Thursday, December 27, 2007

the wisdom of e stanley jones

"Not my responsibility, but my response to his ability" (77).

"Life became sacramental. I became a better student. I found myself reading my ordinary so-called secular books on my knees. It wasn't secular--it was sacred. The distinction between secular and sacred had broken down. All life was alive, with God". (71)

"Oppositions break or solidify a man. I determined they would solidify me. I wouldn't bear things; I would use them". (48)

"Lord, I'm done for. I've reached the end of my resources and can't go on". "If you will turn that problem over to me and not worry about it, I'll take care of it". My eager reply: "Lord, I close the bargain right here." (89)

"A conservative journal discussing the question "Is Stanley Jones a Modernist?" came to the conclusion that "he has a fundamentalist soul and a modern mind." Perhaps that describes it!" (92)

"The Christ I presented would be the disentangled Christ--disentangled from being bound up with Western culture and Western forms of Christianity". (110)

"Gandhi never became a Christian...But he was a deeply christianized Hindu, more christianized than most Christians. The greatest things in his life were Christian". (133)

"As usually interpreted, karma means that you and you alone reap what you sow. That is a half-truth. Other people reap what we sow, for good or ill. We are so bound up in the bundle of life that we can and do pass on to others the results or consequences of our karma". (142)

"If Gandhi didn't go to heaven, heaven will be poorer without him". (136)

"I was free--free to explore, to appropriate any good, any truth to be found anywhere, for I belonged to the Truth--Jesus Christ. My one point of compass was on Jesus, and the other point could swing as far into truth as it was able. For I was anchored---and free". (92)

From A Song of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

the work of christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
Then the work of Christmas begins,
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.

Howard Thurman

Friday, December 21, 2007

no country for old men

Deputy: "It's a mess, ain't it, Sheriff?"
Sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones): "If it ain't, it'll do until the mess gets here."

Echoes of Fargo. The Coen Brothers are geniuses.

Monday, December 17, 2007

the third advent question: is Jesus real?

Maybe you’ve had high expectations about something---a relationship, a new job, a promise someone made to you---and over time, you find that those hopes are not being realized. When this happens in a nation, apathy increases. When this happens in a group, the morale decreases. When this happens in personal experience, despair settles in. We have all been there, along the way. There is a gap, between the ideal and the real, and it is deep and wide. I remember, years ago, the girls were small, maybe one of them was sick, I can’t remember, Pam told me to go out and get a Christmas tree. It was late in the evening, I went to a nearby grocery store and selected what looked, to me, like a suitable Christmas tree. I took it home, we set it up, and…it did not look so good. There was a gap, between the tree I had imagined, at the store, and the one that now stood in our den. All of a sudden it did not meet our expectations!

John the Baptist arrived on the scene with great expectations. We talked about John last week, how he went “into the wild” to preach and baptize, to call for change. Well, the story moves on from there, and we meet him again, middle way through Matthew’s gospel. He had called us to prepare the way for the Lord, but the highway had become a hard road to travel. John is no longer in the wilderness. He is in Herod’s prison.

In this way he is not so different from us. We profess our faith, we make sacrifices, we serve other people, it seems to be a pretty clear direction, toward the future that is God’s plan and purpose, and at times we find ourselves trapped in some prison, in some dead end, and it calls everything we believe into question. And so the irony: the one who announces that the Messiah would set the captive free is now in Herod’s prison. John hears stories about Jesus, what he is doing, what he is saying, and so he sends word, by his students who visit with him in prison. “When you find Jesus, ask him this question”, a question that arises from legitimate doubt: Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for someone else?”

John’s struggle had a particular focus: He had imagined that the ministry of Jesus would be one of fire and brimstone. He would root out the bad, his wrath and vengeance would purify the evil, the severe judgment would be the sign of the coming Messiah. But what happens in Matthew, after he is baptized by John? He is tested, in the wilderness; he gives the beatitudes, teaches the Lord’s Prayer, preaches the sermon on the mount, he heals the sick, he calms the storm, he sends out disciples, he begins to talk about a cross. Instead of shouting at the non-religious, he eats meals with them. Instead of excluding the unclean, he touches them.What is going on? We’re talking about a small geographical area here, and news travels fast. Had John missed the point? He wonders, and yes, he doubts. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we to wait for someone else?”

