Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent Four: Rejoicing in Mystery

Will information save us?

The news has been full of discussion of NSA data and metadata collection. Has all that information kept us safe?

The question is linked with discussion of Edward Snowden: was he right to share information that had been withheld? Traitor, or hero? What does he know that still hasn’t been released? When is information helpful, and when does it cause harm?

Do we know?

In many ways, we’re the most knowledgeable generations that have ever walked the planet. We may not have the information in our heads, but we have it at our fingertips. What don’t you know? Google it, and there it is.


Sometimes, I fear, all we know blinds us to all we don’t know.

I’ve watched that in medicine, as doctors struggle to see symptoms that don’t line up with clearly-identified illnesses. If they can’t diagnose it, maybe you don’t have it. 

A friend told me just this morning it took two months to convince his doctor he had Lyme disease, even though he was always exhausted, even though he ached from head to foot, even though he works outdoors and spends every free minute birding or gardening. Four months later, he’s still recovering. That’s just one disease with huge unknowns, just one example of how what’s known sometimes blocks and blinds us to all that’s still not known.

This is true as well in regulation of food. I could write pages about testing protocols for new food technologies. Developers have a short list of things to test for, and no requirement at all that they test for unexpected, unpredicted outcomes. What’s known is heralded as safe; what’s not known is ignored, sometimes leading to those mystery symptoms doctors dismiss because they don’t line up with known, diagnosable illness.

The more I explore the edges of what we know and don’t know, the more amazed I am at how insistent we are on the narrow frameworks that correspond to our grids of knowledge, and how hard it is to see anything that lies outside the margins.

The periodic table offers an interesting visual example. In 1869 Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev started arranging chemical elements by atomic mass. His system allowed him to predict the discovery of other elements that fit his chart, but gave no indication of classes of elements still to be discovered.

A century and a half later, scientists are debating the value of his table, with its subsequent additions and alterations. Was Mendeleev’s table a demonstration of ultimate reality, or simply an interesting way to organize information? Some scientists argue that “there is one true and objective periodic classification”. Others suggest that that way of thinking may cause distortion of what is known or hinder discovery of elements yet unknown.

Some alternative periodic table designs
Our assumptions about knowledge and our instinctive attempts to sort and categorize can lead us to great breakthroughs and valuable discovery.

They can also stifle science and cause real physical harm.

And they can blind us to realities that don’t fit our mental grids.

For materialists, all experience results from material causes.

Physicalists, embracing “physicalism,” a modern upgrade of materialism, expand causes to include non-material phenomena that can be studied through the senses (x-rays, gamma rays, light).

If you start by assuming only one dimension, it’s hard to acknowledge dimensions beyond it.

But reading the Christmas story once again, I’m struck at how easy it is even for those who believe in spiritual realities to miss what’s there to be seen, simply because it doesn’t fit expectations.

The Advent Four readings point to the interplay of prophecies surrounding Jesus’ birth. 
Isaiah 7:10-16 speaks of a sign that will be given.
 Psalm 80 sings of a coming shepherd, “the son of man you have raised up for yourself.”
 Matthew 1 ties Jesus’ nativity back to those two passages, and to others predicting a child born from the line of David.
 In Romans 1 Paul describes himself as “, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets . . .” 
Dig back through the prophecies and the subsequent gospel narratives and it becomes clear: the study the Hebrew scholars gave their lives to made it almost impossible for them to see Jesus as their Messiah. He didn’t fit their construct of coming Warrior King.

I find myself wondering: how do our own more modern constructs narrow our vision and obstruct our understanding?

I’m intrigued by the prophecy and narrative surrounding the Christmas star. Intrigued at the disinterest of the religious scholars of the day; intrigued at the continued intensity of debate surrounding that reported miracle. Intrigued by references to “Balaam’s oracle”, by what we know about the trail of prophecy, by what we still don't know. 

For today, though, I find myself joining the shepherds on the hill outside of Bethlehem.

What did they know of prophecy? Politics? Physics? World religions? 

I imagine they knew how to tell when the weather was changing.

Knew the different qualities of silence, the sounds creatures make as they travel through the dark.

