ON the Brink of a New Year

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I’m fifty now and I notice I have to fight harder to keep my optimism.  

Having acknowledged that, I think we’re in a crisis.  The world, as my father might have said, is going to hell in a handbasket (“Where are we going and why are we in this handbasket?”)  

I don’t have answers.  I don’t know how to fix this.  What I have are a few thoughts and some questions .  

I’m trying to speak up for justice while extending grace.  That’s my goal in life:  Follow Jesus who loves everyone and speaks truth to power.  That’s my hope for me.  It’s hard and I’m always failing (or flailing), but I decided thirty years ago it’s a worthwhile way to spend my life and I’m still here.

Being hateful does not bring peace.  

Getting angry is screwing up my blood pressure but isn’t helping the children I’m trying to defend.  

Every day–every single day that I pay attention to U.S. news, I get outraged by what’s going on.  News from Nicaragua, while smaller scale, often scares and horrifies me even more.  Those are both my homes and truly bad things keep happening in each.  I’m exhausted by this.  

I know you and I may disagree on some political issues (and if so, thanks for reading and not letting that stop you!), so you may not see the problems that I see.  But it looks really horrible to me right now, and even if it doesn’t to you, I think it’s hard to argue that the level of animosity and rancor over the political divide has risen to perilous levels.  

Two tempting “solutions,” neither of which I think are right:

Ignore it all and let my comfortable life take all my attention.  

I’m not starving.  I’m not fleeing a government trying to kill me.  No one is taking my children from me at the border because I fled a country trying to kill them.  I’m not being racially stereotyped or profiled.  Yes, I have some problems–many of them inside my own head–but I get to do a lot of things I enjoy and spend a lot of time with my family.  

So I can just mind my own business and let it “take care of itself,” whether it gets better or worse.  If it doesn’t need to be my problem, then it can be not my problem.  

Or

Rage on.  Keep spinning around, keep reading all the name-calling, mud-slinging, violence-hissing arguments by strangers, keep getting worked up and losing sleep.  Imagine that somehow “keeping informed” will do some good, or at least assuage my guilty conscience that I’m not doing enough good.  Get increasingly angry at people who cannot seem to see the suffering that I see, or cannot seem to experience any compassion or empathy for those suffering.  Gain more weight.  

So I can fight fire with fire, get angry at all this skubula and froth over it with the other people who feel as angry as I do about it, and together we’ll…be really angry.  

Nope 

and 

Nope.

 

I’ve got some plans for the start of the New Year, including a cleanse to cut out some of my recent horrible eating habits and and a better schedule for my writing.  Those will help, as would more consistent sleep.  

 

But I want to find some ground other than flight or fight.  I want to walk with people who see the problems and pursue solutions that involve loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.  

In other words, I want to figure out how to resist like Jesus would.  

I am open to suggestions.  

How do I love people who…disagree with me?  

How do I love people who disagree with me and in so doing misbehave or treat me badly?

How do I love people who do these things as Christians?  

 

I know a few things.  I know Jesus commands us to treat others as we would want to be treated.  I have a thing for being treated kindly.  I like when people like me.  I feel loved when people listen to me.  So I try to offer those to others.  

Loving our enemies is hard; no one suggested it would be easy.  Most people don’t do it.  Here’s the crazy part: Jesus didn’t say to do it because it would work; Jesus said to do it to be compassionate like God.  Yeah, be like God.  Show compassion.  

 

Here are my questions. I ask them as sincerely and open-heartedly as I know how:

What are you doing to help change things while showing grace?

How are you keeping from being overtaken by anger and/or hatred?

What has been your experience of loving your enemies in these last two years?  

And finally, the biggest one for me, because this is my goal in the upcoming year:  Are there ways have you experienced coming together in community to be grace-filled agents of change?  Are you finding people to do this with and how are you working together as a team?  

If you do see this very differently than I, how are you loving people of the opposite perspective?  What do you find helps bridge the divide?  

I truly welcome responses to any of this.  

 

Advent, Day 22: Room

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Tonight, my brother-in-law, whom I love and at whom I laugh, asked if we wanted him to bring us anything from Target…which is a really nice thought, except that he doesn’t live in our city.  He lives almost three hours from here.  But he was at our Target.  That’s how we found out he was coming with his daughters to stay at our house tonight.  My wife Kim started laughing.  After she explained, she said, “Classic Jeff.”  

And it is.  Another “Classic Jeff” is to offer hospitality and provide rides to the airport at ungodly hours (okay, God’s awake, but no one else should be).  He is an immensely servant-hearted single dad who would shrug this off with a little smile, but he has a kinder heart than I ever will.  

