Friday, December 31, 2010

The Seventh Day of Christmas: December 31

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, "At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you." See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

-    2 Corinthians 5:16 - 6:2

It’s the last day of the year. I love to think of life as “working together with God.” We’re in the middle of a big project, and another year of our time has come and gone. It’s always a struggle … but often, it is also a delight. Have faith that the delight will be worth the struggle.

This sweeping masterpiece by Sufjan Stevens is called “All Delighted People.” I think it’s about taking stock and choosing to continue the struggle of loving and working with God. (I also enjoy the way he pays homage to Simon & Garfunkel.) Note that the lyrics are available if you expand the text segment below the screen.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Sixth Day of Christmas: December 30

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the LORD for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

-    Isaiah 25 
One of the main functions of prophecy is to sustain hope. Here’s one of the prophets of our own time, Stevie Wonder, with “Someday at Christmas.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Fifth Day of Christmas/ the Feast of the Holy Innocents (transferred): December 29

When the wise men had departed, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

"A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."

-    Matthew 2:13-18

The quote is from Jeremiah 31. I had written the other day that Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but another claim could be made for the Holy Innocents.

However, my hope is that this incident is a literary device, and that there was no such slaughter in history. As a literary device, it calls to mind the Pharaoh’s massacre of Hebrew children in Exodus 1. And by referencing Jeremiah, it brings in corporate memory of the Babylonian exile. Jesus the Messiah is the new Moses, once again saving his people. And he is also leading them out of exile and back to their home in God.

Nevertheless, slaughters of innocents have occurred throughout history and are still occurring today.

Along with the Matthew and Jeremiah readings, we hear today the fulfillment of hope in the Revelation to John:

I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

-    Revelation 21:1-7

In 1988, before Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was ousted from power, Sting released “They Dance Alone,” a tribute to the women who danced the Cueca, the national dance of Chile, as a protest after the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, sons—were disappeared by the government. As many as 3,000 men may have been eliminated by Pinochet’s regime. As do our lectionary readings, this video begins with the grim and terrible but ends with the promise of hope.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Fourth Day of Christmas/ the Feast of St. John (transferred): December 28

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
-    1 John 5

When December 26 falls on a Sunday, a few important feasts each get bumped forward one day: St. Stephen to the 27th, St. John to the 28th, and the Holy Innocents to the 29th.

Today is the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist. One of the twelve main disciples, John is also usually identified as “the one whom Jesus loved.” This indication only occurs in John’s Gospel, suggesting that the author (or attributed author) had a very special relationship with Jesus. In the New Testament there are also three letters attributed to John, though scholars disagree about whether this is the same John. There is also the Revelation to John (of Patmos), who is most certainly a different John.

With so many Johns, it can be difficult to sort out exactly whom we are celebrating today! But I do like this reading from today’s lectionary. I took one quarter of Greek at Seattle University last year, and during that quarter we began working our way slowly through the First Letter of John. We learned that John’s Greek was rather clunky and halting, but also basic and free of fancy vocabulary, which is why we beginners were able to delve into it pretty easily. It seems Greek was not John’s first language either.

“For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” That seems odd, doesn’t it? Since when does love depend on obeying commandments? Yet I think our inclination is to put the cart before the horse. I believe the intent is to show that when we obey God’s commandments, it’s a sign that we have loved God all along—that this is a natural response to that love. If we love God, what else would we want to do?

And what does John mean by “his commandments”? Whether or not he is the same person as the author of the Gospel of John, he most certainly means, “Love one another.” Jesus came into the world and proclaimed that there is, in essence, only one commandment: love. If we place love at the center of our lives every day, we have “conquered the world.” We have got it all figured out. That doesn’t make life easy, but in a very real way, love is the key to every door.

Today is also the fourth day of Christmas. Here’s the band Jars of Clay with “Love Came Down at Christmas.”

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Third Day of Christmas/ the Feast of St. Stephen (transferred): December 27

Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, "Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the LORD, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the LORD, he has also forsaken you." But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the LORD. King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah's father, had shown him, but killed his son. As he was dying, he said, "May the LORD see and avenge!"
-    2 Chronicles 24

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him.

-    Acts 7
Today is the feast day of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. The readings for the day portray two different stonings: the stoning of Zechariah in the Old Testament and the stoning of Stephen in the New.

Clearly the two readings are aligned in the lectionary to show a contrast. And it’s an important one. As Zechariah died, he begged God to avenge his death. As Stephen died, he begged God to forgive his killers. This is one of the main differences Jesus made: he modeled self-sacrifice. Jesus himself begged God’s forgiveness for those who crucified him. Stephen picked up the theme.

Down through the ages, martyrs have forgiven their killers. In 1980, days before his murder, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador told a reporter, “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish."

One of my favorite movies is the 1991 film Boyz N the Hood. As difficult as it is to watch, I love what it teaches us about the cycle of violence and how to break it. When warring sides are killing each other, the violence escalates. Revenge killings grow in number. Is there any escape?

