Tuesday, December 23, 2008
LIGHTING UP THE WORLD
How does the word get out that God is love? How did the meaning of God being love get transmitted beyond the small group of disciples whose darkness was lit up like the flash of lightning across the sky?
The story of the Epiphany seems simple enough. Three Gentile magicians read in the stars that a new king of Israel is to be born and they made their way to this child's manger. Once they arrived they found a small child tucked tightly into bed clothing in rather humble surroundings.
They followed the light of a star to find this new king. Nature announced the birth and provided the navigational tool that enabled them to find the baby king.
What light led you to the life of Jesus? For me, it began as I listened to the great stories of the Bible being told by my Grandmother Odessa. She spoke with deep reverence and familiarity about the characters and places of stories. It was almost as if she knew Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Peter, Paul, and Jesus the way she knew her neighbors of many years.
We see the light that guides us to Jesus and to God through nature, but even more profoundly through other human beings who have already begun their journey towards the promise and hope of God’s Kingdom or who seem to have begun to glimpse it from afar.
For me, books have been a treasure of light. Perhaps the most brilliant light came to me when, at the age of 26, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. The light from Lewis’ pen filled my heart and my imagination with images of God that seemed to call me to move “further up and further in” to the Kingdom of Heaven, to see the face of God in Jesus.
I read everything Lewis wrote and then discovered The Reverend John Sanford whose work on dreams and the deep things of the human soul represented a new part of my journey towards the light. I met The Reverend Morton Kelsey and Carl Jung and many other notables along this road.
In seminary I encountered some of the giants of theology and Biblical study and my love of this demanding discipline of theology has continued to be a source of light in my journey towards God. Most recently the work of Gil Baillie, James Allison, Rene Girard, and others have been light that has furthered my journey.
The journey we are all on as Christians and just simply as human beings is most often lit up by the people who have loved us and cared about us in our daily lives. My parents, brother, wife, children, friends, and even those with whom I have disagreed and argued have been light along the way.
May your days of following the light bring you to the Christ of God and the Kingdom of love, peace, and joy.
Monday, December 22, 2008
We are flying to Maryland to visit our Granddaughter, Alexandra. We leave on December 26th. We will return after celebrating Christmas with Alex and our son, Matt and daughter-in-law, Sarah.
I am a new Grandpa, but I really love that little red haired, blue-eyed baby. Every time I hear her voice on the phone or by SKYPE and see her charge across the floor in search of new adventures, I smile and sometimes just laugh at her sheer joy in life.
Jesus must have seen this joy when he invited children to be at the center of his vision of God's Kingdom.
What does that mean to us?
It means that the vulnerability of children and their dependence upon the adult world for survival is very much like our vulnerability and dependence upon God for our survival. The Kingdom thrives when we realize our need of others and their need of us. These qualities are often lost as we grow up. We see ourselves as no longer vulnerable or dependent upon God or others.
I pray that this Christmas we will remember all of the children of our world, the ones who make our Christ Church community such a joyful place to be and to worship and those whose needs are measured in staggering statistics of poverty, hunger, thirst, disease and mortality.
Jesus came to us as an infant, vulnerable and dependent upon human love and support for his physical survival. In each child of our world, God abides in special ways. God allowed us to be children and continues to bless us with children and grandchildren to raise our eyes towards the Kingdom of Heaven where we all become children of a loving God and we are bid to care for each other.
I will enjoy being with and playing with Alexandra this Christmas. When you see me on January 4th I will probably still be smiling from being in the presence of God who will smile and squeal and cry and play and try to say “grandpa.”
“Of such are the kingdom of heaven.”
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes ... and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and philosopher (1906-1945) imprisoned and executed for his attempt to overthrow Adolf Hitler.
When I read this quote from Bonhoeffer and realized that he was involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, his words made sense. He was in prison and was finally killed just before the camp was liberated by the allied forces, but the prison cell of which he spoke was not the one to which he was sentenced to live out his life.
The prison cell seems to be the violent world in which he sought to live out the Christian Gospel of love and peace. That he had to resort to violence to bring peace demonstrated to him how much in need of God we all continue to be. He felt locked into this world of spiraling violence like a prisoner in a cell. He considered his participation in the plot against Hitler to be sin. He was very clear that killing was not “the way, the truth, and the life,” but a desperate and temporary solution to humanity’s ongoing slavery and blindness.
