion that maybe Jesus was just an ordinary person until he was baptized by John in the Jordan River.  All those stories of the dove descending, the Spirit resting, it is argued, is when God “adopted” Jesus and then he became the Son of God.  Until that moment, he was just like you and me.  Not so fast, says Luke.  And then he tells this story to show that he was always the Son of God, by birth, and more than that, he knew it. 

Jesus’ family made the trip to Jerusalem for Passover every year.  A sign of the truly devout.  It was a part of the law that all Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem would come back during Passover.  That’s why it was so crowded in the Passion story at the other end of the gospel writings.  But not every Jew did.  But almost everyone tried to do it once in their lives.  But Luke says, Mary and Joseph did it every year.  Pretty amazing really.  But in one sense it means that this trip was not that special, it was something that happened annually.  Special, of course it was special, like Christmas Eve worship is special.  Special but it happens every year.  Special, but not unusual.

They’d made the trip many times.  Which explains the somewhat lax security protocols.  They traveled in a group, for safety and for fellowship and for shared responsibilities.  And usually in large public groups like this the family grouping was secondary to the community of faith.  The men usually led the way, some distance in front of the women and children lagging behind.  So, on this trip Jesus was twelve, Luke tells us, not quite an adult, but not feeling like a child.  Maybe on the way to Jerusalem he rotated who he traveled with, so that on the way home from Jerusalem, Joseph in the front assumed he was with Mary, who was traveling at the back of the group and assuming Jesus was up front with Joseph.  It wasn’t until the stopped after the first day’s traveling and found each other and counted heads that they discovered they were both wrong.  Jesus was no where to be found.

I’ve lost a kid in a big store a couple of times, once in the neighborhood, sometimes these days even in the house. (I‘ve been known to ask my wife “didn’t we used to have kids?” when they hadn’t been seen for a while.)  So, while I can’t imagine the kicked in the stomach feeling they got when they joined up that night, I have a vague sense of the panic about to set in.  Luke says they went to search.  But did they go immediately, traveling through the night, or the next morning.  And he says they searched for three days.  Was that three days from when they left Jerusalem including the day they left and weren’t really searching because they didn’t know he was missing?  Or was it three days after that?  Three days after they got back to Jerusalem?  A day out and a day back and then three more?  Was he gone five days?  No wonder Mary was a bit miffed when they finally stumbled on him in the temple.  

You caught that.  “Look at what you’ve done!”  Why did you treat us like this?  It’s like he was doing this just to spite them, just to wound them.  Why have you treated us like this?  

Jesus’ response is amazing.  And layered, I think.  At least I think Luke thought it was.  “Why were you searching for me?  Didn’t you know I must be in my Father’s house?”  It’s the second question that has caused the most conversation in biblical scholarship circles.  Partly because it doesn’t really say “in my Father’s house.”  Some translations have “about my Father’s business.”  The Greek is a little vague.  Neither house or business is in there.  It could literally be translated as “I must be in the of my Father.”  The?  Well, tois in Greek means the, but it could, with no direct object, be things.  The things.  I must be about my Father’s things.  Kind of like we use the word stuff.  I must be about the stuff of my Father.  A little confusing, admittedly.  No wonder all the effort is on that sentence.  Actually, I think any of them work.  In my Father’s house in the sense of where God abides - which was more than temple.  About my Father’s business might not mean he’s already begun his ministry at twelve and not thirty like the other Gospels claim.  But instead it might mean that Jesus was always focused on God’s will above everything else.  Either way, the boy Jesus makes a claim for being centered on God.

But for me, it is the first sentence that is the important one.  “Why are you searching for me?”  It’s our question, not just Mary’s.  Why are we searching?  What do we want from him?  Do we want him to come and be where we are?  Do we want him to come and do what we need done?  Do we want him to not give us reason to be anxious?  Or do we search for him so that we can be where he is?  So that we can join him in his Father’s house?  So that we can be about his Father’s business?  Do we search for him so that we can be in the Father’s things?  Who’s things are we most concerned about this Christmastide?  The many things around us and of us?  Or God’s things?

Why are you searching?  And how will you know when you find it?


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Make Room

I am so excited!  I am just back from a rehearsal with Aldersgate’s amazing music department for the Christmas Eve musical that we are presenting as part of our offerings for that Holy Night.  I’m excited about all of them, really.  We have a 6pm service focused on children and the story of Christmas through the song “Do You Hear What I Hear” (It’s our theme song for Christmas Eve.) Including ending with communion served by the children and then instead of candles, we’ll sing and hold up glowing stars, to help the world find their way to Jesus.  How cool is that?

Then at 11pm we have our traditional Christmas Eve Watchnight service, carols and communion and choirs and candles and Silent Night.  And if it all works right, we end at the breaking in of Christmas Day at midnight.  It know it is late, but on Christmas Eve aren’t we all up late anyway?  Why not greet the day with praise and worship and letting our light shine?  Then you can go home and sleep in.  Right?

But in between, at 8pm, we have a worship experience with a Christmas Musical as the proclamation. An original musical.  Part cantata, part musical drama, part act of worship, it will be a wonderful experience for all who come.  I’m certain of this.  There is enough tradition to feel like you’ve been to Christmas Eve worship (don’t worry, you’ll get your candles!), but there is a retelling of the story in a more contemporary mood than we might have been used to before.  But our choir is amazing! They are putting their hearts and souls into this.  Chuck and Mike and Phyllis are shepherding the whole process.  It is stretching them and all of us, to be sure.  This isn’t easy stuff.  But they are working with it.  

Because I asked.  Actually, I don’t know if they know I asked.  Maybe I shouldn’t have told them. Chuck asked.  Their church asked.  They were asked to take this step, to make this journey, to leap this ... leap.  And it’s going to be great.  I just know it.  I promise not to mess up my part.  And you who come, who are able to come (I know this is teasing some of the readers of this study - sorry.  Not sorry, I don’t mind you feeling like you are missing something, because you are) will find yourselves warmed and moved and transformed this Christmas Eve.  You think you’ve heard it all?  Heard the story so many times it can’t be new any more?  Give us a try.  Eight pm, Thursday, December 24th.   Be there.

Or be somewhere.  I know not everyone can make it.  I met a couple from our church who heard me talk about all of this before, and they said “We’ll be with family.  And we’ll miss it!”  And they seemed genuinely sad about it.  I know in the past, and in other communities, this would have been done earlier, to make sure more could come.  And maybe that would have been a good thing.  Yet, the community gathering together on that night, to worship, to give thanks, to be the body we are called to be, to set aside the things we disagree on, the things that divide us, set it all aside for one night while we gaze in wonder at the amazing thing that God has done, well, that’s worth something. Worth making an effort.  Worth taking a risk.  Worth recognizing that some will miss it.  Some will be elsewhere, some will be distracted, too busy, following traditions of their own.  And that’s ok. That’s the way it is, the way of this world.  Don’t feel bad if you miss this special Christmas Eve celebration.  Sad, a little bit sad, that’s ok!  

But God had trouble getting people’s attention from the beginning.  God didn’t send a delegation to ask everyone to check their calendars and save the date.  Oh there were announcements, but they were all easily missable.  Those announcements were more like the song “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story.  Remember that?  “Could it be? / Yes, it could / something’s coming / something good / if I can wait. / Something’s coming/ I don’t know what it is / but it is / gonna be great.”  

How do you follow that kind of announcement?  The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light.  We have?  Where?  On them has the light shined.  Really?  It has?  For unto them a son is given.  A what?  Unto them a child is born.  A child?  Wait, I don’t know about this.  And the government shall be upon his shoulders.  Ah, this is a government plan.  Count me out!  And they missed it.  Announcements came and went, proclaimers proclaimed, heralds heralded.  And they missed it.  It was too long coming.  It was too obscure.  Not enough press, not enough bright lights. Sure there was the star thing, but there are stars all the time.  Angels?  Well, everybody and Charlie has angels.  No big deal.  Foreigners showing up?  Keep them out, too risky.  They missed it.