Yes. The only way out of the cycle of violence is to be the one who chooses not to strike back. Revenge only leads to a greater escalation. Somebody has to be willing to be the first to appear weak by refusing to fight.

Will this solve the problem? I don’t know. Maybe it does sometimes, and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe sometimes the one who appears to look weak is then further victimized.

I have a lot of questions about the applicability of refusing to fight back, especially on an international scale. When I was in the 7th grade, during the height of the Cold War, I wondered, “What if one side launched its nuclear arsenal, but the other side refused to launch back?” The one side would be destroyed, but the other would not, at least not right away. Those who survived would have to deal with the guilt of what they had done even as the radiation spread across the planet. But there would be no blood on the hands of those who refused to fight. What would be the consequences for the future of humanity?

On the other hand, “the future of humanity” is a vague concept. In day-to-day life, what matters are people—individuals, and small communities of people. What about women whose husbands abuse them to the point of death? Should they not fight back? If someone attacked my family, would I dare not to fight back? How could not fighting back possibly be acceptable?

This is one of the biggest human conundrums. From home break-ins to the current standoff between North and South Korea, from inner-city gang violence to the intractable situation in Israel/Palestine, humans seem bent on doing violence to one another. Few really want this violence. But there are certain things everybody does want: food, shelter, dignity, security, a better life for their children. People will always be willing to fight and die for these things. How can we work to provide these things in advance, so that nobody has anything left to fight for? And how will we keep in check those few who insist on fighting for the things they don’t need: more money, more power, more control?

I recommend the movie Boyz N the Hood. I also recommend the 1989 film Romero. It appears that the entire film Romero is available on YouTube in ten-minute chunks, but it is also available through Netflix to those who have a subscription. Witness the example of this Roman Catholic Archbishop, who discovered for himself that the Kingdom of God is not out beyond death, but right here in the midst of life, in the form of human dignity.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Second Day of Christmas: December 26

Upon your walls, O Jerusalem,
I have posted sentinels;
all day and all night
they shall never be silent.
You who remind the LORD,
take no rest,
and give him no rest
until he establishes Jerusalem
and makes it renowned throughout the earth.

-    Isaiah 62:6-7

Jesus the Messiah did not come to knock heads together. Jesus came to be in a relationship with us. As contemporary authors like Brian McLaren and Robert Farrar Capon remind us, and as Jesus told us in the first place, the Kingdom of God is not merely something that will happen after we die. It is alive and active among us today. The only question is whether we choose to participate in it. How do we do so? We get beyond our fear and love one another.

Here’s Garth Brooks’ take on this reality: “Belleau Wood.” “Heaven’s not beyond the clouds. It’s just beyond the fear.”

And here’s Wikipedia’s entry on the real story behind the song “Belleau Wood.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 25

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the LORD. Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. The LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. Be silent, all people, before the LORD; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.
- Zechariah 2:10-13 (NRSV)

I grew up on this Christmas carol by John Denver and the Muppets. I love the way it addresses the bleakness of the world around us and the Christian hope of redemption. It also elegantly portrays the forgiveness Christ brings: all the pain of the world can simply be laid aside as irrelevant in the light of the Incarnation. God is with us, and we have nothing to fear.

The garment of life, be it tattered and torn
The cloak of the soldier is weathered and worn
But what Child is this that was poverty-born
The peace of Christmas Day

The branch that bears the bright holly
The dove that rests in yonder tree
The light that shines for all to see
The peace of Christmas Day

The hope that has slumbered for two thousand years
A promise that silenced a thousand fears
A faith that can hollow an ocean of tears
The peace of Christmas Day

Add all the grief that people may bear
Total the strife and the trouble and care
Put them in columns and leave them right there
The peace of Christmas Day

The branch that bears the bright holly
The dove that rests in yonder tree
The light that shines for all to see
The peace of Christmas Day

Friday, December 24, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 24

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

- Revelation 21:3-4

The angels sang to the shepherds, "Go! Now! Run to Bethlehem to see the child who will change everything!" And a star led wise astrologers from distant lands. The Gospel stories tell us that the first witnesses to God's arrival in our world were not the religious authorities. They were not those in power. Some were poor, humble shepherds who just happened to be around. And others were foreigners who we might perceive as having no right to be invited in the first place. The shepherds' invitation was a light that blinded their eyes -- they couldn't deny it. The Magi's invitation was a star they had never seen before -- something you'd have to be paying attention to notice.

If we were able to choose the first witnesses to the Incarnation -- the arrival of God enfleshed -- whom would we invite? Who are today's shepherds? Perhaps they're a group of day laborers waiting around for the next job, hoping for at least a meager paycheck today. Who are today's Magi? Perhaps they're people with no credentials in Christianity, following a belief system we would find kooky, but as a result, looking in places it would never occur to us to look.