Knew things we no longer know, while knowing nothing of the things that most consume our days. 

I picture their astonishment at the appearance of the angel. 

Amazement as they listened to the announcement. 
I imagine the overwhelming sound of angels singing, the wonder and awe of it, the harmonies of heaven shattering the silent darkness. 

Did it happen?

I believe it did.

I believe in a world inhabited by love, grace, angels.

A world where songs of praise break through the grayness of our days, where mystery breathes in buds, babies, moments of kindness, deep conversations that plunge beneath the slick surface of aggregate information. 

I can't prove it.

But I can live in it. And find joy in it.

My job, today, is to provide lunch for the eighty or so parishioners who gather after our 11 AM service. Three kinds of chili, cornbread, my own sweet cider slaw.

After that I have cookies to bake, presents to wrap. I’m hosting Christmas eve dinner, with groceries still to buy.

In these final days of advent, days of checking off lists, gathering supplies, I find myself caught somewhere between the practical and penitential, aware of what needs to be done next, aware of what lies beyond the reach of my lists, longing for the inner silence, the openness of heart that will bring me closer to the mysteries wrapped in swaddling clothes and waiting in a distant manger.

Yet, busy as I am, I find myself singing, whistling, humming familiar songs of joy.

I rejoice in knowing there is more than this, the beautiful “this” of trees and ornaments, the painful “this” of conflict and sorrow, the beloved “this” of family and friends.

More than the “this” of our accumulated knowledge, our complex grids and frameworks, our aggregated data.

There is healing for ills we attempt to explain away.

Wisdom beyond our Google-driven knowledge,

Love, and the mysteries of incarnation, God-with-us.

Shining across centuries.

Streaming around the edges of our one-dimensional structures.

Singing with voices of angels and shepherds. 

Lighting up the dark December sky.

Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, Thomas Cole, 1833-34, New York
Other Advent posts on this blog:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Advent Three: Redefining Home

The Synchroblog topic this December is “The Kingdom of God and Home":
 “What does Coming Home mean to you this season? Is it practical, spiritual, emotional? What does “home” look like or feel like in the kingdom of God? Do you have a “coming home” story that you’d love to tell?” 
“Home” is one of those words I sometimes stumble over. I had lived more places than I know by the time I landed with my grandparents just before I turned two.  The year of ninth grade I lived in three different households, went to two different schools. My senior year of high school that pattern was repeated: a new school, three new addresses.

Between the age of twelve and twenty-eight, I lived in at least fifteen different places, sometimes for weeks or months, at most two or three years. Apartments, old-subdivided houses, dorm rooms, camp cabins, attic bedrooms with families I hardly knew.

I’ve lived now in the same place for more than sixteen years. This place is a gift. This life is a gift. If I have a choice, I’ll stay right here a long, long time.

But there’s more to home than houses. More to coming home than finding a safe harbor, putting down roots, painting a room whatever color I choose.

More, even, than the great gift of a sturdy marriage, a warm and loving family, a garden I’ve tended now for a decade and a half.

I’m three weeks into my Advent observance, and this week’s passages all speak to me about this question of “home.”

Isaiah 35:1-10 sings of a time of rejoicing, when the redeemed will enter Zion, “and those the Lord has rescued will return.” That theme continues in Psalm146, a song of praise to “the Lord, who sets the prisoner free.” And in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
   but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
I’m reminded, as I read these passages, that until we all have a home, we are not yet home.

photo by Ruth Fremson, 2013
A New York Times series this week featured a homeless girl, Dasani, struggling to navigate the streets of New York City. In my own smaller world, I’m in prayer for two I love whose homes no longer feel safe, or healthy. 

Recent headlines announce record numbers of homeless children in my state of Pennsylvania. In the US, the estimate is that 1.6 million school age children are homeless: living in shelters, motels, cars, campers, sleeping on the floor in someone else’s apartment.

