When Evil Walks In

“I don’t want you to alarm you …” Tell me, is it possible to hear those words and not be alarmed?

The pastor of the church where I would be preaching that Sunday called to alert me about an “incident” during worship the previous week. A man showed up in the middle of worship and walked down the center aisle carrying a large duffel bag and ranting. He was “subdued” by the ushers and escorted out. “I don’t think he’ll be back, but the state police will be there on Sunday just in case. I thought you should know.”

Her voice was calm, and reassuring. Still, this is what I heard:

Crazy man.
Large duffel bag.
Had to be subdued.
State police.

My training as a lay preacher covered the design of worship services, doctrine, hermeneutics and Biblical exegesis. But not once did anyone tell me what to do when worship was disrupted by an angry man with a large duffel bag. All I could think was, “I’m just the substitute teacher! This is way above my pay grade.”

Other than being greeted by state troopers (which was, at once, reassuring and unnerving), it turned out to be an unremarkable worship service.

My worst fears didn’t come true that Sunday, but other churches haven’t been spared the horror I feared.

This week, it was Sutherland Springs, Texas where murderous evil breached the sanctuary. And, as if the execution of 26 people and wounding of as many more wasn’t horrible enough, the fact that it took place in a church was particularly hard to bear.

For believers, the idea that their sanctuary could be violated in this way was unthinkable. Many people think of church as the ultimate safe space, a place we can enter and then pull the drawbridge up behind us, leaving the world and its madness behind. When massacres happen in Sutherland Springs or Charlottesville, our idea of church as a spiritual stronghold is challenged.

So, here are the questions I’ve been chewing on:

Should we expect to feel safe in church?

Is church a space where God will not allow the world to intrude?

It strikes me that this is a First World Question. According to Open Doors USA, each month, 214 churches are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians worldwide. In countries like Syria and Iraq, the Christian population has been decimated. Churches in Mali, Nigeria, Somalia Pakistan and Kenya have been destroyed and Christians murdered.

For all the talk of the marginalization of the church in the U.S., and the ongoing culture wars that can make us feel under attack, the church in America doesn’t know the first thing about persecution. For too many of us, church is a soft place to land, a city whose walls protect us from all harm. The rest of the world has no such illusions. Every worship service is a defiant declaration that Jesus is Lord; no one expects the surrounding culture or political organization take that lying down. They are sorrowful, but not surprised, when evil comes to church.

I’m not suggesting that what happened in Texas last week was persecution; in fact, as of this writing, motives are unclear. But it has caused me to admit that I think that somehow when the church doors close behind me, the world and its evils will not intrude. I admit that I am like many people who think of church is where I can let down my guard and make the world go away.

But if the church is being the church — open doors, no moats or drawbridges here — it is possible evil will walk in. It is possible that God’s holy space will be profaned in word or in bloody deed. It is easy to worship in safety. Worshiping without guarantees of physical safety or comfort — now that’s real faith.

I recently went on pilgrimage to Ireland, tracing the steps of St. Patrick. One of my favorite places was Ballintubber Abbey, continuously in use since it was built in 1216. In 1653, the abbey was burned by Cromwell’s forces, destroying the roof and several outbuildings. Nevertheless, for the next 250 years, people continued to worship there, week after week, regardless of weather, and in spite of laws prohibiting it. As I sat in the rebuilt abbey, I wondered: Would I have been so faithful? Would I have been as brave? Would I have been a lookout for the priest hunters who came to kill my pastor? Would I have helped him escape certain death? Would I have been willing to kneel on the cold ground in worship?

Or would I have wondered, as I did this week, “Should I expect to be safe and comfortable in church? Will God allow the world to intrude?”

I don’t know why, but sometimes evil walks into church the same way it drives down the bike path or firebombs prayer meetings or enslaves young girls. I don’t know why God doesn’t always intervene to prevent such suffering.  But I do know that proclaiming Jesus is Lord is a declaration of war and I should be ready:

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Ephesians 6:13-17

 

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I just ended one of the longest relationships of my life. With the exception of the year I spent in France, I have read the New York Times every day since I was 12. There is nothing else I can think of — no other habit or ritual or compulsion — that I’ve practiced longer or that has remained an unchallenged, unquestioned and uninterrupted part of my life for so long.

