Monday, December 31, 2012

We People of the Incarnation

In his book, The Hour of the Unexpected, John Shea relates the story of Jesus’ birth as told by five-year-old Sharon; a little girl sure of her facts and moved by their meaning:

They were so poor they had only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat and they went a long way from home without getting lost. The lady rode a donkey, the man walked, and the baby was inside the lady.

They had to stay in a stable with an ox and an ass (hee-hee) but the Three Rich Men found them because a star lited the roof. Shepherds came and you could pet the sheep but not feed them.

Then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was? The baby was God!

Shea writes that after Sharon said this, she jumped in the air, whirled round, dove into the sofa and buried her head under a cushion. That, he says, may be the most appropriate response to the Good News of the Incarnation.

On the first Sunday after Christmas we always read from the prologue of John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

“The Word became flesh.”

The spirituality of most traditions in the Christian faith tends to gravitate toward one of the major events in the bible. Lutherans, for example, have a spirituality rooted much more deeply in Good Friday and the Cross than we Episcopalians do, at least in my experience. Charismatics are people of the Spirit – Pentecost Day. There are traditions rooted in the giving of the law, the Ten Commandments, and there are those rooted in Paul’s conversion. Perhaps more than any other tradition, we Anglicans are rooted in the Incarnation. We are a people whose spiritually is forged by God’s decision to take on our human nature and to live in our world.

God becoming flesh is a sign of God’s love for all that God has made. It is an indication that our fragile, foible, human form is a capable container of all that is good and right and holy. It says that creation is precious to God. The Incarnation demonstrates that God is not aloof or unhappy, but desires to reside in this world and to reside with us.

Being rooted in the Incarnation has deeply affected Anglican thinking. We long ago rejected the Calvinist doctrine that humanity is totally depraved; so fallen and wicked that we do not even possess the ability to respond to God’s message of grace and love. We embrace the idea that human activity and human initiative is infused with goodness and potential because we are created in the image of God. Music, art, literature, dance, poetry, film, design, craftsmanship, gardening can be and often are human expressions of divine holiness. Human projects such as science, medicine, accounting, engineering, and agriculture pick up on the way God has ordered creation and, in so doing, advance the quality of human life. We believe that the Word became flesh not so much to give us one last warning, and not so much to extend to the fallen one final opportunity to grab an eternal life preserver, but to show us God’s true self and to show us how to live into the fullness of our humanity.

We proclaim that the Word became flesh. We do not proclaim that the Word became a holy book. We Anglicans have a high regard for Scripture and a distinctive way of approaching it. First and foremost, we emphasize reading it in the context of public worship. Doing so shifts our focus from discerning what doctrines it might teach to how it speaks to human needs and hopes. We don’t see the bible so much as being a detailed, divine blueprint for how the world should function, but rather (in the words of William Countryman) “as a promise, a gospel, even perhaps a letter from a dear friend.” It works on us more through kindness than through fear. And while we revere the bible, we are aware that it has a human element to it. (Again Countryman says) “It is the Word of God, but that does not necessarily mean that it is God’s words. Always the bible is second to the incarnate Word.” Why do we hold this? Well, to quote little Sharon, God became a baby. God did not become a book.

“The Word became flesh.” In a recent editorial, the award-winning, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd explored a question that must surely be on the mind of many: Why does God not prevent debilitating illness and horrific acts of violence? She looked to author and priest Father Kevin O’Neil for insight and understanding. In Dowd’s column, O’Neil recounts stories of being with others during a time of loss and he relates how others where with him when he was at a similar place of need. Listen to how he reflects on these experiences:

For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

Father O’Neil may be a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, but his incarnational thinking is one we Anglicans can celebrate. The Word became flesh in its purest, fullest form in the person of Jesus. We find that the Word still comes into this world, not so much, for us at least, by quoting the bible to people and attempting to explain to others how it contains all the answers to their questions, but when we allow God’s goodness and love and beauty and peace to abide in us and then are willing to let it fill the space we occupy with others. Surely you have sensed God being present through the efforts of another person. Perhaps you have recognized God being present to another through your own efforts. These are powerful experiences and as a priest I can only do what I do by being confident God will be incarnate through my work, poor though it may be.

