Peace and Restlessness

Georgia and I own several nativity sets. But when the children were young, we had just one. It was and still is treasured.  My dad brought it back as a gift to us when he went to Israel, almost 40 years ago. It’s made of olive wood from the Holy Land. In those early days of our marriage, when we got the Christmas stuff out we would set it up and when the children were young – between about 3 and 7 years old – they loved to play with it. Because it was made of wood and not some delicate material like china or glass, we would put it down on the floor for them and we enjoyed hearing them moving the characters around, pretending they were having conversations with one another.

And every one of them, on their own… in different years, because they were different ages… every one of them did an interesting thing that neither I nor Georgia instructed. They all did it quite naturally; did it on their own. They brought other characters to the stable.

Our daughter Paige brought her stuffed animals, placed them around then manger and the holy family… our sons brought their action figures and teenage mutant ninja turtles to stand and join with the wise men and shepherds… and to my recollection (which, by the way is always better than what actually happened), each of them explained by saying, “they wanted to come see Jesus, too.”

So, here’s a question: Have you ever thought about how that sort of attitude is really a very important part of what Christmas is all about?

Think about it: the gospels say that angels appeared to shepherds. And the shepherds, after hearing about this thing said, “let’s go see.” Not “I’m going to go see, you guys can stay here.” Not, “a few of us are going, we don’t want the rest of you going with us”. There may have been a teenage shepherd who said, “I’m tired, I don’t want to go.” We aren’t told about this. What we’re told is that they sort of encouraged one another, and said, “let’s all go see.” And when they arrived, they told Mary and Joseph what the angels had said. My guess is that they continued to tell others about that night for as long as they lived.

Who is Christmas for? Well, we who believe in Jesus and follow him as his disciples all anticipate it and enjoy it.  In a very real way, we sort of help sponsor it, in the sense of opening our churches and having special services and remembering together what it’s all about. Hopefully, there is a sense of renewal in our hearts, and re-commitment in our living. There is a peace that comes upon us when we believe that God does care, and that God is willing to help. We may not know exactly how things are going to turn out, or how God will help, but knowing God will somehow help can transform our lives. So the gift of Christmas – of God, sending a Savior – is for us.

But theologically speaking, Christmas is especially for those who haven’t yet seen. Who haven’t yet heard. It’s for anyone who is willing to come close enough to discover the wonderful news of a God who reached down to humanity in the form of a baby, who grew up to become our Savior.

Because apparently God is very interested in inviting new people into relationship with him. What was it that Jesus left his disciples with? What were his parting words? “Go into all the world… teaching others what I’ve commanded you…”

If you know about the Wise Men in the Bible, then you know they were gentiles. Not even Jewish. If you know about shepherds, then you know that they were rough, uncouth. Phillip Yancy point out that shepherds had such a reputation that proper Jews lumped them together with the “godless,” restricting them to the outer courtyards of the temple.

Who would we compare them to? Oilfield workers? Roughnecks? Bartenders at some rough-and-tumble biker bar? You think they didn’t tell dirty jokes or share crude humor? And yet it was they whom God selected to help celebrate the birth of one who would be known as the friend of sinners. Does this tell us something?

And when we receive that message, there’s both peace and restlessness. There’s a peace that comes in knowing we have been loved with an everlasting love. That no matter what happens, we belong to God. But there is also a kind of restlessness, because we want others to find it, too.

So hold on to the peace you have, the peace you have come to know through Christ. Hold onto the relationship with God that you have been granted. But want it for others, as well. Want peace in their lives, too. Invite them to come see and meet the savior, because that’s how peace spreads and grows.

Want Some Joy?

There are some religious traditions that eschew symbols. Part of this dates from anti-Catholic movements and sentiments at various times in European and American history. But even among those groups, who would deny the power of a symbol such as the cross? Not only does it speak to us (inexhaustibly!) of what has happened, but also draws forth from us direction for the future. Even those who prefer the plainest of worship styles or who think symbols have little value have surely experienced the powerful effect of a symbol such as our nation’s flag, with all it represents.

In Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, candles are lighted during the season of Advent. There are readings selected to focus attention on the story being told. Three candles in the Advent wreath are purple (a color associated with both royalty and penance). The third candle is different. It’s the candle of joy. What’s up with that?