The arrival of the Messiah is hidden. It's unexpected. We cannot predict when or how Christ arrives. And when Christ comes among us, we can no longer be at the center of our lives. Everything shifts. We find ourselves with priorities we didn’t have before. Our emptiness is filled, not with our own needs, but with those of others. We worry less about protecting our own interests and live instead with God's interests in mind.

I’ve heard it said that whenever you draw a line in the sand, you can bet Jesus is on the other side of it. Here’s Jackson Browne to remind us of that: “The Rebel Jesus.”

Merry Christmas. May Christ be born in you and in me and in all of us this and every year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 23

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed."
-    Luke 1:39-48a

So what if … ?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 22

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

-      Luke 1:26-38

Finally, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Here’s Sting’s version of "Gabriel’s Message," followed by many artistic portrayals of the Annunciation.

Ustyug Annunciation, a 12th Century Russian icon

Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464)

 El Greco (1541-1614)

John William Waterhouse (c. 1849-1917)

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937)

Beatrice E. Parsons, 1870-1955

Brigid Marlin, 1936-

Igor Mitoraj (1944-)



John Collier (contemporary)


 Máire Gartland (contemporary)

He Qi (contemporary)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 21

Then Job answered the LORD:

I know that thou canst do all things
and that no purpose is beyond thee.
But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood,
things too wonderful for me to know.
I knew of thee then only by report,
but now I see thee with my own eyes.
Therefore I melt away;
I repent in dust and ashes.

-      Job 42

Thomas said to Jesus, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."
-      John 14

Today is the Winter Solstice … and we have just enjoyed a full lunar eclipse overnight. My wife and I stayed up too late last night watching a movie, and as we were getting ready for bed, we realized the eclipse had begun. The full eclipse itself didn’t arrive until the middle of the night. But we can see that it was beautiful. The solstice and a full lunar eclipse have not happened simultaneously since 1554.

I remember back to the summer of 1989, a time of particularly fierce doubt for me. There was a full lunar eclipse then, too—in the early evening, when I could really enjoy it. I was working that night as a dishwasher at The Galley seafood restaurant in St. Ignace, Michigan. I caught portions of the eclipse through the window as I was working, and more later that night after I got off work and was walking home.

During the eclipse, my doubts temporarily subsided. The universe was just too big and beautiful to have happened all by itself. If there were no creator, then what was all this for?

Today is also the Feast of St. Thomas, the apostle who doubted. I take great strength from Thomas’s doubts. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Or, as Mother Superior said to Maria in The Sound of Music, “I try to keep faith in my doubts.”

From now on the days will get longer. Doubt will be held and consoled. Warmth will return to the world. Get ready, everyone … here comes the sun. (The Son?)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 20

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

-      Isaiah 11:1-9

What do you want for Christmas? I hear adults ask children this question all the time. It’s an innocent enough question; I’ve asked it myself on a number of occasions.

But I wonder … could we be asking our children better questions? Deeper questions? Would it not be better to draw on their deepest hopes and desires, rather than on their shallower instincts? Would asking such questions awaken something in them that might not otherwise awake?

Of course we’re going to give gifts at Christmastime. We give our children Barbie dolls and trucks and Polly Pockets and Legos because, through their play, they learn about the world. They learn the wonder of story and the structure of science.

But what if we didn’t stop at asking which toy is their heart’s desire? What if we found out their real heart’s desire? In so doing, maybe we’d find out they’d really like there to be no more war in the world. No bullying at school. No hunger. No tears. No cancer. No divorce. No HIV. No loneliness. Maybe we’d learn they feel guilty about something and would like forgiveness. Maybe we’d learn they don’t want to be afraid of death. Maybe we’d learn that they want to know God loves them and cherishes them and will take care of them all their lives.

If we help make them aware of their longings, maybe we can begin to point them in a direction where they can dwell on those longings and start to make real decisions about what kind of people they want to become.

That sure would beat, “I want an Xbox more than anything else in the world.” Really? More than anything else? Wouldn’t you rather have Daddy home from Afghanistan? It may seem at first like a downer, but I think we adults can handle downers if we can also help children get in touch with their own feelings.

This year, let’s take our children seriously, and lovingly, and gently meet them where they really are—not where we would feel comfortable for them to be. Let’s give them the Xbox, if such a thing is possible, and then spend more time with them in conversation about what’s really important. This is how wisdom is taught.

Here are the Goo Goo Dolls with “Better Days.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 19

Jesus said, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

-    John 3:16-21

If there’s one word that trips up American Christians more than any other, I think it’s “believe.” Our logical, Western, post-enlightenment minds love the word, but we don’t grasp its entire meaning. We think belief means mere intellectual consent to a proposition. We’re scientists with a great theory. We want to prove to the world that Jesus is/was the Son of God, whatever that means, and that anyone who hasn’t come to the same conclusion we have is using faulty science … and is in big trouble for it.

