Advent

are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?”  How many of you have ever heard that question being whined from the back seat of the car?  How many of us have ever whined that question?  Are we there yet?

In my less charitable moments, I imagine an appropriate response to that question: “Look out the window.  Do you see (and fill in the blank, depending on the destination)…  Grandma and Grandpa’s house?…  the amusement park?…  the rest stop?”  (When driving on the interstate, that’s one I keep a lookout for!)

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Of course, that question when uttered with a whine—“Are we there yet?”—is less a request for information than it is a statement.  It is a statement of impatience, a proclamation of longing, a declaration of desire, that a goal be reached.  Geographical distance is irrelevant.  This is a desire expressed in time.  There’s a desire for something to happen now, or at least, very soon.

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we might ask: are we there yet?  We’re encouraged, both by scripture and by the Advent season, to look for the Lord’s return—to look for that return, that presence, in our lives and in the world.  We have the privilege to not only know about Jesus—to believe certain things about him—but to know Jesus.  So, are we there yet?

The gospel reading in Luke is quite appropriate for a question like, “Are we there yet?”  That’s because it tells the story of a visit.  It’s one of the best-known visits in the entire Bible: the visit of Mary to Elizabeth.  One pregnant woman comes calling on another.  Of course, as we know, there is a slight twist to this story of two women with child.  We have a virgin visiting a woman described by her husband Zechariah as “getting on in years.”  She gives birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist.

It’s been suggested we may even have a picture of the first church.  Mary and Elizabeth “are the ones who first hear the Gospel Word and [believe] that the messianic age has dawned with the little babe growing in Mary’s womb.  They [believe] that the Messiah has come, the one who is Christ and Savior.  They are the ones who receive the word and obey it.  They are doers of the word.  They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and break out into praise and joy.”[1]

I must confess, I think that description might be a tad premature.  I’m not so certain they had that full awareness.  But I might be wrong.

What we see in these scriptures is indeed amazing, truly revolutionary, especially regarding Mary.  By the standards of her society, Mary is nobody, more or less.  First of all, she’s a woman.  I imagine you’ve heard before, in that culture (as in so many others), women were treated by men as little more than children.

But Mary’s not simply a woman; she’s an unmarried woman.  Actually, from what evidence we have about her age, today we would call her an adolescent.  But whatever her exact age, she still isn’t married to Joseph.  Her pregnancy would have raised eyebrows and set tongues a-wagging.

Add to all this, the fact that Mary is poor.  We learn later in chapter 2 (v. 24), when the time comes to present Jesus in the temple, she offers a dove instead of a sheep, a provision made in the law for those who can’t afford a sheep for sacrifice (Lv 12:8).

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And not only is she poor; she’s from a backward part of the country.  The region of Galilee, and especially Nazareth, is considered to be the boonies.  That’s why elsewhere Nathanael asks the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

So Mary is a poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  She’s a nobody from nowhere.  And now, this nobody from nowhere is presented with the option of being a pregnant poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  To put it quite unkindly, in the eyes of her culture (at least the people whose opinion counts), Mary is riff raff.

And that is what’s so revolutionary.  That is what’s so shocking.  God chooses this riff raff to be the means by which the Messiah enters the world.  Even before he’s born, Jesus is already a scandal.

As I suggested earlier, the events of our scripture reading are prompted by a visit.  Earlier in the chapter, the angel Gabriel tells the virgin Mary how it is that she’ll be able to conceive a child.  That’s actually the visit that sets the stage for everything which follows.

It’s not until Mary hurries off to visit Elizabeth that she indeed acts on the word from Gabriel.  It’s true she makes the courageous decision to be “the servant of the Lord,” and she says, “let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).  But it’s only when Mary takes off to see her relative that she puts her intention into motion.

Something happens in a visit that can happen in no other way.  There is an immediacy, a contact, that can’t be replicated by phone, letter, email, instant messaging, whatever.  In-person visits, as we know, have taken a hit in the past two years.

In these final days of Advent, I ask that we consider what it means to welcome Jesus.  We can’t do it the way that Elizabeth does in our scripture reading.  (Mary, quite literally, brings Jesus to her!)  But we can do it in ways even more powerful.  We can welcome him in the friendless, in the distressed, even in those who annoy us.

But that leads to something even more fundamental: what does it mean to be a Christian?  There are many in the church who know about Jesus, but don’t know and love Jesus.  Knowing about Jesus leads only to dead religion!  Knowing and loving Jesus leads to vibrant, energetic, joyful faith that is willing and able to let its boundaries be continually moved to welcome the least of the least.

3 lkHarry Emerson Fosdick, early twentieth-century pastor, commented on vibrant faith.  During World War 1, he wrote that we “cannot live without faith because [our] relationship with the future is an affair not alone of thought but also of action; life is a continuous adventure into the unknown.”[2]

Remember when he wrote this.  The Great War, the war to end all war, was raging across Europe and other parts of the world.  Who could possibly know what the aftermath would look like?  I don’t want to be simplistic (I really don’t), but the hope in Christ provides a foundation which can help endure anything.  That has been the testimony of believers throughout history who went through distressing times at the societal level.

Energetic faith also displays valor.  On that, Fosdick continued, we “cannot live without faith because the prime requisite in life’s adventure is courage, and the sustenance of courage is faith.”[3]  The Christian faith requires courage.

At the personal level, can we imagine being in a situation that required any more adventure into the unknown than Mary’s?  Can we imagine being in a situation that required any more courage than Mary’s?  Recall what I said before about her station in life.

Nonetheless, this young woman will be the mother of God.  In Greek, she is called theotokos.  This might be confusing to those unfamiliar with the word.  It doesn’t mean anything divine about Mary.  She isn’t a goddess or one to be worshipped.  Theotokos simply means “God-bearer.”  It is a statement about the one in her womb, the one to whom she will give birth.  She is carrying the one who is divine.  Jesus, the infant in her womb, is also God.

The God-man will be born, not from a woman in an exalted position—not from one accustomed to royal surroundings (although that would be incredible enough!), but from a poor virgin.

That would truly be an adventure into the unknown, truly one that would require immense courage.

Have we ever had such a visit?  Clearly, I’m not talking about bringing the messiah into the world.  That has already been done.  I would say we have indeed had such a visit.  We’ve had it many more times than once.  As I wondered earlier, the Lord has come calling on us.  The Lord is knocking on the door.  Have we opened the door?

Have we opened the door to others?  Here is a good and possibly uncomfortable question: have we gone out of our way to open the door?

The Lord comes to us in those who desperately need our help.  As the book of Revelation says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20).  Who do we invite as our dinner guest?  (I told you this would be uncomfortable!)

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["Knocking at the Door" by He Qi]

And yet, we also need to shut the door to certain things.  Here is the first verse of the hymn, “Lord, I Have Shut the Door.”  “Lord, I have shut the door, speak now the word / Which in the din and throng could not be heard / Hushed now my inner heart, whisper Thy will / While I have come apart, while all is still.”

I won’t pretend that I don’t have plenty of work to do on these revolving doors.  I still have much to learn about welcoming the visit of Jesus.

Are we there yet?  Maybe not, but as we continue to learn how to know and love Christ, we come closer to the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45).

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C04advt4.htm

[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York: Association Press, 1917), 3

[3] Fosdick, 4.


be afraid. be very afraid

The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis is credited with the demand, “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”  However, we can come up with numerous ways that command is laid upon us.  Unfortunately, being exposed to manufactured fear has become a way of life.

