Monday, December 24, 2018

God's Love Incarnate

A pastor makes an announcement at the beginning of the Christmas Eve service saying there will be a meeting of the church board immediately following worship.  Once the service ends the church’s leadership gathers in a room to confer about what surely is a critical matter.  To everyone’s surprise a visitor, a complete stranger to the church, joins them.  The minister addresses him in a kindly fashion, saying, “My friend, do you understand this is a meeting of the church board?”  The visitor responds without hesitation, “Well sir, after your sermon I am as bored as I have ever been!” 

We gather tonight to celebrate an event so significant our culture has divided human history into what happened before it and what happened after. 

Since the dawn of humanity we have been wondering how we got here.  The Judeo-Christian tradition holds a Higher Being has created all things, including us.  We believe this Being, whom we call ‘God’, can be known in part through the creation God has brought into existence.  Creation reveals God is intelligent, the architect of wonder and beauty.  There is a majesty in the orderliness of creation and a mystery to its random chaos.  Both speak to God’s nature.  Because God made it, all creation belongs to God.  We believe God tasks us with the care and keep of this world.      

A specific group of people – the Hebrews – encounter God through historical events.  God sides with them to deliver them from bondage and oppression when they are enslaved in Egypt.  God promises to be with them to guide and protect them.  God reveals to them a code of commandments for spiritual and moral living.  This people comes to believe God blesses them when the obey and punishes them when they disobey.

Over time, a series of prophets begins to understand God in new ways.  First, they say obedience is not concerned just with outward behavior.  It must originate in the heart.  And second, they realize the punishment they endure as a people far outweighs anything they have done wrong.  They come to understand God is ‘long-suffering’ – a word which means God’s compassion never fails, never flags, never ends, no matter what we do.  We may turn away from God but God never turns away from us.

And while this is a vast oversimplification, in a nutshell it describes everything humanity learned about God prior to the birth of a baby boy in an obscure little middle-eastern town called Bethlehem.  We knew a lot about God and about God’s will for us before then, but what we knew was not nearly complete.  For us to have as full a knowledge as possible, God had to become one of us.  God had to take on human flesh so that human flesh could comprehend God’s very nature.

What we did not and could not understand before, a boy happened upon by mistake one year during his school’s annual Christmas play.  This particular year the students performed a program called “Christmas Love.”  They were all dressed in festive holiday sweaters and hats, complete with mittens and boots and everything else you associate with this time of year.  Each student held a big cardboard poster with a huge letter on it.  Collectively, the signs spelled out CHRISTMAS LOVE. 

The first child spoke up: “C is for Children.”  The second child said, “H is for Happy.”  And so it went.  There was only one problem and it was obvious for everyone to see, except the child holding the M.  Unbeknown to this child, he held his sign upside down and what should have been a M was now a W.  The children who could see it could not contain their snickering and try as they might the teachers could not get them to stop. 

When it came to his turn, the little boy raised his sign, which now read W, and said, “M is for magic.”  This elicited howls of laughter and the little boy turned bright red with embarrassment, not understanding what he had done.  But when all the children were finished and all the cards were held high, a bright smile came over every face in the audience.  The display intended to spell “CHRISTMAS LOVE” now unintentionally read “CHRIST WAS LOVE”.

To read the story of Jesus is to hear the story of God incarnate, of love in action.  Jesus lives his life reaching out to the last, the lost, and the least.  He demonstrates God’s wisdom by teaching the simple, God’s compassion by healing the sick, and God’s mercy by forgiving the sinner.  He invites the prominent and the powerless to join him in doing the work of God’s Kingdom.  And in the end, he gives his very life to expose and defeat the powers of death and darkness.  The only way any of this is aspect of God’s person to be knowable if for God to take on human flesh and show us what the divine nature looks like lived out in our world.  Short of this, we can only guess at what it might be.  Short of this, we cannot even begin to imagine how much God loves us.

Most of you know I have had an interesting couple of months this fall.  I have been to the emergency room four times, urgent care once, and hospitalized on three different occasions (including a stint in the ICU at Norfolk General); all in an attempt to deal with my blood, which seems to like to clump together and clog up my vessels.  One of my nephews (who serves as an army medic) encouraged me to enjoy my stay while I was at, what he called, “a very expensive, low-amenity, all-inclusive”.  Well, that is one way to put a positive spin on my experience.

I have to tell you what I went through has changed me in ways I still don’t fully understand.  It wasn’t that I stared death in the face and survived, because that wasn’t my experience at all.  I was deeply affected by what the prayer book so eloquently describes as “the loving care that surrounds us on every side.”  Beginning with the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, to family and friends and colleagues, to all of you, I not only knew I was loved, I felt it in a very profound way. 