I think this is why John 3:16 gets quoted so often. You've seen it at baseball games. You've heard it referenced in pro wrestling. It even appears on the bottom of coffee cups from In-N-Out Burger restaurants. Say it with me now: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

The problem is that many Christians read this verse in isolation. If we do, we may be tempted to believe that God's love is conditional, and that if we don't do something very specific—that is, "believe in him"—we will receive not eternal life, but eternal death. An awful lot hangs on that word "believe," because at a glance, it seems like a required action.

The Greek word is pisteuo, which means "to think to be true, to be persuaded of." Kind of like, "Do you believe it will rain tomorrow?" In its basic form, yes—it's an intellectual exercise. But pisteuo has some extra connotations that our word "believe" doesn't necessarily carry: it also means "to trust, to have confidence in, to commit oneself to." That's more like saying to someone, "You can do it; I believe in you."

Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world? That's not really what God asks—not to "believe THAT." Instead, do you believe IN—pisteuo—Jesus? Do you put your whole trust in God's grace and love, like Jesus did? It's a very different question, and it calls us out of the black-and-white, heaven-or-hell thinking that many Christians fall victim to. When Jesus uses the word "believe," he's not asking us to just get over it and swallow the facts. He's inviting us to trust him and commit ourselves to him.

The real clincher is John 3:17. "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." Wow. God loves the world, and God saves the world. Being in the presence of Jesus is not an occasion for guilt, but for rejoicing at the opportunity to trust God's promise. Can you trust God to redeem the world? Can you give up trying to redeem your world yourself and just let God do it? Taking it this way makes it much easier to understand Jesus' role in this redemption, not with our heads, but with our hearts.

Here’s a song from English singer Seal: “Love’s Divine.” In it he expresses his doubts and shortcomings, reminds himself that love is the way to live, and comes to the conclusion that “love can help me know my name.” Yes. And if I know my own name, it’s far easier for me to “believe in the name of the only Son of God.” Science is wonderful, and I trust science to teach us nearly everything about the physical world. But science cannot give us pisteuo—real belief—not belief THAT, but belief IN.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 18

On that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on the one who struck them, but will lean on the LORD, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. For the Lord GOD of hosts will make a full end, as decreed, in all the earth.

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD of hosts: O my people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians when they beat you with a rod and lift up their staff against you as the Egyptians did. For in a very little while my indignation will come to an end, and my anger will be directed to their destruction. The LORD of hosts will wield a whip against them, as when he struck Midian at the rock of Oreb; his staff will be over the sea, and he will lift it as he did in Egypt. On that day his burden will be removed from your shoulder, and his yoke will be destroyed from your neck.

-      Isaiah 10:20-27

There’s no use denying that the Bible is full of images of God destroying things … and people. God’s anger burns hot, then abates. God punishes, then forgives. This was the experience and interpretation of the people of Ancient Israel, and it has come to us through the generations. Whether or not we believe it today, it’s right there in the books we treat as Holy Scripture, divinely inspired.

We can choose to write it off, or we can take it as part of the package and find it helpful. We all remember the experience of our own parents’ anger and forgiveness. It may seem silly to attribute these wild emotional swings to God: aren't these frail human emotions beneath the Creator of the Universe? Yes, in a way, they are. But when we’re talking about God, metaphors are all we have. And we also believe that God understands us so intimately that, between us and God, there isn't really a between.

That leaves us understanding very little. But I hope we can all agree that life as human beings is both messy and wonderful.

I don’t believe God throws anyone onto the fire whole. I do believe God will and does burn away that which is useless and destructive in us, and that may well feel like punishment. To have our toys taken away and destroyed is no fun. But if those toys are destroying us, can we blame the divine parent? It turns out, rather, that our pain and frustration lead to our salvation.

One of my favorite Christmas albums is John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together. On it, John Denver sings a duet with Robin, the little nephew of Kermit the Frog. Far deeper than anything you would expect on a children’s album, the song gives us images of hope and justice, perfect for an Advent season that still is not over. The song also promises that someday we will finally understand the mysteries that plague us today. Here’s “When the River Meets the Sea.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 17

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!"

-    Matthew 11:2-15

Look, says Jesus. You have in your minds the way things are supposed to happen, according to your interpretation of the prophets. But hanging everything you believe on the way things were “supposed” to happen is pretty hazardous business. Is John’s name Elijah? No, but feel free to call him that if you need someone to fill that role.

Your life is the same way. You can look around and say, “Is this really my life?” Rest assured that it is, and that everything in it is redeemable and redeemed by God. There is no place too impure for God to tread. All good things will come.

Are you restless in your expectation? I know I am. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” But that’s because the King who was coming is still coming, and this is a great mystery.

