Christmas

freed minds

One of my favorite science fiction movies came out in 1999: The Matrix.  For those who don’t know, The Matrix stars Keanu Reeves.  His character’s name is Thomas Anderson, who by day has a job as a computer programmer.  At night, he is a computer hacker who calls himself Neo.  The movie also stars Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus, a legendary hacker who the government has branded a terrorist.

Morpheus contacts Neo, and a meeting is set up.[1]  During a captivating conversation, Morpheus tells him, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it.  You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world.  You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”  The entire world, everything, is an elaborate computer program, the matrix.

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(On a side note, there are some physicists who speculate that our whole universe might be something like a computer program, possibly being run by others.)

Neo undergoes a procedure, and he wakes up to the real world, a desolate wasteland.  To make a long story short, Morpheus teaches Neo how to fight within the program.  He does this because he believes that Neo can liberate everyone from the matrix; he believes he is a kind of messiah.

As they’re sparring, Morpheus shouts at Neo, “What are you waiting for?  You’re faster than this.  Don’t think you are, know you are.  Come on.  Stop trying to hit me and hit me.”  They go back to fighting, and Neo stops his fist just before he hits Morpheus in the face.  “I know what you’re trying to do,” says Neo.  Morpheus responds, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo.  But I can only show you the door.  You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Free your mind.  Free your spirit.  I believe that’s a message the apostle Paul is giving the Galatians.  Or maybe the better way of putting it is, “God has freed your mind.  Accept that freedom.  Don’t go back to being a slave.”

Our scripture reading is part of a longer passage that goes back to chapter 3.  There, Paul speaks of the law of Moses as a kind of mentor, a supervisor.  But he also talks about Abraham, who lived hundreds of years before the law was handed down by Moses.  His faith, the faith of Abraham, was based on God’s promise that he would father a nation.  His faith wasn’t based on the law.

2 ga The law and the promise do not contradict each other, but with faith, in particular the faith of Christ, the law is transcended.  Old categories become meaningless.  As the apostle says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29).

So with chapter 4, he carries that thought of the law being a supervisor or a disciplinarian by saying that with faith, we grow up.  We become adults.  Paul compares inheritors, while they’re still children, as basically equal to slaves.  They are still under tight restrictions.

There’s something dramatic that happens, something befitting the Christmas season.  Paul says that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (v. 4).  One might say that’s a verse pregnant with meaning!

Like any other squalling baby, Jesus emerges from the womb of a woman.  And he is born into a family that faithfully observes the Jewish law.

This happens in “the fullness of time.”  That’s when the time, the hour, had finally arrived; it was just the right time.  What does that mean?  In part, we can think of the Jewish faith and culture, with the steadily growing hope and expectation that the Messiah is about to arrive.  That helps explain the bitter disappointment when their would-be Messiah is killed, and the nation is still being ruled by foreigners.

Still, there is something known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, with its many beneficial qualities.

For example, it enabled the Roman Empire to build a network of roads.  The Roman peace made travel on those highways much safer.  It’s easier to run an empire if you can put down those pesky local rebellions, as well as offering security against criminal elements.  Another benefit was the flourishing of architecture and the arts.

3 gaThe ease of travel made possible the spread of the Greek language, which served as a common tongue throughout the Mediterranean.  The translation of the scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) into Greek helped spread the faith of the Jews, the faith in which Jesus was raised, into many different countries.

The work of human beings, the arc of history, usually serves a greater purpose than what we might imagine.  Behind it and through it emerges the fullness of time.

In this fullness of time, the Son has arrived to redeem us, to buy us back, to set us free.  We are now adopted as children of God.  There is no greater freedom.  As with Abraham and Sarah—as with the Galatian church—we have been set free because of the promise of God, not because we’ve been able to obey the law.

But there’s a problem with all of this.  Paul sees it in the Galatians, and honestly, it’s also a problem with us.  There’s something in us that wants to reject freedom.  There’s something in us that doesn’t want our minds to be free—that doesn’t want our spirits to be free.

Let me give you another example from The Matrix.  One of the characters is named Cypher.  He’s tired of life in the real world, with the running and hiding from the machines that maintain the matrix.  He’s tired of its blandness; he longs for the life he used to have—like what we too often have—even though it’s an illusion.

There’s a scene in which he’s sitting in a restaurant with one of the agents: computer programs in human form who are guardians within the matrix.  Cypher is eating a juicy steak.  He admits that the steak isn’t real, but he likes it.  He wants to have his memory wiped and be put back into the matrix.  Cypher wants to reject his freedom and go back to when he was enslaved—provided he doesn’t know he’s a slave.

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How appropriate for a guy whose name means “zero”!

So remember, the problem with the Galatians is that there are those among them who still insist they must observe the law, to unwittingly return to slavery.  It applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians.  They want to go back to what they’ve known.  There is a comfort in hanging on to what gives you the feeling of control.  I certainly understand it!  Freedom can be a scary thing.

The apostle Paul sees even more at stake.  By rejecting their freedom in Christ, they actually are choosing idolatry.  He tells them, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8).  He’s having trouble understanding what they’re up to.

He continues, “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?” (v. 9).  The word for “elemental spirits” is στοιχεια (stoicheia), which has several definitions.  In this case, he’s probably speaking of the rules imposed by those old gods.  Paul is truly exasperated.  He says, “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted” (v. 11).  He wonders if he’s just been frittering away his time.

Last month, while speaking of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I noted he congratulates them on how they encourage one other.  How about the Galatians?  They must have an especially praiseworthy attribute.  If they do, the apostle doesn’t mention it.  He has already said, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1).  Some translations are even harsher.  “You stupid Galatians!  You must have been bewitched.” (Revised English Bible).  Has somebody put you under a spell?  Are you taking crazy pills?