We miss it.  Sometimes we miss it because it is old news.  God with us?  Yeah, I got a bumper sticker.  I’m good.  It’s old news.  We forget to be amazed.  We forget to be humbled.  We forget to be grateful.  What have you done for us lately?  A baby over two thousand years ago?  OK, got it, thanks.  Next?

Except that baby grew up to say “I will be with you always.  Even to the end of the age.”  Always. All ways.  Today.  Yesterday.  Tomorrow.  Your best days, he’s there celebrating with you, being proud of you, clapping you on the shoulder, giving high fives and atta boys, atta girls.  Your worst days when even your mother is disappointed in you, when even you are disappointed in you, and you want to dig a hole and crawl in, pulling it over you.  The days of emptiness and brokenness, the days of fullness and of joy.  They days of love overflowing and the days of loneliness that suck at your soul.  I am with you always.  This baby, didn’t stay a baby.  But he stayed.  Stayed God with you. God with me.  God with us.  

But we’ve got to make room.  In our busy lives, we’ve got to make room.  Because this baby, this savior is polite, has the manners his mom taught him.  He’ll wait.  He won’t force himself on you, won’t horn his way into your busyness and demand attention.  He’ll wait.  Until you turn.  Until you stop running.  And turn, and give a hint.  That’s all, just a hint.  Just an opening.  Just a tear shed or a smile offered.  Just a hand held out hoping, wishing, wanting someone to take it and hold on for dear life.  And then he’ll come.  He’ll fill you.  He’ll want you.  He’ll remind you that you are one of the special ones, one of the chosen ones.  He’ll lift you up until you think you can fly.  He’ll bandage your wounds until you forget that you even had them, even the scars will be forgotten.  He’ll turn you around, until your head is spinning and you find your feet on the path you wanted all along, even if you didn’t know it.  

We’ve got to make room.  For the story, for the song.  For the hope and the fulfillment.  For the here and the not yet.  For the dreams you still dream and longings of your heart, even as you claim contentment with what already is.  For the love you have and the love you need.  We’ve got to make room.  For a child, that’s all.  Just a tiny little baby.  Like all babies, this one seems so small, so helpless, so simple – feed me, clean me, love me – yet who takes up more room than you thought possible.

We had room, my wife and I, twenty some years ago, we had room, and we had no idea how much room he needed.  And a few years later, we still had room.  And once more were surprised at the room taken over.  More room than we thought we had, more room we didn’t know we had.  He comes to fill the emptiness that you don’t even know you have, because you’ve filled it with so much else.  But none of that really fills the emptiness like you thought it would.  Until Him.  Until God with us.  Until the Firstborn.  The Word made flesh.  

And Luke takes that flesh and turns it back into Word.  And we love the story he tells.  Love it enough to not worry about the detail, about the timing.  I mean Quirinius was not governor when Herod was on the throne, the dates don’t match up.  But who cares?  It’s the story that matters.  And Luke gets that right.  We’ve got to make room he says. 

Luke 2:1-7 NRS In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

We have to make room.  No, wait.  We get to make room.  So ... make room.  This blessed Christmas season, make room.  


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rejoicing Spirits

Gaudate Sunday.  Third Sunday in Advent.  Gaudate, it’s Latin.  Gotta use all those Latin classes for something.  I did a little research a few years ago.  Here’s what I wrote then.  “Pronounced “Gow-dah-tay.”  Gaudete.  It means “rejoice.”  It is an imperative.  “Rejoice!”  It comes from a 16th Century Christmas carol, published in a Finnish/Swedish collection of sacred songs in 1582.  “Gaudete, Gaudete! Christus est natus ex Maria virgine, Gaudete.”   (And, mind you, my spell check is throwing a wobbly right now) Which translates as “Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born of the Virgin Mary - rejoice!”  There are verses, but my Latin typing skills are rusty, to say the least, so we’ll leave it at that.  Besides it is only in the chorus that the word “Gaudete” appears anyway.  The other fascinating thing about this old carol (and aren’t you just fascinated?  I know I am) is that this song was released in the 70's by the British folk group Steeleye Span (No, not Steely Dan, that’s someone else - Boomers!  Sheesh!)  And to this day it remains only one of three Latin songs that made the top ten on the British pop charts.  The other two being two versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu from his Requiem back in the late 80's.”

I love Wikipedia!  Well, this Sunday is Gaudete Sunday.  The Third Sunday of Advent is always set apart.  It is the one that has the pink or rose colored candle.  In some traditions, it is called Mary’s Sunday, and is filled with the story from Mary’s point of view, or is designed to help us honor and celebrate Mary.  But in others, it is simply Gaudete Sunday – a reminder, a call, a command to rejoice.

Yeah, it’s that imperative that gets me.  Maybe it should be gaudeo, the infinitive - to rejoice.  Maybe it should be presented as an invitation, rather than as a command.  Rejoicing isn’t really something one does on command. Besides we always get into trouble when we are perceived as telling other people how to feel.  Don’t we?  Well, you don’t like it when you’re having a bad day and someone comes up and says, “Smile!  It can’t be that bad.”  Never mind that it is that bad.  You want to poke those perpetually perky people in the snoot!  Keep your attitudes to yourself, right.  You want to have a good day?  Well, fine, go over there and have one.  Let me sulk over here, in my corner.  Bah, humbug.  

We’re about feeling this week.  I cheated a little bit on the theme song.  “Do you hear what I hear” has a line about seeing and about hearing and about knowing (which is next week).  But it doesn’t really have a line about feeling.  So, I cheated a little bit.  This Gaudate Sunday were asking “Do you feel what I feel?”  

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

Mary’s Sunday.  Gaudate, my soul rejoices, she says.  She isn’t telling you to rejoice, she is saying I’m rejoicing.  It’s not an imperative, it’s indicative.  A statement of fact.  You can imagine the tone of voice when she says it.  Luke says Mary got her news, via Angel Express, and then headed out to her cousin Elizabeth.  It doesn’t say exactly when she went.  This isn’t Mark with his penchant for “immediately!”  This is Luke, who loves stories, and children, and mothers and fathers.  He says, “in those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.”  OK, there’s haste.  Once her feet hit the road, she hurried.  She ran to Elizabeth’s house.  Because the angel molting in her living room told her that Elizabeth, the barren one, was going to have a baby too and God was involved.  So, each step got faster and faster as she realized that if anyone is going to understand what was going on in Mary’s life it was Elizabeth.  

In those days she set out.  The news had to sink in.  Her head had to stop spinning, her lungs had to exhale the angelic ozone that permeated her house.  Maybe she had to feel something.  Something quickening inside her.  That’s a great term for coming to life, don’t you think.  Quickening.  We don’t use it so much any more.  But they used to.  And what better way to describe this unique conception?  She had to feel a quickening inside of her before she could put her feet to the path and find her way to Elizabeth and her own already six month along quickening miracle.  

She had to feel something.  You don’t get news like this and keep it as an intellectual exercise.  Sure there is pondering to do.  Scenarios to run.  Responses to consider.  But part of the considering is how do we feel about all of this?  Maybe that’s what she went to Elizabeth to ask.  How am I supposed to feel?  You wouldn’t think that was a choice.  It is just an is.  I’m not in control of my feelings.  I just feel.  Things happen and I feel.  Good, bad, happy, sad, they just happen.  Right?  Of course right.  We get an email and our blood boils.  We receive a gift and tears come to our eyes.  It just happens.  We don’t decide ahead of time how we’re going to feel.

Or do we?  How did this song that Mary sang to Elizabeth and all of us really sound?  Did it come bubbling out of her, like a mountain stream rushing down from the heights?  Did it burst forth in a sudden explosion of passion and power and presence?  Maybe.  It sure could have.  It might have built with every quickening step from her house to Elizabeth’s.  And when Elizabeth greeted her, or rather when Elizabeth and her baby greeted Mary, because Luke says there was a leap, an internal leap when Mary said hello.  Elizabeth was staggered by the enthusiasm of the child quickening inside of her, and spoke to Mary with a breathless wonder and surprise.  Maybe that unleashed Mary’s own sense of amazement and excitement and her song rings from the rafters of the parsonage there in the hill country.  My soul magnifies the Lord!  It starts with the high notes.  It starts with the proclamation.  My spirit rejoices in God my savior.  Bam!