Here’s a sermon I preached on the fourth Sunday of Advent three years ago: “Is This Really My Life?”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 16

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
- Matthew 3

These are harsh words, and they were aimed at those who did not “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” They were aimed at those who followed the rules for the sake of following the rules, not for the sake of a relationship with God.

We’ve all known people who followed rules as carefully as they could. Don’t you find such people insufferable? It’s as if they’re afraid of really enjoying life. Not that we should all go around breaking rules for the same breaking rules, but neither should we keep them merely for the sake of keeping them. Rules are meant to guide us into something bigger and more joyful. But what happens to those who fear joy?

I feel my body weakened by the years/
As people turn to gods of cruel design/
Is it that they fear the pain of death,/
Or could it be they fear the joy of life?

These lyrics are from the Toad the Wet Sprocket song “Pray Your Gods,” from the album Fear. The song ends with the repeated chorus “Dona nobis pacem”—Latin for “Give us peace.”

Gods that only demand rule-following are indeed cruel gods, because their punishments are not based on love.  They demand sacrifices in blood—our blood.

But our God of love waits eagerly for His children to come back to Him. He gives us not a punishment but a remedy: the gift of Himself.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 15

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

-    Mark 1:1-8

If you really want to observe Advent, holding off the secular onslaught of Christmas for as long as possible, there may be no better way than to read the Daily Office: the day-by-day readings appointed by the Church. To create this calendar each day, I have begun with this website. The daily readings can also be found at the back of the Book of Common Prayer; while the weekly readings are arranged on a three-year cycle (Years A, B and C), the daily readings are arranged on a two-year cycle (Years One and Two). We are at the very beginning of Year One.

At long last, eighteen days into Advent, we hear of John the Baptist. Now, this is one of the funny things about Advent. We’re preparing for Christ to come on three different timelines:
-    Waiting for the baby to be born
-    Waiting for Jesus to begin his adult ministry
-    Waiting for the return of Christ

The appearance of John the Baptist is a major development in the second timeline. In the weekly readings in church, we heard from him on both the second and third Sundays in Advent.

My family has been using an Advent calendar that tells the Christmas story in little chunks each day. In that story, Mary and Joseph are already on their way to Bethlehem, and the Magi are already in Jerusalem meeting King Herod. This Advent calendar is concerned with getting the entire story in before Christmas Day. But nowhere in the Daily Office have we heard a word yet about Mary and Joseph, and the Magi are even further away—they won’t come until Epiphany on January 6.

However you observe Christmas, it’s a good idea not to rush it. Christmas is ten days away: a lot can happen in that time. And then, Christmas lasts for twelve days—a lot more time still to observe the season. Growing up, my family usually decorated the Christmas tree on December 19 (my parents’ anniversary, conveniently) so it wouldn’t dry out before January 6. We also gave little stocking stuffers for each of the twelve days. Now that I have my own family, we observe Christmas the same way. This weekend, we'll go hunting for a tree. There probably won't be a big selection left. We way wind up with something that looks more like Charlie Brown's tree, but that's OK.

I enjoy doing it this way because it’s counter-cultural, and I think Christianity is most effective when it goes against the dominant culture in both large and small ways—interrupting the daily flow with surprising joy. John the Baptist has appeared, and he’s getting people wet! We are drawing ever closer to the mystery of Christmas. “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord!”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 14

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness -
on them light has shined.

-    Isaiah 9

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to refresh your memory, since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

-    2 Peter 1

Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, "Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?" They kept heaping many other insults on him.

-    Luke 22

During the season of Lent, we don’t use the word “Hallelujah/Alleluia” in worship. We keep it buried until the Resurrection is proclaimed.

Advent is different. We don’t shy away from that ancient cry of joy and praise. But in my worship, Hallelujah has a different flavor during Advent. It’s deeper, full of the expectation of true joy yet not forgetting for a moment the pain that is the flip side of joy. When we give ourselves to love, we open ourselves up to a world of potential pain as well as joy.

The 1993 movie Shadowlands starred Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis and Debra Winger as his wife, Joy Gresham. The two get married during a time when Joy’s cancer is in remission. They enjoy several joyful years together. But Joy reminds him: “The pain then is part of the happiness now. That’s the deal.”

After her death, C. S. Lewis recalls her words, only reversed this time: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”

Joy does not mean mere blithe feelings of pleasure. It includes all the pain that comes with surrendering a part of yourself to another. I imagine Jesus saying to us, “Love. It’ll hurt. It might even kill you. But trust me: it’s the only thing that works.”

As Leonard Cohen wrote: “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken ‘hallelujah.’” Here’s Jeff Buckley’s 1994 version of that incredible song.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 13

I preached this sermon yesterday on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent.

Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.
-      Isaiah 8

Sometimes all we can do is wait. In fact, sometimes we are simply instructed to wait.

It seems that most people who are familiar with the music of John Mayer either love him or hate him. Some wish he would just shut up already.