Don’t get me wrong, before all of this I was not hanging my head low wondering why no one cared about me.  I have always felt very appreciated and valued.  But this experience made it real.  Love and compassion made itself present to me in flesh and blood.  It would have been easier for doctors to text a message with the results of my latest test along with a link I could click on for further information, but no, each came to my room to explain what he or she had learned and patiently answered my questions.  The nurses and staff could not have been kinder or more compassionate.  And your love and concern for me was written on your faces and ringing in your voices in a way I will never forget.  Love incarnate changes us.  It has changed me.

I never really understand those bible-thumping churches where the preacher holds up the ‘good book’ and bellows God loves us so much he sent us this love letter.  It seems to me the Scriptures, while holy and sacred and indispensable to our faith, are still at least one step removed from the love made flesh in Jesus.  They point beyond themselves to something much more profound.  As one person put it, “Action is always superior to speech in the Gospels, which is why the Word became flesh and not newsprint” or, we might add, just a book.  Tonight we celebrate God’s love made present and known in human flesh, through Jesus Christ. 

Tonight we also invite God’s love to dwell in our flesh that we might shine with God’s light.  Nothing is more valuable in this world, nothing more precious, and nothing more necessary.

There is a story of a five-year-old girl who is over-the-top excited to give her parents a very special gift at Christmas.  She is so excited she wants to keep the gift a secret.  She insists her parents set her up with a box, wrapping paper, a bow, ribbon, scissors, and tape and then leave her be.  She is adamant neither can see her special gift until Christmas morning.  Well, it may not have been the prettiest wrapped present ever, but all things considered the little girl does a decent job.  When she is finished she places it under the Christmas tree and checks it several times a day.  With each visit the girl becomes more and more excited and the parents more and more curious. 

What has she put in the box for them completely apart from their knowledge or doing?  As Christmas gets closer and closer and their daughter gets more and more excited about the gift, the parents’ suspense and curiosity grows and grows.  Each night, it takes all their power not to sneak a peek after their daughter has gone to bed.

Finally, Christmas morning comes and presents are opened.  As if to heighten her parents’ pain, the little girl insists her gift to them be opened last.  Wrapping after wrapping gives way to one present after another until finally there is only one left.  With a joy her little body can barely contain the girl hands her gift to her parents.  They hold it.  It does not appear to have any weight to it at all.  They shake the box, but there is no sound, no movement inside. 

Slowly they open it and are startled to find the box is completely empty.  They are absolutely puzzled until their daughter jumps in their laps, wraps her arms around them, and excitedly proclaims, “I blew kisses into it until it was completely full of my love for you and then I wrapped it very carefully so none got away!”

Tonight we remember and celebrate how we do not know God’s love is until it is made incarnate.  We did not know how much God loves us until God came to be with us to show us.  We never know how much we are loved until we experience that love made real through the lives and actions of others.  And we never love the world until we let God’s love shine through us.

Friday, December 21, 2018

A Real Charlie Brown Christmas

Perhaps there is no better source to seek for inspiration at a service like this than the future scholar and theologian Charlie Brown.  One day in mid-December he confides to a friend something deeply troubling:

I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus.  Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy.  I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.  I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess.  I like getting presents and sending cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. 

Charlie Brown sighs a deep sigh and says, “I always end up feeling depressed.”  Linus, who has been listening patiently, reflects for a moment and says, “Charlie Brown you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.”

I suspect most of us here tonight know exactly what Charlie Brown means when he says not withstanding all the joyous things associated with this time of year he still does not feel happy.  And I also suspect most of us fears if we reveal how we really are feeling people will react exactly the way Linus does.  Not only might there be something wrong with us, but we stand to ruin the fun for everyone else.

But allow me to suggest something different.  I think we are the normal ones.  We are the ones who are in touch with our deepest feelings and are courageous enough to be here tonight to affirm them as being a legitimate part of who we are.

Dr. Milo Thornberry, a Methodist pastor and active blogger until his death last year, identifies six reasons people encounter depression during the holidays.  First, this is a time of tremendous stress for many people.  Preparations for Christmas and wrapping up details at the end of the year places heavy burdens on us.  Like the song says, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, but it is also the most demanding.  More than one person has muttered, “I’ll be glad when this is all over.”

Second, fatigue.  Increased demands lead to decreased rest and exercise.  We get worn down and worn out and all too often come down with something as a result.  Being tired and being depressed go hand-in-hand.

Third, family-related issues.  You can spend all year avoiding that certain someone in your family who grates at every nerve and fiber of your being, but you cannot escape them at Christmas.  The only thing worse than dealing with this person or persons is the anticipation of dealing with them. 

Next, many of us experience a tremendous sense of loneliness at this time of year.  We may not be able physically to get home to the place where loved ones will gather.  For some of us there is no ‘home’ to go to.  I remember after my marriage ended walking my dog on cold December nights passing home after home lit up inside and out for Christmas.  More than once I could see a party inside, which did nothing but fuel my sense of loneliness. 