Somehow, though, it feels different to me.  It feels ... slower ... gentler ... more reflective.  Almost as if Mary is surprising herself with all that is coming to life within her.  The baby surely, but something else too.  Something that will stay within her even when the child emerges.  Something that will sustain her when that child grows and claims a ministry that takes him away from her.  Something that will define her even when this miracle, this quickening inside suffers and dies in a particularly horrible way.  And that something is hope.  

Hope.  Real hope.  Not the shallow and fleeting hope when espouse all to often: “I hope it doesn’t rain!”  “I hope they get here soon.”  “I hope I get my wish for Christmas.”  There are hopes and there is Hope.  These hopes aren’t bad, but they aren’t sustaining, they aren’t transforming.  Hope, on the other hand, makes us see differently, and hear differently.  Mary sings a song that is not real, but is True.  She is blessed to be a part, she says, of God’s turning the world right side up.  The grand reversal has already happened.  Look at the tenses - He has scattered the proud, He has brought down the powerful and He has lifted up the lowly.  Has He?  The powerful still seem enthroned.  The proud seem to be in the center still.  And the lowly?  Well, they’re scattered, pushed down, pushed out, refugees and the feared and hated.  The world still seems unfinished, still seems upside down.  

Yet. Mary chooses to rejoice.  Not as a Polly-anna, rose-colored glasses kind of approach, that ignores the harsh realities.  But chooses instead to believe that we don’t have to accept the upside down world as it is.  We don’t have to listen to the rich and powerful who tell us how to think, who to fear, who to exclude.  We don’t have to imagine a prideful world of celebrity and privilege.  Of entitlement, of rights that bring destruction to relationships and communities.  We can choose to see differently.  We can choose to lift up the lowly because they are being lifted up already.  The lowly love of neighbor and welcome of the stranger.  The lowly service to the outcast and the value of listening instead of making pronouncements.  We choose how we feel.  We can live in anger as our society seems determined to do.  Or we can rejoice in our spirits because we get to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, something healing, something loving, something that will last into eternity.  We can be a part of the quickening of the kingdom.

Maybe it doesn’t really work as an imperative.  Maybe we can get the world to sing with us, to rejoice with us in spirit and in truth, when we start with testimony.  My soul magnifies the Lord, My spirit rejoices with God My savior.  Tell how you feel, and others might come feel with you.  Of course, we’ve got to feel something first.  Gaudate.  Rejoice.  Let it come to life within you this Christmas season.


Saturday, December 5, 2015

Found to Be With Child

First Sunday of December.  Second Sunday of Advent.  Moving right along.  Got your decorations up?  Got them out?  Remember where they are?  We’re sort of halfway there at our house.  Some things up, some things still in the basement.  We keep thinking we should get to that.  But then we ... don’t.  Something else comes up.  Some other crisis, some other need, some other responsibility, all important, or seemingly so.  

This week it was Nashville.  I was supposed to be gone most of the week, but then things happened up here that made it difficult for me to be gone.  I was going to visit the parents for a few days and then go to a meeting at the Board of Discipleship offices in Nashville.  But the timing of the funeral I had to do made it difficult to get down there in time.  So, I contacted the folks in Nashville and explained my dilemma.  They said let’s video conference you in!  So, Wednesday night and Thursday morning I was in Nashville and in my home office at the same time.  Technology!  What an amazing thing.  It wasn’t the same as being there, but it worked pretty well.

Except when first I logged in Wednesday night I could see them but I couldn’t hear anything.  They could hear me and see me, but nothing was coming through from their end.  They were sure it was my fault.  I knew it was theirs.  But we couldn’t figure it out.  I thought I was going have to spend the evening just watching and practicing my lip-reading.  Finally someone there thought of calling me and putting it on speaker phone.  So, I had my tablet for the video and my cellphone for the audio and we made it work.  The next morning they figured out the problem (it was them) and I didn’t have to do that two device thing.  

Hearing is important.  I couldn’t have participated, I wouldn’t have felt a part of the proceedings if I couldn’t hear.  Even though I could speak, I could make input to the meeting but I couldn’t be a part of the dialog, couldn’t have been in conversation, couldn’t have been a member of the community.  Relationships need hearing as well as speaking.

Just ask Joseph.  Until he heard, he wasn’t a part of the event.  Or until he heard the right Voice he wasn’t prepared to join in, to go with it.  Until he heard.

Matthew 1:18-25 NRS  18 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.

Matthew’s version of the story is different from Luke’s version.  Luke wants to tell Mary’s story, but Matthew is all about Joseph.  Mary is background information.  She was found to be with child.  Some hear a hint of scandal in this.  Did someone come and tell Joseph?  Is that why he is in the midst of the debate when the story begins?  She was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.  Really?  Who knew that?  Who said that?  Is that the village gossip that came to Joseph?  

You can almost see them, can’t you?  Running around whispering in the shadows with this latest bit of gossip.  “Hey Joseph, I heard, you’ll never believe it, but I heard ... well, we heard ... I heard from her who told him who mentioned it to them who texted it to us, that Mary is with child .. get this .. of the ‘Holy Spirit!’” You can see their fingers crooked in the air quotes gesture as they say this with a smirk on their faces.  Yeah, right.  Found to be with child of the “Holy Spirit.”  What in the world does that mean?  And how did they hear?  Did Mary tell them?  Were they listening in on the annunciation?  Did the house light up when Gabriel appeared in her living room?  And all the neighbors slunk out to listen in?  Or were these proclaimers of the gossip neighbors of Elizabeth, where Luke tells us Mary fled during her pregnancy?  

Some commentators say there is no scandal, no common knowledge.  This is a literary device Matthew employs to move the story along.  It is just a fact that we know, but Joseph doesn’t.  Or doesn’t know all of it.  Or doesn’t believe all of it.  Maybe it was a difficult conversation on the porch swing one night when Joseph came to call on Mary, on his fiancee.  Maybe she laid it all out and he didn’t hear it.  Or heard part of it.  The painful part, the offending part.  He wasn’t ready to hear it all.  Couldn’t hear it all.  Not from her lips.  

He staggered off the porch and ran all the way to his house as though he had been kicked in the gut.  As though his dreams had all come crashing down.  He flew into the house in a rage.  Or maybe out to the workshop where he took out his hurt on an innocent block of cedar he had saved for a special occasion. He cut and gouged and planed and drilled, until the hot angry tears splashed down, discoloring the grain under his hands.  

We would have understood, don’t you think?  Who could have heard a story like that?  Matthew introduces Joseph not by telling us of his broken heart, but of his righteousness.  But then Matthew introduces a different kind of dilemma.  Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a righteous man AND unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.  That’s a problem.  Up till now righteous mean obedient to the law.  And the law said she needs to be exposed, needs to be humiliated.  That was the law.  Actually the law said to kill her.  But historians tell us that by this time they weren’t actually executing women for such transgressions, but they were making examples of them.  Hauling them before a public court, exposing them.  Otherwise Joseph could have been accused of breaking the covenant.  He could have been seen as a deadbeat dad that impregnates his wife to be and then abandons her.  Legally he had to expose her, or the shame could fall on him.  

But he was unwilling to do so.  Matthew writes a love story.  Tragic love, certainly.  Broken vows and severed relationships, but a love story nonetheless.  Joseph redefined righteousness.  Now it is not faithfulness to a written law, but faithful to relationships, faithful to people.  Then Matthew says “just when he resolved to do this.”  Just when he decided to break the law he should have upheld, just when he determined to be faithful to the one who was seemingly unfaithful to him, that’s when he heard the whole story.

