Monday, December 30, 2013

Present :: Luke 2:22-37

Peripheral people fascinate me. Those who stand just on the edge of moment – who play a small part in wonder – who witness or ask or point. And because they show up, we see and know in new ways. Peripheral people are not the center; they are supporting, sometimes minor, characters. They help us with transitions, with gaps, with course corrections, with just enough light at just the right moment. And then, duty done, they are gone.

Maybe its because I am increasingly partial to old people who still show up for work – but among my favorite peripheral people are Simeon and Anna. They appear in a few scant verses in Luke’s introduction to the story of Jesus. Then, part played, they are gone, their whole life focused into one single moment, one flash of revelatory lightning.

He shuffled towards them, an old man all but dancing with excitement, sandals softly slapping the ancient temple stone floor, rheumy eyes, black as charcoal but alive with the fire burning inside, riveted on the boy. Decades of waiting might have dulled the vision of other watchers, but not his. His was sharpened by hope, by expectancy. Every day since hearing the voice closer to him than his own breath whisper promise of life until Life, he had been alert to wonder. And this day, drawn to temple by that same voice, he finds himself watching as wonder is carried towards him ­– a six week old baby boy.

Eyes sharpened by the Spirit, he sees past their disqualifying poverty, and rejoices in promise kept, in duty done, in journey now ended with one prophetic rush of celebration… and warning. Promise comes – but with pain.

Then comes Anna, her voice no less important for its brevity,  no less needed for its gender. Every day and, often, as night turned to day, she was found here. Single hearted, focused hope; 84 years of looking forward collapse into this one moment of looking present. Here… now… Hope. 6 weeks old.

This is the One. Their duet soars through the ages. Hope has been born! We have seen Him.

Amazing to think what might happen one day when you show up, day after day, and mind your own business. And Who might be missed if you don’t.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Taking Christ Out of Christmas

 I think I understand the concern some folks have about substituting generic holiday greetings for Christmas greetings or replacing Christ in Christmas with an X. The latter is now more often understood as the unknown of algebra than the ancient Christian symbol using the Greek letter with which the name “Christ” begins. And the former symbolizes the apparent move to complete the secularization – for purposes of ostensibly non-offensive marketing – of a primarily religious holiday. Frankly, though, I am not sure that responding to a clerk’s, “Happy Holidays” with a snarling, snapping, “Merry Christmas!!” is the best way to redeem the season. That aside, is it possible to think about this whole thing another way?

Maybe the big problem with Christmas is not so much in the words we speak or the symbols we use as it is in way we isolate and enshrine it. The story of the Incarnation – the Word made flesh and dwelling among us – the coming of God to be with us and for us – can often get lost in the holiday-zation of a holy-day. No less for Christians than for others. The point of holy days is not the creation of a shrine in time, which we regularly visit with appropriate seasonal wonder, but the redeeming of all time. Perhaps we make the manger and its cast of characters the centerpiece – and miss the point.

It is appealing, in many ways, to simply leave Jesus safe in the manger where we might come and visit – or where we might even come and adore and bow down and worship – but which we may then leave to go about our business. No fear – we’ll be back for another sentimental visit next year. Of course none of us does that. At least not on purpose. But I wonder if we do that accidently. We become more enthralled in the wrappings than awed by the wonder of Christmas. And we forget to take Christ out of Christmas to be Immanuel – to be God with us – to be Word made flesh and tenting in our back yard.

So, a suggestion. Enjoy the Day – the Holy Day – for all its worth. Sing, laugh, eat, drink, enter into the wonder made real in family and friends. Give and receive gifts. Wear festive clothing. Welcome the stranger.