This song has always rubbed me the wrong way because it sounds like John has given up on changing the world. But as a person whose first instinct is to act, I do need to remind myself of my own words and spend more time simply waiting for a new situation. Here’s “Waiting on the World to Change.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 12

O God, you are my God; eagerly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you,
as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.
Therefore I have gazed upon you in your holy place,
that I might behold your power and your glory.
For your loving-kindness is better than life itself;
my lips shall give you praise.
So will I bless you as long as I live
and lift up my hands in your Name.
My soul is content, as with marrow and fatness,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips,
When I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the night watches.
For you have been my helper,
and under the shadow of your wings I will rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand holds me fast.

-    Psalm 63:1-8

I remember talking with my brother Seth one year about the fact that Christmas was coming. We were boys, and we were longing deeply for that joyous day. Suddenly, Seth shouted, “Christmas attack!” and started to run around the house, letting off steam, hollering “AAAAAHHH!” because his longing was so great he couldn’t contain it anymore. I knew exactly how he felt … so I did the same.

I fear I’ll never be able to recapture the delicious childhood agony of waiting all those weeks to find out what Santa would leave under the tree. In this era of Amazon wish lists and economic struggle, it’s even harder to get excited about the unknown. Never again will I experience the thrill of finding that, yes, despite all fears to the contrary, the Millennium Falcon is there, just waiting for me to place my Han Solo and Chewbacca action figures inside its cockpit!

But we adults are not finished with longing. C.S. Lewis wrote about Sehnsucht, a German word that he expressed as “inconsolable longing” in the human heart for “we know not what.” He wrote:

That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of “Kubla Khan,” the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.

Have you ever felt that longing? That’s what Advent is for. These four weeks of preparation are meant to lay our souls bare, to empty us completely so that we can receive the one thing our souls most long for: union with God. And the beauty of it is that we don’t have to perform death-defying feats or cross a great Eastern ocean to get to God, because God is coming to us.

If you have ever felt imprisoned, lost in darkness, or exiled, you’ll know what I mean. You just want to be ransomed, to see the light, to go home. Home … the longing is there, embedded in the very sound of that word. Home. Some people, as their lives draw to an end, develop a new vision of Home that means they’ll never have to move again.

But it’s not all melancholy. There’s another aspect of Sehnsucht that is pure, quivering excitement—the thought that you might not actually want to receive the gift, because if you do, you’ll have to let go of that wonderful longing feeling.

Jesus came many years ago to be with us. But luckily, in a mystery, Jesus is coming again. It’s never over. Jesus is always approaching, and every year, we mark his approach by observing Advent, four weeks of inconsolable longing and excitement. O come, O come, Emmanuel!

“Kyrie eleison” … Greek for “Lord have mercy.” Here’s Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 11

Peter said to him, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!"

Jesus said, "I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you have denied three times that you know me." He said to them, "When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?"

They said, "No, not a thing."

He said to them, "But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled."

They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords."

He replied, "It is enough."

-      Luke 22

Have you ever given up everything? Neither have I. That sort of thing is easier to romanticize than it is to actually follow through with. Instead, we’d all like to be fine, upstanding citizens.

Scholars disagree about whether Jesus’ family was wealthy, poor, or somewhere in between. Many believe he began as a well-educated Pharisee. What is clear is that Jesus did not rest on whatever privileges he had; he used them in order to be able to discard them. He was a traveling preacher, a guru, a teacher, living off the generosity of others. He gave the people wisdom, and they gave him food and shelter.

In the end, he even gave up his “law-abiding” status, and he warned his disciples that the same would happen to them. Sometimes, to follow Jesus means to leave behind whatever comfort and security our society offers us.

Peter made a lot of mistakes. He said and did stupid things. But in the long run, he remained faithful to Jesus. He stayed in relationship. He embraced a life on the edge and followed it all the way to death.

Let’s do another Sufjan Stevens song today. This one is the centerpiece of his album about the state of Illinois. I believe the song is about giving up your privileges and trusting that there will be enough—and, in the process, finding redemption from a life full of regret. This is “Chicago.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 10

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
-    Isaiah 7

“Immanuel” (also spelled “Emmanuel”) means “God with us.” God doesn’t just hang back and wait for us to straighten the world out. God doesn’t come rushing in to help, either. God comes in due time—at the right time—and we need to wait.

But waiting doesn’t have to mean sitting around in the doctor’s office reading outdated magazines. Waiting in prayer and expectation is a very active kind of waiting.

Here is Sufjan Stevens’ recording of the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 9

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it." They asked him, "Where do you want us to make preparations for it?" "Listen," he said to them, "when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, 'The teacher asks you, "Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"' He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there." So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
- Luke 22

About four years ago, I was teaching a group of kids about the Eucharist. I brought them up for a view from the church’s altar; most of them had never been in that space before. It’s a big altar, and I talked about how it’s also a table. The ancient place for sacrificing animals is also for us a place to eat a family Thanksgiving meal together.