Perhaps John is having second thoughts. Last Sunday, I talked about the movie “Into The Wild”. It is the true story of a young man, Christopher, who graduates with honors from Emory University and then disappears, out west, eventually ending up in Alaska. Well, along the way he comes into the lives of a number of people, one of them being an older gentleman, Ronald Franz. Christopher lived with Ronald for a while, and learned that Ronald had served in the military for most of his life, stationed mostly in Okinawa and Shanghai, and that on New Year’s Eve, 1957, while he was overseas, his wife and only child were killed by a drunk driver in an automobile accident. His initial response was to drink. Months later, Ronald began the journey that would lead him to become a devout Christian, but in most respects he had carved out a life for himself that allowed few people to come in.

He took an interest in Christopher, taught him the skill of leatherworking, and even absorbed some of Christopher’s advice for the older man to change his life, to get out of the house, to hit the road. As Christopher left for Alaska, Ronald asked if he could adopt him, as a grandson. “We can talk about it when I come back”, Christopher said, putting him off. Christopher would live in the wilderness for 100 days, and then due to a couple of crucial and unavoidable errors, he died, his remains found months later. When word got back to Ronald, the effect was devastating. Ronald commented to Jon Krakauer, the author of Into The Wild:

“When Alex left for Alaska, I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die…When I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something terrible happen to a boy like Alex. Then I bought a bottle of whiskey. And then I went out into the desert and drank it. I wasn’t used to drinking, so it made me real sick. Hoped it’d kill me, but it didn’t. Just made me real, real sick”. (page 60)).

What do we do with the gap between our expectations and reality? In a way, Ronald was asking the identical question that John was asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we to wait for someone else?”

Interestingly, it is a question that can be boiled down an even simpler set of questions. Is my faith real? Is Jesus real? Does life have a purpose? And, along with these questions, how do we deal with our doubts? How do we get answers to our questions?

Some of our doubt arises from expectations that of our own creation: The righteous are rewarded, right? Good people don’t suffer, right? Faithful people prosper, right? Well, Jesus told a story about the rain falling on the just and the unjust. Some of our doubts arise when expectations that we have from the culture conflict with realities that emerge in our lives. I realize that a simple act like preaching is something that happens when the words of faith fall into the soil that is a mixture of faith and doubt. Most of us, if we are honest, live with some mixture of faith and doubt within us. “I believe”, the father of the epileptic child said to Jesus, “help my unbelief” (Mark 9). And if we bring all of who we are to God---our faith, our doubt, our belief, our unbelief---to worship, there is honor in that. There is always doubt in the church, and there is surely doubt beyond the church as well. The world looks at the church and asks, “Is this real? Are you for real?” The world looks at the church and asks, “Are you who you claim to be?” Well, the question gets to Jesus, and he responds:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:

He is talking about the buzz. Today, this would be sent over the internet, or by email. The buzz---what do you hear and see? It is not so much a philosophical question, it is practical, it is empirical, it is tangible. What do you hear and see? Someone has said, “We were all born in Missouri, we are all saying, “show me”.

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

How do we know that Jesus is for real? “Look around you”, Jesus says. Six actions are briefly described. “Lives are being transformed. Look around”.

People continue to ask the question, about Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we to wait for someone else?” He is, we are told, the reason for the season, but who is he, really? It is the most basic, the most important question. Who is Jesus? The answer to that question lies in his deeds, his actions, his mission in the world, his church, our church, our mission, our actions.

Jesus failed to conform to the expectations of John, but he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and so we are left with the gap, between the ideal and the real, between our plans and the paths that take us into places we do not wish to go. Jesus’ words are of no great comfort to John. He says, finally,
Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The Jesus who had spoken the beatitudes (in Matthew 5) now is the beatitude. The offense is a scandal. We are often scandalized for the wrong things. There are scandals in the church, usually over sex or money or power. The scandal of Jesus is that he comes in mercy, in grace, not as a fire and brimstone preacher, but as healer and life-giver. And, of course, the greatest scandal is that he comes as Savior and Lord. The best explanation of this is found in C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and it is worth our hearing (and hearing again). We live in a world of multiple religious options. As Christians we should show deep respect for persons of any faith or no faith. We should go further and say that we can learn from persons of any faith or no faith. Every person on this earth is created in the image of God.

