The Innocents

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When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

I’ve gone back and forth on whether to write on this.  I told myself to wait during the Advent series because it has its own day.  So now that day–the Day of the Holy Innocents or the Massacre of the Holy Innocents–has passed (technically, though I’m still living it) and I’m still hesitating.  

Herod killed babies.  

I am a good writer and I can help you to empathize, if you’ll let me.  I can make connections between things you’ve experienced and what I’m writing about.  

If you haven’t been there, I can’t bring you into having your baby die.  

I lived through darkness when Isaac died.  People asked things of me and spoke to me in ways that made it utterly clear they had no idea what I was going through.  I’d been completely cut off from a world that I had inhabited days before.  I looked the same and they talked to me as if I were the same, but I had gone somewhere else.  I was watching them.  I could hear them, but I no longer lived where they did.  

I remember wanting to spend all my time in cemeteries because only there I didn’t feel this wrenching dissonance between my inner and outer world.  

My son Isaac died of “natural” causes.  His heart started shunting blood three hours into his life, three hours after his birth, and hesurvived five more hours.  We prayed for a miracle.  We waited for the doctors to save him.  We got no miracle.  The doctors asked us if we wanted to hold him before he died.  

In the Bible, a man controlled by his fear and anger, his pride, ego, and need for power, gives a horrific order.  His soldiers don’t question this order.  They don’t object on moral grounds.  They carry it out.  Perhaps some did refuse; we have no record of it.  We have only silence on this and can only speculate.  We can also speculate how carrying out the order to go and butcher babies impacted these men.

 I already addressed the racist undercurrent that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived with every day.  Did the soldiers feel nothing because these were Jewish babies?  Herod had both Jewish soldiers and mercenaries at his command (German, Thracian, and Gallic).  Most likely, he sent a mix of soldiers to carry out this violence. 

Herod himself ordered the murder of many members of his immediate and extended family.  Anyone whom his paranoia led him to suspect, he had killed.  We can conclude that ordering the death of infants in remote villages meant nothing to him.  He heard the Magi asking about a king, he felt threatened and fearful, he investigated, and then decided to be “safe” by having anyone who could possibly threaten him–any baby or toddler with the remotest chance of growing up to be king–annihilated in cold blood.  

I can tell you for certain, though Herod felt nothing over this command–he may have snapped his fingers over his meal and never thought of it again–the mothers and fathers who watched their babies die were never the same.  My child’s death changed me and he received the best medical care available.  These people’s babies died because the people in power cared nothing for them and a man consumed by evil wanted them dead.  Some, I’d bet anything, died trying to protect their children from this insane, unexplained horror.  Would you rather die trying to protect your child or live with that image in your head for the rest of your life?  

It happened. Jesus came to a time and place in history which had such violence and racism and brutality that a man would order the death of children just to protect his own power.  I wish we had more times in history that didn’t describe.  God came into history and suffered with us.  Mary and Joseph fled the murderous king. 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

I would have screamed, “You can send the Messiah through my wife but you can’t protect us from Herod?!?”  But Jesus entered history, Jesus didn’t fix history.  Put another way, Jesus came and gave his life to redeem people, but Jesus didn’t take away people’s free will. so murdering kings went on murdering, including Jesus’ family if the king could.  

The Bible does not whitewash.  Scripture does not pretend that life works perfectly for those who obey God.  If anyone has told you that about following Jesus, I’m sorry, but they lied.  Jesus himself had to flee in the darkness to survive.  Matthew gives the specific detail “took the child and his mother by night.”  Joseph doesn’t wait until daybreak.  They run.  I don’t know how they entered Egypt or where or how they survived there.  Perhaps some Egyptians showed them compassion.  [Edit: My brother-in-law rightly pointed out that the Magi (astrologers) had brought them very valuable and transportable gifts, which undoubtedly helped them survive their time in Egypt. God provided for them, even as they faced the threat of violence. Nonetheless, even with valuables, they still had to be welcomed in and not killed, robbed, or imprisoned in a foreign land.]

I don’t have a neat conclusion or a simple “here’s what we should do” for the massacre of the innocents.  I think it would be wrong to suggest one.  Jesus, by his life, brought out evil in evil people, just as Simeon prophesied he would.  If we follow Jesus, we speak and stand against that evil.  There’s nothing neat or simple about doing so.  It may force us to confront our own friends, community, or even family.  

Following Jesus makes us choose.  

 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”  When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;  and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw that the star had stopped,[g] they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,  and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Advent, Christmas Day: Ruling

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This year, Advent is 23 days long, December 2-24.  So technically, I’m done.  

But I have a few more thoughts I want to share and I’m not very good at following rules, so this will be the final post of my Advent series.  If you’ve read all the way through with me, I’m sincerely grateful.  I hope you felt a little closer to God, experienced a little more peace, or could see Jesus a little clearer through these reflections.  Writing them has done me good.*

We sang “Joy to the World” at the Christmas Eve service we attended tonight.  We’d never been to that church before, all six of us plus five extended family members attended, and I kept thinking how we appeared exactly as once-a-year visitors.  We shared communion, Corin had his first swallow of wine, and his takeaway was, “That’s disgusting.”  I hadn’t thought about it for years, but I told him on our way home that my first mouthful of wine came the exact same way.  I also thought it tasted awful.  No profound symbolism here, just a funny generational coincidence.  

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonder wonders of His love

It doesn’t look like God rules the world.  It looks, from outward appearances, that rich, powerful, and all too often evil people rule the world.  

But God’s ruling the world looks like this: a helpless baby kicks and flails in a cow feeder while his exhausted mother takes a moment to rest.  Then his father stands up to hear who is making all that noise–there isn’t exactly a door to close and lock; they’re in a barn, just a shelter, not a room or a home, not an inn–and honest to God, a group of shepherds come crowding in.  Some are carrying their staffs, others have their rods, none of them have bathed.  They smell worse than the animals.  But their smiles!  What are they laughing about?  Oh, because a baby is in a manger?  No–because they were told a baby would be in a manger by…by what?  By a cloud of angels?  So these are drunk shepherds?

Nope.  Happy shepherds.  Joyful shepherds.  God’s rule looks exactly thus: helpless looking baby who is Messiah, exhausted teenage mom who carried God incarnate in her body, smelly, sometimes drunk guys barging in to celebrate the wonders of His love.

He rules the world with a heavy hand and cold justice?  

No.  He rules with the world with truth and grace.

I think we have to understand two things in order to believe God rules the world with truth and grace.  

First, the acknowledged human power structures of the world must not be the most important things happening on planet earth.  If God really rules this world with truth and grace, then it’s in spite of appearances that God is in power and, in fact, carrying out his rule right now.  

