"For now we see as if through a flawed pane of glass..." (I Corinthians 13:12)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Musings for the Fifth Day of Christmas

For some reason this year I’ve been more than usually sensitive about the whining and gritching about how “they’ve” taken Christ out of Christmas—as if Christ could be taken out of Christmas by any person or entity outside of ourselves. No matter what anyone else did or said, and no matter how early “they” started, I felt Christ was totally in my Christmas; and I have no control—and no right to judge—whether Christ was in yours or anyone else’s Christmas.
What I don’t recall seeing or hearing from a single individual was how he or she kept Christ in Christmas.
Oh, there was this graphic that was shared several times on Facebook. I think it captured the spirit of the “Christ in Christmas” mantra.
But I’d be very interested to see and hear what some of my readers did to keep Christ in Christmas this year.
For many years we’ve kept an Advent Calendar in our home. There is a bare nativity scene, and below it are pockets for each day of Advent. Each day we take an item from the appropriate pocket and place it (using Velcro) on the Nativity scene.
Our youngest Granddaughter has always enjoyed being the one to put the items on the Nativity. This year she is living with us while her father is on the road, and Jo Lynn came up with the idea of adding an activity to each day’s pocket, along with a part of the Nativity. 
There were things like baking cookies and taking them to a local fire station, making a trip specifically to put money in the Salvation Army kettle, writing Christmas letters to military personnel overseas, etc. Of course, there also were some at-home activities, too; but, the intention, in some tangible ways, was to instill in our granddaughter (and to reinforce in ourselves) the presence of Christ in Christmas. In all honesty, even that little bit sometimes seemed intrusive in our "busy" schedule.
In past years a lot has been written about the exodus from the church of Generations younger than the Baby Boomers. If the reasons given can be summarized in one sentence, it might be that they didn’t see the church living out what it taught. When they read the Bible they find a different gospel than the one they hear being preached and see being lived in the church. It kinda’ puts “literalism” at a different level.
Theologian, Walter Wink, begins the 9th chapter of his book, The Powers that Be, with these words:
“American culture is presently in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance. To the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all, it will be the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, and not the Christ of the creeds or the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith. And in the teachings of Jesus, the sayings on nonviolence and love of enemies will hold a central place. Not because they are more true than any others, but because they are crucial in the struggle to overcome domination without creating new forms of domination.”
The spirituality of younger generations is not nearly so much about what is believed as it is about how any belief is lived out.
Millennial Generation author, Christian Piatt, is gearing up for a personal journey, beginning in February, to keep Christ, not only in Christmas, but in all of life. Here is how he puts it:
“Being a Christian, by definition, means we endeavor to follow Jesus. But few, if any, of us does it, really. I mean all the way. As Shane Claiborne famously once said, Jesus ruined his life. Once he went all in on what he felt God was calling him to do, everything in his life – all he held dear and felt was important – got turned upside down.
“It happened all the time in the Gospels. The second someone decided to follow Jesus, BAM! life as they knew it was over.
“Who wants that? Who of us is really so invested in this idea of following Jesus that we’d set it all down and walk away if we had to? I don’t know about you, but the very idea of it is pretty terrifying.
“So I’m going to try and do it. With some ground rules, like I’m not going to abandon my family. But over the next 16-18 months, I want to be lot more intentional about what it means to follow Jesus. For real.”[1]
I haven’t decided whether I have the courage or the energy to do it with him. I know how much I’ve really sucked at following Jesus in my past. I don’t mean I’ve sucked at believing and trusting and loving and admiring and worshipping him. But I’ve really sucked at really—REALLY—following him. And I know the truth of Piatt’s statement about the disciples and anyone else who decided to follow Jesus. “The second someone decided to fallow Jesus, BAM! life as they knew it was over.”
So, it’s that thing about the cinder in my neighbor’s eye and the log in my own; but, until I decide whether I’m willing to go all out, I’m going to keep my mouth shut about how anybody else keeps Christ in or out of Christmas, or any other part of life.
By the way, Christian Piatt is also my nephew.
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim




Saturday, December 27, 2014

Jesus in a ’57 Chevy

Luke 2:6-7 (KJV) And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. 7And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.