And remember what they want to be enslaved to: “the weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” “those powerless and bankrupt elements.” (New Jerusalem Bible)  They’re playing the role of Cypher from The Matrix!

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I wonder, how often do we reject our scary freedom?  How often do we choose those powerless and bankrupt elements?  What are these pitiful, worthless things which we place on the altars of our hearts?  How can those who “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,” choose slavery to what is nothing?

We so often imitate the Israelites who, having fled the chains of Egypt, berate Moses and long to return (Nu 14:4).

Richard Rohr comments on this business of serving what is nothing.[2]  “Less than a block from where I used to live in downtown Albuquerque, there is a sidewalk where the homeless often sit against the wall to catch the winter sun.  Once I saw fresh graffiti chalked clearly on the pavement in front of the homeless.  It said, ‘I watch how foolishly man guards his nothing—thereby keeping us out.  Truly God is hated here.’”

So again I wonder, what are the nothings to which we so desperately cling?  How do we forget our status as adopted children of God and turn back to slavery?

Soon after being chosen as pope, Francis addressed the Vatican Curia, their governing body.  He listed fifteen diseases that he had noticed among them.[3]  (In doing so, Francis showed himself to be a frank pope.)

One disease is “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”: “a progressive decline of spiritual faculties…, living in a state of absolute dependence on one’s own often imaginary views.  We see this in those who have lost their recollection of their encounter with the Lord…in those who build walls around themselves and who increasingly transform into slaves to the idols they have sculpted with their own hands.”  Francis sees in the Vatican leadership this same forgetfulness of God and turning to slavery that we just looked at.

If we reject the loving freedom of God and turn back to idols, we will inevitably do harm to each other.

Those in Christ have been set free.  To explore that freedom, there are always new doors to open.  But like freedom, opening those doors can be scary.  We might want to stay where we are, circle the wagons, and hold on to what we already know, or perhaps, what we think we know.  We might want to stay behind the walls we’ve built, and not walk through the door into new territory.

We are on the verge of a new year—2021.

Recently during our prayer time, I shared some reflections of gratitude sent by readers of the New York Times.  They were asked to submit a statement of six words, expressing what they were thankful for from this past year.  Over ten thousand replies were received.  Many caught my eye, but here are three I mentioned: “There’s really more kindness than hate.”  “Thankful for sweet potato pie, y’all.”  “I am thankful to be thankful.”

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{a scene from Antwone Fisher of gratitude and welcome (the video's aspect ratio might be off)}

A freed mind, a liberated mind, is a grateful mind—it is a grateful spirit.  Having said that, I must also confess there is absolutely no doubt that this past year has brought way more than its share of heartbreak and sorrow.  People all over the globe can attest to that.  We here can attest to that.  Still, as the prophet says, “The people [we who have been] walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Is 9:2).

That is the subtle strength, the peaceful power, of Christmas.  This season is teaching us lessons.  Christ lives within us.  In what fullness of time do we now find ourselves?  May it be a time in which we welcome each other—and the Christ within us—as we together walk into that new freedom.

 

[1] www.imdb.com/title/tt0133093/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[2] https://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Daily-Meditations--How-Foolishly-We-Guard-Our--Nothing-----Ecumenism----July-8--2013.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=zXdIB1uvLD4

[3] www.washingtonpost.com/news/world/wp/2014/12/22/the-15-ailments-of-the-vatican-curia-according-to-pope-francis/


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


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.


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


keep Herod in Christmas

We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red.  Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!

1 mt I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas.  I guess that’s to be expected.  Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist.  What business does he have with Christmas?  Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.

This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents.  We just celebrated their feast day.  They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out.  This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.

(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)

Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance.  They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews.  That kind of talk terrifies Herod.  He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this.  All of Jerusalem is in an uproar.  So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi.  He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it.  Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).

As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod.  This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.”  Make a fool of me, will they?  I’ll show them!

Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach.  The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.

Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas.  I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas?  Jesus is born into a violent world.  His homeland is under military rule.  Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is.  They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.

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The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.

So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story.  We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.  Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.”[1]  So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.

Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis.  An angel warns him of Herod’s plan.  As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).

The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today.  Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”[2]

He draws out the image even more.  “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō].  Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life.  The wise men fled.  Jesus’ family fled…  It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.”  It has a haunting similarity to our own country.

Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”!  And according to Luke, the family is also poor.  When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).

3 mtI hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas.  It’s right there in the Bible.  In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen.  In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.

Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.”[3]  As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.

Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants.  Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty.  But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!

I like the way Caryll Houselander describes the Holy Innocents.[4]

“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven.  Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children.  We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year.  They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child.  They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...

“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”

There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).  The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile.  Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.

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Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings.  While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression.  That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.

It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it.  It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses.  We all have mini-deaths in our lives.

Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod.  Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone.  However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe.  Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee.  The family settles in Nazareth.

So, our story does not end with Herod.  Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3).  We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod.  We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible.  We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church.  (Maybe especially within the church!)

Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas?  Is it enough to know he’s already there?  Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle?  Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle?  Perhaps.

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But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short.  They are constantly reborn in us.  Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[2] www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIII/Matt2.html

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[4] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.


the only way out is through

When I was a kid, I was usually the first one to finish the meal.  My mom said I would inhale my food.  That was especially true with food I really loved.  If there were spaghetti or fried chicken or a baked potato on my plate, it would disappear pretty quickly.

That wasn’t quite so true if something I hated were on the dish before me, such as okra, sauerkraut, onions: they tended to make me gag.  I would consume them at a glacial pace.  Still, all in all, if anyone were wolfing down their food, it would be me.

