Monday, December 30, 2013

A New Year's Reflection

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
When my sisters and I were young, every year on New Year’s Day, my dad would bundle up against the cold and head into our back yard and prune the grape vines.  It was a task he always gladly seemed to do alone… not that any one of us were jumping at the chance to work outside in the cold!

He later said it gave him a chance to clear his head after a rare late night out with friends.  More than that, he said he used that quiet time and space to reflect on the year just past and to think ahead to what was before him in the year ahead.  (Honestly, it may also have been just a welcome excuse to get out of the house for a little while: time apart from four little girls whose Christmas vacation had gone on too long!)  Whatever mixed motives he may have had, it is a model which would serve us all well: to intentionally take stock and to consider what our 'time' has gone to and where we would like it to go to in the months to come as one year passes over into another.  What better time would there be to consider how we might intentionally begin to line up how we spend our time with what, in fact, matters most to us?

Indeed, the words of Ecclesiastes 3 offer a wonderful model by which to measure all that has been and all that we hope to be and all that we yearn for the world to be as we measure birthing and dying, planting, and harvesting.  As we consider what needs to be ‘killed’ – perhaps within us or in our daily habits or routines --- and what or who or which relationship is in need of healing.  As we measure our tears and the times we have laughed until we cried.  To be sure, as we read through the preacher’s list here we realize he has left nothing out. 

Oh yes, as I read through these familiar words once more I find myself wondering how they apply to the life I’m leading. 
  • What does it mean to be born to new life or to “die” with family members, among friends and neighbors, or with coworkers?
  • What might it mean to ‘plant or to harvest’ in the daily tasks I am called to at home or at work?  And how might I might be more discerning about which is most appropriate?
  • What does it mean in a time of mourning to remember that there will be dancing again? 
  • That when I am laughing, others are grieving so much so they can’t seem to remember the sound of such joy anymore? 
  • How much would I (and all those who associate with me) benefit from my remembering that there is, in fact, a time to simply keep silence?  And that there are times when my voice of courage and hope is desperately needed?
  • How do I understand when a ‘ time for war’ is appropriate and what does that mean, really, and what does peace look like in our world now?
And through all such times of reflection, what does it mean to us to remember that God holds it and all of us through it all, in all of our times?  In fact, it is certainly so that such certainty of God’s unending love is what allows me to explore and to wonder about these important questions in the first place.  Otherwise, I’m not certain I’d have the courage to risk wondering at all.

And so for all of you who pause with me as we pass from one year into another:
  • What comes to mind as you reflect on what has been and as you begin to articulate your hopes for what will be? 
  •  How might the words of the preacher in Ecclesiastes inform your reflection this season? 
  • Indeed, what grapevines need pruning --- what solitary task might give you the time and space to look back with gratitude and to look forward with wonder now?

Sunday, December 29, 2013

"And Pitched A Tent Among Us..."

John 1:1-18

There is so much that captures our imaginations in this wonderful poetry found in John's first chapter.  Indeed, one might find oneself reflecting on the similarity of these opening words to that of Genesis 1 where both writers weave poetry about 'beginnings.'  One could stand still in the marvelous contrast between light and darkness.  One surely can't help but consider the truth that some received and receive Jesus well --- and others simply do did not and do not still.  Or you might, as I have found myself again today, be carried away by the image of the Word becoming flesh... and, in my favorite way of hearing these words ... "and the Word became flesh and 'pitched a tent' (or tabernacle or booth) among us."

It is such a concrete, down to earth, image -- this one I carry of Jesus kneeling down with hammer in hand and pounding tent pegs into the ground to hold his temporary shelter in place.  But there is so much more than that to this, of course.  For this image ties the experience of the Incarnation to the history of the people of Israel --- in particular recalling that time when God 'tabernacled' with God's people in their wanderings in the wilderness.  Oh no, this was not and will not be the first time that 'God came near,' taking up residence with God's people wherever they may find themselves.

