Game of Thrones and the Choices that Form Us

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I just finished watching the Game of Thrones series finale. I’m sure a bunch of you did, too. Probably another group of you have never watched a single episode and it’s near-miraculous that you’re reading this now. I’ve been reflecting on life a little recently (new for me, I know), and I’m going to see if I can tie those reflections in with some thoughts on the series.

Today I met with a friend, Annie, who is starting the journey to become a pastor. We talked about her upcoming first funeral, for which she is preparing a eulogy. My first funeral was for my father. Talking with Annie reminded me how much pastoral ministry is pouring oneself into small things for people, believing that your efforts can make a difference. Little choices, every day.

The genius of Game of Thrones, if you watched it, was seeing characters grow and change, or be challenged and refuse to change, or–the show’s signature move–be in the midst of growing and changing and then BAM! Dead.

Theon Greyjoy. Consider his character arc over the course of GOT, from his introduction in Winterfell. Think of when Yara came to rescue him. Or how he fought his way back from being shattered into Reek when he chose to rescue Sansa and help her escape.

Arya’s character almost defies tracking. You can see the glimpses of who she will be and yet you can’t imagine how far she will travel or how fully she will transform and embody that fighter. When she leaves the House of Black and White, when she rejects Gendry’s proposal, when she sails west of Westeros, she leaves behind lesser versions of herself to seek something more. Yet it’s almost the seeking itself that gives her meaning. In one sense, she is the greatest hero of the Seven Kingdoms, but she finds no place to stay and be, no home, no rest anywhere. She had her list and we might have thought her list forced her to keep moving, but I think the forces moving her became deeper than that and the list was after all just a manifestation of who she had become. When The Hound convinced her not to pursue Cersei any longer, it was one of the great moments of the show; he demanded that she see the end result of the road she was taking–him–and she chose another path. One episode from the end and she still changed.

Cersei, in contrast, had opportunity after opportunity to change and refused. She could have let herself become someone other than ruthless and utterly monomaniacal. In that sense, Daenerys spoke the truth: it was Cersei who forced what happened to King’s Landing (while in another sense, Daenerys had her moment of choice as to who she would become with devastating consequences for nearly everyone…including herself).

I could easily go on with character comparisons: Ramsay Bolton would not change; Jaime Lannister definitely did change, substantially, and then in the end…; Bran, oh Bran, we’re not even sure what you are by the end, but whatever that might be, you’re the mystic King. That’s quite a transformation.

Okay, here comes my personal reflection: I think we make big plans and imagine that life runs linearly, but much of the time we are deluding ourselves and the course of life runs according to our small decisions when we choose, or refuse, to change. When we have these long-term, overarching plans and goals for our lives, we subsume all of our other decisions to follow those bottom lines. Well, so did Cersei. I know, that’s about the nastiest example one could find. But think about this: her claim was “My family comes first.”

We have small opportunities for kindness or courage every day but we disregard them because we have our eyes on some imagined bigger picture. I’m not suggesting we ditch all plans for career and child-rearing and retirement. I am telling you two things:

First, who we are is more important than how those big plans go. There’s a false view that if you make the big choices well, the little ones will take care of themselves. That is brought to you by the folks who told you the end justifies the means and, possibly, the ones who tried to sell you on trickle-down economics. In narrative theology, who we are is the composite picture of all those small, daily, hour-by-hour choices. Making the small choices well transforms us into becoming the people who make the big choices well. Learning grace when we fail and sin, learning compassion when we recognize our failures and sins in others, transforms us, not presto change-o! but steadily. Jesus makes us more like him through our good and bad choices, when we respond in humility and learn.

Second, quoting C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own,’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day; what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination. This at least is what I see at moments of insight: but it’s hard to remember it all the time.

I love this: “what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s imagination.” Why? Because that isn’t the life you’re living nor ever will live. The life you’re living, and I’m living, those are made up of unplanned interruptions, from locking my keys in the car to having my son say, “Hey, Dad, let’s play HORSE.” I was just talking with a friend today about how we’re both increasingly aware that we’ve been imagining that we will do things “eventually” or “when things come together.” So we imagine those are the things we will do and we imagine circumstances will change so that we will be able to do them. None of that is actually true today, but somehow we imagine that’s who we really are and today is just a temporary delay in getting there.