We are people deeply rooted in the Incarnation. It shapes how we understand life, the world, humanity, the bible, and care for one another. These twelve days of Christmas are at the heart of who we are as a people of God. This hopeful, positive approach to the faith is something we Anglicans embody in a distinctive way through our spirituality. It is one way God uses us to bless to the world.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The 19th Century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is one of America's best
known writers.  He is the author of such famous quotes as "into each life a
little rain must fall" and "in this world you are either an anvil or
hammer."  On Christmas Day 1864, Longfellow wrote a poem which became a
popular carol, and the story behind the poem is the story I want to tell you

That Christmas Longfellow was in the throes of a particularly difficult
period in his life.  His wife Fanny perished in a tragic fire three years
earlier while she was tending to family matters in their Cambridge,
Massachusetts home.  She had trimmed the hair of one of her daughters and
decided to preserve a few locks in sealing wax.  Her dress passed too close
to a nearby candle and ignited in flames fueled by wax that had dripped onto
the material.  Fanny Longfellow fled the room where her children where
gathered and ran to her husband's study.  He attempted to smother the fire,
first with a small rug and then with his own body, but he was not able to
save her life.  In the process Longfellow was so severely burned that he was
not able to attend the burial service.  

After that truly horrific event Longfellow was no longer able to produce
public writing.  His own personal journals give us insight into his state of
mind and spirit.  The first Christmas after Fanny's death, he wrote, "How
inexpressibly sad are all holidays."  On the first anniversary of her death,
he journaled, "I can make no record of these days.  Better leave them
wrapped in silence.  Perhaps someday God will give me peace."  Longfellow's
entry for December 25, 1862 reads: "'A merry Christmas' say the children,
but that is no more for me."

Then, in March 1863, Longfellow learned that his oldest son, Charles
Appleton Longfellow, secretly enlisted in the Union Army without his
blessing.  In early December came word that Charles was severely wounded at
the Battle of New Hope Church here in Virginia.  He had been shot below the
shoulder blade and the bullet did damage to his spinal column.  Charles
returned to the Longfellow home in Cambridge for a lengthy, uncertain
recovery.  That Christmas Longfellow wrote nothing at all in his journal.  

A year later, on Christmas Day 1864, he ventured out for a stroll.  All
around Cambridge church bells were ringing with the message "Peace on earth,
goodwill toward men."  It struck Longfellow that peace and goodwill had been
neither his own experience nor that of the nation as a whole.  The Civil War
was in its third year.  Hundreds of thousands had been killed with many more
injured.  On that Christmas morning, families were separated from loved ones
precisely because the peace on earth proclaimed by the church bells did not
exist.  As he walked and as he listened, Longfellow reflected on his own
loss and on the losses of our nation.  His mood was sour, the antithesis of
the message ringing throughout the community.  

But something happened during that walk.  Something changed for Longfellow.
When he got home he sat down in his study and for the first time since
Fanny's death began to write.  He produced a poem called "Christmas Bells",
which twenty-some years later, was reconfigured into a carol we now know as
"I heard the bells on Christmas Day":

   I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
   Their old familiar carols play,
      And wild and sweet 
      the words repeat
   Of peace on earth, good will to men.

   I thought how, as the day had come,
   The belfries of all Christendom
      Had rolled along 
     the unbroken song

   Of peace on earth, good will to men.

   And in despair I bowed my head:
   "There is no peace on earth," I said,
      "For hate is strong 
      and mocks the song
   Of peace on earth, good will to men."

   Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
   "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
      The wrong shall fail, 
      the right prevail,
   With peace on earth, good will to men."

   Till, ringing singing, on its way,
   The world revolved from night to day,
      A voice, a chime, 
      a chant sublime,
   Of peace on earth, good will to men!

At the heart of Christmas is the good news of Emmanuel - God with us.  The
'with us' part will change throughout our lives: where we will be, who will
and who will not be with us, what we are able and not able to do. all of
this can and will change.  What is constant is that God is with us no matter
what our circumstance.  God's presence endures all things.  It took
Longfellow nearly four years to be able to come back to it, but he did.  And
he found a moving way to speak about his myriad of emotions and recovery of
faith in the midst of national pain and personal loss.

I think tonight about families in Newtown, CT, in Webster, NY, and in so
many areas of our country directly affected by heinous, violent crime and
imagine that this is a difficult night.  Their world has changed in a
devastating way, much as Longfellow's had been.  Their loss mocks the
message of Christmas, but that does not silence our bells or what we
Christians proclaim: "God is with us, peace on earth and goodwill to all."

