‘Twas the week before Christmas…
‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the place
every person was caught in the holiday race;
The stockings weren’t hung; they’d not even been found,
and the cards were not sent, and nowhere around
were the cookies that should have been all baked and ready;
nor the ornaments made, nor the dinner plans steady.
And I with a sigh and Mama with a yawn
wondered how we would finish before Christmas dawn.
There we sat, not so nice, on the living room couch;
one tired and sad, and the other a grouch.
Perhaps we were snoozing; I don’t really know,
but something or someone had startled us so
that we sprang to our feet to see what was the matter
while our hearts raced ahead of their usual patter.
When what to our wondering eyes should appear
but a village alive ‘neath a night starry clear.
“Come this way,” a voice seemed to lead us along
through a close, winding street towards the sound of a song.
There were people all over, crushed shoulder to shoulder,
so to stay with our guide we pushed on a bit bolder
until we were standing in front of a door
that was open, revealing a bare, earthen floor
and a rude, little room set with a straw and a trough
and a trio of doves cooing down from a loft.
“More water!” another voice hurried on by;
then a shout, “He is here!” and a woman’s sharp cry.
And the song was replaced by a baby’s first squall,
and a poor woman’s tears from her nest in the stall.
“He is beautiful!” now a man softly exclaimed,
and his voice starting humming the song once again.
And taking his shawl, then the baby was clothed
in the prayers of his father and the love of all those
who had gathered to marvel at this long-waited birth
of a child and a promise and a hope for the earth.
“Yeshua is his name,” soft the voice of his mother;
“God will save” was the murmur from one to another;
And the crowd backed away, and the babe fell asleep,
and the man looked to heaven and started to weep.
“Forgive me for doubting” he pled to the sky,
“all the words of the prophets from days long gone by
that you’d never abandon your creatures below.”
And again came his song in a voice rich and low:
a simple refrain as his lullaby swelled,
“I love you, my child, my Emmanuel.”
And then the dream vanished as quickly it came;
and we wakened to find most our things much the same.
Still the presents and parties and jobs to be done,
still the days over full and the work under fun.
But yet, in another way, subtle and true
this frantic-paced waiting is changed and made new;
Priorities shifted, and new questions raised:
Just what does it mean when the Lord of all Days
Comes to live ‘mongst his people and take as his own
their sins to be healed, and their hearts as his throne?
While the motive behind all our busy-ness is
to do just what is right; still the holiday’s His.
All our gifts and our getting can never compare
to the gift of the child and the life that is there.
So I think of the song; may it fit to my voice!
May there be no temptation, no darkness, no choice
that would keep my own life from attesting it well:
“I love you, my child, my Emmanuel.”
As I write this morning, the world is abuzz with the great good news that the Duchess of Cambridge is in labor and that a third heir to the British crown is aborning. The crowds (media types and other well-wishers) are gathered outside the gate of the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital in London. Sometime soon, it is expected that an official courier will emerge, be whisked to Buckingham Palace to announce the birth to Queen Elizabeth, after which it will be posted, tweeted, and made Facebook-official for the rest of us.
A part of me wants to go all snarky about this. The hoo-hah and celebrity fervor surrounding the situation strikes me as unseemly in a world where children are routinely aborted before birth because they are unwanted or die soon after birth because of the poverty and turmoil into which they are born. Is this child any more valuable than any other nascent human being? I think not.
But beyond that (admittedly self-righteous) reaction: I find myself thinking about the Duke and the Duchess…not because of their royal titles, but because they are young, first-time parents. No matter how much pomp and circumstance whirls about them, they will soon bear the great privilege of holding the child which they have (by God’s grace) made…and of coming to terms with the unspeakable joy and abject terror of being parents.
It’s a terribly mundane situation for those so high-born. And thanks be to God for it. All of us who have been blessed to be parents have stood in the place where William and Kate will soon stand…looking with love and wonder upon this tiny life, imagining what might lie ahead for the child, and worrying whether or not they are ready to take on such great responsibility. My heart goes out to them; my prayers ascend for them.
And it causes me to wonder. With what deep parental affection does God look upon each one of us? In that moment when we are claimed in Holy Baptism as children of the Divine, does the very heart of God blossom at the awesome possibility that is manifest in each one of us? Perhaps that’s much too anthromorphic a characterization of the Almighty. But maybe not. For in the rightly ordered love we bear towards our own children comes a glimpse of the extravagant self-giving love which God has demonstrated for us in Christ Jesus. So in that way, God, too, is awaiting a birth…the daily re-birth and renewal afforded all of us in grace.