Who you are today is who you are and if you know that needs to change, in about three minutes you’ll get an opportunity to start. Your first choice will be whether you recognize that small choice as that opportunity or disregard it because you’re waiting for something else, something bigger, something “real”…that likely will never come.

Over eight seasons of Game of Thrones, we saw characters faced with both small and enormous decisions. Often the smaller ones set them on the path where they would face the monumental ones. The show is big and dramatic and exciting and has dragons, so we find its action satisfying, but it’s also a mirror that we can choose to look in if we’re willing. Cowardly people can become brave (Samwell) and heartless people can develop compassion (Jaime? or Jorah?), while wise people can become fools and then, perhaps, grow wiser (Tyrion), and if you won’t step back and see where you’ve made mistakes…if you convince yourself that you see good and bad clearer than anyone else and you alone are fit for that judgment…you know how that comes out.

My conversation with Annie about death and what we say in remembrance reminded me that we get these choices for a finite time. We don’t know how many seasons or episodes, but in the moment it feels like we’ll always have more…and then in that moment, it’s done and we have no more choices. From that perspective, how will I respond to choices I get today?

Acceptance and Resistance

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I haven’t done a political post in a while. Have you missed me?

I’ve made a few passing comments about our political madhouse state. I had to take a break for some time, to step back and breathe, for my own health and sanity. I’m privileged in that I could do this and not suffer any direct repercussions. We all suffer the indirect repercussions.

Not long ago, I listened to the President tell people that wind turbines kill bald eagles. They are “bird cemeteries,” where you can see piles of dead birds of all kinds.* Thus, by implication, they are inherently unpatriotic and anti-environmental. They cause cancer. They can drive you mad with the noise they make. Oh, and if the wind isn’t blowing, zoop, no TV reception for you.

The President talks shit. He exaggerates wildly to deceive. He repeats alt-right propaganda and conspiracy theories as if they are facts. He lies for sport, for fun, for malice, for expedience, for manipulation, and, I suspect, sometimes just to say whatever he wants with no concern for the truth. I guess that last one is “for indifference,” or perhaps “for convenience.” He finds the truth inconvenient but refuses to be inconvenienced by its cumbersome restrictions. Some of his lies don’t even seem to benefit him, which suggests he just prefers lying to telling the truth.** Or maybe he can’t tell the difference.

Now if I had a personal relationship of any manner with someone who lied like this, I would know how to respond. If it were someone I depended on at all, I would treat that as an abusive relationship, set boundaries, and not offer trust again until I had seen repentance in action through changed behavior. If it were a person I was mentoring, I would do my best to walk with them through understanding what motivated them to lie so horribly and recklessly. I would exhort them to pursue recovery, as I would with any other addiction or damaging compulsive behavior. In this comparison, my guess is the person would need professional help beyond my abilities.

But this isn’t a person I or you know personally; this is the leader of our country. I don’t think his lying about wind turbines is the worst thing he does. I’m not even certain his lying is the worst thing he does, though it probably connects, as those things are interwoven.***

One of the most ardent claims I hear from the President’s supporters is “He tells it like it is.” This has made me feel like I’m crazy. How can we be living in such different realities? As of April 27, 2019, he had told 10,111 (ten thousand, one hundred eleven) lies or misleading claims. No typo there. These are all documented and verifiable. Yet recently I was part of a conversation in which the other person demanded “Name one time he has lied!” Of course, the person then rejected any example produced. “For his enthusiasts — especially those who share his anxieties — Trump’s lies feel truer than the truth.” (That’s from Financial Times, by the way. See where they fall on the Media Bias/Fact Check spectrum.)

I mention this as a glimpse of how we are stuck here, at the moment. Day after day, this man commits horrendous acts and demonstrates his character as a narcissist. We have a narcissist and an abuser for President. To be clear, I’m not name-calling, I’m describing him. For a long time, close to four years going back to when we realized we had to take his candidacy seriously, I believed that I could persuade those who support and follow him, especially those who also say they follow Jesus. I truly thought, through hearing reasoning and seeing his actions, people would reach their limits with his behavior. To my knowledge, I convinced not a single person, though I’d love to be wrong about that.

I don’t have much hope of convincing anyone now. I’m sure I’ll keep trying, because I’m an incurable optimist. For a long time, I was furious that people who call themselves “Christians” would defend and rationalize and even uphold his behavior. They justify it based on other people’s bad behaviors, which is at heart a bizarre argument. They make excuses that what is evil is jest, or that it has been misreported or taken out of context. I saw it day after day and raged.