I believe that.  We call it “God’s Kingdom” and “God’s reign.”  

God has chosen not to rule the world through the human-designed power structures.  If you believe in Jesus’ Advent, this seems obvious.  God in the flesh did not come and take power.  Satan tempted him to and Jesus said “no.”  

God right now is ruling the world with truth and grace, and Jesus incarnates both.  Jesus is truth (he says so, actually: “I am the way, the truth, and the life”) and his death and resurrection for us are grace.  

The miracle I want you to believe for Christmas is that this baby came to give you grace with his very life.  As for that keeping score of how much good or bad you’ve done, God says, “Naw, let’s not do that.  Instead, I will love you and work good through all the bad things.  Yes, all of them.  Yes, I know how bad they are.  What do I want in return?  I want you to stop killing yourself.” 

Crazy, huh?  How do I know this?  

Um, God told me.  

I know, that part’s crazy, too.  But think of me as the equivalent of these shepherds–an unlikely source for this message, an improbable choice for God to make a witness to Jesus. Yet here I am, only by the grace of God.  

Okay, first thing we understand: “God is not ruling through the established power structures.”  Turns out God’s M.O. is quite different.  Truth and grace are the undercurrent, through which God does the most important stuff, the Kingdom business, even though this isn’t always visible to the naked, unspiritual eye. Lord, give us eyes to see. 

Second, in the end truth and grace will have the final say.  God rules the world through a Kingdom present in our world–miracles happening every day, evil people experiencing love and choosing life over death–but not yet fully present.  By “not fully present” I mean Jesus is God and Messiah and Lord, but not everyone acknowledges those.  Believing is seeing. When God makes this Kingdom fully present, fully manifest in our world, all will know because all will see.  

Some people love the idea that God will come back and make his enemies grovel.  “They’ll get theirs!”  

I love that when God comes back–misnomer, God didn’t leave–when Jesus in fullness defeats death, this will happen:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

God’s grace, of which we have just begun to grasp the first hint, will fill our world.  

That’s Christmas: God’s plan in motion to fill our world with grace, to love enemies and help them recognize themselves as beloved children.

Sorry–to love us and help us recognize ourselves as beloved children.

Then, as we grasp who we are, Jesus leads us out to love others: dirty children, unwanted expectant mothers, and would-be enemies.  

“And wonders of his love, and wonders of his love, and wonders, wonders of his love.”

Go, tell that on the mountain.  

Merry Christmas!

 

*Cost me sleep, yes, but I might have squandered that on things of much less lasting value.    

 

 

Advent, Day 23: Intent

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If you’ve read the last couple Advent posts, you will have more context for what I’m saying here.  But you can also get this on its own.  

I’ve been wondering what Jesus was thinking when he arrived.  

In this series, I’ve been imagining and trying to recreate the experience for lots of folks: Mary, those deciding whether to take Mary in, the Shepherds, those astrologers we call “Wise Men,” and Zechariah, among others.  

What did Jesus think as he arrived? That’s a mystery beyond my capacity.  No one knows what infants think nor exactly how that works.  The incarnate God infant?  Definitely next step mysterious and unknowable.  

I remember my father-in-law (a wonderful, kind-hearted man*) many times lovingly watching my baby daughter and commenting, “How does all this look to her?  What’s she thinking about us?”

The difference between our babies and Jesus, the difference between any other child and Jesus, is that Jesus chose to enter human life.  If Jesus just happened to come as a poor Jewish baby who would soon become a political refugee fleeing his nation’s murderous leader, that would be pitiable.  But I believe God chose to come in this specific place and time, to face this suffering and identify with those who suffer the same.  

I think Jesus knows and understands me, but Jesus did not choose to be born in the U.S. Midwest to middle class parents in a small city of a rural community.  God did not choose to identify with that social position.  I consider the position Jesus chose enormously important when Jesus begins his ministry in Luke with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”  Jesus chose poverty and powerlessness–Jesus the Almighty Creator to whom everything belonged and in whom every living thing existed.

I can’t tell you what Jesus thought as a baby but I can tell you something of Jesus’ intention in becoming a baby.  

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”

 “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.”

“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”

One of the impenetrable mysteries of our faith is when Jesus became conscious of his identity, when he gained full awareness of his mission, and how much he knew.  If he experienced life as a human being does–which I believe–then he did not open his eyes the very first time outside Mary’s womb and know all things.  But of course, Jesus experienced life as a human similarly yet very differently than we do.**

But we know this: Jesus came to make things better for us.  Jesus made himself poor to identify with the poor.  Jesus chose a family that would become refugees so the he, too, would know what it is to be a refugee.  These were not accidents but intentions on his part.  He didn’t have an adoption with a wealthy, comfortable family all set up but it fell through.  Jesus chose a life in which he would face racism and prejudice, in which his mother would be told there was no room for her, no comfort and safety even for his birth.  

Jesus chose this specific life to complete his work.  I infer that means he could best offer us life abundantly, be our light and bring us out of darkness, bear witness to the truth, and proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom as a child of poverty.   His experience, his suffering, his lower class upbringing were integral to being our Messiah.  

That’s wild to me.  God so loved the world that he gave his only son in exactly these conditions.  Jesus was born into poverty and  an object of racism and brought light into that darkness.  Jesus was rescued by his parents from politically-motivated murder (a king fearing for his throne and killing babies to keep power is political, through and through) and they fled with him to another country and in this Jesus bears witness to the truth.  

From the lower class–and believe me, the power elite in Israel noticed it and commented on it–Jesus proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God.  

Today, this Advent, celebrate that Jesus loves you!  Celebrate that Jesus brought–brings!–light into your darkness. Celebrate that Jesus bears witness to truth for us.  Rejoice that we are offered life abundantly, rejoice that we know the good news of God’s kingdom and Jesus invites us to partner in that Kingdom with him!  

Then explore what all these things mean to us in the context of Jesus’ words and life.  

The baby came–“For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us”–to grow into a man who would say to us:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

 

*Don’t worry that I’m saying these things about him; he won’t find out.  

**For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus experienced temptation as we do but didn’t sin as we do, which makes his experience pretty different than mine.  Plus, the power he had and the miracles he performed as an adult were far outside my life experience.  

Advent, Day 21: Racism

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Short and sweet tonight.  Yes, I promise.

Well, short anyway…

 

Jesus wasn’t white.  Jesus was not a white baby with blue eyes and blond hair.  Mary was not a fair-skinned teenage model.  These things I know for certain.  I doubt the angels were giant, muscular Aryan youth.  And as long as we’re at it, Santa Claus, about whom these Advent reflections are not, is Turkish and not caucasian, if he exists at all.  