Imagine, then, the Father looking upon his children. If you have ever doubted such grace and favor, this is for you: “Oh, little one…conceived and brought forth in love…what great gifts you have been given, and what magnificent potential is ready to spring forth in your life. I love you forever.”
A word with special affection for the folks in Elmore.
Yesterday was a good, but difficult, day here at Grace…our first Sunday morning together since my resignation had been officially announced to the congregation. What a mixed bag: congratulations and good wishes on a new call, tears and hugs as befits the parting of friends, and concern about what a change in pastoral leadership will mean for a congregation that has grown comfortable (not complacent, mind you, but comfortable) with the same guy around for nineteen years.
Pretty normal stuff, it seems to me. There is some grief work to be done here by all of us. And not to deny that…but can I also share with you how confident I feel about this?
Nearly two decades ago this congregation took a chance on a thirty-something, second career, retread of a pastor with a wife and two little kids. We came to Elmore looking like deer in the headlights…knowing very little about what it meant to live in a parsonage or be adopted into a community or manage the somewhat fishbowl life that such a call entails. The people of Grace took us in, showed us the ropes, and loved us like we were natives.
As a result, the work of God got done in this place. We learned that we could trust each other…work with each other…sometimes fight and all the time care for each other. And along the way, God blessed us with insight and creativity and hard work and new facilities and more folks and an openness to the community that allowed us to speak and live the Good News we’d been given. Together, we got to be Church.
If you’ve been around a church or Sunday School much you’ve probably heard this: “God is good…all the time. And all the time, God is good.” Yes? Well…here amidst the corn and tomato fields of northwestern Ohio, we’ve had the great privilege of living this adage together for longer than we had a right to expect. And now, as the future unfolds in a direction we did not expect, we can look back on a blessed past with the confidence that the God who has walked with us walks with us still.
Taking leave may be hard. Trusting God to carry us into the future is not. We’ve been here before, and we know from experience that…all the time…we are in very good hands, indeed.
Today is the commemoration of St. John the Baptist…his birthday celebrated exactly six months before Christmas Eve. The reason for the date is linked to the Baptist’s own words from John 3:30: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” …a reference to Jesus and the necessity of his emerging ministry as John fades from prominence in the Gospel narrative. No surprise then that we celebrate his birth in these first few days after the summer solstice as the days decrease in length (here in the northern hemisphere)…just as we celebrate Jesus’ birth during the darkest days of the year as the days are beginning to grow longer.
The Baptist’s words, however, are more than just a convenient way for us to organize the liturgical calendar. They are also a call for those who would be the friends of Jesus in this day and age to humility and true discipleship…an opportunity for honesty about who we are and what we are called to do as God’s people in the world.
Case in point: I’ve had a hard time writing these blog entries recently. I’ve missed a couple of my usually posting days, after sitting and staring at a blank computer screen for a while…finally convinced that I just didn’t have anything left to say. (After reading this post, you may well conclude that the streak continues.)
Yeah…sure. Everybody hits a dry patch once in a while. But this has been deeper and has gone beyond blog writing: On one hand, there is the weariness and frustration that comes from preaching/teaching/working towards a goal that seems all too elusive. (The Kingdom of God, in case you hadn’t heard, has not yet arrived in Elmore.) And on the other hand, there is the hubris…me being convinced that somehow the whole project of being faithful church in this place rests on my shoulders alone. This is foolishness, of course…self-defeating and an absolute dead-end. But it took me re-reading the Baptist’s assessment of his own ministry to hear it.
Before I can do what God has called me to do, I must be what God in Christ has made me to be: one who has been granted a new life, a fresh start, a living hope. Who I am in Christ (a redeemed sinner) overflows into what I am in Christ (grateful, humble, ready). And what I am in Christ leads to what I can do with the gifts I have been given. My mistake was trying to run this little bit of logic backwards…trying my best to work my way into humility and thanksgiving. Take it from me: It doesn’t work. Christ’s ministry to and within me comes first; and then my response makes sense. “He must increase…”
Having sorted all this out, I’m feeling a bit better about myself and my call to ministry this morning. But somebody keep a copy…because I’ll probably forget all too soon, and end up back in the same grumpy and unproductive place. (I have a tendency to do that.) In the meantime, I invite you to examine your own ministry as one of the baptized. How is it that Christ must increase in you? And how might that increase set you free to be the person God has intended all along?