Two Sundays ago I said in my sermon that the tragedy in Connecticut had
connected me with the season of Advent as never before.  Its themes of light
in the midst of darkness, joy in the midst of sorrow, and hope in the midst
of despair are exactly what we need to hear right now.  Tonight I embrace
the Christmas message that God is with us; becoming present when it is
darkest, when we are most sad, when we are in deep despair.  God's Son was
not born under cushy circumstances to a life of sheltered privilege.  God
came to be with us in some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.
Why?  Because that is when and where we most need God to be with us, when
life is tough.

I am struck by the parallels between Longfellow's sadness and where our
country finds itself this Christmas; the parallels of personal loss, of
communal tragedy, and national grief in the midst of war.  Longfellow
experienced a rebirth if you will because the churches around him proclaimed
the good news of Emmanuel - God with us and peace on earth.  Yes, I took
three mournful Christmases for the bells to break through Longfellow's
darkness, but eventually his night turned to day.  

This Christmas, perhaps more than any other I can recall, I am honored to be
a part of the church and feel so incredibly hopeful about the impact we have
simply by proclaiming the good news: "A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of
peace on earth, good will to men!"  Longfellow wasn't revived by a slick
sermon or stately prayer.  He was restored because, in multiple churches
around Cambridge, various people took the time on Christmas day to pull
ropes connected to church bells.  

Never underestimate the healing power in the hands of the church present
every time we gather to be the church.  We never know how and when our
simple proclamation of "God is with us, peace on earth and goodwill to all"
will give birth to light and joy and hope.  But we know that if we do not
say it, if the bells rest silent, if the message is not proclaimed, then God
has lost a powerful voice to remind people of God's loving presence.

My prayer is that you will experience the heart of Christmas in a renewing
and profound way.  If you walk in sadness, I pray that this may be a time
when ringing singing revolves your night to day.  If you find yourself in a
daytime moment of light and rejoicing, I pray that your very life will be a
witness to the heart of Christmas.  The message of God with us is one we all
we need to hear in every possible way it can be said.  How will you say it?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Seldom Seen

Listen to this actual newspaper account that appeared in print several years ago:

"Waylon Pendergast, 37, of Tampa, Florida, committed a spur-of-the-moment robbery while on his way home from a late-night drinking session.  A very inebriated Mr. Pendergast forced his way into the house through an open upstairs window, filling a suitcase with cash and valuables before setting the living room on fire to cover his tracks.  He then escaped through the back door and made his way home, chuckling all the way.  Only as he turned the corner into his own street, however, and discovered three fire engines outside his house, did he realize that in his drunkenness he had, in fact, burgled and ignited his own property.  His comment: "I had no idea I had so many valuable possessions."

I don't know if Waylon Pendergast attends a church, but I have my doubts.  They arise not because he drinks too much and not because he committed two felonies, but because he was clueless about his blessings.  We people of faith are attentive to the goodness we find in life.  Some of this goodness takes the tangible form of material possessions.  Some of it relates to those things that, as they say, money cannot buy.  We people of faith do not number our problems, we count our blessings.  And as we count, often we are overcome with amazement and joy.

This aspect of the faith is front and center in today's Gospel reading.  A teenage girl (young by our standards) and a woman in her early thirties (old by the standard of her day) meet to visit.  They are cousins and each is pregnant.  Notice what we do not hear in the narrative.  There is no mention of Elizabeth having morning sickness, back pain, or trouble sleeping, but I am confident she was struggling physically.  There is no mention that Mary had a care in the world, but you can be sure being an unwed, unemployed mother weighed heavily on her mind.  

What the narrative does detail is the warm greeting they offered to each other.  Elizabeth's words reverberate with blessing for her younger cousin.  Mary's words ring out with gratitude and praise for all that God has done.  Even the baby in Elizabeth's womb leaps for joy.  Joy holds a very significant place in Luke's Gospel where the word appears ten different times and often in response to something initiated by the Holy Spirit.  By contrast, Matthew uses the word joy only five times, John eight (primarily as a response to persecution), and Mark not at all.

Elizabeth is the person who most radiates amazement when she says, "Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me?"  The New International Bible makes it even clearer: "But why am I so favored?"  Mary echoes in response: "The Mighty One has done great things for me."

Have you ever had a moment like this - a moment of clarity - when suddenly and without notice you are overcome with an awareness of how blessed you are; a moment of sheer amazement that you have what you have - materially, relationally, personally, spiritually; a moment of joy even (and especially) in a time of hardship or need?  If we subscribe to Luke's theology, such insights as these are the fruit of the Holy Spirit's activity in our life.

