Sunday, December 28, 2014

New Year’s Examen: What Have You Been Given?

My Christmas this year was generous and joyful, with thoughtful gifts, far too much good food, plenty of time spent with dearly loved family,
from My Antonia, ill. by W. T. Benda, 1918

That has not always been the case. I’ve had Christmases with no gifts beneath the tree, Christmases with no tree at all, Christmases on the edge of homelessness.

In scarcity and plenty, there is still a moment, in the quiet hours of the shortest days of the year, when I take time to pause, to look back at what I’ve been given, to consider what I’ll be called to give in the new year that confronts us.

This advent I’ve been working my way through Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s The World is Not Ours to Save. There’s a short chapter near the end of the book that offers an examen, a way to look back at what’s been given, to look ahead to the challenges and callings ahead. As Wigg-Stevenson notes, while the world is not ours to save, “the corollary to the truth that we are not everywhere and everything is that we are somewhere and something. We inhabit the portion God give us.”

What have we been given, that we can offer back to the need of the world?

Wigg-Stevenson’s personal catalog of gifts includes the gift of faith, ordination, marriage, family, health, plus:
  • Certain capacities for thought, analysis, communication and humor;
  •   A heart that naturally breaks to see others afraid or in pain;
  •   The rights and responsibilities of my American citizenship;
  •   The security and freedom derived from living in a society governed, however imperfectly, by the rule of law;
  •  The capabilities and opportunities afforded by my education;
  •  The love of friends and the support of colleagues in diverse fields around the world;
  •  Financial resources built through work and savings and a stable source of income (which  cannot be extricated from complicity in an unjust economic structures);
  •  Breath in my lungs today.

from My Antonia, ill. by W. T. Benda, 1918
I find myself reading his catalog and considering my own: some the same, some different:
  • Experiences that have taught me mercy,            humility, mistrust of easy answers;
  • Knowledge that my own experiences of injustice are more than balanced by my unearned privilege;
  • Discretionary time and energy I am responsible to use wisely;
  • Friendships that span the deep divides that too often hold us captive;
  • Opportunity to communicate in avenues not yet controlled by hierarchical structure or commercial enterprise. 
  • An unshakeable confidence in God’s love, grace and mercy far beyond human definition.
Wigg-Stevenson asks: 
What does your list look like? Some may enjoy gifts of fantastic power, wealth and status. Others will have more modest lists. For those whose lives are filled with sorrow, the list of God’s gifts may seem short and meager. Regardless of our respective lists’ specific and various content, their purpose is to be poured out for Christ’s kingdom and glory through sevice in a broken and sinful world. We hold our gifts in our souls and minds and bodies and hands and relationships. 
Inventorying these gifts we’ve been given seems to me a valuable practice, a good investment of time and prayer.

Discerning how best to employ them could be the work of a lifetime.

The chapter offers a series of questions, drawn from Micah 4.

Here are some of those questions, a place to start:

·  Are we waking every morning with the recognition that the day is a gift of God and that until we die or he brings us to rest in the night, every second and breath should be an offering to the Lord?
·   Do we give our support in finances and time to efforts that work for peace among the nations, according to the measure we have received?
·   Do we consistently seek to pour out any national status accorded to us, using our status to undermined the imbalanced and unjust structures that create status in the first place?
·   Where we are disadvantaged, do we refuse to be defined as victims?
·   Do we renounce or redirect gain that we receive from injustice, employing any benefit we might receive in the service of those who are oppressed?
·   Where we do not occupy a privileged status, do we conduct ourselves in a way that forces oppressors to encounter our full humanity, our being made in the image of God?
·   Do we stand firm in the face of unjust threat?
·   Do we refuse that anyone in our community be made to fear?
That last question alone is enough to give me pause.

What do I fear?

Where does fear keep me from using all that I’ve been given?

In what ways do I ignore the fears of others, to their harm or my own? 

Praying through my own gifts, I find myself thinking of others I know and talk with, friends and fellow-travelers who read this blog or share life with me in other ways.

Some have great gifts they’ve never recognized, amazing opportunities taken too much for granted.

Some have suffered losses they count as deficits, which seen from another angle could be occasions to know God’s grace more deeply.

Some struggle with fear or failures, unclaimed avenues into greater compassion or experience of mercy both received and given.

Some focus so sharply on gifts not given they miss completely the gifts received in the unexpected spaces.