Are we familiar with the slogan regarding news broadcasts, “If it bleeds, it leads”?  The focus in the news tends to be on bad news.  And what poses as discussion is either interviewing people who already agree with the host or shouting at and interrupting those who don’t.  On occasion, good news finds its way into the mix.  Nonetheless, it seems that the directive, “lead with the bleed,” has been bumped up a notch or three in the past couple of years.  We are learning to fear each other.  We are being censored.  We are taught, like it or not, fear sells.  Panic is profitable, as in billions of dollars profitable.

1[A scared chicken, courtesy of Doug Savage]

Still, there are reasons for fear that are legitimate.  Fear jumping off your roof—especially if you have a three-story house.  Fear driving down the interstate with your eyes closed.  Fear walking up to your wife while she’s cooking and asking, “What is that stench?”

The psalm which is Isaiah 12 addresses a basic fear.  The first two verses tell us,

“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. / Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”

(Quick note: if you wonder what “in that day” means, see chapter 11, which speaks of the restoration of Israel.)

This is a fear pervading the prophet / psalmist’s outlook, one which is seen to be found in the God of all.  Some might prefer language such as “pervading life itself.”  An elemental anger—an inherent indignation—welling up from the divine is felt.  We might think the whole world is against us!

2However, there is a discovery of salvation.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of freedom from fear.  “I will trust and will not be afraid.”  Trust and fear don’t do very well in the presence of the other.  Fear is afraid of trust.  To be honest, fear is afraid of many things!

We can even be afraid of ourselves.

I remember one day when I was in college and visiting home for the weekend.  I was arguing with my mother—an argument, to my shame, that I started.  Quite simply, she was talking to me about the Lord.  It was a conversation I didn’t care to have, and I made it quite clear.

She responded in an overly emotional manner, and it irritated me.  It made me mad.  I stormed up the stairs to go to my room, and with each step, I became angrier and angrier.  I slammed the door to my room as hard as I could, causing a sound like a thunderclap.

I plopped down in my chair, shaking.  It terrified me that I was capable of such rage.  (And I don’t use that word lightly.)  I was scared.  Needless to say, I didn’t spend the night.  I immediately got in my car and drove back to school.  Fortunately, a few days later, we were reconciled.  Thanks be to God!

Looking back at my outburst that day, I would say that I was convicted by the Holy Spirit.  The Lord was reaching out to me, and I did my best to say “no.”

Verse 3 seems instructive at this point.  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”  With joy I drew water from the wells of salvation, though it didn’t happen then!

My experience of faith and college differed from what is so often the case.  If college does have any effect on a student’s faith, it’s usually that they lose it.  Of course, it can always be retrieved!  But for me, college is where I found my faith.  And this wasn’t a religious college; I was at a state university, MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).

Recall my comment about divine anger welling up.  Following along with that image, the fresh water from those wells of salvation quenches the fire of fury.  Salvation brings the ultimate trust, and fear is banished.

That’s not the only time the book of Isaiah speaks of pure fresh water welling up: “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail” (58:11).

There’s something about how that well water will be drawn.  There’s a certain state of mind, or state of being.  It will be drawn with joy.  Such is the promise of the prophet: with joy.  It won’t be a question of going through the motions, of following a formula, of following instructions on a box.  I mentioned how fear and trust have trouble co-existing.  With joy, that’s even more the case.  The force, the energy, pulsing at the heart of joy is the power of God.  We hear and feel the holy message, “Fear not.”

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Still, there is a fear many people have, and it is singing before others.  Maybe that’s a fear I would be better off having, at least, according to critiques I’ve received over the years.

However, to that point, there is a theological lesson we can learn from Isaiah.  Verse 5 tells us (no, encourages us, exhorts us) “Sing praises to the Lord”!  If we understand that when we’re singing, we are singing to God, we can be assured we aren’t being graded; we aren’t being critiqued, as I have been!  God is tone deaf in the best possible way.  God is the ultimate in being a forgiving audience.

More than once, the psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!”

There’s a joke along those lines.  Someone is being recruited to sing a solo, and they respond, “I’ll sing a solo.  I’ll sing so low you can’t hear me!”  (I didn’t say it was a good joke.)

Why is Isaiah 12 a text for Advent?  What does it have to do with the coming of Christ?

We always have to be careful when taking an Old Testament scripture and viewing it through New Testament eyes.  Still, this chapter works well for this time of year.  It speaks of hope and joy that the Holy One is in our midst.

The same is true of our epistle reading from Philippians 4.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4).  We are reminded that the Third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday.  Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice”!

There’s something about verse 5 I really like.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  The Lord is near.  If that’s not an Advent theme, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not what I’m talking about.  The word translated as “gentleness” has many nuances.  The Greek word επιεικης (epieikēs) is powerful.  For example, it expresses what is suitable or fitting.  One described as επιεικης is patient and gentle.  Understand, this isn’t a gentleness born out of weakness.  It portrays one who possesses a loftiness of thought, one who is noble.

4I especially appreciate how it reads in the New English Bible: “Let your magnanimity be manifest to all.”  Be magnanimous.  Be great in character.  Avoid the pettiness, the vindictiveness that so easily infects.  Cultivate the willingness to laugh at oneself.  (Sadly, that’s no problem for me.)

Sometimes I’ve heard people say if they had the ability to do it all over again, they wouldn’t change anything about their life.  After all, it has led them to be the person they are.  Well, I would love to do some things over.  (The day of my meltdown would be one!)  There are many situations in which I wish I had been more… magnanimous.  In that way, we help each other disobey the command to be afraid, to be very afraid.

The apostle Paul counsels us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6).  A life of anxiety hampers the desire and ability, not to pray, but to pray with thanksgiving, with gratitude.  There’s a big difference.  Paul says to thank God even while making our requests, our supplications.  One version says, “Be saturated in prayer” (The Passion Translation).

Then what happens?  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).  The peace of God is superior to every frame of mind.

Trust, joy, gratitude—all of these send fear packing.  We can cultivate healthiness as a nation and as a church.  We too often fall sway under the politics of fear, which has its own sad spirituality.  Fundamentally, it’s a way of controlling the population.  A certain level of anxiety must be maintained for it to work.

Elsewhere, Paul cautions us, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:14-15).  If we develop a taste for human flesh, we will never get enough.

Still, there is the holy word of peace, “Fear not.”  It might seem counter-intuitive, but there are ways in which we choose to be afraid.  Sometimes we move heaven and earth to get a sip of that bitter draft of dread.  We ignore Paul’s guidance to not worry, to not get all worked up.  We ignore Isaiah’s encouragement to shout aloud and sing for joy—to raise the roof!

When we do not ignore the prophet and the apostle, what we do is to face down fear.  We embrace a holy boldness.

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[Something appearing on our wall, y'all]

Can we agree to engage in a kind of rage?  Not the foolish, stupid rage that captured me on the day I spoke of.  No, can we agree to rage at all that would intimidate us, to fill us with fear?  Can we agree to a holy rage?  The peace of God isn’t passive; it flexes its muscles.  It is shalom, and shalom kicks fear in the hiney.

“Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”  Do not be afraid.


we dreamed, and it was joy

Sometimes I will try to go to sleep.  Please note, I said “try.”  This might be taking a nap or going to bed at night.  There are those times with an in-between level of awareness in which you’re not sure if you slept or not.  At least, I have found that to be true with myself.  Did I really make the plunge, or did I remain up in the waking world?  If I have memory of a dream, then I know I was actually asleep.

Dreams themselves can be funny things.  They can be crazy things, as I’m sure you all know.  Throughout history, people have interpreted dreams in all manner of ways.  People have derived messages and gained insights from them.  That goes for me, too.  I know I’m not alone in this, but I have had dreams which provided answers to some problems I had been mulling over.  More than once, I have had ideas for a sermon come to me in the night, sometimes entire paragraphs.