And yet it is so that from the distance of these many years it is hard to imagine what the Word become flesh must have been for those who first walked with Jesus.  It is difficult for us to grasp it for in every real sense, time and space stands between us now.  It must be so then, it seems to me, that this Word become flesh 'pitching a tent among us' must happen now through God's people --- those who have "become children of  God... those born of God..."  Else, I can't see how it happens at all.

Now I know that it goes without saying that all too often those who should be living like the Word Become Flesh do not.  Even so, I can remember time and again when this has been so: when God's people have lived like the one who pitched a tent alongside us --- doing the same in turn for a hurting, broken world.

This story of this being so returned to my memory just last night.

I was a young pastor then, serving a small church. The people there were kind, I knew this to be so for I had experienced it first hand. Still, I was not certain how they would react on the Sunday morning when one of our teen-agers showed up holding her new born baby boy.

She and her sister and her mother were with us in worship every week --- in this rural church which boasted few young people.  Her mother grew up among those people and probably her mother before her.  Amanda had hidden her pregnancy well --- wearing large sweatshirts and coats so no one would guess.  The call announcing the birth of her baby was a surprise to me, too.  And so, I did not know how this would go.  How would God's people --- the Word become Flesh --- in that time and place react to this?  (We must remember that this was more than twenty years ago when this was much less commonplace than it is today.) 

Oh, it's not as though I expected a scene.  More in keeping with the culture of that place, I would have thought people might simply turn the other way and say nothing at all.  Much to my surprise though, when Amanda and her baby, her sister and her mother, walked up the steps into church that Sunday morning, not only did no one flinch, but old women gathered around reaching out their arms to welcome this new little one into their midst. Even without warning or announcement, they passed no judgment whatsoever. They simply loved.

Perhaps it would have been different if this family had not for generations been part of their own extended family there.  I don't know.  And I don't really know what motivated their welcome.  Except perhaps they had seen enough and known enough and experienced enough to know that grace and kindness are really all we have.  Maybe they were reaching out with a love they had received first themselves and they knew, in turn, it was simply theirs to share as well. 
  • It is easy to come up with examples of how God's people have failed to 'pitch their tent' and live as the Word Become Flesh in the world today.  Can you offer examples when it has been so?  What was that like?
  • There is a temporary quality to a 'tent,' a 'tabernacle,' or a 'booth?'  That could be understood in a number of ways.  On the one hand it means the one dwelling there may soon be 'moving on.'    On the other hand, it offers flexibility to be available when and where needed and to go where people go.  How do you understand it? 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Reunion

Titus 2:11-14

"For the grace of God has appeared..."

I am captured by it every single time.  I can have the news on for background noise only, and every time I find myself rushing back into the room or turning towards the
screen so as to catch the sight of a dad or mom kneeling down to welcome the embrace of a school age child who is surprised and overjoyed by their unexpected homecoming.  In these stories both of those sharing the embrace hold real life memories of one another which they are yearning to continue to build upon.  Not so this time though.

For you see, this wonderful image came across on our congregation's Facebook page this week.  Brian, the returning soldier in the photo, is prayed for every time we gather as God's people.  While he and his young family no longer live here, his extended family does.  So we pray for safety, for a sense of God's presence, and that God might use these men and women who serve our country to be signs of justice and peace the whole world over.  Just last week, Brian made it home in time for Christmas. The baby in his arms is his own 7 month old daughter, Ariea.

I shared a conversation with Brian's mother, Ariea's grandmother yesterday.  She was beaming as she shared what she witnessed that day.  For you see, until the moment you see pictured here, Brian and his daughter had never met face to face. Oh, the gift of modern technology has meant that he has been kept up to date on every development in her young life. The little one has been propped up to see and be seen when her mommy skyped with him.  They have a video recording of Daddy reading "The Best Daddy Ever" which has been played to her rapt attention in these last months.  But he was not here in person to hear her first cry, to walk her to sleep, to marvel at the color of her eyes, the texture of her skin, her awakening curiosity at the world.  Captured here is the first time he held her in his arms, the first time she felt his strong arms embracing her.

Indeed, I am told that perhaps because of their efforts to make it so, her dad seemed to be somewhat familiar to her. Still, in those first moments Ariea did glance over at her mother more than once to be sure this was all right.  You can't tell in this image though.  All we see is her smile.