Then we have to deal with unrealistic expectations.  How can Christmas live up to all the hype, especially if we grade it based on, oh, let’s say getting a brand new Lexus with a big red bow the size of a large dog house on top.  The truth is, none of us gets the picture-perfect Christmas we imagine.  And while Thornberry doesn’t mention it directly, Christmas can be a very difficult time for people who don’t have the money to spend of gifts, decorations, and lavish meals.  It can be especially depressing for those who can’t afford Christmas, but go ahead and shop to the limit charging everything to credit cards they can’t pay off.

Finally, the reduced sunlight at this time of year is itself enough to bring on a case of the blues.  Seasonal Affective Disorder is very real and we are programed at some deep level to retreat into an emotional hibernation from now until at least April.

While Thornberry includes it under loneliness, I think grieving the loss of loved ones deserves its own place on this list and it should probably be at the top.  You cannot celebrate Christmas present without remembering Christmases past.  Our memory of Christmases past always includes loved ones who will not be with us this year.  Period.  And the more recent the loss the more acute the pain.  Period.  Period. 

So, given all of this – stress, fatigue, family issues, loneliness, unrealistic expectations, reduced sunlight, and grief – who do you know who does not have a reason to be at least a little down as Christmas approaches?  Let me say it again, we are the ones who are in touch with our deepest feelings and are courageous enough to be here tonight to affirm them as being a legitimate part of who we are.

I saw in the Suffolk News-Herald that Oakland Christian Church in Chuckatuck is having a Longest Night service tomorrow.  The paper praised the service as necessary and even included an editorial thanking the church for offering it and commending it to the community.  I am pleased it received this recognition and am heartened to have confirmation we are doing something important here tonight. 

This is now the second year we have held this service.  As I have said in the announcements leading up to tonight, last year we found how giving our sadness its due frees us up to lay it aside in order to experience more fully the joy of Christmas. 

In a psychological sense, we are refusing to turn to disassociation as a copying mechanism.  Through disassociation, we bury certain “undesirable” feelings in an effort to pretend they do not exist and forget the experiences causing them to pretend they never happened.  But what we suppress has a way of finding a way to express itself… and it usually it’s expression is neither appropriate or pleasant.  Depression manifests itself in many different and damaging ways.  The best way around it is through it, by affirming our own limitations and the limitations of this season as well as remembering all those we love but see no longer.

In a spiritual sense, we come here to affirm God treats tenderly the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick (Isa. 42:3).  This is a safe place to allow our vulnerabilities to surface.  This is a remarkable place because here we find God’s hope and help and healing. 

Christmas began two centuries not with cards being sent in the mail, not with decorations covering every surface of your house (indoors and out), not with wrapped presents piled under an artificial evergreen, not with non-stop parties at the office, school, and homes of friends, and not with a sumptuous meal served on fine china bathed in candlelight spread a warm glow of love on all our gathered family (with no one missing!).  Christmas began in a meager setting that served to highlight a singular truth – God loves us and loves us enough to come and be with us.  God loves us where we are, as we are.  And because God loves us where and as we are God loves our sadness and our pain.  God loves our loneliness and our sense of loss.  God loves our fatigue and our disappointment.  God knows this is a part of who we are and God loves it about us. 

Let God hold and keep you in these places.  Know that they are not to be hidden, shunned, or shamed.  And as you let God love all these things about you, may you begin to feel anew all of God’s love for all that is you, including that which gives light and joy and happiness and fulfillment and purpose and meaning and goodness.  May you sense all of this more powerfully this Christmas even as you embrace what it is that makes you blue.  After all, there is more than a little bit of Charlie Brown in each of us.


Monday, December 17, 2018

How Then Should We Live?

A couple is Christmas shopping when the wife suddenly notices her husband is missing.  She calls him on his cell phone and asks, “Where are you?”  The husband answers, “Do you remember the jewelers we went into about ten years ago, the one where you fell in love with that expensive diamond necklace I couldn’t afford at the time and I said one day I would get it for you?”  Little tears start to flow down the wife’s cheek and she gets all choked up and says, “Yes, I remember that shop.”  “Well,” says the husband, “I am in the gun store right next door to it.”

This morning we read about a plethora of people from various professions who, after coming to hear John the Baptist and responding to his call to repent, ask a basic question, “How then should we live?”  We come to church for many different reasons.  We search for peace and strength.  We seek community.  We sense a need to praise the Creator of all things.  We long for the beauty and mystery of meaningful worship and liturgy.  Among the many quests bringing us to church is the desire to know how we are to live.  We look for guidance, direction, and a moral sense of right and wrong.  We long for a purpose in life more significant than the ability to pay the bills at the end of each month. 

