Miracles on Earth

One of the most unsettling things for someone like me is arriving in an unknown place, containing unknown people, and not knowing quite what to expect when you allow yourself to be open to wherever the Spirit may be leading in life. If there is any attachment to any sense of comfort and consistency, it’s probably the easiest and quickest way to unbalance the equilibrium of life. For an added bonus, take away the comforts of a life once lived, showering regularly and the such, and watch any sense of stability slip through your hands while opening yourself to a whole new experience and a whole new way of life being revealed to and through you.

I suppose it’s the nature of the incarnational God moment in Bethlehem that invites us into such a reality, where the most vulnerable becomes enfleshed in the very human reality, one that has existed from before the beginning of time, when we enter into this world and leave behind the confines of what has nurtured us and fed us in ways that we’d now learn how to do on our own. It’s often a painful process that invites us into becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable of our lives, pushing us to the brink of change and the consistent edge of seeking the unknown ways that God still desires to reveal in and through us. It is at Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem of our own lives, where that process begins to unfold in our hearts and souls, where not only us, but God becomes equal with, bridging the divide that separates the authentic being that we are and are so often stands in the way of living a life more fully in the gift of Bethlehem, that somehow even manages to find a way to conquer even death itself.

This week was my first week here at Bethlehem Farms in West Virginia. It’s rather appropriate knowing my own story these months that I’d find myself back at the beginning, in a place that takes pride in a name that recalls for us the gift given and continues to give in Bethlehem. There was and is nothing neat and fancy about Bethlehem, a child born in a stable, straw strewn with animal dung, odors that spill over into the creases of our bodies, reminding us of our humanity and the gift we share with all God’s creation, that there is nothing that separates and divides but we ourselves at times. It’s often in reconnecting with the most basic elements of who we are in the order of creation where we reconnect with Bethlehem in a more real and profound way, waking at the break of day, chores, daily routines, prayer, and of course, the sharing of meals that makes Bethlehem what it was and is, the heart and soul of who we are in God’s plan.

It’s all the discomforts of walking into those unfamiliar places, raising the awareness of our own shame and guilt for living lives disconnected from one another, from creation, and even from ourselves at times. Bethlehem, and the miracle of Bethlehem, like the celebration of birth in any of God’s creation, is it manages to pull us into the most present moment of our lives, where nothing else matters than what lies before us. The pain of such a journey begins to wane. The wonder and awe, dreams of a life given birth is all that lies before us when we allow ourselves to be open to the voice of God enfleshed in others, nature, the natural world, the animals, and all living creatures that when created were good, even very good.

There’s nothing quite as magical as watching life unfold, especially the lives of young people who have their eyes opened to something beyond the life they have lived. Even in their own experience of Bethlehem we have no idea when they enter the world how their lives will unfold, all we know is that it somehow happened in and through us along the way. It will be their own openness to a different way of life and allowing themselves to be connected in varying ways, where they too can find themselves questioning the ways of the world, seeds planted beyond the beds of a garden, but in the hearts and souls of all who pass through the ravines of Bethlehem, looking for a new way of life, a different way of life, recognizing that there must be something more for them in life beyond the phones, games, and fast-paced world of success that never quite satisfies. Rather, finding the treasure of life and birth in the community gathered in prayer, in work, in meal, all moving towards the common goal of making the world a better place, a more sustainable place, and never quite being satisfied with the comfort, but finding comfort in the discomfort of Bethlehem that is always calling and beckoning to come forth to a new life in and through God. It’s the true miracle of Bethlehem.

Many walked through the bowels of Bethlehem searching for the “king” and a new way of life, somehow believing what it is they’d search for all their life would be found in a far distant land only to find that it lies within, that the gift of Bethlehem is in the birth of joy, compassion, and love in our own hearts. More often than not we will search in similar ways, believing that what it is we seek lies somehow and somewhere beyond us, taking us on a journey, at times, seemingly, thousands of miles away. It’s the nature of who we are as humans to seek what it is we desire beyond ourselves. More than anything we seek love and to be loved, only coming with our own oneness with others, with God, with all of creation, when we finally begin to accept that there is nothing, as Paul writes to the Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