To be sure, there is no experience shared between us humans which can come close to the gift of Christmas which is ours to receive once more in these days to come.  Even so, as we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation once more, I got to thinking of how when Jesus came and comes to us, there may be ways in which he may seem familiar.  At the same time it may still take us a moment or two or more to take him in.  Indeed, I wonder at how very much you and I may be something like this 7 month old who is seeing her Daddy face to face for the very first time.  Oh, as we encounter the Christ child this Christmas, it is most likely not for the first time for many, but that will surely be so for some.  Still, we do so in the days to come in a way we do not every day.    

Indeed, this is why we gather around this story, these promises again this season.  We come together not so much as parents looking to hold a child for the first time, but as those searching for the face of God in one so innocent and small.  In fact, I have come to know this is something we all yearn for -- this encounter with the Christ child.  I heard it Sunday morning again as we gathered around crèche with the children, adding in the animals and the angels one by one by one.  Through it all, one little guy kept repeating, "But where is baby Jesus?"  It did not appease him much at all when I told him if he just comes back on Tuesday, baby Jesus would be there!

So I expect this Christmas perhaps we are all a little like Brian --  yearning with all of our hearts to hold God's precious gift for us for the first time.

And I expect we are a little like a seven month old baby girl --- still trying to sort out who this one is for us. 

And yet, I do wonder, too, if maybe God is also like the daddy in this picture now. In the form of his very human son, coming to us and as we embrace him, we recognize that we have been embraced by him first as he comes to us and scoops us up into his strong arms and gently holds us each and every one.  And yes, I have to wonder if maybe God is not overcome by emotion, too, as Brian surely was in those first moments with his baby girl -- at the simple wonder of being so very close.  Oh yes, I wonder if that's not exactly how God felt when he sent Jesus to us so long ago and every single time he comes to us again in ways mysterious and true. 

Indeed, I can't help but believe that all three may be so.  What do you think?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas in the Barn

Luke 2:1-20

I have friends who have done this for years --- gathering in a barn on Christmas Eve --- with bales of straw and battery operated candles and more people than room and a few animals to make it seem especially real.  I'd thought about it in other years in other places, but existing worship schedules were already so full I never pursued it.  Even this year, I came to it late.

So here is how it went. First, I raised it with a few staff members who were open to the idea.  However, I needed to run it by leadership as well and given my poor timing, it didn't come to our council agenda until November.  When I floated the idea there, eyes started to sparkle almost immediately.  Even at that late date, we decided to try.

So a  couple of days later I was in conversation with Gerry, a farmer in our congregation.  He would have gladly opened his own barn, but it was full of stuff and there was no way to get it ready on such short notice.  He had another one in mind, but that one also didn't work out.  Even while Gerry kept asking around, I made a Sunday morning plea, and still nothing...  By now it was getting late.  I had just about given up: uncertain as to whether I should be relieved or disappointed.  Then someone else had an idea and got on the phone.  And a couple of days ago, several of us met Dean out at his barn.

It turns out it's not so easy to find a barn anymore... not even here in farm country in Northern Illinois. Apparently, barns aren't used like they used to be and as a result, many are, by now, in disrepair. Or they're used for storage.  In addition, very few farmers have an assortment of animals anymore, however the barn which will shelter our service on Christmas Eve does --- in stalls against the north wall are two goats, a pig, a couple of donkeys, and a rabbit in a cage:  a petting zoo, it turns out, that is open when their seasonal pumpkin farm welcomes guests.  It's a small-ish space, but we're just trying this on this year and so it will probably be more than enough.  Besides, I'm thinking the first shelter Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus knew wasn't so very large either.

It was such fun to watch Dean, the owner of the barn, and Gerry, who has been in on this dream from the start, stand there in the cold and sort out what could be moved, and what would be needed and how it might all come together.  Dean wondered if he should clear out the cobwebs.  "No," we all agreed.  "What about Christmas lights?"  "Now that might be nice."  Gerry is going to bring in some extra straw bales for folks to sit on and he's going to rig up a spot light for the manger.  Dean is going to move out the hay rack and extra cages and tidy up a bit, but not too much. When his daughter is home from college, they'll hang the Christmas lights together.  We'll find some folks who can direct traffic and bring the service, the people, the bread, the wine, the song.  And the story we gather around, of course, is already ours to simply repeat with one another once again.