1 zpAs I got older, I began to slow down.  I learned it’s okay to enjoy one’s food!  It’s not a race; there’s no finish line.  I also learned it’s okay to not stuff as much food as possible down my gullet.  On visits to restaurants with buffets, I’ve often been next to people putting small mountains on their plates.  Maybe they believe it’s their final meal.

There is something to be said for patience.  That seems to have become a foreign concept for us Americans.  We want something, but we don’t want to wait for it.  We want it now!  Impatience has become a virtue.  And as I said about the food earlier, too often we’re in a hurry.

I would humbly suggest that we often treat the season of Advent the same way.

Christopher Edmonston talks about that in his article, “Advent and the Grace of Delayed Gratification.”[1]  “Like a microwave pizza that is flimsy to the touch and plastic to the taste,” he says, “the instant gratification we desire isn’t very palatable…  Spiritual renewal and deepening discipleship cannot be ordered overnight.  It is fantasy to think otherwise.  There really is no app for encountering God.”

How, you might ask, do we approach Advent in that way?

He continues, “But we do have Advent, a time of deep, countercultural practice that offers a corrective to the maddening pace all around us.  Advent makes us wait.  Structured as a walk—a long, slow walk—the positive deviance of Advent mirrors the pregnancy of Mary.  Just as no mother moves from conception to birth in two days, no ministry can be conceived, nurtured and birthed into the world without time to grow and mature.”

I like that: “positive deviance.”  Jesus was positively deviant in many ways.

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Advent reminds us to stop; breathe; take a look around.  You notice so much more by walking down the street than by driving down it.  Wonderful discoveries are made!

One more note from our friend Christopher: “For very good reasons, there is no expressway to Bethlehem.  We walk alongside the expectant couple, carrying our own hopes with us.  Moving a little more slowly, we behold the majesty of God’s unfolding kingdom instead of missing it while we zoom by.”  Kind of like walking down the street?

“The baby will come, but on his time, not on ours.  Advent’s journey of delayed gratification becomes a chance to slow down and behold the ordinary, which is what we need more than anything else.”

There are indeed good reasons why Advent is celebrated.  There is a deep spirituality involved in it.  And it is profoundly countercultural.  (And I did think of using the word “countercultural” before I came across the article!)  We are deafened by the cacophony surrounding it, starting well before Advent itself, even before Thanksgiving.  Still, Advent defiantly speaks with a peaceful, silent voice.

The third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been called Gaudete Sunday.  That’s the Latin word for “rejoice.”  The epistle reading in Philippians 4 begins, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (v. 4).  Advent is meant to be a season of penitence and reflection.  Midway through the season, it’s felt we need a moment to catch our breath, so to speak.  We need to lighten up—that’s why we have the rose-colored candle.

The Old Testament reading comes from the book of the prophet Zephaniah.  It’s easy to see why this reading has been appointed for this particular day.  “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” (v. 14).

There’s plenty of celebration in this final part of the book.  Here are some snippets: “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies” (v. 15).

3 zp“The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (v. 17).

“I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth” (v. 19).

“At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord” (v. 20).  Amen!

Hearing that, one might think Zephaniah is all sunshine and gladness.  That would be quite wrong!  The large majority of the book could rightly be called doom and gloom.  Speaking for God, the first thing the prophet says is “I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth” (1:2).  Now there’s something pleasant to ponder.

One thing Zephaniah speaks of is the day of Yahweh, the day of the Lord.  The day of the Lord has various nuances, but basically it is the time of the Lord’s visitation, the day of judgment, when things will be set right.  The people are longing for it; they are eager for their reward.

However, the wicked have a surprise.  Here’s a sample of his take, using a bit of poetic license: “The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast…  Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath…a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (1:14, 18).  Maybe it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for.”

To make a long story short, Zephaniah denounces Judah for its corruption and wickedness, and he denounces the surrounding countries for their corruption and wickedness.  This is during the time when the Babylonian Empire is getting ready to flex its muscles.

So what does this have to do with the earlier comments on Advent?  As I suggested, there can be a tendency to rush through the season; we would like to travel an “expressway to Bethlehem,” as our writer put it.  In saying the lectionary reading picks out the one note of joy in the book, I’m not saying it would be appropriate to focus on all that doom and destruction.  That’s not what Advent is about!

But there can be a similarity to the way we usually approach Advent as I said before, as a time of penitence and reflection.

I believe it was last year when I remember Banu and I being at a couple of stores and at a restaurant.  I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!  And as I recall, it was still November!  It doesn’t exactly make for an atmosphere encouraging sober contemplation.

Maybe by talking about this, I might be labeled a “Debbie Downer” (or at least, a male version, whatever that would be).

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Have you heard the saying, “The only way out is through”?  That can have some unpleasant connotations.  I don’t think I like that saying!

One thing this applies to is joy and sorrow.  And maybe more specifically, it applies to grief.  Please remember; I’m not saying that’s the meaning of Advent!  The point is, like Advent, grief is something we often like to rush through—or jump over altogether.

When it comes to grief, unfortunately it’s true: the only way out is through.  But as we all know, grief is painful; it hurts.  Sometimes it hurts like hell.  There’s always the temptation to avoid it—the temptation to rush through it or jump over it altogether.  It can feel like, “Okay, I’m done with that!”

What happens, though, if we take that approach?  What happens if we short circuit grief?  What happens if we indeed try to rush through it, fill our lives with busyness and try to ignore it?  What happens if we indeed try to jump over it, just avoid any reminders of what and who we’ve lost?

It doesn’t go away, and it can resurface with a vengeance.  It can be a nagging, heavy burden we carry—perhaps without fully understanding why.  That’s often true at this time of year.  In that sense, maybe I should revisit my comment about saying Advent is not about doom and gloom.  For many people, it sure feels that way, especially when we’re told, “It’s the happiest time of the year!”