In my experience the Holy Spirit helps us to see blessing in the midst of challenge.  I remember shopping a few years ago at (where else?) Wal-Mart and being slightly annoyed that the person pushing a cart in front of me was taking too long to get down the grocery aisle and in the process was blocking my way.  I watched her for a while I began to realize that each time she stopped to pick out an item she was doing mental math to figure out
if she could afford it or not: bigger cans verses smaller (and more affordable), name brands verses knockoffs, and more than once just looking at an item and putting it back on the shelf verses in the cart.  I pondered but could not remember the last time I had to worry about being able to pay my grocery bill. It helped me to realize how truly fortunate I am and with this newfound awareness of blessing, my annoyance was transformed into joy and amazement.  It may not seem like much of an epiphany, but it changed my outlook on life (and on shopping at Wal-Mart).   

After she passed away, Cecelia Williams' son found a poem she had written some years before.  It is another example of how the Holy Spirit transforms our perspective:

  Thank God for dirty dishes,
     They have a tale to tell.
  While other folks go hungry,
     We are eating very well.
  With home and health and happiness
     We should not want to fuss.
  For by this stack of evidence, 
     God is very good to us.

I'll think of this poem when I have to clean up from Christmas dinner and when I have to do laundry (a sure sign that I have clothes to wear) and when I have to clean house (a sign that I have a house to live in) - all blessings.  

Why am I so favored?  Why has God been so good to me?

Several years ago, lying in a bed in a dingy, old, log cabin, this is not the question I was asking.  I was at a clergy conference designed to help participants assess how we are doing spiritually, vocationally, personally, and financially.  "Why am I so favored?" is not the question that filled my thoughts when I first laid down, but it became the question which settled in my mind by the time I went to sleep.  I wrote a poem about the experience, which I have not shared with anyone until now.  I have given it the title "Seldom Seen."
I am a little resentful
That I must walk fifteen minutes
Down a dark road in the woods
To get to my cabin.
It is late, I am tired,
And I missed the bus
The others took.

I get to my cabin
And lay down on my bed.

When I checked into
The conference they laughed,
"Oh, you are staying in
Seldom Seen."  
It is the lodging farthest away 
And up a steep hill.
Others are in modern rooms
With porches looking out
Over the lake.  I am in 
A cold log cabin
Isolated from the rest
And alone.

As always, alone.

And I am a little bit resentful
As always.

I lay down on my bed
And look up at the ceiling
Taking in its structure
And texture and design.
The windows are open
To the cool mountain air
And I hear water cascading
Down a nearby stream.

I am aware of my
Mild resentment
The water
The isolation
The absence of a lake view
But another voice inside me says
  This night
   I am sheltered
  I am safe
  I am comfortable
  I am still full after a delicious dinner
  I am affirmed
In a vocation which
Satisfies and delights me
It pays me well and will provide
A comfortable retirement
I am in good health
With no limitations
Or restrictions
I possess a sound, sharp,
Inquisitive mind
  I have God's love in me
And know God's love for me.
  I am surrounded by God's love
In the people I serve.

How many people around the world
This night
Are praying desperately
For just one or two
Of these things I have?
How many people would gladly
Exchange their bitter, harsh reality
For even a small taste of my world?

The resentment I felt has evaporated
Because I have sensed my
Blessings seldom seen.

God is so good and I
Lack nothing that I need.

We chuckle at Waylon Pendergast for stealing what he already had and burning down what he already possessed, but in a sense we do the same kind of thing all the time.  We let the inconvenience of waiting rob us of the awareness of wealth.  We let a stack of dishes blind us to the treasure of family and food.  We let resentment overshadow the deep and abiding goodness in our lives.  

Elizabeth and Mary are wonderful figures for us to follow.  Their amazement and joy in the midst of challenge and struggle give us reason to invite God's Holy Spirit to speak to us, to move us, to transform us.  Why are you so favored?  Why has the Mighty One done great things for you?  The answer is simple. because God loves you.  Basque in the warmth of this love and live your life with a renewed sense of joy and amazement.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Finding Grace in the Wilderness - Amazing!

