Thursday, December 24, 2009

this will be a sign for you (luke 2)

A friend posted a “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larsen on his office door. In it a somewhat nerdy-looking guy is entering the Midvale School for the Gifted. He’s carrying a book under one arm and leaning with his other arm, with all his weight, against the door, straining, trying to push open the door. On the door there is a sign in great big letters that explains his problem. It reads, “PULL.”

That’s most of us. We’re not too good at reading the signs. The signs are the coincidences, the messages, the circumstances, the interruptions, the events and encounters that fill our agendas, planned and unplanned. What do they mean?

I don’t look for signs as often as I should, but sometimes they appear. I am walking out of worship in the fall and meet someone in the congregation from out of town. She knows my mother, who lives four hundred miles away. They are in the same exercise group. I am listening to the anthem early in Advent, it is a beautiful piece and there is a viola accompaniment. Our older daughter played the viola for years and the sound took me back to our living room, and she is a teenager again, the deep rich sounds floating through the house.

I go to see our younger daughter play volleyball this fall, they are competing against a small college in north Georgia. I remember that my great-grandfather was once the chaplain there. I write the present chaplain when I return home. Has she heard his name? She tells me about a scholarship named after my great-grandmother; just that last week they awarded it to a student. Since last Christmas, I have gotten on Face book, I know, you may think I am either crazy or creepy, but one of the connections is a guy named Albert. We played little league baseball together. Albert was the catcher and I was the pitcher. Both of us went pro in something other than sports. He offers to scan a picture of our team and send it to me!

Yesterday morning, it is early, I am walking into the YMCA to exercise and I see a friend, he is Jewish, his daughter played sports with ours, he is a part of our interfaith Bible Study with the Temple, he is walking out, we talk very briefly, and then he says, as he is walking away, “Merry Christmas!” Remarkable things happen in our lives and sometimes we are conscious, awake, paying attention. What do they mean? “Listen to your life”, Frederick Buechner writes, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him.”

Pay attention, watch, listen. This was the recurring theme of Advent: The prophets getting our attention, John the Baptist in the desert getting our attention, the angels getting our attention. This is the way, this is the path. All of Advent is a sign that says, “coming soon”.

Now we come to the moment. Our story, this evening, has to do with the sign. The Shepherds are out in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night. And then there is a vision, the glory of the Lord, a brilliant flash of light across the sky, and they are terrified. And then angelic speech: do not be afraid, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

Our problem with this story is that we know it so well. Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Emory, says that preaching through Advent and Christmas is like the task of the stewardess who explains what to do in case of an accident, just before lift-off. You can look around and sense that no one is listening or watching---everyone staring into the Blackberry, grabbing something in a purse, or getting started on nap. Why? They have heard this before, they know it, or so they think…and I must admit that since last Christmas Eve, and Dave Sanderson’s experience of the miracle on the Hudson, I do pay attention, I listen.

The shepherds see the flashing of light. It means something. What does it mean? This will be a sign for you. And then there is the chorus….Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those he favors. It is the sign that I want to focus on….simple, humble, ordinary…: just another baby born to a poor teenage mother. My mind is more often attuned to see the big picture, the macro perspective, but I know that this is not all to the good. There is virtue in paying attention to the small things. If the devil is in the details, it must also be true that the angels are in the details.

This season I read a wonderful novel, Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr Ives’ Christmas. Edward Ives was of Puerto Rican ancestry, he was adopted as a small boy, he had an aptitude for drawing, he grew up and met his future wife in Art classes, he became a commercial artist. His wife gives birth to a son and a daughter. One afternoon, as he is walking on Madison and Forty-First Street in Manhattan, he has a full-blown mystical vision---the sidewalks under him lift, the buildings waver, the skyscrapers bow to him, he feels euphoric, the world’s goodness spins around him.

It was, he would explain to a total stranger on the subway, “a vision of God’s presence in the world. And it makes me feel joy.” Mr. Ives is a devoutly religious man. He loves taking communion, loves going into churches and listening to choirs practicing, looking at the symbols. And so later it begins to unsettle him: “If I had a vision, why did it not seem Christian?” He doesn’t tell anyone else about his vision…most of us do not. People will think we are crazy.

Later his son decides to become a Catholic priest. The next Christmas his son is senselessly murdered on a street corner. He looks for miracles in the church, in his devotional practice, but does not find them there. He looks for a sign, and he wonders about the signs he has been given. Yet he continues on some kind of search. At some point the question becomes whether he can or should forgive the man who killed his son.