The journey to Bethlehem is a long one, arduous at times, wanting even to turn around and go home to what was, questioning whether the journey is really worth the time and effort. In the end, as with any birth but certainly the vulnerability that God takes on in becoming flesh, it is only in that journey where we find our deepest purpose and truly what it means to love and to accept that love in return. Love stands as the only bridge to what separates, heart to heart, flesh to flesh, man, woman, and all creation standing together, hand in hand, reminding the world that great things happen in Bethlehem and because of Bethlehem. It’s nothing that any power structure or any powers that be will ever understand, for they live with divided hearts. It’s only in the great humility of Bethlehem where it begins to make sense, that there is more to life, more to a life once lived but now being summoned in different ways, more life-giving ways, that opens to door to a journey to yet another miracle. By the guidance of a night sky and illumined stars, it once again comes to Bethlehem, surrounded by the most obvious and yet most inconspicuous places, in the comfort of the uncomfortable, God once again gives birth.

Dear God…

For many years now I have spent a great deal of time writing Letters to God.  I believe it all started after seeing the movie under the same name, of a young boy struggling with cancer who thought God was the only one who would understand, despite the unending doubts and dissatisfaction of everyone around him.  It all began in similar fashion for me as well.  They began rather briefly without much depth, often with a question that burdened me or something that just didn’t make sense.  It was a way of getting out of me what so often seemed to become internalized, and being freed from the burden that often became associated with the question, the thought, the experience, or whatever it may have been in that time and space.  Needless to say, the way we have internalized experiences is not always the way it really happened.

Since then, I have written literally hundreds of pages, binders full of these letters that I would not want to share with anyone.  There’s only one person I have, but that’s a story for another day.  It wasn’t simply, at one point, being accountable to someone larger than myself, like God, but to another person who could mirror back, free of judgment, shame, and fear, my deepest thoughts and experiences.  It’s funny, if you would have asked me when I was young what I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer would never even have crossed my lips.  Always, a teacher, but also meteorology a close second.  The natural world still fascinates me and feel at home there, but it has also given me much to write about, and more importantly, a path to redemption over and over again, seeing creation as God’s first and greatest act, and myself intimately connected.

The letters, though, over time, have become more complicated and more nuanced.  I often have to return to them for my own reference, unsure where some of it even comes from, supposing a place deep within me.  It has become a place where I can freely be myself and allow my imagination to engage on levels I could not have imagined even existed, a place where I can often become lost, wander, and over time, be found while finding myself.  They are letters that are filled with quotes, movie scenes, and other images and metaphors that become attached as a means to going deeper and to discover with greater certainty, the One in which the letters are written.  Not only has it been a discovery of the complexity of mystery and the unknown, but how true it is of my own life and how easily any of us can allow ourselves to become imprisoned where and when we feel most comfortable, exiled from the very mystery we fall in love with, even when we feel as if we don’t belong.

I never knew if God was really listening, just as it is with people.  I often wondered if God understood what often felt like one misunderstanding after another.  It’s never been about the peripheries, the trappings that often capture our attention as humans, but rather a quest for the marrow of life, what makes it tick, what gives it meaning and purpose, what and who gives life.  I’m just as guilty as the next, believing there’s an easy answer or fix to what comes at us in life, but it often takes a blow to knock that type of illusion from our hearts and eyes, when we begin to experience that God has been listening all along; I just wasn’t aware of how much he was listening because of the illusions that crippled me and were used as a crutch to hold onto what was never real in the first place, but was a way to protect, to feel comfortable, to hide in fear from what it was I desired the most.  It was hidden all along and in plain sight.  It wasn’t God’s fault, revealing the path, step by step, but rather my own inability to let go, to surrender, to the very mystery that captivated me from the beginning.

So here I sit writing, in a similar format, with questions that in the past would have seemed insurmountable but now are a part of this ongoing quest for truth and love.  Dear God; they are sometimes the easiest words to put on the paper.  The doubt of God listening never seems to completely disappear, and maybe that’s the point.  It’s in that doubt where courage is found to write what comes next in that letter or any of them for that matter.  At first the words that followed came out with great trepidation, not always wanting to put into words what was really going on within me because somehow, once out, they become real, as if words being breathed become embodied in some way.  When I’m asked if I’ll ever share such writings, I hesitate.  My experiences, like any, are very personal.  They’re about difficulties with identity, love, heartbreak, struggles, questions, joys, and all the rest.  Of course, that’s what binds us all in the human family.  We all have a story to share and is important to share that story so hopefully one day the words that follow, Dear God, will lead me in that direction.