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The greatest dreams, in my opinion, are the ones impossible to put into words.  They don’t demean themselves into petty things like solving problems.  They’re too good for that.  They’re too sublime.  They’re too majestic.  They fire the imagination.  They are works of art.

Psalm 126 is one of those works of art.  It is one of my favorite psalms—and I love a lot of the psalms.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream” (v. 1).  That first part can also read, “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion.”  What an awesome image.  “We were like those who dream.”  It had to be a dream!  These were people who had been exiled to Babylon.  They had been forcibly removed from their homes and sent marching on that long trail of tears.  The world as they knew it had ended.  And yet…

I love the Hebrew word for “dream”: חָלַם, chalam.  It’s dreaming while asleep (last night, I dreamed I had the face of a horse).  It’s dreaming for something in life (I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska).  It’s dreaming as a prophet (thus says the Lord).

I should add that prophets are not fortune tellers.  Nine times out of ten (maybe more than that) their prophetic dreams are about the current situation the people face, rather than predicting the future.  Having said that, we benefit from the messages they have given.  We need them!  And there are indeed foreshadowings of the Messiah.  The New Testament has one or two, here and there.

The word chalam has another definition.  It also means to be strong, to be robust.  It refers to infants and livestock if they’re fat and plump.  Poor bony creatures do not qualify as chalam.  The Revised English Bible captures this nuance of “those who dream,” by saying “we were like people renewed in health.”  Is it safe to say those who dream are healthy?  Those who do not dream are unhealthy?  They are not strong?  They are not robust?

According to the psalmist, they need not worry about that, as we see in verse 2.  “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”  They can’t control themselves.  Their amazing reversal of fortunes demands response.  “Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

2 ps[Here is a joyful person!]

The word for “shouts of joy” is רׅנָּה, rinnah.  It also appears in verses 5 and 6.  It can also mean “singing” and “rejoicing.”  What is their response to what the Lord has done for them?  What is their response to be like those who dream?  It’s singing; it’s joyful singing!

The Jews who have returned from exile can only ask, “How can we keep from singing?”  It’s like the hymn which poses the question, “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock, I’m clinging / Since love prevails in heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?”[1]

The psalmist does something interesting.  It is affirmed, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”  And then there’s a transition.  Acknowledging what’s been done, a request is added, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (vv. 3-4).  (That’s the desert in southern Israel.)  We’re moving from the past to looking to the future.

Lord, we ask you to make the streams flow in the desert.  This isn’t the time to let us down!  Don’t let our dreams turn to dust.  We just got our singing voices warmed up!  We were making beautiful music.

Still, maybe the psalmist understands the score.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).

What’s the deal with introducing this language of sowing and reaping?  Maybe there is an understanding that joy must be grounded.  Joy can’t simply be “just a dream.”  It should be noted joy is not a mere emotion.  It is a deep spiritual reality, even when we don’t feel elated.  Quite clearly, there’s no guarantee that sowing the seeds will produce a good crop.  Maybe the ground will not be receptive.  Is it rocky?  Is it sandy?  Is it scorched by the sun, dry as a bone?

The image of sowing and reaping is a universal one, common to people throughout time.  Jesus tells a story which begins, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow” (Mk 4:1).  How receptive are we to receiving that seed which is the word?  Is our ground barren, rocky, filled with thorns?  Do we need to benefit from that fresh water in the desert?

Or will our efforts end in tears?

Henri Nouwen speaks of the joy that emerges from sorrow.[2]  “Joys are hidden in sorrows!  I know this from my own times of depression.  I know it from living with people with mental handicaps.”  He refers to his time after leaving his position as professor at Harvard Divinity School to live with the folks at L’Arche Daybreak in Ontario, a community for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I know it from looking into the eyes of patients, and from being with the poorest of the poor.  We keep forgetting this truth and become overwhelmed by our own darkness.  We easily lose sight of our joys and speak of our sorrows as the only reality there is.”

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[Some friendly folks at L'Arche Daybreak]

It really is too easy to focus on the negative.  One way I notice this is when we take prayer requests.  I think you will agree with me in saying the concerns usually outweigh the joys.  We too readily overlook the blessings and celebrations in life.  Please understand me.  In absolutely no way am I suggesting we overlook or dismiss the very real struggles and sorrows among us.  We all have burdens to bear, some much more than others.

I have a copy of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  There is a section devoted to Evening Prayer.  There’s one in particular I frequently visit before going to sleep.  (Yes, we’re back to sleep!)

“Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.  Amen.” (page 124)

I especially appreciate the request to “shield the joyous.”  I find depths of meaning in that.  Is it a plea for protection, lest the joyous too easily fall?  Does it refer to the prayer’s concern for the sorrows immediately preceding the joy?  Is it a shelter for the joyous prophetic dream of justice and peace?  I imagine it is those and many other levels of awareness.

The psalmist concludes, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6).  That’s the story of bringing in the sheaves.[3]  “Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, / Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; / When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, / We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

How has our harvest been?  How have our crops fared?  Is our livestock chalam?   Can we carry our sheaves with joy?

The psalmist would have us be dreamers.  During this Advent, I think we are especially called to be dreamers.  Howard Wallace reminds us that, in our call to be dreamers, we would be like “those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be.  It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.”[4]

It’s not hard to see us in our own exile, of sorts.  We might be weeping for a season.  And yet…  God gives us the promise of the advent, the coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ, who leads us through the desert of our journey.

We dreamed, and it was joy.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=VLPP3XmYxXg

[2] henrinouwen.org/meditation/joys-are-hidden-in-sorrows

[3] www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7yMUIezLSE

[4] hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventB/Advent3BIsa61Ps126.html


light up the sky

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Rip it into shreds.  Let the fire fall.  Light up the sky!

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So begins Isaiah 64, our Old Testament text for today, the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament, a lament of the entire nation.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we give it much thought!  In any event, maybe that’s the perfect theme for this year.

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

It might be considered the difference between chronos and kairosChronos is time measured in seconds, hours, years.  It is clock time.  Kairos is time measured in moments, especially the right moment, the opportune moment.  It is time as experienced.  Advent might be considered kairos time, with the understanding that kairos time can’t be willed into existence.  However, we can prepare ourselves for it.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  Hallmark started showing Christmas movies last month.  This is no time for sober self-examination.  Live it up!

Scriptures like the one I just mentioned might only prove the point of those who don’t like Advent.  What’s all this doom and gloom!  Or as Batman’s arch enemy the Joker would say, “Why so serious?  Let’s put a smile on that face!”

2 is(Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Jonathan Aigner, who teaches music to elementary school students and also serves as music minister in his United Methodist Church, has some thoughts on the season of Advent as a time of expectation.[1]

“It prepares us.  It leads us through all the steps in the story so that we can experience the hope and longing.  We look in on John the Baptist crying out, ‘Prepare ye the way!’  We feel some of Mary’s joy and anticipation.  With each week, the longing and anticipation builds.

“But it’s a discipline, and part of discipline is having to wait for the events to come.  In this case, the discipline includes holding off on the celebration while the rest of the world, which doesn’t particularly care about the true reason for Christmas, is busy with its own frenetic energy and excessive indulgence.”

Reflecting his calling as a musician and lover of Advent hymns, he laments,I’ve been put on the spot in front of the choir and the congregation by Advent grinches.  I’ve been insulted and maligned in adult Sunday School classes.  (Ironically, children are usually quite receptive.  It’s the adults who sometimes act like children.)”