I consider a white baby Jesus a symptom of imagining the world resembles us, of remaking everything in our image.  It’s not surprising that we see all the world as if it were just like us.  

A few days ago, someone asked on a Facebook post concerning the refugees seeking asylum from Honduras and Guatemala, “Why didn’t they find out the laws before they came to the United States?”

That would be a reasonable question if everyone in the world were just like us.  Could I do some research, sitting here in my comfortable home on my couch, listening to both the dishwasher and the dryer running, looking at the lights on my Christmas tree:  Could I do a thorough search to learn the immigration or asylum laws of Mexico or Honduras or Guatemala, if I was going in that direction?  I could.  I have two post-secondary degrees.  I have a computer and constant internet connection.  I know how to find accurate government information and how to filter out false information. 

What if I were illiterate?  What if never sent to school because my family needed me to make money?  What if someone had shot at my child today? What if the neighbors had their house burned down while they were inside?  What if I have no car or cell phone or refrigerator or microwave, much less a computer and a modem to provide wi-fi?  What if, in my fear and desperation, I started asking people how to flee the country and I got many different stories of people’s relatives or acquaintances or someone they’d heard about who left and now lives comfortably far from the crimes and violence here?  

What if a man heard we were looking for a way out and came to my house the day after my neighbors’ house burned, while the ashes are still blowing around my doorway and I can smell the smoke stronger than I can smell the baby I’m holding, and this stranger tells me he heard I was looking for a way out and for $200 he can get me and my children to safety.  He says he’s helped people out before, he knows a safe route, he has connections with the guards at the US border.  What if all my life I’ve experienced that if someone has connections with the right guards or police or officials and slips them a little money, the restrictions go away?  

White baby Jesus and the person’s comment have this in common: they assume that one’s own experience is the normative experience.  

Baby Jesus experienced racism.  Adult Jesus experienced racism.  Whipped, beaten, spat upon and crucified Jesus experienced racism.  He was not white.  He was Jewish.  He was Jewish in a country in which Romans held the power and gave the power to whomever they chose.  The Jews who held power in Roman-occupied Israel were largely those who would cooperate with their invaders.  They were people who liked having power over their fellow countrymen and didn’t mind appearing traitorous.  

What does racism have to do with Advent?  Why were Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem?  Their home was in Nazareth of Galilee.  They went because Emperor Caesar Augustus wanted more money from the people he controlled, the colonies he ruled, so that he could pay for his empire, keep up a huge army, and continue to control and rule and expand.  Verse one of Luke chapter two is not a benign historical detail.  It implies suffering leveled against people who had no power.  Is it not inherently racist for one people to decide they should conquer and subjugate another?  Or does might simply make right?  As followers of Jesus, we don’t believe that God desires people to hate, own, or control people of other races.  

A main reasons always cited for the American Revolutionary War is Taxation without represenation.  If you search on Google “Taxation” the first prompt is “Without Representation.”  The colonists considered that, and the subsequent failed efforts to negotiate with Great Britain, sufficient reason to start a war of independence.  That’s taught in every United States history book in the U.S. (Britain’s history books may teach it differently) and we celebrate the Fourth of July every year to commemorate winning that war.  Independence Day.

Mary, a Jewish teenager, was traveling while pregnant, childbirth imminent, because a foreign Emperor, leading a people who looked down on Jews, demanded more taxes from his Jewish colony.  How much representation in the Roman Senate do you think the Jews had?  

I have purposed in this series to 1)connect Jesus’ birth and all we call Advent to the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, and 2)re-root the Nativity as a real world historical event.  I don’t consider this a fairy story that happened in a magic snow globe.  Jesus was a little Jewish boy.  If that makes us uncomfortable, we have missed a crucial understanding of our faith.  

A white baby Jesus is a symptom that we do not know our Bible, that we have rooted our faith not in history but in cultural fantasy.  I’m not being PC here, I’m keeping our faith rooted in history. In the Incarnation God chose to root the Trinity within our physical and chronological space: God took on a certain body at a precise moment in time.  

That body was Jewish and in that moment, the Jews were an oppressed people experiencing racism.  Into this world God chose to enter.  That is our faith.  

Advent, Day 20: Faithfulness

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[Simeon en Anna, Jan van’t Hoff]

I’m going to tell you some truth tonight, the best I know how.  

Writing this series has gotten harder.  I’m not telling you that to get you to say it’s good.  I’m telling you that to help explain what I’m talking about.  

A good friend affirmed me for keeping up this series, saying, “You’ve written it for two weeks in a row.  I don’t do anything besides get out of bed for two weeks in a row.”  I know what he meant and took it as a genuine compliment.  

Writing it has felt a bit like composing twenty sermons in a row.  I don’t often do that.  No, I’ve never done that.  When I do write a sermon, usually I preach that sermon, which wipes me out, and then I’m done for a while. I don’t turn around and write another and another.  Plus, preaching is a different experience than writing.  I’ve often said I experience God most when I’m preaching.  Writing…sometimes.  

I’ve wanted to stop this series, or skip a night (no, of course I didn’t write any of this ahead of time and yes, of course, I’m staying up late each night to write them), because I’m worn out.  I’ve had several people tell me they enjoy it or even that it’s helping, but I’m certain the world will turn still and people will go on and know God even if I stop.  

But when I started, I felt like I was to write all the way through Advent, and I am.  It’s costing me.  If you aren’t a writer, that might sound like, “I have to show up for work twenty-four whole days in a row.”  If you are a writer, you probably know the skirmish going on inside me that makes this hard.  

I haven’t gotten to that truth yet.  It’s coming.  

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Jesus’ parents were poor; they offered the sacrifice allowed for people living in poverty.  This isn’t the sacrifice everyone makes, but the one people make who could afford only two young pigeons.  It’s a critical detail to understand the story.  

Then this happened:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God,

We don’t know how long Simeon waited for the Messiah to arrive in the Temple.  We infer a very long time.  Simeon was a righteous and devout man, which turns out to be not that common of a description of people in the Bible, if you read through it.  How many can you list?  Yes, there are some, but not many.  The Holy Spirit rested on him.  Guess what?  Very few got that description.  Not only did Simeon have the Holy Spirit upon him, the Holy Spirit had informed him of something very specific.  That itself stands out, that God let him know the future, in a manner of speaking.  Not all the circumstances, but Simeon knew what would happen.  It did.  

A poor couple walked into the Temple and it happened.  Simeon saw the Lord’s Messiah.  In his flesh he saw God, whom he saw on his side, and his eyes beheld, and not another.  God’s Spirit had told him this would happen and God’s Spirit told him when it happened.  “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the Temple…”  Simeon identifies this baby distinct from all the other babies in Jerusalem and speaks forth a prophecy, then tells Mary a personal prophecy, as well. 