The pain created in him by his decision to kill was the result of his lack of blindness. He killed knowing that killing was as dark and evil as the genocidal acts of Hitler. He judged himself guilty of this sin and prayed for God’s mercy. He would not take the more comfortable path of justifying his actions to kill by claiming that a higher good would be fulfilled.
Our collect for this Sunday is really about turning our prison cells into mansions. Here is what it says:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Most of us will never find ourselves involved in a plot to kill another human being, but God’s daily visitations are still part of our Christians vocation. In visiting us each day, God attempts to touch our eyes to give us sight to see ourselves in the faces of even our enemies. When we have such vision the iron bars of our prison cells of violence begin to be transformed into a mansion prepared for the one whom the world judged as the enemy of our ways of creating peace and unity, wealth and poverty, dominance and domination.
Without these daily visitations to our prison cells we would remain blind. We would continue to believe that our ways are god’s ways and our thoughts are god’s thoughts. Advent is the promise of the daily visitations that will liberate us from a world that is locked in sin and suffering and death.
In Jesus birth we find that we have a new cell mate in the prison. God not only has come from outside our prison cells to visit, but God has joined us inside our corporate cell. Jesus exercised no violence against those who sought to kill him, nor did he encourage any of his followers (past, present, or future) to use violence as a way of setting the world right.
His mother sang of a new day coming while she bore her son into life. She was pregnant with that change and yet she herself really did not comprehend the path her son would walk. Like mothers throughout history, Mary stood ready and willing to raise her son to make a difference in the world.
Imagine her shock and dismay and horror when her son was seen as the cause of all that was wrong in the world and that his death would allow the powerful and rich to continue their rule as if God was on their side.
God greatly enlarged Mary as she bore this special child. Her vision of a reversal of fortune for the rich and poor and the powerful and weak is still perceived as threatening today, but religion has a way of taking the transformative Gospel message and making it part of the justification for the way the world is. Our life in the prison cell is all we have known and we vainly seek to see our cells as private mansions.
For some Mary’s song is a violent melody.
He has shown the strength of his arm, * he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, * and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, * for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, * to Abraham and his children for ever.
How could the words of a powerless, impoverished and pregnant minor be possibly construed as condoning violence? Consider the outcomes she offers. How in the world could the mighty be cast down from their thrones and the poor be lifted up without an armed insurrection of monumental scope? How could the hungry be filled with good things when those who control the food supply have not already seen fit to share in this way? And sending the rich away empty would require a yet to be seen revolutionary force of great power and cunning.
Mary gives birth to God. She is called “Theotokos” (by the Eastern Orthodox Christians) which means “God bearer” or “Mother of God.” Mary opens herself up to the peaceful and loving God of creation and she is filled with the fullness of God. In Mary, we see an image of the Church standing poised to respond to God’s visitation and offering herself to be filled with God. The Church is the place where the rich and the poor; the powerful and weak; the proud and the humiliated; the rulers and the slaves come together for the transformation of our world, our prison cells.
In coming together in prayer and openness to God, we see in each other the work of God as God builds a mansion in us and in our world that will be a fitting dwelling place for the Christ child who was born into our prison cell.
In the power of the Holy Spirit who spoke to Mary and Joseph, we will discover that the prison doors have been opened and that we are free of the old ways of violence as a way of life.
The child birthed in captivity and violence will finally be seen in the faces of all humanity. God, the Holy Spirit, by her daily visitations will have opened our eyes to see and purified our hearts to embrace Mary’s child in each of us—a mansion built by God.
Monday, December 08, 2008
As time goes by, the gods of my making seems to recede further and further into the past. Without my make believe gods, the world sometimes seems like a dark and hopeless place. The gods of our making are what the prophets of Israel called idols and the prophets continually warned their people about following these idols. Of course, nothing can convince us like failure and Israel was repeatedly and overwhelmingly disappointed in these gods of their making. It was Israel’s vocation to go beyond the usual human response to failing gods.