In a world of multiple religious options, there is a tendency to treat the different faiths as if they are ingredients on a salad bar: the broccoli, the carrots, the onions, the peppers, the tomatoes. We all have our tastes, our preferences, and how we put it together is up to us. Who is Jesus in all of this? It is often said that Jesus (even among people of other faiths or no faith), is a great moral teacher. Who could not be moved by the Sermon on the Mount, or his parables? And so, some will say, “I am prepared to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not his claim to be God”.

C.S. Lewis insists that this is the one differentiation we cannot make. Jesus told us that our sins were forgiven. He called us to take up the cross and follow him, he commanded us to give our lives for him. Lewis wrote:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic…or else he would be the devil. You must make your choice. Either this man was, or is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit on him and call him a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to”. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I find the discussion about saying “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” to be interesting, but finally a way of sidestepping the really important questions. For those who profess Christ, the question is whether we will see the signs of his presence in the world and be a part of his coming kingdom. For those who profess Christ, the question is whether our faith is authentic enough, whether our actions are similar enough to those of Jesus to allow others to see him in us (and, I will admit, that is a scary thought).

For those outside the church, he comes not as fire and brimstone preacher or humanistic teacher, but as God-with-us, “a stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the gentiles”, but to those who are being called, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”; an offense, because his foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and his weakness is stronger than human strength, a scandal, for all of us, offensive, in that we, good virtuous people, would need a Savior; offensive, in that we, strong and self-sufficient people, would need a Lord.

“Blessed are you, he says, if you do not take offense at me”.

Sources: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity; Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild.

Monday, December 10, 2007

the second advent question: will our children have faith?

Each year during Advent we meet John the Baptist, again. He is a little like the relative most of us would like to avoid at the annual family gathering! We meet him in the same place, in the wilderness. In the Bible, the wilderness is a place of repentance. Israel went to the wilderness to do penance and to be formed. In Exodus 16, our greatest biblical description of wilderness, the people were tested on the way to the promised land; centuries later, all of this was written down by a people living in exile, in Babylon, far from home. These stories would capture the imagination of Jesus, who was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tested. The wilderness is at the heart of the entire biblical story, and John stands squarely in the wilderness, the loudest voice in the strangest place. We encounter John every year, during the season of Advent. If there is no Christmas without Advent, there is also no Advent without John the Baptist, no Advent without wilderness.

Earlier in the fall I saw a movie entitled “Into The Wild”, based on a book by Jon Krakauer. It is a true story about a young man , a son of privilege in the D.C. suburbs, an honors student at Emory University, who takes off shortly after graduation and disappears, headed west for the open spaces. He lives in the elements: wind, heat, cold, storm. He lives off of the land. He keeps a journal. He leaves everything behind, burning his credit cards, giving all of his money to a relief agency, abandoning his car, making his way from Grand Junction, Colorado through the Dakotas into the Yukon Territory, and then toward the Mt. McKinley area of Alaska.

As I watched the movie, the character, Christopher McCandless, reminded me of John the Baptist. His beard grew longer. I could imagine him eating locusts and wild honey. He was dissatisfied with the world as it is, and he was not concerned with what others thought about his quest. Interestingly, people were drawn to Christopher. The article in Outside magazine about his life generated more mail, by far, than anything else that magazine had ever covered. It became a best-selling book, and then a popular movie. People were drawn to this young man, living in the wilderness, searching for something different, something radically different.

That would be John the Baptist. John is so central, not only to the season of Advent but to the gospels themselves—his story is told in all four gospels, and clearly he is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 40. He speaks out of his wilderness experience, his voice in full throttle, to anyone who will listen:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.