For all of the fun of this venture, this is what especially struck me in the middle of this journey to this point.  In the midst of his asking around for a barn, Gerry had one person say to him, "Now why would you want to do Christmas in a barn?  Jesus was born in a cave, don't you know?"

Now that is probably so, I can't argue with that.  In fact, when you return to the story as Luke tells it, there is no mention of a stable or a barn.  Only a manger --- a feeding trough for animals --- is mentioned.  It would, of course, make sense that there was some kind of shelter which held the manger and thus Mary and Joseph and Jesus, but we are simply not told exactly what that was.  And so while yes, we do want to encounter this story in as authentic a way as possible, we don't have any caves around here anyway.  And since most of us picture a stable in our own memories and imaginations... and since, if Jesus, Immanuel, "God with us," were to become incarnate in the same way again today, I'm thinking it would probably not happen in a cave or a stable or a barn at all? Well, I expect a barn is as good a place as any.  As long as it leads us to wonder at the meaning of the story here and now.  As long as it has us looking to encounter Jesus yet again and wondering where that just might be...

And so it is that I do find myself wondering just where this might happen today.  If Jesus were to come again in human form, would it be like the last time?  Would it be in a country far away or would it be in our own back yard?  Would it be in an unused room at a nursing home?  Or at a homeless shelter?  Or under a city bridge?   I do wonder where Jesus would be born today, don't you? And I wonder how my wondering changes how I encounter those who are in those places now.  How does the possibility that those places are already made 'holy' by the presence of the Christ Child change everything?

  • As you consider where Jesus might be born today, what possibilities come to mind?  What elements or characteristics of the first Christmas story would you take into account as you think about this?
  • How does it make a difference in terms of  how you think about those who normally inhabit such places you imagine if you think that Jesus might just make his home there?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Just What a Dad Does...

Matthew 1:18-25

I carry still a memory of my dad which goes back close to fifty years now.  It was early December.  I was five years old and I was suddenly ill and my mother called him home from work to take me to the hospital.

Now I was the oldest of four children.  I had been 'too big' to be carried for some time by then. But I was so very sick I was literally unable to walk and so they bundled me up and laid me down in the back seat of the family station wagon. When we reached the hospital, he lifted me up in his strong arms and cut across the frozen grass to the emergency room entrance of Rochelle Community Hospital.  Even as sick as I was, I can remember the protest in my heart, "But I'm too big for to be carried!"  And then I just gave in and knew I was safe in that place in his arms.

I offered that image in a sermon many years ago now. My dad was sitting in the pew that morning, and was a little embarrassed I think.  That's not a feeling he was much accustomed to, it seems to me, as he was such an extrovert that he always rather enjoyed being at the center of things.  Not that time though --- for, in fact, later he took me aside and quietly said to me, "But Janet, that's just what a dad does."

We have a story before us now about what dads do.  Only in Joseph's case, it really is quite extraordinary. In Joseph's case, rather, it was a matter of life and death.  In the matter before him now, though he could not have fully known it then, the future of the world hung on the decision it was his to make.

Now you wonder, don't you, why God didn't take an easier way to come to us, for surely this path was just about as risky as it could be.  For not only does God risk the danger of childbirth where anything could go wrong, but God entrusts this child to a very young woman and her fiancée, expecting that they would believe that the conception of this child was of God.  God took the risk that very human Joseph would be able to get past the stone of betrayal that settled in his stomach when he first heard the news of Mary's pregnancy and came to the very rational conclusion that she must have been unfaithful to him.  God had to trust that Joseph could set aside his own pride and step into a role, into a life, which would begin in a way he had not yet dreamed.  Oh, one would have expected that dream included children, but it could not have included a child in this way.  It seems to me that God risked a lot, trusting that Joseph would be open to the urging of a night-time messenger, this angel who told him not to be afraid. Who assured him that he and Mary were to be part of some thing much, much larger than even the very good life they must have dreamed together. Who urged him to name the child, sealing his adoption as his own son.  You would think God would have taken an easier way.  But God did not.  And somehow that deepens our understanding of how very much God will risk for all of us. As Joseph risked then, too.