And today, I broke it all off. Like most breakups, the reasons are best left between the parties involved. Like most breakups, I hung on longer than I should have.

Why?

For many years, the New York Times was a mark of identity. When my 7th grade teacher declared it required reading, I understood I was being called out of the Bronx and into a different world. We were ”Intellectually gifted girls” (a distinction we at once mocked and embraced) and such girls read the Times. People who went to college read it, and when they graduated, they rushed to their important jobs with it tucked under their arms. Reading the Times was what smart, well-informed, sophisticated people did. I wanted to be all those things so it’s what I did. As a character in one of my favorite movies puts it, “I want to like what’s better to like.” And even though I am no longer a 7th grader eager to embrace the world beyond the boroughs, it was hard to let go.

Why do we hang onto things — possessions, relationships, newspaper subscriptions — even after we’ve outgrown them?

Part of it is inertia. As long as there’s no obvious harm being done, it’s just easier to leave things undisturbed and unexamined. But mostly, it comes down to identity.

When I contemplated leaving my career in corporate communications, one question I asked myself led to a full blown panic attack: “If someone asks what I do, what will I tell them?” In other words, who would I be if I no longer had that title? Better not pull at that thread.

When I consider purging my closet of clothes unworn, it’s never just about giving away that blouse or this skirt. It becomes a referendum on whether I will ever be that size again, and if not, what does that make me? Easier to just leave it on its hanger and move on.

When I sift through my bookshelves . . . oh, who am I kidding, I never give away books. Still, you get the idea.

In The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster talks about the discipline of simplicity:

“The inward reality of simplicity involves a joyful unconcern for possessions. Neither the greedy nor the miserly know this liberty. It has nothing to do with abundance of possessions of their lack. It is an inward spirit of trust.”

That spirit of trust says that all we have is from God; it allows us to mimic God’s provision by making what we have available to others. It doesn’t mean living free of possessions. It does mean holding them lightly, because they don’t define us. It means being able to let go because if we do, we still have an identity that can never be taken away:

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

I would add that generosity isn’t only about money or things. We are called to be generous with all the resources we have been given — our money, our time, our talents and our love. It is easier to write a check than it is to visit someone in prison, yet we are called to open our hearts and our homes as well as our wallets. It is who God made us to be.

And yet, we continue to collect and protect. Consider this: A search for books on “decluttering” on Amazon turns up 1,668 results. (I guess I’m not the only one who holds on too long.) The most popular of these books suggests picking up each object in your house and asking yourself, “Does this bring me joy?”

This is the wrong question.

There are better questions for God’s people:

“Am I relying on this thing, this relationship, this title for my identity?”

“Would letting go of it diminish my sense of worth?”

“Could this bring someone else joy?”

Breaking up is hard to do. I want to hold on to the identity I have constructed for myself out of job titles and clothing sizes and intellectual achievements. But God wants so much more for me. He wants me to rely solely on the identity and worth that can never be taken away:

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.”

(1 John 3:1)

From this place of ultimate security, it is easy to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

#RESIST

I don’t care what Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says, “gift” is not a verb. When I hear someone talk about gifting something, I want nothing more than to make them a gift of The Elements of Style and smack them upside the head with it.

I recently discovered that while I have been defending the world against the scourge of nouns-as-verbs, they have quietly made their way into the dictionary. I refuse to acknowledge or acquiesce to such barbarism. In the spirit of the times, I am declaring:

#NotMyDictionary  #Resist

I vow to preach the gospel of #neveraverb as long as I have breath. In the words of Martin Luther, patron saint of resisters, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

At the heart of my resistance — of all resistance — is the belief that I know better than The Authority I’m resisting. My defiance denies the authority’s moral, legal, academic or spiritual legitimacy in favor of my own. Now, resistance can be a principled, brave opposition to an obvious wrong. (Think Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Wilberforce or Martin Luther KIng, Jr.) It can also be petulant, obstinate and self-aggrandizing, like my linguistic jihad against verbified nouns.

If it were only a matter of grammar, I could chalk it up to a charming quirk. But I fear this rebellious streak goes far beyond the Word Wars.