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

I’ve speculated with friends at what age Anna got married.  So have Bible scholars.  Conservatively, if she got married at 17, she’s been in the Temple for sixty years.  Simeon prophesies but is not described as a prophet; Anna is.  She lives in the Temple and fasts and prays night and day.  We’re impressed with her, but she would have been no one then, no power, no wealth, not one of the priestly class, no official role in the Temple.  Did God’s Spirit lead her directly to identify Jesus, or did God tell her indirectly through hearing Simeon’s declaration?  She didn’t have to be told to go the Temple.  God chose her as one of two witnesses to Jesus.  

Simeon says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word…”  I’ve tried to imagine what it would take in my life for me to feel ready to tell God, “Okay, I’m good.  All is complete for me now.  I can go.”*  

Simeon tells us it’s this:  “…for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
      a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

What would that take for you? Anna simply joins in, glorifying God and telling people who hoped for Messiah, “Look, here.  Right here.”  

We don’t know more about either Anna or Simeon.  They testified to who Jesus was.  That’s the part both play in this wondrous drama, the task God gave them, their partnership in God’s Kingdom.  Why?  

From all I can see, they were faithful. 

They showed up.  

They watched years and years, decades of Roman occupation.  They saw corrupt kings, hypocritical high priests, evil priests claiming to be righteous.  They saw much to discourage them that God would follow through.  

They kept showing up.  

They did what they knew God had given them, what they knew to be right.  They spent time with God.  They lived their faith, every day. For perhaps half a century, perhaps seventy years.  Every day.  I doubt they were perfect.  I suspect they had doubts.  But they showed up and kept acting on what they knew, what they had seen, how they believed God led them.  

When the time came, they trusted God enough that they did not question about a poor family carrying an outwardly unremarkable baby.  They didn’t rationalize away the nudge they felt from God.  (Have you ever done that and then wondered afterward, “Wait, was that God?” I know I have.)  Simeon looked at this baby, going only on the inner tug he felt from God, and said, “Okay, I’m ready to die now.  My life is complete.”  

Faithfulness is showing up.  Faithfulness is continuing to do right, to do what God has taught you, even when that looks ridiculous.  Even when everyone around you seems to be explaining that you misunderstood, that “this is why it’s okay to ignore those things in our current situation,” faithfulness means continuing to walk with God.  

Does it matter to anyone if I complete this series?  Maybe not.  But I think God said to, and I haven’t heard much direction from God lately, so I’m going to.  

To be faithful, we have to overcome, or simply keep disbelieving, the voice that says, “It’s not that big of a deal.  You’ve done good enough.  Nobody’s perfect.”  It gets doubly tricky because sometimes we’ve taken on things God never gave us, sometimes we are trying to keep a law we made for ourselves, and how are we to tell the difference?  What if God is saying, “Let it go.  Don’t be a legalist.  Enjoy my freedom.  My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  

Faithfulness turns out to be a crucial part of grace, because grace tells us we don’t have to be perfect, we don’t have to achieve, we don’t have to be high caliber or capable.  We just have to try.  We just have to show up.  God is pleased with our effort to use whatever gifts we have, whatever ability, great or small, and whatever strength we’re given.  When we say “God judges the heart” we mean this.  

What is faithfulness in a failing marriage?  What is faithfulness when the people around you are doing evil, or cheering for evil, and you are powerless to stop them?  What is faithfulness to love a parent who no longer recognizes you or a child who only resents you?  

Anna was a widow for a very long time.  We get only a snippet of her life, literally the best day of her life.  She had bad days, maybe rough years.  She kept showing up.

Time for that truth.  I feel empty a lot.  Something is missing, something hurts more than I can (or will) allow myself to look at straight on for more than a few moments at a time.  Maybe I’m burnt out from seven years in Nicaragua. Maybe I’m still suffering reverse culture-shock and loss from leaving a country that fell into violence and chaos just as we said “Goodbye.”  Maybe there are other losses that I’m grieving that I can’t even speak.  

I’m not telling you this seeking pity or “fishing for compliments,” as my dad used to say.  

Writing takes courage because you risk rejection, indifference, and realizing that you’ve poured time and effort into something that didn’t matter to anyone.  The more you open up and pour yourself into the work, the greater that risk.  

It’s a lot like relationships.  

Here, then, faithfulness matters the most.  

If what matters most are results, then the wiser (or more prudent) decision may be not to try.  If it’s either succeed or fail, and only the bottom line counts, I’d recommend trying only if you can be pretty darned sure you’ll pull it off.  

But faithfulness works differently.  Faithfulness means my relationship with God makes the risk worthwhile, because even if I fail, what God does in me and through me means more.  Following Jesus gives me a different bottom line. I can’t see what happens through my faithfulness, probably ever.  I can only trust that if God tells me to try, it’s worth trying.  

So we show up.  

Like Anna and Simeon.  

 

*This is very different than “Oh, God, just come back or make it end already, I can’t take any more.  In a sense, this is the opposite, not “I can take no more” but “This is all I desire and I want nothing more.”

Advent, Day 19: Zechariah

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[Alexander Ivanov, “Archangel Gabriel Struck Zechariah Mute”]

Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Zechariah begins the story.  Verses 1-4 in Luke chapter one are prologue, introduction, a fascinating expression of Luke’s direct voice (the only time he says “I” meaning himself throughout the Gospel).  But the story itself begins with “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah…”  We meet him first, the first character Luke introduces.  That means his part of the story also sets the tone for what we will read.  

Zechariah’s part of the story is my favorite.  Of course I love the birth of Jesus from a saved-my-soul-rescued-me-from-myself standpoint, but in terms of story,* I love this the most.  

Can you guess why?  

Zechariah doubts.  He voices his doubts.  He receives consequences (as we used to say in parenting) for expressing his doubts to an angel–yet Zechariah’s doubts do not disqualify him.  In fact, Zechariah’s part in the unfolding wonder becomes more wonderful.  I’m not sure he felt that way.  

Look at this with me:  Zechariah is a priest.  He lives by God’s word, he obeys God’s law to his utmost ability.  He is an old man who has served God in the temple all his life.  He and Elizabeth have been married a very long time.  They have no children and he does not know why; he has prayed for a child and received no answer from God.  

That’s Zechariah’s life.  “Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.  Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.” Still a normal day’s work for a priest.  

Business as usual.  

“Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” Normal ends here.  Of course Zechariah believes; Zechariah has dedicated his life to living his beliefs, to serving God and God’s people.  But there is believing by faith (“and why is my wife barren, anyway?”) and then there is seeing an angel. 

“When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.”  As we’ve seen, everyone’s appropriate response to seeing an angel:  “Aaaah!”  Why do angel’s always start with “Do not be afraid?”  Because they’ve come to bring messages and their human recipients cannot receive those messages until they snap out of their stupor.  

