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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)

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Saints in the Shadows

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In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

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Uphill, Both Ways

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A year ago, I hadn’t even heard of this little village. And now, I’m staring into the indifferent eyes of a cow, so exhausted (and perhaps a little delirious) that I’m wondering if I shouldn’t just sit down and stay here forever. I could learn how to make delicious cheese from my new friend’s milk, although by the look she’s giving me, we clearly need to know each other better before that will happen. I could live a simple life that wouldn’t require me to walk one more step up and down these never-ending hills. Perhaps I could open up an inn to welcome the thousands of people, like me, who trek past these cow pastures in the beautiful green hills of Galicia in Spain, looking for God.

I am a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, an ancient path that has been trod by everyone from 12th century monks to social media millenials. For at least a thousand years, people have walked here, doing penance, seeking healing, hoping that every step will lead them to an encounter with the divine.

I am an unlikely pilgrim on this 80-mile trek. I am not a “Let’s go hiking!” kind of gal. I exercise juuuust enough to keep heart disease and general decrepitude at bay. My idea of a day in nature involves a cool drink, a good book and a nap in the shade. But after months of training, here I am, picking my way carefully up and down rocky slopes, dodging cow patties, skidding through slimy mudslides and peeing in the woods. Why?

I am here precisely because it is difficult, uncomfortable and simply something I would never do. I am here in the spirit of Romans 12:1:

“…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

I serve God with my gifts and talents, but rarely in a sacrificial way. I give out of my abundance — of skill, of resources, of time — but always within my very comfortable comfort zone. I had always understood that verse from Romans to mean my whole life should be presented as a sacrifice. But I had come to wonder: what would it look like if I presented my actual body, the body that hates unnecessary exertion, inconvenience and discomfort, as a sacrifice to the God I claimed to love?

I had a romantic notion of what My Camino would would be like. (People talk about El Camino in highly personal terms, as if each one is different). I would write and pray and take beautiful photographs. I would meet other pilgrims and have surprising and deeply satisfying encounters with God. At the end of each day and at the end of the week, I would feel a noble exhaustion, a satisfied sense of sacrifice. “See,” I would say to God, “Look what I have done for you.”

This is not exactly what happened. As I found myself struggling with pain and exhaustion, I learned a few things along The Way:
1.  It really is possible to go uphill both ways.

When I set out, I thought I was prepared, both physically and spiritually, for the challenge. I thought I had within me all that was necessary to offer this sacrifice. But the uphills aggravated an old injury, which made the downhills painful and slow. I knew this was going to be difficult, but suddenly, I feared it would be impossible.

2. Sacrifice is impossible without grace.
I thought this was something I was offering to God out of my own strength and will. But my strength failed and my will only wanted to sit down by that cow pasture and become part of the scenery. It turns out I couldn’t offer this gift to God without first receiving His gift of grace to me. I was so eager to say to God, “Look what I have done for you,” that I had forgotten that He was the one who making every step possible.

3. The smallest moment of joy will sustain you.

One day, my husband and I were walking when we heard singing in the distance. As it grew nearer, we recognized the familiar words from a hymn: “Here I am Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night …” As the singers approached, we joined in, making a hauntingly beautiful sound in a cool forest glade.

There were other moments like that, when I thought I was done for, when song, or prayer, or just seeing a familiar face at the next village’s watering hole lifted me out of myself. I was refreshed, refueled, renewed.

4. Sacrifice is the means for revelation

In his classic Celebration of Discipline Richard Foster puts this way:

“By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done.”

I thought this pilgrimage was all about what I wanted to offer to God. But it turns out, He had something in mind, too. Like a sauna that sweats out the impurities in your body, sacrifice can extract spiritual toxins from your soul. In my next post, I’ll explore just what God was up to on My Camino.

 

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Resurrection Monday

On the morninDSC_0079g after a lovely Easter dinner, I faced a kitchen full of dishes, pans, serving platters and glassware to put away. I put on some music and got to work. When I was done, I was delighted that the kitchen had been restored to order. I said with great triumph (to a cat that looked singularly unimpressed), “You’d never guess that anything had happened here.”

Household order aside, this is not what you want to be saying on the day after the Resurrection. Christ wasn’t raised from the dead so we could pack him away with the good china and Easter baskets until next year. Easter is about our resurrection life, too.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says that if Lent is when we weed the garden, Easter is when we plant and nurture.