And while we come seeking lofty advice on such matters what John gives us is very concrete and down-to-earth.  To tax collectors John says take no more than the amount prescribed.  To soldiers he says do not extort from anyone by false accusations.  To everyday folks like you and me he says if you have an extra coat share it with someone who has none.  If you have extra food share it some with someone who is hungry.  There it is.  Straightforward and unequivocal. 

John’s counsel covers three areas pertinent to each of us.  He speaks to power, to possessions, and to resources.  Each, he says, must be used in a way that fosters the well-being of others in the community.  None is to be exploited for personal benefit alone. 

Tax Collectors and soldiers wield great power in John’s day and use it for their own advantage.  Tax Collectors typically take way more from the people than they are required to turn over to the Roman government.  Soldiers demand money as well and force people into all manner of servitude.  John states plainly the misuse of one’s power is an affront to God.

I suspect most of us do not think of ourselves as being powerful people and, it is true, most of us are not the movers and shakers of our society.  Still, power is defined as the ability to influence or control the behavior of people and given this definition each of us must admit we have power… somehow, some way, over someone.  You may take it on the chin time and again at the office, but when you come home you are the one with the power over your children.  No one may pay attention to you most of the time, but you have the power to turn the waitress’ day into a nightmare every time you sit down at a table in a restaurant.  Your parents may boss you around, but your little sister cannot defend herself from your mean behavior. 

It is helpful to remember there are two kinds of power.  The first is known as positional power.  It has to do with the authority granted you by virtue of the role you occupy in a given organization or social structure.  Parents have positional authority over children, police over citizens, managers over the rank and file.  Most often positional power is granted to a person so he or she can use it for the betterment of those under his or her sway.  It is an abuse of positional power to use it for personal benefit at the expense of those in your charge.

The other type of power is known as personal power.  It relates to charisma, giftedness, experience, and the ability to influence others.  Whereas positional power is appointed by the organization, personal power is granted to a person by his or her followers.  Think about all the movies you have seen pitying positional power verses personal power.  A huge wave has turned a cruise ship upside down.  Will the survivors follow the leadership of the ranking crew member (positional power) or the passionate minister challenging authority with common sense (personal power)?  Those granted personal power are by no means immune from abusing it. 

There is an old saying that goes “The maxim of tyrants is ‘If I could I would!’”  Judith Lewis Herman writes this in her book Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence - From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror:

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting.  Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense.  If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim.  If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens.  To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization.  After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.  The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.

Marlena Graves offers these questions as indicators of the abuse of power by clergy leaders:

How do they treat those closest to them?  Are they bullies?  Are they secretive?  Are they servants or self-serving?  Is it their way or “the highway”?  Do they present one face to the public and another in private?  Are they humble?

Henri Nouwen asked, “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?”  His answer: “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people.”  Graves notes “The people I admire most never try to usurp power or lord it over others.  They are humble in their giftedness and others-centered.”  I think John the Baptist would applaud the notion of being others-centered. 

He preaches not only about power, but also about possessions – thing like coats – and resources – like food.  I did a little checking.  It turns out I have 23 coats, jackets, and windbreakers.   By any count this is more than I need!  And if you look at my waistline you know I have more than enough food to meet my minimum daily nutritional needs!  I try to live generously and thoughtfully, but the Christian faith continually beckons us to reexamine our efforts. 

Just when you are ready to pat yourself on the back for all of your good works along comes someone like the 4th Century bishop and theologian Basil the Great who said,

When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief.  Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not?  The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

As unnerving as it can be, I like that our faith never gives us permission to be self-satisfied.  When you are committed to being others-centered you always ask “What more can I do?” 

How then should we live?  John the Baptist didn’t say what I am about to read for you.  It is a quote by the author and speaker Steve Maraboli.  But had John heard it, I am confident he would have shouted out “Dilly! Dilly!” or some other form of approval:

This life is for loving, sharing, learning, smiling, caring, forgiving, laughing, hugging, helping, dancing, wondering, healing, and even more loving.  I choose to live life this way.  I want to live my life in such a way that when I get out of bed in the morning, the devil says, “[Oh no], he’s up!

The season of Advent has enough tasks already crammed into it, so I hesitate to add more.  Here a few simple things you might want to do in response to today’s reading: 

(1) Over the course of the week keep a list of the people over whom you have positional power and personal power.

(2) Count how many coats and jackets you own, making special note of how many you don’t wear anymore.

(3) Count how many shoes and boots you have, and keep tract of the ones you don’t wear.

(4) Check out your refrigerator, freezer, and pantry and estimate how many meals you can make with what you already have.

(5) Consider posting on Facebook what you learn from these tasks.
Do one thing with all of this in keeping with John's teaching.