Really, what does our consumer culture do with words like, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, / And ransom captive Israel, / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear”?  That business about “captive” and “lonely exile” doesn’t lend itself very well to commercials intent on selling you a car, complete with a red bow mounted on the roof!

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Of course, as already suggested, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people well after the return from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book likely deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was hoped.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the dreams of the people.  (More on that point later.)

Please understand.  I’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

Let’s follow the original thought of verse 1.  Rip open the sky, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence…  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv. 1b, 3).  Some big-time seismic activity is on the agenda!

Maybe that can be expected, because the prophet says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (v. 4).  The apostle Paul quotes that in 1 Corinthians 2:9.

Things start to get interesting.  The scripture says, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5).  Come now, who’s really at fault?  You took off and left us to our own devices.  It’s been noted, “If parents left a bunch of toddlers and puppies at home for a few hours and the house was a shambles when they returned—would we blame the puppies and toddlers for making the mess or the parents for leaving?”[2]  In a way, blaming God for our sin is as old as the human race.  Adam pins the blame on the woman he says you, God, created.

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I remember watching a football game a few years ago in which a receiver dropped a pass in the end zone, missing a chance at a game-winning touchdown.  (I won’t say what team it was.)  Afterwards, referring to the play, he tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!!  And this how you do me!!!”  Hey, it wasn’t my fault.  I need to make sure the coach knows about this.

Having said all that, truth be told, the Hebrew here is unclear.  It could also go something like this: “because we sinned you hid yourself.”  The sequence is reversed.  Still, I think it’s more fun to blame God!

We quickly move on.  “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…  [And again] you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (vv. 6a, 7b).  The word for “delivered us” (מוּג, muwg) means “melt” or “dissolve.”  We are being dissolved by our wrongdoing; we are melting into it.  It is swallowing us up.

Isn’t this an inspiring thought for Advent?  Don’t worry; we’re getting ready to turn the corner.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (v. 8).  There’s a transition.  We belong to you, O God.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Make of us what you will.

Can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  We hear a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.

There is a confession of how the temple and cities have been ravished.  The anxious and accusatory appeal finishes the prayer: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (v. 12).  It does end on a dark note.  It does turn out to be a lamentation.

On that note, is there honesty, even beauty, in lament?  If so, what is it?

When my sister and I were kids, our family celebrated Christmas in much the same way as others did.  My dad strung the lights out on the house, sometimes putting some in the bushes in front.  We put up the Christmas tree, glistening with ornaments, its own lights, tinsel, and an angel gracing our presence, hovering high above.

Then, of course, there were the presents.  This was, after all, the crowning feature to the whole business.  We tore open the gifts and we posed with them while my parents photographed us.  (I don’t know if others had that tradition.)  However, it didn’t take very long until the novelty wore off.  It only took a couple of days—sometimes even later on Christmas Day itself.  “Is that all there is to it?”  I had a rather empty feeling inside.

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For my parents, there was an almost palpable sense of relief.  “I’m glad that’s over!”  It was communicated that, when all was said and done, Christmas was a chore.  (Maybe it was just them who felt that way!)

I’m not sure what I felt was exactly lament, but it was close to it.  I felt like I had been robbed.  I felt like I had been robbed while getting presents on a holiday which many people lamented was being commercialized.  (Again, maybe it was just me who had that feeling!)

We as a nation, as a church, need to own our lament.  We need to acknowledge it—especially this year.  Something tells me that won’t be difficult to do!

How does lament help prepare us for the Lord’s advent?  Can we see the honesty in it?  Can we see how, in its own way, lament paves the way to healing?  We short circuit the process when we take a short cut—when we jump to conclusions.  That can lead to a refusal to mature in the faith.  Too often, I fear I’ve done that.

Lament can lead to healing when we come clean, as stated earlier, when we repent.  It’s when, by the grace of God, we change our minds (which is what “repent” literally means).  We are made ready to welcome our Lord’s advent.  We have the promise of the apostle Paul that God will “strengthen [us] to the end, so that [we] may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 1:8).

Come Lord, light up the sky.

 

[1] www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2020/11/23/how-to-explain-advent-to-people-who-think-its-already-christmas/

[2] www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/advent1b


come on down!

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  So begins Isaiah 64, the Old Testament text for the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we think of it at all!

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[photo by Ruan Carlos on Unsplash]

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  (Advent means “coming.”)  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  This is no time for sober self-examination.  It’s time to party.  (Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Of course, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people returning from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was expected.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the hopes of the people.

2 oI’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

So can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  This is a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Come to us, O Lord, feeble as we are.  Come to us, this Advent.


go to sleep, Dionysus

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of my brain surgery.  November 14, 1995 was a watershed moment in my life.  I came to think of that experience in terms of BC and AD: before cancer and after diagnosis.  Also, there was the traumatic event caused by radiation therapy.  I lost the hair on top of my head!  It began with a little piece falling out here and there when I combed my hair.  Then one day in the shower while washing it, a big hunk decided to say farewell.  That was when Banu and I decided to shave it all off.

A side effect of the cancer has been the influence on my brain itself.  I have found if I get really tired, I might have an episode in which I want to speak, but the words get hung up before I can get them out.  These episodes usually last from 5 to 20 seconds…  …but it sometimes feels like an eternity.

1 thMy doctors have said one way to combat this tiredness is to make sure I get enough sleep.  That sounds like good advice!  As a result, if I’m able to (after all, I do have meetings and other stuff to do), I’ll try to take a nap sometime in the afternoon.  At first, I was a little hesitant to admit it, but when one considers the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and body, I think taking a nap is a good choice.  The Spanish, and other cultures around the world, have embraced the value of the siesta.

I’ve brought all of this up because the first part of our epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians speaks about slumbering, snoozing.  As a bit of preview, verse 11 is a bridge to the second part.  “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  What kind of things are they doing and should continue to do?  Check out verses 12 to 22.  It’s quite the laundry list.

First, let’s return to getting shuteye.  Is the apostle Paul’s warning to “not fall asleep as others do, but [to] keep awake and be sober” just refer to physical sleep?  No doubt it includes that; it is possible to sleep one’s life away.  To use a common metaphor, one can wind up in the sleep of death.  (Actually, that’s pretty much guaranteed.)  Only one person has woken up from that sleep.  Only Jesus has awakened from a dirt nap!

This text is a grab bag of goodies.  I’ll have to leave some of the goodies in the bag.  It’s all framed within the theme of the coming of the Lord.  It’s an Advent theme before the season of Advent arrives.  The opening verses speak of “the day of the Lord [as coming] like a thief in the night” (v. 2).  Pay attention.  Pay attention to your life.  Don’t get caught napping—and this time, it really isn’t about physical sleep.

Thessalonica was a place where worship of Dionysus flourished.  He was the god of wine, agriculture, theater, and insanity, among other things.  (And according to the stories, Dionysus also rose from the dead.)  Still, it was his role as god of wine that guided his worshippers.  Their nighttime gatherings tended to be frenzied drunken orgies.  They just went mad.  When one worships the Lord of insanity, that seems fitting.  (Take note of the word “orgies.”  We’ll come back to it.)

The apostle counters with the life the Thessalonians have been called to.  “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8).  Paul tells them how to dress appropriately.  They are to clothe themselves with faith, love, and the hope of salvation.  They are not to be found in a state of undress, of a Dionysian nature.  And yes, “undress” is more than walking around physically disrobed.

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Why does he tell them that?  Why should they change their wardrobe?  He says, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 9).