But I’ve moved past that, as well. I’m nearing the end of grief now. I’m close to acceptance. Acceptance in grief is very sad. In one sense, it is the opposite of hope. When our son Isaac died, acceptance took me years to reach, because I didn’t want to say it was okay that he was gone. I fought against God and even rejected my faith for a time because acceptance means surrendering hope of going back. Of course, acceptance actually means entering the reality that there is no hope of going back,**** so any thoughts of going back are rooted in denial or bargaining or one of the stages that fights against this reality. To come through grief is to live in reality and not self-deception.

I’ve accepted now that a significant percentage of caucasian people who call themselves Christians in the US still, after everything we’ve seen and endured, support this President and desire to see him reelected. I find even typing that statement inutterably sad. When I say I’m reaching acceptance I don’t mean “Okay, shrug my shoulders, move on, it’s all fine now.” I mean, like many of you, I’ve made peace with the fact that my place is outside a community that can support him.

I can and will remain friends with people who support him, because Grace is that much bigger than anything else. I will live by Grace. God’s Grace for all of us is my one real hope in the world. But this isn’t business as usual, a mere disagreement over politics, two opposing sides of an argument over, for example, which foreign policy would best serve US interests.

That’s the part we who oppose this administration try to convey: this is utterly, appallingly different. Truthfully, I felt crazy for a long time, not being able to make people see that. How in Jesus’ holy name is that possible? “Look–Rome is burning! See the flames? Smell the smoke? Feel the–what? You don’t? No, it’s not a warm, sunny day, those are–no, that isn’t a hazy sunset, we’re on–no, you aren’t smelling a campfire or someone’s bonfire it’s… You’re kidding?”

“Oh. You’re not kidding.”

Someone can look at him mocking a disabled person, using the exact motion we did in grade school to mock disabled people whom we then called “retarded”–because we were horrible little beasts in sixth grade and God had a long way to go to change our hearts–and then look me in the eye and tell me he wasn’t doing that? I know, he did that so long ago, he’s done so much since then, but the song remains the same. Verse after verse. He calls women “dogs,” he calls Latino immigrants “animals,” he calls whole nations “shitholes.” Yet someone tells me I’m not seeing with my own eyes what my eyes tell me I’m seeing. I’m told that Obama started this policy of separating children and parents. It doesn’t matter that research and investigation shows that while the seeds of this policy existed, carrying it out has been a conscious, strategic decision of this administration. Even if this were a continuing abhorrence, how would that make it defensible now? Wait–Christians are okay with children being taken from their parents with no plan or intent to reunite them…when they came here seeking help, for asylum…because they were starving or their lives were threatened in their home countries? Like the country in which I lived for seven years? Because I have friends who fled that country and sought asylum here.

Nothing about that says “business as usual” and we haven’t touched on how he is attempting to dismantle the framework of checks and balances on which our democracy depends. Acceptance is heart-sick sadness for me. But I’m nearly there, now. I still don’t get it, but I don’t feel crazy anymore. I’m not crazy. Jesus didn’t change. I’ve thought and talked and listened a lot to try to understand, and I do believe I understand some of the motivations and thought processes behind people’s choices.  And I wholeheartedly disagree. I accept that this is what some people believe; I cannot accept that I can follow Jesus and remain silent about any of this.

I hope you understand, acceptance as a stage of grieving does not equal acceptance of this President’s choices, actions, or his continuing in office. I’m more convinced than ever that we must work together to end this.

But you know that. “How” is a different question and a different set of posts.

I’m just letting you know how I’ve regained my sanity, worked through my grief, and continue in my determination to oppose this nightmare.

PS If I’ve surprised or offended you by what I’ve written here, you may have missed this post. Again, I’m not seeking to end friendships, but I believe being faithful to Jesus requires that I speak up.

*”Collisions with wind turbines account for about one-tenth of a percent of all “unnatural” bird deaths in the United States each year. And of all bird deaths, 30 percent are due to natural causes, like baby birds falling from nests [source: AWEA].”

**He lied about where his father was born. Where his father was born? Could anything be easier to verify? Why do that? “My father is German,” he said in the Oval Office. “Right? Was German. And born in a very wonderful place in Germany, and so I have a great feeling for Germany.” His father was born in the Bronx.

