Monday, December 31, 2012

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Another Advent and Christmas Season (Almost) Behind Us



I wish that I understood the phenomenon to some small extent, but I am at least coming to expect it. 

At these times of year, these times of anticipation and excitement, God recedes further, and further, and further into the distance.

I don't know why that should be.  People speak so frequently, and so eloquently, of the comfort provided by the presence of God.   I wonder what they know that I don't.

Have you ever looked backward through a telescope?  The image is so small ~ a miniature of itself.

We went to what used to be my home church for the midnight service on Christmas Eve ~ my own responsibilities in my own church completed a few hours earlier, I was officially on vacation.  We were last at our "old" church in 2007.  

In 2007, I was still an active elder, and a first-year seminary student who hadn't quite grasped that it would not be my home church for much longer.   And I had, of course, no idea that in 2008 we would want to erase the holiday season in its entirety from the calendar.

This year, the  service was again elegant, the music spectacular, and the milk-and-cookies afterward a wonderful time of seeing old friends.    Much laughter, and a blend of serious conversation as well, as some of the same people who had been at the outdoor memorial service a few nights previous for the young woman who had just died were there also. 

It's good to be with people who don't mind that you simply skipped the last five years.

But as worship began, as the choir sang so beautifully and the pastors spoke with such passion and joy, that was the image that came to mind: that I was looking backward through a telescope at a life that used to be mine.  They all seemed to belong to another universe entirely.  This one is so very much changed.








Tuesday, December 25, 2012

There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob ~ Merry Christmas




is.




Those boarding school years were rough ones.  
But among the compensations: singing this.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A Shepherd's Story (Isaiah and Luke)(Sermon for Christmas Eve)


I am one of the younger ones – a youngest child – which was my main qualification for becoming a shepherd.  I don’t know how much you know about shepherds in my time – the time of Jesus – but shepherding is not a preferred occupation.  It’s the older children, sons mostly, who are the focus of attention, education, training, and land. Those of us at the bottom of the heap – we become shepherds.  We stay out all night, we get dirty and smelly and tired and hungry, and we take care of animals who – well, I’ll get to them in a minute.
There  are some famous younger sons in the Bible, some famous shepherds.  Jacob, for instance – remember Jacob?  He stole his older brother Esau’s birthright and then ran away, and ended up caring for the flocks of his kinsman Laban. Then he married Laban's oldest daughter, Leah -- the oldest are always first!  before – after a long and convoluted series of eventshe also married Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, the love of his life.  Rachel also “kept her father’s sheep.”  Now that’s an intriguing story – two younger children, two shepherds, marrying one another, and Jacob becoming the father of  the twelve sons who would become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.

There’s another youngest shepherd son who became even more famous than Jacob: David.  David, the great king of Israel, was the youngest of seven or eight brothers and became – surprise! – a shepherd by trade.  But God had other plans for him, plans that no one in his family could have imagined: that he would become a great warrior, a great statesman, and the King of all Israel.
Well, those are good stories, but they don’t apply to most of us.  Most of us are out there in the fields with our sheep, and we always will be.  And the sheep themselves?  I was going to tell you about them.  Troublesome animals.  They wander off.  They get tangled up in brambles and stuck on cliffs  – sometimes they even fall off.  They don’t think for themselves; they follow anything that moves.  They won’t drink from rivers or streams – we have to use rocks to create pools of still water for them.  They are not intelligent or graceful or skilled animals.  That’s who we take care off.  Troublesome animals.

Not that we don’t develop deep affection for them – we do.  We get to know our sheep, and we love them, and we watch over them carefully and treat them kindly.  But they are difficult creatures.
Now that I’ve described something of my life and work, you might wonder how my friends and I got tangled up in the events of Christmas.  Good question!

There we were, minding our own business.  It was a usual night.  Kind of chilly, since the sky was so clear.  Thousands of stars up there.  But we had warm blankets, and the sheep were settling down, occasionally baa-ing and bleating as they bumped up close to one another for warmth.  Nothing very exciting. 
And then, out of that cold, clear, dark sky, out of the darkness in which we walked every night, out of the darkness in which stars and moon were our only companions: an angel appeared.  An angel!  We were so astonished, so taken aback – I’m not even sure that I could tell you what it looked like.  Light, surely – there was a glimmering, shimmering, radiant light, yes.  Wings? – there may have been wings.  I’m not sure.  A voice? – yes, we heard a voice.