If only he had a sign. If only we had a sign. Maybe the world is filled with them. Mostly they pass us by, like mile markers, but sometimes we slow down, or something slows us down, something gets our attention. Waiting in the barber shop, listening to guys talk about Tiger Woods. What does all of that mean? It’s like the Proverb, “pride goes before a fall.” Or watching the Ken Burns series on our National Parks. It’s like the prophecy of Isaiah, “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory”. Or sitting in a movie theater, and in the story a big teenager is walking down the street in the rain, an affluent couple in their SUV pass by, but then, they turn around, and it is like Moses and the burning bush.

They change his life, he changes their lives; they could have missed it, the gifts in this seemingly troubled boy, the prejudices in their seemingly moral and even religious community. We all have our blind sides that keep us from seeing the sign. Jesus said a lot about signs in the gospels. Our spiritual blindness, our hardness of heart, our deafness to the Voice.

The Christmas gospel is always asking us: Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? This will be a sign for you.

Nicholas Kristof is one of my favorite journalists. He writes for the New York Times, most eloquently about global poverty. He recently gave this advice for saving the world. He said, to get the world’s attention you can’t talk about overwhelming statistics, we can’t grasp them anyway, and we don’t know what to do with them. You focus on one girl who has been the victim of sexual trafficking, on one man whose life is threatened because he does not have access to health care. God wants to change the world, and so God does not come with a grand theory of everything, or as the most powerful ruler. Christmas narrows our focus and shifts our attention to an out of the way village, Bethlehem.

To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, preaching on this very text five hundred years ago, sensed the clarity: “The gospel does not simply say Christ is born, but to you he is born. Neither does it say I bring glad tidings, but to you I bring glad tidings of great joy…This will be a sign for you.

And so the greatest gift is love and the sign is the Christ-child. It is supernatural, in that it flows from heaven to earth, and yet it is human in that God chooses to reveal himself to us, God is almost hidden in plain sight. In one of my favorite novels, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather writes:

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles. One might almost say that an apparition is human vision corrected by divine love. I do not see you as you really are…I see you through my affection for you. The Miracles of the Church seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always”.

Of course, this is the mystery of Christmas, of Christianity, of life. We are loved. Finally, Mr. Ives forgives, in a simple and straightforward way, and he is the sign.

For a number of years I served as a minister in a large church in another city. Like Providence, we had a number of Christmas Eve services, and 1500-2000 people would flow through the sanctuary on this evening. For the first three years, I would be in the office a couple of days later, covering end-of-the-year work and recovering from the season and a particular person, a woman would come to see me. Throughout the remainder of the year I knew her to be a steady and gracious member of the church. But this meeting was always different. She would ask to see me, and, almost as if she were following a script, she would launch into what I can only describe as a rant about two things, both related to Christmas Eve: the bread crumbs on the sanctuary carpet, and the candle wax on the sanctuary pews.

I listened, I commiserated, I nodded. At the same time I wondered, “how could she miss it, how could she miss the meaning of it?” It did take me some time---three to four years---to come to understand that there was more going on here than crumbs and wax. I would learn that she was the daughter of an alcoholic parent. Christmas was always difficult for her. The signs were hidden from her sight, and this was mostly not her fault. We figured that out together. We would see each other, the same time next year and following, to have a different conversation.

Sometimes we push so hard. We just need to pull. So brothers and sisters, listen to your life. In every waking moment, God is still speaking, God is still showing up. All of life is a sacrament, every bush is a burning bush, all ground is holy ground. The crumbs are the bread of life, the candle is the light of the world. A child is a gift. That scar, that grief, that imperfection is the sign of the cross.

Let us pray: Give us eyes to see you. Give us minds to know you. Give us hearts to love you. Give us hands to serve you; in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sources: Jeremy Troxler, “Coming Soon”, Nicholas Kristof, “Advice for Saving the World”, Outside, 12/09. Frederick Buechner, Now and Then. Dean Nelson, God Hides in Plain Sight. Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop. Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

a christmas eve prayer for those who don't go to church

Lord, I don't go to church much.
I don't go at all...well, I go at Christmas.
I'm home then.
I feel drawn to it.
I like the Christmas Eve service,
the coolness of the air.
I feel like a kid again...It's surreal.

I know folks make fun of people like me.
What can I say? I've drifted...but there is a pull back.
Are You saying something to me?

I hear something in the sermon, sometimes,
but mostly it's the music and the candles.
What is it about those candles?
And the darkness?
The's the light, I suppose.
Light and darkness.

I know about light and darkness.
I live in both.
I've got some of both in me.
I'm basically a good person, but I struggle...
I know about light and darkness.
But I want to be closer to the light.
I want to light that candle and sing those songs.

And in the dark street shineth, the everlasting light.

I would like to live in that light, Lord.
I would like to meet Jesus.
Maybe what I'm saying is that I would like to be born again...
maybe that's what Christmas really means.

