Wednesday, December 31, 2008

an epiphany hymn

You draw us toward your light, O God
we rise and journey on our way
to meet our King, to offer gifts,
led by the star into the Day.
God is with us, God is with us,
promise of Emmanuel.

You call us into waters deep,
the winds of risk around us move,
the pain of radical rebirth,
the healing presence of the Dove.
God is with us, God is with us,
promise of Emmanuel.

We celebrate the feast, O Lord,
the old is transformed into new
with water, wine and spoken word,
the promise is fulfilled in You.
God is with us, God is with us,
promise of Emmanuel.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

from vision to vocation: the work of christmas

The prophet Isaiah speaks as the war comes to an end. He lives “in a land of deep darkness.” Eight centuries later followers of Jesus read the prophecy, and it seemed to speak of the rule of Herod and Caesar. Twenty centuries later there was the holocaust of the Jews and the imprisonment of many of their sympathizers; in our own century there is September 11 and the Tsunami and Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, genocide in Darfur, and political madness and spreading cholera now in Zimbabwe. Closer to home, but really across the planet there has been the economic crisis of this fall.

Darkness. Physicists speak of black holes, nothingness; engineers talk about the depletion of our energy resources; psychologists speak of depression, to use William Styron’s phrase, “darkness visible”; theologians reflect on the “dark night of the soul”; the poet confesses, “I have been one acquainted with the night.” In the last year we learned that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose face seemed to communicate peace and joy, struggled with an overwhelming spiritual desolation for fifty years, which ended at her death. Darkness.

The optimism of the enlightenment has passed---Hiroshima, Holocaust, Vietnam, 9/11, Iraq, Wall Street. A new kind of bold atheism is flourishing---Europe is already there, the cathedrals empty except for a few tourists, and there is a kind of functional atheism in our own country. Darkness.

Here the Christian must be honest: there is much darkness in our world, and, yet the darkness is not only out there, but it is in here, within us. Three chapters earlier, in the book of Isaiah there is his call to be a prophet, and his confession: I am undone, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. The darkness inside of us is the very reason we are able to perceive the darkness that is outside of us. Why are we most perplexed and bothered by particular sins and evils? Because those very realities reside within us. The good that I want to do, the apostle Paul admits, I do not do; and the evil that I do not want to do, I find myself doing.

And yet in the words of the prophet there is more than darkness: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Something---call it God, good fortune, hope, grace—something interrupts. We stare at the cold emptiness of the skies above and if we look closely we begin to see a star and another and another---there is a pattern. Or we open the newspaper or turn on the television and just when have almost given up on the world there is a sign of life.

Imagine hearing the good news or the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century that the war is over, that you are going to be able to return home. I recall a recent conversation with a friend whose son is home, and we talked about the incredible emotional relief when her son plants his feet on the ground and is safe. Imagine living in the 1st century, seeing the fulfillment of the promise that the Messiah has come. Or imagine that it is getting dark and cold, it is late in the afternoon, and you are somewhat disoriented, you have burned a few bridges, life has taken a strange turn, and you see the shelter where you will spend at least this night. Or imagine that you are pregnant, living in a formerly communist country, you are unmarried, you have no parents, what do you do? and someone tells you about a place where you will be accepted. Or imagine that deep in the heart of Zimbabwe there is a university that will give you the education that seems almost beyond your wildest dreams. Or imagine that you are a Haitian mother and there is no school in your community and someone tells you that a new school is going to begin, and there will be no cost; to come the next week and get a uniform for your young son; classes begin in two weeks. Or imagine that you are working in a local hospital and you see what you take to be the appearance of an angel.

Imagine the scripture: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in deep darkness, on them light has shined. The darkness is real and foreboding, and we are not in denial about the darkness, but by faith we keep vigil to look for the light. The biblical prophets have always helped us here, they have observed the hand of God in the history of their people. Isaiah tells us that where there was loss of life, now there will be childbirth; where there was hunger, now there will be a feast; where there was violence, now there will be peace. The Assyrian oppression has come to an end; the kingdom of God has come near.

How can this be? For unto us a child is born , unto us, a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulders; and his name shall be called: Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The light pierces the darkness in the form of a child, Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph. There is a legend that on a Christmas Eve long ago Saint Francis and his followers staged a nativity play. Living on the streets, they gathered their materials from the garbage piles of Assisi, made costumes from discarded rags and a manger from old boxes. They swept the streets to come up with the hay, and Francis placed an abandoned and damaged wooden doll that had once belonged to some child in the village into the manger scene. The legend has it that Francis as picked up the doll and began to speak about the mystery of the word becoming flesh, the child came to life.