Three years ago, when I turned fifty, I decided to journey into the wilderness to meet a prophet.  The wilderness turned out to be the football stadium in Charlottesville and the prophet was Bono and the rock band U2 performing during their 360 Tour.  The huge staging, which was taller that the stadium itself, was a technological marvel that enabled every one of the 75,000 people in attendance to be intimately connected with the band as it performed.  The show was part rock concert, part visual spectacle, and part revival.  U2’s lyrics are boldly religious; calling and prodding and inviting listeners to live in a human community marked by love, respect, hope, and caring.  Toward the end of the concert Bono sang the song One and, as with every other song that night, the audience sang right along with him, word for word:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
One... life

And then, as the music faded, Bono did something I will never forget.  Standing at the microphone, his image broadcast on a huge screen hovering above the band, he sang a cappella:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
      that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found;
      was blind, but now I see.

And as he sang, every person present sang with him.  What does it say that, in a society which is becoming more and more unchurched, 75,000 people know the words of this hymn by heart?  At the very least it hints at how deeply infused it is in our personal and national spirit.

Most people know something of the story of John Newton, the hymn’s writer.  He was born in London in 1725.  His father was a sea captain.  His mother was deeply spiritual, but she died when John was only six years old.  By the time he was eleven Newton was sailing with his father.  As he grew in years he rose in rank.  The rough and rowdy life of a sailor suited Newton well.  He renounced whatever faith remained in him from his mother’s influence and embraced wine, women, and the sea.  

Eventually John Newton came to captain The Greyhound, a merchant ship used in slave trading.  It was a lucrative enterprise that came at the cost of horrible human degradation.  Newton oversaw how the captives he crowded on board got imprisoned in the decks below; each trip taking the lives of countless people.  Imagine what it takes to be indifferent to the stench of human excrement and death; to the ongoing cries of suffering, physical agony, and unimaginable anguish.  That is John Newton did day in a day out.  He simply tuned it out.

During this period Newton himself almost died twice: once when he contracted a deadly fever and another time when a severe storm almost sank his ship.  It was the second experience that changed Newton’s life.  The Greyhound was taking on water so badly that he cried out to God for help.  I wonder how many times on that ship prayed that it would sink and end their suffering.  But on this trip it was returning from America with a cargo of beeswax and wood.  As water poured into the hull and the vessel rocked on the waves, the cargo shifted and blocked the holes where water was leaking in, enabling the ship to drift to safe harbor in West Africa.   

Repairs where made and as they sailed home to England Newton began to read the bible and other religious literature.  On March 10, 1748 he embraced the Christian faith.  From that point on, he avoided profanity, gambling, and drinking.  He continued in the slave trade, captaining three more voyages before renouncing it all together and becoming a strong abolitionist.  Newton eventually pursued a call to the ministry and was ordained in the Church of England.  During this time he became a prolific hymn writer and we still sing several of his works – Glorious things of Thee are spoken being one of them – but Amazing Grace is far and away the best known. 

As one commentator puts it,

“Newton’s disgraceful past never left his memory and he was completely dumbfounded over the privilege of living joyously free under the divine grace of God.  In an intense moment of inspiration, when he was thinking of the wonder of the grace of God which had saved even a wretch like him, he wrote the hymn.”

It is a hymn rooted so deeply in the human experience of life and of God that 75,000 people crowed into a college stadium could sing in unison led by the most influential rock performer in the world today. 

Amazing Grace is a hymn about how God pursues us throughout life no matter where we are and no matter how far away from God we go.  It is a hymn about God’s unflagging love for us.  And it is a hymn about the personal transformation we undergo every time welcome God to be with us. 

Had it been around back in the day, I am confident John the Baptist would have led its singing with those crowds who came to see him in the wilderness.  He preached that God’s Anointed One was coming soon.  It was a message of God’s profound love for humanity.  And he preached that it is time for each and every one of us to live in this world in a manner in keeping with God’s love and God’s dream for us: a sentiment expressed so beautifully in our Gospel Hymn:

Then cleansed be ever heart from sin;
   make straight the way for God within,
and let each heart prepare a home
   where such a mighty guest may come.

Soldiers, tax-collectors, and people overflowing with material abundance all wanted to know the same thing that John Newton began to explore at his conversion… how am I to live my life here and now and from this moment forward? 

The amazing thing about grace is how it proclaims the past is past.  What matters most is now and what is ahead and what you do with it.  John the Baptist called on his listeners to repent.  Today I fear that many of us associate the word ‘repentance’ with the word ‘shame’; as if it is a call to feel really, really, really bad about yourself and all the things you have done.  But the biblical notion of repentance focuses not on feelings, but on actions.  To repent means to change; change your behavior, your attitudes, your actions, your life.