His visit made me think of room.  We have room.  We now have a roomy house and though we already have a houseguest and our 19-year-old visiting from Nicaragua at the moment, we’ll make room for them.  Of course we will.  It’s funny that he didn’t give us more heads up time, but we don’t care, really, because we need neither a perfectly clean house nor three weeks’ notice to receive visitors.

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

That’s all we have on Mary’s delivery room accommodations.  “There was no place from for them in the inn.”  Does that mean the inn was full?  Or was the inn too expensive for them to afford?  Or, possibly, the inn simply would not allow a woman huge with child, gasping as her first contractions hit, to have a room.  Mary and Joseph could not stay at the inn.  

Is that hard to believe?  This poor woman is about to have a baby and the innkeeper looks at her and says, “No.  I won’t let you make that mess and all that goes with it in one of my beds.”  Could be.  I think it’s safe to assume he doesn’t know Mary.  He has no obligations of kinship to fulfill here.  

Is there a moral obligation to help a pregnant woman about to give birth?  Are you more or less obligated if she’s poor?  What about if she can’t afford to stay at your inn but she needs a place to deliver her baby?

The story that has grown up around these verses is that the innkeeper refuses them but tells them they can stay in the barn.  

That isn’t business as usual for a birth.  When the angel got done scaring the shepherds he/she/it told them how they could find the Messiah.  

But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

A child in a manger suffices as a sign.  You won’t see it every day, even with people suffering poverty.  I’m guessing the angel must have given them a bit more direction than that; in any case, the shepherds do find the baby.  

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

We don’t know exactly where Jesus was born.  We assume it was some manner of barn because that’s where you’d find a manger.  Another word for “manger” is trough.  The just-born Jesus was laid in a trough.  Those were the accommodations available to the teenage mother giving birth to her first child.  

I’ve been present for the birth of each of my children.  Not everything worked out conveniently for those births, and in one case we suffered shattering tragedy, though well after Kim gave birth.  It’s a stretch for me to imagine that we might have had to make do with a space outside our planned-on facilities, though I have friends whose babies arrived in the car on the way to the hospital.  But living in Nicaragua, I know women who have given birth in conditions at which you would shudder.  I keep wondering if any of the young women in the “caravan”–the refugees fleeing Honduras and Guatemala, seeking asylum somewhere that their lives aren’t immediately threatened–are expecting.  

I don’t think such a young girl, pregnant and homeless, trying to find a safe place for her soon-to-be-born baby, will be welcomed in the inn.  She can’t pay, and taking her in would lead to enormous complications. 

Is there a moral obligation to help a pregnant woman about to give birth?  Are you more or less obligated if she’s poor?  What about if she can’t afford to stay at your inn but she needs a place to deliver her baby?

If you think, “But that’s not a fair comparison,” then you’re still not understanding what I’m saying about Joseph and Mary.  

I’ve always read Luke 2:7 with the accent on “in the inn.” Like this:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

But perhaps Luke means this:

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

They. Were not. Welcome. 

There was no room for them.

 

If you’ve read my blog much, you know I often refer to Matthew 25.  Listen to how this reads:

 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was a baby of a poor mother with no place to give birth, and you found room for me.”  

Jesus isn’t just being “spiritual,” metaphorical, or metaphysical.  He was a stranger.  Matthew 2:13-15.  Literally, Jesus was a refugee at the border. And he was a baby of a mother to whom no room was offered.  

“But you welcomed me,” Jesus says.  

You made room.  

 

Advent, Day 16: Connected

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Okay, track with me now, I’m going to make some connections.  

You woke up–or stayed up far too late–and started reading this. That was a decision you made that connected us.  Maybe you are having a great day, loving the Holidays, and reading this to make your joy complete.  Maybe you are having the worst Monday, hate the holidays, and are hoping to find something in this to help you hang on.  

We’re connected.  

Today I heard my friend Tim preach. Tim has been a friend and mentor for coming on 20 years. Tim spoke of why God chose shepherds to deliver the message of Jesus’ birth.  Tim imagined himself as one of the angels–Tim, the Executive Angel–who got the news from God to go sing to some shepherds.  I’ve heard sermons on the shepherds being a lowly audience for many years…and it was a great sermon.  How great? I didn’t think, “Well, I would have preached it this way.”  Ask a pastor–no, ask an honest pastor–how often they think that, listening to someone else’s sermon.  

Tim and I are connected.

 Hearing his words of hope and encouragement, well, gave me hope and encouraged me today. They got me thinking about what I would write in this reflection.  

Tim and you are connected, through me.  

This, in the natural realm, is how following Jesus works.  