I’m aware that going through the process of grief doesn’t mean the pain goes away.  However, it does mean we no longer have to be controlled by it.  It makes a world of difference if we’re allowed and able to share it with others.  I’ve heard it said, “grief never ends because love never ends.”[2]  There can be a sense of mutual solidarity, compassion, and courage.

The only way out is through.

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Advent asks for mindfulness.  Awaiting the coming of the Lord means waking up.  In Luke 3, the people ask John the Baptist, “What then should we do?” (v. 10).  I’ll confess; too often I need to be prodded (maybe with a cattle prod) to wake up.  Slumber can be too attractive!

When we miss Advent, we miss in a special way, as the prophet reminds us, the Lord in our midst.  We miss the one who gives us the victory.  We miss being renewed in the Lord’s love.  We miss hearing the Lord exulting over us with loud and love-filled singing.

[The painting, Zephaniah, is by James C. Lewis.]

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/christopher-edmonston-advent-and-grace-delayed-gratification

[2] medium.com/wordsthatmatter/why-grieve-is-the-word-of-the-year-1662e2fa4941


God, are you with us?

Make a joyful noise.  I often say that to people who claim they can’t sing.  In the Psalms, we’re told several times to make a joyful noise.  Here’s a good example: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (98:4).  I like to sing, and I’m definitely on the side of making that joyful noise.

1 xmas eveSinging is a big part of today’s Old Testament and gospel readings.  We might say it carries the tune in a measured call and response.  But before we sing the praises of our scriptural poets, allow me to refrain, promising we will return to their melodic message.

“Melodic” is not a bad way to describe Isaiah 52.  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (v. 7).  We need to look at the background to see what kind of message this is.

This part of the book is talking about the exiles who were sent to Babylon.  They are now returning, in what’s been called “the second exodus.”  And just in case it’s not clear, the word “exile” does not mean going on vacation.  You do not consult a travel agent when forced relocation is in store.  These people have known more than their share of violence and war.

But the tide has turned.  There has been a reversal of fortunes.  The prophet proclaims, “Listen!  Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (v. 8).  Their Lord is leading the way; their Lord is the vanguard.  And they need the Lord to go before them.  They need the strength and courage of the Lord, because they’re coming home to a real mess.  When the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, they went hog wild.  They tore up the place, and worst of all, they destroyed the temple.  The folks who later moved into the city have no interest in rebuilding it.

Even so, anticipation and joy begin to appear.  “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (v. 9).

Episcopal priest David Grant Smith says, “Even the ruins themselves are singing about this new day being heralded by their return!”[1]  Even destruction and chaos are transformed by God into something wonderful and beautiful—into a work of art.

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Dirk Lange speaks of death being overcome by song.  “This joy [and] singing arises out of great anxiety—a battle has been engaged, death is confronted.”[2]  And looking to this time of year, he adds, “as we enter the twelve days of Christmas we are immediately reminded of death on the day after Christmas and the martyrdom of Stephen and then, a few days, the remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the murder of children [ordered by Herod].  It is in the midst of death that a song arises, rejoicing in a promise.”

We can see the Babylonian exile as a time of God leaving the people, so to speak.  The exiles would say God is not “with us” or “for us.”  God is not Immanuel.  God is far away.  Now, everything has changed.  Immanuel, “God with us,” “God for us,” has arrived.  That’s what the joyful ruckus in Luke 2 is all about.

Having said that, those shepherds probably wouldn’t use the word “joyful” when the angel appears.  “Scared out of their minds” might be a better description.  So it’s no doubt for the best when after announcing the arrival of the Messiah, the angel and celestial companions get things going.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”—or “those of good will” (v. 14).

After our sheep-keeping colleagues have been properly reassured, they take off for Bethlehem to see what the angels were so excited about.  Upon seeing the holy family, with the promised one lying in a trough for barnyard animals, they are overcome with awe.  And then they leave, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (v. 20).

Still, I wonder, what’s the deal with all this singing?

Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most noted theologians, weighed in on this.  And he was no nonsense!

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“The church which does not sing is not the church.” (Karl Barth)

“The Christian church sings.  It is not a choral society.  Its singing is not a concert.  But from inner, material necessity it sings.  Singing is the highest form of human expression.”[3]  The Christian church sings.  And that applies to all kinds of singing.

As the old hymn goes: “My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation / I hear the sweet though far off hymn that hails a new creation: / Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing; / It finds an echo in my soul—How can I keep from singing?”

But Barth isn’t through, yet.  “What we can and must say quite confidently is that the church which does not sing is not the church.  And where...it does not really sing but sighs and mumbles spasmodically, shamefacedly and with an ill grace, it can be at best only a troubled community which is not sure of its cause and of whose ministry and witness there can be no great expectation.”

How can we keep from singing?

Last week’s sermon was based on the epistle reading in 1 Thessalonians, which begins, “Rejoice always” (5:16).  I invited the singing with me of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”  I don’t think he was referring to the time of year when we’re sleepwalking through the stores, or maybe fighting our way through the stores.  (I’m not sure how often it gets to the point of people literally throwing punches or whacking each other on the head with televisions.)

No, it’s the time of year in which, more than ever, we ask, “God, are you with us?”  Are you for us?  Have you brought Immanuel?

Christmas is indeed a time of elation, but as we saw with Stephen and the Holy Innocents, the twelve days of Christmas also have had built into them agony.

Our friend David asks, “What devastation in our own lives is God inviting to sing?”  Remember the ruins of Jerusalem.  How on earth can we plumb the depths of our sorrow and shame and bring that to God, so that something wonderful can emerge and even be celebrated?

“What aspects of ourselves have been long in exile and are now being brought back home where we belong?”  What aspects of ourselves have been banished by others to a far country?  What aspects of ourselves have we rejected and said, “I never want to see you again”?