But then, the next day, take Christ out of Christmas to walk you in your ordinary, everyday, walking around life. Invite Him to be, truly, God with You.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Weakness of Outrage

The week started with an explosion of somewhat disingenuous outrage over the final fade of Hannah Montana as Miley proved once again that the harder child stars try to prove themselves adults, the less likely they are to be anything but caricatures thereof, regardless of their talent. The disingenuity arose out of failure to similar outrage at the spectacle of her married dance partner “blurring the lines”. A word which, heretofore, most of us seemed able to get along without, made its way like a brain worm into the common consciousness.

The back and forth in the blogosphere and the parasitic entertainment media guaranteed a level of notariety which was clearly the point all along. Who would have imagined that Miley could out-Gaga, Gaga – as Gaga out-Madonna’d Madonna? Publicity, positive or negative, is the only goal. It was a take no prisoners approach. Well played, Miley. Sadly so. Once again, we have done this to you with our incessant demands for more shock as entertainment. And, we have done this to ourselves.

The gears of outrage continued to grind throughout the week but shifted, slowly and somewhat reluctantly, to a new cause by week’s end. Estimates vary, but somewhere approaching 100,000 Syrians have died at the hands of their own government in their faltering opposition to Assad’s failed regime. There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing over the past several months and more than a few tongues wagging and tut-tutting. But the recent allegations of chemical warfare, with hints of supportive evidence, have provided escape velocity to the public outrage. Something must now be done by someone!! Soon!! China and Russia walked out, effectively guaranteeing little more than continuing outrage from the United Nations. Britain dropped out of the forming coalition, leaving the United States and France to be the someones to do something.

The bookends of last week underline an important truth – outrage is neither strategy nor action. Harumphing at whatever volume is not engagement. But it creates the impression of action, of caring. And that, it seems, is enough for us.

But citizens of the Kingdom are reminded, yet again, that principalities and powers are at work in these two flesh and blood moments. And that realization makes action steps clear. First and last – and always – we pray. Then, taking on the defensive armor provided, we hold the ground assigned to us. Prayer is our most effective offense in times like these. After we have prayed, we may be assigned to, or choose, additional action – but until we have prayed, we have done nothing strategic in the coming of the Kingdom. For which, in times like these – and all times are like these – we pray.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Forgiveness :: Grace Actualized

When Moses wants to know more of God, his humility makes God’s response possible – and we learn that God is characterized by loving kindness and tender mercy. The two Hebrew words behind those phrases function like twin North stars throughout the rest of the Old Testament, guiding the children of Israel, and anyone reading over their shoulder, to the truth about God. Nowhere does that truth come more into focus than in the person of Jesus – the Word made flesh, dwelling among us. In fact, John says, those same two words provide the sum and substance of Jesus: Grace and Truth.

Those wild and wonderful and challenging words have a life of their own – so God puts them into action, summed up in one word: forgiveness. Forgiveness is grace actualized, truth embodied, kindness embodied, mercy enfleshed… Love with skin on. The Psalmists celebration in Psalm 130 echoes deeply, “If you, oh LORD, kept a record of sins, oh Lord, who could stand? But, with You, there is forgiveness; therefore, you are held in awe.”

Forgiveness is God’s primary orientation to us – He acts to forgive before we know to ask; His acting makes our asking possible – and repentance flows out of the wound of kindness. Jesus naturally prays out of the same heart on the cross – and we are the beneficiaries of His prayer, receiving the forgiveness of the Father.

But forgiveness is not just how God relates to us – it is how He expects us to relate to ourselves, and to those around us. Jesus makes this clear in the Lord’s Prayer by linking our being forgiven with our forgiving, reinforcing it with strength. Forgiveness becomes our primary way of orienting ourselves to people like us – flawed, failing, flailing, wounding others having been wounded ourselves, and suffering the wounds of others wounded. Forgiveness is perfect for people like us – it is the only way to move past the small and great hurts that are inevitable in community.