“But Mike,” you say, “this is also how every human belief system and any other sociological phenomenon works.  You can always trace a chain of connection back and, as we’ve told you a thousand times, correlation does not equal causation.”

True. And you have told me a thousand times.  Thank you.

Here’s the difference:  Jesus made himself part of this chain.  

This morning I’m speaking hope and encouragement to you because Jesus himself spoke it to someone, who spoke it to someone, who spoke it to Tim, who spoke it to me.  Yeah, there were a few more steps in there.  Feel free to read Matthew chapter 1 if you’re sad that I skipped them.  

Another way to say that God really lived in space and time, God who created both space and time, is that God entered the domino chain of our lives.  

God, who lives outside time, was born at a particular minute and second.  God, who lives not in outer space but beyond that (I don’t believe if you had a good enough rocket ship, or even the TARDIS, could you track God down) took up residence in a tiny feed trough in a little barn in a small, remote town.  Jesus, who either was or was not God,* came poor into a world ruled by the rich–though God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and the world and everything in it belongs to God. Psalm 50:10-12

One might argue that a God this powerful could have influenced us from way out there.  I’m sure God could have and did.  

But God jumped in and renamed Peter.  God told James and John to give up the fishing and run with him, instead.  God stopped in the middle of a maddening crowd because a woman who wanted only to hide from him and stop bleeding could not have both, and he wanted to look her in the eye and tell her about her faith, in front of everyone.  God sat on a log on the beach with a naked, self-cutting man who had been possessed/insane seconds before, and they talked.  God, whom we call Jesus, cried with Mary and Martha, took a dead little girl by the hand and made her alive, and grabbed Peter by the hand when Peter was walking on the freaking water so that Peter would not drowned.  

Every person Jesus touched touched other people.  Every life Jesus changed turned around and brought change into other lives.  I’m writing this because about 10 people, starting with my sister Colleen, then a woman named Lisa, a friend named Trish, and others made God real to me.  Yes, God’s spirit did the work–by working in them to love me.  I hated that Bible study I attended–yet I kept going, and what is that about?  Borrowing from yesterday’s post, “With the voices singing in our ears, saying/That this was all folly.”

I’ll tell you what that’s about: people loved me.  Jesus loved people who loved people who loved people who…loved me.  That’s how it works.  And yes, I will argue to my dying breath that this is causation.

Here’s what I’m telling you on the sixteenth day of Advent: we doubt that we can impact anyone or that we make a difference in people’s lives.  That’s because we have this tiny, microview of how all this works.  

But the big view shows us the only thing that has changed lives for good, in the history of lives, is people loving one another, small acts of kindness, words of affirmation, gifts of forgiveness, and yes, sharing where that love comes from and how it snuck into your life.  Grace.  Jesus jumped into the chain to tell and show people that God is like the father of the prodigal son, that however nasty and dog-eat-dog the world appears, the deeper truth, the “deeper magic before the dawn of time,” is grace.  

Advent means grace.  Christmas is grace.  Jesus interjecting himself into the generational line through the body and pain of Mary and making a connection that continues with you tonight or this morning (or whenever you snuck in time to read this) and will continue outward from you today, that is grace manifested in the universe.  That is grace offered and grace that will be received

If you hate the holidays and just want them to be over, or want to die, I understand that and I’ve stood there.  I can’t make it go away for you but I can offer this:  I know, I know God loves you, and what looks darkest when you are stuck in your own lacerated, self-condemning thoughts can look like the beginning of hope if you will take a breath (  No, I mean it.  Breathe.  )    and then consider how this chain has reached you.  You and I are connected.  You and Tim are connected.  You and Jesus are connected.  Minuscule, mundane miracle that it is, if you can read from me that God loves you, maybe Jesus is telling you that he loves you.  Miniature, commonplace grace is given hand to hand, mouth to ear, life to life and that, I believe, is the Kingdom of God coming to earth.  

 

If you read the Darkness post, I get to tell you now that the surgeons successfully saved Gabriel’s leg, the surgery was a success and one of the doctors told Gabriel that it is a miracle, one in a million.**  A lot of people prayed.  

Darkness and light.  That’s Advent.

 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

 

 

*”If you choose not to decide you still have a made a choice.”  Rush.

** From Gabriel: “Uno de los médicos dijo que es un milagro que siga acá, que es un caso de uno en un millón, por el daño que implica dicha arteria. Supongo que Dios aún tiene planes para mí acá en vida.” 

Advent, Day 15: Change

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T.S. Eliot reimagined the magi, the three astrologers from “the East” who came to see the newborn king.  

I hope this doesn’t feel too much like English class–unless you loved English class, like I did, in which case I hope it feels just like English class.  