If God is able to take human form as the babe of Bethlehem, how much easier is it for God to reclaim what we have lost?  Be it from ruins or renewal, we can ask, “God, are you with us?”  And we hear the reply, “Make a joyful noise!”

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[1] processandfaith.org/lectionary-commentary/christmas-eve-christmas-day-2017

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1530

[3] www.rca.org/resources/theology-and-place-music-worship


revelation of gratitude

When I was at seminary, I took a worship class taught by one of the two Presbyterian professors at our American Baptist school.  Well, there was one other Presbyterian who came in from time to time and taught polity.  This was Banu’s pastor at the congregation where she did field education.

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Banu and I lived on the top floor in the front corner apartment.

In our class, when we got to the subject of Advent, besides discussing the Lord’s first advent as the baby of Bethlehem, we dealt with possibly the more meaningful aspect of Advent: the Lord’s second advent, the second coming of Christ, in power and glory.  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!”

It was pointed out that during the season of Advent, this is especially the time of year when we focus on our Lord’s return.  I made a comment about that.  I said when I was in the Assemblies of God, the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was almost a weekly theme!  It was mentioned almost every Sunday.

We Presbyterians, along with so many others who observe the liturgical year, can (and do) fail to give the proper attention to the Lord’s return, however we envision the return.  We can fail to join with St. Paul as he joyfully proclaims at the end of 1 Corinthians, “Maranatha” (16:22).  “The Lord is coming,” or it can also mean, “Lord, come!”

This talk of Jesus Christ coming again makes some people nervous.  And considering the gospel reading for today (Mark 13:24-37), that’s understandable.  Hearing stuff like, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” might be enough to give anyone pause, to put it lightly (v. 33).  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v. 37).  The eyes of your heart will get drowsy, so throw some spiritual cold water on yourself!

2 1co1But that need not be seen as a dire warning.  It is a reminder that something wonderful is about to happen.  Stay awake, or we’ll miss out.  It will be—and is—right before our eyes.  Can we see it?

That upbeat message seems to be on Paul’s mind as we begin today’s epistle reading.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3).  Wishing someone grace and peace is not a typical greeting if you’re about to deliver bad news!  That would be a sneaky way to set them up before lowering the boom.  Later on, he does address the numerous problems among them, but not yet.

Then he follows with another joyful declaration (v. 4).  “I give thanks to my God always for you.”  Why is he so thankful?  “[B]ecause of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”  He’s about to burst with gratitude.  They’ve been given blessings galore: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5).  Speech and knowledge of every kind.  He’s definitely not soft pedaling it.

Do they see it?  Do they recognize it?  Sometimes it can be hard to understand what someone else sees in you.

As for myself, I used to be afraid of public speaking.  I would become visibly nervous, even terrified.  My chest would tighten up; I would forget to breathe!  But my Assemblies of God pastor apparently saw something in me.  He invited me to preach several times, and I struggled through it.  To be honest, sometimes I still get a bit nervous.

“Speech and knowledge of every kind.”

The apostle gives thanks for them.  The word for “give thanks” is ευχαριστεω (eucharisteō), and with a slight variation, “thanksgiving.”  It’s where we get our word, “Eucharist.”  It comes directly from the New Testament, where it’s used over 50 times.  We will act it out momentarily at the table, with a sacrament called “thanks.”  Thank you!

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Paul says, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (v. 6).  They are increasingly bearing witness to Christ; Christ is increasingly bearing witness through them.  They are receiving gifts from the Holy Spirit, some of which we might call supernatural and others we might call abilities.  Whatever the case, they are intended for service to others, not for display.

This is happening as they “wait of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).  The word for “revealing” is αποκαλυψις (apocalypsis), “uncovering,” “revelation.”  And yes, that’s the same word for the book of Revelation.  That word also appears numerous times in the New Testament.

Beginning in the 90s, a movement called the emerging, or emergent, church started taking shape.  Some see a difference in those terms; others do not.  I won’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s one expression of the church as we have moved into the 21st century and attempting to address its changing realities and philosophies.  It wants to recapture the ancient and embrace the future.  Examples would be using Jesus as a model for living and not simply an object for worship, inviting questions and not simply providing answers, and promoting peacemaking rather than relying on power.  Again, that’s a very quick thumbnail sketch.

It’s one expression of a new reformation, 500 years after the first one.  It represents a revolution, not only of church and denominational structures, but of consciousness itself.

When we were in Jamestown, a leader in the emerging church from London was in the United States.  He was invited to come and speak to us.  During the discussion, I made the observation that the emerging church movement was part of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh, on all of humanity.  In Acts 2, St. Peter speaks of that on the day of Pentecost; he’s quoting the prophet Joel.  The outpouring of the Spirit is very definitely a key theme of the Assemblies of God, who I mentioned earlier.

But the speaker dismissed my comment, which I found extremely puzzling.  I wondered how he could fail to see the outpouring of the Spirit at work in all these changes in the church, changes he himself was espousing.  Still, I felt like he was accomplishing some great things.  And it’s entirely possible he didn’t catch what I was trying to say.

That particular fellow aside, we can see “the revealing, the ‘return’ of the Lord as the consummation of the Spirit being poured out on all “flesh,” on all of humanity.  It’s the final act, the crème de la crème, the end of the world as we know it—but in a good and wonderful way.  But we’re not there yet.  The Spirit is continuously being poured out on we frail and beloved humans.

And that has remarkable meaning.

I want to draw again on my time in the Assemblies of God.  After graduating from MTSU with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, I decided to go to one of their colleges: Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  In a class on the history of the Assemblies of God, I learned some fascinating things.