The readings for the third Sunday of Advent are always a little bit different than the readings on the other three Sundays. The first two Sundays usually reflect themes of longing, of knowing our need; old Hebrew prophecies and visions about God’s promise to redeem us, buy us back out of bondage as it were, despite our sin. Sometimes those readings bring with them stern warnings about the way that the coming of the Messiah is going to be world-shaking, in terms of how we see things. Mountains leveled, valleys raised. Those we thought were rich we find out are poor. Those we thought poor are revealed as rich. And the idea of who’s in and who’s out?… who God welcomes and uses? The Messiah is going to shake that up, too.

Most years, John the Baptist shows up the second Sunday of Advent, with his fiery warnings about the way that the Messiah’s coming means the end of business as usual. The very presence of Jesus’ words and teaching demand some sort of response. You can refuse him or you can follow him, but you can’t ignore him. And if you’re going to follow him repentance is required. Things have got to change. You and I have got to change and turn from sin.

But the third Sunday? The third Sunday, things change… to joy.

Often, the readings have to do with Mary, and the joy she felt at being chosen by God. Sometimes, it’s the joy of the shepherds, going to see the baby and being told by angels of a joy that would be for all people. In both cases, the joy comes not from something that they have done or accomplished, but something that was given to them. Something that God decided to do.

“Who, me?”

“Yes, you.”

“A baby, born to lead us out of darkness and sin? You’re giving him to us?”

“Yes, to you.”

William Willimon reminds us that joy is a reflex. It’s a response to something that has happened.  It’s not something we ourselves create; it’s something given. “You’ll never hear anyone say, ‘Hey, we’re going to get together and do a little joy… wanna come?’” Joy may happen while you’re together, but it’s not because you manufacture it. It’s a gift.

Theologian Henri Nouwen described the difference between joy and happiness. While happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.” Thus, joy can be present even in the midst of sadness.

Because like it or not, God cares about you. Deserving on not, God has reached down to us through Jesus to show us a better way. Jesus said, “do not fear, little flock – it’s the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

“Who, us? You’re giving that to us?”

Bishop William Boyd Grove said there are certain words that deserve to interrupt all other words and conversation. Words like “The house is on fire!” or “The war is over!” or “Your hostage brother has been released!” These are, he says startling, interrupting proclamations that change everything. If the house is on fire, you run! If the war is over, you dance! If your hostage brother is released, you leave everything and go to meet him![1]

And what shall we do, how shall we feel when I tell you, “A Savior has been born!”?

Joy. Thanks be to God.

 

 

[1] from The West Virginia United Methodist, April 1992, 11.

Thank you, President Bush and Family

Yesterday, the citizens of the United States were given a wonderful gift by President George H.W. Bush, his family, and the media outlets that carried his state funeral live from the National Cathedral in Washington. We were given church.

As I watched the funeral (on two different and usually antagonistic news channels) at the local YMCA along with ten or so other exercisers who were watching while working out on various machines, I couldn’t help but wonder how many millions of other people were also doing so. I realized that this may have been one of the largest audiences of worshipers (I hope they had that experience, even if they thought of themselves as merely spectators) ever to simultaneously hear song, scripture, sermon, and eulogies, and to be given the opportunity to reflect upon the values that President Bush held dear, and by which he lived.

Some may have found the Episcopalian worship traditions formal and stilted (our Anglican brothers and sisters would say “dignified and beautiful”), but there was a sense of the Divine, and the opportunity to be moved. Thank you to all who made this possible for us.

Regardless of political party, one could not help but be reminded of some important things – things we who are Christian know to be important, and which we hope guide our lives, as well. And what a wonderful time of year to be reminded of these things, as people around the world prepare for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in whom salvation is found.

Thank you, President Bush, for living a life of faith. Thank you, Bush family, for helping us to see and remember the importance of faith, love, devotion, humility, courage, and hope. We went to church with you yesterday, and I’m happy we did.

That’s Heavy

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24)

Yes, but.

Sometimes those two words are nothing more than the beginning of an excuse, but they are also powerful words that people of faith may feel or speak when seeking to live according to the teachings of Jesus.