If resistance is substituting my own judgment for an authority’s then I am guilty of resisting God. You probably are, too. It’s OK, we come by it honestly. We inherited it from Adam and Eve.

“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6)

In other words, God said “No”, but I know better.

She knows God has prohibited it; she says as much to the serpent. But she rationalizes her rebellion. It looks good, it probably tastes good. It will make me wise, and what could be wrong with that? Why wouldn’t a loving God want me to have it?” (By the way, I think this last is one of the most dangerous questions we can ask. For one thing, it assumes that if God loves us, He will give us our every desire, even if that contradicts His will and His word. For another, it often precedes an argument that ends in “I know that’s what He said, but He didn’t mean it that way.”)

Eve and Adam’s rebellion — and ours — is rooted in the desire to be the judge of what is good and what is not. Their desire has convinced them that they can ask God to scooch over so they can share His throne.

This is why our resistance hero Martin Luther famously wrote that the root of all sin is idolatry. We never break any commandment without having first broken the first: “You shall have no other gods before me.” After all, once that is abrogated, then the absolute moral authority that undergirds the rest of the commandments becomes just another voice in the din of relativism. And all the while we pile up one rationalization after another for why this is all perfectly fine and God is cool with it.

From that day in the garden to this day at my desk, people have struggled with the radical claim on our hearts and our heads of that first commandment.

1. There is one God, and it’s not me.
2. God alone has claim to all authority and truth.
3. When God’s word is clear, but I think I know better, see #1

When it comes to words, I cling to the notion that I know better than the dictionary. I suppose there is no real harm to this, unless you happen to be on the receiving end of one of my tirades.

But when it comes to God, my resistance reveals a dangerous idolatry.

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus asks a haunting question:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”    (Luke 6:46)

Why indeed.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Listen Up!

I’m a light sleeper. I’m constantly on the qui vive for intruders and middle-of-the-night phone calls announcing catastrophe. Earplugs make me blissfully unaware of my surroundings and allow me to sleep through the night. Those little balls of wax are a blessing to my physical and mental health.

Of course, insulation from reality can also be dangerous. Sometimes the very things we want to screen out are the things we are in most need of hearing. I don’t need to hear noises that will disrupt my sleep. But God is so sure I need to hear some hard truths about myself that He will shout until I hear His voice.

I’m reading Isaiah Chapter 58 every day during Lent. This past week, I’ve found myself lingering on the first verse:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back;
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.”

Before He begins His litany of the people’s sin, God warns Isaiah he’s going to have to break through the self-righteous, self-satisfied, self-pitying bubble they’ve constructed. He’s saying, “You know all the stuff these people don’t want to hear? You’re going to shout it at the top of your lungs! All their dirty little secrets? You’re going to blare it over a loudspeaker to get their attention!”

Isaiah 58 is withering indictment of the people’s hypocrisy. Their lips pray to God one minute and quarrel the next. Their fasting is more concerned with appearances than with true humility. They worship and praise the Creator while they mistreat His creation. And as if that isn’t bad enough, they have the effrontery of accusing God of ignoring their piety and not hearing their prayers.

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” (Isaiah 58:3)


The irony is too delicious.

They are so busy whining that God isn’t listening, they don’t see that they are the deaf ones.

They are all too happy to hold God to His promise of hearing their prayers, yet conveniently plug up their ears to His demands for justice, love and compassion. And so, God tells Isaiah to shout. He knows that there comes a time when gentle rebukes must give way to full-throated cries; when niceties and euphemisms must be abandoned.

He knows that nothing less than a blunt, blaring truth will penetrate our willful deafness.

God’s salvation story is punctuated with God having to turn up the volume so we will hear Him:

  • Only the final plague of the death of the firstborn was loud enough to get Pharaoh’s attention and make him submit to God’s will.
  • Only the prophet Nathan’s bold confrontation (“You are the man!”) was loud enough to bring King David to his knees in repentance.
  • It takes nothing less than a knock-you-off-your-feet encounter with the risen Christ to make Saul hear God clearly.