Because as you know, Joseph did precisely what the angel told him to do.  We don't know what doubts and misgivings he later entertained along his way, for we don't hear all that much from him after this, but we do know that Joseph did what he was called to do then.  He did not leave.  He did not cast Mary aside.  Rather, he stood with Mary.  He claimed that baby boy as his own and gave him a name. That name of Jesus which means "God saves."  And we know that he must have been an awfully good dad to this boy, that he 'just did what a dad does' for this one who was destined to be the source of our hope and salvation.  Indeed, it seems to me we know this through the stories Jesus later told.

For where do you think, except from Joseph, that Jesus got the idea that a father always gives good gifts to his children?  Where, do you imagine, did he get the image of the father running to welcome home his prodigal son?  Where do you think the tenderness in his voice came from when he said we were to address God as 'abba' or 'daddy' if not from his own experience of an earthly dad?  I have to believe that Jesus drew from his own experience growing up with Joseph as his father here.  Joseph who abandoned his own pride, his own long-learned sense of right and wrong. Who set aside his fear and worked through the stone in the pit of his stomach. Who stretched his own sense of what and who he was responsible for, to 'just be a dad' to Jesus.  To give earthly legitimacy to this child of Mary's from the Holy Spirit and to help shape Jesus' life and his vision in such a way that some of his best teaching was informed by his own experience of an earthly, loving dad.

It was the decision of a lifetime for Joseph. It was one he could never have expected to make and yet, it is also a dilemma which will parallel one we will probably all face at one time or another as we are called to sort out how we are called to do the right thing in a situation that at first seems all wrong.  And when you do that. When you step up and do what is right and good in the face of earthly 'wisdom' or advice which would urge you otherwise.  When you act with forgiveness and hope and trust, well then, the world changes.  It surely did with Joseph and Mary and Jesus. And it does every other time, too.

For I've seen it happen. So have you.  This story of Joseph gets lived out again and again and again.

Indeed, I saw it play out once in a waiting room outside an intensive care unit long ago on a late summer's night.  Sixteen year old Nathan and his friend had gone to the mall --- driving from their own small town into the city. They had taken a shortcut they had taken with their parents take dozens of times before.  It wasn't that late. They hadn't been drinking. They even had their seatbelts on, but the paved road turned to gravel before they remembered and the car rolled.  Nathan's friend walked away from the accident with no more than a broken leg, but Nathan was in intensive care with a brain injury.

I stood with his step-mom late that night. His dad had stepped out for a minute when she told me this story, relaying to me that in his first marriage, her husband's wife had been unfaithful. When Nathan was born, his dad, the only dad he had ever known, claimed him as his own. Raised him as his own.  Loved him as his own.  And when his first wife left them, he continued to do just that. And now he kept vigil with him, and from what I've heard, supported him right through the years of therapy that followed.  He did the right thing, like Joseph.  In the middle of a situation which was 'all wrong' where he wouldn't have had to, he stepped above and beyond what anyone would have reasonably expected him to do.  And Nathan's world was never the same. And neither was anyone else's who knew them.

Such as this will come to us, too.  It may not be that big and difficult, although chances are it will be.  And it may well be that the real challenge will lie then in the long term simply getting up every day and 'just doing what dads do.'  And we know this for sure.  It may not seem like it at the time, but it is often on those seemingly small things that the future hangs.

So this is what we have today. The gift of one dad and one child who lived in one particular place in one specific time.  Just like all of us in so many ways. It makes you step back and wonder, doesn't it?  What might God just be doing here and now with all of us?  Where might we see God at work in something that seems all wrong where we still try to do what's right?  And what might that mean for tomorrow?