The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

“Were we led all that way for Birth or Death?  I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.” 

I’ve thought a lot about how we discern if people are Jesus’ followers or not.  It’s a dangerous question even to raise.  

The safer, perhaps wiser question to ask is: am I a Jesus follower?  That’s a question I feel qualified to answer.  

Am I changed?

Any way you read the Gospels, Jesus asks people to change.  Eliot depicts how the magi are changed through the journey.  They suffer through their travels, missing their home and its comforts, yet after they encounter the birth they return to an alien people and find they have comfort there no longer.  The magus describes in detail the hardships of travel and their mistreatment at the hands of many, yet begins the final stanza “I would do it again.”  

Something in the suffering, something in the days and nights of the journey itself, that culminated in an encounter they could not fully understand, transformed them.  

Eliot’s poem takes artistic license, yet it rings true for me because I know this: we are not to encounter Jesus and come away unchanged.  

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposedso that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

A few days ago, we looked at how people can be tempted to reject and even destroy miracles because those miracles can demand too much. The chief priest and the Sanhedrin decided to kill Lazarus for being raised from the dead.  Miracles confront our beliefs and force us to integrate new information that does not fit comfortably into our accepted take on life.  

In the US, we specialize in watering down our miracles.  We imagine (okay, invent) a Gospel in which we might encounter Jesus and hang out together as pleasant companions exchanging companionable pleasantries.  I don’t know if we experience the numinous at our encounter with the baby Jesus because we separate “holy infant so tender and mild” from “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I say?” and “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  But these cannot be divided.  One purpose of this Advent series has been to (re)connect Jesus’ whole life to his coming as a baby.  As Richard Rohr describes, 

“Jesus identified his own message with what he called the coming of the ‘reign of God’ or the Kingdom of God,’ whereas we had often settled for the sweet coming of a baby who asked little of us in terms of surrender, encounter, mutuality, or any studying of the Scriptures or the actual teaching of Jesus.”  

To encounter Jesus in his miraculous, world-shifting incarnation is to encounter Jesus’ whole life on earth. The Bible gives no option for warm-fuzzies-about-baby-Jesus-and-then-moving-on.  Watering down the miracle of Jesus’ birth turns God’s action of love and self-giving into a Christmas ornament, background music, and a verse on a card.  As I said, we U.S. Americans excel at this.  

The magi tell us, “This Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”  Exactly.  This birth is like our death.  This birth we come to, kneeling next to an infant laid in a feed trough, leads directly to a death that results in resurrection–the only death that results in resurrection.  Jesus in the manger is Jesus on the cross asking his Father to forgive his murderers.  

Jesus doesn’t ask perfect obedience; he asks faithfulness.  We may know ourselves to be miserable wretches when we meet Jesus and we may struggle with our sins and addictions every day of our lives, but being close to Jesus will change us.  Journeying to worship the one born King of the Jews must transform us. 

Change can mean many different things: compassion for immigrants, patience with my son, forgiveness for myself, no longer at ease here in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.

But set down this: 

If I’m not changed, I’m not following Jesus.  

Advent, Day 11: Come

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“O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant/                             O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem.”

The text of this carol, Adeste Fideles, in Latin, was written by John Wade. John Reading composed the music which accompanies it.  It was published in 1751.  

In 1841, Rev. Frederick Oakley translated it into English, and thus we have O Come, All Ye Faithful.

I love this hymn.  It is both joyful and triumphant and made to be belted out.  When I was in sixth grade, during our elementary school’s Christmas assembly (all the kids having a sing-along together in the grade school gym, not the Christmas concert for the parents with all the kids performing for the community in the high school gym), our beloved and mercurial chorus director chose me out of the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades to “direct” everyone in this hymn which meant, in practice, that I stood up on the stage and waved the stick she handed me while everyone sang exactly as they would have, anyway.  But it was a moment in which I was given importance and standing.  It was a chance to show off.  It elevated me, literally and socially, above my peers.  Since it would be years yet until I discovered self-consciousness (some say I’m still looking), I loved it.  

I would also say that I had an empty place in me that I tried to fill with popularity and self-importance.  I even had some self-awareness of that in sixth grade, though I was probably six years from the first inkling that I could never fill it that way.  

O come, all ye faithful.  Joyful.  Triumphant. 

Also, come ye faithless. Miserable.  Defeated.  

A friend wrote me tonight to tell me of his suicide attempt in October.  I didn’t know. Thank God it didn’t work.  

Come, ye suicidal.  

Come, ye depressed.  Come, ye discouraged.  