Even as I think and pray of others, for greater insight into what’s been given, I acknowledge my own lack of sight: what are the gifts I’ve been given I still fail to acknowledge?  What pride, or fear, or misguided self-doubt keep me from fully receiving the gifts so freely given?
from My Antonia,
 ill. by W. T. Benda, 1918

Our reading in church today was John 1: 1-18, a reminder of the word made flesh, light shining in the darkness.

What gifts have I been given that allow me to hear that word, that could make that word more fully heard by others?

What darkness in me keeps that light from fully shining through?

We travelers, walking to the sun, can't see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.

(Sabbaths 1999: VI. Given, Wendell Berry)

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome.Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Four: Joy Is the Song We're Given

Sing for joy to God our strength;
  shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
Begin the music, strike the timbrel,    
 play the melodious harp and lyre. (Psalm 81:1-2
Sometimes we look back on the days of the first Christmas with rose-colored glasses, singing about a story-book Bethlehem of peace and quiet beauty.

Or we sigh at the quaint beliefs of a earlier, simpler time, and grit our teeth for the harsh realities of our own angry, deeply-divided era.

But Christ was born in a region torn by conflict, hatred and war from long before his birth to the present day.

He was born to a family driven from home by political pressures, to a people oppressed and derided by a ruthless global empire.
Kodex Egberty, illuminated manuscript, 10th century, Holland

Not long after his birth, a petty local tyrant slaughtered an unknown number of infants in a manic attempt to intimidate and consolidate power.

It all sounds depressingly familiar.

And yes, I know that historians have accused Matthew of inventing the slaughter of innocents, because there’s no other historical record.

Just as there’s no other historical record of the scores of murdered infants whose remains were found beneath a Roman era bathhouse inAshkelon, along the coast of Israel, in 1986.

Or of the tiny skeletons unearthed in Hambledon, England, during excavation of a Roman villa.  

A 1978 study of infanticide by Laila Williamson, an anthropologist with the American Museum of Natural History, concluded:
Infanticide has been practiced on every continent and by people on every level of cultural complexity, from hunters and gatherers to high civilization, including our own ancestors. Rather than being an exception, then, it has been the rule. 
Archeological evidence since then continues to reveal a sad story not well recorded by historians: children are too often considered expendable, and their disappearances have rarely been important to anyone beyond their immediate families.  

But it’s Christmas week. And the song we’re given is joy. 

According to Luke’s account, the angel greeting shepherds on the hills near Bethlehem proclaimed: Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

Then a host of angels burst into song:. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

The challenge for Mary and Joseph, shepherds, wise men, first disciples, followers and believers across the centuries, has been the same: what does it mean to fear not, to live in peace, to hold tight to joy, in a world where 132 children, sitting quietly in class, are gunned down by angry jihadists?

In a world where gunmen in pickup trucks can shoot dozens of husbands and fathers, herd 185 women and children onto their trucks, then leave a village in flames?

Where a corrupt mayor can arrange the abduction of 43 students, or order the death of a handful of others he fears might disrupt a speech? 

In a nation where in-school shootings doubled, then tripled, in the space of three short years? 
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
    he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples in his faithfulness.
(Psalm 96:11-13)
The Scream from Ramah, Anker Eli Petersen,
Faroe Islands postage stamp, 2001
The song we’re given is joy.

Sing for joy.

Be glad.


If this story we’re in is the final word, then joy is impossible. A hard-hearted outrage.

If there’s no recourse for those children who have died, if evil wins the day and justice is a lie, then joy has no place, no source, no reason.

We might hope for a few moments of happiness now and then, when our doors are shut tight and the world is locked outside.

Determined indifference might numb the sorrow.

Resolute consumerism might focus our attention enough to keep real thought away.

But joy?

Mary’s song, one of the advent texts for this Sunday, makes clear the foundation of the joy we are called to put into song:
 “My soul glorifies the Lord
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”
What Mary gave voice to, informed by the Holy Spirit, confirmed by the prophetic word from her cousin Elizabeth and the presence of the miraculous baby taking shape inside her, was this:

This story isn’t over. What God has promised will happen. The reigning order of power and injustice will be overturned. The humble will be lifted up, the hungry will be fed, those who live by spreading fear will be swept aside and peace will become the reality we’ve longed for.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98:7-9)
I’ve mentioned the book by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s I’ve been reading, “The World is Not Ours to Save.” He describes the heavy burden of people of good will who feel that the fate of the earth and its people rests in human hands. We’ve seen how badly that can go: atomic bombs to preserve the peace, “men and women whose good intentions and grand ambitions blind them to the terrible ways they interact with real human beings, including their coworkers and family.”