I’ll give you an example.  Do you remember how in the comic strip Peanuts Lucy held the football for Charlie Brown to kick, but always pulled it away at the last second?  Charles Schultz drew up one strip where the two are arguing about this until Lucy breaks down in tears and admits, “Charlie Brown I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have.  I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways!  I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you.  I’ve been wrong, so wrong.  Won’t you give a poor penitent girl another chance?”  Charlie Brown is so moved by her remorse that he says, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.”  He then steps back and runs as Lucy holds the ball.  But at the last moment, she pulls it away and Charlie Brown once again falls flat on his back.  Lucy’s last words are these: “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”  In the bible, repentance is not about recognition, it is about change – change empowered by grace.

And in the bible, judgment is always wrapped in tones of grace.  How else can we explain the final verse in today’s Gospel reading: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”  What is the good news in John’s long list of exhortations?  It is the same good news that stirred John Newton so long ago: “Your life is way off course [that is the judgment part], but you can choose now to live a new and better way [that is the good news].  The Methodist worker and hymn writer Fanny Crosby, perhaps best known for writing Blessed Assurance, once said, “Don’t tell a man he’s a sinner; he knows that already.  Tell him there is pardon and love waiting for him… and never give him up!  People want and need love.”

That is the message John the Baptist preached in the wilderness and it is the message Bono delivers at every performance.  It is the message that changed John Newton’s life.  And it is God’s message to you and me this Advent season: God is coming in the fullness of love.  Get ready to receive it and live now in a way befitting of it.  The world always, always needs to hear this Advent message of hope and light and new beginnings and better days to come. 

Friday night I sat weeping after reading a single headline: “20 Children, 6 Teachers Dead in CT School Shooting.”  I’ve read nothing more about the incident than what the headlines tell me.  I’ve avoided the TV because I know I can’t bear the images and stories on it.  I have followed people’s reactions on facebook and have had several conversations with friends and colleagues.  What I have done most is pray.

I have prayed for families who lost a child or parent, for school children who have been through hell at such a tender age, for parents and teachers everywhere whose experience of this horror from afar brings into focus a sense of helplessness and vulnerability.    I’ve prayed for all of us who are shocked and saddened and confused as to how horrors like this seemingly have become commonplace in our society.

And I have found myself going back to the wilderness to hear again the Advent voice of John the Baptist.  What comfort I have found rises out of the poetic language of Advent – a language that often seems obscure and harsh and typically does little more than tisk-tisk-tisk the faithful who dare to express Christmas cheer before the liturgically appointed date.  Advent has always felt more like a countdown and less like a message. 

But now its images of light in the darkness, hope in the midst of gloom, and joy in the midst of sadness resonate as never before.  Oh, how I long for the rough places where people live in loneliness, alienation, confusion, hurt, pain to be made smooth.  Oh, how I yearn for the crocked places of anger and violence to be made straight.  Oh, how I ache for those of live in the valley of sorrow and grief to be raised up.  Oh, how I thirst for the lofty places where the high and haughty reside to be brought down to the level where we all live.   Oh, how I look for the appearing of the One who comes with healing in his wings.

Earlier I told you that John Newton wrote many hymns.  Had Bono sung this one doubtless only a few in the crowd even would have recognized it, but on this day it seems just as powerful and appropriate as the one we all know by heart:

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.
Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!
By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.
Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!

Why Does God's Appearance Need to be Announced?

Today’s gospel reading heralds the arrival of a king.  Messengers with such a message were not uncommon in Biblical times.  A king traveling by caravan would send ahead an ambassador to announce his imminent appearance.  Upon receiving such news villagers would scurry about to make preparations.  Potholes would be filled, ruts leveled, and banquets prepared.  The king’s visit was surely a happening that would not soon be forgotten.

So we read again of John the Baptist who heralds the arrival of God’s salvation.  He called on 1st Century Palestine to be prepared for the One promised from long ago.  His words remind us to be on the lookout because we never know when God will break into our lives in some startling form or surprising fashion. 

We might want to ask why God needs to be announced?  Why do we need a John the Baptist to let us know of God’s impending advent?  Shouldn’t God’s revelation be self-evident?  How could anyone miss the fact that God has something to say?