A friend shared with me a quote from a book this week (which has a lot of great quotes) entitled, Poverty of Spirit.  The author says this, “We are all beggars.  We are all members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself.  We are all creatures plagued by unending doubts and restless, unsatisfied hearts.  Of all creatures, we are the poorest and the most incomplete.  Our needs are always beyond our capacities, and we only find ourselves when we lose ourselves.”  He goes onto write, “Left to ourselves, we still remain the prisoner of our own Being…if we attempt this [hiding], the truth of our Being haunts us with its nameless emissary:  anxiety…in the final analysis we have one of two choices:  to obediently accept our innate poverty or to become the slave of anxiety.”  I’m convinced we are all beggars when we utter the words, Dear God, but I’m also nearly certain that we come begging for the wrong thing.  More often than not we come to God begging for answers, only leading to a greater anxiety when answers are not found.  The true invitation to losing ourselves is living into the unknown of the very question that leave us with doubt, restlessness, and unsatisfied hearts.  The answers may, and probably never will, come, but in time we begin to embody the question that God has placed in our hearts and begin to step into and out of our deepest selves, our truest selves, where we no longer need to cut off or shun who it is within us that remains prisoner.

What started as two simple words of imitation of a young boy in a movie, Dear God, has led me to many places within myself and beyond that I will never fully comprehend, but it also leads me to this point in my life right now.  Somewhere in the pages and pages of writing, God has led me to a choice and an invitation to enter into the unthinkable, of surrendering myself to that interior poverty that scares and yet is most enticing and seductive.  As I said, it’s never been about the peripheries, the pomp, the dress, the performance, but rather about this journey that binds us all, from our own sense of exile, crossing threshold after threshold, to a deeper understanding of the promised land that lies within and yet so far beyond my own comprehension.  Needless to say, it comes with a sense of fear, stepping beyond the walls that have held me tightly and have given great comfort, but that too is simply a passage, a threshold to cross, just as any new birth, into an unknown world.  The difference is trusting that journey and trusting that whatever follows, Dear God, will once again be yet another invitation to a new way of living, a new way of loving, a new way of learning to embody the deeper questions of life and living that revelation as, again, God’s first and greatest act of creation.

Hopeful Longing

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

creche

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night.  On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes.  There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake.  There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast.  I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time.  There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one.  This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.

There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else.  It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are.  It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet.  Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy.  Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt.  That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.

It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading.  It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings.  But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war.  Poverty and famine have become a way of life.  A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game.  Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another.  The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition.  They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people.  Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well.  They are a people that knew pain and suffering.  They are a people that knew separation and longing.  But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness.  Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth.  Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.

The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake.  Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness.  Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this.  The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled.  Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey.  The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time.  Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter.  In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace.  As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day.  They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.

They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey.  There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted.  All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction.  What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it.  Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being.  We will never get rid of darkness.  We will never get rid of sin.  For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us.  It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are.  In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  It’s what Christmas is all about.  In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire.  Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago.  It’s God breaking in.  It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing.  Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope.  We are no different.  The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.

 

Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

Needed Endings

Daniel 12: 1-3; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18; Mark 13: 24-32

In some of his letters written from prison, German Lutheran theologian, spiritual writer, mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged his fellow co-conspirators to think and act of future generations.  Despite the fear and anxiety that will be thrust upon you of that age, and our age, the mindset must be forward and for future generations.  He himself had the opportunity to stay here in the States but felt for the sake of his own integrity and the integrity of the message that he must return to Germany during Nazi control and found himself imprisoned and eventual lead to not only his death but the death of several family members.  He knew how the message would be received by those in power, not as a message of hope, as anticipated, but rather feeding into their own fear of the threat of losing power.  When we become trapped in this moment and cannot see beyond or even trust the unknown, fear and anxiety rule the day.  His message was not only timely in the early 1940s as Germany and all of Europe reeled with a World War, but even to our own day.

His message, like that of Mark’s to his own community today, are meant to be messages of hope to people who find themselves waning on their commitment to the common good, future generations, and doing what is right.  There is an onslaught of pressure at this point of the story from not only political but religious authorities of their day who see not only Jesus but his very followers as a threat to the status quo, to what they are most comfortable with, to their way of life that they have deemed to be most fitting.  Fear and anxiety becomes the name of the game, but the message intended by Mark and Daniel, and even Bonhoeffer, was to persevere in the suffering and the darkness that you are experiencing at the moment.  For the sake of future generations, fear cannot move us to give up and become depleted in the mission that is given us by God. 