To repent is to reorient ourselves, toward reality. It is not to feel differently, or to be sad about something we have done. It is to strike out on a new path. In Into The Wild, the repentance takes the form of leaving a privileged education behind and seeking a new reality. For Christopher, that was the natural world. The prophets of the Bible and the hermits of the Christian tradition were not so different:
“To the desert go prophets and hermits; through the deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality” (ITW, 25).
The wilderness of the Bible is the place where we are confronted with reality. It is a place without distractions, a place where we hear voices, maybe even the voice of God. Of course wilderness is not limited to geography. The wilderness can be the difficult experience of being a teenager, or going through a divorce, or waiting in an intensive care unit. But whenever we find ourselves in the wilderness, we are confronted with reality. Late in the book, Krakauer concludes that McCandless went into the wilderness to “explore the inner country of his own soul”.
In the wilderness, we are confronted with reality. In the gospels, the great reality is Jesus. Matthew speaks of kingdom of heaven, because the name of God is not uttered among the Jewish Christians, it is so holy. In the presence of holiness something happens to us: we are aware of our need to change. In the wilderness we examine ourselves, our egos, our motivations, all of that is stripped bare. We live with ourselves, and not much else. We pack light, only the essentials. It is scary.
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
What do you do if you find yourself in the wilderness? You begin where we are, you build the road out of the wilderness and make your way home. The way out of all of this is the road home from exile to restoration and hope. In the wilderness you find yourself, you discover who you are. The rabbis called the wilderness the “school of the soul”.
After the repentance, after the reorientation, there would be a restoration. And folks were drawn to that.
The people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
What was happening? The people of Jerusalem and Judea were going to John The Baptist to start over. These were the religious people, which means that even if we think we are far along on the path, we may need to start over, repent, confess. He is blunt with them. He sees the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized and he says to them,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Don’t presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.
The religious leaders are called snakes. If John were alive today, we would accuse him of being anti-religious! There is a pretty significant anti-religious sentiment in our world today. There is a section on atheism in most of the big bookstores, along with Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. Jesus did not have much use for the religious leaders of his day, who really represented different political parties, and were often in conflict with each other. He would have resonated with John the Baptist. The way to the cross, for Jesus, was paved by his critique of the organized religion of his day. In some ways, they were missing the point. What was that point?
For Jesus, it was about “bearing fruit”. What difference does spirituality, faith, religion make? How does it shape your life? When the kingdom has come, when Jesus is a part of what we are doing, we are bearing fruit.
They responded, “we are children of Abraham”. “Don’t be too critical of us”, they were saying to Jesus, “we are the chosen people, we’ve got this all mapped out, the past and the future belong to us, we are children of Abraham”.
I had not been at the church very long, as pastor. The nice woman took me into the narthex and showed me the stained glass, with her family names on it., her maiden name on one side, her husband’s name on the other. I had been there long enough to know that she had a temperament that could cut through someone like a knife, but she had a nice southern smile that could mask all of it. She was the establishment; I was the upstart new preacher. “That’s my family”, she said, as she pointed out the names on the stained glass. The message was pretty clear: “before you get too carried away with your big ideas, remember, we were here before you got here…and we will be here a long time after you are gone”.
I tell that story only because it haunts me, and I wonder: Do I sometimes send that very same message to others? After all, on most days I am pretty much the religious establishment. And Jesus is saying, to me, “don’t presume to say, “I have been ordained”, or “I have been a Christian for these many years” or “I have been in all of these Bible studies or on all of these mission trips”…
It is as if God is saying, “Don’t be too smug”.
From the very stones God will raise up children of Abraham. Which means, I think, that each generation has to embrace the faith, each generation has to go into the wild and hear the voice for itself. There is a real sense, in North America and Europe, that the church is living on the spiritual capital of our parents and grandparents, and we are drawing it down, and there are real questions about what we are passing on to our children.
And so, the second Advent question: Will our children have faith? A lot of Christopher’s quest had to do with his disenchantment with his parents’ values. And a lot of the reason for the growing secularism of our culture, and abandonment of the church by the younger generations, has to do with the disconnect between Jesus, on the one hand, and the church, on the other.
Will our children have faith? “If we change, if we repent, if we face reality”, the answer is “yes”. But it is hard to change. It is hard to face reality. There is stark, life or death quality about John’s message to us:
the ax is laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