Come ye, who are so sick in your hearts and souls of our present politics that you fear you will start to vomit and never stop.  Come.  

Come, children who woke up one morning and were told by your parents to grab your most precious thing, one thing, a thing you could carry, and then you left your home and started walking.  Come, child who is still walking, who has not seen home for months.  Come, child who has no idea what is happening or where home is anymore.  Come, ye.  Come.  

Come, soldier standing at the border, following orders you feel sick obeying, watching a dirty, screaming child run away from you.  Come, O come.  

Come, adult who has more money than time, who has a list of presents to buy and a list of parties to attend and can barely differentiate this Christmas from last and just wants this hectic, stressful season to pass.  Come, ye.  Come. 

Come, pastor who has seen many of your core members, your biggest givers, leave the church this year, pastor who wonders if your church will exist next year.  Come.  

Come, college student dreading the return home to your volatile family, where the fighting never stops, where you fear you’ll regress into the child you know you aren’t anymore.  Ye come.  

Come, young adult who won’t see your family at Christmas for the first time ever and can feel the hole in your world already.  Come.  

Come to Bethlehem.  

Come and behold him.  

He is nothing impressive to behold at this moment, a baby.  Just a baby.  But in this place, this open barn, the God of the Universe tells you, “I love you. You are welcome here with me.  I have come to be with you.”  

Born the King of angels, yet not born in a palace.  Born the King, yet offering to receive everyone who would come: dirty livestock keepers, foreign astrologers, old men and poor widows, a teenage mom and a merciful dad.  You.  

We talk about the humble beginning God chose in which to enter “our “world.  Later, when Jesus had grown into an adult (when God grew up–yes, that’s what it means–don’t look at me, I didn’t come up with this crazy plan), he told his followers, “As much as you have loved the least of these, you have loved me.”  Jesus began his human life as one of the least in order to identify with the least, and to make clear that no one is stopped at the door. No one fails the dress code, no one needs to be cool enough or thin enough, beautiful or charming enough, rich enough or poor enough. No one needs to know the secret handshake.  

All are welcome in the stable.  Because it’s just a stable.  That’s why just a stable.  The Prince of Peace is born in a stable so you know that this peace is for you, Jesus’ loves is for you, God’s Kingdom is open to you.  That’s why Jesus came.  That’s why Advent.  For God to tell you, for you to know, you are welcome.  

So yes, come all ye faithful, joyful, and triumphant. 

And if you’re none of these things, come, too.  

If you’re still trying to fill that space, still trying to make something meet that need, come.  

Come and adore him.

Come and be loved.

Advent, Day 9: Celebration

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[“The Visitation,” 1528–30, by Jacopo da Pontormo]

Mary.

I realize I feel exceptionally underqualified to talk about Mary.  I have never been pregnant or given birth.  I’m not Catholic.  I’m not female. 

I already talked a little bit about her in yesterday’s reflection, noting that she had at least a moment during Jesus’ ministry when she appeared to question his actions.  

Some scholars will tell you that Mary did not actually say what we now call “The Magnificat,” her response to Elizabeth when she went to visit and revel in their joyous news together.  

I believe Mary carried a child in her body and gave birth to that child and she and her husband named him Jesus.  I believe she did that without having had sexual intercourse with any man.  I have no problem believing that she gave this spontaneous song/prophecy when she’d been traveling for many days to go visit.  Mary walked about 100 miles (yes, miles).  For all I know, she rehearsed the whole way there.

These are Mary’s words that Luke recorded for us.  

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Just to recall context, Mary is visiting Elizabeth, her much older relative.*  Elizabeth, who thought she was barren and far beyond the age when she could get pregnant, has a priest husband who can’t speak and she is, in fact, pregnant.  I try to imagine the game of charades that Elizabeth and Zechariah played when he came home from his encounter with the angel.  I love to imagine her reaction when she realized she was pregnant.  

Now Elizabeth, who was already having quite a year, gets news that her younger cousin Mary is pregnant.  But Mary is only engaged, not yet married.  Someone tells Elizabeth the story of what “they are saying” about Mary’s pregnancy.  

Stop and imagine how crazy and beautiful is this scene.  Elizabeth has stayed in seclusion for five months.  She can talk with her husband all she wants about her pregnancy, but he can’t answer verbally. As for Mary, the next words in Luke after “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her” are “Mary set out and went with haste to…visit Elizabeth.”  Does Mary go before word gets around?  Does Mary start to hear how her community speaks about her and then goes?  And the instant Elizabeth sees Mary, Elizabeth declares her belief in what has happened to Mary–what Mary has experienced–and tells her she is blessed, she and her baby.  