I asked, “How many people do you think could fit around this table?”

“Ten!” shouted one kid.

“Twenty!” shouted another.

And then a quiet little first grader spoke up just loud enough for everyone to hear her distinctly: “This table is big enough for the whole world.”

Well. How big a table do you need? How big a house? How big an upper room? How big a heart? Here’s my one country music offering this Advent season: “Love’s the Only House” by Martina McBride.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 8

Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled." The holy seed is its stump.
-      Isaiah 6

Disaster is all around us. Where is our deliverance? Where is justice? How long must we wait?

We lose the ones we love—to disease, to violence, to natural disaster.

Advent is a time of waiting—waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the one who will save us and be our king. The king who was coming into the world is still coming … a deep mystery. How long must we wait?

In 2006, U2 and Green Day teamed up for an anguished anthem about Hurricane Katrina: “The Saints Are Coming.”

And way back in 1971, John Lennon urged us to “Imagine” a different world.

Too many people live their lives trying to get to heaven, as if anything they did could earn them a ticket. Too many people try to avoid hell, as if they could avoid God’s judgment completely. Ironically, this excessive focus on the afterlife often leads to fear, hate, and the mistreatment of others -- whether it's Al-Qaeda or Fred Phelps. What if we took heaven and hell out of consideration? How would we live our lives then?

Religion can be defined not simply as all human dealings with God, but more narrowly as the useless systems we create to try to "get right" with God ... not realizing that God already loves us infinitely, and that nothing can change that. What if we really believed this? How would it change the way we act toward God and toward everyone else on the planet?

John Lennon was assassinated thirty years ago today. Remember him in your prayers. Remember the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Remember Elizabeth Edwards. Pray for all those God is calling you to pray for.

The holy seed is its stump. Something new will grow from the ashes of our lives’ disasters. How long will it take? Wait for it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 7

But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
-      1 Thessalonians 5

One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of European Pilgrims arriving at Plymouth Rock only to discover that the Native Americans are constructing a giant wall to keep them out. The explanation? “They say we won’t learn their language or assimilate into their culture.”

In September, the Episcopal House of Bishops met in Arizona for their annual meeting. During their time there, the bishops took a trip to the Mexican border. Bishop Mark Beckwith of Newark wrote this reflection.

I learned a lot about these issues myself on a 2009 pilgrimage to Skagit Valley, Washington, where migrant workers live right in our backyard in third-world living conditions. These conditions are allowed to continue because those who live there are afraid to speak out for fear of being deported. They want to feed their families. They want to give their children a chance for a better life. Many people in our country illegally were brought here as children, unable to determine their own immigration status. Many people have also been lured here by false promises from corporations that offered them work in exchange for a green card--then reneged and had them deported before they could be paid.

My friend Jackie Grove submitted a song idea for this Advent calendar, and I think it’s most appropriate for reminding us of the aliens who work among us, whom both our Old and New Testaments urge us to respect and embrace. Here are Queen and David Bowie, together in 1982 with “Under Pressure.” “Splits a family in two … puts people on streets … Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves … This is ourselves, under pressure.”

It is time to extend social justice to at least some of those who, for one reason or another, are in our country illegally. It is not a simple, black-and-white matter of lawbreaking. Read here about the DREAM Act, which could come up for a vote in the Senate and the House soon. This is a very timely way you can defend from injustice those who cannot defend themselves.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 6

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

- 1 Thessalonians 5 (NRSV)

I was talking with a friend yesterday who’s been having a hard time in life. She said, “I’m not making any long-term plans right now; I’m just living from one moment to the next.”

I replied, “Well, I guess you’re living life the way it really is, then! We like to fool ourselves into thinking we can make long-term plans, but what do we know?” As the words left my mouth, I worried they may have been tactless. To my surprise, though, my friend said she took great comfort in them and would keep remembering them from day to day.

Life really is like that. It’s not bad to make long-term plans—in fact, it’s a great idea—as long as we realize that plans must change. We need to stay awake to the possibilities that sudden, surprising change offers. Anthony de Mello wrote: “Change that is real is change that is not willed.” Any other change, then, is change we create, that we have control over. Since it comes only from ourselves, it cannot hold as many possibilities as the kind of change that is forced upon us.

Most of us remember from our childhood this encouragement to stay awake. Of course, it’s ironic—it’s meant to lull us to sleep, and that’s the fun of it.

So I got to thinking: in an ironic twist on irony, what if we sucked all the irony out of that song and gave it more of an Advent flavor? It would need to sound not only straightforward, but even a little creepy—uncomfortable—not the kind of staying awake we would prefer to do. But it’s Mary Poppins, right? So even if we don’t want to stay awake, she must really mean it, and it must be really be good for us.

Here’s my take (in mp3 form; right-click to download) of Mary Poppins really urging us to stay awake for Advent, with some musical help from Sufjan Stevens.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 5

Jesus said, "I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John's baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves.)