Deuteronomy 21 says that a stubborn and rebellious son should be stoned to death by the elders of the city. Yes, but… Jesus told a story about a prodigal son who was forgiven and welcomed home.

“Thou shall not commit adultery…” seems pretty clear. Again, Deuteronomy says that both the man and the woman who engage in this sin should be stoned to death. Yes, but Jesus forgave a woman caught in adultery, encouraging her to change her ways.

Jesus introduced an interesting word into the conversation in Matthew 23: “weightier”. In other words, some things seem to weigh more in God’s mind. Isn’t that what is indicated in Micah 6:8,

“ He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Wait a minute! What about the right way to baptize people? What about drinking alcohol versus abstinence? What about proper gender roles, especially keeping women in their “biblically-instructed place”? What about all those things that churches have historically split over, and Christians have argued with one another about as if their very salvation depended upon it?

There are many friends of mine who have different (sometimes slightly, sometimes vastly) opinions on finer points of theologically intricate matters. It’s been my experience that these differences need not keep me from doing justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God. Nor do these differences weigh enough to keep me from liking them, associating with them, learning from them, or worshiping with them.

Do I believe they’re mistaken? Yes, in many instance…but: I think I’ll stick with the heavy stuff, believing that Jesus would want me to direct my time, energy, and attention toward the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith.

The Thanksgiving Dog

It was a few days before Thanksgiving. A cold front had come through during the night; I woke to find that the outside temperature had dipped to around 20 degrees. I went through my morning routine: put the coffee on, read the Bible and a chapter from the book I was currently reading, and then pulled on my running gear and headed out the door for my exercise.

During the first mile of my run, I began thinking about my sister, Dede. She’s been gone 25 years now, but for some reason, I began thinking of her again. I always seem to think of her around Thanksgiving. The few years between her diagnosis and her death from cancer were good ones in the sense of all of us being together. Even that last Thanksgiving, when the effects of the chemotherapy and her increasingly-frail appearance made me feel awkward at having too much fun or laughing too loudly was a good one.

As the sun rose, the beauty of the fall foliage began to blossom and I said a prayer of thanks to God for the simple joy of seeing those colors and of being able to run. I checked my watch: I was slightly behind pace for this part of the course I ran three days each week. My body felt heavy, but what did I expect? This is how it is when you’re thirty pounds overweight.

Running through one of the more scenic neighborhoods in the last two miles of my run, I caught sight of a dog coming toward me. Her tail was wagging, a cute little Labrador retriever. She wasn’t a puppy, but also wasn’t fully grown. I stopped to pet her.

My, she was friendly! She soaked up the patting and stroking around her face and head. I told her “get on home” and started running again. She fell into step right behind me. I stopped and patted her a bit more, and this time said in a firmer voice, “now you go home!” Again, she backed off, but then started following as soon as I turned around.

I turned and ran toward her, this time with a louder voice: “Go home!” she backed off about a dozen yards and looked at me over her shoulder. I started running. She caught up to me and ran alongside me.  A mile and a half later, we were at my house. “Well”, I muttered, “you might as well come in the back yard”.  She watched me check the fish in the koi pond, and as she nuzzled up next to me, I saw that there was no tag on her collar. I reasoned, “Maybe I’d better keep her here, until I can find her owner. If she lives near where I found her, she’s far away from there now.” No sooner had the thought come to me when she sniffed her way outside the fence. I followed her and called to her. Once again she looked over her shoulder, and with a nonchalant air went trotting down the street, heading even farther away from the area where I’d found her. I called and clucked and clapped, but she just kept walking. She was through with me.

When my wife Georgia came home that evening, I told her about the dog. “She’s got to belong to someone”, I said. “I hope she doesn’t get run over.” She replied, “Hmmm…”. She’s used to strange little stories about what I see when I’m running.

Sunday night we went to a Sunday School class party, and were seated next to David and Shelly. I hadn’t gotten to know them as well as I hoped, and this would give us a chance to chat. Midway through the meal, Shelly’s cell phone rang. I could tell she was talking to one of her children. I heard her say, “No, we can’t. No!. I said no. Here, talk to your father”. She handed the phone to David.

We continued our conversation with another couple at the table. When David was through on the phone, I asked, “one of your kids?”