And we were terrified.  Absolutely, unwaveringly, without a doubt: Terrified. TERRIFIED.
And the voice said, “Do NOT be afraid. I am bringing to YOU great news for ALL.”  And then the voice – the angel – told us that our Savior, the Messiah, has been born, and that we would find him a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

And then, suddenly, as suddenly as the first had appeared, the sky was filled with a multitude of angels.  LOTS of angels. They FILLED the sky.  And they were all crying out, “Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest! “
And then they were gone.

Well, what would you do?    What would you do if an angel appeared and said something completely unexpected?  Not, “I am bringing everyone else some good news from which you yourselves might snatch a crumb”?  No -  I am bringing to YOU great news for EVERYONE!

I’ll tell you what we did. We took off.  We decided that a journey was in order, and we wrapped ourselves in our blankets and we woke up the sheep and we headed for the place which had been described to us.  And when we got there, we saw exactly what we’d been told we’d see: a mother and a father, and a newborn baby, lying in a manger, warmed by the hay and by the animals huddled together inside.
That little family, those parents – they looked as unsettled and surprised as we were.  We learned later that they had come to town for the tax census; I’m sure that they’d been hoping to make it home again before the baby arrived.    And we learned that they were ordinary people, as we are -- a carpenter and a young mother far from home, as we are, with a newborn for whom they could barely provide. 

A newborn who was the Savior of the world.  The king of all creation.
It was a most unlikely occasion.

We ourselves, we shepherds, were all the youngest, the people with the least in the way of prospects. No one listened to us, admired us, even wanted us around. And as the least of people, our job was to keep the least of animals.
And yet we were called, by heavenly beings, to journey, to gather, to celebrate, and to proclaim.

Think about it: We are the least, and we care for the least. And we’re the ones who were called to see, and we’re the ones to whom the good news was first entrusted
When you are among the least, when you walk in a land of deep darkness, light shines.

When you care for the least – for those who stumble and wander away and get lost and fall down – you proclaim God with us –  God healing all – God embarking upon the labor of restoring all creation.
Someday, the baby we saw will be known as the good shepherd.

He will walk among the least, and light will shine.
He will care for the least, and God’s compassion will be revealed.

He will die as one of the least, and his alignment with us will be complete.
He will rise, and there will be rejoicing in the midst of sorrow.

And tonight it begins:
When we are among the least – when we live in the darkness of grief, of anger, of loneliness, of poverty, of frustration, of conflict -- when we like sheep have gone astray – the light shines.

And when we care for the least, when we feed and house and sit with and hope with and pray with the least – we proclaim God with us. 
We may be the youngest, the roughest, the most excluded, the most unlikely of visionaries and messengers – but the baby Jesus brings good news to us for all.

For unto us a child is born.
Merry Christmas. 




(With thanks to theologian James Alison, who raised the Scriptural theme of youngest sons for me in Broken Hearts and New Creations.)



Have You Seen a Child the Color of Wheat, the Color of Dawn?


From Amahl and the Night Visitors:


The mother remarks on the packages the kings have been carrying, "Oh these beautiful things, and all that gold!"
Melchior tells her, "These are the gifts to the child."
the Mother: "Hmmm the child... which child?"
Melchior: "We don't know . But the star will guide us to him."
the Mother: "But perhaps I know him... what does he look like?"
Melchior:
Have you seen a child the color of wheat... the color of dawn?
His eyes are mild; his hands are those of a king - as king he was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold we bring to his side; and the eastern star is our guide.
the Mother:
Yes, I know a child the color of wheat.... the color of dawn.
His eyes are mild; his hands are those of a king as king he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or good... though sick and poor and hungry and cold.
He is my child my son, my darling my own.
Melchior:
Have you seen a child the color of earth... the color of thorn?
His eyes are sad; his hands are those of the poor as poor he was born.
Incense, myrrh, and gold we bring to his side, and the eastern star is our guide.
the Mother:
Yes, I know a child the color of earth... the color of thorn.
His eyes are sad; his hands are those of the poor, as poor he was born.
But no one will bring him incense or gold... though sick and poor and and hungry and cold.
He is my child, my son, my darling... my own.
Melchior:
The child we seek holds the seas and the winds on his palm.
The child we seek has the moon and the stars at his feed.
Before him, the eagle is gentle the lion is meek.
All the kings join in a chorus:
Choirs of angels hover over his roof and sing him to sleep.
He's warmed by breath.
He's fed by mother who is both virgin and queen.
Incense, myrrh, and gold we bring to his side, and the eastern star is our guide.
And at the same time, the mother sings about her own son:
The child I know on his palm holds my heart.
The child I know at his feet has my life.
He is my child, my son, my darling, my own...
And his name is Amahl.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Family Pictures (Hebrews and Luke)