An angel in a dream.  Angel - aggelos in Greek - means messenger.  Or even message.  Maybe it wasn’t an angel.  Maybe it was God speaking into the hearing of Joseph.  Do you hear?  How did he hear?  A dream, yes, but an answer to prayer.  See, he was unwilling, remember?  He wanted the outlandish to be true.  He wanted the unbelievable to be believed.  He wanted the incredible to be the truth by which he was going to live his live from then on.  So, he was listening, he was hoping, he was wanting.  Wanting so hard for a reason to keep loving even in the face of an impossibility.  

We’ve got to be heard this Christmas season, and always.  The message of faithfulness and love needs to be heard.  Especially in an era of messages of fear and hate, of vengeance and prejudice.  We’ve got to listen harder and speak louder.  The One who was conceived by the Holy Spirit said shout it from the rooftops.  Proclaim it in the cities round about and around the world.  Go and make disciples, He said, make disciples of the truth, disciples of love, disciples of righteousness.  

Getting in the Spirit of the season takes the ability to hear, and then to be heard.  Light the lights, but sing the songs too.  Share the story.  Give a greeting, a welcome, a blessing wherever you can.  Then maybe you will be found to be with child too.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Gathered in the Arms

It’s here again.  I know you knew that.  This season doesn’t sneak up on anyone any more.  That used to be my opening line in Advent.  “Wow, is it that time already?”  It doesn’t work any more.  Not because we are in better control of our calendars and are always ready ahead of time for every event that comes roaring around the corner at us.  Not because we keep better track of where we are and what’s going on all around us, not because we keep our heads up and our eyes focused, not because we are leaning forward as we were told to lean forward into God’s promised advent.  No, that’s not why it isn’t a surprise.

Rather, it’s not a surprise because marketing has been telling us it is the season long before it was the season.  “Christmas as it is meant to be” a radio station says while we’re “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”  “This is ‘Thanks-getting’ so be sure you get what you really want” says an electronics company.  And does Santa drive a red imported sports car to deliver the presents or does he rely on an international shipping firm?  Either way, no need to fear that you won’t get yours this year, because a big box store says “you aren’t ‘elf-in’ around” because gift giving and getting is serious business.  They all say that.  One way or another, they all say this is serious stuff.  And who’s going to argue with them?  

When our way of life is threatened, of course you’re going to lash back.  If you don’t spend a lot of money this year, the terrorists win.  That’s the underlying message, it seems to me.  Buy our way out of the doldrums.  Retail therapy some call it.  More stuff.  It insulates us from the emptiness, from what our hearts really long for.  Hey, I like stuff too.  I’ve got a list somewhere.  It works, to a degree.  For a while, we feel better.  We feel loved.  Which is good, and supportive and good enough.  Until.  

Until the arms of the new cozy arm chair, while comfy and soft, don’t pulse with life and love and acceptance.  Until our gizmos and gadgets, who can talk to us and answer our questions, can’t wipe away the tears of loneliness and hold us until the empty spaces in our souls are filled in.  Until ... well, you know.  Sorry to be so cliche.  It’s just that sometimes something we all know needs to be said again.  That love needs to be embodied.  Incarnated.  Put on flesh.  We need arms to gather us up.  Not just the idea of arms.  But real flesh and blood arms.  We long to be gathered.  To be loved.  In a way we can feel.  Even when we think we don’t.  When we think we are doing just fine.  We can get along with knowing we are loved.  We don’t have to feel it.  I mean, really, do we?

Isaiah 40:1-11 NRS Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

There’s a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom.  I know, bad news for those of us who aren’t terribly fond of meetings.  Those who just came through Charge Conference, sorry.  I hope this won’t bring back the trauma.  But Isaiah says there is a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom.
God has the floor.  God’s pacing back and forth, ready to release the latest and greatest new idea from the divine office.  The whole committee of heaven leans in, the archangels stop tapping their pens on the table.  The cherubim stop eyeing the bagels on the side table.  The seraphim put down their phones and start listening at last, because God’s about to speak.  About to pass judgement, about the lower the boom, you know they thought so.  But they never know.  The One has this annoying - can the One be annoying?  Of course not! - The One has this omniscient habit of saying something completely surprising on a regular basis.  

“Comfort,” thunders the voice that made planets and galaxies, “O comfort my people!”  Michael and Gabriel exchange furtive glances around the huge conference table.  Brows knit and eyes narrow amongst the angelic beings high and low.  “Did I hear “comfort”?”  Comfort?  Not judgement?  Not burn or fry or .... Comfort?  None question, however, because the Presence isn’t done yet.  Just catching breath before the words come pouring out like a soaking rain on a parched ground.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.

The book of Isaiah covers such a span of time that there had to be more than one who wrote under that name.  Chapters 1 - 39 is “first” Isaiah and is concerned about the faithfulness of the people of God.  There is a variety of moods represented in those chapters, but the dominant one is judgement.  The people were complacent, the people were selfish, self-centered, found their solace in things and not in the ever present Spirit of God in their midst.  Isaiah preached until he was blue in the face and it didn’t amount to much.  Until Babylon.  Until Assyria.  Double for all their sins.  Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom both, overrun by enemies who caught them with their guard down and now there is desolation, there is desert in the middle of the Holy Land.  Desert, a land forsaken.  Now, Chapter 40, they are broken, now they are afraid, now they are longing for arms to gather them up and croon a lullaby.

After the initial shock, the beings around the table begin to nod along with the echoes of the Lord’s proclamation.  And the Amen corner pipes up, a voice, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”  In the wilderness that used to be a lush garden find an oasis.  In a sandy windswept desert that used to be a marketplace, clear a path.  But this road work, they understand and want us to understand isn’t so that we can get out.  It’s so that God can get in.  Make straight the highway for God.  

It’s not that God’s GPS isn’t functioning, its that God needs to know we want a visit.  The consummate gentle presence, God never comes where God isn’t welcomed.  God never opens doors that we barricade.  God never climbs the mountains we throw up to block access to the deepest parts of ourselves.  The committee meeting becomes a gospel choir and as always happens in God’s kingdom, worship breaks out.  

Around the table a voice says “Can I have an Amen?”  Another says “What are we amen-ing?”  Then one jumps onto the table and sings out, “That these troublesome, yet lovable, fragile and yet creatures beloved by God have access to eternity!”  “In the Word,” the chorus rings out, “In the Word, is eternity!  Is hope, is reclamation, is restoration!”  AMEN, rumbles God as the I Am slides to the door to usher out the swaying angelic beings.  “Head to the rooftops, to the mountaintops, shout and sing, again and again, until all can see.  God is coming.”

They rush out to tell us.  Again.  And at the door stands the Word, who smiles and says, “Soon.  I’ll be there soon.  Save some room for me.”

Do you see what I see?  That’s our Advent theme, based on the song and the musical we plan to present this Christmas Eve.  But for now it is a reminder that there is plenty to see, if we’ll just look.  Around the obvious, over the garish, behind the tinsel.  Look a little deeper and see.  See what’s in the way.  And then see what’s coming.  Do you see?  Keep looking.  Keep reaching.  Keep wanting to find your way into those arms.  Do you see?    


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Kingdom Carol

Turns out Pi Guy Day at Maddie’s sorority was a fancy tailgate party before the home football game of the Wittenberg Tigers, go team.  Lots of cool food, dads and grandads trying to look like they belonged in among a bunch of college girls - excuse me - young women, and then trouping over to the stadium for a football game.  Except Maddie wasn’t interested in the football game so we went shopping.  

Well, sight seeing to start with, down the road to Yellow Springs, sort of Ohio’s answer to our Nashville in Brown County, artsy craftsy and distinctly odd little boutiques scattered throughout a quaint little town.  From there we went to Dayton because she had to pick up a few things, since the laundry accident (lipstick in the pocket).  We found ourselves in a Jefferson Pointe like place and I stood in Victoria Secret trying not to ogle and then to Von Maur (thankfully she can find the sale racks) while she tried on dresses for up coming semi-formal, most of which were gorgeous on her but made the dad in me decidedly uncomfortable.