In him was life, John’s gospel says, and the life was the light of all people (1.5). That legend has a simple lesson; Christians are to enter into the darkness, we are even called to love the darkness, because it is out of the darkness that light emerges. We gather in the very darkness to remind ourselves of the power of the light and our need for it.

We are here this evening, in part, to acknowledge the gifts---the gift of light and beauty and music and community and family and compassion and tradition and hope and peace and joy and love---we are here to acknowledge the gift of Jesus Christ, whose nativity we re-enact each year, because his birth is somehow connected to our own rebirth.

But there is more here than our rebirth, more here than our seeing a vision. And this is a part of what gives the Prophet a sense of hope. “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

The scripture moves from who the Messiah is to what the Messiah will do, from vision to vocation, from gift to mission. I love the reflection by Evelyn Underhill:

“The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany…In the first we commemorate God's humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first. Christ is a light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of his people Israel. Think of what the Gentile was when these words were written--an absolute outsider. All cozy religious exclusiveness falls before that thought. The Light of the world is not the sanctuary lamp of your favorite church."

And so Christmas is not an ending, not the last day in an exhausing holiday calendar. Christmas is a beginning. Christmas is not an end in itself---“the Savior has come, all is right with me, I feel like it’s Christmas, I’m inspired, let’s go home”. Christmas is not an end itself. It is a means to a greater end. Imagine the light that shines upon Bethlehem spreading to all who live in the lands of deep darkness.

Each year I have shared at the conclusion of this service a Benediction, written by Howard Thurman. Howard Thurman was a mystic, he was Dean of the Boston University Chapel, he befriended Mahatma Gandhi, he was a classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr. and he mentored Martin Luther King, Jr.
The benediction is entitled “The Work of Christmas”

“When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, 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 others, To make music in the heart."

We have gathered not only to see the vision, but to claim our vocation, to be about the work of Christmas. One of my favorite possessions is a family picture. It is picture of my sister, my brother and me, standing in front of a small pine Christmas tree on Christmas morning. I suppose that I am about eleven, my brother is eight, my sister is five. I don’t recall much about that particular Christmas, but in the picture we are beaming. The tree, looking back a few years looks pretty meager, and we were your basic middle class family, so I can imagine what the morning would have been like, but in the picture we are beaming. We must have been the recipient of an amazing gift…. you can see it in our faces. The light is almost bursting through us.

In looking at this photograph I get the sense that, in this moment, we would do almost anything for our parents. An undeniable, inexpressible gratitude shines through our faces.

I wonder…What if you and I were overwhelmed, now, this evening, this Christmas, with the sense that, in a land of deep darkness, we have received a great gift, that the very light of the world has been placed in our hands? And what if you and I were moved to share that light with others? What if, now, the work of Christmas begins? I realize on Christmas eve each year that there is an idealism about this evening, about the moment when we hold the light in our hands and raise it to the sky, but it is an idealism that is grounded in the Christmas story, the Christmas truth itself: the light shines in the darkness, as John’s gospel says it, and the darkness did not overcome it. And so, you and I have before us this unfinished work:

To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart."

It can seem idealistic, it can seem like a dream, and yet it is the very dream and vision of God, who imagines a differente world, who transforms human idealism into divine vocation, and so we finally place our confidence in the power of God. And to put an exclamation point on it there is the promise of the prophet. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

And so, the work of Christmas begins.

Sources: Watch For The Light (Evelyn Underhill); Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessings. Paul Jones, “Toward A Post-Christian Spirituality”, Weavings, Jan/Feb 09. Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas”.

Friday, December 26, 2008

the real holy week

I have come to think of the days between Christmas and New Year's as "the real holy week". These are truly days that are set apart, and in some respect this is about the culture (of which the church is immersed) and its need to recover. We had a wonderful few days in the church leading to Christmas: we had two "Services of Lessons and Carols" on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and then we had four services on Christmas Eve. These are all complex and well-attended services. My sermon, which will be posted soon, was an attempt to connect Isaiah 9. 2-7 with Howard Thurman's "The Work of Christmas" and Evelyn Underhill's meditation on the relation between nativity and epiphany. I found Underhill's reflection in Watch For The Light, which is published by Plough, and which I recommend enthusiastically (in fact, you might order a copy from Amazon and have it available next Advent). That volume also includes a piece by Jurgen Moltmann on the Isaiah passage. It is a remarkable devotional volume.