But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’”

We learn about the plan right here.  We don’t yet know what “prepared for the Lord” means or who this Lord for whom their preparing will be, but we know who John will be, how it will impact him and Elizabeth, and even the role his child will play in the world.  Most parents know nothing of the kind before their child is conceived.  The angel just laid out not only news that Zechariah will become a dad but his baby’s gender and, oh yeah, his ministry.  “With the spirit and power of Elijah” would especially trumpet in a priest’s ear. 

Zechariah, normal, childless priest, married to a faithful but barren woman, a shameful position in Jewish culture, stands in the temple face to face with one that terrifies him by its very being and then hears of wonders that will happen to him, through him, in answer to his prayer!  

“How will I know that this is so?”

Oh, my gosh, this is priceless!  

Zechariah went from being too stunned to speak to finding his tongue for these words.  “How am I to be sure this is true?”  Or better yet, “What sign will you give me to prove this to me?”  

What?  

You mean like the angel standing in front of you, delivering a prophecy about how God has heard your plea and is about to change not only your life but your people’s history?  A sign like that?  

“How will I know this is so?”

I want you to understand, beloved reader, that I delight in Zechariah’s response not out of perverse pleasure in his lack of faith.  No.  I can summarize it in a single word, a word one of my daughters has taken to saying recently to describe watching others struggle:  relatable.

“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”  Wow.  In this moment, Zechariah’s negative faith in his and Elizabeth’s sterility outweighs his belief that a God who would send an angel to him might also give him a child.  I believe Zechariah has prayed for this child again and again, year after year.  When we see Elizabeth’s response to her pregnancy–“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people”–we grasp how much she suffered.  I’m conjecturing here, but I think we see Zechariah’s heart shown through his fervent, relentless prayer. Zechariah watched his wife’s anguish–a woman would be both blamed and devalued for being barren–and kept at God.  God sent the angel to Mary to foretell Jesus, but to Zechariah for John.  “God heard your prayer.”

Instead of “Wow!” or “Praise God!” or even “I’m a bit overwhelmed and trying to process what you’ve said,” Zechariah responds with “How will I know that this is so?”  

And it’s wonderfully, laughably relatable, right?  I can pray for decades, maybe half a century for a miracle, but when it comes, I doubt.  I can live my life daily demonstrating that I believe these things, I can shape my life choices around my faith, but at the same time am I really sure?  It makes me laugh, but not a judgmental laugh.  At all. No, only empathy here.  

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

I’m not going to delve deep into angelology here, but a couple things: we understand angels to carry out God’s will, always.  They obey.  I have no idea how much leeway God gives them within that–do they always know exactly what God wills?  But Gabriel seems ticked.  Did God tell Gabriel, “If you encounter any doubt, go ahead and take Zechariah’s voice for, oh, nine or ten months?”  Was it more Gabriel’s idea?  

This is who I am, this is what I do, and this is why I’m here.  By the way, what I told you will happen.  You just won’t be able to say anything until it does.  

And that, according to Scripture, is the end of the conversation between Gabriel and Zechariah.  

“Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary.  When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.  When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

Remember, inside the Temple life has veered away from normal, but outside the people have no idea that something unusual is happening.  Zechariah comes back out and oh, now he can’t speak.  He was speaking fine when he walked in.  He’s gesticulating wildly, this elderly, steadfast priest.  Something happened in there.  Something happened to Zechariah.  He saw something.  

“When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”  So wonderfully matter of fact.  Life, completely not usual, does go on, his work ends, and he goes home. 

What communication takes place between Elizabeth and Zechariah?  I had a young adult suggest that Zechariah wrote her notes to explain.  Perhaps, though the likelihood that Elizabeth could read and write was very low in a culture that had few literate and did not value educating women.  

Of course, Zechariah’s condition looks like a punishment, a “consequence” of his doubts. But on another level, did not the angel give him that much more certainty?  You walk out of the temple still terrified and in awe.  By the next morning, in the bright light of day, or by the time you got back home with the sheer familiarity of routine and the commonplace of your own possessions, couldn’t you convince yourself you imagined it?  Wishful thinking?  Maybe you fell asleep and had a fanciful dream?  

Nope.  Every time you open your mouth, every time you try to use your vocal chords, you know its true.  

And come on, for relatable: How much did Zechariah go over this conversation in his head?  Do you think he spent any time in the next ten months pondering, “So I could have said…”  I’m sitting here laughing, because how much do I spin such questions in my head over interactions that are of little or no consequence.  

Do you get why I love this?  

But then look ahead in chapter 1 of Luke.  The baby arrives.  “Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”  Zechariah still doesn’t speak!  Is he freaking out?  Or has he now become so sure of what God has done that he can wait patiently?**  Very soon, eight days from now, Zechariah will find his tongue–will be given back use of his tongue–and will burst forth immediately praising God.  We’ll leave Zechariah’s prophecy as a reflection for some other day.  

 

So what do we learn from Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel?  

Did I mention I love this?  

God didn’t choose a man who would never doubt–Zechariah doubted to Gabriel’s (glowing) face.  

God didn’t cut Zechariah off for doubting.  He gave him a consequence that both cost Zechariah and reinforced to Zechariah that God would do exactly as promised.

We live by faith.  Even looking an angel who stands in the presence of God right in the eye, we choose whether to believe or doubt. 

Praying is an act of faith, even the most doubting prayer.  Just because we’ve prayed for something a million times doesn’t mean we believe it will happen.  And God knows that and sometimes answers the prayer, anyway!  

These are not absolutes.  I mean, we might take away as a principle: If an angel appears to you and tells you wondrous news in answer to your prayer, when you regain your wits, start with “Thanks!”  

But I believe Zechariah was a great man of prayer and a faithful servant of God who doubted.  For speaking his doubt, Zechariah suffered yet perhaps grew even closer to God, and certainly came through on the other side not embittered but joyful, spilling over with God’s spirit.  

There are things in our lives that we make bigger than what we believe God can do.  “God can send an angel, but God can’t make me able to father a child at this age.”  

Finally, it makes me laugh to realize that Gabriel actually answered Zechariah’s question:  

This is how you will know it is so.  

This will remind you, every day and each minute, that what I said will come to pass. 

God did not merely answer Zechariah’s prayer, but made the answer part of Incarnation.  God’s answer frames our Advent.  

I love this.  

 

*I want to be clear, when I use “story” here, I do not mean to imply fiction.  I believe these events occurred in history, just as my writing this and your reading it.  I mean “story” as the narrative of God’s entrance into our world in human form.  The Bible is the story of God’s love and redemption.  

