Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent Four: For You

A long time ago in a country not so far away a pregnant teenager left her home and family to stumble over rocky roads with a man she hardly knew to a place she didn’t belong.

No Room at the Inn, Eugene Higgins, 1940s, USA
She went under the weight of a dictator’s edict, a pawn in an ongoing enterprise of empire and taxation. Her journey led past mercenary soldiers brandishing well-sharpened swords, through ravines where homeless lepers divided turf with reckless thieves.

There was no room when she reached her destination, and little welcome. Like millions of refugees and migrants before and after, she took what little she was  offered, and waited. 

Her historians don’t record the details of delivery: how many hours in panting and pain, how many minutes of excruciating pushing.  Who held the baby as he struggled into view? Whose dirty knife cut the cord?

In our warm, clean homes, doors and windows safely locked, we miss the weight of sacrifice and glory: the one who sang earth into being turned his back on privilege and power, set aside his right to manage every moment, threw down every shred of safety.

The king of time and space became so small a donkey’s foot could crush him. Chose a place that was no place at all: temporary shelter with a beleaguered people, a migrant on the move, one of the displaced in a world groaning in the grasp of ruthless men thinking only of reputation, power, and indulgence.

Out in the hillsides the rootless, expendable riffraff slept near their sheep in the open air. These were the men of low expectation – landless, powerless, precarious peasants hanging from the fringe of a fragile economy. Nobodies. Nowhere. With not much to offer.

Afraid. No doubt often afraid. Of the silent predators seeking their sheep. Of the roving thieves hungry for meat. Of the soldiers ready to take what they wanted, swords an answer to every objection.

Afraid. Of incurable diseases: everywhere, always. Fevers that could throw a healthy man to the ground and claim his life in hours. Leprosy that lingered for years, slowly stealing fingers, toes, hope, joy, then life itself.

Sometimes in the scripture record angels took human form, walking the same roads as men and women, hiding their brilliance in dusty robes.

Not these angels. They lit up the sky, filled the night, carried a sliver of heaven’s brilliance .

Terrifying brilliance.

Fear not.

What a message to offer, in a world laden with fear.

In a world where darkness pressed hard every night, where every human contact carried possible destruction.
Shepherd and Sheep, Allen Lewis, ca 1930s US

Fear not.

Luke 2:9 says  “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and a  bright light shone around them, and they were sore afraid,” “filled with great fear,” “terrified.”

“Fear not,” the angel said.

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.”

The Bible is full of outrageous encounters, but this may be one of the most outrageous.

The message is so personal – and grand.

I bring YOU good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

I wonder how they even heard the words, crouching there on their hillside, unnatural light shining all around them.

You: ragged shepherds.

You: nobodies on a nowhere hill.

News for you, but more than you. News of great joy – for all people. Everywhere.

And this is the news: A Savior has been born TO YOU. He is Messiah, the Lord.

It’s hard to hear what you’re not prepared to hear.

Hard to accept a new idea that crashes the old framework and sends the pieces spinning.

Yet the shepherds did as the angel said: ran to see the savior they’d been offered.

Ran to share the good news that they’d heard.

All that was a long time ago.

We live in a different place, surrounded by protections and provisions unknown to those distant strangers.

Deadbolts on our doors, debit cards in our wallets.

Smart phones that tell us the way and keep us always in touch with family, friends, food, funds.

Otto Schubert, Dresden, Germany
We don’t need God, I’ve been told.

We have science.


We know what’s real. The rest is a crutch.

We don’t need angels.


Dusty old stories with their demanding implications.

We have medications to manage our fear.

Weapons to manage the unexpected troubles.

We have nothing to learn from mother and baby.

Nothing to gain from listening to shepherds.

Yet, even now, on hillsides across the globe, hungry young men wrap their fear around them, waiting, even now, for news. Good news.

And yes, even now, girls not yet women hug their swollen bellies, dream of shelter, grieve for a kindness and mercy they have rarely seen, can barely imagine. Pray their babies will see a peace they themselves have never known.

Even now, on a quiet night, if we go outside and listen, we can almost hear the cries of the homeless infants. Almost hear the tramp of the soldiers’ boots, the hum of the drones, the anxious bleating sheep.

If we listen we can almost hear it.

The surprising song of a teenage girl:

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.

If we try, we can almost hear the angel’s words:

Fear not.

I bring you good news of great joy, that shall be to all the people.

There is born to you a Savior -- who is Christ the Lord.

Glory to God in the highest to God,

and on earth peace,

good will to all.

The shepherds ran to see.

The mother treasured the words in her heart.

The child grew to a man who never once took a sword in his own defense.

Who went to his death still proclaiming good news of great joy.

Good news of great joy.

For all people.


And yes, for you.

Every single, blessed you.