  • What is most surprising to you about the story of Joseph?  Why do you think God chose to 'risk' in this way to come to us?
  • Can you think of examples where someone 'just did what a dad does' and it made all the difference?  In your life?  In the life of the world?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Blind Receive Their Sight

Matthew 11:2-11

For me, at least, there is no more appealing image of John the Baptist than the one before us now.  The John we meet preaching in the wilderness always strikes me as almost abrasive in his certainty.  And while I could probably stand to be more like John in that way, I have to say that I can more easily identify with the John we meet in prison now.

Not that I've ever spent time in prison --- at least not the sort that we are led to believe John experiences now.  But I have known doubt and fear.  I have known what it is to yearn for the sort of understanding John yearns for now.  And yes, along with John, I have asked the hard questions --- Oh yes, Sometimes I simply find that I, too, simply need someone else to tell me what they know for sure.

And apparently that's OK.  For Jesus' response to John's question carries no judgment, no surprise, not even a small measure of wondering that John would wonder.  It's as though it's to be expected that all of us --- every single one of us --- would need the witness of one another to bear us up.  I know that I do.  Today was one of those days when I received precisely this gift. And while the witness I was privileged to hear did not, perhaps, offer quite the same sorts of miraculous signs that surely point to the identity of Jesus as 'the one who is to come,' the story I offer now is every bit as miraculous in its own way.

At the congregation I serve on this Sunday in December we share in a "Love Auction" for our companion congregation: the Ketumbeine Lutheran Parish in Tanzania.  Folks bring platters of holiday cookies to be auctioned off and we join in the fun of trying to outbid one another for a good cause.  It seemed like a good Sunday to invite Mike to preach --- for he and his wife, Sharon, travel every year to Tanzania to assist in equipping teachers to better reach their students through the Mwangaza Centre in Arusha.  And today Mike told the story of a miracle where, in fact, the 'blind' are seeing in new ways.

This is how it was.  Twenty microscopes were about to be discarded from a school here.  They were, by now, at least twenty years old and it was time for them to be replaced.  But one with an imagination and a connection to another part of the world where such riches are almost unimaginable, called Mike and wondered with him about whether something useful might be done with these.

They had them checked out and it was decided they were in good shape.  The challenge is,  however, that electrical systems differ greatly from one part of the world to another and these microscopes which have served well here would have been rendered useless there.  So pretty soon, physicists and inventors and students got in on the project and all twenty of those microscopes were retrofitted with rechargeable batteries and solar units and I can't begin to understand what else.  And last spring and summer they made their way to Tanzania safely packaged in bubble wrap in the extra suitcases of others who were traveling there.  Mike said that more than fifty people had their hands on those microscopes in one way or another between their first lives in a high school classroom to their final destination half way around the world.  He also said that many of those fifty people can't wait to do it again.

And today?  People are seeing in new ways: teachers and students and medical folks are seeing things they have not seen before.  Who knows how the world might just change because of that?

This wonderful story was precisely what I needed to hear today, for while I do not now and have not ever known the darkness of John's prison, I have found myself a little weary of late. Indeed, as I listened this morning I heard once more of how God uses ordinary folks in extraordinary ways to do amazing things.  I heard of how the gifts of all people are needed in order to accomplish what God would have us do.  Quite simply, as Mike walked us through the unfolding of this 'miracle' I was filled with joy and wonder at what Jesus does through all of us.

It is so that some people far away are seeing in a new way because of the gifted, hard-working efforts of more than fifty people.  It is also so that I expect Jesus first opened the eyes of a handful --- bringing sight and insight --- so that the possibility of such as this might even be imagined.  And isn't that something?  Oh yes, along with John's disciples so long ago, you and I can join in as we point to the evidence of Jesus among us: for the blind do, in fact, see! 

  • Have you ever found yourself asking John's difficult, important question?  Where did you hear or see your answer?
  • What do you make of Jesus' response?  Why do you think there is no judgment, surprise or wonder in his answer?
  • Where do you see the blind receiving sight, the lame walking, etc.?  What evidence do you point to in response to John's question when it is posed by another?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Get Ready!