In 1906, the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles began.  The leader was a minister named William Joseph Seymour.  Out of this revival, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal movements had their birth.  Those early Pentecostals firmly embraced pacifism.  (They were like the Quakers.)  When the US entered World War 1, their commitment was put to the test.  It’s never easy to be a pacifist, especially in America.  As the years went by, the commitment waned.  People become accommodated to the culture at large, and besides, no one likes being thought of as a traitor!

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William Joseph Seymour

And of course, they understood: women and men are equal.  How could the Spirit of God work otherwise?  Here’s a quote from Rev. Seymour: “We have no right to lay a straw in [a woman’s] way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honor and bless us as never before.  It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man.”[1]  As the 20th century rolled along, even that vision started getting foggy.

Certainly, the Assemblies of God aren’t the only ones to waver.  We also have a handle on that!  But the apostle Paul assures his beloved friends in Corinth, and us, “[God] will…strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The day of our Lord has its origins in the Old Testament.  There, it is usually portrayed as a day of reckoning, with an ominous tone.  The prophet Joel says, “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15).  The prophet Amos throws in his two cents’ worth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).

That does sound pretty stern.  But it’s not unlike what we saw earlier on the Advent of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Beware, keep alert.  Keep awake.

I like the song written by Curtis Mayfield in the 1960s, which was inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel tradition: “People Get Ready.”  It’s been recorded by many artists since then (including Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar, and also, Ziggy Marley)!

“People, get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith / To hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

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The advent of Jesus Christ, the apocalypsis of Christ, is a revelation of gratitude.  Advent is meant to be a time of taking stock of our lives, not getting lost in the dizzying distractions pulling at us with promises of great deals on Christmas presents.  When we open our hearts in loving gratitude, we find “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

Maranatha.  The Lord is coming.  We wait for you, Lord, with thanksgiving.

 

[1] fullerstudio.fuller.edu/women-in-the-pentecostal-movement


are we ready?

New Year’s Day.*  Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is on Friday).  The eighth day of Christmas.  The morning after New Year’s Eve.  A lot of stuff is coming together today.

Maybe that makes sense.  Each new year has an unbelievably complex set of joys and fears, anticipation and dread.  That might be especially true as we enter 2017.  Many people are glad that 2016 is over!  Although, in speaking with Banu, we recognize that 2016 had a whole lot of blessing to it, and we thank God for it.

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Of course, many of us make new year’s resolutions.  (Such as resolving to exercise—I mean, to exercise more!)  How long folks keep at it is another question.  Still, that speaks to the human need to look to the future and the felt need to change.  We remember the past, with both the good and the bad, but maybe we want a do-over as well.

What I’m about to say should be no surprise to anyone.  When we’re young, our storehouse of memories is very limited.  Everything is directed to the future, and most of us can’t wait to get there!  As time goes on and we get a little more of life under our belt, a little more experience, things begin to even out.  As the years go by, most of us have a wealth of memories, and if you’re regarding life as simply a measure of numbers, the future seems quite foreshortened.  (Still, as I often say, no one is promised tomorrow.  Any of us could be gone tonight.)

Perhaps not regarding life as simply a measure of numbers is a big part of keeping one’s heart young.  We welcome times to come (however that works out), while remembering “auld lang syne,” times gone by.

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I begin with this little meditation on memory because we can see that in the Old Testament lesson.  Today’s passage from Isaiah 63 speaks about memory.  Verse 7 begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord.”  This person who is doing the recounting has seen times that are both awful and awesome.

Here’s a quick note about our author.  The first two-thirds of the book of Isaiah date to the time of the prophet himself, in the eighth century B.C.  Starting with chapter 40, we’re at a point in the Babylonian exile, in the sixth century.  This latter part of the book, sometimes called Second Isaiah, is considered to be the work of an anonymous prophet in the “school” or the “spirit” of Isaiah.

When we get to chapter 56, we’re a couple more decades into the future.  This final section is sometimes called Third Isaiah.  This is after the return from exile has happened.  For a while, there is a great deal of enthusiasm among those returning to their homeland.  Over time, however, hopes began to fade as cold reality sinks in.  Among other things, there is constant opposition from many who have settled the land while so much of the house of Israel has been held captive in Babylon.

This is probably about the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.  One of the things they emphasize is the need to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians.  The people need a kick in their complacency.

Last week, part of my Christmas sermon dealt with one of the seven deadly sins, sloth.  The sin of sloth isn’t a matter of being physically lazy, although it might include that.  Rather, it is a sickness of the soul, in which a person simply ceases to care.  It is a resistance to the Spirit of God which results in a hardening of heart, not in an angry way, but in a way that loses the desire to grow.  It’s a settling down into a dull routine in which the prompting of the Spirit is ignored.

The prophet’s audience in today’s text is largely afflicted by sloth.  They need a fire lit under them.

But you might not get that, based on the snippet of the chapter that is today’s passage.  The compilers of the lectionary tended to chisel out some of the “troublesome parts,” the scriptures that say things we find embarrassing, or stuff we just don’t want to hear.  Whenever I see scriptures that are deleted, I have a hard time letting that go—even if it’s something I don’t want to hear.

As I said earlier, our reading begins, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,” because of all the wonderful stuff the Lord has done for us.  Verse 8 has affirming words about Israel being “my people, children who will not deal falsely.”  Things get wrapped up nicely with God’s “presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (v. 9).

Those are good memories.  It is vital; it is life-giving, to remind each other of what God has done for us.  It’s especially important when we’re in times of distress.

Still, this has been plucked out of its context.

The first part of the chapter talks about vengeance being unleashed.  Verse 3 is especially lovely.  “I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.”  The juice from trampling grapes is compared to blood!