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 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Advent Three: Blessed Singularity

This fall I’ve been planting acorns. I foraged small pin oak acorns from a local nature preserve, gathered round swamp white oak acorns from the park where I do habitat work, and convinced one of our occasional birders to share a handful of impressive bur oak acorns from the centuries old tree growing in his yard.

Some of the acorns went into open areas of the park, some into a friend’s back yard, some into pots in my shed, where squirrels aren’t able to dig them up and eat them.

To me, acorns are both miracle and mystery. Amazing that the essence of a mighty tree can be captured in form small enough to hold in my hand. Amazing that, in time, an acorn can become home to multitudes of caterpillars and beetles, providing habitat and food for generations of birds, squirrels, and other creatures.

I wrote some weeks ago about particle and wave theory: the seemingly contradictory discovery that energy functions both as individual particles and undulating waves.

I plant my acorns and consider each as a single entity: a tiny world in its own hardened shell. Yet each is part of a wave of life, spreading back beyond human memory, reaching forward long past my own remaining future.

I turned sixty this week – my Facebook page had birthday greetings from Europe, Africa, a dozen or more states. People I’ve known since birth. Some I’ve known briefly, would like to know better. I marvel that my own small particle of life has somehow rippled over oceans, across six tenths of a century.

A friend gave birth to a daughter this week: a joyful reminder of the miracle of birth, a celebration on the way to greater celebration of the birth two thousand years ago.

The word I’ve been carrying with me this advent is “singularity.” How is it that on a planet full of people, each new child is unique?

How is it possible that each person is a gift, a singular treasure, that the expansive material and sweep of life gathers, again and again and again, into one living cell, then expands into a new human person whose influence ripples through families, communities, even nations?

Reading through the list of birthday greetings on my Facebook page, I find myself giving thanks for each person, their roles in my life: siblings, cousins, uncles, friends. Young people I knew when they were tiny children; elders who inspired me when I was young myself.

1. the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon or unusual
2. a point where all parallel lines meet
3. a point where a measured variable reaches unmeasurable or infinite value

Every human is a singularity, a point where parallel lines of generations intersect, where strands of DNA recombine into just one individual creature of unmeasurable or infinite value.

And each human, young and old, points toward what C. S. Lewis called “the central miracle asserted by Christians.... the Incarnation:
"Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.... It was the central event in the history of the Earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about. …
 "By a miracle that passes human comprehension, the Creator entered his creation, the Eternal entered time, God became human—in order to die and rise again for the salvation of all people. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still ... (to) the womb ... down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him" (Miracles, Chapter 14). 
Rereading Luke’s story of that singular birth, I’m struck by the repetition of the word “blessing.” 

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1898, France) 
Blessed are you.

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!

Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
That blessing ripples through Mary and her child to those who mourn, those who suffer, those who hunger and thirst, and beyond, to all nations, all peoples on earth.
Blessing (makários) describes a position of favor, but literally means “extend,” “make long, make large.”
The blessing of an acorn comes when it extends its roots and branches, reaches out beyond its protective shell, expands into beauty and grace for the multitudes of beetles, bugs and birds that find shelter in its shade.
The blessing of Christmas extends past the womb, the manger, the shelter of Mary’s embrace, to a world at war, a universe in pain. In Christ, we’re told, we receive forgiveness, freedom, mercy, grace.
In Christ we are drawn into fellowship with saints of the past, present, future, into fellowship with men and women of every race and tongue.
Into eternal song with angels and archangels.
I’ve posted before about binarythinking:
Friends/ Enemies
Universal / Particular
Large / Small
Momentary / Eternal
We want life to fall into easy categories: particle or wave.
And we want easy instructions: Hate your enemies. Love your friends.
We recoil from the idea of loving enemies.
We shake off the difficult sayings of Christ: “The first shall be last, the last shall be first.”
“Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”
The instruction manual for our current age is clear.

Keep it simple. 
Grab what you can.
Guard your back.
Build the walls high and watch out for your own.
Grace, forgiveness, compassion are archaic ideas that have no place in a dangerous world like ours.
In the dangerous, tumultuous days of Hitler’s rise to power, when Germany was caught in the grip of racial exclusion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of the implications of Christ's birth in his classic “The Cost of Discipleship”: 
And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack even on the least of men is an attack on Christ, who took the form of man, and in his own Person restored the image of God in all that bears a human form. Through fellowship and communion with the incarnate Lord, we recover our true humanity, and at the same time we are delivered from that individualism which is the consequence of sin, and retrieve our solidarity with the whole human race. By being partakers of Christ incarnate, we are partakers in the whole humanity which he bore. We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate Lord makes his followers the brothers of all mankind.  
Bonhoeffer died in opposition to Hitler's rule, a singular theologian whose reach continues on. 