This past week, in our quiet residential neighborhood, where the speed limit is 25 mph, a vehicle came to rest upside down in the middle of the road. I don’t know how it got that way, but I feel for the teenaged driver. Thank God he wasn’t injured. Mortified, yes. Embarrassed, to be sure. But physically okay. A few years ago, the tag line for a popular insurance commercial asked, “Life comes at you fast. Are you in good hands?” That’s an important question, not only for the kid in the upside-down car, but for all of us.
I can’t help thinking of the kid who was driving the car, standing there on the curb, waiting for the police to come. Waiting for his parents to come. Waiting for the whole ordeal to be over. We live so much of our lives in-between. In between brokenness and healing. In between the pain of offense and the ability to fully forgive. In between faith and doubt. In between paychecks. In between jobs. The mission congregation that my wife, Patti and I were planting here in Reynoldsburg was not able to become self-sustaining in the time-frame that we were given. So our funding ran out, and we held our final service at the end of May. Life comes at you fast. What now? What’s next? We don’t know. Living in between grief and hope, we wait.
I can’t help thinking of King David, who, when faced with uncertainty, asks, “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” – Psalm 121:1. The hills were where Israel’s pagan neighbors had altars where they went to worship their self-made idols. But David knows that he needs more than self-help and more than false gods that can’t deliver what they promise. “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth,” he concludes. We live in an unpredictable world where disappointments abound. Some are the result of circumstances beyond our control and some are the result of our own sinful actions. But either way, those who repent and believe the gospel are in the good hands of Jesus.
Life came at our Lord fast. Falsely accused. Tried. Condemned. Beaten. Mocked. Crucified. Dead. Buried. Risen. Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday was Saturday. A day of waiting. A day of uncertainty. A day for trusting God’s promise and provision. A day in between. That’s where much of our lives are lived. Life comes at you fast. What now? What’s next? We want to get on to get on with it, but there are lessons to be learned in the desert, which is the bible’s image for “in between times.” God wants our trust. So like the Israelites of old, we pray, and wait for the cloud to move… and greatfully gather up the manna that comes each morning as a gift.
Have you heard the Bible story about Joshua and the walls of Jericho? (It is found in Joshua 5:10-6:27. You should read it for yourself if you are unfamiliar.) The story takes place in the Old Testament: after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the sea, the giving of the commandments and forty years wandering in the wilderness. With the death of Moses came time for the Israelites to enter the Promised Land. Joshua was now the leader. Though sanitized by many children’s Bibles, make no mistake, this was a ‘take no prisoners’ military conquest. Joshua was the right man for the job. Jericho posed a problem: seemingly impenetrable walls encircled the city. Under Joshua’s leadership, the people camped outside the city and began to eat the produce from the land. As soon as they did, the manna that sustained them in the wilderness ceased. They now had a land filled with milk and honey, but Jericho prevented them from claiming it. In a vision, Joshua received an unusual idea for how to conquer the city. For six days, as priests blew trumpets, they were to march around the walls and when they were done, the people were told to shout. On the seventh day they were supposed to do the same thing seven times. In an animated version of this story from the 1990s called “Josh and the Big Wall” by Veggie Tales, the priests wore sunglasses and played “When the saints go marching in” as the guards from Jericho threw purple slushies at them. In the cartoon, the people from Jericho ran away. The Bible version of this story is not quite so tame. When the walls were breached, everyone (except for Rahab and her family – a spy who would later be counted among Jesus’ ancestors [Matthew 1:5]) either fell by the sword or the burning of the city.
I think this story typically gets used this way: we are just like the people of old, we sit encamped outside the city, odds against us, slushies (or worse) being hurled in our general direction. We are unwelcome, overwhelmed, ill-equipped, and unprepared as to how on earth (or even in heaven’s name) we are possibly going to break in to either a system, a culture or a community. We try to answer that question from a leadership perspective (be like Joshua, bold and courageous) or from a creative one (do something outside of the box – like march around the walls). We theologize about it, saying that if God wants it to happen, it will happen. The Divine sanctioned violence is troubling. After all, Joshua led only after God gave him the vision to do it.
Lately I’ve had a different response to this story, leaving me with some lingering questions…
-Didn’t the people inside Jericho think their side was somehow righteous and just? -How did that work out?
-What did they think of this outside group poaching off their land and threatening their lives? -Isn’t that the reason they built walls in the first place?