Yes, I know some of those kids. The boy whose mother remarried and moved, leaving him to fend for himself. The kids whose mother couldn’t find a job and moved from man to man, three teenage kids in tow. The families that fell behind in the rent, couldn’t manage the heating bill, couldn’t make it on one parent’s minimum wage. The friend who perches anxiously on the edge of other people’s lives and homes, doing her best to shield her small children from evidence of addiction, violence, mental illness.

The New Testament readings for Advent Three remind us that we live between: between promise and fulfillment, between vision and reality.

A reading in James 5 urges “Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.” Some days patience is hard, as we seem to move backward: less generous, less compassionate. Less funds for the education that might offer a door of escape. Tighter, harsher rules on everything from medical assistance to funding for food to support of mental health.

The final Advent Three reading, Matthew 11:2-11, has always troubled me: John the Baptist, imprisoned and soon to be beheaded, sends word to Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

I understand John’s question: Where is this kingdom we’ve been promised? Why is Herod still in control? Why am I in prison, when I’ve been faithful to my calling? Why does it look like nothing's changed? 
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” 
What does Jesus mean when he says “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me”? 

It's comforting to see that there’s no reproach in his answer to his cousin John. He concludes, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

And what does that last statement mean? “Whoever is least in the kingdom is greater than he.”

Some days I tire of mysteries. I want those straight paths right about now. Streams in the desert, homes for those without them. 

But there’s even more to this question of home than the injustice and loss I am helpless to repair.

As a teen on the edge of homelessness, I listened often to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song: “Our House”:
Our house is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy, 'cause of you.
The song described an idyllic moment in the affair between Graham Nash and Joni Mitchell, and captured the hope so many of us have in a house and life where everything is easy.

But that moment in their lives didn’t last, and as I’ve learned, the dream is illusory.

In the Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis wrote: 
The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home. 
Returning to this theme of “home” in a sermon not long after, Lewis spoke of “ this desire for our own faroff country.” He described the “inconsolable secret,” the haunting longing, that we sometimes call beauty, or nostalgia: 
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
That longing doesn’t go away. In fact, the more certain I am of what it calls us to, the more deeply I long for and confidently live toward that faroff country and home I’ve never visited, where every child is wanted and every person finds a home. 

We come at last to the dark
and enter in. . . We come
to the space between ourselves,
the narrow doorway, and pass through
into the land of the wholly loved.
  (Wendell Berry, Given, Sabbath Poems, 2002)

Other Synchroblog posts on this topic:

Other Advent posts on this blog:

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Adent Two: Resisting Idols and Injustice

The second week of advent turns the focus on John the Baptist, and his cry to make the way straight, confess our sin, produce fruit in keeping with righteousness. (Matthew 3).

Accompanying readings shine the light on injustice, and the promise of a time of when the hungry will be fed, the oppressor crushed, the afflicted ones restored. (Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72, Romans 15:4-13).

As I’ve been thinking and praying about these passages, I’ve also been listening to the stories of the death of Nelson Mandela, his struggle against apartheid, his 27 years in prison.

I first read Cry the Beloved Country when I was twelve or thirteen. The words of that book illuminated scripture, illuminated my own challenging childhood, resonated with the troubled times – the riots in the Bronx not far from where I lived, the tension in the halls of my racially divided high school. And formed in me a deep interest in South Africa, and a longing for justice there, and in my own sharply polarized culture.

In church we read: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy;” As a child of the needy, my heart cried “Yes!”

And in Patton’s compelling novel about a black Anglican priest seeking his missing son in Johannesburg, my heart cried “yes!” again.

After Cry, the Beloved Country, I read Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope, then Tales from a Troubled Land.  I still have all three: battered paperbacks with yellow pages.

What drew me was the tragedy of a Christian people – the Afrikaaners – so locked in their systems of power and privilege they went deeper and deeper into oppression and fear. In the pages of Paton’s books, I found myself wrestling with a question that faced me in my own school hallways, in my own dusty church: is it possible to be a Christian and NOT thirst for justice? Is it possible to be truly baptized and NOT produce
fruit in keeping with righteousness?