And Christ’s blessed singularity extends through us as blessing for those most unlike us: Jew or Greek. Atheist or Muslim. Black Lives Matter or White Supremacist. Feminist or Fascist. 

Or that blessing dries up in us and dies, like discarded acorns that fail to grow. Leaving us brittle and small. 


Isolated fragments of an intended whole. 

As I move toward Christmas, I find myself grieving.

This is a dark time of the year.

A dark time in our political process.

A disturbingly dark time in our national narrative.

But light shines in the darkness.

The light of Christ’s love, that blessed singularity, shines in me, through me, taking root, growing strong. 

A radiant extension.

A brilliant beacon of hope and joy, not just for those most like me, but for all the nations and refugees on earth. 
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.
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 increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent Two: Listening in the Desert

John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar, J. J. Tissot, ca 1890, France
The second week of Advent focuses on John the Baptist and his message of preparation: “ Prepare the way of the Lord.” “Repent and be baptized.”

I’ve been hearing about Jesus’s cousin John since I was small, and have heard dozens of sermons focusing on his call to repentance. Yet I’m still stumbling over parts of his story that surprise me, that remind me how little I know of what it means to listen, prepare, repent.

Today’s Gospel reading is from Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

I’m struck, reading it this time, at the precision of Luke’s historical context. John was clearly no mythical character, but a definite man, in a very precise time and place.

More than that, though, he was a man of influence who walked away from his place of privilege. The son of the priest Zechariah (some traditions describe Zechariah as High Priest), he was raised to be a priest himself.

Yet he appeared in the desert, far from his priestly responsibilities and robes, dressed, according to Mark, in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, subsisting on locusts and honey.

Reading those first verses again, I’m struck by an odd, amusing thought: in the reign of all those powerful rulers (Caesar, Tiberias, Herod, Pilate, Philip), in the time of those powerful high priests (Annas and Caiphas) the word of God came to John in the wilderness.

To an unexpected person, in an unexpected place.

That word wilderness. Sometimes it’s translated desert. It’s not a word we associate with Christmas preparation. We like evergreens, candles, ribbons, snow.

Wilderness reminds me of Syria. Yemen. Somalia. Places we’d rather not think of. People we’d prefer to ignore.

And desert.  The UN predicts over 50 million people will be forced to leave their homes by 2020 because their land has turned to desert. Some of those people are pleading their cause in Paris this week at the Global Climate Summit. Many are already on the move, looking for food, for water.

We are halfway through the UN Decade for Deserts(2010-2020), and still many of our US leaders attempt to ignore the loss of arable land, the fossil fuel impacts on fragile ecosystems, the unprecedented displacement of entire populations. 

John’s message was reversal: high places made low, low places made high, crooked ways made straight, rough ways made smooth.

Dry places brought to life again? Flooded lowlands brought back above sea level?

I wonder.

And his message was repentance: repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.

The prescribed Advent reading ends at verse six, but this week I read on to the end of the chapter:

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

It’s puzzling that John leaps so quickly from “repent and be baptized” to “produce fruit in keeping with righteousness.”

Puzzling that the fruit he describes has an economic edge to it:

Share your extra shirts and food.

Don’t collect more taxes than required.

Don’t pad your own pockets at the expense of your neighbor.

Be content with your pay.

I don’t remember hearing that sermon.

Those who heard John and his message chose to go out to the desert.

Turned from their preferred content providers in search of the word of truth.

Listened long enough for their hearts to be moved, their consciences stung, their wills rearranged.

Do we really want to listen?

A word of grief rises from the deserts of our world.
© Hydropolitic Academy, 2014

A cry for peace.

For safety.

For water.

A longing for justice.

For land.

For food.

The voices are hard to hear, drowned out by the Christmas ads, the candidate bluster, the smug repetition of acceptable lies.

Lord, I repent.

Repent of my hardness of heart, my failure to listen.

My collusion in a culture that ignores the cries of the poor.

My complicity in an economic structure always reaching for more.

My small gestures of generosity that fall far short of the enormous divide between privilege and poverty, comfort and despair.

I repent, grieve, and ask, “What should we do?”

What would the fruit of righteousness look like, in this time and place?

What would it mean to share my extra shirts and food with people I will never see?

How will your reversal take place?

Merciful God,
how many John the Baptists,
how many prophets of your light,
have we ignored
because they were not what we were looking for?
How many times have we ignored voices
crying in the wilderness,
"Make straight the way of the Lord."
How many times have we breathed a sigh of relief,
and turned our backs on your messengers,
because they did not speak the message
we expected to hear?
Help us hear anew,
the cry of those who would lead us to Christ.
Tune our ears to your heralds,
that we might also testify to your light. Amen

  (from The Abingdon Worship Annual 2008)

This is the second 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