That word “wrath” is an interesting one.  It might sound like God is ready to send a thunderbolt our way.  However, the wonderful truth of the gospel, the good news, is that God is not ticked off at us.  It’s true that God grieves the pain we inflict on each other, on creation, and on ourselves, but God’s essential nature is love.

The Greek word for “wrath” is ὀργή, orgē.  Guess what English word comes from it?  We think of “orgy” as a party with sexual abandon.  But the word orgē means anger, wrath, indignation.  The root idea is to swell up from within, like a fruit swelling with its juice.  Paul counsels the church to not go that route.  He doesn’t want them to stew in their own juices.

That word is used of Jesus himself.  In Mark 3, he is dealing with opposition to curing a man’s withered hand on the sabbath.  That’s the point; he shouldn’t be doing this on the sabbath.  Heal the guy some other time!  Jesus asks them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath?” (v. 4).  They don’t say a single word.

“He looked around at them with anger [with orgē]; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’  He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (v. 5).  That had to make an impression!  Have their hard hearts been softened?  Apparently not, since we’re told they immediately went out to make plans on how to do him in.

(Please note: orgē doesn’t describe Jesus’ overall approach to life!  It was a flash, prompted by the injustice faced by the man in need of healing.  And it was commingled with grief.)

That’s not what Paul’s talking about when he tells the Thessalonians they haven’t been destined for wrath.  It’s something more expansive.  They haven’t been relinquished to that state of life.  They haven’t been left in that horrible, frightening condition which would shape them.  That’s a word for us, also.  We haven’t been abandoned to hating and being hated.  We haven’t been given over to the cynicism which so often pervades.

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Instead, we have been destined for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  The path of the god Dionysus, and Dionysus today, with its uncontrolled passion, its undisciplined hunger, is a life of slavery.  Salvation through Christ is liberation—it is freedom.

Having said all of that, there is grace.  Paul adds that the Lord “died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (v. 10).  There is provision for those still slumbering.  They haven’t been forsaken.  They are still pursued by the Hound of Heaven.  I, for one, am thankful the Hound is pursuing me!

On that note, the apostle congratulates them.  Continue to encourage one another and to build each other up.

This was probably Paul’s first letter, written in the early 50s.  He has already encouraged them, in that the expectation of the Lord’s return is very much in the forefront of their minds.  It has troubled them concerning those who have already died, those who have fallen asleep in the other way.  Paul assures them their dearly departed will also be with the Lord.

Back to that laundry list.  He wants them to pay special attention to some things.  Make sure you don’t forget these!  First, he reminds them to take care of those who “have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you”—those who would caution or advise you (v. 12).  Maybe Paul has been to places where that doesn’t happen!

Looking through that list, I want to pay special attention to verse 14: “And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”  I’m especially interested in his call to “admonish the idlers.”  The NIV says “those who are idle.”  Is he telling them to reprimand those who just lounge around?

It’s not that such behavior—or rather, lack of behavior—should be commended, but the Greek word (ἄτακτος, ataktos) expresses something other than simply being idle.  “Idle” is not a very good translation.  The New Jerusalem Bible speaks of those who are “undisciplined.”  The term ataktos means “disorderly,” “out of ranks.”  It refers to soldiers who have broken formation, who have fallen out of line.

John Wesley speaks in these terms: “Warn the disorderly—Them that stand, as it were, out of their rank in the spiritual warfare.”[1]

The expectation of the Lord’s return can be portrayed in a way that inspires dread.  I once read a caption that proclaimed, “The good news is Jesus is coming back.  The bad news is he’s really ticked off.”  (“Ticked off” is a euphemism for what it really said.)  Maybe the point is made.  Paul indeed desires to reassure them, and by extension, us.  The spirit of Dionysus is still with us, and yet, as we await the Lord’s coming, we have not been consigned to wrath or disorder.  Maybe we should say, “Go to sleep, Dionysus.”  Go to sleep, you who would have us lose ourselves in the moment.

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Friends, let us raise our heads and welcome the Lord who brings clarity and freedom.  Who knows, we might have a BC and AD experience!  It might happen when we don’t expect it, like a thief in the night.

 

[1] www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/notes.i.xiv.vi.html


prayer for Ordinary Time

It’s true, Ordinary Time is about the ordinals—
the 3rd, the 13th, the 23rd Sunday.
But we usually think of it as…
ordinary time.

It’s ordinary; it’s everyday.
It’s a placeholder in between times.
It’s in between Epiphany and Lent.
It’s between the light shining over the whole world
and the call to reflect, renew, and repent
(you know, do an about face).

It’s in between Pentecost and Advent.
It’s after the fire has fallen
and the Spirit has set the church on her course.
It’s before your Son arrives as the God-baby
and returns in glory and power.

But that’s not where most of life is lived.
We don’t spend much time in those grand, majestic moments.
No, we live in between.

In ordinary time.

That’s where life happens.

 

Ordinary


shining in the dark

The introduction to the gospel of John is no mundane matter.  Every verse is packed (maybe we could say over-packed) with meaning.  Notice how it starts: “In the beginning was the Word.”  We’re off on a cosmic adventure.  There are all kinds of jaw-dropping, mind-blowing stuff.

Gail O’Day talks about the “cosmic, transtemporal dimension of the Prologue.”[1]  It goes beyond time itself!

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{Alexander Andrews, unsplash.com/@alex_andrews}

“All things came into being through him [that is, the Word], and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).

As the Christmas season gives way to the Epiphany of the Lord, it does so bathed in, and in preparation for, light.  Light is powerful, and there are those who say it must be infused with even more power.

Thomas Hoffman feels that way.  He offers comments in Caryll Houselander’s book, A Child in Winter.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[2]  A Child in Winter is a book of her devotionals covering Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.

Hoffman speaks of light as coming “pretty inexpensively and maybe even too conveniently to us.”  We have ready access to light, thanks to the power grid, batteries, cell phones, and so on.

He says, “We have grown accustomed to [this] being a season of light, but let’s agree to make this…a season of fire.  Be consumed by the energy that dwells and is growing within.  Let it burn in you.  Let God use fire to purify the cosmos through you.”[3]  It truly is a cosmic adventure!

2 jnI really like verse 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Hang on to that thought; I’ll be coming back to it.

Very quickly, here are some other highlights in John’s introduction.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (v. 6).  He came as a witness to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (v. 8).

“The true light, which enlightens everyone…was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him” (vv. 9-10).

Then there’s the grand statement of incarnation: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14).  It’s the over-arching meaning of Christmas.  In the human being called Jesus, “we have seen [the Word’s] glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…  From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (vv. 14, 16).  Or as the New Jerusalem Bible puts it, “one gift replacing another.”

We can see incarnation as something that transcends even Jesus; we can see it including the whole universe.  Without the Word not one thing came into being.

Let’s go back to verse 5.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  What is that all about?  The word for “overcome” in Greek (καταλαμβάνω, katalambanō) has a variety of connotations.  It can mean “to grasp,” “to seize by force.”  Were darkness and light in a wrestling match, and darkness went down for the count?

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It can also mean “to comprehend” or “to understand.”  We use our English word “grasp” in both physical and mental ways.

The darkness wasn’t able to grab the light.  The darkness wasn’t able to understand it.  I wonder, “What does it mean to not grasp the light, to not grasp the Word?”  “What does it mean to not comprehend it?”

I have a little story, though it’s not the most dramatic of stories.  It deals with something from my childhood.

For a couple of years when my sister and I were in elementary school, my mom took us to church.  (Long story short: this was an independent church, similar to a Baptist church.  Our attendance started to get a bit spotty, gradually moving to once a month, then not at all.  Years later, however, we did return to church!)