As Mark and Daniel tell us today, it will certainly feel as if the world is falling a part and feel like all we know is crumbling around us, but it has to.  It has to.  Many things need to die in order for the next generation, which may even have conflicting values, but for the betterment of society.  Instead, like in the time of Jesus, we have political and religious leaders looking more like bumbling fools at times, stumbling through, trying to avoid the pain, often all in order to cling to what was and what was is dying and has to die.  What was can no longer be.  The name of the game with God is surrender, trust, letting go, even learning to die, pushing through the pain, in order to learn to trust the unknown and the unfolding of mystery in our world today.  It’s a message of hope in the face of the many trials and tribulations that we have faced as generations of people.  Yet, every generation, as Jesus tells us today, clings, and all these things will come to pass before they learn to let go.  Do we really want to leave a mess for future generations in the church and country?

Whether we like it or not, things are going to change and many things will die, and need to.  People from other countries are going to come here, as they have for generations.  We need not fear as Bonhoeffer had written.  We need not fear people that are different and that we even perceive as a threat to our way of life.  Our way of life, for that matter, is also dying.  If you know anything about future generations, they live very differently.  They don’t necessarily value what older generations value, even in terms of economics.  At some point the trials and tribulations are only enhanced by our own need to control and to hold on to what was.  We become nostalgic of the past, as if everything was great.  Yet, all generations that have passed have lived through the same trials and tribulations and the same uncertainties that we face in our present day and age.  The more we learn to embrace the reality of life and death, that the two are so intertwined, the more we learn not to cling, but to let go, surrender, even the face of persecution and in the midst of the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by political and religious leaders, along with a great deal of our media that continues to feed into the narrative of the end times.

Well, guess what?  The end times are upon us.  They’re always upon us.  We’re always on the threshold being left with a choice to cling to what was, leading us further into despair, or we learn to trust the unknown, trust what is unfolding within and beyond us, the mystery of life and death.  All of creation, as the readings tell us today, knows that process better than any of us.  Despite the horrific loss of life and property in the wild fires of California, it’s all the forest knows.  Fires, despite the loss of life, are the only way forests recreate themselves and foster new growth.  As naturally as creation does it and allows it to be done unto it, here we are, the advanced ones of creation, clinging rather than embracing the freedom of the unknow, opening ourselves to future generations.

Bonhoeffer’s words continue to ring true to this day.  We too have a great deal of fear and anxiety thrust upon us from many different directions.  There is nothing easy about any of it.  His message, though, that in order to think and act in that way, we must learn to walk through the darkness, the pain, the suffering, that comes with letting go and surrendering ourselves over to the will of God.  If we find it as an ominous message rather than the message of hope that was intended, we probably find ourselves clinging in life, as if something is being taken away from us.  The message of hope delivered by these prophetic voices, Daniel, Jesus, Mark, Bonhoeffer, was one of trust in the face of adversity.  It may be painful in the immediate moment, but that more than ever is the time not to fall prey to fear and anxiety.  When we trust, despite the trials and tribulation, life is promised in death.  Sure, it’s hard and we’d rather hold on, but the message of hope is one of life, despite our fears.  Lean in and trust the unknown for the fullness of life awaits.

Prepare to be Amazed

Isaiah 49: 1-6; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80

It’s good to take a break from the ordinary cycle of readings to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.  Whether it’s his, Jesus’ or even in our own families, we know there’s something special about birth.  Babies, infants, kids, have a way of pulling us adults outside of ourselves and to free us, even if for a time, of our selfishness and self-centeredness.  They are utterly dependent upon us and totally defenseless.  They are a good reminder to us just how much we’re not in charge and, despite their size, how many bigger things there are that often get missed.  Yet, as a human family we still find ways to abuse, separate, take advantage of, and use children for our own gain because of who they are rather than being a message of hope, as it is with John the Baptist and Jesus, both of which are intertwined in this beginning of Luke’s Gospel.

Of course, though, on his birth we hear nothing from him, not even a whimper.  He is the one, though, that prepares the way as we hear in Advent, for literally the advent of something new.  There is a message of hope.  Quite possibly, though, he learns how to be the one that prepares the way through his parents who are a part of today’s Gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, they are advanced in years, beyond child-bearing, and literally defined by Luke as being barren.  There’s no chance of life.  Yet, in their own way as Luke tells us, they have prepared for this moment.  There was still a sense of receptivity that God can still do great things in their lives, so both Elizabeth and Mary stand as model in that sense.