Mary bursts forth with this jubilant praise for God who has blessed them both. Then Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, which almost certainly means Mary stayed for Elizabeth’s delivery–which also likely means she got to hear Zechariah’s prophecy.  Remember, she’d just lived in their home and witnessed his silence first-hand for three months.  

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Both Mary and Zechariah rejoice in God’s mercy.  This is the image Zechariah has of Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ coming into the world.  And don’t forget, Zechariah has no idea how any of this will work.  He’s not reading the story from the end backward.  But three chapters from now (and about 30ish years), Jesus will read: 

“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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And then Jesus will say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  In other words, “that’s me.”

“To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  

Mary carries the baby who will do this when she hears these words from Zechariah.  

This is Jesus’ coming–our Advent–that we celebrate and remember, but not only as historical fact or a good story.  Who do you know who is sitting in darkness?  Or are you sitting in the shadow of death?  Perhaps we are, without knowing it?  

Jesus comes now to give us us light, to lead us out, to guide our feet into the way of his peace.  

 

 

 

 

Some translations use “cousin” but it’s not clear if this means “first cousin” as we would understand it or simply a more general term for relative.

Advent, Day 8: Response

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I wonder if Mary or Joseph ever doubted.  

Infant mortality was exceedingly high in the first century, especially among the poor.  Virtually nothing that we assume for modern medicine existed yet.  Dying during childbirth was a common cause of death for married women.  

Both Mary and Joseph had an angel tell them that Jesus would be God’s.  

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.

We might assume from this that Mary could relax about whether or not her baby would survive childbirth.  I wonder.  

I wonder what Mary thought her life would be with her child.  

When I read what the angel Gabriel told Mary, I try to imagine how she pictured her future.  She had already experienced bearing a child differently than any other woman in history.  Gabriel told her:

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end

I look for any foreshadowing in his words about Jesus’ death and find none.  I think the first that Mary gets a glimpse of how her child will suffer comes through Simeon, the prophet who comes to her in the Temple.  Simeon takes the child into his arms, bursts out in praise to God, delivers a prophecy about Jesus, then turns to Mary and says, 

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed  so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

What can that mean?  As we looked at last time, we tend to read these stories already knowing the ending.  Mary has heard nothing about having he soul pierced.  One of the “Wise men,” the Magi who would come on their long journey to see Jesus, would present myrrh as his gift, but as we noted, that didn’t happen at the manger-side, three hours after Jesus birth, but more likely two years into Jesus’ life.  I picture Mary had two years of pondering “…and a sword will pierce your soul…” before they arrived.  

When I led a young adult ministry in Colorado, a very troubled man came to our group for a while.  He had suffered a serious car accident and sustained minor brain damage.  He had addictions that hunted him and was emotionally unstable.  I was new in ministry and had an open and willing heart but not much wisdom.  One night, after our meeting, a few of our members went to a different room to pray with him.  I wasn’t there.  But God did something extraordinary and they all experienced God’s presence coming to the young man.  Afterward, he was stunned.  I talked with the people who had prayed with him and had them describe what happened.  It sounded like God was starting a miraculous healing in the guy.

But nothing changed.  I kept spending time with him, his addictions looked the same, he raged about life as he had before.  I asked him, “What about when God did that thing?”  (I was probably just that eloquent.)  He told me, “Yeah, that was cool, but it didn’t do me any damn good.”  

I’ve known many people who have told me they don’t believe in God because they’ve never had any experience of God’s presence, God speaking to them, or anything else they could identify as personal evidence that God exists.  This man experienced God powerfully, personally, and it didn’t do him “any damn good.”  Eventually he stopped coming to our my group and church and we stopped talking.  

I don’t know how he expected God to act.  He and I prayed about his addictions, but I don’t know if he ever took action to give them up.  

We imagine that God might come to us and that would change everything.  In my experience, God comes to us and that changes everything…but not how we imagine.  Or perhaps that can change everything, but only depending on how we respond. Yesterday we looked at how Joseph responded to Mary’s pregnancy before he heard who Jesus would be.  Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  My friend said, “It didn’t do me any damn good.”

Mary didn’t know she would see her son crucified.  I would argue that at some point during Jesus’ life, Mary and Jesus’ brothers did not understand what he was doing or how to respond to his ministry.  Mark 3:31-35 is what we always hear, but read Mark 3:21.

Encounters with God do not solve doubt.  Even when we experience God, we still choose whether we respond in faith or doubt.  When Jesus said, “And who are my mother and brothers?” you know for certain that Mary later heard these words.  How did she respond?  

God does come to us, but rarely the way we expect.  God comes to us, but in God’s coming, we receive not only God’s presence, but a choice.  