Anyway, back to my original thought.  There were times during the worship services when I would watch the pastor closely while he was preaching.  I was fascinated.  I couldn’t understand where he was getting all this stuff.  Was he reading the same Bible I was?  I read the same words…and nothing.  I was dumbfounded.  I couldn’t grasp it.  I’m not trying to equate myself with “darkness,” although it’s safe to say I was in the dark.

As I said before, this might not seem like a dramatic or remarkable story, and maybe we could just write it off because I was young, but it left a vivid impression on me.  And in some small way, there was a sense in me that I would be called to do what he was doing—preaching the Word.  I wanted no part of that, thank you very much!  But God has a way of taking our saying “no” and turning it into “yes.”  So maybe there was a hint of darkness not being able to defeat, to grasp, to comprehend the light.

We have a thought similar to darkness not overcoming the light in verse 10.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

4 jnMusa Dube, a theologian from Botswana, offers her thoughts.  “Those who fail to believe or recognise the Word have missed a chance to know and associate with forces of power, forces of creation.”[4]  She doesn’t pull any punches.  The unbelieving “deny themselves grace and the knowledge of God, which can only be received from the Word.  In sum, those who do not believe or recognise the Word, identify with death, failure, powerlessness and ignorance.”

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and we are reminded of the visit of the wise men.  They came, following the light.  Too often, we end the story with the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But that’s not the end of the story.  The sandman visits them and tells them to take a detour on the way home.  (I wonder, did they have a collective dream, or did one have the dream and tell the others about it?)

Herod wanted them to come back and let him know the address of this young king of the Jews.  After all, he insisted, he wanted to pay his respects.

When Herod hears the wise men took off, he’s furious and sends his goons to commit mass murder.  However, Joseph and Mary make a night-time escape and flee to Egypt.  The word used for “flee” is φευγω (pheugō), to take refuge.  It’s where we get our word “refugee.”

The Holy Family flees darkness.  Through Herod, darkness attacks light.  Darkness would overcome light.  However, light is shining in the dark.

And the story continues; it continues with us.  How comfortable are we knowing and associating with, as Dube says, forces of power and forces of creation?  (Don’t answer too quickly!)  How often do we identify with—how often do we relate to—death, failure, powerlessness, and ignorance?

I know I have my work to do.

We can take a clue from Thomas Hoffman.  Be consumed by the energy that’s growing within.  Let it burn.  Let’s let God use fire to purify the cosmos through us, to purify everything and everyone around us.  That fire is the fire of the Spirit.  We can’t really welcome the Word in our own strength.  We can mentally agree with a doctrine of the Word—we can mentally assent—but that alone won’t purify or revolutionize us.  To unleash the Word in us is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, I know I have my work to do!

5 jnFrom his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace, one gift replacing another.  Don’t be satisfied with gifts received in the past; yearn and pursue even greater gifts from God.  Let us remind ourselves, as I do, God yearns to complete our deepest joy—and give even deeper joy, a joy of shining in the dark.

How is that for a promise as we enter this new year—this new decade? 

 

{Tim Umphreys, unsplash.com/@timumphreys}

 

[1] Gail R. O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9: Luke/John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)

[2] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[3] Houselander, 61.

[4] Musa W. Dube, “Batswaka: Which Traveler are You (John 1:1-18)?”, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 108 (November 2000), 81.


a large spirit

“I hate it.”  That was what Banu said to me when I asked her, “What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when I say the word ‘patience’?”  She said that it’s usually thought of as being patient while suffering.  I can understand that.  I’m hardly a fan of suffering myself.

Richard Rohr defines suffering as “whenever you are not in control.”[1]  That casts a wide net, but it might actually get to the heart of it.  He adds, “All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain…  If we do not transform this pain, we will most assuredly transmit it to others, and it will slowly destroy us in one way or another.”

Over the past few years, even the past couple of decades, we can see this dynamic at work in our nation—and in the church.  We seem to be more divided than ever, and it is destroying us.

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Rohr continues,If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somewhere in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down…  The soul does not need answers, it just wants meaning, and then it can live.”

He’s on to something when he talks about the pain that we all experience.  Clearly, for some, pain is more intense than it is for others.  But if we do not transform our pain—or perhaps better, allow it to be transformed—we will definitely transmit it to others.  We will become agents of destruction.  We can quite literally become a pain in the rear end!

Some people transmit pain in a less obvious way.  Instead of primarily projecting it outwardly, they direct it inwardly.  They might want to bear their pain, their suffering, in silence.  They might feel like they have to.  This can lead to an inward spiral of self-pity, or maybe self-hatred, which inevitably leaks out.

Suffering doesn’t have to be so agonizing to do damage.  Our patience can be tested by something less than a life-threatening situation.

It has occurred to me that traffic makes time slow down.  It must be true!  While driving down the road, sometimes my car is the last in a line of cars.  There’s no one behind me.  On occasion, someone will pull onto the road right in front of me, forcing me to slow down—sometimes very quickly.  If the other driver had been willing to wait for ten more seconds, even five seconds, there would have been no drama, no temptation for road rage!  Apparently, five seconds feels like five minutes.

(You do understand of course, I have never pulled out right in front of someone!)

Waiting in line can also test one’s patience.  I especially enjoy being in line at a buffet restaurant, waiting for someone who is shoveling mountains on his or her plate.  Evidently, there’s a fear that the restaurant is about to run out of food.

In his letter, St. James does indeed link patience with suffering.  He doesn’t need to invent that connection; the community he’s writing to knows about suffering all too well.  This is real suffering.  It’s not the suffering that comes with slow internet service—or lamenting the terrible season that your team is having!

If we look at the beginning of chapter 5, we see him issuing a warning.  “Come now, you rich people,” he scolds, “weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you.  Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten” (vv. 1-2).  It’s the old story of the wealthy beating down the poor, but as we see, their day in the sun will soon be over.

2 ja“Listen!” the scripture says, “The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.  You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (vv. 4-5).

Part of that in another version goes, “You have lived on the land in wanton luxury, gorging yourselves” (v. 5, Revised English Bible).  The unrighteous rich are fattening themselves up, like turkeys destined for Christmas dinner.

Still, with all of that in view, as we get to today’s reading, James says, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (v. 7).  (There’s a note for Advent.)  Even though being told to be patient might test our patience, it is the fruit, the evidence, of the Holy Spirit, as the apostle Paul says in Galatians 5.  It goes along with love, joy, peace, and several others (vv. 22-23).  The word in Greek for “to be patient” (μακροθυμεω, makrothumeō) literally means “to have a long, or a large, spirit.”

The letter of James has many nuggets of wisdom.  In chapter 4 he says, “What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14).  The secret of having a large spirit helps us to take a deep breath and to realize that maybe the sky isn’t falling!  (I freely admit, it’s easier to say that when you’re not in the midst of the storm, or if you’re not Chicken Little with the acorn falling on your head.)

Apparently agreeing with the idea that suffering means being not in control, William Loader says, “The alternative to patience is some kind of panic.  This usually assumes that everything is in my control or should be.  So I become anxious and I fear that not everything will get done.  I then push myself and others around me.”[2]

Drawing on James’ image of the farmer, the idea that “we can make the seed grow by worrying about it is an accurate enough parody of the way we sometimes behave.  Our anxieties will not add anything.  They will diminish us and those around us.”

Why is James so interested in seeing that his beloved audience gets the message to be patient?  Why insist on patience?  Why insist on having a large spirit?

James is deeply concerned about the community of believers; he’s concerned about the church.  Under the pressure of their suffering, he implores them, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.  See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (v. 9).

Susan Eastman has a few thoughts about this.