At any rate, the services came to an end at about 12:30 early Christmas morning, and the mode has shifted. Our family decided this year, for a variety of reasons, some of them economic, some of them theological, to have small gifts in stockings on Christmas day, and then perhaps to give each other one larger gift on January 6 (and most of these are functional--a coat, a jacket, a watch). I had requested Chicago's Greatest Hits and Clyde Edgerton's The Bible Salesman; I am looking forward to enjoying both.

Our older daughter's college friend Uzma is with us, and so there were five of us, watching a couple of movies (one, "The Visitor", was very good) and some 30 Rock re-runs, alternately taking naps and clearing away stuff that we really don't need. I anticipate a slow pace in the next few days--venturing out to see a movie, maybe; traveling to see my mother in Ga; watching UNC on Saturday as they face West Virginia in the Meinecke Car Care Bowl (I am not making this up), and then the Panthers on Sunday in a must-win game.

I have posting occasionally on "Twitter" lately, and I like it. It is a nice place to post very brief comments, and a social network is gathering there.

As we continue to move through the Christmas season, I wish you the peace of the Lord!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

the work of christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flock
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 (1900-1981)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

responding to the christmas mystery

So it seems that in reading Evelyn Underhill below, and seeing the fullness of the Christmas mystery as nativity and epiphany, the human response to this reality is grounded in the experiences of vision and vocation. Of course, the danger is that we have separated the two---vision as a spiritual experience, as if spiritually can be separated from the material, and vocation as activism viewed as a means to an end. The Christmas mystery in all of its fullness gives birth to the possibility of an integrated life, vision and vocation held together in tension, the word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

the christmas mystery

"The Christmas mystery has two parts: the nativity and the epiphany. A deep instinct made the Church separate these two feasts. In the first we commemorate God's humble entrance into human life, the emergence and birth of the holy, and in the second its manifestation to the world, the revelation of the supernatural made in that life. And the two phases concern our inner lives very closely too. The first only happens in order that the second may happen, and the second cannot happen without the first. Christ is a light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of his people Israel. Think of what the Gentile was when these words were written--an absolute outsider. All cozy religious exclusiveness falls before that thought. The Light of the world is not the sanctuary lamp of your favorite church."

Evelyn Underhill, English mystic (1875-1941)

Monday, December 15, 2008

a cure for the messiah complex (john 1)

John the Baptist is a prominent figure in Advent. He shows up each year in at least a couple of the gospel readings, and then he reappears in January when we remember the Baptism of the Lord and renew our own baptisms. This year I have tried to listen to John the Baptist, and the lesson for me has to do with humility. We hear this again and again in his words: “I am not the messiah. I am not Elijah (the greatest of the prophets). I am not the main attraction. The main attraction is coming, and I am not worthy to shine his shoes.

This humility was not only John’s perception of himself. It is also recorded in the gospel writer’s description of him. He---John---was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light. It is important that we claim John as a model for our lives, as human beings and as Christians. We are not the messiah. You are not the messiah. I am not the messiah. Now a messiah is someone who saves people, who rules people, who fixes people. Many people in Israel were waiting for a messiah in the first century. Life was difficult, harsh, oppressive.

A messiah would come and change all of that. Right now, politically, we are in what is called a “lame duck” period. A president is leaving, another president is coming into office. Will the new president fix the crises and salvage the messes? That is the twenty-first century hope.

Folks who lived in the first century held out a similar hope. Life was hard, and John was attracting large crowds who were seeking him out, there was a buzz. Maybe John was the messiah?

No, he says. I am not the messiah. I am not the light. I have come to bear witness to the light. But I am not the light. I am not the messiah.

John’s entrance into the drama of Advent each year might not seem relevant, on first glance, but in fact his is a needed voice. It is good to claim John’s words for ourselves. It’s liberating, isn’t it? We know, deep down that it is true, we are not the messiah, but the idea does sometimes creep into our ways of thinking and behaving.

A few years ago a psychologist wrote a book about some research into the lives of three psychiatric patients in Michigan, who suffered from delusions of grandeur. Each of the three lived with the conviction that he had a unique calling among all of the billions of people on the planet: each thought that he was the savior, the messiah. These were full-blown, hard core cases of grandiosity.