We are never more like Christ, never more the Image of God, then when we forgive. Forgiving is a fundamental part of learning to Rule in Jesus’ Name – relating to others as Jesus would, were He us. Forgiveness has the property of healing – absorbing the pain and shame of the wounded, isolating and ending the toxic cycle of revenge. To forgive well, we must know who we are, and Whose we are. But then, the sky is the limit!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Wonder Unfurling

I am sitting on the small patio of our new home. It is overcast and comfortably cool – perfect for hot coffee and a good book and the stillness of a Sunday afternoon with nothing to do but nothing. And plenty of guiltless time to do it. It is a book that invites pauses – but not deep reflection. A wonderful story by an author who writes such delightful sentences that I occasionally find myself laughing out loud – not simply for the great good humor, but for the way of words still to surprise, to entertain. His sentences alternate crisp, punchy dialogue with long, meandering paragraphs taking the reader to places that are at once unknown and familiar. Capturing in a phrase the subtle shift of emotion a raised eyebrow signals. Luxuriating in the deep beauty of a small flower garden, surrounded by ancient stone walls. To read is to join in a wonder unfurling.

In one of those pauses, I notice our plumeria. It has made the move with us and now sits in a place of pride, anchoring the tiny garden bordering the patio on which I sit. This is its second move so, if history repeats, it will go into a stage of dormancy while adjusting to the new surroundings – but right now it is in full leaf with flowers just beginning to unfurl. There are a few fragrances that have the power of transportation – and plumeria is one of them. In a couple of days, the pale yellow flowers will have the ability to take me to Maui or Kaua’i in a moment – for a moment. Such a delicate, sweet, headiness. Aromatherapy in a plastic pot. The fragrance of a wonder unfurling.

Not five feet away is a tree that appears to be part of the eucalyptus branch of the family –its bark telling the story of growth from the inside out. Splits, cracks, sheets – history in bark. The emerging of a wonder unfurling.

And how much more the children playing in the pocket park across the street, or the couple walking their dogs, or the rhythm and scrape of the approaching skateboard, or smell of bar-b-que signalling dinner, or the gentle breeze caressing and teasing the leaves overhead, dappling the sunlight. Wonders all. Unfurling.

There is much to reflect on – displacements, injustices, racism played loud in stereo, the deaths of innocents.

But, for this moment, on this day, it is enough to consider wonder. And rejoice in its unfurling.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Let the Wind Blow

There are places in scripture, many of them, where the text is so dense and thick with meaning concealed so artfully in a great story that the casual reader is apt to miss much of what is going on. In both volumes of his work, Luke has demonstrated himself capable of both broadsides of such power that the reader is almost overwhelmed coupled with such delicate moments that they almost disappear upon reading. And sometimes, both in the same text. Acts 2 is one such place. Pressed in to the four verses that mark the moment of the church’s first breath is a dazzling array of allusion that frames the event for his theological purpose – all the while telling the story of what actually happened with enormous restraint. (considering, that is, what actually happened!)

The day of Pentecost had shifted from a festival devoted to first fruits to one commemorating the receiving of Torah on Sinai – and it is this latter connection that Luke uses to make sense of the events. The parallels – the sound of a rushing, mighty wind coupled with the glory of God visible as fire – make the point that, in the events of Acts 2, God is breaking in to human history. It is this that Peter explains to the crowd of curious on-lookers – in these events, the last days to which they had looked forward for centuries have begun! The differences from Sinai make the point that, unlike that event, the gift of the Spirit and the Glory of God are now available to everyone – and, through them, to others. Both young and old, male and female, slave and free have full access to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. A truly new day has begun!

In another parallel, the confusion of languages, devised at Babel to limit human cooperation, is reversed so that all persons may hear and celebrate together the glories of God. A look at a map of the ancient near east on which the countries mentioned in Acts 2 are highlighted makes the point! This new community of the Spirit is instantly multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-racial, multi-generational – in a matter of seconds, the church is out of control and on the move! Instead of the nations coming to Jerusalem to share in the wonder of Torah given to God’s people, all of those filled with the Holy Spirit are God’s people – and are sent on mission to the far off world!