She says, “James warns his hearers against turning their pain, their ‘groans,’ against each other.  It is easy, when we are experiencing hard times, to become bitter…or simply to stop going to church.  How many people quietly drop out of Sunday morning worship when they go through intense personal crises…?  How many people put on a pious public Sunday morning face because they fear the judgment of their Christian brothers and sisters?”[3]

The prayer attributed to St. Francis which begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” can be very difficult to live.  The part I find especially difficult is the section which goes, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”  That bit about seeking to understand, rather than being understood, I especially dislike!  I’m not terribly fond of being misunderstood, of being misrepresented.  I imagine I’m not the only one who feels that way.

That’s something to keep in mind the next time we think we know someone’s motives.

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Still, Eastman says that “patience is essential to the process of becoming a peacemaker.  The premature resolution of conflict usually inflicts some kind of violence on one of the parties involved, by silencing them.”  Silencing people is the method of a bully, which means we must resist the temptation to shut somebody up by smacking them upside the head—whether physically or emotionally!

If you look at the rest of the passage, James uses the prophets and Job as examples of patience.  Even though he finishes by saying “the Lord is compassionate and merciful,” Job doesn’t quietly suffer (v. 11).  He questions God.  He yells at God.  Job might even say that the Lord is guilty of bullying him.  In that respect, he really is the picture of patience.

Sometimes change is defined as what happens; transition, however, is how we react to change.  What do we do with change?  Transitional times, especially in congregations, can be quite restless.  One of the challenges is to be patient with the process.  We might find there’s great wisdom in it.

Here’s another reason why this fits the season of Advent.  James says, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (v. 8).  We are counseled to be patient, to have a large spirit.  That results in trusting God, trusting in the one who comes.  We learn to trust in the one whose advent continues to lead us in casting a vision for the future.

It takes practice to cultivate a large spirit.  I spoke earlier about healthy religion.  With a spirituality that is nourishing, we recognize our pain—we own it!—but we’re able (eventually) to let go of it.  As noted earlier, it also involves recognizing the pain of others.  It involves recognizing the suffering of others and acting!

One way of doing that is by collecting donations of often overlooked items, such as toilet paper.  Not at all to make light of it, but lacking toilet paper represents its own kind of suffering.

I’ve sometimes thought if I had to do without, what would I miss the most?  Toilet paper, for sure.  I would also miss brushing my teeth, applying deodorant, using Q-tips!  It’s those little, basic things that wind up meaning so much.

Kristy Burmeister talks about a friend of hers named Melissa who has a story from when she was in church youth group.[4]

She says, “The youth minister had $10.  He said, ‘We can buy one $10 gift or 9 $1 gifts.’ [including tax].  The entire youth group were rallying around the idea of more is better.  In other words, they would go to the Dollar Tree and find 9 toys for this one shoe box.

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“None of them understood what it was like to be poor.  They all lived in solid middle class or lower upper class homes.  I had understood what it was like to be solidly poor.  I had lived it just a few Christmas’ before.  I cut into the discussion.  ‘I know what’s it’s like to be on the other side of this box.  I’ve lived that life.  As someone poor, I could still get a toy from the dollar store.  We should get one nice item, something they normally wouldn’t get because the money would have to go to food instead of toys.’”

She says she was outvoted.

I have a crazy idea.  Has anyone thought of buying some brand new items, and then donating them to the thrift store?  (Now that I’ve said it, I better put my money where my mouth is!)

Speaking of the mouth, we come to verse 12:Above all, my beloved, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”

First of all, there’s a long history of debating what swearing by an oath is all about.  It would seem, by a simple reading of the text, that swearing by any oathtaking is forbidden.  Sometimes, as these things go, conditions (maybe accommodations) have been made.  What is prohibited are rash or careless oaths.  Casual swearing (and understand, that’s not swearing in the sense of uttering expletives or “cussing”) is banned.  Taking an oath in court seems to be okay.

Here’s how the Passion Translation puts it.  (Although, it should be pointed out, it’s more a paraphrase than a translation.)  “Above all we must be those who never need to verify our speech as truthful by swearing by the heavens or the earth or any other oath.  But instead we must be so full of integrity that our ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is convincing enough and we do not stumble into hypocrisy.”

My main point deals with the second part, that is, “let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”  That word “condemnation” is from the Greek word κρισις (krisis), which means “separation” or “judgment.”  (I’m not sure why the Passion Translation calls it “hypocrisy,” but that’s a matter for another day!)

Let your “Yes” be yes and your “No” be no.  Or to quote my mother, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say.”  Speak the truth; live the truth.  We might ask, “What does this have to do with patience during suffering?”  How do they connect?  What is the relationship between a large spirit and a truthful life?

As we saw, James uses Job to help make his case.  What was one of the bitterest parts of Job’s suffering?  Those lovely friends of his.

At first, they prove to be loyal companions.  When they hear of his misfortune, they travel from great distances to be with him.  They stayed with him, as the scripture says, for “seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13).  They exercised what’s known as the ministry of presence.

They honored him in his suffering.  They didn’t offer any unsolicited and unhelpful advice.  That is, not until Job started protesting against God.  That was too much!  They were insistent that Job must have done something wrong.  Why else would he be suffering?  “Repent, Job,” they say, “and your troubles will go away.”

What happens when God addresses Job’s friends?  Does God say, “Nice job, guys, you got it right!”  Not quite.  They are chastised; they weren’t truthful, as Job was.  They are found guilty.

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What does James say?  “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.”  Do not turn your pain against each other.  Live a truthful life.  Indeed, honor each other—honor each other’s pain and suffering, especially in these days: “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Well guess what?  It’s not so wonderful for everyone.

Our loving Lord, whose Advent is nigh, calls us to show that large spirit to bear each other up.  We all carry heavy burdens.  Let us rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

 

[1] myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation--What-Is-Suffering-.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=J5f-pdASkgU

[2] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpAdvent3.htm

[3] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=11

[4] www.patheos.com/blogs/waystationinthewilderness/2019/12/1467


peace able

On Thanksgiving (while watching my beloved Dallas Cowboys put in another lackluster performance—this time against the Bills!), a Target commercial was aired several times with the wonderful news that Black Friday would start at 5pm.  Mind you, this was on Thanksgiving.  Banu and I were surmising how lucky those employees were to have the privilege of working on a holiday in order to make their corporate overlords a few more dollars.  (Well, in all honesty, she said nothing about “corporate overlords.”)

But then there was more good news: twelve hours later, many employees had the privilege of opening their doors at 5am.  Banu wondered who would get up that early just to go shopping!

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Of course, that’s not the worst of it.  Maybe you saw some advertisements proclaiming Black Friday sales running throughout the entire month of November?  We invented a holiday dedicated purely to the acquisition of money (going from “in the red” to “in the black”), and predictably as these things go, it metastasized.

(Still, Black Friday has darker meanings.  For example, there were the crazed crowds in 1950s Philadelphia who came into the city for the Army-Navy game on Saturday and did some shopping the day before.  Many of them took advantage of the commotion and helped themselves to a “five finger discount,” to the extreme annoyance of the Philly cops.)

I asked Banu about her first reaction to Black Friday, and she described it as “suffocating” and “a black hole.”

Why do I start with Black Friday, since it has come and gone?  It seems to me that it symbolizes the way we think of Advent—if we think of it at all.  We too often fill our lives with that which really isn’t very important.  Indeed, the very mention of Advent often elicits yawns and sometimes, actual irritation.

(There have been times in our ministry when, in the context of worship and other events, Banu and I have had—I’ll say—“snarky” questions posed to us, such as, “Is this Advent-y enough?”)