“Yes”, he said, “our son. He found a dog and it’s at our house. He wanted to know if we could keep it. He said she was really cute.”

I spoke up “Yellow lab? Leather collar, no tag?” Yes, it was her.

By the end of the meal, we had made arrangements to pick up the dog on our way home. David said they had a kennel we could borrow. We loaded her up, and dropped by the grocery store to buy some dog food.

We tried putting her in the kennel that night, but she whined and cried so much that we put some towels on the floor in our bedroom. She spent the night there and seemed quite contented.

I watched the newspapers and looked around the neighborhood for signs that might say “Lost dog”. Nothing appeared. We placed an ad. No response. Days passed. On Monday, we called our boys at college to tell them we had a dog – they had wanted one for some time – but made sure they knew that we were just keeping her until we could locate her owner. However, they would be home for Thanksgiving next week, and we wanted them to know the good news that we would have an extra guest. Georgia said she would take her for walks. She bought a leash while she was out. Two more days passed. I taught her a couple of tricks. She was good at “sit” and “lay down”, but “shake” was going to take awhile.

I watched the newspapers; I looked on the local radio station website (it has a “lost and found” section). Nothing. We began to discuss what we would name her. I told some friends about the new dog. I went out and bought some wire mesh fencing, to put up on the one section of the back yard where the wrought iron had gaps she might squeeze through. I finished that project, and headed off to work.

And then, on Thursday I looked in the classifieds and saw an ad that read. “Lost Dog. Golden Lab, 9 months old…” I called the number, and the woman at the other end identified her. She made arrangements to come by that evening to pick up the dog. I hung up the phone, and I felt like crying. And then my eyes started tearing up, and tears were flowing down my cheeks. I emailed Georgia with the news. She replied and said, “I can’t stand this kind of pain.” We’d only had her for a few days, but I guess we’d grown pretty attached.

For a few minutes, it felt like we had lost something that was ours, which we really wanted. But the truth was that we hadn’t lost anything we didn’t have before that dog came to live with us. What had really happened is that for a few days, we got to share some love with that dog and feed it and pet it and play with her and she brought joy to our house. We didn’t have anything taken away from us that was ours. We had something given to us that we didn’t earn or deserve. I guess the real problem was that we wanted to keep and hold onto and own that gift.

But that’s now how it is. When we talk about “ultimate truths”, try this one on for size: everything is a gift. None of us caused ourselves to be born. And whatever life brings us – even if we work hard for it – is only ours because we have been given the gift of life. We didn’t earn this life, it was a gift – and scientists may be able to explain sexual reproduction, but no scientist can explain the miracle of life.

I thought of Dede again, and how her illness helped our family. It caused us to see things more clearly. Before she was diagnosed, we were all living such busy lives; we would get together when we could but hey, we had lots to do and besides, there was always next time. What her illness made us see was that our time together was very precious, and that we had no guarantees that we would be able to gather like that again. That, in fact had always been the case. It’s just that we allowed so many other things to get in the way of seeing what a precious thing each and every day is. Somehow, her illness helped us see more clearly what we had. God was with us. God had blessed us. God had given us each other. God had given us today. And today, I have the chance to share some love with those I meet.

Before It’s Too Late

I’ve heard two different versions of a story that may be apocryphal, but may also have some basis in actual events:

In one of Iowa’s vast cornfields, a little girl went out to see her father who was working there. The corn towered over her head, but she could hear the tractor until the sound vanished in the distance. She walked on and on, but after a time became lost. She could not find her way out of the cornfield. Near the close of the workday, when her family realized she was gone they began searching for her to no avail. Friends and neighbors were called, and many went walking and calling out for her. The heat was stifling, and they feared for her life since they assumed she took nothing to drink.

Finally, one of the neighbors said, “Let’s make a chain! We’ll walk through the cornfield together, and make sure we don’t miss any place. Let’s all join hands, before it’s too late!

In today’s climate of name-calling and judging vast groups of people by their political affiliation, denomination,  nationality, ethnicity or even gender, those words feel like a clarion call.  People post lots of judgmental opinions about other groups of people, but very rarely do they spend time actually talking to those other people. I still believe we are more alike than unalike, and as 1 Peter 4 says, “Love covers a multitude of faults.”

Let’s join hands, before it’s too late.