"...no room for them in the inn." How many sermons have been launched from those six words? This month you’ve likely seen at least one TV special or old movie—maybe even heard a sermon—about the Innkeeper of Bethlehem. Literature isn’t always kind to him.


He’s usually portrayed as insensitive and preoccupied with exploiting the tax season for huge profits.
At the other extreme he’s a kindly old man, overworked by the crowds, yet patient and gentle in manner. Moved to compas­sion by this young woman, obviously exhausted from her journey, he lets the Holy Couple stay in his private, nice, clean, warm, comfortable stable. And the stable is so romanticized I'm ready to check in for a weekend of R&R, myself.
Have you ever been in a stable?
Neither version is biblical. The major character isn’t even mentioned in the bibli­cal story. For all we know, Joseph never saw an innkeeper. He may have heard talk on the street that the inn was full, and on his own found a cave for shelter. We don’t know.
Still, tradition says the innkeeper should have made special allowances because the Son of God was about to be born.
Why didn't he give them his room? I’ve heard that.
But behind the traditions are assumptions based on our memories—our understandings. We know he was the Son of God; why couldn’t they see it? The clear impli­cation is, "we'd have done it better!"
I wonder.
What might have happened had God waited until 2014 to send Christ? How would we receive Him?
I see a neat little shed on the lawn of the "Beth Israel" synagogue (chosen because it's next to the Interstate. Traffic can flow smoothly, with easy access). I can see the preparations now: neon angels hung from a tall superstructure… risers built behind the shed... the Mormon Tabernacle Choir arriving by charter jet from Salt Lake City, and the Philharmonic from New York.
Then the big night comes: huge crowds; traffic backed up for miles down the Interstate; traffic cops with long, red traffic-wands; searchlights sweeping the clouds; the Goodyear blimp overhead...
All three networks plus CNN and FOX: Meredith Viera, Matt Laur and Al Roker…
And headlines the next day: The New York Times: "A Savior is Born!" The Wall Street Journal would report the Dow up.
And Jean Dixon's column would read:
"He shall be great, and shall be called
       the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him
       the chair of the Oval Office,
and he shall reign over the house of Lincoln forever;
And of his kingdom there shall be no end."
It’s not really as ridiculous as it may sound. In every culture, in every age, there’s some kind of Messianic expecta­tion. Isn’t that what we’re looking for in our President and in our military leadership in these post-9/11 days: a Messiah—some heroic savior to overthrow the evil reign of terrorism—for us?
Victims of tyrants and dictators hope for a savior—a charismatic, military hero—who will overthrow the bonds of their captivity.
Victims of unemployment hope for a savior in the form of an employer or a strong labor leader.
Victims of spiraling inflation look for a savior who will write tax reforms favoring their particular socio/economic level.
And in each case, over time, expectations become dramatic and spectacular.
Into those same kinds of expectations Jesus was born. Israel was a nation in chains. Rome had a chokehold on their politics and economy, and even though Jews sat in seats of government, they were, either paid-off defectors, or scared-stiff figureheads. Nothing was more important than the overthrow of the "Roman dogs."
The Ameri­can colo­nists had similar feelings toward King George’s “taxation-without-representation."
But Israel's longing for Messiah was deepened by a memory. There was a time when David and Solomon sat on the throne and every nation in the world tipped its hat when it walked by. And in the center of Israel's life was the Temple—that great edifice: gold-plated, cedar-lined, and draped with rich tapestries.