We all have lots of family photos, right?  Maybe they’re preserved in albums, or even carefully arranged in scrapbooks, with captions and other memories tucked in next to them.  Or maybe they’re piled up in drawers or boxes.  These days, lots of those precious photos might exist solely in internet form: in emails, on websites, in computer files – never printed out.  But in one form or another, we all save pictures.
Have you ever wondered what Jesus’s family pictures might look like?  Of course, he didn’t have any. He made his first appearance on earth about 1800 years too early for a family photo album.  But, as the writer of the letter to Hebrews reminds us, he was born into a body destined to be offered for us all  -- he was a human being, with a distinctive appearance, just like the rest of us.
And what about the rest of his family?   This week, my question has been: What might Jesus have said about his mother?  And it occurred to me that a child today often looks to photographs in order to learn the stories of his family from the days before he was born.  So what about those family pictures?  What about the pictures, similar to those we might take today, of an expectant mother?
There may not be family photographs, but there are LOTS of pictures, centuries of drawings and paintings and stained glass windows and sculptures, depicting the event we call the Annunciation, the story told in the Gospel of Luke of the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary. It’s long been one of the most popular of subjects for painters, and today I’d like to share two of them with you.  Two family pictures.  You have copies of them on the insert in your bulletins.
 


The older of the two, the one before you in which the angel and Mary are both garbed in pink and Mary wears a blue robe, reminds me of those formal family pictures we all take on special occasions: holidays and weddings and graduations and proms.  Everyone wears his or her best and gathers before the photographer in some sort of arrangement that allows all to be included. Today a new sort of these photos has become popular: we often take them on the beach or in a park, and there are often relaxed poses included among the more formal ones: children leaping, adults in unusual poses, family pets included. An entire bridal party about to fall into a lake, as happened when my niece’s wedding attendants posed themselves on a dock and the dock began to sink. “Wearing our best” may mean that we all wear jeans and matching shirts in shades of blue and white.  But we still put a lot of preparation and time into planning these pictures, which are intended to become family heirlooms.
That’s the kind of painting that Fra Angelico created, sometime between 1430 and 1450.  Fra Angelico – his name means “Angelic Brother” and is how he is known to us today  – was a Dominican monk known as Brother John to his contemporaries.  He painted several versions of the Annunciation, all of them formal and stylized, as was typical of the time.  How might we look at this version as one of the family pictures of Jesus?
 
It represents the scene and the angel and Mary, much as we might traditionally think of them: Formal in their relationship, quiet and modest and submissive in their demeanor.  The effect is similar to that of a formal portrait today: the figures seem to have stepped out of time,  into a moment we want to preserve as unique, as distinct from all other moments.  It’s not particularly realistic – they wear the clothing of the 1400s, and the setting is a European monastery; robes and architecture Fra Angelico and his friends would have known, not those of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth.  But it does represent a striking, out-of time moment.

Also, the artist includes all kinds of symbols reflecting that moment.  Our similar formal portraits include bridal bouquets, wedding rings, diplomas, caps and gowns, Christmas trees – we use symbols to highlight the importance of the event.  What does Fra Angelico include?  The Face of God the Father carved into the archway.  The light and dove of the Holy Spirit directed toward Mary.  The book on her lap, representative of the Word, the Word Jesus Christ whom she will bear.  And in the background: Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden by another angel, the archangel Michael.  Another moment in time; the distant event this new movement in time is intended to heal. 

What moment, exactly, is this? This painting depicts a moment toward the end of our Scriptural passage, which tells us that “Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” It’s that light of the Holy Spirit streaming toward Mary that tells us: She has said “Yes.”  Perhaps she and the angel bow to one another in humble acknowledgment that the pivotal event in history has been launched.  All depended on her: on her openness, on her receptivity, on her “Yes” to God’s movement in her life, on her willingness to fulfill her mission in life by becoming God’s servant.  And she has quietly but powerfully said, “Yes.  Let it be according to the will of God.”