Here’s something from A Child in Winter, a book of devotionals by Caryll Houselander.  It covers Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany.  Houselander was an English artist, writer, and mystic who, as the introduction to the book puts it, “comforted and challenged the English-speaking world through the ravages of World War II and the London Blitz.”[1]

She speaks of those who fill up their lives with “trivial details.”[2]  She says, “They dread space, for they want material things crowded together, so that there will always be something to lean on for support.  They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each beat is another knock on the door of death.”  (Yikes!  There’s a pleasant thought.)

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I wonder how often we fit that description.  We too often dread the things that make for peace.  We run hither and thither (if not with our bodies, then at least with our minds).  With all of our scurrying, we ignore—we are unaware of—the luminous holiness all around.  Trust me; I am directing this to myself more than to anyone else.

The prophet Isaiah knows a little something about people scurrying around, turning from the things that make for peace.  He is active during the last part of the 8th century BC.  At this time, the Assyrian Empire is gobbling up much of the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel gets gobbled; the folks in the southern kingdom of Judah are nervous.  They don’t want to be gobbled!

The way chapter 11 begins doesn’t seem to let us know of these things, that is, Assyria and its ambitions.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1).  This business of stumps and branches and trees goes back to chapter 10, where God tells his people, “do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod” (v. 24).

The chapter ends on this note: “Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power; the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall” (vv. 33-34).  So there’s part of the background with Isaiah and the Assyrians.

Why get into this stuff about a shoot, a tiny little stalk, emerging from a seemingly dead hunk of wood?

When I was a teenager, my dad chopped down a tree in our yard.  It was a hedge apple tree.  If you’re familiar with those trees, you know the hedge apples they produce wind up being the size of softballs.  You don’t want someone throwing them at you!

3 isAnyway, I thought the stump that was left would behave like most stumps—just sit there and do nothing.  However, within a couple of weeks, I noticed a little green sprig appearing just inside the bark.  Soon, there were other sprigs, and they continued to grow.  Eventually they became stalks, and in time, the stalks developed into little bushes.  In a matter of months, the bushes had intertwined and kept reaching skyward, well over my twice my height by then.

If I was surprised by the way new life emerged from that stump, imagine the surprise generated by Isaiah’s poem.  The biggest part of the surprise is that the shoot comes from the stump of Jesse.  That is Jesse, mind you, the father of David—the David who would be king.

In the following verses, we see that this shoot, this branch, will be a ruler like none other.  This ruler will possess and exercise wisdom like none other.  Here’s a thumbnail sketch of this leader’s qualities (vv. 2-5): “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him…  His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord…  with righteousness he shall judge the poor…  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.”  All of that sounds like expectations of a David-ish nature!

So what’s all this with Jesse?

Walter Brueggemann talks about this.  “David’s family and dynasty run out in failure, no king, no future, no royal possibility, only a stump.  But, says the poet [and prophet Isaiah], the stump will produce a shoot, a shoot of new life that was not expected… the new David, the new possibility of shalom,” a new kingdom, a peaceable kingdom.[3]

4 isBasically, the Davidic line has all but died.  The lofty goals have not materialized.  So let’s start from scratch, so to speak.  Let’s go back to Jesse.  And for the sake of fairness, let’s include David’s mother, who unfortunately, the scriptures leave unnamed.  However, Jewish tradition says her name was Nitzevet.[4]

This new David, this new sovereign, will reign in an era of harmony and serenity.  What does it look like, this peaceable kingdom?

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”  Everything in creation “will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (vv. 6, 9).

Here’s Brueggemann again: “The old enmities, the old appetites of the food chain, the old assumptions of the survival of the meanest, all of that is subverted.  The wild will not stay vicious, because the coming one, marked by righteousness and justice, will overrule raw power in the interest of new possibility.”[5]

As Christians, we see the coming one as the true messianic figure, the ultimate Son of David, Jesus the Christ.  That’s what the Advent season is all about.  Advent means “coming,” and so we celebrate the one who has come, the one yet to come, and the one who is always coming, who is always arriving, in our lives right now.

As for Isaiah, his message is one of assuring the people.  But it is an assurance that will cost.  “We must repent,” he says, “to turn around, and to hold on.  The Assyrians are threatening.  But stand fast.  The peaceable kingdom is on the way.  We will have to wait in the darkness before the light arrives.”

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[Holy Darkness: Formless and Void]

We have a similar message during Advent.  Our enemies might not be an invading empire, but we do have enemies, nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s largely true that our enemies are within, the struggles we face—the struggles in which we engage.  As noted before, we don’t like that uncomfortable space, that uncomfortable silence.  We want to jump right over it, to get it in our rear-view mirror.  But that’s not what Advent is about!

“This is the intention of Advent,” says Jonas Ellison.  “It’s a sacred stillness in the darkness before the triumphant joy of Christmas.  It’s where we sit in the ‘blueness’ apparent in this oft broken world and human experience.  When we grow up, we become more attuned with the suffering in the world—and in our own lives.  We can’t override this.  When we do, it festers.  Advent is the season [in which] we sit calmly in the darkness as we await the light.”[6]

He mentions growing up.  (“When we grow up.”)  That fits with the title of his article, “Advent Makes Christmas Something that Kids Can Mature Into.”  Ellison wonders about an idea I imagine we’ve all heard, that “Christmas is for kids.”  He reflects on the surface-level and theologically shallow way we so often celebrate the season.  Please don’t get the wrong idea—he treasures and finds joy in the festivities and gifts and mistletoe.  (Okay, I added the “mistletoe”!)

Yet, he dreams for his daughter.  “I hope to give my daughter a meaning of Christmas that she can mature into as she grows older and experiences the weight, depth, and density of life.”  (I’m intrigued by that term “density of life.”)  He continues, “I pray that Christmas isn’t an extended time of consumerism in order to attempt to cover up her wounds wrought from this oft broken human experience.  I pray she can sit in the darkness with herself knowing she’s not alone.  Knowing that others are sitting in that very same place and God is embracing us all even before the ‘light’ comes.”

We don’t like to wait—especially waiting in the darkness, even if it is holy darkness.  The massive weight of our society and economy shout, “Why wait?”  It’s hard for Advent to compete with that.  There’s a tidal wave that would prevent us from pausing long enough to do the “Advent” thing of reflecting, and as Isaiah would hope for, of repenting.  That means to stop, to look around, and to set ourselves on the path of active expectation.  (Or perhaps more to the point, to allow ourselves to be set on the path of active expectation.)  “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).

“On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

“Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

 

[Here is the artist’s description of his work, “Holy Darkness: Formless and Void”]

This sculpture is number 1 of 3 in the חשך קדוש series and is based off of the phrase תהו ובהו (prounounced tōhū vābōhū) - which is translated as "formless and void" in Genesis 1.  "תהו ובהו" is written on both side walls of the drawing in a mixture of acrylic paint and gel medium, with the name יהוה (the Divine Name of God in the Hebrew Bible generally vocalized as Adonai or HaShem) written in blue on the back wall.  The very simple statement that the sculpture makes is "Even in the formless and void places of life, God is still there." The sculpture is meant to give the sense of being under water, with a bit of light coming through the surface of the 'water' from above.

 

[1] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 1.

[2] Houselander, 9.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Poem: Subversion and Summons,” Journal for Preachers 35:1 (Advent 2011), 33.

[4] www.chabad.org/theJewishWoman/article_cdo/aid/280331/jewish/Nitzevet-Mother-of-David.htm

[5] Brueggemann, 34.

[6] medium.com/graceincarnate/advent-makes-christmas-something-that-kids-can-mature-into-cd5b5503687e