That memory had fueled hope for fifteen generations; and that hope carried images of shining armor, polished sword, and the thundering hoof beats of a great white horse.
WHEN MESSIAH COMES! A hero. And the prophets fueled the fire.
A beggar clutches his rags in some dark alley. “When Messiah comes” there’ll be no more hunger; no more homelessness.
A young woman sobs in her pillow. “When Messiah comes” there’ll be no more Roman soldiers raping and pillaging.
“When Messiah comes.”
And he came. And it wasn't as they expected. And so “he was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," (Isaiah 53:3 KJV) no hero, at all; because Messiah was not about their expectations. Nor is He about ours.
I think it might happen more like this, if God had waited until 2014: Picture a middle-aged desk clerk in a small motel in a county-seat town (the "NO-TELL" motel. The "c" is burned out in the flashing "No Va ancy" sign.)
It's about 10:45 in the evening, and the desk clerk is watching a Jay Leno rerun. He hears gravel crunching on the driveway, and a 1957 Chevy stops outside. The left headlight’s out, and the left front fender has patches of body putty and primer.
A man in overalls gets out to inquire about a room. He speaks with a heavy Spanish accent (a refugee from El Salvador). He’s found work in a nearby town, and has come to the county seat to check in with immigration and register his new address.
His wife stays in the car. She’s obviously close to delivering a child. Dressed in a clean, plain, faded dress, she’s exhausted from the day's trip, and the drive back would be just too much for her; so they’ve decided to get a room and stay overnight.
There are no rooms available; but the clerk says they can sleep on a rollaway bed in the linen storage closet. It’s small, but clean and warm, and there's a sink where they can wash up. They can use the toilet in the lobby.
He quotes a price, and the young refugee pulls out a worn wallet and counts out several bills, figuring the unfamiliar currency in his head.
That night her baby is born. She wraps him in a motel towel, and lays him in a laundry hamper.
Early the next morning, the clerk notices a bunch of kids around the linen room door—delivery boys for the morning paper, all excited about something. He runs them off, and looks in to find Maria, José, and el niño, Jesus.
The clerk asks them to leave; afraid the health depart­ment might hear about this and close him down. So, José fashions a bed in the back seat of the '57 Chevy, and they drive off.
I don’t know. Maybe this image gives you problems, too. Mary and Joseph should be more middle class and white—more like us. They'd drive at least a 2012 mini-van, and stay at the Holiday Inn. And they'd call an ambulance and check-in to the hospital, using their "Blue Cross" card.
And what about the shepherds and the angels and the star? Who'd ever notice something as obscure as that?
But, maybe that’s the point. You see, the story’s not about our expectations; it's about the power of God: the power that can take what, by our standards and expectations is nothing, and make out of it the salvation of the world!
I don't find it at all curious that the innkeeper of Bethle­hem didn't pay special attention to Joseph and Mary. What amazes me—amazes me—is that ANYBODY EVER recognized this refugee baby as the Son of God. And yet, for two millen­nia he has been declared "Savior of the World;"  "Lord of the Church." For two thousand years he has reigned in the hearts of people everywhere.
If you need a miracle, if you need a sign, if you need a reason to follow him, what more can you ask than that?
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world vie.
Together in the Walk,