In a manuscript attributed to murdered character Arthur Jarvis, sometimes described as a Christ-figure in Cry the Beloved Country, Paton offered this indictment: 
The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply.
 We believe in help for the underdog, but we want him to stay under. And we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions, and to say that because He created white and black, He gives the Divine Approval to any human action that is designed to keep black men from advancement. We go so far as to credit Almighty God with having created black men to hew wood and draw water for white
men. We go so far as to assume that He blesses any action that is designed to prevent black men from the full employment of the gifts He gave them.
 . . . The truth is that our civilization is not Christian; it is a tragic compound of great ideal and fearful practice, of high assurance and desperate anxiety, of loving charity and fearful clutching of possessions.” (p. 155)
 I don’t remember how old I was when I first started hearing of Nelson Mandela. I do know I followed the news of South Africa carefully. I was 24 when my husband Whitney and I had the chance to host a young man from Scripture Union South Africa, an organization quietly leading integrated Bible studies and youth camps at risk of legal consequence. Our guest, while white, had friends who were black, and looked forward to a time when apartheid was over. 

We’ve since had other South African friends and house guests, others involved with the Scripture Union movement, who trained young leaders of different races side by side during those same long years that Mandela waited in prison. I’m thankful for those Christians I know who have lived faithfully what they believe Christ calls them to. I’m still saddened by others who live in troubling contradiction to the justice and righteousness that are described, again and again, as twin aspects of God, of Jesus Christ, and those who claim to serve them. 

Andy Crouch, in Playing God:Redeeming the Gift of Power, talks about idolatry and injustice as two sides of the same coin: “God hates injustice and idolatry because they are the same thing.” (71) They are misrepresentations of God’s good intent, and as Paton made clear to me, so many years ago, they require misrepresentation of humans as well: “we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian, to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, our own human intentions.”

Andy Crouch describes the conflicted result: 
“effacing or even eradication of the image-bearing capacities of the poor who cease to believe that they bear any image at all. . . . Their unique contributions as image bearers, the individual dignity they each bear as an irreplaceable refraction of the true image, are lost to the world, eclipsed by the strutting false images” (p. 72) 
Just as the Afrikaaners struggled to hold power and privilege at great cost to their own integrity, their Christian faith, and the Africans around them, the Pharisees of John the Baptist’s day clung to power and privilege, barricading themselves behind convoluted rules and self-congratulatory explanations about who God loves, and why. John called them “a brood of vipers,” and challenged them to repentance, baptism, and fruit in keeping with righteousness.

As Crouch puts it, “Idolatry = Injustice.”

And as Isaiah and others make clear: “Righteousness = Justice.”

Is it possible to be a follower of Christ and not hunger and thirst for justice?

Is it possible to claim the name of Christian and not do battle with the hidden idols of our day, the systems of injustice that hold us all hostage?

Even these questions, I’ve come to see, are subtle steps toward misuse of power, and attendant idolatry and injustice. The Pharisees believed their constructs gave them the right to determine who was in or out, who deserved God’s favor. They considered themselves adequate arbiters of God’s intent, and found themselves judging and condemning God himself.

Do not judge!” Jesus said. Not for his followers to judge. Not even, he insisted, for himself: “I come not to judge the world, but to save it."

On this grey December morning, I find myself wondering: Who are the people I judge? And who are the people I see as “less than”? What beliefs do I assemble to justify this lie?

What privileges do I treasure? What systems confer those privileges? At whose expense do I enjoy them?

How can I demonstrate more fully that those we so easily dismiss – the sick, the slow, the strange, the stranger – all are worthy of love and welcome?

How can I more faithfully stand in opposition to idolatrous values that affirm and applaud the beautiful, powerful, and wealthy?

How can I live more boldly as one who thirsts for justice?

Other Advent Posts:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011

Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Advent One: Rethinking Portfolios

It’s Advent One, the first day of the liturgical year.

Time to rethink the investment portfolio.

Over the holidays, with four generations gathered over coffee and pie, our conversation turned to houses bought and sold, stocks that have tanked and prospered, investments that yielded good returns, others that left that gnawing feeling of regret.

Interesting, then, to have this morning’s sermon focus tightly on investment: investments in the present, investments in the future.