Still it was a good day.  I enjoyed being with her, she makes me proud to be a dad.  And there was, as there always is with her and her brother both, this odd little time shift thing going on the whole time I was there with her.  As we drove and walked and shopped and ate together, I could see the little girl I first fell in love with twenty years ago when she arrived into our lives and proceeded to take over the whole house, the intense scrutiny those piercing brown eyes give to everything and everyone, even those she loved, but the sparkling smile that melted hearts and the quick wit that often had us all in stitches at a moment’s notice.  She was there, the little one who fell asleep - after a bit of a struggle - in my arms, finally at peace in the world.  But layered over that is the college young woman who is making her way in the world on her own, connected to family and friends and teachers and mentors yes, but standing on her own feet.  She is shaping herself into someone formidable, someone capable, yet someone compassionate and caring, with a heart looking outward to others.  Though she doesn’t always see it and the shy little girl hides behind those eyes from time to time, she really is something amazing - I say with honest objectivity.

And even more, though it gives her pause, there is a future opening up in front of her.  My mind runs scenarios in which she plays various parts, business owner, teacher, aid worker, wife and mother, innovator, pastor (yeah, I feel she has a call to ministry, though she doesn’t yet, and I’ve been wrong before), and plays them all well.  There is a will be in her that is about to burst forth, sooner than she and I and any of us realize.  Or are ready for, to be honest.

At least before I’m ready.  I tend to live in the now, in the is, with a firm grasp on the was.  But that will be keeps showing up.  And all of it brings worries, doesn’t it?  Some days we feel like we are just getting by.  Like our grip on the is slips a little bit with every passing heartbeat.  And our is frightens us, too many worries, “fightings and fears within and without,” as the hymn says.  Once again, we are presented with the argument that safety has to take precedence over compassion, that security is a greater good than the moral imperative to welcome the stranger and care for the outcast. 

Our is has gotten too troublesome.  So some of us want to retreat to our was.  Let’s go back to the way it used to be, because in our heads it seems so much better, so much safer, so much easier.  Even though it really wasn’t.  We like to pretend.  It was better back in the was.  Except then why are we filled with regrets?  Why do we replay the words and the deeds that depict us as hurtful or hurt?  Why do we wish for a time machine to go back and undo parts of the was, to make a better past, to choose better, kinder, to not pass on opportunities to help and heal, to love and to be loved?  If the was really was better, why do we want to change it? Or fix it?  Or forget it?

No, stick with the is.  Seize the day, carpe diem.  That’s the word for us.  Except, there’s that will be lurking around the corner.  With a hope or a threat, and some times a little of both.  Our current election rhetoric is all about fear-mongering, it seems to me.  Not about hope, but about what’s wrong, with both the was and the is.  And the threat that our will be is heading off the same cliff.  And maybe there is some course correcting that needs to be done.  Isn’t that always the case?  But can’t we do it without all the vitriol?  Without all the hate?  Why choke out our will be as we fight about our is and misrepresent our was?

It makes us want to throw up our hands in despair.  Doesn’t it?  No wonder our young people are worried, and dropping out of what we used to think was important.  No wonder they are turning away from that which gave us meaning and direction, because it no longer seems to do so.  When the best we offer is an is full of a blind nostalgia for the was and a bleak will be with a violent oppressive response, why not turn away to something else?  Or even to nothing else.  Why not throw up our hands?

That’s John the Evangelist’s response anyway.  Well, the throwing up our hands bit.  But not in despair.  Oh no.  John says throw up your hands in praise.

Revelation 1:4-8 NRS John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. 

Revelation has a checkered history in the canonization process.  It almost didn’t make the cut.  It has been a source of controversy almost from the beginning.  Too graphic, too bleak, too bloody, too ... weird.  Better to admit that we’ve lost the language that allows us to understand this book, some argue.  The images of the apocalyptic are too obscure for the modern mind, what might have made some sense in its day now only confuses and leads to outrageous and fanciful speculation that is neither comforting or edifying.  Better to just let it go, some argue.  A sentiment hard to disagree with.  If it weren’t for the beginning of the book.

John starts with praise.  With a reminder that God has the whole world in hand.  That time itself is a gift from God and that we won’t be abandoned to a random and meaningless existence.  Throw up your hands to the God who is and who was and who is to come.  The Almighty, strong enough to hold your will be with the same Presence with which God held your was and holds your is right now.  Right now.

The early shapers of the worship life of the Christian community realized that we needed a place to begin regularly.  So, every year we begin with longing.  The longing for more, for completion, for hope.  That’s next week, the First Sunday of Advent - coming.  But if we need a place to begin, we also need a place to end.  And we end in the loving arms of God.  Christ the King Sunday is about pledging allegiance, true allegiance to the One who hold us in the palm of a hand.  Who was and is and is to come.  

And John told us this over and over.  Verse 4 - grace and peace (all we need for a life of wholeness) comes from the one who is and who was and who is to come.  Verse 5 - Jesus Christ - faithful witness (he was - did what he came to do, proclaim God), first born of the dead (who is, the living eternal one who shows us the way into eternity) and the ruler of the kings (who will be, since not every knee has bowed yet).  And who loved us (who was, this was what he was about from the beginning, come to show us we were loved), who freed us (who is the savior, at great personal cost, he gave us a way to live a life of fullness and joy), and made us a kingdom of priests (gave us a mission, a will be, to represent God, to usher folks into the kingdom, to welcome the outcast and build a community of faith).  

Our beginning and our end is in God.  Our was and is and will be is wrapped up in the loving purposes of God.  We are invited to trust in that.  Even when the way is murky and the possibilities seem few, we can choose to be subject of the king, the crucified lamb who loves us more than his own life.  Like I am trying to love my children and my church, and my world.  

When Dickens wrote the Christmas Carol, he knew that for transformation to occur, Scrooge needed to examine his was and is and will be, as painful as that might have been.  We too are invited to lay our lives and the lives of those we love into the arms of the One who is and was and will be.  And declare with our living that Christ is king.


Friday, November 13, 2015

A Land of Delight

I’m hoping that you are reading this early.  Hoping because I’ve just started writing, but I intend to finish on Friday this week, instead of the usual Saturday.  I mean there is no reason why I couldn’t do this earlier in the week.  Except that isn’t my rhythm.  That isn’t how I’ve worked this process that starts with text and context and works it way into a sermon for Sunday morning and the last gathering of thoughts and images and ideas on Saturday.  It isn’t the system I teach, or what I recommend for most preachers.  But it works for me.  

This week, however, I have another obligation on Saturday.  So, I can’t spend the time immersed in the text that I usually like to spend.  Instead I am driving to Ohio, for lunch with Maddie in her sorority.  This is an unusual thing, men aren’t usually allowed into the house, certainly not for a meal.  But this is Pi Guy day. (Alpha Delta Pi) I’m the Pi Guy.  Maddie’s been raving about their cook, Connie, so I’m looking forward to the meal.  But mostly I was pleased to be invited to be the guy.  It doesn’t say Pi Dads, it just says guy.  Maybe dad is implied, but I choose to believe she chose me to come because she wanted me to come.  Not because she had to invite me.  

So I will go to be blessed by her presence, blessed by sharing in her world for a little bit.  Of course part of my going will be to help her recover from her latest accident.  Not a trip to the ER this time, but a laundry accident.  A forgotten lipstick left in a pocket and the subsequent redecorating of some of her favorite items of clothing.  She was pretty devastated a few days ago.  When I told her we could find a moment to replace a few things and then more things when she was home for Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks, she was greatly relieved.  She felt blessed.

Blessings sometimes come in surprising ways.  Sometimes they come in the midst of the anxiety of living.  Sometimes they come out of the bounty of goodness and the abundance of a life rich in the things that matter, in love and joy and peace.  Blessings come when we’re least expecting them.  And blessings come because we strain forward to receive them, we beg and plead on our knees for them.  They come just in time to remind us of our dependence on the One who sustains us even in the darkness and the One who makes the sun to rise and the stars to shine.  Sometimes blessings come long after we thought we should have them, long after we were strong enough to enjoy them, and instead become the means by which we redefine our lives in humility and gratitude.  