Jim

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Only Human?

(Luke 2:7 KJV) And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. 
(Romans 16:25-27 NIV)  Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him-- 27to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Do you end personal letters with a Doxology? “Give my love to the kids, and all praise and glory be to God, through Jesus Christ, Amen!” That's how Paul ended his letter to the Romans. While it seems perfectly normal for a book of Scripture to end with a doxology, when we remember that before Romans was Holy Scripture, it was a personal letter, it may seem strange.
An ordinary letter:  communication with some friends; expressions of concern for their well-being; some advice and council regarding a mutual concern; some closing remarks and then this doxology.
But it didn’t stay “ordinary.” The people in the church in Rome were anxious to know when Paul would arrive.  This man, reputed throughout the empire, had announced plans to visit Rome; but kept being delayed. They knew he lived under constant threat of death, so every week, when the church gathered, the conversation began, “Has anybody heard from Paul?”  “How’s he doing?”  “When is he coming?” 
Then the letter arrived, and word spread quickly: “There’s a letter from Paul” And on Sunday morning the church was packed. A hush fell over the room as the scroll was opened. Heads nodded sagely at the beautifully-constructed theological passages; knowing smiles were exchanged at the personal references. Then, once again: “I’m coming.  I’ve got to go back to Jerusalem, but then I’m coming to you.”
Copies were made and circulated among other congregations in Italy, and the theological passages began to show up in sermons and teachings and even in the worship litanies; this ordinary letter to some friends.
But, years later, this same letter became a part of sacred scripture. In the hands of God, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Take, for example, birth. There’s nothing more ordinary—more common—than birth. I dare say everyone reading this blog has experienced it. Most females will give birth at some point in their lives; and most males will sire offspring.
But, in one sense, birth is always extraordinary. In a dirty shack—beer cans and cigarette butts on the floor, cockroaches rummaging through last night’s leftovers still on the table—birth can be an extraordinary problem: another mouth to feed; another child to shield from an abusive spouse. 
In a suburban apartment complex—rock-and-roll blasting from the stereo by the pool, sports cars in numbered parking places—a birth can be an extraordinary intrusion and inconvenience in a life of carefree self-indulgence.
But under different circumstances—in a secure relationship of love and mutual commitment, as God intended—birth is even more than extraordinary; it becomes almost a sacrament: life is given.
Where there is love and stability—where a baby is wanted and parents are ready—a woman who bears a child becomes, literally, bread of life for that child. Through her broken body, and her shed blood, she gives life, and she and her child are linked in an unbreakable communion as close and as holy as Christ’s own Eucharist.
When birth takes place within the context God intended, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
Of course, there was never anything ordinary about the birth in the Gospel reading above. For most women the announcement comes from her doctor; and most of them already suspect, anyway.  In the text from Luke, it had been an angel who had broken the news to Mary; and it had come as a complete shock.
And listen to the content of the news from the angel: “He shall be great; and shall be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David; and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever.” (Luke 1:32-33  KJV) Nothing ordinary about that!