And so on throughout God’s encounters with his stiff-necked people. Until finally, God sends Jesus, a walking, talking, healing, sacrificing Holy Bullhorn to call us to to repentance, to salvation, to reconciliation with God. His life, death and resurrection are God’s greatest — and loudest — proclamation to the world.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The fact of having ears apparently isn’t enough to guarantee hearing. There needs to be a submission, a willingness, an active decision to hear with the ears we have been given. Sometimes this means pulling out the ear plugs that allow us to sleep in blissful ignorance of our failure to love and serve as God intends. And when we don’t, we can count on God to make enough noise to pierce our deafness.

My prayer for this Lent:

Lord, I do not want to make you shout.
I want to hear what you have to say to me, even if it is hard.  I confess my my obstinacy and my self-righteousness and trust that you will forgive me.
Lord, give me ears to hear.
Amen.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

True and False Fasting

My inspiration for this Lent’s spiritual practice came from Twitter. There, among the streams of the sublime and the ridiculous, came this challenge from Lynne Hybels:

“Years ago a friend said that if I read Isaiah 58 for 30 days in a row, it would turn my life upside-down. I did. She was right. Try it.”

This seemed particularly appropriate for Lent, a time devoted to self-examination, penitence and fasting. Lenten fasting isn’t only about fasting from food, although that can be an important discipline. Fasting can be any intentional abstinence — from television, from gossiping, from social media. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says, “Fasting reveals what controls us.” I have certainly found this to be true. It is not until you try to do without something that you realize the hold it has on you and what deeper needs it masks. I never thought of myself as particularly tethered to my phone until I decided to abstain from electronic communication on the Sabbath. Talk about Fear of Missing Out!

But fasting isn’t only about what we give up; it is about what we can gain. Throughout Scripture, fasting is a way to draw near to God, to hear his voice, to know his will. Isaiah 58 will be my perfect companion this Lent. It challenges me to see the kind of fasting God honors. It shows me the true path to God’s blessing. It brings me to the headwaters of holiness.

I’m going to read Isaiah 58 every day this Lent and see where it leads me. Will you join me?

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Mirrors and Windows

Fake news has been making a lot of real news lately. These lurid fabrications have been feeding people’s sense of grievance and igniting outrage like a a string of firecrackers at a Fourth of July picnic.

Some claim that “fake news” swayed voters and affected the outcome of the 2016 election. For all that is wrong with fake news — and there’s plenty — this is an argument I just don’t buy. I find it hard to believe that a Hillary supporter would change allegiance because he believed the “news” that she operated a child sex ring out of a pizzeria.

I thought that rather than swaying votes, the election’s fake news was a classic case of confirmation bias. It didn’t change minds; it just confirmed and legitimized what we already believed. Recent research supports this view. (Hmmm. Is that why I believe it?)

By the way, real news can do this, too, if we limit our exposure to voices that we already agree with. This is equally dangerous. Listening only to what is pleasant and affirming — whether it’s real news or fake — makes us thin-skinned and intolerant. That’s the last thing the world needs right now.

Living in this echo chamber of “confirmation bias” news can spill over into our spiritual life, too.

We can just as easily treat Scripture like any other source of information: picking and choosing so that we only hear what conforms with what we already believe. Easy, but wrong.

It is wrong because the Bible’s purpose isn’t information, it’s transformation.

Scripture asks us to conform to it, not the other way around. It offers an alternate reality in which we are most assuredly not the ones calling the shots, where our lives have meaning far beyond what this world can offer. It invites us into a world where we are challenged and equipped to live radically countercultural lives

to forgive and not retaliate
to bless those who persecute us and pray for our enemies
to love extravagantly
to submit our will and our discernment to a King

To do this, we first have to lay down our desire to have our own ideas affirmed and confirmed by Scripture. We need to leave behind the prerogative to choose what we will allow into our bubble. Instead, Scripture demands we listen to all of it — the beautiful promises of God, the words of judgment, the puzzling incongruities, the violence, the mercy, the unimaginable love. Scripture asks us to risk being uncomfortable, uneasy and occasionally unsettled.

Despite all our efforts to domesticate it, use it to support our political views, or make excuses for why parts we dislike should not apply to us today, the Word of God remains gloriously untamed.