Monday, December 10, 2018

What Binds You?

The word of God came to John in the wilderness and he proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Years ago I officiated at a memorable funeral.  An elderly mother had passed away and her son sat in the first pew during the service.  Several years before this young man orchestrated the murder of his aunt.  He and his accomplices were quickly arrested and, for his part, the son received a sentence of life in prison.  During the funeral he sat quietly, his hands restrained in cuffs, with two plain-clothed deputies sitting behind him.  I read from the Gospel of Luke:

Jesus unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me
to proclaim release to the captives…’

And just as I read this I inadvertently looked at the young man as his eyes met mine and I almost said, “Well, release to all the captives except for you.”

A baptism of repentance.  The act of repenting leads to forgiveness and release – release of all that holds you down and holds you back.  Sin leads to brokenness.  We are broken by the things we do to ourselves and we are broken by the things done to us.  We forsake our actions and thoughts that lead to our brokenness and we let go of the things the world does to break us.  We forsake and let go so we might be healed and made whole.

This is what John offers to people in the wilderness.  Many make an arduous and dangerous journey to find the release John promises.  Standing in the Jordon River, which is only about thirty feet wide, waist deep, and milky-colored by the limestone dust of the region, he invites people to turn from their former life and to let go of all that drags them down in order to be ready for God to do a new thing in their life.

John reminds us of a profound truth: you cannot live in this world and not be broken.  Whether self-inflicted or damaged by others or simply scared by the nature of life itself, we can live for years and years in bondage to our actions and to our memories.

Perhaps you can identify with the lyrics of this song from a 1991 album by Pearl Jam:

Oh dear dad
Can you see me now
I am myself
Like you somehow
I’ll ride the wave
Where it takes me
I’ll hold the pain
Release me

Oh dear dad
Can you see me now
I am myself
Like you somehow
I’ll wait up in the dark
For you to speak to me
I’ll open up
Release me

A monk approaches a Buddhist master with a request, “Show me the way to liberation.”  The master replies, “Who binds you?”  The monk answers, “No one binds me.”  The master inquires, “Then why do you seek liberation?”

Mary Morrissey, a life coach and motivational speaker, says this:

Even though you may want to move forward in your life, you may have one foot on the brakes.  In order to be free, we must learn how to let go.  Release the hurt.  Release the fear.  Refuse to entertain your old pain.  The energy it takes to hang onto the past is holding you back from a new life.  What is it you would let go of today?

Here is a good Advent question: What binds you?  What binds you?  I am willing to place a small wager on two things.  First, I am confident each one of us has a deep and immediate response to this question.  You know of at least one significant thing in our life holding back from living freely into God’s love for you.  It may be something you are doing, something you have done, something being done to you, or something that was done to you in the past.  I am confident each one of us lives with something close at hand binding us.  The second part of my wager is this: I suspect most of us are terrified by the thought of telling another person what binds us.  We live with our worst sins and our deepest wounds by keeping them in a secret and silent place. 

We live with our worst sins and our deepest wounds by keeping them in a secret and silent place.  John knew this well and this is why he invited people into the waters of baptism.  He offered folks a place to expose those things which bind so what binds could be washed away.  He presented people with a place where the worst of who they are and the most awful things that had been done to them could be drowned, never again to have mastery over them.

If I had listened to this sermon a month ago I would have scoffed silently at the preacher.  Yes, I could have named the thing binding me.  But no, I would not have believed release was possible.  Let me tell you about something that has happened to me recently. 

I have been trying for some time to get my drinking under control.  Since August I even made some progress.  But when my health problems emerged and I was put on a plethora of medications, my doctors told me I had to severely curtail my alcohol consumption, limiting myself to no more than one drink a day.  I found this level of moderation to be nearly impossible, especially on those nights when I am home alone – which pretty much is most every night.

The last time I was in the hospital a doctor confronted me, flanked by a host of bright-eyed interns and residents.  She told me I could not continue to drink and be on the blood-thinning medication I desperately need to be healthy.  I don’t know what happened to me in that moment or why it happened, but I said, “I have tried to moderate my behavior and I just can’t do it.  Total abstinence,” I said, “has to be easier.”  “Well, that was easy,” the doctor said, as I am sure she gave some kind of signal to her team indicating “we have heard this before.”

But at that moment I knew I had found the answer to what has bound me for several years and I felt free.  Today is my 29th day of abstaining from alcohol.  It is a modest beginning to be sure, but by the grace of God I can tell you I have not looked back, I have not been tempted, and I feel better than I have in a long, long time.