Have you experienced moments like this in your own life?  Moments in which the clarity of God’s call in your own life has been unmistakable?  Experiences of great significance from which all else followed, times at which, had a photographer been present, he would have captured a turning point in your life?  Perhaps a marriage proposal over a candlelit dinner?  Perhaps a church service, or a long walk, during which you came to a decision about your education, or your life’s work?  Maybe an encounter in an office building, when you signed the mortgage papers for a farm, or the document committing yourself to military service?  Do you remember your own sense of openness, of receptivity, of willingness?
Maybe, maybe not.  We’re not always entirely sure, are we?  And the moment of transformation is not always one of such formality.
 


Our second painting, on the other side of your page, is perhaps a more accurate depiction of how many different emotions Mary might have experienced on that day on which God so dramatically intervened in her life. This painting (which just happens to be one of my most favorite works of art) is a much more recent one, created in 1897 by Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African American whose father was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Tanner had traveled in the Holy Land, and his painting reflects the people and places he saw there.  He tried to paint surroundings of the Annunciation much as they might have existed in real time, rather than in a setting of his own time.

What do we see in this painting?  Certainly not the idealized, formal setting of other.  This painting is much more like one of our own snapshots of an unexpected encounter, rather than a formal portrait of an occasion for which we’ve planned. The room is a rough, simple, even disheveled setting.  Mary sits on her rumpled bed, somewhat rumpled herself, with a blanket hanging on the wall – not in a regal gown and robe, and not on a throne covered a ceiling of stars.

I think that the most astonishing feature of this painting is the angel Gabriel, who appears as a a column of light.  It’s one of the reasons I like the painting so very much.  How would an angel appear  to us?  We are used to thinking of wings and white robes because that’s what’s always been presented to us – but isn’t it possible that an angel would shine and shimmer with the light of God?  Isn’t a pillar of light perhaps more likely than someone who looks like we do, except with wings? 

I always think of this as a particularly uncompromising pillar of light: intense, filled with strength, communicating the passion of the possible transformation of all history.  Something that might rub off on you if it were to approach you.  Our hymn this morning says that Gabriel had “eyes of flame.”  What else could possibly be the case, on this day on which heaven met earth, than fire, flame, light?

And now, look at Mary in Tanner’s painting.  It’s difficult to know, looking at her, exactly which moment in the story this painting reflects.  Sometimes what I see in her face is surprise, puzzlement, wonder – what you might expect from a young, a very young, woman in her circumstances. I see that sentence early in the narrative: “[Mary] was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”    I see her thinking: I am a poor and insignificant girl in a poor and unknown family in a poor and small town.  How is it that an angel appears and addresses as “favored one.”  I would be surprised; wouldn’t you?

Sometimes I see skepticism – a hallmark of young people in their early teens.  Sometimes I see her asking, “How can this be?” Focused on herself for a moment, knowing that, although she is engaged to be married, she remains a virgin, so a pregnancy is an impossibility.  

And at other times, I see in that youthful expression a directness and calm as she looks into the face of her future – a directness and calm that can only reflect a peaceful  acceptance of all that the future would bring.  I see her receiving and accepting, as she will receive and accept the Holy Spirit, the assurance that “nothing is impossible with God.”  I see the confidence and courage in her response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your word.”

I see in this painting the drama of human life entangled with God-life:  The combination of the mystery of the unknown and the concrete reality of daily life.  The blend of bewilderment and acceptance.  The confusing combination of question and answer.  The journey inward – How can this be?  I am not the person for this – and the journey outward – Let it be according to your word.

As we embark upon the journey of these final two days of Advent, our final two days of waiting and preparation, I urge you to ponder these paintings, as Mary pondered these things, in your heart.  Perhaps you prefer a formal family portrait, one in which all appears clear and certain.  Perhaps you’re more drawn to the snapshots, the moments of ambiguity, the ones which reveal more of a story than is apparent at first glance. 

Whichever your preference might be, the questions for you -- the questions at the heart of these paintings -- the questions as Advent, the season of waiting, becomes Christmas, the season of arrival, remain the same: What is God asking of you?  How do you respond to God?  Are you receptive?  Surprised? Skeptical? Hopeful?  Accepting? When the Spirit of God moves in your life, she brings with her the powerful capacity for a quiet Yes.  Have you found that Yes, as you await the birth of the Savior of the World?
 

Friday, December 21, 2012

In the Bleak Midwinter





The young people seeking a pastoral presence and some structure for their candle-light service were adamant: Their friend, who had grown up in a Presbyterian Church down the road from mine of many years and died far away last week-end, did not believe in God, and they did not want to dishonor her memory with a gathering framed in religious terms. One of the dads ~ a neighbor and my daughter's grad school advisor, in fact ~ a Mennonite member of my home Presbyterian church, asked me as he arrived whether that particular message had been relayed to me.