**”But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”  Romans 8:25

 

 

Advent, Day 18: Shepherds

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Agam left the next morning.  

If you knew our history, you would think this would not move me.

Agam was the youngest of us and the loudest.  I had worked these hills for twenty years.  I did not expect that a new boy would obey my every word.  But we must work together and some things cannot be allowed.

A few years before Agam, a young fool named Chanan tried stealing from us.  When we are out on the hills, we are closer to nowhere than somewhere.  Chanan stole some money, several shekels, from us. He did not choose only one or he might have gotten away with it.  He gathered all the money he could find. Did he think we never check?  He denied it, so we searched his things and found nothing.  But we knew.  He seemed not to understand that there were no other suspects.  He was the first new worker in three years and in less than a week we have a thief among us?  

I broke his arm.  He was lucky I left it at that, since I knew I was only sending him out to work the Jericho road or worse.  Who needs more of them, I ask you?  But neither did I want his blood on my head.  I never thought the Almighty accounted us for much, but murderers?  The shame that would bring my mother!

As for Agam, he knew everything I knew the first day he joined us.  When I tried to explain our cooking schedule, our washing routine, he stared through me.  Any words I said about shearing or guarding or feeding meant nothing to him.  I am not a pious man, but the great King Solomon said, “Listen and you will be counted wise.  Stop listening and you will stray from knowledge.” 

So I left Agam to make his mistakes, which he did without my help or interference.  I stepped in only when he thought to mock old Erez.  Erez came to the flocks twenty years before I did and he taught me everything, patiently.  My father had instilled in me the cost of speaking out of turn, but I am certain I was headstrong and foolish even when silent.  Erez never reminded me of my many mistakes.  He only repeated, “I have learned from the Master and from the sheep.  What I have is yours.”  

Our life does not make following the ceremonial laws easy.  Erez himself always said, “You can be clean or you can be a shepherd.”  But Erez was the most righteous man I have known in my years upon the earth.  He would greet each day with praise and end each night thanking the Almighty.

Therefore, when Agam chose to imitate Erez’s painful gait, to hunch his shoulders into a “u” and speak in whispers and wavers, and worst of all to gasp between words, I felt the strength flood up through my legs, into my chest, and flow through my hands.  Yes, he mighty Solomon said much about angering slowly.  But he also told us to to punish a mocker, that the simple might learn prudence.  I broke none of Agam’s bones.  But his limp was no longer pretend.  

Erez did not grow angry at Agam for his mockery, but served the young man his meal first–a right accorded to Erez as eldest among us–the whole time Agam was recovering.  I might have counted that as rebuke, except that the day I punished Agam was also the evening Erez first invited me to join him in his prayers.  

Erez remained in camp all that day because his breathing grows worse.  We insisted and he did not protest, which tells me more than I wish to know. That day, we took the sheep to the water and followed our typical routine.  

Typical.  

We light the fires at day’s end.  Attacks happen most at night, so we surround our camp with the tangled thorns to create a barrier.  We take turns sleeping and at least two of us stay awake through every watch.  Erez insisted that he would watch through the night because he made no contribution during the day.  I could feel Agam straining to answer, but he held his tongue.  He was learning.  I ask nothing more than that.  

Erez and I recited our prayers after our meal, before he settled in to keep watch.  I laid down, weary from the day, and closed my eyes.  

I do not expect you to believe what happened next.  In your place, I would not.  “Shepherds drink heavily.  Everyone knows that,” I can hear them say.  They know all about our lives, those who have never passed a single night as we do every night.  

I could see light with my eyes closed.  I first thought I had blinked and slept and morning had come.  When I opened my eyes, the light became so bright I could see nothing.  But I could hear.  Oh, I could hear.  

I will not tell you of that night. Many have asked.  They do not believe us and they ask so that they may laugh.  I will say again, I understand. Solomon gave us this counsel, which I have told everyone who wants to hear my telling of it: “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.”  I do not tell the story.  I am not pious.

But I will tell you these few things: 

I went to see.  And I did see.  

When I rose to pray with Erez the next morning, extra early in spite of the long night, I found him, sitting propped up against his favorite tree with his face in the sun.  His head was bowed, his warm cap in his hands as he always held it to pray, squeezing it tightly between his bent fingers.  He died that night or that morning, I know not which.  

Agam came to me, his pack over his shoulder.  

“I have to go,” he said.  “I must find out.”  

He put his hand on my shoulder as if we were old friends.  Perhaps now we were.  

I am old.  Twenty years passing since that night have made me eldest.  

Every morning I remember what I heard and greet the day with praise.  Each night I remember what I saw and give thanks.  

Advent, Day 17: Astrologers

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Why did God work through astrologers?  

We call them “Magi.”  Sometimes, as in songs, we call them “kings.”  Often we show them in Nativity scenes, which is probably historically inaccurate because it’s most likely they showed up long after Jesus’ birth.  “Magi” is the plural for “magus.”  We feel a lot more comfortable calling them “wise men” than the other synonyms for “Magus.”  Magician.  Sorcerer.

We often depict a big, shiny star, straight up over Bethlehem, in fact strategically directly overhead from the barn where Mary gave birth to Jesus.  Oddly, only three travelers on camels noticed that thing and they just kept riding those camels until they were right under the star–because that’s how star-gazing works, looking up in the sky.  Sometimes I’m a few miles off of being right under the Big Dipper, but if I get on my camel and ride a ways, I can get myself lined up again.  

It’s kinda silly, right?  I think if we stop and give it thought, if we are believing in a biblical reality and not a Precious Moments(tm) version of Jesus’ birth, we know that our popularized view of the wise men is off.  I believe we choose that version, however, because the version from Scripture makes us profoundly uncomfortable.  

God led astrologers, through their study of the stars, to see Jesus.  

Yep.  

 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.

Was there a special star? Or was one of the stars shining unusually brightly?  Was the star somehow “moving” (implied with its having “stopped”), differently than we ordinarily understand stars to work? I have no problem believing any of those.  But none of them remove the question at hand, because only these three were studying the stars and deduced that this star meant something.  What did they think it meant?  They said: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising.”  We observed his star at its rising.  Do you associate certain stars with people? With newborn babies?  With a newborn baby you’ve never seen or heard of before whom somehow you deduce will be king?  

I don’t either.  But they did.  Because they were astrologers.  

I’ve probably used my full share of sarcasm already this post, so I’ll just say it straight from here:  God chose three men who practiced astrology, not a belief system the Christian church endorses, to come see and worship the child Jesus.  God used their belief in astrology, which many of us would call a false belief, to bring them to this encounter.  Why did God do that?  Were they extremely righteous, godly astrologers?  Maybe.  Scripture doesn’t say that, so let’s be honest and admit that’s speculation, but they might have been.  They were from “the East,” which means they must have come from at least east of Bethlehem and were almost certainly a different nationality and culture than Israel.  I find it fascinating that many Nativity sets that have Jesus as blond and blue-eyed manage to make the Wise Men clearly not caucasian.  (Nope, not sarcasm. That does fascinate me.)  