And when he was born, angels sang, and the very stars announced his birth. International kings came and worshipped him.
But all this we know.  What we may overlook, amid all the extraordinary trappings, is that the birth of Jesus was quite an ordinary birth.
What made the birth of Jesus extraordinary was not angelic choirs and brilliant heavenly lights; nor the visit of international royalty. What made it extraordinary was that in the Babe of Bethlehem, God became ordinary. The Word Became Flesh!
We find it extraordinary when a human rises to superhuman accomplishment; but human acts of heroism happen almost daily. If youwant extraordinary, find a rich man who gives it all too the poor—becomes poor, like them—and then stands with them and works to better their life. That’s extraordinary!
If you want extraordinary, find a God who becomes human and stands with humanity in order to save humanity from its own self-destruction. Find a God who becomes human; and in that act redeems humanity to the divine state in which it was originally created.
I grow so weary of hearing people talk about humanity as if were some kind of disease—a disability that burdens us and pulls us down. A running back leads the league in rushing  four years in a row, and then has an “off-year”—plays hurt—and people say, “Well, I guess he’s just human, after all.”
What was he when he was setting records and leading the league? If our human condition is but the dregs in the bottom of the cup; if being human is what we are when we fail and when we’re weak, then what are we when we soar to heights of extraordinary accomplishment?
If the human condition is a handicap, what does that say about Christ, who, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human form.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
It was as a human that Jesus turned the water into wine, healed the crippled, restored hearing to the deaf, and gave sight to the blind and life to the dead. It was as a human that Jesus gave us the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. He called himself, “Son of Man.”
And yet, we call him, “Son of God”. We call him “Emanuel: God with us”. We call him “Savior of the World.”  How is it that an ordinary human takes on such extraordinary identity? And how are we to follow him—to be like him?
First, let us stop referring to humanity as “ordinary.”  To be human is to be created in the Image of God; so, let us accept our true identity and stop using our humanity as an excuse for failure: “What do you expect? I’m only human!” Jesus said to his human disciples, I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these…. (John 14:10-15 NIV)  It’s not our humanity that holds us back!
Second, as humans, created in the Image of God, we have an extraordinary capacity that no other creature has: MORAL CHOICE. And it is in the exercise of that capacity of Choice that the ordinary becomes extraordinary—the human takes on the nature of the divine.
It began with his mother. Confronted with the extraordinary news of the impending birth of her son, she had a choice. And here was her response: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." (Luke 1:38 NIV) 
It was the same with Jesus: And being found in human form, he was obedient unto death, even death on the cross.”  (Philippians 2:8)  It is in the words, “Not my will, but Thine, be done,”—words of extraordinary obedience to the Will of God that ordinary humanity bears the extraordinary marks of divinity.
On this fourth week of Advent, I pray that we become so sensitized to seeing the extraordinary among the ordinary that closing our personal letters with a doxology is just an ordinary occurrence.
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Jim