***This is true of all of us. My worst sins are connected to my other sins.

****Outside of a Marvel movie.

RHE-Inspired Rule of Life

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 First of all, a Rule of Life is “a set of principles and practices we build into the rhythm of our daily lives, helping us to deepen our relationship with God and to serve more faithfully.”

A Rule of Life does not equal mere “rules,” in the sense that games have rules or your classroom has/had rules. I’m not talking about regulations. A Rule of Life is a structure that both shapes our understanding and motivates our action. I love the phrase “rhythm of our daily lives.” We don’t instantly integrate these, but grow into them, we build them into our daily thought-life and activities, with missteps and stumbles and the occasional about face. The purpose, the explicit and conscious motive for a Rule of Life, is to deepen our relationship with God.

A pressing question for me has become: How to decide–and communicate–what is and is not acceptable to say on my blog and Facebook page. That might sound incongruous with discussing a Rule of Life, a trivial matter for something spiritual and all-inclusive.

Quick review: I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out how to engage constructively on social media as a Jesus follower and writer. I had reached the tentative conclusion that I, like many others, would simply close my Facebook account and save my sanity. I fasted (imperfectly) from Facebook for Lent. Even abstaining inconsistently, I came out feeling much more sane and peaceful. But as a writer and pastor who wants to love and encourage people with the gifts and through the channels I have, I was not fully at peace with this decision.

(Not) Coincidentally, a bunch of people all let me know, at right about the same time, how my words and message and presence helps them. Weird how God speaks.

Then, just a week ago, Rachel Held Evans died. One of the voices that did for me what I hope to do for others went silent. Bad curse words here. Grief and anger and…renewed determination. NO. No, I’m not going to be quiet or retreat into the safety of avoiding confrontation because trolls and know-it-alls won’t stop shouting. Really, no.

While rereading a bunch of RHE’s grace and fire, I happened to read her blog’s guidelines for replying.

Comment Policy:Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

Pop! went the lightbulb over my head. A tiny little epiphany for my humble little world.

I’m not going to stop writing, I’m not going to withdraw from places where I connect with people whom I’m trying to encourage, and I’m not going to suffer an ulcer and high blood pressure. I’m going to incorporate this framework into my online presence.

The idea grew, from a decision to continue into something bigger. No, I’m not merely going to make up some rules or borrow Rachel’s policy as rules. I’m going to take this, sculpt and embrace it as an online Rule of Life that shapes and directs how I approach this crazy virtual world we co-inhabit. Rachel Held Evans showed it’s possible to love people who will receive it and show grace to all while not getting dragged under. I desire a rule of life that will help me serve more faithfully like that.

My last post serves as my purpose statement, even a vision statement: Here is my voice–to the best of my understanding–and these (you!) are the beloved of God with whom I’m speaking–“with,” not “at.” With this, I’m addressing the question of “how.” How to create a constructive environment. How to help people feel connected instead of isolated. How to communicate in grace.

A friend for more years than I have memory told me recently: ” Mike, I love your posts. I read them. I reflect on them. I am sorry to say I will no longer reply to them. But wish you to know how much I value you as a person and friend.” She said this because she is “weary of being attacked.”

Again, NO.

No, friend of mine for whom I’m writing, I’ll not have you silenced in my sphere because certain people choose not to use their words positively, constructively, or with grace. Thinking one is right does not give a license to bludgeon. To quote my beloved Opus from Bloom County, “Nope! Nope! Nopity nope nope!”

I will seek to live this into my daily rhythms. Imagine having all your self-talk weighed through this “rule.” Not sure how, if I insist on being a general ass to myself, I can enforce the ban. I will know I have stumbled/been led (how do you think being led feels?) into some truth if my Rule of Life for interacting as a writer on social media spreads into how I speak to Kim and our children, to my friends and acquaintances, and especially, especially if it impacts how I speak to myself.

The thing I love most about RHE’s policy is its simplicity. It doesn’t try to account for all possible situations. It neither apologizes nor offers conditionals. It’s elegant in its simple cause and effect: “If this, then that.” “If it is critical, please make it constructive.” Imagine if all online discussion followed that. I hear you laughing, Cynics. Here, Dear Reader, I will choose to be the change I want to see in the world. Join me.