Matthew 3:1-12

I was late arriving at the hospital yesterday morning --- my first day back from vacation.  When I stepped into the waiting room to catch up with the family I was greeted with the words, "You're just in time."

I had seen the signs posted downstairs about the drill, but in my rush I hadn't paid much attention.  It turns out the hospital would be running a Code Silver drill in a matter of minutes.

Just after the doctor came out and told us that all had gone well, the alarm came over the intercom.  A 'shooter' was making his way down the Pastoral Care Hallway.  Seriously...

So together we were shepherded with several others and a hospital volunteer into a small room normally used for consultations.  In an effort to keep the experience somewhat 'authentic,' we were told to silence our cell phones. We had been told that there would be real actors in make-up acting the parts of shooter and victims. We had also been told that all the real activity would take place on the first floor.  We were on the second.

At first the volunteer assigned to us was chatty, regaling us with stories of her 55 year old long marriage and how her husband still worries about her.  I think underneath her jovial presentation she was a little nervous though, for pretty soon our designated volunteer/guide got serious and told us to turn off the lights for we had heard voices out in the hallway.  She peeked out the door and saw police officers coming towards us.  Indeed, she knew the 'drill' was being graded and she wanted to do this right --- or at least not to be caught in doing it wrong.  Some among us kept chattering but she quickly shushed us and for the next thirty minutes we sat in the dark with strangers and friends, alone with our thoughts.

It was restful, to tell you the truth.  I knew this was only a 'drill,' of course, so it wasn't hard to disengage from the experience some, but it was also so that I had been up since 4 a.m. and I welcomed the chance to close my eyes and breathe for a time.  Before we knew it, the 'all clear' was sounded and we stepped back into the outer waiting room where all sorts of others spilled in, too ... each with our shared but different experience of being part of the hospital drill that day.  One man across from us wondered at why they would choose a busy Monday morning for such as this.  Why not do it when the hospital wasn't so busy?  I let his question lie there --- it would probably have been insulting to say that was probably the point.  What's a drill if there aren't people to practice?

Hospitals and schools and others do these drills now. They practice what could one day happen but all pray never will --- moving into locked, darkened, hopefully safe places as we wait for the danger to pass.  Those of us who just happened to be there yesterday morning won't hear about what comes next... the reviewing, the critiquing, the learning so as to do it better next time when it could be real.  We 'prepare' by practicing. We get ready by pretending it is already so.  In these cases, we let our minds linger for a time on the unthinkable, so should that time ever come we will be ready.

Indeed, one can almost hear the echo of  John the Baptist in our experience yesterday for John is calling upon anyone within range of his voice to get ready.  Only his isn't just a drill.  He is calling upon us to 'make ready' for the coming of Jesus who was on the horizon and even now is both present with all of us and will return in all of his fullness one day.

I t is not a perfect analogy, of course, and yet John's words do carry warning.  They are meant to move us to places of shelter and safety in Jesus' tender care.  Only this is not some 'test' to be critiqued and graded to make us more ready for the next time or the real time which could happen one day.  This is a call to preparedness meant to wake us up and change us now for this life today.

And yes, it is so that  in a way we can think of Advent functioning in this way for us.  I suppose it is a kind of practice drill for us: a time for us to stand still in and take seriously the scenario John describes.  Only truly, it's not a matter of 'if' but of 'when' for all of us.  The day John describes has come and will come again.  Once, to be sure, and maybe once and again in ways different and the same for each of us.

And so I wonder with you now:

  • What would it look like if you and I were to actually 'practice the drill' John pushes us to now?
  • What would it mean to engage the world and the people we are called to care for within it with John's urgency sounding in our ears?
  • How would that 'practicing' change how our lives are lived and through us the life of the world?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Wolf and the Lamb

Isaiah 11:1-10

A while back I was with a family and friends at a local restaurant.  We had gathered for lunch after a late morning cemetery committal.   Sitting at my end of the table were Ken's widow, her cousin from California, a co-worker and friend, and another long time friend of the family. 