It is commitment Sunday at Aldersgate this weekend.  The time where we declare ... what?  What is it that we declare?  We write down a number, an estimate of giving for the next year.  But what are we doing in that moment?  What do we declare?  What do we hope happens because of this annual faithfulness?  Why do we do it?  Well, because we’re told to.

Malachi 3:10-12 NRS Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. 

Back up a couple of verses and you get the harder version of this concept.  God accuses us of robbing Him.  When we withhold our tithes, when we don’t give to God, we are God-robbers, says Malachi.  It explains why things go wrong, he argues.  The people are in the midst of a drought.  It is devastating the nation.  They are asking why.  Why is this happening to us, to the people of God?  We are good people, aren’t we?  Why should such terrible things happen to us?  Well, says Malachi, you aren’t really committed.  You aren’t really sacrificing.  The drought, the barrenness is the result of your disobedience.  

But there is a solution.  Give.  Give all that is required.  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse.  And the windows will open and the rain will fall down on the parched ground.  The blessing you seek will be yours.  Just give, give enough, give sacrificially.  That’s all it takes.

Right?  Listen here, Malachi, you’ve got some explaining to do.  This isn’t really how it works, now is it?  It can’t be that mechanical.  Insert this into that and turn the crank and out pops all you ever wanted.  All you ever needed.  God is only angry at your stinginess.  And you can appease the angry God by coughing up a little bit more.  Or a lot more, depending on how far in arrears you are.  Pay up, and the blessings will flow.  The locusts will stop gnawing away at the stalks of your confidence.  The labors of your hands will bring forth fruit; you won’t be the loser who can’t produce any more.  Just give a little bit more.  Just pledge something substantial, and every one will be your friend, you’ll rise to the top, be the life of the party.  Just give and you’ll be a land of delight.

Sounds great.  Really.  Simple.  Straightforward.  Easy.  Oh, so easy.  Just give and ...  Just put a little bit more in the plate and ... Too easy.  That’s what’s echoing around in our mind as we read these words from Malachi.  Way too easy.  There’s a catch.  A formula, words that have to said, a condition of heart that has to be held.  That’s the escape clause.  I gave and nothing happened!  I didn’t feel delight.  I didn’t see the windows of heaven open and the blessings shower down!  What happened?  Well, you didn’t believe enough.  You didn’t pray the right prayer.  Try again, hold your mouth like this, say these words, close your eyes tight, then it should work.  Right?

Well, no.  The problem, Malachi, is that the way you put this, these words from God, makes it sound like a transaction.  A contract between equals.  I’ll give you this, you give me that.  Blessings are a commodity, something we can buy.  Delight is an item on the shelf and as long as we have the cash, or our credit is good then we’re set.

Except we know that isn’t how it works.  We know because we’ve tried.  Again and again we’ve tried.  Even when we try to convince ourselves we aren’t trying to buy off God, we are trying.  So, either we’re really bad at commerce with God, or there is something else going on here.  Malachi, you say that God says put me to the test.  What else can that mean, but enter into a transaction with the dispenser of blessings and delight?  

Think about it for a moment, mutters the prophet with a sigh, if you were going shopping in God’s supermarket, could you even reach the counter?  Do you think that your paltry gifts, no matter how grand they seem on your scale, could be enough to amaze the God of wonders?  Of course there is something else going on here.  Of course you’ve got the wrong end of the stick if you think that you can partner with God to transact a dispensing of blessings.  

Put me to the test, God says, means try it my way instead of yours.  Instead of thinking in your terms of transaction and what do I get out of this and how am I better off because of what I do, try thinking like me for once.  Give out of the sheer joy of giving.  Pour out because you love, not because you’re expecting something in return.  Give away that which will only weigh you down.  Sacrifice because sacrificing is a way to be alive, not because it gets you further down the road to where you’re trying to be.  And then see if the windows don’t open and the blessing comes pouring out.  Not because you’ve given, but because in giving you’ve put yourself in the place to see them and to receive them.  Not because you’ve earned a blessing, but because you’ve emptied yourself enough to receive them when you were too full of yourself before.  The test is of the system, the way of living and being, in Jesus’ words, we are to test the Kingdom way of living.  We are to give it a try, Malachi says.  Give more than you think you can, and see if something doesn’t open up inside of you and the anger that you’ve felt because you haven’t been given your due, is swept away in a new wind that blows through your soul.  Commit to giving to God, not because the church deserves it or the pastor is worth it, but because giving is the key that unlocks your heart and allows the Spirit to take up residence in your being and suddenly you know what Jesus meant by an abundant life.  It’s not the stuff of this world, that isn’t abundance, despite the ubiquitous Christmas ads telling you otherwise.  No, it is a lightness, a centering, a confidence and faith that comes from trusting not in the stuff we can own, but from living in a land of delight, of loving and being loved.

I’m not 100% sure what a Pi Guy is or does.  But I want to give it as a gift to the daughter whom I love more than I know how to say.  And because I love God, and love - really love - the church that Christ has called me to serve, I give.  And learn to live in a land of delight.  Join me.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Holy Spirit Falls

A few years ago, when Maddie was still doing competitive ballroom dancing, we ordered her a dress online through my account, since I was paying for it.  Now, many years later, I still get email and posts and ads running on Google and Facebook, assuming I want to buy more dance dresses.  You know how we used to worry about the government keeping eyes on us and knowing more about us than they should?  Well, George Orwell, it isn’t the government, it’s the internet.  Google and Amazon and Facebook remember what I bought a lot longer than I do.  And they want to sell me more.  

Dance dresses.  I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t look good in the kind of dresses they’re trying to sell me.  Not as good as Maddie anyway.  A little too slinky and smooth and feathery and slit open and flowing for my use.  Preachers should stick to the little black number that I wear.  Right?  Mind you, I’d love to dance like that.  Some Sunday mornings seem to call for it.  Light and airy, the good news is about lifting us, like we could float, walking on sunshine.  Or dark and heavy, weighed down by sinfulness, brokenness, a dirge, a lament longing for a savior who could come and set us free.  Or confident, a waltz or rumba reminding us that we are loved and capable of loving.  Or a square dance that’s all about changing partners, including all, from one to the other and back again, enriched by the whole community as we dance together.  Yeah, that’s what we need in worship, a little more dancing.

If any of the disciples had two left feet it was Peter.  Always tripping over his own shortsightedness, stumbling around in his misguided certainties, leading with his sense of self-preservation instead of following the lead of the one he called Christ in a flash of grace that surprised even Jesus (“flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you” i.e. there’s no way you figured this out on your own, Peter!)  No, Peter wasn’t Lord of the Dance, he was a back row chorus line member at best.  

Yet, here he is, leading, headlining, finding the spotlight and trying to follow the lead of the Spirit, who still has new steps for him to learn.  

Acts 10:34-48 NRS Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-- he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days. 

Peter was preaching.  Actually, he was giving his testimony.  It was his own story that he was turning into a sermon that day.  Back up in chapter ten of Acts and you’ll see the story that he was telling.  The vision on the rooftop that seemed to be about the dietary laws, but actually was about who was worthy of the gospel.  Peter was a good Jew.  He knew who he could hang around with and who he had to avoid.  Sure, Jesus kind of messed with his head for a while there.  He was still processing all of that.  But he knew where the lines were.  He could follow the steps in this dance he knew from his childhood.  But now his foxtrot thinking didn’t fit the salsa music he was hearing.  

“I truly understand,” Peter preached, in what turned out to be a bit of an overstatement, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality!”  What was wrong with that?  Well, the “I truly understand” bit.  He didn’t.  Not yet.  In the moment, yeah sure, he was swaying to the beat.  But later, he’d want to sit this one out and Paul would beckon, and they would have a dance off, to re-teach him what he truly understood for a moment.  That’s later.  Let’s give him his due now.  He’s got it down.  That flow from the Spirit that takes him farther than he thought he could go.  