The psychologist made no progress with them individually, and so he came upon a creative idea: he decided to put them into a group, together, three men who each labored under the delusion that he was the one messiah sent to save the world. The conversations were provocative.

One day they are in group therapy.

One begins: “I’m the messiah, the Son of God. I was sent here to save the earth.”

“How do you know?”, the psychologist would ask.

“God told me”.

One of the other patients would chime in. “I never told you any such thing!”

Each had a deep-seated messiah complex, and only by staying in community with each other did occasional glimpses of reality sink in. They were not the messiah.

Orthodox Christian theology teaches us that there is one messiah. In Advent we pray, and wait, and hope and prepare for his coming. But we are sure that the messiah is not us. This belief leads us to an appropriate posture for a Christian: humility. None of us is the messiah. The position has already been filled!

Humility is a misunderstood concept, and it may be helpful to say what it is, and what it is not. It is not low self-esteem. We are created in the image of God, and that is good. Humility is not false modesty. We have been endowed with gifts, and they are to be used for the glory of God and the common good. One preacher put it this way: humility is not thinking less of ourselves. Humility is thinking of ourselves less. Do you catch the difference?

This can be liberating, and it can be liberating for a crowd like us. In our community, in our congregation, there are lots of folks who I would describe as overachievers, overfunctioners. I see your names in the newspaper, I hear you being interviewed on television and radio, I write letters of recommendation for you when you are getting ready to go to college. A week does not go by that someone in our congregation is not recognized in his or her profession. You are overachievers, overfunctioners.

When you are congratulated you say “Oh, it’s nothing”, or, “it’s not as special as it seems”, or, “yes, oh, but you should see what my brother or sister or neighbor or colleague is doing”. But I am talking about you, and, if I am honest, myself. Humility is not the first virtue we think of in a community like this. One of my seminary professors poked fun at the “I love me” walls that preachers love to have in their offices---degrees, ordination certificates---and I do wonder about how all of this helps us to preach better sermons about humility!

It is all mixed together with the drive to succeed, and ambition, and performance, and goals. And if we don’t have these hopes for ourselves, we surely have them for our children.

There is something constructive about all of this. Objectives are accomplished. Goals are met. Good is done. But there is also a dark side. And the dark side can be a heavy burden. We begin to think that we are, in fact, the source of light, but sometimes the bulb begins to dim. We might not use the precise language, but we might begin to think that we are, in fact, the messiah. We see other people as problems to be solved, we see daily lives as a series of messes to be cleaned up, dilemmas to be sorted through, damages to be repaired.

And if you and I don’t do it, who will?

There is a dark side to the Messiah Complex and the symptoms are burnout, cynicism about the world, frustration about other people, and paradoxically, self-rejection.

But remember: you are not the messiah. I am not the messiah. And in fact a dose of humility does help. We have limitations, and boundaries. We talked about this a little last week, when we reflected on stress and sanity. It turns out that Advent comes along each year to give us this dose of humility, when once again we meet John, who helps us to get clear again about our perspective.

Make no mistake. John the Baptist was a person of strength. He attracted people to his project. “Among men born of women”, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “there is not greater than John the Baptist”. John was not weak: “What did you expect to find when you went out and found John in the wilderness, Jesus asks the disciples in the middle of Matthew’s gospel, …a reed shaken by the wind?” The literal meaning was a weather vane which bent with the currents of the wind. John was not weak, he was strong---he could withstand the forces of the winds and the storms--- but he was humble. And his humility is found precisely in his understanding of who he is and who he is not.

Humility is not weakness. Humility is the awareness of the source of our strength.

John the Baptist knew this. Listen to him:

I am not the light. I have come to bear witness to the light. He is the light. I am not the main attraction. I am not the messiah. He is the messiah. I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the holy spirit and with fire.

Again, we can claim something from the witness of John. We are human. In preparing for this morning I came across the insight that there is a connection between the words humanity, humility, and humor. Each word has a common origin, in our word humus.

My grandparents had a humus pile, that included soil and leaves and kitchen garbage and probably some things I would not want to mention. It was a mixture of the most organic matter, the compost pile, and it was a rich, fertile place. That says something about us: in our humanity we are always a mixture of many things, and out of all of it comes life and growth.