The conclusion I draw about the astrologers may make you uncomfortable: God gets to do whatever God wants.  God reaches people through astrology.  It’s biblical.  God made the stars.  If God wants to use people’s study of the stars to lead them to Jesus, God can.  If I’m offended by that, then I’m offended that God doesn’t play by my rules.  But here, so you can’t miss it, is the point I’m trying to make:

God. Doesn’t. Play. By. My. Rules.

C.S. Lewis wrote: 

“…My idea of God is a not divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?..”

God loves people more than I love them and more than I understand that God loves them.  My idea of God is always faulty because it always falls short.

God’s grace is greater than I ever fathom it is.  No matter how great I believe God’s grace to be, it’s actually greater than that.  

Jesus said, in another of his discomfort-causing statements, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you…”*  I’m sending astrologers to worship the Messiah and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom before you.  Oh, and a thief on the cross will see Jesus in paradise for saying, “Remember me.”  God could work through poor people or refugees or beggars or lepers or demon-possessed or Samaritans or dead people or women or tax collectors or revolutionaries or…you.

When the disciples got upset that folks who weren’t legit disciples were trying to do disciple stuff, it went like this:  “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.”

I believe Jesus loves me, but I don’t believe God particularly cares about my God rules.  God is absolutely committed to our transformation; God is not committed to our comfort.  

I’ve come to believe that is good and even come to embrace it, which doesn’t keep me from kicking up against it once in a while.

Why did God work through astrologers?

As my friend John and I often remind each other:

It’s God’s Kingdom; I just work here.  

 

*Full context:  “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.  Matthew 21:28-32

 

 

 

Advent, Day 14: Truth

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As I write these reflections each day, I’ve been wondering about all the different people around the periphery of this story.  

What did Mary’s mother think?  

Did she believe Mary?  

It’s your own daughter, telling the most outlandish tale you’ve ever heard.  Is she telling the truth?  

I wrote a novel, a sub-theme of which explored a character’s experience of being believed when she lied and called a liar when she told the truth.  At that point, the question is no longer “what is true” but what the person hearing has decided is the truth…which turns out to be something different altogether.  

People choose, when presented with information that contradicts  their understanding of reality, whether to change their understanding or deny the information.  A harsh example is how, when told of a tragedy, most, will say, “No.”  Perhaps we won’t respond to a distant tragedy this way, but, verbally or non-verbally, initially we react to the unexpected death of someone we love by refusing it as fact.  In the face of certain truth, we scream “No!”  I think we would go on screaming, “No!” except that evidence overpowers us.  

When I’ve made up my mind about something, which is to say when I have closed my mind to further information or further evidence, I will use whatever information comes my way to strengthen my position.  I realized this, almost as an epiphany, near the end of seminary (which felt a little late in the game).  Rather than looking at all sides of different theological issues, I had developed the habit of learning for the sake of reinforcing my arguments.  I certainly wasn’t alone in this habit, but I felt convicted that this was a poor approach to theology and, I realize now, an approach rooted in fear.  

What if I’m wrong about some things?  What if I’m wrong about some central beliefs that I hold?  

Often, the response to that is, “Well, I can’t be, because I believe what the church believes, I believe what the Bible says, and these beliefs are central to our faith.  Therefore, I could not be mistaken.”  

Yet, if we’re brave, we admit to ourselves that people have been wrong, over and over, not just a smidgen wrong but wholeheartedly, singlemindedly, unreservedly wrong.  When we do pluck up our courage and look at this, for some reason we are also able to place ourselves in a different category from “those people” who believed so wrongly.  

I’m fifty years old.  When I was born, people still taught–pastors still taught–that God designed segregation between whites and blacks.  Only a blatant racist would state that aloud today, but in my lifetime, we have gone from teaching that belief to teaching that belief is wrong.  In those years, people trying to worship God  in a congregation with blacks and whites together were considered to be rebelling against God.  

That, of course, is someone else, someone not nearly as enlightened as we are, and it couldn’t happen to us because…because…we’re so enlightened now.  

I don’t know whether Mary’s mother believed Mary or not.  As we noted, Elizabeth believed Mary because Elizabeth had experienced her own crazy, ground-shaking miracle, so Elizabeth was in a position to let go of what she “knew” had to be true and believe what she saw and heard, what she was told, even those things that went against what she had previously believed.  

Here’s another problem with looking back at the story from the end: we act like all the answers are obvious.  We think we would have believed this news about a baby Messiah and a virgin mother, just like we think we would have believed in the resurrection if we had been in Thomas’s shoes.  Because we know the answer now, we think we would have seen the answer then.  

If we were living in the US South and standing in front of a school building where a tiny, skinny little black girl was walking into school, protected by armed U.S. Marshalls, with all the people screaming vile names and spitting on her, we would have seen–because we see now that they treated Ruby Bridges most unlike how Jesus would have treated her.  

One aspect of this hubris is that we imagine that, no matter how we might have been raised, taught, or indoctrinated, we would see through it.  Of course we would.  That’s a little girl.  Spitting on her is evil.  Calling her names is shameful.  

I think our inability to imagine that we might have gone right along keeps us from seeing when we are wrong now.  If we know that we would have stood up against any evil we were raised with, then undoubtedly we would see any evil trying to persuade us now.  Undoubtedly.  Without doubt.  I don’t need to doubt any of the things I do or say or believe, because if I were wrong, I would know.

People called Mary a whore.  You know they did.  Whether to her face or behind her back, they gossiped and murmured and judged and believed they were righteous in doing so.  

The people screaming for Jesus to be crucified probably believed that they were seeking the death of a heretic.  They likely thought they saw God’s justice being done when Jesus was put to death.  Saul believed he was doing God’s will by hunting down and arresting followers of that Jesus…

Until. 

Until Saul found out he’d been wrong.  Until Jesus asked him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  

I’ve often wondered why Saul got corrected so directly.  Perhaps God simply knew this was the man who would influence millions.  Perhaps, as I suggested in “Miracle,” Saul still could have rejected that information and chosen to disbelieve.  In that post, I looked at what miracles demand from us, what they cost us.  Think about how much it cost Saul, in that moment, to admit he’d been wrong.  It cost him everything of his life up until that moment.  Everything he valued, everything he worked for, everything he believed he’d done for the glory of God.  