I want to explore this basic, straightforward question by probing into a very complex subject that has to do with what is termed the ‘psychology of religion’.  This field of study explores how people come to have an image of God and how that image functions in their life.  I want to spend a few moments describing the work of Ann-Marie Rizzuto put forward in her book, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study.  Her ideas are somewhat complicated, and I admit that I myself don’t grasp it all, but I want to do my best to let you know what I do understand because I think it has something important to say to each one of us. 

Rizzuto talks about a person’s “representation” of God.  By this she means the image and understanding of God that each of us puts together for ourselves.  Just as a portrait ‘represents’ the subject, but is not the subject, so too our representations of God are not God; although the more we work at it, the more closely our representations can accurately reflect God.

Rizzuto’s studies have led her to two conclusions.  The first is that every child forms some kind of rudimentary representation of God for himself or herself.  This initial formulation occurs at a very early age, well before the child turns three.  Second, her findings indicate that a child’s initial representation of God is formulated from a combination of father representations, mother representations, self-representations, and a healthy dose of pure fantasy.  Stay with me here.

So, for example, if father frequently comes home from work frustrated and angry, the child may think God gets angry with us, sometimes for no reason.  If mother stands back silent and helpless in the face of father’s fury, the child’s understanding of God may incorporate traits of powerlessness and suffering.  If the child is confused by the environment in which he is raised, he may come to believe that God doesn’t always understand why people mistreat one another.   In terms of fantasy, I remember the year my young daughter thought Jesus would have Santa bring back to life her hamster and give it to her for a Christmas present.  Rizzuto’s guiding principle is that the child’s representation of God will take on traits that suit the child’s needs for safety and self-worth.

As the child matures psychologically his or her God representation goes through revision, as do representations of parents and self.  This new understanding may become the basis for faith or for unfaith.  It may also be left untouched, even though the child continues to revise the way she understands her parents and her self.  So while the child continues to grow into adolescence and adulthood, her idea of God may stay frozen in a time when she was four or eight or sixteen or whenever.  If one’s view of God is not revised to keep pace with one’s own development and maturing, the person will come to perceive the notion of God as ridiculous or irrelevant or, depending of the image, perhaps even threatening and dangerous. 

While most children will move beyond an early stage of how they understand their parents, what if they don’t move beyond it in their understanding of God?  Rizzuto states there is a great tendency for our representations of God to become rather fixed and impervious to modification or change.  If that happens the child’s frozen notion of God may be domineering, neglected, or actively repressed as the child grows into adulthood.

Through her studies of various adults, Rizzuto concludes that with regard to their relation with God all of her subjects fit into one of the four categories.  Listen carefully and honestly to see if you can figure out where you fit in:

1.     There are those who believe in God and relate to God. 
2.     There are those who don’t know if God really exists. 
3.     There are those who are not interested in God and are puzzled (or even angered) by those who do. 
4.     There are those who struggle with an image of God; an image which is harsh and demanding.

I suspect that there is a least one person here this morning for each of these categories and if you think about spouses and adult children who are not here or in any church this morning, it is certain that we cover all four categories.  These varieties make perfect sense if you understand that a person’s representation of God may lie unexamined and unrevised for years and years.  That, says Rizzuto, is a very common tendency. 

So if your understanding of God is a combination of toddler fantasy and early images of your parents, then you will struggle with how religion makes sense in your present adult world.  A frozen understanding of God either will be irrelevant or absurd or an impediment to getting on with the business of life.  The same holds true if your idea of God has escaped revision since the time you were 8 or 12 or 22.

In truth, a part of the business of life is to continue to integrate our experience in the journey of life with our understanding of God.  Perhaps no one ever told you that before.  The representation you had of God in the past does not have to be the representation you have of God today.  Nor does today’s representation demand to be tomorrow’s. 

We began this sermon with a simple question:  why does God’s appearance need to be announced?  How could anyone miss what God has to say to him or to her?  The complicated answer I put forward can be boiled down to this:  we may miss it because the God who appears and the God who speaks is not the God we know or are listening for.  And of this you can be sure: on this side of glory the God you know, which is your representation of God, will never be exactly who God really is. 

The good news is that the true and living God keeps coming to us throughout our lives; revealing God’s self in Word and Sacrament, in all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, in the poor, through the beauty of creation, in the valley of the shadow death, in the quiet moment, through a still small inner voice, in the Incarnation, and on the Cross.  God speaks to us… not just once or twice in our lifetime, but throughout.  And each time God speaks and each time we listen, our representation of God becomes clearer and more authentic. 