"To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not weep.' For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children." 
-    Luke 7:28-35 (NRSV)

Jesus’ parables are, by nature, hard to swallow in one bite. But I find this one in particular to be a little weird. Why are some children wailing and weeping (and others refusing to do so), when they were skipping and dancing a moment before? I've heard it suggested that the children may have been “playing wedding” and “playing funeral”—two common occurrences that children might imitate in their play. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible paraphrase The Message, he seems to hold a similar understanding of children’s play:

Jesus said, "Let me lay it out for you as plainly as I can: No one in history surpasses John the Baptizer, but in the kingdom he prepared you for, the lowliest person is ahead of him. The ordinary and disreputable people who heard John, by being baptized by him into the kingdom, are the clearest evidence; the Pharisees and religious officials would have nothing to do with such a baptism, wouldn't think of giving up their place in line to their inferiors.

"How can I account for the people of this generation? They're like spoiled children complaining to their parents, 'We wanted to skip rope and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk but you were always too busy.' John the Baptizer came fasting and you called him crazy. The Son of Man came feasting and you called him a lush. Opinion polls don't count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating." - Luke 7:28-35 (The Message)

I often find that The Message gives me refreshing perspective on passages I thought I understood—or, in this case, passages I had never understood. On the other hand, I rather like what Peterson’s children are saying here—I don’t think they’re spoiled! Maybe nobody really understands this parable.

My interpretation is that Jesus is upholding the ordinary folks who sought baptism from John because they really want a relationship with God. They want to play and dance. The other children, the ones who refuse to do so, are the Pharisees. One minute they say, “John the Baptist is too austere,” and the next, “Jesus of Nazareth is too relaxed!” Do they want to play with God, or don’t they? Nobody likes to play with someone who cries “foul” every time the game doesn’t go his way.

In lieu of a pop music video today, here’s one of my own: my daughter dancing at a wedding a couple years ago. The thing is, since it was a Free Methodist wedding, there was no dancing allowed! At age 3, my daughter became an activist, dancing because she couldn’t imagine not doing so. And of course, it didn’t bother anybody at all.

As you light the second candle on your Advent wreath, make a point to relax and play and dance with God today. But don’t insist on playing by your own rules!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 4

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.
-    1 Thessalonians 4

Jesus said, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls."

-    Luke 21

The basic claim of religion is that there is something going on that is deeper than the surface appearance. We are not mere creatures of instinct. We have a divine origin, and this is expressed in our creativity and in our ability to love. Religion seeks to take away the fear of death, and it provides motivation to live a life of value, not just of survival.

In Christian thought, Jesus went ahead of us into death and came back to show us that death not only isn’t that bad—it’s necessary to the value of life.

Sometimes religious beliefs are expressed in talk of angels and demons, of “powers and principalities,” or even of cosmic warfare. Is not all of life a battle, a struggle to find the deeper meaning that surely exists? Some people take these metaphors quite literally, and this has scared many people away from religion completely. But if you feel religion is not an option for you, where does the meaning come from? How do you explain creativity and love without using metaphors?

I believe there is something deeper—as Sting puts it, “there is a deeper wave than this.” And Sting has his own metaphor: “Love Is the Seventh Wave.” The thread that never fails to bind believers and non-believers together is love. Love, love, love. Focus on love, and all our differences in metaphor become far less important. Forget about love, and our differences only cause pain and destruction.

Today and every day, love somebody. Love the lovable, and also love your enemies. Look beyond the boundaries of your own creature-ness and catch the divine spark in the eyes of another person. The Buddhists say “Namaste”—“I honor the God in you.” The Christians say, “I see Jesus in your face.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

A YouTube Advent Calendar: December 3

O my people, your leaders mislead you, and confuse the course of your paths. The LORD rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples. The LORD enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord GOD of hosts.

-    Isaiah 3

The Bible shifts back and forth in emphasizing judgment on those in power and sustenance for those who are oppressed. One clear message handed down to us by our ancestors is that God expects us to take care of each other rather than exploit each other. When God is portrayed as angry, it’s almost always because this isn’t happening.

The #1 sign of a godly society is not a government-mandated faith … not radical individual freedom … not the Ten Commandments posted on government property … but social justice lived out every day. The people are free, but the people choose to use their freedom in service to those who have less. They hold themselves accountable to God and to each other.

The ancient heroes, like Moses and Noah, are heroes because they did God’s will. They had their doubts and struggles, but they put God’s wishes ahead of their own.

In 1985, a new band called the Hooters released a strange, compelling song about Moses and Noah … and zombies. Who are the zombies in this song? I think they are those who doubt, who fear, who hurt, and who suffer. The singer shouts to them: “You don’t have to hide anymore! All you zombies, show your faces.” Here are the Hooters with “All You Zombies.”