“But you don’t want simply to turn the garden back into a neat bed of blank earth. Easter is the time to sow new seeds and to plant a few cuttings. If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off if you are to flourish as a Christian … then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training things up in your life that ought to be blossoming, filling the garden with color and perfume and in due course bearing fruit.”

We are invited to participate in the new creation that came into being on Easter Sunday. In the first creation God’s words manifested in visible, tangible things — stars, oceans, plants, animals, people. The creation that took place on that first Easter was largely invisible, though no less miraculous. What was created when Jesus emerged from his garden tomb was the hope that death was not the end. What came to being was the promise that the Holy Spirit would animate and give us power to live new and different lives, just as He did for the Apostles. Where once they were fearful, now they were bold. Once they were the students, they were now the teachers. They were now the healers, forgivers and welcomers to sinners. This was their resurrection life and it can be ours, too.

It’s Resurrection Monday. The world outside my window looks the same as it did last week. The news on CNN is, lamentably, more of the same. But In the spiritual realm, everything is new. God is calling me to join Him in His new creation, to take the daffodils from my Easter dinner table and plant them in the garden. He is inviting me to live and love in this world, to create beauty and do good, knowing that there is an unseen reality where love and justice reign, and where death is never the end.

It’s Resurrection Monday.  What will you plant? 

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The Flip Side

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

For a few weeks in 2012, this picture was everywhere:  A New York City police officer offering a pair of boots to homeless man.  When I saw this photo, I was moved to tears by this officer’s love and humility.

“What Would Jesus Do? This.

When I looked closely at the picture I was shocked.  I knew that homeless, shoeless man.  I had seen him six years earlier, walking up Fifth Avenue in the freezing cold, without shoes or socks.  Unlike that cop, I didn’t go and buy him shoes.  I didn’t kneel to help him put them on.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And on a bitter cold day, right in front of beautiful Christmas decorations celebrating the birth of the Savior, I saw Christ suffering and kept on walking.

I wasn’t indifferent.  I was just paralyzed.

The sight of him began a frantic dialogue in my head: “I have to do something. Is it safe to approach him?  Should I buy him shoes?   How would I know what size? Maybe I could bring him into Lord and Taylor.  Would they even let me in with him?  Would he just turn around and sell the shoes and use the money for God knows what?”  As the questions swirled in my head, I kept walking in the opposite direction.

I was shaken for days afterward.  The sight of a homeless person wasn’t new to me — I’ve lived in the New York area most of my life, including the “bad-old days” of the 70s and 80s, when it seemed that every subway station and street corner was a great black hole of human need.  I was taught to look away, hold tight to my purse and keep moving. But this day was different.  I wanted to help, but didn’t know where to begin.  I wanted to do something, but felt utterly impotent.

This is the flip side of the Mighty Mouse delusion I wrote about in my last post.  Instead of feeling all-powerful to save, we can feel weak and small and useless. Just this morning, I looked at pictures of refugees emerging from the Aegean Sea with that haunted look in their eyes, and I thought —I am just one person, far away, with no useful expertise to offer.  Could I be more useless?

Instead of rushing in with fantasies of saving the day, we can let the enormity, the complexity or the intractability of the problem render us immobile.  The flip side of thinking ourselves more powerful than we are is believing we have no power at all.  Each is a serious misunderstanding of what God asks of us.

Sometimes we think that in asking us to feed the hungry, God expects us to eradicate hunger.  We think that in asking us to clothe the naked, God is expecting us to eliminate poverty.  Not so.  When Jesus says, “The poor you will have with you always,”  it is a sobering reminder that we live in a broken world that only the Second Coming will completely heal.  Still, this isn’t an excused absence from doing social justice.  We are still called to love, clothe, feed, visit and bear one another’s burdens.  But we do so knowing that the ultimate, complete restoration of God’s good creation is yet to come.

God is in charge of eternity.  We are responsible for today.  Regardless of the final outcome, every act of service and love is holy and sufficient in and of itself.   Ironically, several weeks after the policeman bought him new boots, that same homeless man was spotted, barefoot once again.  The cynics said, “See, he probably sold those boots and bought booze. That cop was a sucker.”  Maybe so.

Loving and caring for God’s people can be a messy business. It isn’t always clear what to do, when to do it, or how.  There’s no guarantee that you won’t be taken advantage of, or that what you do will really help.  But God only asks us to act, and to leave the outcome to Him.

We are not all-powerful.  We are not powerless.

The life of faith is lived in the tension between these two poles.  St. Ignatius put it this way:  “Act as if everything depends on you.  Trust as if everything depends on God.”

 

 

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