The conversation was more upbeat than one would have thought that afternoon... although we had waited several months for the committal and so the loss was not quite so raw by then.  The cousin from California and the co-worker were especially enjoying their shared banter.  I don't remember how it was the conversation turned.  I do remember the long-time friend began speaking of their first years in DeKalb and as she shared she spoke of protesting the Vietnam war in those turbulent time.  It seemed we all became especially thoughtful as then we leaned in to listen to Ta, the co-worker and friend, tell her story.  For her childhood began in that war-torn country of Vietnam. 

Indeed, she shared with us how the war threatened their livelihood and their lives.  She was nine when she boarded her dad's small fishing boat with her family --- hoping to make their way to safety. They wound up in a refugee camp and later emigrated to the United States.

I remember.  Although I wasn't much older than she, I do remember.  And I remember how many churches across the country saw this as a mission--- to sponsor families like hers.  What joy and meaning experienced as congregations sought to them a fresh start with kitchenware and furniture and housing and jobs: to show God's love in this very tangible way.
Only that wasn't her story. Rather, her family was sponsored by a farmer in Texas who basically used them as indentured servants: as slave labor.

She spared us most of the details, but her words hung heavy between us.  Clearly, she had found her way out and is enjoying a life marked by all sorts of middle class comforts. Even so, I was struck by her evenness of tone.  There was no bitterness in her voice as she recounted her beginnings in this country.

Even so, her story came to mind this week as I read the amazing images offered by Isaiah for the way in which her experience was so very different from the scene Isaiah describes.  Indeed, it's almost impossible to picture for the things the prophet describes for they simply are not so.  Wolves and lambs do not lie down together.  Bears and cows do not eat side by side.  Lions are anything but vegetarian.  And no toddler would be allowed to venture anywhere near the hole of an asp.  The stakes are too high.  The consequence too great.  It is in the very nature of the snake to strike, the wolf to feast, the lion to enjoy a regular meal of red meat.  All must eat and like it or not, it is in the natural order of things for the menagerie Isaiah describes today to rely on one another in a predatory way for their survival.  And yet, Isaiah uses these opposites to paint a picture of a time when it will all be different.

And I think of Ta's story and I am aware that when I pay attention such stories as hers are repeated day after day, year after year.  Over and over again and a few weeks ago in the person of a woman sitting across from me, we hear about or we ourselves experience what it is to be treated as less than the human beings God created us to be.  And this, all too often, is not at the hands of a 'natural enemy,' but at the hands of those who look more like us than not.  Indeed, it would be enough of a miracle were Isaiah to describe a time and place where humans did not do such to one another, much less wolves and lions, lambs and bears and snakes.  Oh, for that day that the prophet foretells when the one will come who will "judge the poor with righteousness and the meek with equity!" 

I lived in this longing for a while in these last days and while I still do and perhaps always will, when I returned to the prophet's words once more this time I recognized the familiar in his words.  So caught up was I in the remarkable reversals he predicts at the end of this passage that I missed these the first time through.  Indeed, how many times in twenty-five years as a pastor have I repeated this prayer for "the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord and the spirit of joy in God's presence"?   How many times have I splashed the waters of baptism on God's children of all ages and spoken these words for them by name?  How many times have I rested my hands on the heads of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds as they affirmed their baptisms and earnestly prayed them again?  Indeed, how many times have these very words been spoken for me?

Oh, it is so that in this season of Advent we yearn for the coming of the One who will make all things right --- that time when animals and humans alike will only experience peace in the presence of one another.  But in the meantime?  Even as we watch and wait, it appears that the responsibility lies with us ---- not only to cry out in horror or dismay when it is otherwise, but to be those who judge with righteousness and equity for the meek and the poor even now.  To make things right when and where we can in this season today.  For that Spirit has been given to us, to you and to me, for precisely this and for this time now.  I wonder what it would look like if for only just for a few weeks this December we were to live like this were so...

  • How do you experience the prophet's vision for us here?  When and where do you yearn for this to be especially so?
  • Have you ever experienced the sort of reversals Isaiah offers?  What was that like?
  • What does it mean to you that you have been given 'the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God's presence?"  What difference does this make for you?
  • What might it look like this December if we were all to live like this is so?