He describes a world “broken beyond our repair”:
The level of sorrow in the world is staggering, and thanks to modern media, we know all about it. It is natural to read the situation as a challenge and ask how it can be fixed. The promise of our progressive, modern age is that the world is subject to repair, given the right willpower and tools. But this assessment fails to account for the shape of the world’s brokenness.
If this world is broken, and we are the only ones who can fix it, we should probably give up right about now and party our time away, drowning our hopelessness in busyness and distracting screens and momentary pleasures with no respect for past or future. 

But the story isn’t over, and the end isn’t dependent on our own wisdom, creativity, strength or sheer endurance.

The end is restoration – of creation, cities, nations, people. A world set right. A kingdom of beauty, peace, mercy, love, joy.

That’s the promise.

That’s the foundation of Christmas joy.

That's the promise that fuels my days, fills my heart, makes real joy possible.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:5-7)
Yes, there are plenty of people eager to pile on qualifiers: for some, not all. For us, not them. If this, not that.

I read the angels’ words, and sing:
I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.

This is the fourth in a four week Advent series.
Earlier Advent posts on this blog:

Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome.Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent Three: Love is the Air We Breathe

In my early twenties I had a case of viral pleurodynia, a strange disease I’d never heard of before and haven’t encountered since.

I woke up one day with extreme pain in my lungs, so sharp I felt like I couldn’t breathe. In the university clinic, my health provider at the time, a nonchalant resident told me I had a cold, and to come back in a week if I wasn’t feeling better.

I was in too much pain, and too short of breath, to argue that this was more than a cold. I went home wondering if I’d be alive a week later.
Jos Speybrouck, Postcard reproduction
"The Offering of Sacrifice",

Lying flat on my bed, I found myself focusing on my breath.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

If I kept my breath slow and shallow, the pain wasn’t quite so bad.



Try not to think. Try not to feel. Just focus on the breath.

Somewhere in the middle of that, I began to think of Jesus.

Jesus on the cross.

Trying to breathe.

I’d heard a bit about crucifixion: how the likely cause of death was suffocation, as the victim struggled for breath and fluids began to fill the sufferer’s chest.

I’d heard somewhere that the pain of the nails in limbs, dislocated shoulders, would eventually be focused to the searing pain of lungs struggling for breath.

In the fog of my own pain, I found myself praying “Jesus.”

Breathe in: Jesus.

Breathe out. Jesus.

He went willingly to face that death. Stood patiently while accused. Refused to be an enemy.

I had never really thought about the painful cost of love that held him there.

It was love he breathed, as his life slipped away.

My own breathing, and prayer, slowly shifted, as I thought of his struggle for breath.

With every breath in: love. I am loved.

With every breath out: love. I am loved.

The pain came and went, sometimes lasting for hours. The next day, my young husband Whitney went to church, determined to ask one of the doctors in our congregation to come and check on me. I stayed flat on our bed, breathing in, breathing out, until there were voices at the door, and cheerful Dr. Chip (still practicing at HUP, all these years later) appeared with stethoscope in hand.

Viral pleurodynia: an infection of the lining of the lung. Not fatal, but in some cases terribly painful. He prescribed some anti-inflammatory medicine, the strongest pain-killer he could think of, and said he’d be back to see how I was doing. Whitney followed him out on the way to the corner pharmacy and I went back to my focused breathing, still in pain, more certain than ever that love was the air I was breathing in and out.

You can read through the scriptures, or sit in our churches, and think the message is judgment.

But read again, with a quiet heart, and there’s the refrain, again and again: love.

Jos Speybrouck, Illustration from Bijbelische
 Geschiedenis by Jos Keulers, 1937 Belgium
Love delighting in the beauty of creation.

Love forming each of us with care and intimate interest.

Love leading an embattled people out of slavery into a land freedom.

Love warning of the suffering that would come from injustice and misuse of gifts.

Love offering restoration.

Love gathering, carrying, singing, shepherding.

And then – the love we celebrate on this third Sunday of Advent, and again on Good Friday, and Easter, and beyond:

Love putting on human form, to walk dusty roads, heal abandoned lepers, struggle for breath through searing pain. Rising again to invite us into everlasting love.

How often we miss that love.

How easily we forget it.