-What did they think of Rahab who betrayed them? -Did they see her walk away with them from the ashes?
I’m starting to see this story more as an indictment than as a motivator. Maybe we are the ones inside Jericho. Maybe we are not on the outside looking into a culture we don’t feel like we have footing but maybe we are walled up inside a fortress seeking refuge from the changing world around us. Maybe we see what these “new people” look like and their strange ways of living and being look nothing more like a frivolous parade around our walls. Yes the trumpets are loud, but we are safe inside. Maybe we are too busy enjoying a slushie. We know God is on our side, this fortress we call the church is on a sure foundation, and we have centuries of resources, culture, status, and tradition to protect, so let’s check the walls, check the bolts on the doors, and if we see somebody we don’t like coming, we can always launch a slushie at them.
-How often do we (even unintentionally) turn people away?
-How often do we bolt the doors (even in a metaphorical sense)?
-How often do we lack the desire and interest to notice, listen, and seek to understand new neighbors, emerging cultures, different generations, innovative ways people communicate, and expanding discoveries because we like the way things are and would rather secure our walls than step outside?
The answer, of course, is too often. It is probably a primary contributing factor to the decline of churches of all kinds of denominational heritage all across the Western world. As the world continues to change we see those who are outside our experience as a threat, and those who walk outside to greet them as betrayers. We keep systems in place that stopped working years if not decades ago as we feel self-assured that our status within the landscape is secure. We make assumptions that are no longer valid and yet continue to reinforce them like walls against a foreign world –seeing any threat to these structures as a very assault upon God, if not our way of life. So we try to recruit others just like us, to keep the walls in place. And while we might make headway for a while – the walls still tumble and we still sit in the ashes, feeling plundered, left behind, and out of slushies.
There is an alternative: open the doors, go outside, and see who is new in the neighborhood. Who knows, maybe they might like a slushie on such a warm day. Maybe we could meet new friends, and not for the sake of getting them to help secure our walls, but because we have a genuine interest in who they are, where they’ve been, what they find to be important and where they struggle. Maybe we could help. Maybe they can too. Maybe the church can be a place where people want to meet – even if it isn’t for “church.” If God is the God of everyone, why are we so worried about the box we believe we keep him in? Wouldn’t it be more freeing, alive, vibrant, exciting, and faithful to catch ourselves in the act of meeting Jesus all over the place, and hearing some worthwhile stories along the way? After all, he says, “When you did for the least of these, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:39). I’d love to hear more about that. My hunch is…deep down you would too. Let’s meet outside for a slushie and talk it over. And hey, bring a friend, or someone new to your neighborhood.
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14)
(Originally posted on www.sinibaldo.wordpress.com, May 22, 2013. http://sinibaldo.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/marching-around-the-walls/ )
As we waited for our children to get off of the bus, I was talking to a neighbor of mine. He comes from Eastern Europe. The bus stop is in front of our church. As we were talking, he looked at our church and then at the Congregational Church that sits perpendicular to it across the street. His eyes danced back and forth between them. He turned to look at me.
“Don’t churches all face the same way?” he asked.
“That used to be the idea,” I replied, “Traditionally speaking; churches in Europe face East, toward Jerusalem.”
“I thought so,” he continued. “How come they don’t face that way in America?”
I grinned slightly. “Here we want them to look good. Whichever way looks best, or fits with the piece of property they sit on, the road, and the parking lot, is how they get built. We call it ‘curb appeal.’”
He smiled. “I see. But how are you supposed to find your way if you get lost?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“When I was growing up in school, we had drills and training in case we got invaded from either Western or Soviet powers. One of the things we were told would happen is that all the road signs would be taken down, changed or destroyed by our people in order to confuse our occupiers. But if we ever were outside and got lost or needed to get away, we were told that when we came to a town, the church would face East. We could use that reference point to reorient ourselves. There is no way to do this in America is there?”
“No,” I smiled. “Maybe that is why I get lost so easy.”
We laughed, and then chatted about for several more minutes before our kids got home.
I have been thinking about this conversation for a while. I hope our relationship grows and continues to develop. But right now I am left with a few questions concerning the insight I gleaned from this casual chat.
Which way are we pointed?
Is it the past? The future? Inward? Outward? To ourselves? To God? To others? Whichever direction we point, our trajectory will lead…right?
Where do we go when we get disoriented?