Monday, December 15, 2014

A BURST OF PURE JOY
Luke 1:46-50 (NRSV)
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.

 

Matthew 2:16-18 (NRSV)

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Somewhere in the attic where my memories are stored, among the dust and clutter of bits and pieces of remembered sermons, lessons, books, articles and conversations, is a contrast between these two texts: two voices.
The first voice is Mary’s; a poor teenager from a small town; pregnant and unwed, in a culture in which such a situation could be grounds for the death penalty.
Mary is sent off to live with a cousin in another town—an old woman—married to a preacher. Imagine her expectations: suffocating supervision, curfews, daily lectures spiced with clever, original expressions like, "...you reap what you sew."  "...when you give a dance you gotta' pay the band."
But, to her utter amazement, instead of a cold slap on the wrist she’s is greeted with warm embraces! And there is joy over her pregnancy.
Instead of a dowdy old grump, cousin Elizabeth is a joy! I imagine a girlish twinkle in her eyes that contradicts the wrinkles that surround them.
The reason is evident, for Elizabeth also is with child—even at her age. Elizabeth also has had an angelic visitor, who confirmed the heavenly origin and destiny of both babies.
Was it just a hallucination born of her intense Jewish longing for freedom after six centuries of hoping and waiting—600 Passovers without the promised Messiah?
But here is confirmation: one whom she honors and respects has received the same word: "The Redeemer is near!" And Mary not only will see it; she actually will give birth to the Messiah!
And so, Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord!"
The second voice comes from Ramah: "the voice of Rachel, weeping for her children; and she refused to be consoled, because they were no more."
This voice triggers images of Herod raving in his pal­ace; Roman soldiers riding through the streets, knocking down doors, running down women in back alleys; women screaming and desperately clutching their children... 
"The Slaughter of the Innocents," it's called.
Why did the Spirit that inspired Holy Scripture include this event in the story of the birth of Jesus? Couldn't it have been left out? What does it add?
I believe God is one who celebrates and rejoices!  I believe the Kingdom of God is a place of joy!
Remember Jesus’ "Kingdom Parables"? A woman lost a coin, and cleaned her home until she found it. Then she called her neighbors and threw a party! The party probably cost more than the coin!
A shepherd counts his sheep at the close of the day and one is missing. He searches until he finds the sheep, and then calls his neighbors and throws a party. Probably served mutton! Jesus said the Kingdom is like that: a place of celebration.
But there’s that voice from Ramah.
Virtually every family gathering of any size this Christmas will deal with the memory of some loved one who has died since the last Christmas. It almost always happens, doesn't it? Or someone will remind us of the homeless children downtown.
Maybe we're just not meant to be happy all the time. After all, who can forget the immortal words of the blessed sage, Erma Bombeck:  "If life is just a bowl of cherries, why am I always 'in the pits'?"
Maybe life isn't supposed to be totally joyful! A part of the church's on-going ministry is helping the poor; and, didn't Jesus say, "The poor will always be with you?" And yet, that statement was in defense of an act of extravagance!
And in Luke’s text above, here is Mary, amid poverty, injustice, constant oppression and fear of death, amid personal circumstances that could not have been good: teenaged, pregnant, and unwed, with "A Burst of Pure Joy!"
Why is it so difficult for us to let go, even momentarily, and experience joy—pure joy—just for the sake of joy?
Maybe it’s theological reasons: our view of a vindictive God—stern and all rules and punishment—doesn't inspire joy.
Or there may be practical reasons: the stress of planning and shopping and cooking and cleaning up after a family gathering robs us of the joy of the event.
Or, maybe it’s the world situation: rockets falling in the Middle East, pictures of starving children and wailing widows and mangled bodies. It's hard to be joyful.
And why this scripture at Christmas: Rachel crying for her children:  does it mean that we're not meant for pure joy? Ever?
I remember an image from my teacher" the drums beat, the band plays, horses pull the carriage… Bobby runs to his room and digs out the old toy drum. Soon he's marching up and down the living room in front of the television, until Mother realizes what is going on and says, "No! Can’t you see our President is dead!"
Am I never to join a parade for fear it might be somebody's funeral? Shall I never laugh because children starve in India, or because Uncle Phil is gone?
And yet, with Roman soldiers everywhere, Elizabeth laughs. And Mary lifts her voice in joy: "My soul magnifies the Lord!"
How did they do it?
The joy of advent is the foolishness of faith that says I can rejoice because even in the darkness of Ramah, a child is born! It is the foolishness of faith that dares proclaim that this baby—born of peasant parents
            in a barn
                        in an oppressed nation
                                    in a primitive time
is the Lord of Christmas, and that the Lord of Christmas is also the Lord of Ramah, and the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever: King of Kings and Lord of Lords! Hallelujah!
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Jim