How will we respond?   

 

Advent, Day 7: Mercy

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Today, I’m going to look at the birth of Jesus from the perspective of the donkey.  

Just kidding.  I have no idea what the donkey was thinking.  And it’s been done.  

But I am going to offer a simple thought.  

“Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.”

If you know the story, you know that Mary was engaged to Joseph. Then Mary was pregnant.  “But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Joseph got this news.  I don’t know how.  It can’t have been a good moment for him.  He had his future planned, then he heard of Mary’s pregnancy, to which he knew he had not contributed.  Now Joseph’s future seemed splintered.  

At this moment, in this culture, Joseph could have destroyed Mary.  If you remember the woman caught in adultery and publicly dragged before Jesus in John 9, the question many of us ask is, “Where’s the other guilty party?”  But women were particularly defenseless, with no legal voice or standing of their own.  Joseph had the legal right to accuse Mary, and if she were found guilty, her punishment would be stoning.  Execution.  

We don’t live in a culture that punishes a woman with death for cheating on her fiancé.  But Mary did.  Because of her situation, Joseph had power over her. 

He chose not to use it.  He chose not to disgrace her publicly, which at minimum would have destroyed her future–no one else in respectable society would have married her, and there weren’t dozens of options for single women in 1st century Jewish culture–and might have ended her life.

I know all this seems hypothetical–yet I think it’s not.  

Why did God choose Mary?  There have been volumes, libraries, cities of libraries written on Mary.  

I’ll probably offer some reflections on Mary, because her relationship with Elizabeth is so wonderful, as is her response to the angel messenger.  

But God also chose Joseph.  God chose Mary who was betrothed to Joseph.  Much has been made of Joseph’s response to the angel who came to him and said, “…do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit…”  But believing a miracle when an angel comes by and tells you about it?  

I think that was the easy part. Extraordinary, absolutely.  But if angels are as we imagine, based on every single person’s response to them in Scripture, it would have been convincing.  Bewildering, but convincing.  

The hard part, as I see it, came when Joseph thought he was living through an ordinary situation in which he had been betrayed.  The hard part was finding out that, to outward appearances, he had his trust broken.  The hard part, from my perspective, was choosing not to act in anger, not avenging his betrayal.  

God could have sent the angel to tell Joseph before Joseph got the pregnancy news.  Why not?  “Joseph, you will find out your betrothed is pregnant, but this is actually great news, not what you might think.”  I don’t know why God chose to wait.  I don’t understand a lot of God’s choices or timing.  

But I know we see whom God chose more from Joseph’s decision not to hurt Mary out of spite, even though she seemed to deserve what he could have done, even though many of us could argue that she would have gotten the consequences of her own sin.  

Joseph showed mercy.*  The man whom God chose to be Jesus’ earthly father, to raise and love and nurture and teach the child Jesus, before he knew anything of Jesus or of God’s plan for this child, anticipated Jesus’ command:

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  

My thought is this: merely because we have the power to hurt others does not mean we should use it.  Even if they “deserve” it, following Joseph, following Jesus, we can offer mercy.  

We live by mercy.  

We can show mercy.  

 

*One might be inclined to say, “But this is all hypothetical; Mary didn’t cheat on Joseph; she didn’t need mercy.”  I think that’s missing the point by reading the middle through the lens of the end.  We do this too often with Scripture, as if the human beings in the Bible lived in a children’s Sunday School play.  No, in Joseph’s real life, he had to find out that his betrothed was pregnant and then choose how to respond.  Joseph’s actions revealed Joseph’s heart.

Advent, Day 6: Occupation

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[Right about this time in every series, I wonder, “Are people reading these?  Is it worth the time and effort? Does it matter, anyway?”  Then I take a deep breath…and write some more.]

Something we mention but rarely stop to ponder about Jesus’ advent: he came to an occupied country.  

Rome had conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.  At Jesus’ birth, Israel was going on three generations of Jews who had lived under Roman domination.  In 70 AD, Rome would lay siege to Jerusalem and destroy the Jewish temple.  

No one born in Jesus’ time knew a country free from political oppression.  No one in his parents’ generation had, either.  Life expectancy was not as long then, especially among the poor, so sixty years later there would be few left alive who had known the time before the Roman centurions marched into Jerusalem.  When we read the Gospels—“…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”–they are often shaped by Israel’s being under military rule.*

The Bible gives us these details to root us in the concrete, historical reality of the time.  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  These aren’t myths set in timeless abstraction.  Jesus first opened his eyes into a world in which Roman soldiers could do as they pleased to Jews, Jewish tax collectors were backed by the power of the Roman military (and thus considered traitors to their people), and Jewish “rulers” ruled at the pleasure of their Roman governors.  Thus, Herod “the Great” could do as he pleased to all the children under two years of age born within his province.  Herod could do nothing that would suggest resistance to Roman authority.  