Do me a favor?  As you think on this, don’t skip to the part where Paul (post name-change) says, “I count it all as loss, compared to the surpassing knowledge of knowing Jesus Christ…”  Of course, that is true.  But that’s looking back from the end.  In the moment, Paul had to regain his eyesight.  He had to go meet with someone whom he’d earlier that week been hunting to kill.  He had to sit at the feet of people whom he had considered God’s enemies and learn from them who God really was.  He had to embrace that he’d been, utterly and undoubtedly, wrong.  As wrong as he could have been.  Seeing that, knowing it, was the only way Paul could learn the truth.  Then, and only then, the truth could set him free.  

The truth will set you free, but first it will kick your butt.  

I don’t know what Mary’s mother thought.  It would have been so hard to believe the impossible.  Did God choose Mary because Mary was honest and therefore one might believe the impossible from her? Would it simply have gone against her character too much to lie like that? It’s possible, just as it’s possible that God chose Joseph because in his character he was merciful.  

I don’t know what I’m wrong about.  I don’t know what truth I’m failing–or refusing–to see.  I do know I’ve changed more in the past ten years than I thought I would, since I imagined that I was reaching the age of “certainty.”  Ha.  I say “Ha!” to that.  

Being wrong is not the greatest sin.  God is faithful.  God will lead us into truth.  Refusing to see truth?  Refusing to be led?  That’s dangerous.  

I don’t know if I would have believed Mary.  Then again, I didn’t believe Jesus at first, either.  

But I came around.  

Advent, Day 13: Darkness

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I don’t have something cheerful to say today.  

I’m warning you now, so that if you want to stop reading here, you can.  I won’t hold it against you.  I won’t even know.  

Last night, Gabriel, a guy I played ultimate and basketball with in Nicaragua, was attacked and shot in the leg.  Today, he is lying in a hospital while doctors try to save his leg.  

Last night, I was waiting at the airport for my daughter Annalise, who flew back from Nicaragua for Christmas.  

A missionary friend I worked with in Nicaragua told me about Gabriel this morning.  Annalise didn’t arrive until after midnight and we made it back to my brother-in-law’s after 1 AM.  I slept in, and slept soundly, waking up with a rare sense of well-being, knowing that we were all going to be together as a family for the first time in months.  

Then I got this news:

Last night, one of the players on one of our teams, Gabriel, was assaulted on his way home from work by two guys on motorcycles. It happened in front of the house of another player who was sitting on the porch with three other teammates. Gabriel was shot in the leg during the assault and was immediately taken to the hospital. This is the update we just received. The doctors found that the bullet did sever his femoral artery and he had a surgery on the artery last night in order to stop the bleeding. They had to remove 10 centimeters of his femoral artery. He was transported to another hospital this morning that has a vascular specialist who will work to try and repair the artery and save his leg. If they can’t repair the artery he will most likely lose his leg. The surgery is happening this morning.

Please be praying for the doctors as they operate on him. Pray that the surgery is successful and that at the end of today he can just be starting a long rehab instead of processing what life might be like without a leg in a developing country. Pray also for his teammates who witnessed all this happen. Finally pray that Gabriel would grow from this traumatic situation and it would be used for his good and God’s glory instead of for hate, bitterness, and depression.

When I tried to start my Advent reflection, this is all I could think about.  I had a good time today, hearing about Annalise’s time living in Nicaragua without us, about how she’s working and  learning to be a bit more responsible and independent.*  But the heaviness of Gabriel’s news and the uncertainty of his condition sat on me like a wet blanket.  

One of the hardest things I experienced working as a missionary in Nicaragua was the never-answered question, “Why them?”  I struggle with this so much being back in the States, where many of us have more than we need.  The worst part of these arguments over the impoverished refugees fleeing their home countries, what people now call the “caravan,” is many people’s seeming inability to imagine that they could have been like these asylum-seekers or their children.  

Why did Gabriel get shot?  Why does Gabriel live in a barrio where guys on motorcycles will attack a young adult, really a kid, and shoot him for whatever he might have in his pocket?  Why were you and I born where we were to the parents we have?  

Poverty is cyclical.  Breaking that cycle proves incredibly difficult, partly because each factor multiplies the others.  If your mom is a barely literate 14-year-old, she will have severely limited resources to raise and nurture you.  When she’s twenty-one and you’re seven, will you stay in school or work to help buy food?  That’s not even considering the other potential threats to you at seven, the “uncle” who keeps coming around and looking at you, the “friends” who get your mom to go drink with them and spend that money you thought would buy food.  

Do you end up on a motorcycle in the middle of the night, robbing a guy who comes home after dark?  

Gabriel is quiet and funny and could jump incredibly high.  He was the kind of natural athlete who was just beautiful to watch, smooth and graceful, and he had a shy smile.  After he would score in ultimate, often by jumping over someone, he wouldn’t talk smack or show off or even visibly celebrate.  But when I’d go over to high five him, he would smile at me.  Just smile, maybe nod a little to accept my loud affirmation.  

Tonight, we’re not sure if Gabriel will keep his leg.  

You ask, “What does this have to do with Advent?” and I say, “Everything.”  

A faith in Jesus that does not work in the barrios of Nicaragua is a false Gospel.  Any view of Jesus’ birth that leaves us feeling warm and fuzzy but indifferent toward others’ poverty and suffering has divorced itself from the historical Jesus.  

I’m angry and in pain tonight.  I feel sick and helpless.  While I know I could not have changed this in any way if I still lived there, I’m both guilty and frustrated that I don’t.  

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.

Jesus came because we live in a world where a young man like Gabriel, quiet and kind and smart and hard-working, gets shot. This is the real world, the world as it is for most people.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know why him and not you or me.  I have no answer for that and if God has an answer, I haven’t heard it.  

Jesus’ coming into the world didn’t solve this in the immediate.  It didn’t prevent violence against young men who deserve better.  But Jesus brought the light that offers forgiveness and hope and healing and redemption.  I don’t say that as cliche.  I hope and pray Gabriel can forgive his attackers, find hope in his life with the things he’s lost, heal from his physical and emotional wounds, and that God would somehow redeem this evil by making Gabriel stronger and wiser and more compassionate through it.  

The coming of Jesus also brings light to us that reveals our darkness and insists that this shooting is my problem, that the 7-year-old Guatemalan migrant girl who was taken into custody and died of dehydration while in US custody, her death is my concern.  Why?

 Jesus said they are our neighbors.  

  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

If we worship the God who was a child in this season, we also care for the children our God said make up his Kingdom.  

Really, however this works for you, please take a moment right now to pray for Gabriel.  Thank you.

 

*Northwesterners especially will understand this: I was driving over Snoqualmie and Blewett while getting Annalise’s report, the former during a winter storm warning.  So a good albeit stressful time.