The response to Peter’s invitation to repent is equally striking – 3000 people are added to the church. The echo of the death count accompanying the coming of Torah as the people worshipped the Golden Calf while Moses communed with God is unmistakable. The Law kills. Literally. The Spirit gives Life. And keeps on giving.

Pentecost is not a day to remember. It must be more than a day on the church calendar. Pentecost is the very life of the church – and is best celebrated by living that life in vibrant, Spirit-filled witness to the fact and meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On this Pentecost Sunday, I find myself wanting more of Him – a deep desire, a longing, not just for power, but for the very Life of the Holy Spirit.

Let the wind blow!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Psalm 116:15

Today, Dallas Willard died. Just under four weeks ago, Brennan Manning died. It is impossible to describe what the loss of them means to me. Between them, my way of understanding Jesus and following Him changed – and, consequently, my way of understanding myself and everything around me. That is no exaggeration.

They both appeared about the same time – Dallas in Spirit of the Disciplines and Brennan in Ruthless Trust – as the 80’s became the 90’s, my 30’s becoming my 40’s. I had failed as a husband and as a pastor and was clinging to my following of Jesus – stubborness, really, born out of sheer terror. I maintained the shell of belief, but there was little inside to fuel the weekly performance. I still believed all the right things – but the foundations on which those beliefs rested had crumbled beyond repair.

Spirit of the Disciplines was assigned reading in a class taught by Roger Heuser, a gentle man who became a friend, and who embodied the life described. I didn’t understand the book the first two or three times though, but I had the sense that something very important was being said. Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that he was describing a way of following Jesus quite different than what I had been doing – and which had the promise of actually working. The basic key was the difference between trying, which I had been doing religiously and to little effect, and training, which he described in terms that seemed entirely doable. This sense was confirmed when, a few years later, I had the privilege of sitting in a two week doctoral seminar with Dallas – and saw the life he described lived out in our community. A gentle, wise, winsome man.

Ruthless Trust, on the other hand, erupted out of nowhere, grabbed on my out of the office, the serendipitous reading of a cold, rainy retreat day. Like all of his books that I have read since then, it portrayed a God I had not previously known – One who loved me passionately, deeply, and without regard to whether I lived up to His standards or not – and did so with great joy and not a little laughter. And, so, One who could be trusted radically. His life, too, was tattooed with the reality he lived – grace upon grace upon grace. Having the opportunity a few years later to listen to him roar belovedness to a chapel full of college students was a gift beyond describing – life giving water, nectar of God. He introduced me to a Jesus Who believed in me, and Who I could follow to death. And life.

In the years since, I have read those books again, as well as many of the others they each have written. Such different styles, such similar passion. The one, carefully scripted, each word carefully chosen, precisely defined, writing to slow the reader down, to make thoughtfulness necessary. The other, writing in rambunctious, flowing and overflowing sentences, rushing laughingly along, headlong over a waterfall of grace, pulling relentlessly at the remaining shreds of fear – Yes, He really is THAT good! And, He believes in you!

“How precious – how costly – how heavy in the sight of the Lord, is the death of His saints.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dreams Too Tiny

looking nothing
     like life

no dreams
great enough
to move from
what is to
what will be

tiny dreams
to death
to appearance

but apparently

that seed
of death

gives birth
     to life

and of such
a wild kind
as to be
beginning as
it did

to see
what grows
from what is sown
demands dreams
not too tiny

Sunday, April 28, 2013

I Stand In Awe

Standing deeply
     before another
     one like us
          fully themselves.

If we only
     knew . . .

We see
     not looking

If we only
     knew . . .

We are
     put off
          by what we      
     and miss
          what we

If we only
     knew . . .

     standing before us
          one of the least
               His brethren
          A stranger
          One who will
               never die
          Glory disguised
as ordinary

And so we stand -
     and so we should -
          in awe.
     For who knows . . .
          . . . ?