How does the God whom Jesus made flesh and blood in his life speak to us when our idols fail us? We are very devoted to our idols, but over time we either abandon them altogether and any hope of finding the real deal or we continue to "spin" our experiences to keep our idols in business or trade for a new god that seems to offer us what we need and want. It was Israel, the Jewish disciples of Jesus, who finally saw beyond the gods of human tribes and culture.
Jesus spoke to the human heart that was utterly and completely disappointed in the gods of Israel and Rome, but he did it in an ever so gentle way. In the darkness of the historical events of war, economic exploitation and ruin, and empires dominating the poor, Jesus came as light.
That is what John the baptizer said of Jesus. He was the true light which can enlighten the human heart that has given up on the idols of time. John was baptizing, but he was also watching for someone whose presence was full of the True God. John was a prophet who spent little time denouncing the idols of his day and more time watching for the real and true God.
In Advent, we are told to be watchful like John, but for what are we watching? Jesus told his disciples to stay awake and be watchful for the coming of God’s Kingdom. So, as the gods of my making fail to stand up to the test of time and the hardships of life, I watch for God, the God who is like no other and whose character and existence shine like light in darkness.
Advent bids us to stay awake to the presence and coming of God in our lives as individuals, but more importantly in our community and in the world. The kingdom breaks in like light and reveals the past shabby gods we have made as laughably inadequate while opening our hearts up to the God of our creation, redemption, and sanctification.
The first coming of this God of light and love was a total surprise and continues to be overlooked as a quaint story about a baby being born to two loving parents in the midst of a murderous and violent world. Keep watch for we do not know the time or the place of God’s appearing. The story of the birth of Jesus is to help train us to be expectant and watchful for a kingdom, a way of being, that is not like the kingdoms or cultures of our idols, our gods.
If we are looking for a kingdom which only benefits me and my friends, we watch in vain.
If we are looking for a kingdom in which some are welcome and others are not, we watch in vain.
If we are looking for a kingdom in which love is not the final word for every child of God, we watch in vain.
Advent is for those whose make believe gods have left us still wanting and watching for light and more light and for those who are willing to be watchful and peer through the dark nights of our days. Keep watch for the one in whom we hope. We look for the God whose light and life are finally worth our faith--a God that can be believed. AMEN.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
I love the beginning of a new book, especially if the author is someone whose work I have found rich and compelling. I found the Chronicles of Narnia, a children’s series by C.S. Lewis, when I was 27 years old. Lewis had the most amazing way of painting pictures with words. I remember staying up late for several nights because I could not put the books down. There were 7 volumes and each one was a treasure to me.
After finishing one volume, I quickly began the next one like a hungry man sitting down to a table of plenty. Perhaps you remember when you finished a book that fed you like these books fed me. In my case, not knowing that Lewis had died on the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I wanted to write him a letter of thanks. When I found out he had died, I felt a real sadness that such a grand writer was no longer alive to offer his gifts to us.
I have to report that since that time, I have found many satisfying and extraordinary authors and books to read and I continue to relish those first few pages of each book. But I want to share a very different experience in reading that I have had reading the Bible. This Sunday we will hear the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark which goes like this:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'"
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Mark starts this shortest of all of the Gospels by giving us a bit of information about Jesus’ identity which most of the characters in the book do not have. In fact, at the end of Mark’s Gospel very few, if anyone has managed to see Jesus as anything other than a man who was killed on a Roman cross as a criminal and blasphemer.
So, Mark writes about Good News for a world that was incapable of recognizing Jesus as the Christ and Son of God. Reading this Gospel or any of the Gospels will not be a one time experience. Every time I finish reading chapters 1-16, I find myself returning to the beginning again praying for the eyes of faith through which Mark and his community saw Jesus.
I have read this Gospel over and over again, in the liturgical setting of the Holy Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer, with pen and note pad in personal study and reflection, and sometimes in brief moments between this and that activity. With each reading I find Mark’s beginning proclamation more and more compelling.
At each of our beginnings, the first chapters of our births and infancies, God proclaims us to be his beloved children, but like the Gospel, it takes us a life time of reading and re-reading our life for us see our true identities. I would suggest that since we have difficulty seeing Jesus’ true identity, we might just be unable to clearly see our own very special place in God’s heart. Maybe it is time to go back to the beginning again in both the story of Jesus and our own stories.