It’s Zechariah, though that has his own way of preparing for this moment of hope.  His story mirrors that of Mary in some ways when the message is delivered that they are about to give birth.  Mary, as we know, responds with a great sense of openness, freedom, and yet a sense of wonder as to how something like this is possible.  Zechariah, on the other hand, still comes with a sense of wonder, but like a good man, his wonder has more to do with how he’s going to do this.  His wonder is much more rooted in fear.  He has yet to be pulled out of himself and remains somewhat closed to the gift being given and so is silenced for nine months.  That, quite possibly, was God’s real gift to Elizabeth.  However, like any baby, when that child enters the world and Zechariah looks at him for the first time, things begin to change.  The one who prepares with fear and is silenced, now comes with a sense of freedom in dismantling his own lineage in naming the child John.  John will not be bound by that same history and inaugurates the new day.  In the end, Elizabeth and Zechariah teach their own son how to prepare by how they prepared for that same message of God breaking into their lives.  All John can do as his life proceeds is to point the way.

With the birth of a child our hearts expand.  They give us a sense of hope and wonder.  They allow us to be free to receive and to give this unconditional love.  Of course, it’s Israel’s own struggle and the great prophets that come before John try to lead Israel to that same promise, reminding them too that there are bigger things than themselves.  Israel makes the same mistake we continue to make to this day by getting caught up in ourselves, getting stuck in our own selfishness and self-centeredness.  The largeness of one’s heart can pretty much be determined by how they respond to children.  The smaller our hearts, the more prone to using them for our own advantage.  We have certainly seen that in the history of the world and continue to do so and certainly in our own country.  It’s the message that is conveyed in the gospels over and over again, about children, women, the vulnerable, the poor, all of which, for Jesus and John, pulled people out of themselves and gave the freedom to be receptive to the working of God, to mystery, to the newness of life.  It’s how Isaiah can proclaim today that the message goes to the ends of the earth.  When the heart begins to expand and we move outside ourselves, the message becomes universal.  That’s the working of God in the life of Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, but also in our lives to this day.

Our tendency is to become small and closed off.  We have no need for anything new, for wonder, for mystery, but that cuts us off from the Creator and Giver of life.  We don’t just celebrate the birth of the Baptist, we celebrate what God continues to do in our lives, despite our fear, our trepidation, our loss of wonder.  John reminds us that we too need to prepare for what great works God wants to do in and through us.  Maybe we’re just Zechariah and we just need to be silenced or find silence for some time, creating space and wonder.  Maybe we find ourselves like Elizabeth, barren in our own way.  They remind us that miracles still happen but we must be prepared and certainly receptive to the life being given.  As we celebrate this day with solemnity on the birth of John the Baptist, we pray with the family of Abraham for a greater sense of openness in our own lives and that like these characters, we may be used in similar ways to give birth to something new, something in our lives that, all we can do, is point the way to the One who continues to do great things.

 

Community of Love

The Passion of Jesus Christ According to John

I can’t say I’m a fan of shows about lawyers.  It’s not that I have a thing against lawyers, but it often seems that there is some deal of manipulation that takes place in order to convince people of the truth, even if it’s not the truth, simply to make a case.  Of course, it’s not even about television programs like Law & Order or anything like that.  We even see it when we catch any news.  There’s always a “legal expert” who’s going to try to convince you of something, that they know the truth and to cast doubt into the other’s case.  We hear it from Russia probes to “porn stars” and everything in between. It creates this sense of chaos and confusion leaving us with the same question as Pilate in today’s passion, “What is truth?”  It’s hard to tell sometimes.

That is what John seems to create in his account of the passion and death of Jesus that we hear every Good Friday.  It’s hard to determine what really is the truth and there seems to be utter confusion and chaos.  What only reinforces that is this enmeshing of politics and religion.  When the two align against Jesus he doesn’t stand much chance of making it out alive.  It comes down to at that point people’s power that they’re unwilling to surrender and over time, chipping away at any trust they may have of Jesus, invoking fear, confusion, and chaos on the scene.  For John, though, that’s where it all begins.  If you think back to the beginning of the bible as we know it, the creation accounts in Genesis, order is formed out of chaos.  Now, for John, this chaos that ensues towards Jesus’ death, is once again going to create a new order.  Not in the sense of control but in a new creation and new life that will flow from within.

