Sunday, December 28, 2014

Old People at Christmas

There is something quite wonderful about experiencing Christmas through the eyes of a child. But Luke thought it important that we, likewise, experience Christmas through the eyes of old people, too. And so he tells the story of two old people ­– battered, refined, shaped by years of disappointment – who kept showing up and growing up, until one day all they had been promised took the form of an eight day old baby boy.

Simeon was waiting. You don’t get old and useful without, at the same time, getting good at waiting. God had given him a promise – and then, he had to live with it. The nature of faith is the nature of knowing more than you can see. Simeon, trained by years of doing the right thing, shaped by decades of devotion, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, was someone God thought trustworthy enough to carry the promise. I imagine that there were some difficult days when devotion was all that kept him going. But, when Mary and Joseph did bring Jesus to Temple, Simeon was on task – trained to faithfulness through disappointment.  How else could it have been?

He wasn’t just waiting around – he was waiting with expectancy, with an undefined openness to what God might be up to, leaving the timing of things in God’s hands. Each day closer to death was a day closer to promise kept – so Simeon kept living every day, showing up in his own life, not letting disappointment sideline him in bitterness. So, when the time came – he was ready. Old people keep hope alive through difficult days – reminding of the character of the Promiser, living in the reality of the not yet.

But old people are nothing if not realists – especially when the lights of Christmas can overwhelm with fantasy. He made it clear to Mary that this boy was going to break her heart. That many in Israel, rather than welcoming Him, would reject Him. There is bad news in the good news – old people tell it like it is. Maybe she could hear it from Simeon because in his eyes she saw something of the pain that waiting had shaped in him.

Just then, Anna hobbles onto the scene – and immediately starts laughing and dancing like the little girl faith had shaped in her heart. A conservative calculation puts her waiting at right around sixty years. Sixty!! Sixty years formed by worship, fasting, and prayer enabled her usefulness in her eighty-fourth year! If we could have asked her, I think she might have said that she had nothing better to do. Really. Then the school girl’s worship gives way to the grandma’s authoritative witness to anyone who would listen – “this is the One!!”

Anna and Simeon didn’t get old and useful overnight. They didn’t get old and useful by accident. They didn’t get old and useful by simply passing the years. They grew into people whom God could trust with His great story by showing up every day in their own lives, by being devoted in worship, prayer, fasting, generosity of heart – by being filled with the Holy Spirit. Perhaps that is the gift of old people at Christmas.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


Seeing the deep bleak darkness
     of our chosen night
     destructive power driven
          by fear
     each terrified thrashing
          tightening the shackles
          of despair

     and so
          almost from the beginning

Until now
     we are
     tangled in self-destruction
     fallen short
          of the glory
               of the wonder
                    of us.

          would be relief.

Whatever would be
     enough to cut the
     cords which
     bind us?

Whatever would be
     enough to drive out
     the fear which
     drives us?

Whatever would be…

 “In the fullness of time
     God sent forth His

     is love born

What might God know
     about love
     that I have
     yet to learn?

Sunday, December 21, 2014


His story can easily get missed in the wonder of angel’s song and silent nights, but it is a story worth telling. He shows up, almost exclusively, in parts of the first two chapters of Matthew – who characteristically suggests more than he states. The first hint of the unusual comes when, at the end of the genealogy leading to Jesus, Matthew breaks form and lists Joseph as, “the husband of Mary.” In the patriarchal culture of first century Palestine, it is worth noting. He will forever be identified as connected to Mary – a connection which, as the story proceeds, he appears comfortable with. He has nothing to prove. Perhaps God can only trust those with nothing to prove.

He is, we are told, a righteous man – a man marked over time by right actions. He can be counted on to do the right thing without thinking about it. So it is not surprising when he hears that his promised bride is expecting a baby by the Holy Spirit, that he seeks to remove himself from a situation for which he feels less than qualified – and to do so in a way that would not shame Mary. It is possible that he is setting her aside because he didn’t believe her story – but it seems at least as likely that he is setting himself aside because he did. It is the angel who clarifies our understanding of Joseph’s heart – he is afraid. Not angry. Not disappointed. Not heartbroken. Afraid.

That fear – that awe – is the appropriate foundation for the first explicit reference in the New Testament to what is really going on in the birth of Jesus – so named because Joseph named him with the revelatory understanding that He, Jesus, would save his people from their sins! From their sins!  This was not on anyone’s radar screen. They were looking for a deliverer – a savior – but from Roman oppression! Joseph’s awe-filled righteousness enabled him to be the first man God trusted with the news of a salvation going deeper than political deliverance.

In what becomes a statement characteristic of Joseph, he “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” Three times this is said of him. This obedience both arises from and helps frame his righteousness. His obedience leads him to set aside whatever agenda or plan he might have had for his life – everything else took a distant second to the care for his wife and the baby. He, a nobody from the backwoods of northern Israel, ended up in Egypt – because he was obedient – and returned for the same reason.

What kind of man is it whom God can trust?  A righteous man. A man who lives in awe of God. A self-controlled man. An obedient man. A selfless man. A courageous man. A faith-full man. A man like Joseph.

Perhaps it was from watching Joseph in his loving care for Mary that Jesus learned how to treat His Bride.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Being Thankful

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he was concerned that they, living as they did in “evil” times, not miss a single moment of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. To do so, to live as if life were nothing more than the passing of moments, would be to live foolishly – to live as if there was no God. The alternative to which he challenges them is to live wisely, taking advantage of every moment, understanding in that moment what the way of the Lord was. He suggests that, in order to do this, they need to avoid distractions and, instead, be being filled with the Holy Spirit, reinforced by communal and personal worship.