"Yes, yes," I said.

And so here's what we did:

I offered some opening remarks.  I started with Emily Dickinson ~ "After great pain a formal feeling comes" ~ and reminded them that we were in that time frame, and of the essential demands that grief makes before celebration can ensue.

I shared a bit of information about suicide:

That it's a consequence of an illness, depression, which is every bit as insidious and devastating as cancer or heart disease.

That they might find it helpful to dispense with the phrase "She committed suicide'" and to replace it with "She died of suicide."  We would never say that someone committed cancer and, while suicide can appear to be an intentional, thoughtful act of a rational mind, things are not always as they seem.

That they are not to blame.  That, as the literature tells us, "If you had been responsible for this death, it would not have occurred."

They shared stories and memories.

Outside the small and dark picnic shelter, sheets of rain poured down, and the wind whipped across the lake.  The candles they lit as they played recordings of "For Good" and "Hallelujah" repeatedly sputtered and blew out.  Finally someone had an idea: Huddle closely together and hold a bundle of candles as one.  They were able to watch the light flame up in silence as they listened to their last piece of music (one they had assured me, correctly,  that I would not know).
 
Perhaps the most moving statement of the night came from the aforementioned dad, who noted that "The candles tell you: You shine when you come together."
 
As they dimmed their candles, I told them what I always tell people: Choose a date on next year's calendar, circle it, and fill the circle with the name of your friend.  When that day rolls around, sit down and write a letter filled with your memories ~ a letter to her parents, to her brother or sister, to each other.  It will be the most important thing you do that day.
 
And then I ended with another poem of Emily's, "Hope is the thing with feathers."
 
I don't know whether I was of any help.  I think that mostly they helped one another, with their memories and their music and their candles.
 
It felt odd to me, leading what was essentially a memorial service, without any mention of the God who watches over them and has welcomed their friend into wherever it is that we go and whoever it is that we become.  But it felt honest, as well, to try to offer them a sense of peace and hope in the context of a friendship that meant so much to them.
 
In Florida, there are two parents and a brother and a sister whose torment has only just begun. 
 
Lord, have mercy.
 
 
**********
 
 
I posted only yesterday's photo of the light on Facebook, as I felt that it would intrude on the young people's privacy to publish an image of their faces.  But here, where the readership is a small and fairly private group, I want to give a sense of these beautiful young people and the generous and giving spirit which they share.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Again


Today . . .a flurry of emails and calls and texts . . .  three beautiful young college women in my living room by late afternoon, seeking help in creating an impromptu memorial service . . . their high school friend dead by suicide less than a week ago  . . .  gathered in a park picnic pavilion . . . cold and dark and windy and pouring rain . . . the candles kept going out until they huddled closer and burned them together . . .







 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Another Take on Telling the Stories

Yesterday's Facebook exchange between my daughter and a high school classmate who's now a newspaper reporter:
 
Thoughts of the day:
 . . .
 4.) Seeing that there are interviews being shown with family members who have just lost someone in a horrific, violent way makes me want to smack some selfish reporters and news execs. What would possess you to intrude on families in this time of grief so that you can televise their pain?
 
[12 likes]
 
 As a reporter, here's what I say when I contact a family who has just been involved in something tragic: "Hi, my name is J and I'm a reporter with xxxx. First of all, I am so sorry to bother you right now and I am so sorry for your loss. Please let me know if there is anything we can do for you. I just wanted to let you know we will be doing a story on your loved one, and if there's anything you would like to say, we'd love to know what kind of person he/she was." Readers/viewers don't see that conversation, but it happens more than you might think.
 
 Honestly J, I appreciate that you try to be as considerate as possible, and I think asking for a statement is different than asking for a live interview, but I still find it distasteful. I am incredibly thankful that when I lost my brother it was not in any kind of public incident. If someone had asked me for a statement I would probably have told them to go f* themselves. The reality is that there is a time and a place to publicly celebrate someone's life and share stories and that is the funeral. If the family chooses to have a public funeral that's an excellent place to learn about the person's life. I see no reason to intrude on someone prior to that event, other than selfish curiosity. I mean no disrespect to your profession and I know there are people who disagree with me.
 
No disrespect taken at all! I've certainly had mixed reactions from people. Some say a very polite "no thank you" and others talk for almost an hour. When I was working in a smaller town, I also liked to tell them personally that there was going to be a story, because I didn't want them to be shocked by it the next day. Especially if it involves something like a car accident, and there's going to be photos, I want to warn them first. I had the mother of a teenager come into our office and thank me for doing stories about her son, and interviewing lots of people, because it was a way to honor her son and to make sure people would remember him. But like I said, every family and every reporter is different.
 