Scripture defies attempts to reduce it to a sweet bedtime story full of meadows and puppies and instead confronts us with some hard truths.

Sometimes our desires and God’s desires for us are not the same and no amount of rationalizing will change that.

There are some things that we have to chalk up to mystery, as much as that offends our rational, 21st century minds.

There will be times when we crave certainty and it offers nuance, and other times when we want wiggle room and it offers none.

So, read it. All of it. Ask the Spirit of God to pull up a chair next to you and guide your mind and heart into all truth. Read the icky parts that talk about judgement and the parts that make you weep with gratitude. Wrestle with it as Jacob wrestled with God, and let it bless you as God blessed him.

I love what William Willimon has to say about how to read Scripture:

“We trust the Bible because it keeps making sense of, as well as disrupting, the world in which we live. The Bible does not just “make sense” in the sense that the Bible is congruent with our present experiences of and definitions of reality. We must read the Bible in a way that is more careful and respectful than simply going to the Bible, rummaging about, picking and choosing on the basis of what we consider to be possible and permissible within our present context … The temptation is to discard that which makes us uncomfortable or that which does not easily fit into our present conceptual scheme of things.

 

Therefore, an appropriate hermeneutical question is not simply, What does this text mean? but rather, How is this text asking me to change?” (from Pastor: the Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry)

Unlike every other information source in our lives, let’s not construct a Bible that reassures us that we are right and just fine as we are.

We don’t need a mirror to tell us we’re the fairest of them all.

We need a window to show a reality of God’s making, not our own.

It is a reality in which we might be asked to do the unthinkable — to surrender our certainties and have the courage to be formed by God’s word.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Meryl Streep is a Pharisee and So Am I

pharisee_and_tax_collector_003

Let me get this out of the way: Meryl Streep is a phenomenal actress. I admire and respect her talent and have been moved by much of her work. She has the right and privilege of free speech. I am not here to dispute or debate any of these things. In fact, in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes the other night, she said something that was absolutely dead on.

“Disrespect invites disrespect.” I wonder if she knew how right she was.

After declaring that those gathered were “among the most vilified segments in American society right now,” she warned that if we kicked out all of the “outsiders and foreigners” in Hollywood, “You’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.“ Really? Without Hollywood we wouldn’t have the arts? What about ballet? Music? Theater? Hollywood certainly isn’t the only — or even the best — source of great art around. That she could be at once so self-pitying and self-aggrandizing is remarkable. Yes, the Hollywood she rhapsodizes about can produce great art. But for every “Sophie’s Choice” there is “Ricky and the Flash” which you’d be hard pressed to describe as Great Art.

Second, who’s to say that movies and television are better (that is to say, more refined, more edifying, more civilizing) than sports? Has she ever seen “Marriage Boot Camp?”  How about “Gigli?”  Apparently, instead of “vilifying” Hollywood, we should be thanking it for saving us from a life of low-brow entertainment (at least the kind that doesn’t come from Hollywood). 

She went from celebrating diversity to looking down her nose at any other form of entertainment than her own in seconds flat.

I heard another voice when I heard her say these words. I heard the voice of Jesus. In the gospel of Luke, he tells this story:

“He told his next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax man. The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”
Jesus commented, “This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.”

Jesus makes plain who the “villain” and the “hero” of this story are. The Pharisee is self-righteous and lacking humility before God; the tax collector was self-effacing and very aware of his sin.

The message was not lost on the Pharisees who were among his original audience: be on guard against the insidious sin of pride.

And here’s just how insidious that sin is. When we read the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, our natural instinct is to denounce the Pharisee’s arrogance, self-importance and sense of superiority over that sinner over there. We might even say to ourselves, “Thank God I’m not like that legalistic, bombastic Pharisee.” And in doing so, we become the Pharisee ourselves.

In telling this story, Jesus shows us how easy it is — how human it is — to become what we condemn.