Humility and humor are connected in our ability to laugh at ourselves---and sometimes we do have to laugh at ourselves. As we light the candle of joy on the third Sunday of Advent this seems appropriate. Some of you attended the United Methodist Women’s Christmas dinner the year my wife Pam spoke, and in the midst of her talk she listed some of the really wonderful gifts I had gotten her early in our marriage: a waffle iron, a ceramic chicken, flannel pajamas.

If I did not know how to laugh at myself, I would have learned to do so that night! And this only inspired other men to come forward, like a self-help recovery group, with their own confessions---one man had purchased his wife an iron and ironing board, another a paper shredder. Pam, would only recall what one of her friends said to her, “be patient, it’s a training program.”

All of this is related to our humanity. We have limitations, boundaries. We are finite, not infinite. Humanity is a reminder of our need to be grounded---again, the connection with the earth. It is not accidental that the most fundamental posture of humility is kneeling. And this self-awareness prepares the way for something more, something greater.

In the last century one of the greatest theologians, Karl Barth, had above his desk for fifty years a reproduction of a painting of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald. Grunwald was a sixteenth century German renaissance painter whose works can be seen throughout Europe, and one small painting is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The work that captured Barth’s imagination is referred to as the Isenheim Altar.

At the center is the crucified Jesus. To the left are John, Mary and Mary Magdalene, in mourning. Above is a darkened sky, and beneath is a lamb embracing the cross. But most striking to Barth, was the figure to the right, of John the Baptist, the scriptures opened in his left hand, and his right hand, and in particular a long, extended bony index finger pointing to Jesus. Barth asked, “Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely?”

He was not the light. He came to bear witness to the light. Our humility is always deeply connected to the glory of God, who is present in the Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, full of grace and truth.

And so the cure for the messiah complex is to open the scriptures and learn of the One who stoops to our weakness, who is born in a manger and dies on a cross, who removes from our to-do list the need to save ourselves, and others, by offering the gift of salvation that always comes from beyond us, and sometimes even in spite of us!

This gift of salvation is grace for the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the lost and the found, the certain and the confused, the overfunctioner and the underachiever.

In Advent the occasional glimpse of reality sinks in: grace pierces our illusions of perfectionism and our delusions of grandeur, reconnecting us with the true source of our strength, putting us in touch with reality; we are all of us huddled together in the compost pile of humanity, pointing with John the Baptist to the light that is just beginning to emerge on the horizon: Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Sources: John Ortberg, “What’s Really Behind Our Fatigue?”, Leadership, Spring, 1997. John Burgess, “The Difference That Theology Makes For Pastoral Ministry”,

Friday, December 12, 2008

the wesley study bible

I want to make you aware of a new Bible now in the midst of publication. The Wesley Study Bible is being published and will be available in February, 2009. It is the NRSV translation, which is the translation read in worship in our congregation, and the study notes were developed by biblical scholars and pastors in the Wesleyan tradition. I had the great honor of helping to write some of the study notes (and here is my additional comment to remind all of us that the scripture itself is very different from the notes, which are of human origin [!]). Among others who worked on this Bible were Will Willimon, Ben Witherington, Laceye Warner, Adam Hamilton, James Howell, Rueben Job, Greg Jones, Marcia McFee, Maxie Dunnam, and Zan Holmes. I am excited about this Bible because the notes found in many Bibles come from very different traditions (calvinist, dispensationalist, fundamentalist), and some skew the reading of the text itself. A Wesleyan approach would give emphasis to God's grace, to the integration of faith and works, and to the necessity of individual faith and social holiness, among other themes.

You can learn more about the Wesley Study Bible by visiting the following

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

o come let us adore him

The Blind Boys of Alabama ( have a version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" that has helped me in a brief time of devotion, which I share with you.

Read the following words, slowly:

O come, all ye faithful
joyful and triumphant
O come ye,
O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold him,
born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord.

The hymn is first an invitation to come to the place where Jesus is...take a moment to go to that place. The hymn is also an invitation to look closely at him. What do you see? The hymn is finally an invitation to be humble in his presence.

Take five minutes today, and go to a place where you can be in the presence of Jesus. Stay there, and visualize him. Close by offering the day to him. "He must increase", John confesses, "I must decrease" (John 3. 30).

O come, let us adore him.

Monday, December 08, 2008

spirituality, stress and sanity

I want to focus on three words: spirituality, stress and sanity.