The service was the culmination of a series inviting participation in a capital campaign to improve our church’s education wing, pay off some debt accrued in our last major renovation, upgrade our heating system, and provide a tithe of funds for sister churches in other places.

The official readings for this Advent Sunday include Isaiah2:1-5,  a reminder of the coming kingdom of justice and peace: 
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
 And Psalm 122, a song of ascents:   
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
    and security within your citadels.
The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
The focus of Advent One, every year, is the coming Kingdom of God, a reminder that the Christ who came as a child will come again to establish a kingdom of justice, peace, and love.

And the challenge, every year, is to reorient ourselves to that coming kingdom, to learn to live more faithfully in light of values far beyond the clamor of Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

So the question of this morning’s sermon was this: What will you invest in?

The immediate question asked for a dollar amount on a pledge form.

But the larger, deeper, more puzzling question is this: What does wise investment look like?

How do we balance the legitimate needs of our own local church against the needs of churches in the Philippines, flattened by Typhoon Haiyan?

How do we balance investment in bricks and mortar, tighter windows and more efficient furnace, against investment in food for the hungry, clean water for those without?

I sometimes wish I were an investment genius. I listen with slight pangs of envy to a younger relative describe his stocks in Apple, Solar City, Whole Foods, a new 3D printing firm, with yields this year of 50%.

I am not particularly good with money. Not good at earning it, not good at investing it. Not very methodical about how to give it. Fortunately, my husband Whitney is better at all those things than me. I do my part by keeping expenses low and trying to record my ATM withdrawals.

I’ve decided that’s okay. Just as the body is made up of hands, feet, eyes, ears, different areas of the brain, the church is made up of meticulous money managers, visionary thinkers, poets, painters, and people like me, who will wash dishes when needed and listen over coffee to awkward confessions and dubious evasions.

Even so, I need to rethink my portfolio: financial, spiritual, emotional, even physical.

If I’m here for a certain span of years, I want to be healthy for as many of those as possible. So I need to up my investment in some form of exercise with more cardiac benefit than my weekly birdwalks.

I need to re-calibrate my level of investment in friends, family, activities that bring me joy, re-energize and renew me.

I need to rethink my investments of time. Just as a healthy portfolio holds both short and long-term investment, with a careful balance of risk and security, I need to invest in short-term and longer-term goals, with some benefits realized now, some later, some trusted to eternity.

And money: yes, we pledged a healthy amount to the church capital campaign, but how can we invest better in the church beyond our own local gathering? And how can we invest more wisely in the kingdom to come?

At the close of this morning’s service, we stood to sing an old, familiar hymn, written by Francis Havergal, a brilliant English invalid who wrote 80 hymns before dying at the age of 42. 
Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.
Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.
Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.
Singing the familiar words, I found myself considering people around me, and the ways I see them living out their own investments:

Those committed to creating beauty, through instruments, paint, weaving, wood, words.

Those committed to easing the suffering of others, through medicine, therapy, social work, travel to help install water treatment systems in places with no clean water.

Those deeply invested in next generations: caring for children, teaching or mentoring teens, educating and encouraging younger leaders.

Those gifted at making and managing money, creatively investing in mission and ministry in ways far beyond my more modest contributions.

Some investments give immediate return: a well-executed Sunday service, a festive meal enjoyed by many.

Some are enjoyed later: how many contributed, in how many ways, to the sunlit atrium where we gather for Sunday lunches? How many invested, in how many ways, in the lives of the young adults leading worship, or manning the sound board, or standing with their parents on this holiday weekend home?

Some investments may seem pointless for decades, with benefit never seen by those making the investment: time spent with a troubled kid, dollars spent on a summer mission trip with no quantifiable return.

I’m honored, and grateful, to be part of a community that takes investment seriously.

None of us get it quite right.

All of us come at it from different directions, with different ideas about what’s most important, what mix is best, what will yield the most lasting return.

But the commitment is there -

The longing to invest well -

to make visible the values of an invisible kingdom -

to give as we’ve been given.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
 You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
  (from Suscipe, St. Ignatius of Loyola)

Other Advent Posts:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011 
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011 
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011

Marys' Song,  Dec. 19, 2010 
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010