I can’t help wondering if my pointing out Meryl’s Streep’s condescension isn’t tinged with a little, “Thank God I’m better than that.”  How easy it is to feel pride over my humility!  All I can do is echo the words of the tax collector: “God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’”

Meryl, if Hollywood continues to be “vilified”, don’t be surprised. As you so plainly put it, “Disrespect invites disrespect.” May God give us all the humility to break the cycle.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

Shhhh

attachment-image-2b420b02-9fcf-44b3-b70a-e48c298d4f69

The Incarnation is strange. Amidst all the gifts under the tree wrapped in ribbons and shiny paper, it’s the one wrapped in wrinkled paper, with its bow crumpled and askew. Inside is something you didn’t ask for; in fact, it’s the opposite. Instead of the latest iPhone, it’s a pair of socks.

At least, this is how I imagine the Incarnation seemed to a world waiting for a Messiah, long ago.

Longing for God to act powerfully and unmistakably as he had in the past, God’s people waited for a miraculous intervention. You know, something dramatic, like the ten plagues or the parting of the Red Sea. But there was no obvious miracle on Christmas. No, just a small, everyday miracle: a healthy birth, remarkable only to the parents who know His true provenance, some shepherds who had a vision and three foreigners who followed a star.

For the rest of the weary world, this gift was just another Jewish boy born into occupation and poverty, one more generation waiting to hear God speak through His prophets, one more generation longing for God’s rescue. For all the world knew or cared, this child was like thousands of others born that day.

The Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” paints a beautiful picture of the strange beauty of the Incarnation.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

No fanfare to demand our attention. For the world that so desperately waited for a Messiah and the pageantry that would announce him, the child arrived in deafening silence. They continued to hope and to pray for deliverance, never knowing that it had arrived and lived among them.

And even once He came into His ministry, His very ordinariness was reason to overlook Him. When Jesus proclaimed that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, the crowd responded, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” They might as well have said, “This is not the gift, nor the wrapping, we imagined.”

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.

This year, my Christmas Eve will be different. Usually, Christmas Eve is music and laughter and loud conversations. Instead of a houseful of people and too much food, it is just the two of us (well, four if you count the cats). We might go out to eat, or I might make a simple dinner before we head off to church. I am surprisingly OK with this. As much as I have loved all those boisterous Christmas Eves with family and friends, somehow having a quiet Christmas Eve feels right this year.

I want to to have the space and the silence to notice how quietly Christ enters: My Stealth Savior.

Like the world He was born into, I am waiting for miraculous interventions. I wait for prayers to be answered. I wait for suffering to stop, for children to be rescued from war, for persecutions to end. I want the big, Technicolor miracles. And I may see one or two. While I wait, I want to be quiet and take my eyes off the bright, shiny objects. I want to look instead at the homely gift I didn’t ask for, but that will be exactly what I need.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven
No ear may hear His coming
But in this world of sin
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in

I wish you a joyous, silent Christmas.

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

images

I shift in my seat.
I grumble and mumble.
I roll my eyes and let out exaggerated, exasperated sighs.

This is how I wait.

I’m not proud of this, mind you. I know that petulance never makes the line move faster or the plane take off any sooner. But man, I hate to wait.

There seems to be only two ways to wait: passively and actively.
The passive waiter is patient, unhurried, easygoing. In other words, not me. No, I take charge and act: I switch lines or switch flights. I make things happen, though often action born of impatience turns out to be ill-advised, unwise and generally not a good idea.

But Advent shows us a third way of waiting.

In Advent, we see a push-and-pull of action and stillness, of active preparation and passive acquiescence that leads to nothing less than a miracle.

Mary and Joseph are able to act decisively and boldly when it is required of them to act. They both actively collaborated with God’s plan when they each said “Yes” to the angel’s proclamation to them. Mary wastes no time hurrying to Elizabeth when she hears of her miraculous pregnancy. Joseph obeys his visions and marries Mary, then takes his family to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous rampage.

Yet, they are also able to be still, to rest and allow God to work out his purpose, in His time, in His way. They could prepare for his birth, but nothing they could do — no amount of  impatience — could hasten the birth.  Once their son was born, they would feed and clothe, nourish and instruct him in the the faith. But their actions could not prepare them for the singular challenge of raising the Messiah, for watching Him die, or seeing the glory of His resurrection. For this they could only depend on God’s action, and they did.

Mary and Joseph live in this tension of action and rest, knowing and not knowing. They are able to live “in the meantime”, not with passive inertia nor with frantic, panicked activity.