Therefore, I’m establishing here an Online Rule of Life. I’m excited about this direction. I need it. I ask myself, easily twenty times a week, “Do I block him?”* I’ve struggled mightily not to block people because I don’t want to create an echo chamber for myself in which I hear only from those who share my views. I’ve wanted to continue to listen, to dialogue, to understand. And, of course, sometimes I just want to [deleted word suggesting a not-gracious response] them and I end up spending all day fixating on the rude or critical or troll-ass-hater things they’ve said. Twenty-six years of marriage with Kim finds me still trying to learn from her how to shrug things off.

For myself, I don’t need just a measuring stick to show me “I should delete this” or “this is bad enough.” I don’t need only to be calmer about the horrors going on in this country or people’s willingness to defend them. I won’t settle for writing and dialoguing in these spheres as long as it doesn’t damage my relationship with God. Survival isn’t enough. I don’t even need “merely” to have grace for everyone, though that is my lifetime’s journey to pursue.

I need to live this part of my life as a means of helping me deepen my relationship with God.

As always, I’ll be a messy, grace-dependent work-in-progress with this. I hope you’ll come along.

*Yes, so far, always “him.”

A few more thoughts on Life, Death, RHE, and where I go from here

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Yesterday, I told Kim I’ll probably die of optimism.
They’ll write on my gravestone “He didn’t think he would.”
Best laugh I’ve given her in some time.

I realized on a hike yesterday–only yesterday–that I have found my voice as a writer. It took me a mere twenty years, give or take. Believe me, this was good news. I think I found it before I understood that I had.

But in that same moment, I realized I’m now trying to discern to whom I’m speaking. I think I had confused or conflated those questions. I believe that’s why it’s taken me so long: I was trying to answer the wrong question. I thought I was still working out “how?” when really it’s “to whom?” The latter is a very different question.

I am astounded, and I hope you are too, at the widespread grieving–and concommitant cry for action–in response to Rachel Held Evans’ death. I knew we all loved her, but I had no clue how hard her death would hit me–or millions and millions of others. If you do a quick search (#becauseofRHE) and look at all the personal testimonies about her and the wide range of publications that speak of who she was, you start to get a small sense for what her voice meant to people.

I never met Rachel Held Evans. I’m seeing the photos of friends who got to meet her and in my grief I’m choosing not to feel jealous but something more like awe. This woman loved so many of us fucked up souls. Go read how many of the testimonies are from the self-identified misfits, the alienated from church, and the seekers for spiritual community. Why do you think people in the LGBTQ community loved her? Why did so many who claimed no faith at all love her blog?

Ask the women who have careers because of her championing. Ask the mothers of gay kids. Ask the queer believers who found welcome. Ask the women who are in ministry now. Ask the ones who found Jesus, who found hope, who found their voice. Literally ask ANYONE from #BecauseOfRHE.*

Anytime someone dies suddenly and too young, we should stop and ask ourselves, “Am I living well? Is this my true life or a safe, comfortable, anesthetized escape?” Quoting Mary Oliver: “Is this what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

When Rachel Held Evans died, I started to grasp the impact of her voice, of the life she lived, how she spoke to us and how that mattered to us. How we were changed by her words. That was a grand use of her one wild, precious, and all-too-brief life. I see Jesus in how Rachel Held Evans lived and loved. I have no higher praise than that.

So here I am. I’m no Rachel Held Evans. Let me just beat you to that, in case you were starting to wonder if you needed to tell me. But I’m listening and I’m watching and I’m paying attention. I swear to you, I’m paying attention. When you’re like me (long pause for snide comments) you fight a constant battle against doubt and negative self-talk. I hope no one in your life says to you what I say to me.

But then, in the midst of this slog through the puddle, here comes someone like Kate Lynne Logan, who several life chapters ago was part of my young adult Bible study. Kate Lynne is a singer/songwriter, mom, wife, and queer. She’s a superhero. In response to my thoughts on Rachel’s death, she wrote:

I can’t stop thinking about her. 37 is just too shockingly young. Her babies. Oh, her babies. Her 3 year old, who will understand that she’s gone, and not understand why. 

I’ve followed accounts in the fringe, and she was always a primary voice. I knew who she was and knew what a light she was. 

I stopped believing a long time ago. I was once someone who gave her whole life to church and the gospel. 

I tweeted that Rachel was one of two Christians who held my respect, of all the hundreds I knew closely and the thousands I “knew of.”

You are the 2nd, Mike. 