Monday, December 14, 2009

anxiety to peace (philippians 4. 4-7)

Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Joy is a prominent theme in Philippians. The word joy or rejoice occurs twelve times in this brief letter. The persistence of joy is somewhat remarkable, given the circumstances: Paul is writing from a prison cell, there are realities within the church that disturb him----there is envy and rivalry among preachers of the gospel (can you imagine?), there is even a specific directive to two women in the Philippian church to “get along”, to “agree in the Lord”.

The deadly sin of pride and the human experience of conflict were present in the earliest churches. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Philippian church was one of the healthier congregations in the first century, compared to the church at Corinth, which was a mess. A particular sign of this health was a gift they had sent to Paul, and the primary occasion of the letter is to say thank you.

Amidst all of this, Paul rejoices, and commands his readers, us to rejoice. If you read Philippians closely, and I encourage you to do this, the focus on joy is rather amazing: joy in the face of impending death (chapter one); joy in the midst of suffering (chapter two); joy in the experience of sacrifice and letting go (chapter three); and joy quite apart from external conditions (chapter four). I know what it is to have abundance and I know what it is to be in need, Paul writes. And yet, he says, rejoice.

The great theologian Karl Barth of the last century regarded Joy in Philippians as the defiant nevertheless. One of my favorite cartoons has two monks seated together, dressed in their habits. One says to the other, “Apart from piles, varicose veins, a hernia and leprosy, God’s been very good to me”.

Joy in Philippians, joy in the Christian life is often a defiant “nevertheless”. The joy, he insists, is “in the Lord”, who is near. This is the promise that keeps us going, the Advent promise of a joy to the world, the vision of a future where we will lift high the candles in the midst of the present darkness.

Rejoice in the Lord always, always…a strong statement. Is this possible? It helps to distinguish joy from happiness. Happiness is a human pursuit; joy is a divine gift. William Sloane Coffin, the great preacher at the Riverside Church insisted that “Joy is not the denial of happiness but its foundation”. Joy is a deeper reality, less tied to external circumstances. Thus Paul can rejoice, even in prison. Is he happy? Most likely not. Is he joyful? Yes.

Rejoice in the Lord always….let your gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near. The Greek word for gentleness is a complex one: it can mean patience, moderation, steadiness. It refers to qualities of being relaxed and open. It has about it a sense of being with people, working with them, seeing life through their eyes, walking in their shoes. And our relationships with each other are always bound together with our connection to the God who is with us, the promise of Emmanuel, the Word becoming flesh.

And then, Paul’s spiritual guidance to the Philippians and to us:

Have no anxiety about anything,
But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
Let your requests be made known to God.

Have no anxiety about anything…Paul is reflecting here on the destructiveness of anxiety, a word that is relevant to most every one of us. It echoes a teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not be anxious about your life…”. What is anxiety? For many it is the free-floating sense that conditions that are beyond our comprehension that we are not in control. The sources of anxiety might be the family we grew up in, the uncertainty of our financial circumstances, or fears about what is happening or might happen to our children or our parents. Anxiety is real. And yet, thanks to technology, we have become a chronically-anxious nation---think of cable news, financial news, medical and terrorism alerts. There is a low level but almost universal chronic anxiety, and to breathe the air is to experience it.

So what is the scripture saying---have no anxiety about anything? I don’t think Paul is urging us to live in denial, to bury our heads in the sand. He is certainly not suggesting that we ignore the needs of others, which we display a lack of compassion.

I think he is talking about the destructiveness of anxiety. One of the most helpful persons along the way to me in understanding anxiety was a rabbi named Ed Friedman, who lived and taught in the Washington, D.C. area. Friedman talked about anxiety on a continuum. We all carry some of this inside of us, to a greater or lesser degree. Many of us get stuck in a kind of anxiety, and we can we become overwhelmed by it. He insisted that “our capacity to remain connected, without cut-off relationships, makes us less anxious”. And to take it one step farther, “our capacity to avoid over functioning---not taking responsibility for what is beyond our control---reduces our anxiety and leads to our healing”.

How do we live without anxiety? In everything by prayer and supplication-- or petitions--with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. We establish a connection. We are silent before God, we speak honestly with God about what we need, we give thanks to God.

This is the spiritual life, the inner life---silence, petition, gratitude. What do I need? I can only answer that question when I have spent some time in reflection. For what am I grateful? I can only answer that question when I have spent some time in reflection. To ask God is to believe in an unseen power who provides in the future. To give thanks to God is to believe in an unseen power who has provided in the past. Our over functioning is often the symptom of a deeper question, in its extreme a practical atheism---do we really believe in a God who is real, do we trust in a God who intervenes?

In prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
Let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

In this brief passage there is a progression. How do we move from anxiety to peace? In the words of the hymn, we “take it to the Lord in prayer”. This is a lifelong process; it is, in the words of last week’s sermon, “the slow work of God”. The God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it. This is a gift from God, but one that also requires our participation; “Let there be peace on earth”, another hymn says it well, “and let it begin with me”.

How do we make peace with who we are and where we are in this life? This was the core issue for Paul. It is the gift of God, but one that requires our participation. Paul writing later in Philippians 2. 12-13:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
For God is at work in you, to will and to act for his good purpose.

The agenda---the movement from anxiety to peace--- is our work…but God is at work in us.

A friend shared this experience with me recently: a woman had an advanced diagnosis of cancer with months to live. She was facing death with an increasing serenity, but one day a friend checked in on her and found her to be unusually distressed and anxious. A diamond ring of hers was missing, and she feared the housekeeper might have stolen it.

The friend, who was a spiritual director to her, asked her to think about four questions:

1. Do you realize you will have to let go of it at some point, perhaps quite soon?
2. How much more time do you need before you will be willing to let it go?
3. Will you become less when you let go of it?
4. Has who you are been diminished by the loss?

Regarding anxiety and peace, it is good to investigate our relationship to the world of things, particularly the things we “possess”.

The woman grew more ill and began to give more things away, and some of these gifts were to the woman she thought might have stolen her ring. Over time she became more and more filled with joy. “Now I understand something Jesus said that never made much sense to me before”, she reflected. “If someone takes your shirt, let them have your coat as well”.

This is the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. It is letting go of something, and maybe what we let go of is that which makes us most anxious---a compulsion to perfectionism, an anger or a resentment, an envy or a jealousy---and there are clues that these were struggles in the life of the Apostle Paul himself---we let go of something to make a place for the gifts of God: hope, peace, joy. In the words of the carol, “the dear Christ enters in”.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul intentionally chooses a military word here—will “guard” your hearts and minds”. We imagine the apostle, in a prison cell, being watched by a guard, and seeing this as a parable---in the same way faith allows us to withstand pressures that are external to us, it secures us.

To experience the peace that surpasses all understanding is to know that hope is more than optimism, peace more than getting along, joy more than pleasure. Indeed, hope may be present in despair, peace in conflict, and joy amidst great suffering.

The persistence of joy bears witness to the power of the gospel, which is finally our path from anxiety to peace. At a practical level this is our capacity to remain connected to each other and to God---

We are connected to a worshipping community that sends a different message than the chronically anxious chorus of our culture.

We are connected to a body of Christ that, at its best, is a community of grace and forgiveness.

But we are also and ultimately connected to the One who is always with us and for us--- Jesus, who is himself the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.

"O come, thou Dayspring,
come and cheer our spirits by thy justice here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And deaths dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice, rejoice,
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel."

Sources: Edwin Friedman, Generation to Generation. The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, Volume I. Karl Barth, Epistle to the Philippians. The United Methodist Hymnal. Thanks to Leighton Ford an additional insight into this sermon.

Friday, December 04, 2009

everything i needed to know about the ministry i learned by watching "monk"

1. Adrian Monk is a contemplative. He pays attention to his environment. He looks. He listens.
2. Monk establishes appropriate boundaries. He has a clear sense of who he is, and what he can tolerate, in relation to others.
3. Monk is a wounded healer. He has been through a traumatic experience, and yet he somehow continues to be of service to others.
4. Monk is willing to stand alone, in his convictions, when these go against the grain of most everyone around him.
5. Monk attends to the importance of memory and ritual.
6. Monk surrounds himself with people who are able to do what he cannot do.
7. Monk is trying to solve the really great question in his life.

A pastor could learn a great deal from Adrian Monk. Indeed, I have. Goodbye, Mr. Monk.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

the gospel of peace (luke 1. 79)

By the tender mercy of our God
the dawn from on high
will break upon us
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet in the way of peace.

Luke 1. 79

My prayer for you today is that the light would shine in dark places to give you a sense that all will be well. Advent is surely the experience in our own lives of the darkness of a troubled night giving way to the rising of the sun. It may not even be a stretch to say that it is also an opening of the tomb before the reality of resurrection life.

Jesus, the coming Messiah, would be called the “prince of peace” (Isaiah 9. 6). Jesus, the resurrected Lord, says three times, “peace be with you” (John 20. 19, 20, 26).

Surely, we pray for the peace of the Lord in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel. Surely, we pray for the peace of the Lord among estranged groups within our own country. Surely, we pray for the peace of the Lord in our own lives.

For this very purpose the Messiah comes:

To guide our feet in the way of peace.