He says that he was commissioned to preach to the people.  Commissioned by the life and death and resurrection of his Lord, the living Christ, the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth.  Oh, yes, he knows the name now.  He was reclaimed from his doubt and fear.  He was gathered up from his denial and disappointment.  He was called to preach to the people.  What he still had to learn was who the people were.  

See, he thought it was his people.  The people like him.  Who looked like him and spoke like him and danced like him.  But Jesus opened his eyes to the people.  All the people.  The wonderful panoply of people.  The glorious created collection of people and traditions and languages and dances that there would be no way he could master without throwing out a hip!  But he could watch, and then learn and laugh and clap his hands as he welcomed them into the family.

He’s learned some new steps, we should applaud that.  God does.  And the heavenly applause sounds like the Spirit falling.  No sound like a mighty wind this time.  No tongues of fire resting on all and each.  What did it sound like?  Why did Luke say the Spirit fell?  

It sounded like praise.  It sounded like joy.  It sounded like showers of blessings, like the moving of feet and the raising of hands.  It sounded like the exuberance of a people who discovered they were included, they were loved, they were valued.  The Spirit fell like a dove, it fell like rain on parched ground, it fell like lifted arms falling down to wrap around triumphant bodies.  The Spirit fell.  And even Peter, certain and uncertain both, couldn’t mistake that presence.  “Can anyone withhold water for baptism?”  How did he say that?  I’m sure that a part of him hoped someone could, someone could come up with a reason to say no, so that he could scurry back into the certainty of his former darkness.  But, let’s hope it was only a small part.  Let’s hope the larger part was defiant, staring down the sticks in the mud among them who had “we’ve never done it this way before” dribbling from their lips.  Let’s hope it was the joy of building up with body, of welcoming to the party, of lining up to dance.  The water flowed, the words were sung, the family grew that day.  

When families grow there are struggles.  This Spirit thing hasn’t always been easy.  That’s what the final chapter of Fresh Air is all about.  The struggle between different expressions of the Spirit.  One tends to look suspiciously at the other.  The firestorm of speaking in tongues is just the weather vane to a larger issue.  A perhaps simplistic way of characterizing the divide is to talk about head vs. heart faith.  Those who want to emphasize the reason and will and those who want faith to be felt, emotion and passion.  There’s more to it than that, but the arena of division is sometimes fought on those terms.  Levison has a solution in his final chapter.  Read the bible.  The more we study, the closer to the center we come.  I think he’s right.  Because the purpose of reading the bible is not to know the bible, but to know Jesus.  And only Jesus can draw us together.  The Lord of the Dance can help us thinkers move our feet with joy.  The Lord of Dance can help us passionate ones learn new and deliberate steps, inclusive movements.  Bound together as one.  One faith, one Lord, one baptism.  Can anyone withhold the water?

When the Spirit falls, we all get up on our feet.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

With the Wild Beasts

It’s a two parter this week.  A common literary device.  Compare and contrast, light and dark, or near and far, lots of different ways to configure this dualism.  Our author, Jack Levison writer of the book “Fresh Air” from which we took this Holy Spirit series, writes this penultimate chapter with two characters in mind.  

The first is the title character and for most of us the most important one of all: Jesus.  You might think that Jesus should have been the subject of the first chapter, or the last chapter.  And that he wouldn’t have to share a chapter with another character.  That’s the way it should have been done, we’re pretty sure.  The way we would have done it anyway.  But no, here it is the next to the last chapter, “Jesus’ Test.”  

Mark 1:9-13 NRS In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 

Ah, yes, the wilderness experience.  Three of the four gospels tell us that after his baptism, Jesus spent time in the wilderness.  John’s loquacious Jesus doesn’t have time to be alone, he’s got disciples to call and parties to attend, wine to make.  But the other three are pretty clear that Jesus needed time to get things in order.  At least that is what it seems like he is doing.  What kind of messiah is he going to be?  Matthew and Luke describe the conversation in the wilderness, the temptations.  They give us some background into the decisions facing Jesus as he launched his ministry.  Lots of juicy detail about what was going on there, lots of debate about the test.

But Levison didn’t choose Matthew or Luke.  You’d think if he was going to title a chapter “Jesus’ Test” that he would.  But no, we get Mark.  Who presents the temptation in the wilderness in two verses.  Who doesn’t itemize the questions.  Who doesn’t tell us how strenuous it was.  We just get some bullet points in Mark’s PowerPoint on Jesus.  Item one: Jesus was there forty days.  Item two: He was tempted by Satan.  Excuse me?  How, sir, how was he tempted by Satan?  No time for questions.  Moving on.  Item three: He was with the wild beasts.  What?  What do you mean with the wild beasts?  Attacked by them?  Surrounded by them?  Fought them for food?  Turned them into pets?  What?  No time for questions.  Moving on.  Item four: He was waited upon by angels.  Waited on?  They brought him meals and such?  They mopped his brow and fanned him with big leaves?  Or that they stood on the edge of the wilderness and tapped their toes and checked their aPhones for texts from Jesus?  End of lecture.

Um.  OK.  What was going on there?  Mark says we don’t know.  He says Matthew and Luke made up stuff, or had other sources or pestered Jesus until he told them what happened.  Mark says it doesn’t matter, really, what exactly happened.  Mark says the important stuff is there.  Back up, he says, look at the process.  Baptism, heavens torn open, gentle Spirit like a dove settles and Jesus is blessed.  Then gentle Spirit becomes an irresistible force driving him out into the wilderness.  Driving him.  Temptation, wild animals, angels.  That’s all you need to know.

Right.  Um.  Right.  So .... What?   Wait, you said there’s another character in this chapter, maybe that will help us figure this out.  Do you think?  Who’s the other character?  Another Old Testament prophet?  An early church figure who took a test?  Who?

Mark 13:9-13 NRS  "As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 

And the other character is?  Well, it’s you.  You all.  All y’all.  Us.  OK, a bit of a sleight of hand here, since we are the second character in every chapter.  But, I had to come up with a way to explain the two passages this week, two texts from Mark.  One for Jesus and one for us.  We’re supposed to hear an echo in these two passages, I think.  We’re supposed to see us walking where Jesus walked, in that lonesome valley, with the wild beasts.  

We have those beastly moments from time to time, don’t we?  We find ourselves cast out into a world we aren’t ready for, dealing with things for which we didn’t prepare, wondering if we are going to survive.  There are choices to be made, paths to follow and we are never sure which is right, what will bring us back into the gentle blessing of the Spirit and which will drive us deeper into conflict with the adversary.  

And our first thought when we find ourselves in difficult situations is what did I do wrong?  How did I get off track?  One wonders if Jesus thought that while stumbling around the wilderness.  What did I do wrong?  Surely not, we think, he must have known what he was doing.  It must have been his idea to go and spend some quiet time before diving into the busy years of his earthly ministry.  But then, why does it say the Spirit drove him out?  Doesn’t that sound like he didn’t want to go?  It sounds like punishment, God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden.  It sounds like getting rid of something you don’t want, Jesus himself would later drive out demons and drive out disease.  It was a way of getting obstacles out of the way, Jesus drove out the mourners when he wanted to rescue Jairus’ daughter from the grip of death. 

The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.  The Spirit tore open the heavens and drove him into the wilderness.  And in the middle he was blessed, with a gentle presence and loving words.  He was tempted in the harsh wilderness for forty days and in the midst of it he was waited on by emissaries of the God who claimed him at the river.  Again, there’s an echo of our own lives which seem to vacillate between moments of love and acceptance and moments of doubt and terror.  We seem to be swallowed up in uncertainty even as we are comforted by the blessings of those who love us. 