Rachel is deeply affecting me. Her loss is so deep, and I was just a fringe “acknowledge-er.” 

If there is a god, he’s the god who’s you’re friend. There is no one who could convince me more than people like you and Rachel. 

For the record- I know my personal opinion means nothing. It’s not like it’s some great honor for me to think the things I do. But Rachel was personal. 

And you are personal. And when all we know is what’s personal….it’s all that matters.

So what is the point? (Okay, sorry, crying here. Give me a second. Damn it, Kate Lynne.) For some reason, like a coincidence that isn’t, right when I’m wrestling with this question of “to whom” a bunch of people chime in, unsolicited, to tell me how my voice has impacted them.

I love how real you are Mike. Unafraid to live and die with the emotion of the moment, and totally unwilling to let that rule you. I hope and pray to continue to learn that balance.

Dude. I love your fiction. I think it’s time for you to publish your non-fiction. You have words and truth that the world needs to hear. Seriously!


For a long time, I’ve believed I can challenge people in the church to think a little more about justice, to embrace Jesus’ love and grace for those left out and pushed away. But I don’t know if that ever got through.

I know for certain, however, that some people who don’t feel loved by Christians have felt loved by me as a Jesus follower. The way I experience God and my own flaws resonates, even though they have nothing to do with church. Some people who can’t understand how Christians can follow Trump have come to me to ask “where the hell is God in all this?” (Think I’m joking?) Others who have stuck with church but increasingly feel like outcasts and aliens where they used to be at home compare notes and share back and forth our tiny glimpses of hope.

I have this message of grace and vulnerability and compassion and justice for the poor and oppressed intertwined with “Holy Shit, this whole being a competent adult thing is hard!

That may not be the message for you. That’s fine. You may have this competent adult thing wired. Rock on. Stay around for the laughs or go with God.

You may have no interest in a version of following Jesus that questions conservative politics or uses cuss words or suggests that we’re not entitled to live at the the maximum comfort level we can afford while billions suffer and we decimate the planet–which causes those in poverty to suffer even more.

I used to feel bad when people got offended by these things I said and wrote, like somehow I needed to be more compelling or convey my message more clearly or root it more deeply in Scripture.

I’m done feeling bad.

If I’m helping you, that’s awesome. I hope to. I want you to know that God loves you wildly and that grace is real. I believe that all the way through.

But if you’re here to argue or to debate why I think Jesus loves gays (he does, madly) or to help me to see the wisdom in trickle-down economics or arming school teachers, well, how do I say this nicely? You are not my audience.

Is that nicer than “I wasn’t talking to you?”

Will I dialogue? Absolutely.

Am I suggesting no one should disagree with me? If you think that, this may be the first thing I’ve written that you’ve ever read.

But a beloved friend pointed out, not long ago, “Part of what surprises me in your posts is that you seem to think you need to appease the right, as though they are right.” Dead on accurate, because I thought that’s who I should be speaking to. I keep hoping to be a bridge-builder and peacemaker.

But who am I kidding? I’m a pastor, and will be until the day I die, but no church wants to hire me as their pastor. People know me as someone who pastors them. I’m a “dem fine” preacher.** But turn me loose on their organization? Trust me to keep it together and say whatever seems appropriate to me? They are not lining up. See above.

I have a transgender son whom I love with all my heart and of whom I’m wildly proud. I believe materialism in the church and syncretizing US cultural values with the Gospel are our besetting sins. I think Trump is a narcissist who displays in his character, day after day, the antithesis of how a Jesus follower should act and speak.

I have known, from the time Jesus showed me he’s real and not a fairytale, that I want to spend my energy reaching the people left out, not fighting with the people already in.

Therefore, I’m not kicking anybody out, I’m not disinviting anyone, but I’m saying here that I’m done appeasing and feeling bad and holding back. As I alluded to in my last post, I’m done self-censoring. I no longer believe that doing so is honoring God and I now have a clearer idea what to do with this one wild and precious life of mine. Rachel’s death made me stop and reflect. I know my voice and I know my people.

If that all makes sense to you, guess what?

*From a tweet by Sarah Bessey, which, by the way, comes in the middle of a furious rebuke of Christianity Today for publishing someone who should not have been writing about RHE, but that is a different story and this proclaims who she was in the face of self-righteous criticism.

**Can you really get upset at me for using the language C.S. Lewis uses in a chidlren’s book?


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.