How badly we misrepresent it.

Yet that love breathed, then and now, into the hearts of the most forgotten, abandoned, desperate, bewildered.

It speaks gently in dreams to women caught in brutal marriages in countries where they have no rights, and those women wake to find themselves proclaiming “Jesus.”

It calls to convicts in cells around the globe, and angry, broken men find themselves gathering to sing the praise of Jesus.

It bubbles up in places of suffering, giving courage to those who serve the sick and hope to those whose breath is slowly fading.

What a comfort to know that when our breath here ends, that love we’ve been breathing goes on, welcoming us to a fuller, deeper knowledge of that love.

One of the tasks of Advent is to slow down enough to feel that love again.

To sit somewhere still, and breathe it in.

Then breathe it out.

We are called to love others, yet that’s hard to do when our own souls are empty, anxious, hurried.

It’s easy to find ourselves with nothing to offer but impatience and irritation.

Too busy to listen.

Too preoccupied to care.

Too depleted to do much more than go through the motions of good will.

Inside, that little voice cries “I need.” “I want.” “What about me?”

There have been times – too many to count  – when I’ve found I have nothing more to give. Nothing. Nothing at all.

Then I need to go find a quiet place: a back staircase in a crowded building, the moss path behind my home, a path through the woods, a chapel kneeler.
Jos Speybrouck, Illustration from Bijbelische
 Geschiedenis by Jos Keulers, 1937 Belgium

And I need to wait, and breathe.

Not pray. There are times when even prayer is too hard.

I just breathe:



Jesus in.

Jesus out.

Sometimes it happens quickly.

Sometimes it takes a while.

The haze in my head begins to clear.

The panic lifts.

The accusing voices fall silent.

My breath becomes calmer.

Sometimes I feel as if a warm blanket has been wrapped around me. The warmth radiates through me: skin, muscle, bones, soaking in heat like the warmth of the sun.

Sometimes I feel as if there’s a warm hand on my head: a hand of blessing, or protection. Of love.

Sometimes words come to mind: words of scripture, reminding me of love.

Or words I’ve never read or heard: a father’s words of love to his anxious daughter. A close friend's words of counsel and challenge to a a fellow-traveler on the way. 

Sometimes I can feel the weight simply lift: it was there, then gone. Done. Not your worry. As simple as that. Miraculous.

Sometimes the weight remains, with a new resolve and courage to face it. A sense that it isn’t mine to carry alone, that a stronger, wiser friend is walking right beside me.

Sometimes just a quiet sense of peace, so warm and still I could float off into sleep.

And always: love.

Love breathed in, and ready to breathe out.

Who would we be, if we spent more time in silence in the presence of that love?

What would our churches look like?

How would our witness and worship change?

Jos Speybrouck, Illustration from Bijbelische
 Geschiedenis by Jos Keulers, 1937 Belgium
Here’s an Advent prayer this season, for me, for you, for all who dare to claim the name of Christ and all who wait in pain for a healing breath of love:   

For this reason I kneel before the Father, 1 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Breathe it in.

Then go breathe out.

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.

This is the third in a four week Advent series.

Earlier Advent posts on this blog:

Advent One: What I'm Waiting for, Nov. 26, 2011
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010
Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome.Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent Two: Peace is Our Promise, Prayer and Practice

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation and expectation. In churches where Advent candles are lit, today’s candle will represent peace.

How badly we need peace, in this time of unrest and protest, daily news of escalating war, mass abductions of innocent students, bombs and threats of more bombs.

The prophets, speaking of Christ’s coming in an age of invasion, destruction and exile, described him as the Prince of Peace,  the shepherd who would bring a covenant of peace , who would himself become our peace

They also spoke of a conquering king, one who would bend nations to his will and lay waste to enemy armies.

Given a choice, we seem to prefer the military vision, as did the Jews of Jesus’ time. They longed for a military Messiah that would put the Romans in their place.

Instead, they were given a gentle savior, willing to suffer on behalf of his enemies, rebuking the disciple who wielded a sword at his arrest.  

I’ve been reading Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s The World is Not Ours to Save, a challenging exploration of the path of peace in a world armed and ready for nuclear war.