They know the difference between what is theirs to do and what is God’s.

In Advent we mark the time when we wait for Christ to be born in us.

  With Mary, we ponder how God will use us to bring about his Kingdom.

  With Mary, we wonder how He will make life where there is none.

  With Mary, we hear ourselves say, “I don’t see how you’re going to use me, but I’m willing.”

  With Mary, we do what is asked of us, then wait with patient trust and expectancy.

The first Advent, and every one since, marks the uneasy, uncomfortable, hidden, mysterious, beautiful time when we are asked to act and wait, to be still and to be on the move, to do our part and to leave room for what God will do.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability —and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. Your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
                                             (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss

The Gift of Hope

images

This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope.  

I don’t mean the kind of hope we casually toss about in our every day conversations. We say “I hope you feel better” and what we really mean is that we want it to be true, and — fingers crossed — maybe it will be. It is no more than a wish we might make on a shooting star.

That kind of hope is easy, cheap and useless.

No, the hope I want is different. Not a facile, throwaway pleasantry, the hope I want is grounded in certainty and expectation. When God’s people say they have hope, it means they fully expect something to happen, despite any evidence to the contrary.

In the times of trouble, when darkness whispers that there is no light and never will be again, people of hope hear another voice. Probably the most radical thing the Christian faith teaches is that even in these dark moments — especially in these dark moments — we can can hear that other voice, reminding us that God is faithful. Faint at first, then growing stronger and louder, we hear the words that say we can hope in God because He has never forsaken us and never will.

Although we can’t be certain how or why or when, hope says we can be confident that God will act.

Scripture is full of this kind of hope. The Psalms declare over and over God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; the Prophets warn of God’s judgement, but just as often remind us of his inviolable covenant with us. But for my money, if you want to know what real hope looks like, listen to Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Now this is a young woman who has every reason to be afraid and worried. She knows that her pregnancy will, at best, make her the subject of gossip, snickering and shaming. She knows that at worst, it could lead to her death as an adulterer.  She has been given the unimaginable responsibility of raising the Messiah, something nothing can really prepare you for.

And yet she has hope — not the wishing kind that would have her saying, “Man,it would really be nice if God shows up!”

Her hope is the expecting kind, the kind that says, “I know what God has done in the past, and I know He will do it again.”

Confession: There’s a cynical world-weariness still lurking in dark corners of my soul that thinks this not something a real person could actually do or feel in times of trouble. The Mary I met in Sunday school was someone so impossibly holy that although I found her admirable, she was no more real than a princess in a fairy tale.

And yet, as I have grown in age and faith, I know that there are people — real people — who have the same kind of expecting hope as Mary. Real people who face uncertainty with the certainty that God will act. Ordinary people who face death — their own or others’ — with a peace that undergirds to their grief. And I ask myself, how do they do it?  How did Mary? 

The answer lies in the angel’s declaration to Mary: “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 called holy—the Son of God.”

The power of the Holy Spirit is what will make the impossible — a virgin conceiving — happen. It is also what makes it possible for her to have the joyous hope she sings about in her great song of praise.

Her expecting hope is nothing less than a gift of the Holy Spirit.

My jaded reaction that having this kind of hope isn’t something that real people could do is partly right: it isn’t something that comes naturally to us, or something we can manufacture. It is a gift we receive from God, a gift we can ask for and that will be joyfully given, a gift we can nurture, a gift that is nothing less than a beautiful mystery.

This gift allows Mary and us to do two things: remember God’s faithfulness to the individual and the community.   First, the gift of the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has already done for her:

“For He who is mighty has done great things for me”  

Second, the Holy Spirit reminds her of what God has done for her community:

“He has shown strength with his arm…
he has exalted those of humble estate …
he has filled the hungry with good things …
He has helped his servant Israel …”
This Christmas, I’m asking for the gift of hope. I’m asking the Holy Spirit to come upon me and the power of the Most High to overshadow me, as He did to Mary.   I am praying Paul’s powerful prayer from Romans Chapter 15 over myself and over a world sorely in need:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, you may abound in hope.”

Share this post facebooktwittermail
Follow In Ordinary Time facebooktwitterrss