This is the season of the spirit. We live in a material world--- financial markets, consumer culture, very real human needs---but we yearn for something more. Immersed in what we can see, we long for what we cannot see, and perhaps that is for something new: a new birth, a new heart, a new heaven and a new earth.

Our two passages of scripture for this morning are in dialogue with each other, Isaiah written six centuries before Christ, just prior to the fall of Babylon, Mark’s gospel written a generation after the life of Jesus. Isaiah was called to speak to his people, and his news carried with it a sense of urgency: the war was over, the people would live in freedom, the exiles would return home, God had kept his promises. The journey would take them from Babylon, a chaotic environment, a world of many gods, to Jerusalem, a place of safety and sanctuary, the dwelling place of the One God.

The history of the prophetic text is that the people did come home, in 538 B.C., in the announcement of Cyrus that the people could be freed, and so Israel returned to Jerusalem, where they began to rebuild the temple, which had been destroyed, they began to rebuild their lives from the ruins of their recent history.

Where would the strength come from to do this work? It was the assurance of a God whose word would endure forever, whose glory would be revealed, and all flesh would see it together, whose power would be stronger than any human army and yet whose mercy would be as tender as a shepherd embracing the most vulnerable lamb.

John the Baptist knew the story of Isaiah and saw in his own circumstance a fulfillment of it, in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. John’s message also carried with it a sense of urgency: this was the inbreaking of a new moment, this was the spirit’s entry, now, and the sign was baptism, cleansing, new birth. John also lived in the assurance that God had kept his promises, although later, when he was imprisoned by Herod, he would have his doubts. The people came to John in the wilderness to confess their sins, to make the long journey from slavery to freedom, from being lost to being at home, from destruction, self-destruction, to wholeness and safety and sanctuary and peace.

The first word is spirituality. You and I have inherited a deep, rich, profound spirituality that is thousands of years old, that has been lived and tested and experienced by our ancestors in the faith, and yet this spirituality is as relevant as the beating of our hearts and the gasping for our next breath.

A second word is stress. Each year in the Advent season we see the same symbols, we read the same scriptures, we hear and sing the same carols, and yet alongside these experiences each year, we live oddly out of sorts with all of it: it is not only a season of the spirit, it is a season of stress.

Why the stress, the anxiety? The answers are close at hand. Many of us have the ideal of a perfect family, all around the table, the perfect couple, perfect kids, perfect turkey at the center of the perfectly decorated dining room. But such an image carries with it a great deal of anxiety. There are no perfect families, so most of us live with the anxiety that we have not measured up. Most of our homes are not in perfect condition, and we live with the additional anxiety that there are still chores to do and repairs to make. And most of us place such a high expectation on these family gatherings-- get-togethers that are so brief--that we expect them to carry the freight for an entire year. They become too important.

And so, the season can be stressful. The traffic is a little heavier, the hours are a little longer, the tempers are a little quicker, corporations are making end of year decisions, budgets are being squeezed, the losses in our lives become more unavoidable, it is stressful.

And the stress means that we may miss out on the gift of God that comes to us, the gift that we most need. I think of the honesty of W. H. Auden’s lines in his epic poem, “For The Time Being”. He writes from the perspective of post-Christmas:

Now we must dismantle the tree
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes…
Some have got broken
There are enough leftovers to do,
warmed up for the rest of the week—
not that we have that much appetite,
having drunk such a lot.
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully---
to love all of our relatives,
And in general grossly overestimated all of our powers.”

Have you ever left a family gathering and felt that you have attempted---quite unsuccessfully—to love all of your relatives? Or have you ever paused for a moment deep in December and sensed that you have “grossly overestimated all of your powers?”

It is a season of stress. One of the resources that my wife Pam came upon years ago, and has shared with a number of groups in our church is a book entitled “Unplug The Christmas Machine”. One of my favorite chapters in the book is “The Four Things Children Really Want For Christmas”. They are:

A relaxed and loving time with family
Realistic expectations about gifts
An evenly paced holiday season
Reliable family traditions

When I read that I begin to sense that my stress level is lowering. Because much of the stress of the season is the product of a culture that we buy into, and ironically it has little to do with why we have gathered here. In fact, the stress of the season threatens to crowd out the spirituality.

There is little doubt that the most stressful time of the year is the season between Black Friday---the day after Thanksgiving—until the “White Christmas” that we are all dreaming about!