However, this isn’t the action of a bloodthirsty god.  Our Lord isn’t roaming around, looking for heads to smash.  This crazy language is actually about grace.  George Knight talks about the way “the nations have made life for each other on this planet hell on earth.”[1]  So what does God do in response?  “God alone knows how to use [humanity’s] hellish activities for good; he does so by taking upon himself the absurdity of human violence.”[2]  That’s how we get the language about juice staining the garments of God.

We see here a preview of the sacrificial love perfectly demonstrated by Jesus.  Still, I guess that stuff about blood made our lectionary friends squeamish!

Now, what’s going on after today’s reading?

In verse 10, right after the language of blessing that was read to us, we get a splash of cold water in the face.  “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.”  But they rebelled.  Memories become a bit more painful.

Mike Stavlund has sarcastically noted, “With an editorial snip, we miss Isaiah’s inflammatory commentary on the unfaithfulness of God’s followers.”[3]  Then changing the focus to us, “who spend far more time proclaiming ourselves ‘God’s servants’ than we do acting like it.  Who pray for shalom while we make war.  Who ask for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Who preach repentance while we quietly judge.”

That’s an exceptionally biting comment: asking for forgiveness while we stockpile bitterness.  Can that be true?

As I said, we are on the cusp of a new calendar year.  2017 won’t automatically be better than 2016.  One of the narratives that was promoted this past year was that people are angry.  We were told that we’re angry.  Take our word for it.  And if you’re not angry, you should be!

But beneath all of that, we should remember that anger has its roots in fear.  We’ve been told to fear each other.  And that’s not anything new.  Fear is the opposite of love.  As 1 John tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (4:18).  It’s impossible to carry out the gospel imperative to love one another if we’re afraid of each other.  We are armed against each other, both literally and metaphorically.

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Fear can also result in loneliness.

Chris Hall, president of Renovaré, the spiritual formation ministry started by Richard Foster, talks about this in his review of 2016.[4]  He speaks of “an epidemic of loneliness in our culture.”  We can see this in America as a whole, but he especially focuses on feeling lonesome in the community of faith.

“This loneliness epidemic,” Hall says, “came into sharp focus for me several months ago, when I joined a group of Renovaré Institute alumni at a reunion in London, England.  One after another, often amid tears, people spoke of how desperately they missed the rich sense of belonging and connection they’d had while they were in the program.

“And it’s not just Renovaré Institute students.  We receive calls from folks nearly every day whose lives were altered at a Renovaré conference, or in the pages of a Renovaré book, and who now crave community with others who are on the same journey.”

He’s speaking in particular of those their ministry has reached, but clearly the reality that people are lonely reaches far and wide.  Going back to earlier comments, could the epidemic of loneliness also be the result of rebellion and bitterness on our part?  Does our fear prevent our loving each other?  And going back to the original audience of our scripture reading, do we suffer from the spiritual sickness known as sloth?  Does it keep us from caring, from really being with the other?

Like the new year we’re entering, we ourselves are a crazy, mixed up set of joys and fears.  We are beautiful, marvelous, wise, and courageous.  We are also afraid of our own shadows.  We are creatures desperately in need of a loving Savior.

We are in the season of Christmas, and God comes to us in the flesh.  God dwells with us in the flesh.

This is also Epiphany Sunday.  Like the magi from the East, we are drawn to the glory of Christ’s majesty.  But guess what?  That glory is also in us.

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Remember verse 9: “It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”  The very presence of God saves us and is with us.

So are we ready for what this new year holds?  Are we ready to be led by the Spirit into the new thing God has for us?

I want to finish with a quote that was attributed to Nelson Mandela, but actually comes from Marianne Williamson in her book Return to Love.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were all meant to shine, as children do.  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.  It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Are we ready?

* This was for New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, The New Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 73.

[2] Knight, 74.

[3] thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yeara/christmas1ot

[4] renovare.org/2016


have a zealous Christmas

“There won’t be any Christmas this year.”  I imagine we’ve all heard statements to that effect.  Maybe we ourselves have said something along those lines.  “This year, there’s going to be a lean Christmas!”  What would prompt such a statement?  How could we possibly prevent, or even hinder, the arrival of Christmas? Xmas, Ted Rall

Of course, I understand what’s usually meant by that kind of sentiment are financial problems.  It’s the feeling that there’s little, if any, money available to be spent on Christmas presents.  I have a couple of thoughts about that.  First is the notion that gifts that cost plenty of money are always better than ones someone has created, using their God-given imagination.  Second is the way we mimic the Grinch, who by stealing presents from Who-ville, thought he actually could stop Christmas from coming.

(But as you know, the Grinch undergoes a change of heart and realizes the error of his ways.)

Pleasant grinch
It’s that mentality which can reject the power of Christmas and turn it into something empty and hollow.  It’s that, and the sensory overload (starting well before Thanksgiving, even Halloween) which, among other things, involves Christmas-y music being piped in into all kinds of places.

Here’s an example.  Banu and I were at a couple of stores and at a restaurant, and I heard the song, “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” played four times, and each time, it was done by a different artist!

Okay, I want to change gears for a moment.

In the medieval church, there were seven sins that were called deadly sins: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, and wrath.  If you were keeping count, you’ll notice that’s only six.  There’s one more, and I think it’s as deadly as any other: sloth.  Some people laugh when they hear sloth considered a deadly sin.  It’s the fatal flaw of the couch potato!

The well-known preacher Fred Craddock (who died last year) had a compelling definition of this particular deadly sin.  Instead of mere laziness, he said it’s “the ability to look at a starving child…with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well it’s not my kid.’…  Or to see an old man sitting alone among the pigeons in the park and say, ‘Well…that’s not my dad.’  It is that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”[1]  I don’t care.

Another name for sloth comes from Latin, acedia.  It literally means “lack of care.”  (Don’t worry; this talk about sloth has a connection with Christmas!)