God can surprise us.  God will do things that we never dreamed or anticipated.  God often is not who we expect.  But when we approach the religious dimension of life with the knowledge that our life’s work is to continue to pursue God’s true Self, then the unexpected will become the norm and it will be integrated into our humble representation of the Holy One.  If we cultivate this spiritual disposition then we will be forever on the lookout for God’s Advent.  We will meet the herald of an ambassador with an open heart and arms ready to embrace because we understand that the God we know always desires to introduce us to the God who is.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thinking of the Future

From an early age we are taught to look toward the future and to anticipate what it might hold.  From the sternly worded, “Just you wait until your father gets home and hears about this,” to “Christmas is only twenty-one days away,” we learn to live in the present in a way that is shaped by what we believe will happen in the future.  We tend to envision the future either with a sense of dread or hope.  George Orwell wrote that if you “want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever”; hardly an image of optimism.  The late Steve Jobs had a different outlook:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.  You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.  This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

How do you envision the future?  Orwell and Jobs are at the polar opposites of pessimism and hope.  It seems to me we all tend to gravitate toward one pole or the other.  Typically we look to the future with one set of glasses or another.  One outlook colors the world rosy while the other turns us into doomsday preppers.

If you type into a search engine the phrase “the future is in God’s hands” you will get over thirty-five million hits.  Apparently, this is a popular notion, but even so, believing God is in charge doesn’t necessarily help us to know how to feel about what is to come.  You see, the plain and simple truth is the bible gives mixed messages on this matter.

Take this morning’s readings as an example.  The lesson from Jeremiah is brimming with hope and optimism: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promises I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  The psalmist adds cheer to the chorus saying that “all the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies.”  Given this witness, it would seem natural for people of faith to long for the days ahead.

But then we encounter the words of Jesus warning of celestial signs, natural disasters, and conflict among nations: “People will faint with foreboding of what is coming upon the world… Pray that you will have the strength to escape all these things that will take place.”

Biblical prophecies like these have burned into our national consciousness a sense of apocalyptic nightmare.  No matter how pleasant and peaceful the present may be, we live with a dread that it will all come to an end, and come to that end very quickly: a super virus, nuclear annihilation, a rock from outer space, something.  I can’t say if the bible itself is the origin of this fear or if it merely plays into a fear that has always been there, but future fear is both real and pervasive.  Gauged on popular films and television series it is evident that we are fascinated with end of the world scenarios.  We find comfort in seeing a hero or heroine survive our worst fears for ourselves and for the world around us.  It gives us a vicarious sense of overcoming what terrifies us.
If, in thinking about the future, the bible points both toward hope and dread, what should we, as people of faith, believe?  How should we act?  What should we do?  And what should we proclaim to others?  

Let me lift up two paradoxes of the faith.  First, human life is both fragile and incredibly resilient.  We are right to guard the preciousness that life is because it can be gone in moment.  Still, the human capacity for enduring and overcoming is greater than we imagine.  This paradox means that we should step into the future with both confidence and caution.

The second paradox holds that the some aspects of the future are in our hands while others are beyond our influence and control.  On a personal level, there are things we can do to enhance the longevity of our lives, but none of us can avoid death all together.  Thinking globally, it is within our power to make the world more green, more peaceful, and more prosperous for all.  And yet, eliminating the human proclivity toward waste, violence, and greed seems well beyond us.

The motivational speaker Peter Drucker taps into something important when he says  “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”  Much of the future is waiting there for us to shape it.  Or we can fall into the temptation to give up and give in and do little or nothing to mold a better tomorrow and beyond.  This passive approach is bolstered by theology that holds everything is in God’s hands.  Well, I don’t believe God is guiding a meteor through deep space so that either it will miss the earth or hit us smack on and end life as we know it.  We are not called to sit back, stand pat, and let the good Lord do all the work.  As people of faith we have faith in ourselves and in God to side with us as we exercise the human capacity to create a better world.

The season of Advent always begins with readings like the ones we hear today – readings about the future.  They remind us that we do not know what the it holds.  They also tell us with great certainty who will be with us in the future, come what may.  God will be present in times of joy as well as sorrow, in celebration and in challenge.  For this reason we who are people of faith look forward expectantly for we are moving toward a future we cannot control but still can shape and all that we do will be done in the presence of the One whose presence will see us through.