It sounds like you do a really excellent job and It definitely makes sense to inform someone about a story and to celebrate people. What I can't get my head around is why people are so eager to get those stories out there while family's wounds are fresh. I saw about a minute of a video (which I didn't know before hand was of the family) that I quickly stopped watching because the family looked so shell shocked and they were speaking in such a detached way that I think they will likely regret having agreed to do the interview at all. Most of the people I know who have lost someone would love to see a story about a year later, when everyone except them has forgotten, not two days into the worst experience of their life. I hope you have an opportunity to do a story, if you haven't already, celebrating someone's life at a time when their family can engage with you and appreciate the recognition. Maybe sometimes that happens a few days after a tragic loss, but its far more likely to happen a few months or years later.
 
Love that girl of mine.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas Without



I don't remember our first Christmas without my mother and baby brother.

We had had some time - nearly three months -- to settle into our "after" lives.  I've often wondered how the adults pulled it off.  I think they must have struggled mightily to create an ordinary Christmas.  They probably all cried all day, probably alone, in separate bathrooms. 

I think we were pretty well healed, physically, my brother and I.  I had been back in my second-grade classroom for weeks.  My brother, at four, was too young for school, but my grandmother took care of him all day.

There is one set of pictures that I know of, although they might have been from the next year.  My second-grade teacher had made enormous paper-mache snowman heads for some school event, and she gave them to us, so there is a picture of the two of us in our living room, wearing those heads.

That's it.  That's what I recall, and I don't even know whether it's a memory from the right year.

I wish that someone in my family had been like Robbie Parker, the father who spoke so eloquently of his little daughter.  He wanted the world to know how she sparkled.  How she sparkles.

I wish that someone had told stories like that about my mother and brother.  I get why they didn't.  When Josh died, we had to rely entirely upon the words of others.  Ours were silenced by the horror of our new "after."

If I could say anything at all to the Sandy Hook families, it would be:  Tell those stories. 

Let those children and those women sparkle.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

And How Should We Then Love? (Isaiah and Luke)

I worked on another sermon, off and on, all week.  This morning, this one.  For all I know, there will be another at midnight.  As the tumblr site says, Everyday I'm pastorin'.  And everyday I'm livin'.  Hard to merge the two, some days.

**********

“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God  is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  So proclaimed the prophet Isaiah to a frightened and burdened people.  So proclaimed Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to one another.  So do we proclaim to a world disheartened and angered by yet more violence against innocents.
The bulletin has been printed since Wednesday.  The sermon was finished on Friday morning, with no doubt a little tinkering to be done yesterday and this morning.  The pink candle was awaiting its moment: the candle of joy that reminds us, in the middle of Advent, that our waiting and our preparation are directed toward the joyous reception of our Savior. 

And then the rest of Friday happened.  Friday with all of its horror and heartbreak. Friday, on which quiet Newtown, Connecticut lost so much and so many, so many of them so very young, in the very middle of what the radio and store music incessantly tell us is “the most wonderful time of the year.”
How to speak of Mary and Elizabeth joyously greeting one another after a day in which a small town and an entire nation were launched into the chaos of grief?  How to talk about their relationship and mutual hospitality, with such a jagged gash across the face of human community?  How to light that pink candle, which glows so bravely and yet so tentatively in the face of such tragedy?

The question, it seems to me, is the one which the prophet Ezekiel posed: “How should we then live?”  Or, more completely, “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?”
When I typed that sentence into my computer the first time, I made a mistake, and the question read, “How should we then love?”  Perhaps that is the real question, for those of us who live not merely post-Ezekiel, a prophet who spoke to a wounded people centuries before Mary and Elizabeth appeared on the scene, but post- Incarnation.  As we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we are a people who live in that already-but-not-yet kingdom of Jesus Christ.  We live in a time in which the kingdom of God has “already” begun to swirl around us, coming among us with the birth of Jesus.   But we also live in the time of the “not yet” kingdom, “not yet” because the fulfillment of God’s longings for us await the return of Christ and the healing of all creation.

Friday was a profoundly “not-yet” day.  And in the wake of Friday,  How should we then live?  How should we then love?  That’s the new title of today’ sermon:  How should we then love?
And what about that day of encounter between Elizabeth, mother-to-be of John the Baptist, and Mary, mother-to-be of Jesus?  What happened on that day that might shed light upon our question?