I am humbled by this experience because I feel deep in my heart it is not at all of my own doing.  I tried and tried and tried to get control of myself, but never came close to succeeding.  Then one day, out of the blue, it was as if something from beyond unbound me.  It wasn’t the shame of a doctor’s words.  It wasn’t a warning about the implications for my health.  It did have a lot to do with how you all have loved and supported me through my medical crisis and my sense that I owe it to you (as well as myself) to do everything possible to get healthy.  But somehow I sense I have been freed by a grace from beyond that I heard and received.  The time for me to be unbound was right when I was called into a kind of baptismal waters in that hospital room.

Perhaps this morning the time is right for you as well.  Perhaps something is stirring in you signaling you are released and abundant, new life is yours.  It comes to you not as something of your own making, just as all my efforts to curb my drinking did not set me free.  It comes to you from beyond as something mysterious, as something wonderful, as something so pregnant with grace so as to open a door we have been trying all our life unsuccessfully to be beat down.

In the words of the prophet Isaiah quoted by our Lord, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to proclaim release to the captives.”

Monday, December 3, 2018

There will be Signs

Jesus said, “There will be signs…”

Chrissie Hynde, the musical genius leader of The Pretenders (and graduate of my high school), wrote and recorded a haunting song for the group’s 2002 album Loose Screws.  The lyrics begin…

If I’d known then
if only I had known
what, where or when
I would of kept you on the phone.
Hindsight is tough, it’s so obvious
never enough for the two of us.

I would have tried a little harder.
I would have cried a little louder.
I would have lied with more aplomb.
I, I, I, I, I, I, I should have known.

If you want to connect to life’s pain, do a Google search of phrases such as “I should have known”, “Why didn’t I see it coming?”, and “How did I miss the signs?”.  I did that earlier this week and encountered story after story of unexpected illness, sudden financial ruin, relationship-ending infidelity, hidden substance abuse, heartless employment termination, and (perhaps the most painful of all) struggling with the what, where, and when of why a loved one took his or her life. 

Looking backward.  Maybe you’ll identify with this poem by the English writer James Fenton titled The Mistake:

With the mistake your life goes in reverse.
Now you can see exactly what you did
Wrong yesterday and wrong the day before
And each mistake leads back to something worse
And every nuance of your hypocrisy
Towards yourself, and every excuse
Stands solidly on the perspective lines
And there is perfect visibility.

What an enlightenment.  The colonnade
Rolls past on either side.  You needn’t move.
The statues of your errors brush your sleeve.
You watch the tale turn back — and you’re dismayed.

And this dismay at this, this big mistake
Is made worse by the sight of all those who
Knew all along where these mistakes would lead —
Those frozen friends who watched the crisis break.

Why didn’t they say?  Oh, but they did indeed —
Said with a murmur when the time was wrong
Or by a mild refusal to assent
Or told you plainly but you would not heed.

Yes, you can hear them now.  It hurts.  It’s worse
Than any sneer from any enemy.
Take this dismay.  Lay claim to this mistake.
Look straight along the lines of this reverse.

“It’s so difficult, isn’t it?”, writes S. J. Watson in his book Before I Go to Sleep, “to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something?  It’s only with hindsight we can see things for what they are.”  Edmund Burke famously said “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”  This, I think, is the work of the head... to learn from the past.  But R.J. Ellory is speaking of the pain of the heart when he writes hindsight is “ever the cruelest and most astute adviser.” 

The season of Advent always begins with a warning of what is to come.  “There will be signs,” Jesus says, “and when you see them know the worst thing imaginable is about to happen.”  This horrible thing will happen, Jesus says, before this generation passes away.  “This generation” does not refer to us.  Jesus speaks these words to people who live almost 2,000 years ago and it refers to an event in their lifetime, not ours. 

Each of the four gospels is written either just before or just after a siege by the Roman army leading to the fall of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Temple.  This is the event to which the signs Jesus mention points.  Afterward, Jews are dispersed all over the known world, their society and religious practices forever altered.  For the most part, up until this moment Christians are a subset of the Jewish community. They worship in the synagogue and Temple and participate in local commerce.  After the calamity, separate identities between the two groups slowly emerge.  Christians begin to understand Jesus as the fulfillment of the Temple rituals and come to see themselves as a kind of new Jerusalem.

Mark’s gospel, being the earliest, foresees these events as immanent, much the same way we project the disastrous consequences of questionable government policies.  The other gospels are written after the fall of Jerusalem and so they speak with hindsight.  Except, by casting them as Jesus’ words, they locate his warning decades before the events come to pass.  As a result, they carry the heavy tone of “You should have known” and “All the signs were there.” 

While Jesus’ words speak to something not of our time, they touch on a timeless dynamic.  As humans it is imperative for us to learn from the past and to prepare for the future, but we have a tendency to take this too far.  Hindsight becomes an exercise riddled with remorse, regret, and self-recrimination.  We anticipate horrible scenarios in the future and live in anxiety, fear, and dread.  It seems to me both are expressions of our perceived omniscience.  When looking backward we expect of ourselves the ability to see all things.  When looking forward we believe we can know exactly how things will unfold.  Both are rooted in the subtle and false notion we can know everything as God knows everything.  The truth is we can’t and we don’t.  We will always miss some signs and be blind to some clues.  We will always fail to anticipate a potential outcome or development.