He then goes on to suggest that giving thanks to God ought form the foundation of the life of wisdom – it is what will enable wise walking, especially in evil days. It is worth considering how giving thanks, leading to being thankful, might contribute to wise living.

At the very least, the act of giving thanks to God orients us to Him in a posture of dependence. Just that simple recalibration in a culture of rugged and ragged independence makes a difference – we are who and what we are because of our dependence on God. This is true whether we acknowledge it or not. Thanksgiving acknowledges – and celebrates – this reality!

Thanksgiving then gives us a more holistic perspective – we see things from a very different vantage point. We are not simply stuck in the moment to moment grind of time – we are part of a community, formed by love, spoken into being – identified as beloved. Like the one leper who returned, thanksgiving moves us to a wholeness that surpasses healing. That connection with God as Father, connects us with others who are, like us, His children. Thanksgiving can now be freely shared; it becomes the lingua franca of the way of wisdom, and a primary way of witness to our deep hope.

Far from ignoring painful reality, thanksgiving fully engages it and makes it the subject of our thanks. We do not waste a moment of suffering and pain, lifting each of them – with thanksgiving – to God. He is the only one able to redeem them, even if He does not always alleviate them. Thanksgiving enables us to be fully present in each of the moments of our lives and, at the same time, be fully present to the eternity which is crashing into those moments (for those who have eyes to see). We have the ability to resist the culture of despair by bearing witness to life and hope! Cynicism loosens its smugly fearful, icy grip, warmed by winds of thanks.

This all sets us on a good foundation. We can live without expectations – but with expectancy. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. But we have been trained by thanksgiving to be thankful, and are wise enough to live with open hands, ready to receive ­– with capacity – whatever might come.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Something About Water

There is something about a landscape shaped by and around fresh water - lakes, rivers, streams. The green that comes from an abundance of naturally occurring water is different than that produced by regular irrigation, no matter how generous. Cities shaped by water have trees in micro-forests and groves that are marked by a natural symmetry unmatched by the most skillful of landscape architects. The sloppy randomness which characterizes nature is beyond computer simulation. 

I noticed this flying out of Chicago recently. It was my first time in the city – and I only saw the inside of the airport – but the abundance of trees out the window caught my eye. The city I grew up in was, likewise, given form by water as two mighty rivers, birthed in the Rockies a hundred miles away, joined and gave shape to the city. Everyone knew what "north" and "south" were defined in reference to. Life around water has a different texture, a different feel. Having spent most of my adult life in place where fresh water is less naturally occurring, where almost every tree is a strategic decision, where circles of green mark the reach of irrigation, where brown is backdrop, it is striking to be so viscerally reminded of home.

The city is shaped by water in another way as rivers form natural barriers which development has to take into account. From the air, even an untrained eye notices the ways in which infrastructure takes its cue from the ancient waterways. The city exists because of its proximity to water, the ancient ways giving shape to the modern ways. Rivers are like that, it seems – you have to take them into account, they tend to be unconcerned about the urban plan. They define the real without regard to the ideal - and their life spreads in broad, meandering paths.

And flying over a mostly brown landscape, it is very easy to trace the paths of underground streams by the ribbons of green slicing across the landscape. One look, and even the casual observer knows where there be life - and the source of life.

No wonder the psalmist likened the one immersed in the word and words of the Lord to a tree, planted by a stream, roots going down deep, bearing fruit in due season, leaf without wither. Water, even deep underground, brings life to the surface.

Saturday, June 21, 2014


I was told once
     long ago
that the deep fear
     was of being
          of no consequence
          leaving no mark
     like a hand
          withdrawn from
          a bowl of water
          in seconds
               no sign of

And I believe it to be true.

So much of my life
     has been taken up
     with trying to do
     things that make a
     That is the way
          to significance
          to impact
          to imprint.

But most of my doing
     bears the marks of
          my fear.

     How could it be other
     when that is its source?

     But appearance
     is not reality.

     So fear is

Apparently, Jesus was right.
     Apart from Him…

I don’t choose fruitlessness.
     But that is what I get
     when I choose to do,
     out of fear of

I can’t choose fruitfulness.
     But I can choose what
          leads to it.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Challenge of Attending to Death – or Anything Else

A couple of months ago, I decided to observe Lent by giving time every day to the consideration of the day of my death. I had hoped, thereby, to prepare my heart for the wonder of the Easter season, knowing that the soul which does not embrace the reality of death is unable to fully grasp the wonder of life – much less, resurrection life.

It was more challenging than I expected.

The daily grind wore down my resolve quickly. I discovered, again for the first time, how difficult it is to be where I am, and to pay attention to what is needful in the moment. I am distracted by trivial things – tasks to be done some other time or not at all, inane questions come and gone without answer, curiosity piqued but not long enough to be satisfied… so it goes, day after day after day. And then there are the endless streams of must-sees on social media – videos that promise a tear or a life-change or a moment’s laughter – articles exposing the shenanigans of Washington or Wall Street – the latest exposé out of Hollywood. And, perhaps most sadly, the vicious takedowns of disciples of Jesus by other disciples of Jesus who have apparently concluded that the former are a menace to the Kingdom and must be shamed for all their ostensible embrace of heresy.

I discovered that it takes a lot of energy to pay attention.

What was happening around me seemed always more interesting than what was happening in me. No wonder conforming is easier than transforming. An idea, even a good one, has little chance against a ringing bell. A thought, not yet formed to idea, even less. I suppose that someday I will have gotten good enough at paying attention that the distractions will not be so distracting. But, until then, I am thinking that silence around is the best environment to hear the silence within.

This would suggest that absence is the best preparation for presence – that separation is necessary for engagement – that distance makes way for intimacy. It is only in being still, that we will come to know.