They were not women living the lives they might have anticipated .   Elizabeth, was, as you heard last week, too far along in life to have expected a child in the usual course of events.  Mary was too young – not even married yet!  For each of them, a pregnancy was something of a scandal.
And yet, neither of them seemed to feel a sense of scandal.  Neither of them was operating under a cloud of shame.  Each of them was convinced that God was active in her life; that God was at the root of all that was happening to her and that God was accompanying her through what, on the surface, appeared to be the most challenging of times.

We don’t know exactly why Mary set out to visit Elizabeth.  Perhaps she had heard about Zechariah’s silence and about Elizabeth’s seclusion for five months, and thought that they would appreciate some company.  Perhaps she was apprehensive about her condition and in need of the friendship and solace of an older woman.  Perhaps they were, in some ways, quite ordinary women – first-time expectant mothers who naturally sought one another out.  Perhaps it was precisely because they were not ordinary that they drew close to one another: an older, more experienced, and wiser woman and a youthful, innocent, curious woman, both of them trying to piece together lives disrupted by news from an angel.  Both of them sorting, seeking, questioning, wondering, longing.   We don’t really know all the whys of that visit.
What we do know is the what of that visit, and the what was: Joy. 

Joy in the form of a baby, leaping in his mother’s womb.  Joy in Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, calling her “Blessed among women.”  Joy in Mary’s proclamation of what God is accomplishing through her.

Joy in the face of great darkness to come.
Joy in the knowledge that, even though they lived in a time of weary oppression, even though the brokenness of a world of violence, of arrogant leadership, of poverty, of hunger, was self-evident to all who inhabited it, even though they themselves were among the least – God had begun the great work of healing all of creation – in them.  Quite literally in them .  Embodied in those women were the great prophet who would pave the way and the Son of God who would be the way.

What does Joy mean?  We’re a little sloppy today in the way in which we use words, and we tend to use the word “joy” as a synonym for happiness, for pleasure.  We use the word “joy” to describe a feeling.
If that’s all that joy is – a good feeling of happiness – then it would be impossible to find joy in the wake of Friday.  There is nothing to be happy about in the events that occurred in Newtown, and in what lies ahead for the folks there in the weeks and months and years to come.

But joy in the Biblical sense means something else.  Perhaps it helps to recall that joy, while not a feeling or an emotion, is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.  As the apostle Paul tells us in Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” 
But what does that even mean?  It means that, contrary to our natural inclinations about these things, that they are not feelings, and not products of feelings.  We don’t experience love, or joy, or peace because we feel like it.  We don’t dispense with patience or kindness or generosity because we’re not in the mood. This list of Paul’s – this list of fruits of the Spirit – names gifts of God which are showered abundantly upon those aligned with God. 

Now we may not feel as if these gifts have been showered abundantly upon us.  I seriously doubt that the parents or other loved ones of those who died in Connecticut, or those who survived to walk out of the school building, are feeling as if gifts of the Spirit have been bestowed upon them.  But let’s try to think in a scriptural way about what happened:
In one of the much-publicized interviews of the survivors, one of the teachers described herding her little students into the classroom bathroom and barricading them, herself included, in there.  She described her own terror, and her determination that the last words those children would hear, if that were to be the case, would be words of love and reassurance.  If she doesn’t represent the fruits of the Spirit – love, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control – then I don’t know who ever would.

But joy?  She would not, I imagine, describe joy as a component of her Friday.  I can’t speak for her, but if I were in her place, I would be using words of despair, of anguish, of grief – not words of joy.  Her small students survived – but not all of the others did.
And yet, if we know that joy is found in aligning ourselves with God, in doing what God calls us to do – was she not, in fact, one with Mary and Elizabeth in a moment of utter clarity, a moment of courage in which she moved in concert with the Spirit?

In the face of evil, of outrage, of terror, how should we then live?  How should we then love?
According to our Gospel text, Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” when she greets Mary, recognizing and greeting Mary as the mother of her Lord, and interpreting the movement of the child within her as a leap for joy.  And Mary, whom we know has been filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, claims joy for herself.