He probes the intersection of violence and fear and the essential connection between justice and peace, and explores at length the prophecy of Micah 4: 
In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
    and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
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.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
    and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
    for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
We are not able, on our own, to accomplish that prophetic vision. As individuals, organizations, churches, communities, even nations, we are not capable of creating peace, restoring justice, or designing a world where there is plenty for all and no one is afraid. There is a sense in Micah’s vision of people, nations, coming on their own volition, “streaming” to an irresistible new way of life, choosing on their own to beat spears into pruning hooks, drawn by a compelling vision of something beyond human agency. 

We can’t force people toward that vision, can’t compel compliance to the ways of God.

As Wigg-Stevenson reminds us, “the world is not ours to save.”

Yet we are instructed to pray for peace, live in the expectation and promise of peace, to practice peace-making in every context and conflict.

That means praying for peace with those who disagree with us.

Living as peacemakers in places of division.

Acting as agents of reconciliation in the deep divides of race, class, political party, religious tradition, national interest.

How are we doing?

According to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon’s unChristian, a carefully researched analysis of what young Americans think of Christians:
Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn't believe what they believe. 
I know many Christians who are nothing like that.

I know far too many who are.

I’ve been encouraged by the stories Wigg-Stevenson shares of Christ-followers whose lives have been spent in courageous, creative peace-making. Among them: 
  • The Nassar family, Palestinian Christians living on a hundred-acre farm on a hilltop near Bethlehem. Harassed by Israeli forces, distrusted by Palestinian Muslims, using solar energy and cisterns because they’ve been cut off from running water and the electrical grid, the Nassars refuse to treat their oppressors as enemies, and have turned their farm into “The Tent of Nations,” an “educational, environmental farm” where they host visitors interested in learning how to be agents of peace in a seemingly intractable conflict. Painted stones at the entrance to their land say in many languages: "We refuse to be enemies."
  • The clergy and community of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by German bombers in the early days of World War II. The decision to rebuild was linked with a determination to forgive. “Father forgive” was inscribed on the ruined walls, and crosses made of ruined timber and nails have become symbols of the cathedral’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation. 
  • Percival George Rhoda, Wigg-Stevenson’s grandfather-in-law, a Colored South African in the days of apartheid. He lived as “a man who sought the peace of his community in an era hat offered no peace.” His insistence on justice and compassion put him at odds with the brutal world around him.

Those faithful witnesses have inhabited the difficult space between vision and reality. Committed to the promise of peace and justice, they prayed for that reality to become visible in this present day, practiced it in the daily details of their lives, asked God to make them living sign-posts and demonstrations of the prophetic kingdom Micah described.

Jesus told his followers “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

He said "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" 

And this, just hours before he was unjustly executed: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” 

Fear is often the trigger that ignites violent response, that keeps us from the path of peace.

I’ve been grieving at the stories of civilian deaths at the hands of police: the death by chokehold of Eric Garner, the six shots fired into Michael Brown, the senseless slaughter of twelve-year-old Tamir Brown, the death of Yvette Smith at the door of her home when she answered the officer’s knock. The list could go on. And on. Hundreds each year. 

Is it fear that fuels these violent acts? That’s the explanation often given: fear that the apparently unarmed might be reaching for a gun, fear that the untrained child, the woman at the door, might somehow threaten the officer’s own safety.

It’s impossible to stand for peace when you start from a place of fear. When unknown others are too quickly seen as enemies, all of us are in danger.

Wigg-Stevenson describes an incident when Daoud Nassar and his carful of children were stopped and searched in the middle of the night by soldiers: 
He did not return anger for the insult. Instead, he spoke to his children in English, which the soldiers understood as well,,s aying “do not be araid. These soldiers are people. They are young and frightened like you. They are human beings too. So don’t be scared.”(92) 
Don’t be afraid.

Walk in peace.

Our 24/7 media promotes conflict and fear in news stories, political punditry, reality tv, violent cop shows, because conflict and fear sell, That's where the quick profits are. 

Our balkanized culture is an impediment to peace. We worship with, listen to, gather online with people who make us comfortable. People just like us.  

But when we only know people like ourselves, it’s easy to fear those who are different.

When we only speak with those who share our views, it’s easy to misunderstand and fear those whose views we don’t understand.

When we have little experience in creative, generous, productive conflict, it’s easy to see any disagreement as an offence, any unexpected behavior as a danger.

When things don’t go our way, it’s easy to withdraw into self-protective silence, cutting off the enemy, shutting down any hope of dialogue.

Today is a day of prayer that our criminal justice system be reformed to demonstrate that black lives matter. 

And today is a day to pray for peace among nations, races and religions, between humanity and God.