What are we to do, we who live with the statues of our errors?  Jesus offers us this: “Be on guard… be alert at all times, praying…”  It is sage advice.  Live attentively in present, the space between the past and future.  It is easier said than done. 

The biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s first book is titled Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.  Surely the study of moss requires one to focus attention on the subtleties and nuances of life.  She makes this observation:

Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubbell space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere.  Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells.  But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled.  With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad of sparkling facets that lie so close at hand.  We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface.  Our [awareness] at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind.  Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes?  Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive?  Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

The great mystics of our Christian tradition tell us attentiveness to the present moment and mystery is a kind of prayer.  “Be on guard” is not a military mandate, but rather a call to the spiritual discipline of setting aside all that distracts – all our pouring over the past and all our pondering about the future – in order to experience the blessing and wonder of now.  It is an invitation to quiet our minds in order to be truly present wherever we might be; to be truly present to whoever we might be with.

Advent is the season when the secular world bombards us with one advertisement after other.  Each one tells us exactly what to purchase to let the special people in our life know how much we love them – a diamond, a Lexus, a gift card.  Jesus reminds us the single most precious gift you have to give is your time and your attention.  Give this gift and you will see what is really happening in this world – how moss grows and how those close to you are really doing.  Advent begs us to give a gift to ourselves.  Be attentive to what is happening to you.  What is happening to you as you live and move and have your being in this one and only life you have?  Jesus said there will be signs.  Some will be foreboding.  Others will point to promise, hope, and possibility.  Do not let them pass by unnoticed. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

We are Family

A few months ago our assigned Old Testament reading was taken from the Book of Esther.  Because it is both short and interesting, I encouraged you to go home and read it for yourself.  This morning we encounter another short and interesting Old Testament book – the Book of Ruth.  I encourage you to take 10-15 minutes sometime today, or perhaps later in the week, to read it.  Only four chapters long, it is a little more confusing than the Book of Esther because it deals with ancient customs regarding responsibility for caring for a childless widow in the family. 

The story begins in Bethlehem, yes, the Bethlehem where Jesus will be born centuries later.  The region is undergoing a severe famine and so a couple, Elimelech and Naomi decide migrate with their sons to the land of Moab because they have heard there is food there.  While only 30 miles away and located on land above the southeastern side of the Dead Sea, the terrain is step and difficult and it will take a week to ten days to complete the journey on foot. 

Moabites are descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew.  Although they are related to the people of Israel, they do not welcome Moses and the exiles from Egypt and for this God condemns them for ten generations.  Moabites worship foreign gods and practice abominable acts such as child sacrifice.  More often than not they are at war with Israel, but at the time of this story the two peoples enjoy a period of relative peace and cooperation.  Make no mistake, there are huge cultural differences between Elimelech’s family and the people with whom they now live.

Elimelech dies during their time in this foreign land and Naomi is left with her sons.  Each takes a Moabite wife, one is named Orpah and the other Ruth.  Ten years pass before each of Naomi’s sons also die.  Orpah and Ruth, like their mother-in-law, are now widows.  Naomi receives word conditions have improved in Bethlehem and after having been away for more than a decade she decides to return to her homeland.  She encourages her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab where they will have the opportunity to remarry among their own people.  Neither woman wants to leave her.  Orpah eventually relents, but Ruth stays with Naomi and relocates to Bethlehem. 

Boaz is one of Elimelech’s close relatives and he extends kindness to the two women.  As we hear in today’s reading Boaz and Ruth eventually marry and have a son, Obed.  Obed is one half Jewish through his father and one half Moabite through his mother.  Obed becomes the father of Jesse, who, depending on his mother’s lineage, is at least one-quarter Moabite.  Jesse fathers several sons, including David who will become the King of Israel.  Again, other ancestors notwithstanding, David is at least one-eighth Moabite. 

For a people so consumed with religious purity and an intolerance of intermarriage, this ancestral element of David’s background is scandalous.  That the story is remembered, retold, written down, and eventually included in the canon of Scripture suggests someone somewhere recognized how interrelated we all are and believed it was important to acknowledge it as something good.

I have been reading a book by Adam Rutherford called A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, an ambitious sounding title to be sure.  Rutherford is a geneticist who examines what DNA evidence tells us about the history of the human race.  The short answer is it tells us a lot and not a lot.  It can answer some questions, but is unable to give definitive answers to many others.  DNA evidence is very difficult to retrieve from older human remains, but we are learning about migration patterns, mating habits, and a host of other information.  For example, you may be interested to know about 2% of your DNA has been passed down to you from the Neanderthals. 