The ax is the judgment. The bad will be cut away, the good will fruit will remain. The fire is painful, but it purifies.
Why did Jesus go out to the wilderness? Why did the young man in the movie go out in search of the wilderness? Why does the preacher drag us through the wilderness every year? We just want to sing the carols! Right?
Why go out to the wilderness, with all of those people? It is the place where we recognize our dissatisfaction with life as it is. It is the place where faith and hope are born. It is the place where change is possible. And it is the place where the quest for something more seems not only possible but necessary, a quest that is primarily for integrity: a life that bears fruit, good fruit, the fruit of the spirit:
love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, goodness,
generosity, faithfulness, self-control.
In the wilderness, that voice that we had pushed to the margins comes roaring back, and we discover, in a painfully purifying way, that to repent is to cleanse ourselves of the cultural swamp of materialism, religious hypocrisy, obsession with self and addiction to the pace of life.
Jon Krakauer, who wrote “Into The Wild”, noted that he received a massive amount of correspondence about his main character. Many thought Christopher was insane, judgmental and irresponsible; many others admired him and thought he was seeing something, and acting on it, that most of us avoid. Like good art, the film, I think, allows you to be the judge.
In the same way, I think we are both repelled by and drawn to the biblical prophets, and all who live in such a way that we are forced to question our way of life. And yet there is something about John the Baptist that is compelling, and that is, we know, truthful. The kingdom of heaven has come near. The Lord is at hand. The Christian religion finally is not an escape into the wild, but an encounter with reality, and that reality is as near as the inner country as our own souls. The voice of the prophet challenges us to disengage from everything that separates us from the life that God intends (we call that sin), and that same voice prepares a way for the Lord to come into our world once again.

Sources: Thomas G. Long, Matthew; Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

the first advent question: how will it end?

There is a natural fascination with how something will end. For a long time now people have used calendars and calculators to predict the end time; if we can predict something, we can control it. The atheistic scientists and the religious millenialists are close cousins here---the end is precise, Tuesday, at 4:00 p.m., or whatever. It could be jihad or global warming, survivalists in the mountains or pessimists about anything in general, it is on the minds of many. How will it end? Of course, it could also be and often is personal: we sit and wait in a hospital room, surrounded by technology, watching the numbers, listening the sounds, the labored breathing of a loved one, or the chirping sound of a machine. How will it end?

The disciples wondered about this, we overhear their conversations with Jesus, recorded in various places throughout the gospels and even in the beginning of the Book of Acts. The earliest Christians must have been preoccupied with all of this, because the end had not come, Jesus had not returned, some were beginning to die natural deaths, and there was a crisis of confidence. They wanted certainty. Inquiring minds wanted to know. How will it end?

On this the scripture is clear—no one knows. The angels do not know, Jesus does not know, and it follows, we don’t know.

In my younger days, there was a book called “The Late, Great Planet Earth”. As I moved out of young adulthood, the “Left Behind” series emerged. Around 2000---remember Y2K---a whole spate of movies came along, all of them having to do with the end of time---the earth would freeze, or melt, or flood. Along the way two people would fall in love. But everything would still freeze, melt or flood.

These were attempts to feed the hunger for a world, even a Christian world, that wanted to know the answer to the first Advent question: how will it end? This has always been connected to the belief, among Christians, in the second coming of Christ.

This idea is 2000 years old, passed around from one generation of disciples to the next, and frankly the church has almost relegated the second coming of Christ to the sidelines, to the crazy person who holds a sign at the intersection of two busy roads, or the gospel quartet that sings in a monotone on a low frequency radio station. We are more like the people who have waited and waited and gone on to other hopes, lesser hopes, little advents, the coming, maybe not of the messiah, but of a lesser good:

the next president,
the next head coach,
the next economic forecast.
There is a problem here. We should not shrink away from the idea of the second coming just because the books and movies that exploited all of this seem, in hindsight, to have popularized something for material gain. There is something there. In the creed we say the words, “He shall come again to judge the living and the dead”. In the communion liturgy we profess the mystery of our faith: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”.