How did this happen? And is there an alternative?

There is a third word: sanity. We do want to experience the spirit. We want to embrace the words of Mary: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We want to glorify God. We want to be more giving, and we want to serve those who are most vulnerable.

We also want to reduce the stress in our lives, the external threats that weigh us down physically and emotionally, and the internal tension that builds day by day.

What we are after, in the days of Advent, is sanity, a more sane existence. And sanity is something that we ourselves have to discover in the midst of a great deal of craziness. The prophet Isaiah spoke a word of hope in a despairing moment in history. John the Baptist pointed to the coming of the Messiah at the very time when the most powerful ruler on the earth, Herod, was at the peak of his powers.

Sanity is the intentional decision to hear the word of the Lord, which, in the words of the hymn, “disperses the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows puts to flight”. Sanity is unplugging the Christmas machine so that we might live in the days of Advent. Sanity is realizing, with Isaiah, that we are lost and that we want to begin the journey home. Sanity is knowing, with John the Baptist, that we are unclean, and that we need to be restored to health and wholeness. Sanity is picking up the broken Christmas ornaments and restoring them to beauty. Sanity is rebuilding the ruined cities so that the poor have shelter and work. Sanity is learning how not to grossly overestimate our powers, it is knowing that we are human, that we are not the Messiah ( I am going to preach about this next week), sanity is knowing our limitations.

Some of us have been wandering in the wilderness, and we are ready to find sanctuary;

Some of us have been withering and fading and are in need of the assurance of a higher power that endures;

Some of us have been overwhelmed by stress and have begun to imagine the alternative of sanity.

Sanity is the rediscovery of a deep, historic and profound spirituality---it is the story we hear in the voices of the prophets and apostles, it is the story we see in the messiah, who would come to bring us hope and peace, joy, love and light; and it is placing the stress of the season---some of which is of our own making----in its proper place. Sanity is keeping our eyes fixed not on the apocalypse of the terror of men and the tumbling of markets, but on the strength and power and goodness of a God who keeps his promises, whose gift comes at the point of our greatest need, who speaks through the voice of the prophet:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
And say to her
The war is over
The sin has been forgiven
You can come home now

Sources: W.H. Auden, "For The Time Being"; Jo Robinson and Jean Coppick Staeheli, Unplug The Christmas Machine.

Friday, December 05, 2008

two lives

I have been moved by the witnesses to two lives that have been communicated via the web this week; the first, by Ben Witherington III, is the eulogy that he gave at the memorial service for his father, Ben Witherington, Jr.; the second, by Amy Forbus, is found on her blog Dog and God, and also on the United Methodist Portal, and is in response to the death of Kathleen Baskin-Ball; a second piece about Kathleen is by Eric Folkerth, a third is by Bishop Robert Schnase. I know Amy mostly in her role as an editor with the United Methodist Reporter. I do not know Eric, but his blog is powerfully written; I do know Robert Schnase well, and give thanks for his ministry at both denominational and personal levels (see his piece at the Five Practices site to the right).

Ben is a close friend, a prominent New Testament scholar, and a frequent teacher in our congregation. His parents live a mile or so away, so we would see each other on occasion. You can find his blog to the right, and I commend his words, spoken as a family witness, to you.

Kathleen was a leading pastor (and woman pastor) in our denomination. We served together five years ago on the Faith and Order Committee at the 2004 General Conference, which meant that we sat side by side for about ten hours a day, for five consecutive days, and then had a number of conversations in the days following. She struck me as a very gifted, compassionate, bright and engaged leader in our church. Our paths would not cross again until a year ago, in Fort Worth, at the 2008 General Conference. I learned that she had a form of terminal cancer. We spoke only briefly (North Texas sat just behind Western North Carolina, but she was surrounded by many friends and supporters), and I told her that I would pray for her, which I did at times.

I was taken aback to learn that she had died on Tuesday. Her witness, in life and death, was compelling, and I would commend again the reflections of Amy and Eric, and Robert Schnase.

See especially this reflection by Amy.

Two compelling lives, now completed, at least on earth; two deaths, but, as both communities and families would quickly say, two experiences of resurrection.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

our hope, God's faithfulness (I Corinthians 1. 1-9)

The sermon from Sunday, November 30 (Advent I) and preached at Providence United Methodist Church. You can access the text and the audio here.

Blessings, Ken