Is there a place in 21st century America that reorients us when we get lost? I’m not sure if there is a single unifying norm – other than our own individuality, a popular culture that is about as solid as shifting sand, and a glorified past that looks a lot more unified than it probably ever was. Sometimes I think the direction we face most often is chasing our own tails in circles.
Are we living in occupied territory?
I came across an article this week that suggested Americans see somewhere between 247-3000 marketing messages a day (David Lamoureux, “Advertising: How many Messages Do we See in a Day?” Fluid Drive Media. Online Available: http://www.fluiddrivemedia.com/advertising/marketing-messages/).
Even if these numbers are not even remotely true, the influence of constant messages over us to consume and keep consuming is beyond subtle. To contrast this, how many messages a day do we see, read, share, about helping people, utilizing our gifts and talents for the sake of others, or grounding ourselves in the story of God we claim to be foundational to our lives as people of faith? As one example – I publish this midweek message once a week, and preach on Sundays…that’s two. I’m part of two Bible studies a week; add two more. Devotions in the morning and reading blogs and articles, daily prayers, time spent with groups or chatting with colleagues, and conversations with individuals, like my new friend I see at the bus stop that happen in the moment fill good chunks of my days. For the sake of easy math – let’s say that is fifty or so direct encounters with faith in a given week. Lamaroueux suggests that even on the low-end (247) we see at least five times as many things advertised to us a day; suggesting life would be better if we bought that toothpaste, drove that car, or went on that particular vacation. (And those are not even directly harmful things.) No wonder we feel so overwhelmed.
So which direction should we go?
A proactive approach would be to try to engage the opposition. This sounds great – but I’m not sure I could take in 3000 advertisements a day and 3001 inspirational notes at the same time and not come out feeling any less overrun from the outside. We could try to counter just as many activities we chase around town to keep ourselves busy with by making our churches just as active. Yes we need activities to build up our community and keep us connected, but over the years I’ve wondered if at times we only add to the noise and tail-chasing, rather than draw others deeper into a relationship with God. We could try to subvert the wider culture and its activities but throw the name “church” or “Christian” in front of it, so we don’t just play in a softball league we play in a “church” or “Christian” softball league. There is nothing wrong with that of course, and such an activity could bring to us new friendships that are worth having; but it still doesn’t solve the problem – we are inundated by messages, activities, and values of a culture that seeks only to keep us consuming rather than giving ourselves away. We are living in occupied territory. And ad for ad, activity to activity, moment to moment, we can never quite compete. I think if this is the game we are going to play, we are going to lose.
Another approach is to try to keep the world at bay. In doing so we believe that if we build enough insulation around ourselves, the barbarians can never quite breach the walls. However, any student of history can tell you that any wall can eventually crumble and be rendered irrelevant; either by direct assault or technological advance. It is no secret that communities of faith often play catch-up in the world of technology and innovation; so if we think we can be one step ahead of the outside world to keep it at bay; then we really have been inside too long.
A third approach is about as counter-cultural as our media driven, technologically savvy, consumerist culture can provide: What if we just simplified? Instead of three activities we chase around to participate in, what if we chose just one? What if we took a night off from running around and claimed it as sacred space? What if we…wait for it…turned the TV off, logged off the internet, and put our smart devices away – for at least an hour, together with our loved ones every day? What if we took a whole evening off or an entire day off together? What might happen if we thought we had to be part of something or life might pass us by, and instead we just said, ‘no’ to it? What if we chose to take a day or an afternoon to do something for somebody, rather than try to get something from somebody? What if we actually listened to someone tell a story about where the churches point, rather than having a three-point plan to reply as a stock answer to their query?
What might happen?
What if we simply lingered in one message or maybe two, rather than hundreds or thousands – mediating on those verses or stories of scripture the entire week, trying to reflect on them in every other interaction we had?
What if we stopped seeing the church as but one more activity among many, one more thing competing for attention on the calendar, one more interruption keeping us from catching our breath, and actually saw our lives as opportunities to share the breath of God with others, and the church served as our network, our resource, our springboard to help facilitate living our faith wherever we were?
What if we remembered we accomplish nothing, but God accomplishes it all, and we, though weary and incomplete, are the vessels God uses to bring life to death, hope to despair, comfort to uncertainty, peace to turmoil, forgiveness to conflict; and light into darkness?
Maybe, just maybe, we could see the church as a community of people – where God was at work, providing direction to an occupied people, looking for the way home.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
(Originally posted on May 29, 2013 http://www.sinibaldo.wordpress.com