We can pray to live into the promise of peace, to live as people of peace, communities of peace. 

We can practice living as peacemakers, in our homes, work places, on busy roads, in contentious online discussions.

But it’s good to remember that peace is a gift. We can't get there ourselves, which is why we pray, today, as every Sunday:
Jesus, lamb of God, have mercy on us.
Jesus, bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.
Jesus, redeemer of the world, grant us your peace. 

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.
This is the first in a four week Advent series.

Earlier Advent posts on this blog:

 Advent One: What I'm Waiting for, Nov. 26, 2011
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 

 Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010
Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010 

Please join the conversation. Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome.Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent One: Hope is Our Work

I’ve been spending time this fall with Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.

You know the story, recounted in a well-known spiritual: God brings Ezekiel to a valley full of dry bones, instructs him to prophecy, the bones come together, “toe bone connected to the foot bone,” until the bones rise into a mighty army.  The moral: an exuberant “them bones them bones gonna rise again.”

Seen from a comfortable distance, it’s an encouraging vision: even very dry bones, scattered and forgotten, can rise to life again.

The Valley of Dry Bones, Ben Zion, 1952, New York
The view is a little different up close.

Several weeks ago I was praying for some situations that seem beyond impossible. Let me rephrase that: I was supposed to be praying. Instead I was reflecting on how little prayer I had left, and lamenting my investment in a series of obvious lost causes.

I was due to meet that day with a group expecting me to bring a word of encouragement, and I had none.

Sitting with my Bible, brain and heart empty, I found myself picturing Ezekiel in a valley full of bones.

Not just a few bones – lots of bones. In a dry, barren, lifeless place.

I flipped through my Bible to Ezekiel 37: 
“Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”
Ezekiel, the man, the prophet, is an interesting study. There’s a real person there, if you read the book carefully. He’s precise about when his strange story starts: 
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River. 
And he’s precise as words allow about all he sees and hears, although he’s clear that the words available don’t quite fit, that his experience is beyond language. It’s all “like” something, like the appearance of something – several removes from what it really was: 
Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. 
In a book full of overwhelming sights and difficult instructions, Ezekiel reports as calmly as he can, with only small hints of his personal response. Twice he simply reports himself falling facedown; once he describes sitting by the river “for seven days – overwhelmed.”

But he says nothing of his emotional state in the valley of dry bones.

An alternative translation of Ezekiel 37, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, offers insight:  
The hand of YHWH, the Breath of Life, was on me,
And in a rushing-breath YHWH brought me forth
and set me in the center of a valley -
Full of bones!
- And led me all around them, all around.
Here! - Very many on the face of the valley,
and here! - utterly dry.
And said to me;
"Child of Adam, earthling, can these bones live?"
I said - "Pillar of the World, Breath of Life -
You know-it-in-your-heart, and only you."
Today is the first day in the liturgical year – the first Sunday of Advent. In the Anglican tradition, we’ll light the first of four advent candles, read the words of Mark 13:24-37, celebrate the promise of Christ’s second coming.

And we’ll speak of hope.

The hope of earthlings, children of Adam, waiting for the Pillar of the World, Breath of Life, to breath his life into our dead, dry bones.

My son, home for Thanksgiving, handed me a book he brought for me to borrow: “The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good, by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, founder of the Two Futures Project and now chair of the World Evangelical Alliance's Global Taskforce on Nuclear Weapons.

I’m only a few chapters in, but already I know can see that Wigg-Stevenson has spent time in the valley of dry bones, like Ezekiel, and like me, and has considered the question: can these bones live?

He describes a conversion experience on a back staircase in the Fairmont Hotel in LA, not long after a less-than-successful protest against nuclear weapons: 
I was willing to do anything.  But there was nothing I could do. This realization dropped me midstride. I saw a service stairwell to my right, slipped inside and crumpled on the rough concrete stair. And I wept in despair for the world I so desperately wanted to save from itself. 
Then, for the first – and, to date, the clearest – time in my life, I heard the voice of God.
God said: the World is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only serve the one whose it is. (18)
 If our hope is in ourselves, we are headed for burnout, disillusionment, delusion, despair.
The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, Gustave  Doré,
1866, Paris, France

Ezekiel, in the valley of dry bones, appalled by the very many, very dry bones, knew for certain there was nothing he could do. Yet, when God said “Prophecy,” he did. When God said “Speak,” he said what he was told to say.