Mark tells us, Jesus tells us to lean into the Spirit.  Even when it blows you into uncharted territory.  Even when it seems to be sending you out against your will.  Lean into the uncertainty, because it won’t abandon you.  And along the way there will be moments of blessing.  Remember them.  Cling to them.  Let them be sustaining in times of temptation and deprivation.  Let those words, You are my beloved, ring in your ears over the weeping and moans of your own brokenness, and let the gentle Spirit be what drives you to embrace the suffering of the world to bring healing and wholeness and love.  

Wait, though.  Light and dark, gentleness and suffering, Satan and angels.  OK, we get that tension, that daily struggle to hold on, that hope in the midst of despair and the suffering that deepens love.  But what about the animals?  He was with the wild beasts?  Who are they?  Another danger?  Another comfort?  Another choice to turn away from or a responsibility to claim?  Who are the wild beasts?

We are.  He was with the wild beasts.  That’s all we get.  Did they attack to rend limb from limb or did they lie down to keep him warm in the cold desert nights?  Yes.  Maybe both.  Maybe some attacked and some came along side.  Maybe some ran from him and some ran toward him.  We have that choice.  Always have that choice.  And we aren’t told what happened because it is still happening.  Every day we make the choice.  Lean into the Spirit, it won’t let you down.  And you’ll find resources to face whatever may come in the wilderness.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Bone to its Bone

I hardly know what to write this week.  I’m still reeling from last week’s festivities.  If you somehow missed it, a group of folks from Aldersgate decided that the occasion of my 30th anniversary of elders ordination needed recognition.  So, last Sunday was quite the party.  Just that they wanted to acknowledge it was honor enough, but they pulled out all the stops.  From the beginning of the service to the end of the potluck dinner that afternoon, many folks went out of the way to say congratulations and thank you and I’m glad you are or were my pastor.  The moment that blew my mind was during the liturgy of presentations (usually an installation ritual we’ve used almost too often - but was gloriously rewritten for this occasion) the presentation of the stole was not the usual grab one off the shelf and use it symbolically, but a brand new one of a kind, custom made stole, designed and assembled and (and this is the part that still brings a lump to my throat) presented by my brother, Jason.  All the way from New York City, he was in on the surprise and made the trip just for me.

Just for me.  I have seen my brother off and on over the past years - since we lived in the same house I mean - but it was usually on the way to something else.  Or because my folks were here.  Or a kid was graduating.  Or something.  I would never have asked him to interrupt his busy schedule to make the trip for me.  Others asked him.  He said yes.  And there he was last Sunday morning.  Looking oddly older than I remembered.  But still Jason.  I could scarcely believe my eyes.  Eyes that filled with tears are notoriously suspect witnesses to a miracle.  But it was him, placing yet another glorious work of art around my neck and then holding me while I tried to compose myself.

Everything changed in that moment.  Forgive me, but I thought I knew what I was in for.  I pretty much had the day figured out.  There would be words of congratulations.  There would be smiles and thanks.  Maybe even a gift of some kind.  There would be a meal afterward with delicious food prepared by loving hands.  There would be a cake, perhaps, maybe, I figured, maybe it had my name on it, or maybe just a congratulations.  And it would have been a very nice day.  And I would have been grateful.  But it was more.  So much more.  It was family, it was welcome - radical hospitality is the buzz word - it was sincere words, it was heart breaking - in a good way!  It was grace poured out like I can’t recall ever experiencing before.  It was bone to its bone.  I was taken apart that day and then put back together.  And I wasn’t the only one.  We were taken apart and put back together that day.

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRS The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." 4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. 5 Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD." 7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live." 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Maybe it is because the prophet is telling his own story here.  “The hand of the Lord came upon ME.”  Maybe that’s why this becomes such an individual story.  When it isn’t about individuals at all.  The passage ends with a vast multitude, for heaven’s sake.  Yet we insist on hearing it as a multitude of individuals.  And this is about being shorn up.  It’s about getting what you need to keep going.  It’s about God who can revive you no matter how dry you are.  God can breathe into you new life, no matter how much you are gasping for air.  I’ve heard, and probably preached, too many sermons along those lines.

Full disclosure, that’s not all bad.  Certainly souls, individual souls need reviving.  Certainly, breath can come to reanimate those who have had the wind knocked out of them.  Certainly, there is something there for the individual yous in this story.  Last Sunday was a wonderful personal day for me.  Which, all of a sudden I understand the desire to take a personal day off work.  I need a personal day.  You need a personal day.  Everyone needs, if that is what it was last Sunday, everyone needs a personal day.  Wonderful.  Let’s make it happen. Personal days for everyone!

But that limits the power of this passage, both historically and today.  The passage usually includes verses 11-14, because they function as an explanation of Ezekiel’s vision.  And verse eleven begins “These bones are the whole house of Israel.”  The whole house.  Not just individuals.  Not just one on one, but all together.  So, then if you go back to verse three where God says to Ezekiel, “can these bones live?” God isn’t referring to any specific individuals.  Can this one live, can that one?  Can you live?  Can I live?  No, as important as those individuals are, God is talking to Ezekiel about the whole community.  The family of God.  The body, we have come to call it, the body of Christ.  

We live in an era of massive and rapid change.  One of those changes is the loss of influence of institutions like the church.  Not just the church, by any means, but the one that concerns us in this space.  The church is seemingly on its way out.  Or at the least the church as we have known it for the last however many years you want to count.  And now here we are.  Set down in the midst of this valley of bones.  Of what once was.  Of what our expectations are.  This is where we are.  This is the world in which we live.  But, and this is important, not because we messed up.  Not because we lost something, or broke something, or did something wrong to this gift called the church.  No we are here today because this is where God wants us.  This is our paradise.

I know, sounds outrageous, right?  In the midst of decline, in the midst of struggle, of conflict and disagreement and longing for a past that may not have been real, to call this paradise seems .... offensive.  Or a scam of some sort.  Like I’m trying to divert the blame for the mistakes I have made or something.  Maybe.  But look again.  The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  Set me down.  Did you know that is the same word that is used in the beginning of Genesis?  He set them down in the Garden of Eden. (Gen 2:15) Maybe this is where God wants us.  Here in this place where what used to be so easy, now involves effort and commitment and faith.  

He set us down here in a church that is facing an uncertain future and asks us “Can these bones live?”  And our response is often one of despair.  If only.  If only it was like it used to be.  If only we could turn back the clock.  If only we just advertised more, just opened the doors wider, just went back to what used to work, even though it was already losing ground.  Can these bones live?  

Let’s be honest, shall we?  Can these bones live?  No.  Face it.  No.  Not a one of these bones can live.  Not a one, they are too dry.  Too old.  Too dead.  Not a one.  But Ezekiel is wise enough to know that he shouldn’t voice that answer.  Even though he feels it in his bones, like we feel it in ours.  He wants to say no these bones can’t live, I can’t make them live.  Too many, too dry, to broken.  But he knows better than to say so.  Instead he shrugs his shoulders and says “You know, Lord.”  And God says, no.  As they are they can’t, they won’t live.  On their own.  So, bring them together Ezekiel.  Prophesy to the bones.  Bring them together.  What happened next took time, and made noise, and didn’t look right for a while. Wasn’t right for a while.  Until it became right.  Until the breath entered and what was apart came together and stood together.  A vast multitude.

I truly hope what happened at Aldersgate last Sunday was not just about me and my longevity.  I hope it was about us, about coming together, bone to its bone.  Everything changed, I said, when Jason walked into the room.  Then it was family, then it was a part of my flesh and my blood.  But Jesus says family is not just those who share DNA, but those who share a vision, those who share a hope.  We were set here in this paradise of brokenness to bring life where life seems to be lost.  And it is not just a good idea, it is part of us, deeply part of us.  We are not whole until we can bring these bones together.  We are not complete until these bones can live.  The truth is we can’t make the bones live - the bones of our church, the bones of our families, the bones of our world.  But God can.  So we prophesy to the bones and to the breath. To the body that we are becoming and the Spirit that makes us alive.  Then maybe we can come together, bone to its bone.