In one chapter, Rutherford examines family ancestry and pedigree.  Your family tree of direct descendants doubles with each generation.  You have two birth parents, four birth grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on.  Rutherford discusses Chalemagne, who lived around 750 AD.  If you are a direct descendant of his, your family tree contains 137,438,953,472 people.  If this sounds like a lot, it is.  It is more people than are alive today and have ever lived.  So at some point your pedigree begins to fold back in on itself. 

I have found instances of this in my own ancestral tree.  John Tindall and Elizabeth Hutchinson are my grandparents nine generations back in one part of my family line and eight generations back in another.  They are the great-grandparents of Lockhart Hutchinson and also his great-great grandparents.  He had to know something was up because his mother’s maiden name was the same as his paternal grandmother.  All of our family trees are riddled with this kind of overlap.

If I have not confused you yet, keep listening because things are about to get really confounding.  Joseph Chang is a statistician at Yale University.  He set out to examine ancestry not based on genetics, but mathematics.  He asked a basic question: How far back do you have to go to find a person we all share as a common ancestor?  Setting up a model incorporating the number of ancestors we all have (two parents) and the current population he went looking for a point in time when all of our ancestral lines connect.  If you are of European descent the answer surprisingly is about 600 years ago.  Sometime in late 13th century there lived a man or a woman through whom all Europeans are related.  Keep in mind this person is one of only thousands and thousands of people from whom you and I are direct descendants, but we are related through this person.

Thomas Cornell lived from 1593-1655 and he was the first Cornell to immigrate to the colonies.  Rebecca Briggs, his wife, lived from 1600-1673.  They are my great-times-ten grandparents, 13 generations removed from me.  At this ancestral level alone, baring overlap, you are directly descended from 4,096 people.  Now they had several children, some who lived and some who did not.  Their children had multiple children and so on.  Over the generations, some of the lines come to an end when a child does not produce a son or daughter, but, as you can imagine, a lot of people are descended from Thomas and Rebecca Cornell.  One of them is our own George Cornell.  Another is the fabulous Miss Madison Mottley.  Yes, my connection to these two people is only as deep as two out of 4,096 people, but we share some small trace of DNA and are very distant but real cousins.  It is quite possible, even likely, many of us here today have common ancestors even more recent than the 13th century, but at the very least our European lineage intersects at that point in time.

Well, Chang wasn’t finished with his research.  Using more math, he determined we are all related to every European who live a thousand years ago and before.  Rutherford uses this information to state every person of European origin is a direct descendant of King Charlemgne.  Yes, you are from a royal line, many in fact. 

Building on his initial work and tweaking his model based on more recent research, in 2003 Chang set out to determine how recently every human being shares a common ancestor.  Given how the Americas were isolated until relatively recently, you probably realize this date will not be as recent.  Still, you may be startled to learn Chang determined our most recent common ancestor lived just 3,600 years ago.  At the conclusion of an academic paper through which he reported his work, Joseph Chang writes this:

Our findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the language we speak or the color of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

Remember I told you I would confound you!

Why do you think the Book of Ruth, which is chalk full of beautiful theological and personal themes, ends by noting Ruth the Moabite is David’s great-grandmother?  And what does it say to you genetics and mathematics tell us there is an Adam or an Eve of DNA, someone to whom we are all related?  What do you make of our ancestral interconnectedness not millions of years in past, not hundreds of thousands of years in the past, but well after the advent of recorded history?

It occurs to me when Christians tell the story of Adam and Eve we focus primarily on two things: (1) God created us and (2) we sinned.  Perhaps another meaningful aspect of the story we ignore or underemphasize is we are all related.  The “human family” is not a phrase invented by liberals or Hallmark, it is a reality… a fact. 

You are related, if ever so thinly, to every person who was elected to office last Tuesday and to every person who was not.  You are related, if ever so thinly, to every single Veteran who has served our country.  You are related, if ever so thinly, to every person walking across Mexico from Honduras to America.  You are related, if ever so thinly, to every person worshipping in our church this morning, and down the street, across the street, and a few blocks away, and in our community and, well, you get the idea.  And you are related, if ever so thinly, to every person worshipping and praying in whatever way their beliefs and traditions teach them. 

I was born in Pittsburgh while my family was transitioning to life in Ohio, so I consider myself an Ohioan.  Still, there is a part of Pittsburgh in me.  I remember when Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates rode the song “We are Family” all the way to the World Series title in 1979.  It is a truth that rallied a team and a city.  Might it be a truth that, through the grace of God, helps us to live in peace, unity, and concord with one another?  Might it be a truth informing how you interact with every and any person who, if ever so thinly, is related to you?