And then, in a way, the story grew more alarming. 
So I prophesied as I was commanded.
And while I was prophesying,
there came a voice, and - here! a commotion! -
and the bones came together,
bone to bone.
And I saw - here! - upon them muscles;
Flesh arose, skin covered them;
But there was no breath in them.
Which is worse: dry scattered bones, or lifeless bodies waiting for breath?

In a way, Advent is a celebration of this place in between: moving toward life, but not there yet.

The Kingdom of God is at hand. The Kingdom is still far in the distance.  

Peace has been proclaimed. Peace is nowhere to be seen.

The dead body is sitting up, but still not speaking clearly

The older I get, the more I invest in people and communities around me, the more clearly I see the depths of our dilemma and the more certain I am that the world is not mine to save.

I am not able to solve or even shake the entrenched racism and oblivious injustice that will put one in three African American men in prison, that continues to question the outrage of one more, and one more, and one more unarmed young man shot dead by those sworn to keep the peace.

My uneven boycott of slave-harvested chocolate, my uneven support of Fair Trade coffee, will never make a dent in immoral labor practices.

I'm not able to ensure safe food, water, air, for my own family, let alone this suffering, sorrowing world.

I can't heal the sick, restore broken families, fix broken systems.

As Wigg-Stevenson observes, in a moving chapter about a trip to Hiroshima to honor those who died there in 1944, 
The sin of the world is not some minor laceration. . . It is a vast and ragged puncture wound driven deep into the lungs and heart of creation itself. The divide stretches between us and God, and between every person and every other person. Even if we cared enough or were good enough to work in perfect concert to try to fix it (though we don’t and aren’t, and thus we won’t) we lack the capacity. The wound of sin is the very ground on which we live, eking out our unpredictable lives along its edge. (61) 
I look at the heritage of war, or slavery, or racism, I study the generations-long trail of abuse, deceit, abondonment, I listen to new stories of brokenness and ask:

The Valley of the Dry Bones, Abraham Rattner,
Urbana, Illinois, 1956
Can these bones live?

Honestly? From what I see? Is healing possible?


Give up.

Forget it.

Yet, we’re told not to give up. We’re commanded to hope.

And not just to hope for a time in the future, but to speak, act, live as agents of that future wholeness alive in this fractured present.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God simply said “Prophecy.”

Ezekiel obeyed.

When bones, flesh, muscle gathered into lifeless forms, Ezekiel didn’t turn and run, didn’t shut his eyes and pretend all was well. He simply waited for the next instruction.

Then obeyed again.

Knowing the earth wasn’t his to save, he chose to serve the one whose it is. 
Then God said,
"Prophesy to the rushing-breath-of-wind -
Prophesy, you child of earth! -
and say to the breathing-wind -
Thus says the Pillar of the World, the Breath of Life -
From the four breathing-winds come, O breath,
And puff upon these slain, that they shall live."
 There are days I start out with no vision of what the next step will be, and then words are given.

There are times when I stand in the middle of dry bones and watch in wonder as they spring to life.

There are moments when the rushing-breath-of-wind breathes through the valleys where I live, and I marvel, and go my way rejoicing.

There are seasons when I simply wait in hope. This is one of those seasons.  
No king is saved by the size of his army;
    no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
    despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him,
    on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
    and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
    even as we put our hope in you.  (Psalm 33:16-22)

modification of Velden Floating Advent Wreath, Johann Jaritz, Austria, 2009
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Austria license.

This is the first in a four week Advent series.

Earlier Advent posts on this blog:
Advent One: Rethinking Portfolios, Dec. 1, 2013
Advent Two: Resisting Idols and Injustice, Dec. 8, 2013
Advent Three: Redefining Home, Dec. 15, 2013
Advent Four: Rejoicing in Mystery,
Dec. 22, 2013
 Advent One: How Do I Know? Dec. 2, 2012
Advent Two: Outsiders In Dec. 9, 2012
Advent Three: Question. Fruit. Dec. 16, 2012
Advent Four: Sing Alleluia, Dec. 23, 2012
 Advent One: What I'm Waiting for, Nov. 26, 2011
Metanoia,  Dec 4, 2011
Voice in the Wilderness,  Dec. 11, 2011
Common Miracles,  Dec. 18, 2011
The Christmas Miracle, Dec. 24, 2011 
 Advent Two: John the Baptist,  Dec. 12, 2010
Mary's Song,  Dec. 19, 2010
Christmas Hope,  Dec. 24, 2010