Orthodox Christianity has never had a problem with the second coming of Christ. We take the second coming seriously because of the first coming. But having faith in the coming of Christ, which is what Advent is all about, the promised coming, is different from having certainty about when or how it will happen. I love the words of the ancient church: “faith seeking understanding”, or “I believe in order that I might understand”. To say it another way, there is humility before the mystery. On the question about how it will all end, we are agnostic. No one knows.

Well, humility and mystery are wonderful words, but they conflict with a part of our human nature: we want closure. We want the bad people to be punished. We want the good people to be vindicated. We usually put other people in the first category and ourselves in the second one----the prophets continually reminded us that this was a dangerous thing to do, and Jesus, teaching people earlier in the gospel who wanted this kind of closure, gave a parable (Matthew 13. 24ff.) about the weeds and the wheat. Don’t be so quick to pull up the weeds, he said, in so doing you may uproot the wheat. Let the harvest be on God’s timetable. We want closure. But the New Testament gives us none of it: no one knows. Not the angels, not even the Son.What does the New Testament give us? The affirmation, the promise, the warning, that he is coming again, and then a teaching of Jesus about, of all things, Noah and the Ark.

As the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

The early Christians had grown tired of waiting. Those who had known Jesus had begun to die, and they needed to write down his words, his teachings. These became our gospels. They remembered a reflection by Jesus about Noah and the ark. Jesus’ point is not the immorality of that generation, but about their busyness in the midst of the one thing that was needed---they were carrying on with their activities, and all the while Noah is building the ark. The point: the ark is the church, and we are called to build an ark even when it is not raining. We wait even when there is little hope. We persevere even in the midst of discouragement. Advent helps us here. I love the words of the hymn:

O Come thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thy justice here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight

Then Jesus tells it from a different slant:

Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

This is a parable is about everyday life, how to live in the interim, how to go about our lives and responsibilities. We are to keep awake, pay attention; there are echoes here of words Jesus would share with his disciples at Gethsemane (Matthew 26. 30ff.). Keep awake, pay attention.

Then Jesus says something that is disturbing: He (Jesus) is like a thief who enters at an unexpected time.

When I was a kid, our family had the experience of our home being robbed. We were three hours away, I was playing in a baseball tournament, the game had been announced and reported in the newspaper. We returned, late in the night, to an empty home. Someone had pulled a transfer truck up to our front door, we lived on a cul-de-sac in a relatively new neighborhood. It was devastating. The end will be like that, Jesus says. Get ready.

What does it mean to get ready? To be doing the things that will establish God's kingdom: acts of compassion, justice and peace--sheltering the homeless, visiting those in prison, laying down our weapons, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, forgiving those who have harmed us. The clues are there for us, just into the next chapter, in another parable of Jesus, the great judgment of Matthew 25.

Get ready. Be prepared. The unexpected will happen, it will catch you by surprise. Why does God want it to be a surprise? Barbara Brown Taylor, of Piedmont College in the North Georgia mountains, a wonderful preacher, has an interesting take on all of this. It has to be a surprise, she says--otherwise, we would build up our defenses, we would fill our schedules, we would be conveniently away.

In Advent we confess that we would like to get our houses in order: what if a neighbor stopped by, unexpectedly? Or maybe we are thinking of our spiritual houses? What if Jesus is coming again? Or we would like to line up our rationalizations, like a student appealing to the professor: my computer crashed, my alarm clock didn’t work, the dog ate my paper. I wish I were more…prepared.

The first Advent question is one of urgency, clarity and accountability. We ask, “how will it end?” Jesus asks, “Are you ready?” The answer to the first question is no one knows. The answer to the second question is ours to work out.

We don't really know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. In the meantime, Jesus teaches us how to live as people of hope: to focus on the everyday signs of God's kingdom, to stay awake, to be ready. He will come like a thief, like a heart attack, like an explosion in the sky.

Get ready.


Sources: The United Methodist Hymnal; Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way; Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

pope benedict XVI on heaven

" not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality — this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time — the before and after — no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” Benedict quotes Jesus (John 16:22): “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’." (On Christian Hope)