When you think about it, even the charge brought against Jesus would not necessarily warrant death.  The crowd says that he claims to be Son of God.  However, again, from the very beginning, they too are sons and daughters of God but over time begin to sway from trusting that voice of the divine, giving into the fear, chaos, and confusion, and used by the people of power to bring down this guy Jesus.  This new created order that John says community is to become is a community that is once again rooted in that ancient of beliefs, that they are sons and daughters of God but from the beginning are lost from due to sin, due to thinking that they’re more than that, that they are God.  But when there is pressure from the authorities, who try to convince that they hold the truth and will manipulate into believing, it’s the voice of the divine that is crucified.  It is the community that now stands trial as to what and who it is they are going to become in the midst of a hostile world.  Will they follow the ruler of this world or of the Kingdom, as Jesus claims in the Passion account.

All leading to the climactic scene of Jesus on the cross, standing, as John tells us, literally in the middle of the tension and in the middle of all the hostility being cast upon him in these moments.  But unlike ourselves often, Jesus takes it in.  When vinegar and bitterness are placed upon his lips, unlike the other gospels, Jesus drinks.  He consumes the bitterness.  He consumes the anger.  He consumes the fear.  He consumes chaos and confusion.  He consumes all that is thrown at him, appearing that the world has finally won.  There is finally a verdict and the verdict stands with the status quo.  It stands with what we so often choose as well, to destroy the one who is perceived as the problem in order to make ourselves feel better.  It’s so much easier to spew hatred and bitterness upon the world, but Jesus consumes it.  He consumes the bitter herbs that are cast upon him but not to show violence towards the world.  Rather, to transform it.

Yet, it’s still not finished.  When that bitterness is consumed by Christ, and rather than casting judgment upon them and the world, a lance is cast into his side and blood and water flow out.  In that very moment of consumption of all that the world has thrown at Jesus, a new community is formed.  Just as blood and water flow from the womb of the mother, now blood and water flows from the side of Jesus and a community of love is formed.  All the bitterness, chaos, and confusion are transformed and recreated into new life and this community is birthed.  It’s no longer based simply on doctrine.  Even Jesus stands trial for that and nothing can be found against him.  It’s not a community based on ideology or anything else.  Rather, it’s a community of love that flows from the side of Jesus.

We come to this second prayer of Easter as we reflect upon the passion according to John.  John isn’t about a community but shows the path towards a community that is rooted in love.  From a God who humbles and comes down to the earth, to a God who humbles and gets on his knees and washes the feet of the disciples, including Judas, to now a God who points to yet a deeper love and an opportunity to participate in that deeper love by going into the depths of the earth, into the new tomb as John tells us in order to transform all that has died.  Blood and water flow from the womb, blood and water flow from the side, blood and water will flow from the tomb and this new community of love will form.  That’s what John believed to be true of any community that puts the Cross at its center.

As we come to venerate this Cross in a few moments, we come with grateful hearts.  Sure we recognize the sacrifice that has been made for us, redeemed for our sins, but it’s much more than that.  It’s not just about something being done for us.  It’s also about something being done to us and in us John would say.  We can’t stop short in being a community of love.  We must take those final steps, when we find ourselves on trial ourselves and juror at times.  Which voice is going to give us the eternal truth?  Do we form our lives and community around popular opinion and what’s most acceptable or will we take the often more difficult path of trusting the divine.  We too stand at the center of it all and are often left with choices ourselves.  It’s very easy to become consumed by chaos and confusion and to spew the bitterness of our own lives onto others and the world.  It’s easy.  It’s going with the crowd today, so easily convinced.  In that moment the divine is crucified again and again.  Yet, we come with gratitude because God continues to invite us back to this very place and in this moment, calling to mind to our own truest identity, as sons and daughters of God.  If it were only as easy to convince ourselves of that then blood and water would flow from us as well, co-creators in this world.

In the midst of hostility, bitterness, confusion, fear, and chaos, Jesus stands trial.  It’s the alignment of the feast and the hour as we heard last night and that time has finally arrived.  We pray for that grace, in these moments of our own lives, that we too will choose our own bitterness and hostility to be transformed by the divine in order that we may continue to become that community of love that John desired.  It takes a great deal of sacrifice and pain along the way, letting go, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by Love in order to be love.  On this Good Friday we pray for that grace for Love to touch our hearts in a deeper way, through our own chaos and hostility, touching the blood and water as they flow in order to make us a new creation, a community of love.