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Blog for the Second Week in Advent

From Bethlehem to Bedlam[1]



For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6 NRSV).

After twenty minutes in line I finally arrived at the cash register, still scolding myself for waiting until the last minute to finish my Christmas shopping—again. I knew how crowded it always gets; in fact, crowds and Christmas had become synonymous to me; and I wasn't doing crowds very well that year.

When I took out my checkbook, the clerk stopped ringing up my items, and asked, "Do you have your SCCC card?"
"My what?"
"Your Speedy Customer Check Cashing Card."
"No."
"Then you'll need to have your check Okayed at the manager's desk,"
Had it not been so late on Christmas Eve, and had I really thought it would be less crowded anywhere else, I'd have left in protest. But I was trapped. So, the cash register was cleared, I lost my place in line and joined another twenty minute line.
Finally at the desk, I presented my check. The woman behind the desk said: "I need to see a driver's license and two other forms of identifica­tion."
I fumbled in my wallet for my driver's license, and asked, "What other kinds of identification do you need?"
"Do you have any credit cards?"
"Yes, and I have my dental records and shot card, if that will help!"
"I'm sorry, sir;" she said, patiently. "I'm just doing my job."
I knew it wasn't her fault. I just couldn't help myself. Finally, approved check in hand, still smarting from guilt, frustration, and weariness, I joined yet another twenty minute line, thinking, "At least Christmas comes only once a year!"
We really get into the busy-ness of Christmas preparation with its traffic, crowds, family activities, parties, shopping, wrapping, cooking, programs, concerts, etc. until many of us reach that same low point: "At least Christmas comes only once a year!" We may even add, “Bah! Humbug!”
Even in this second week of Advent, whose theme is “Peace,” the bedlam of Christmas preparation becomes a threat to the way we approach that special birth in Bethlehem. Bethlehem and Bedlam. Believe it or not, they’re connected.
In medieval London there was a convent called “St. Mary of Bethlehem.” Later it became a hospital, and eventually a house for the insane. With no known care, the insane were just locked up and food was shoved under the door twice a day. The noise and confusion of that place was known throughout England. Over time the original name, "St. Mary of Bethlehem" was shortened to "Bethlehem", and, by corruption, "Bedlam." The mother of the word, bedlam, is Bethlehem; and its father is the screams of the insane.
Bethlehem and bedlam were also related at Jesus’ birth. You know the story: a crowd­ed, dusty city; vendors hawking their wares in the chaos; Roman soldiers everywhere; an overcrowded inn; people sleeping on floors and streets; barnyard smells and sounds, a birthing among animals... Bedlam. And it didn't end with Jesus' birth. Just a short time later Herod's soldiers murdered all boy babies under the age of two, and "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her babies and refusing to be consoled, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:18)  Bedlam.
"O Little Town of Bethlehem" is not just candles, carols, shepherds, stars and sentimentality; but neither is it just crowded malls, depression, suicide, and merchant's associa­tions. The images of scripture remind us that Jesus was born, not only in Bethlehem, but also in Bedlam! While the two are not identical, neither can they be separated.
But in the midst of the bedlam of Caesar’s census, in the midst of the bedlam that was Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph, there came, for them:
One quiet moment in the star-clustered night;
Two weary travelers knew an end was in sight;
So the soon-to-be mother grasped her husband’s strong hand
And paused to remember where their journey began.
Nine months of yearning filled with joy and with pain.
He almost had left her, but then chose to remain
Close to the woman he had not even kissed,
Who would bear him a son that would never be his.
They dreamed of the times they would spend with their son
Taking trips through the hillsides and watching him run
And some days the fingers that had fashioned the stars
Would reach out to hold them when the walk was too far.
They wrestled with knowing that his life would bring change
Their friends would grow distant, and shun them as strange
Though they tried not to think it, in their hearts they were sure
That their baby was destined to die for the world.
And in one quiet moment a woman and man
Accepted the part they would have in God’s plan
To give up His glory and be born as a man
In one quiet moment.
In one quiet moment, they could suddenly hear
Thousands of angels singing so clear
“Glory to God! His salvation is near”
In this one quiet moment.[2]
Somehow, no matter how bedraggled we are after weeks of crowds and shopping malls and overeating and overspend­ing and going home late after Christmas Eve service to finish wrapping and stuffing and assembling—small hands dragging us out of bed on Christmas morning after far too little sleep—spending all morning cooking and all afternoon washing dishes—kids bouncing off the walls, hyperactive from Christmas stocking candy... Somehow, no matter how frayed and spent and bedraggled, in some “quiet moment” we still remember the “real meaning of Christmas”.
And it's really not all that surprising; after all, from Bethlehem to Bedlam, and back, at Christmas we still celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace.
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim



[1] The title is from a website I found when I Googled “St. Mary of Bethlehem.” The story appears below.
[2] Written by Glad Prosper, Russian R&B singer.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Blog for the First Week in Advent

Hope is a Diamond Ring



(Isaiah 9:5-6 NIV) The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. … 6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
* * *
(Romans 8:19-21 J. B. Phillips) The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.
* * *
Well, the season is upon us. There’s no turning back. We “Hanged the Greens” last Sunday at First Christian Church in Conway. We sang the carols and lit the candles and celebrated “Hope” on the first Sunday of Advent.