Acedia

Kathleen Norris writes about sloth in Acedia and Me, a book I really like and recommend.  And she has her own problem with Christmas.  (There’s the connection!)  In another place, she talks about the “many defenses [we have] against hearing the Christmas readings and taking them to heart.”[2]  She uses images that are very familiar.

For example, look at the Old Testament reading in Isaiah 9.  It begins, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (v. 2).  And how often have we heard the wonderful language of verse 6?  “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

We’re used to hearing these messianic titles, but where do they come from?  What is behind all of this?  Look at the end of verse 7: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”  Zeal!  That’s not something we usually associate with Christmas.  It sounds a little too extreme, too fanatical.

But then, look at the epistle reading in Titus 2, starting with verse 11: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  Okay, that doesn’t seem to be overly intense.  Still, as the passage goes along, things start getting a little more fervent.  At the end, we read that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are [get ready for it!] zealous for good deeds” (v. 14).  Zealous for good deeds.  There’s the “z” word again!

This is where we get back to our friend Kathleen’s ambivalence about Christmas, as well as her discussion about the before-mentioned deadly sin.

“I tend to enjoy Advent,” she says, “with all of its mystery and waiting, but find it difficult to muster much enthusiasm when Christmas Eve comes around.  I know I’m cheating myself, succumbing to my usual temptation to sloth, which Christian tradition understands as not mere laziness but as the perverse refusal of a possible joy.  The ancient monks saw zeal as the virtue opposed to sloth.”[3]  Zeal as a remedy for sloth!

I can see myself reflected in her words.  Is there something about which I could positively say, “I am zealous!”?  What would that look like?  And if I have trouble seeing it, could I at least claim to be zealous in wanting to be zealous?

She might have a point when she says “zeal makes us nervous…  We prefer the protective detachment of irony or sarcasm, and regard zeal as pathetic if not pathological.  When a person exhibits too much passion over anything…we label that person as obsessive or compulsive, and mutter, ‘Get a life.’”[4]

I don’t think very much convincing is needed when I say that even religious zeal can be bad.  Zeal can lead one to throw bombs, burn down abortion clinics, and show up at military funerals, claiming that this is God’s vengeance.  No, I don’t think we need much convincing when I say religious zeal is probably the worst of all.

Zeal

The long history of Benedictine spirituality addresses this; it’s well aware of it.  Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict distinguishes between the “wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God” and the “good zeal which separates from evil.”  We need not fear this kind of zeal.  The reason for that is because it’s grounded in love.

According to Joan Chittister, “Good zeal provides the foundation for the spirituality of the long haul.  It keeps us going when days are dull and holiness seems to be the stuff of more glamorous lives.”  She adds that “sanctity is the stuff of community in Christ and that any other zeal, no matter how dazzling it looks, is false.  Completely false.”[5]  The glitz and glamour of our Christian cult of personality is shown to be bogus.

Somewhat of a trick is needed to dig through the layers of tradition, both good and bad tradition, which surround Christmas.  Too much of how we celebrate Christmas smothers the genuine, good, and life-giving zeal of its promise.  Again, there’s the danger of sloth, getting caught up in foolishness, in distraction.

Here’s a final word from Norris on that point: “The zealous love of this God has already appeared among us in the flesh to train us for a new life and teach us how to welcome him when he comes again in glory…  If we feel utterly exhausted, drained of all feeling and weary with worldly chores and concerns, so much the better.  Our weakness is God’s strength.  Our emptiness means that there is room for God after all.”[6]

Making room for God is probably the best definition for zeal, at least, for good zeal.  How do we do that?  How do we make room for God?

How about thinking of the people on that first Christmas?  They quite literally made room for God, even if they didn’t understand who the baby Jesus really was.

In a more meaningful way, they made room in their minds and hearts and souls.  They wondered; they asked questions.  Joseph wondered, upon discovering Mary’s pregnancy, what he should do.  He was granted a divinely-inspired dream to answer his questions.

Of course, Mary, after hearing the news that she was to be a virgin mother, wondered, “How can this be?” (Lk 1:34).

Then there were those shepherds, who received a celestial visitation—a sight that scared the crap out of them.  (You do know in the Bible, angels are not cute critters?  They are quite terrifying!)  After being calmed down, they said, “Let’s go check this out.”  They were ready to have their world rocked.

Some time after that, the magi and Herod also were asking about the wonder child, though each with their own agendas.  But that’s an Epiphany story, so we won’t deal with that now!

So what kind of zeal makes room for God among us?  What kind of sloth, acedia, do we need to reject?  St. Paul says God’s grace trains us “to renounce impiety and worldly passions” (v. 12).  Those “worldly passions” walk hand in hand with sloth.  Worldly, not holy, passions tell us, “Do not be filled with wonder.  Do not ask honest and sincere questions.  Live in the smug satisfaction that has us saying ‘no’ to love, especially if it comes from unwelcome people.”

Xmas overload

Worldly passion has us rejecting the spirit of Christ in each of us.  It’s the spirit that is all about forgiveness and acceptance, and yet calls us to keep moving forward.  Good zeal drags us out of our proper, private fortresses and flings us into the craziness and zaniness that is the community of faith.

We have twelve days of Christmas, so let me do one better than wishing you, “Merry Christmas!”  Have a zealous Christmas!

 

[1] in Kathleen Norris, Acedia and Me (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008)

[2] Kathleen Norris, “Zealous Hopes,” The Christian Century 122:25 (13 Dec 05), 19.

[3] Norris, 19.

[4] Norris, 19.

[5] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 178-179.

[6] Norris, 19.

[The top image is a cartoon by Ted Rall from December 1997. Clipped from a newspaper, the paper has yellowed with time.]