The lives of the children they await will reflect the harshness of this world.  John will turn his life over to the call to enlist others in preparation for the coming messiah: to repent, to turn from evil and toward light and life, to make space for the advent of overwhelming, impossible, relentless love into our lives.  Jesus will spend his years of ministry teaching and caring for the confused and broken-hearted, the ill and injured, the lost and hopeless: he will BE the advent of overwhelming, impossible, relentless love into our lives.    And in the mist of the turmoil of their time, turmoil just like that of our own time, of which Friday is not merely emblematic but a very real instance, they will both lose their lives.
And so why are their mothers rejoicing?  Why do they sing songs of joy and praise?  Let’s listen again to what Mary proclaims:

[The] Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 

All will change.  The order of things as we know it, the human order of things, will be entirely reversed.  God’s love, coming in the form of Jesus, will up-end the usual course of human events, so that the powerful will be humbled and the hungry will be filled.
We will hear these words echoed by Mary’s son, when he preaches his own set of reversals.  And among them will be, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Jesus will not merely live in a world of sorrow and suffering and then die the death of a condemned criminal.  Jesus will rise; Jesus will be the reversal of all.  When Christmas comes, we will gather to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” which tells us that he will be “risen with healing in his wings.”  Remember the prophet Malachi, the messenger, whom we read last week?  Those are his words: that the Sun of Righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.
That is why we light the candle of joy.  That is why, on the same day on which we shake our fists at the sky, on the same day in which we echo the roar of Job, on the same day on which we cry out with the psalmist of lament,  we rejoice: That one will come among us with healing in his wings.  That one will come whose birth will launch the reconciliation of all peoples. That one will come whose resurrection means that all of creation – all of it – the birds and the oceans and the fields and the cities and the war zones and the towns and each of our individual selves – all will be repaired and healed and molded into the universe God the Creator has always dreamed of and longed for.

How should we then live?  How should we then love?

We live, and we love, as the descendants of Mary and Elizabeth: as a people filled with the Spirit, receptive to the fruits of the Spirit, and aligned with the purposes of a God of abundant love and light.  We live, and we love. as two women standing in the doorway in the morning light, proclaiming a God of promise and hope. 

Amen.

 
 




Friday, December 14, 2012

Consider, Tonight . . .

The mother, staring at the ceiling at 3:00 a.m.  She rises and walks across the hall to her daughter's room.  She picks up the stuffed white kitty from the bed and cradles it in her arms.  She sinks against the foot of the bed as wave upon wave of huge, gulping, breath-defying sobs shake her body, from her toes through the top of her head.

The father, lying on the hardwood floor in the family room.  His lower back in so much pain that he cannot sit or stand or lie on a mattress.  He rolls to his side and curls himself into a ball.  He hopes that the dog won't need to go out until daybreak. 

The brothers, legs and arms tangled together on the top bunk.  They climbed up there together to sleep under the glow-in-the-dark planets affixed to the ceiling, because it might be safer in the orbit of Jupiter than it was in the school.

Tonight.

Tomorrow night.

The next night.



**********

In case, at some point today, you said, "I can't imagine."

Rachel Weeping for Her Children


Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, along the Pecos River

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beautiful and Terrible



I think that it's all right for me to say the following, without revealing any substantive details.
 
I have been, off and on over the past several months, sorting photos and correspondence and videos.  Preparatory, perhaps, to the Huge Purge that will have to take place (over several years, I would imagine) before we can downsize and move from our spacious family home to something more manageable.  It's a task from which the pleasure I might have anticipated a few years ago has seeped into pools of sadness and heartache.
 
Tonight, procrastinating the completion of the major work project remaining to me this week, I printed out the correspondence that has passed between my son Josh's girlfriend and me over the past four years. 
 
A woman in her twenties, a woman in her fifties.  Each trying to help herself and the other.  Dealing with practical matters that caused us to stagger backward.  Standing against the wind, crouching as the tsunami poured over our heads.  Sorting, seeking, longing, wondering, piecing, piercing words and thoughts and music and dance together into a puzzle which will not form. 
 
I read quite a bit of it, of that correspondence.  If I were to order it into a novel, readers would insist upon calling it a work of fiction without credibility. 
 
I am stunned.  STUNNED.  By the fragility of the human spirit.  My son.  By the strength of the human spirit.  The two women, one of whom is me.
 
The work from which I am steering my attention is Sunday's sermon, about Elizabeth and Mary, told from the point of view of Elizabeth's son, John. An older woman, a younger woman.  Two sons, in the end, who will not survive. 
 
I'm not sure that I can write this sermon.  I know one of the back stories.  I live one of the back stories. 
 
I have decided to stake my claim to the word wisdom.
 
No one could have written or read those emails and failed to shatter into a thousand shards of wisdom.