Hope. It’s a central theme of the whole Bible. But the story’s not a smooth one. It constantly confronts hills and valleys.
On the basis of hope Abraham moved to a strange land. A call and a promise fueled hope for a future in which Abra­ham and his children and his chil­dren's children would share in God's plan to bless the whole world.
That hope was passed from one generation to the next. It almost died in Egypt; but a smol­dering ember was fanned into flame by Moses, this time in the form of a yearning for a land—a place.
But that hope had to confront Philistines, Amorites, Mid­ianites, Jebusites—Pales­tinians who had the nerve to fight back when Israel took their homes and land. Hope wilted and then sprang back, energized by the heroic leadership of David; a renewed hope, this time rooted in military strength and political and economic power.
For many generations the hope alternately burned bright and faded, choked by political corrup­tion, economic inflation gone ber­serk, and an apathetic, materialistic citizenry. Isaiah and other prophets occasionally breathed life back into it; but only temporarily—life support for a hope that could no longer sustain itself. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon "pulled the plug," and in exile, the Israelites remembered the hope; but mourned its death.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for …how can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? (Psalms 137:1-4 NIV)
Israel hadn't yet learned that their God was a God of resurrection. The plant had died; but under the surface of the earth the bulb was there, waiting for springtime, when a new plant would spring up—a sprig out of the root of Jesse—a new hope, kept alive by the memory of a promise: God would yet redeem God's people, "When Messiah Comes!"

A child goes to bed hungry. His mother pats his hand: "When Messiah comes, ther­e'll be no more hunger!" A beggar clutches his rags in some cold alley: "When Messiah comes" there’ll be no more homelessness. A young girl, cries in her pillow: “When Messiah comes”, there’ll be no more Roman soldiers to rape and pillage.
And then he comes; and he's a carpenter, poor as they, running with prostitutes and tax collectors. Instead of recruiting a rebel army to overthrow the Romans, he tells them to carry the Roman soldiers' packs an extra mile; and he says, "Love your enemy." Instead of establishing a government to erase poverty and hunger, he says, "You feed the hungry." That's not what they were hoping for.
It is the witness of scripture and of history, and of our own lives, that Christ does come in fulfillment of hope—but he comes "like a thief in the night"—often undetected. He comes "to his own;" and his own do not receive him because, somehow, when he comes it's not what we expect.
God's people always have held to a hope that life would be better—for us, more meaningful—for us, more joyful—for us; but when he comes, he tells us to make life better, more meaningful, more joyful—for others!
And somehow that’s supposed to be "Good News". Somehow that’s supposed to mean the Kingdom of God is at hand. That’s supposed to be what we've waited for and longed for and hoped for.
The epistle says the whole creation stands on tiptoe to see the Sons of God revealed. And when they appear, they're not wearing crowns, but hard hats; they're not wearing fine linen and silk, but denim overalls and work boots.
* * *
Not long ago, a man promised his wife a Christmas gift that would dazzle and brighten her life. She just knew it would be that diamond ring she’d pointed out to him so many times.
Just before Christmas his military reserve unit was called overseas; and on Christmas morning she and the children opened their presents without him. She saved the large, heavy package from her husband until last, knowing that he took great joy in disguising his gifts. The huge, heavy boxy, she knew, would contain several boxes, each smaller than the previous one. There’d be some bricks, she guessed, for weight; but eventually she’d peel the layers until there would be one last box: tiny, and wrapped in gold foil, and holding her ring.
Finally, the time came, and with quivering hands she began to tear the paper away from the box. It was a vacuum cleaner box; but that meant nothing. Inside would be a smaller box and a smaller box and a smaller box. And so she tore open the lid and—it was a vacuum cleaner.
There was no joy in Mudville that night. Mighty Casey had struck out. She refused to call him that night, as they had agreed; and she cried all night. For the next several days she wouldn't answer the phone. Oh! She was angry!
But, finally, things had to be done. The dry Christmas tree was a fire hazard. Besides, it represented her greatest disappointment; so she put away the ornaments and dragged the bare tree to the curb.
There were pine needles all over the carpet, so she took the new vacuum cleaner and cursed it as she began vacuuming the carpet. When she moved a large chair that had stood near the tree, she found a small box—obviously overlooked on Christmas morning—wrapped in gold foil, and on the tag was her name. With trembling fingers again, she opened the box, and found her diamond ring.
Oh, she received all she hoped for; but only when she used all she had received.
That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,
Jim