Into this world comes Jesus.  What does this mean?  

Herod wanted to kill him because Herod feared Jesus presented a threat.  Herod feared both a king who would usurp his power and anyone who would draw the ire of the Romans.  When the Chief Priest and the council debate how to deal with Jesus, the argument hinges on how the Romans will destroy all of Israel

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all!  You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

From birth to death, Jesus had the specter of Roman power casting its shadow.  When we read the Gospels we see that Jesus was not ruled by fear of this power and let it neither truncate his message nor urge him to violent reaction.  I think it’s hard for us, in the midst of an ongoing national debate as to whether five thousand impoverished refugees fleeing for their lives represent a threat to our country, to imagine these martial law conditions under which Jesus entered the world.  

Jesus came to bring us peace.  Jesus came to be our peace.  The prophesies about Jesus include that he will make all wars to cease.  He shall be called “Prince of Peace,” and “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace.”  We tuck this away and hope in this in a future sense.  But the angels (I wrote about yesterday) sang:

“Glory to God in highest heaven,
    and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Our Prince of Peace is born in this season, and this season reminds us that he came to give us peace.  He came in the midst of violence, under a violent, expanding empire, to be our peace.  I am struggling to be peaceful, to live and spread peace, in this season.  But Jesus did not live this way in a snow globe of tranquility, he chose and taught peace among a people oppressed by vicious, racist soldiers, and who in turn were seething for rebellion or revolution.  They mocked and spat on Jesus and called called him “King of the Jews”–how racist is it to bludgeon and lacerate an unarmed man and then proclaim him king of his people while executing him?  

From that position, Jesus forgave.  

I want Jesus’ coming to be for me a calling to peace, to follow our Prince of Peace into a peaceful resistance of the violence within me and around me.   I want to respond not out of anger nor fear, even to those who are angry and fearful, but as Francis prayed, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

I need so much prayer for this.  But it is a season of miracles.  

 

 

*Roman soldiers, under Roman law, were allowed to force residents of conquered territories to carry the soldiers’ equipment up to one mile.  Thus the radical nature of Jesus’ commandment.  

Advent, Day 4: Long-Suffering

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(Photo: Robyn Mundy)

I believe we are sinners.

I absolutely believe that God delights in us and that there is inherent good in us.  We were created in God’s image and though we have marred and warped that image, the spark of God remains, even in the worst of us, even in our worst moments.  I firmly believe that.  

And we are sinners.  We hurt one another.  We act with hatred instead of love.  We act selfishly and call it love.  We do not do to others as we would have them do to us, we ignore and hurt our neighbors instead of loving them as ourselves.  We’re not even that great at loving ourselves, at least not in a life-giving, God-glorifying way.  What we call “love” for ourselves often is the fast or slow train to self-destruction.

I’m not trying to be a downer, I’m simply telling you what I see.  God saved us from ourselves because we bloody well needed saving.  When I look around, I think we could use a lot more saving–and I mean all of us.  

Jesus came in human form because God is long-suffering.  

Those of us who are parents know how many times we can endure having our child do the same disobedient thing before we lose it at them.  (“Mike, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”    
That’s fine.  The blog about unicorns and gold at the end of rainbows is just down there, at the other end of the internet.)  When I pray and breathe deeply and get enough sleep and plenty of exercise, God makes me able to endure a few more times than that.  But I have a limit and all my kids have seen what happens when I  exceed (with their capable help) exceed my limit.  

Jesus came to extend God’s limit for us to this:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38)

From the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  

I am convinced of this.  I don’t always get it, but I’m convinced of it and for all of us.  

Jesus came close to us so that nothing could separate us.  Jesus saw what single-mindedly self-sabotaging beings we are and instead of shouting, “That’s it!  I’ve had enough!  You want to do that to yourself?  Fine!  Have at it!”* Jesus came into our darkness.  Jesus caused himself unimaginable, incalculable suffering because he, too, had had enough–but instead of exploding at us, instead of punishing us, instead of even leaving us to the natural consequences of what we had done (were doing/are doing) to ourselves, Jesus came and made a way to peace.  

Advent shows us how long-suffering God is, because even now, as we count down to Christmas and run around acting like the point of the Season (which we’ve nam is to buy presents, stuff ourselves, overschedule and get stressed out, God comes to us not in anger nor disappointment, not even in resignation, but in Peace, offering us true peace.  

 

 

*As I’m sure none of us have ever done.