Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Work of Christmas

The Work of Christmas
This is Christmas. This is Incarnation. No shepherds, no angels, no crèche, no Magi. John’s story is so utterly unlike the familiar crèche or pageant. How on earth could one make this, John’s story of the Incarnation, into a pageant? It begins before time itself.

Note the opening words: “In the beginning….” The first to hear or read John’s Gospel had heard these words before. The entire Bible begins with these words, “In the beginning God created….” Jesus’ origins are cosmic – at the very root of the universe, all that is, seen and unseen. And we now know that fully 95% of the created universe is unseen: dark matter and dark energy. Only 5% is anything at all like us, and animals, rocks and trees and stars and planets, etc. God’s creation is mostly unseen.

John puts Jesus, the Word, the Logos, present before anything was made. Before God said the word, “Light!” and there was light! God speaks and things come into being. Before God speaks, however there was the “Word.” In Greek that is logos – word.

But for Jews and Gentiles alike in the first century, this word logos meant more than what we think when we say “word.” For at least six centuries before Christ came into the world, logos had currency among philosophers and meant something like the principle of reason that ruled the universe. Logos could also describe the Hebrew idea of wisdom – hokma in Hebrew, sophia in Greek. According to the rabbis, wisdom was responsible for creation. So universal is this Word, this logos, that it is in everything that has been created. There is nothing “made that was made” that is not made through this Word. This is why we promise in our Baptism to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” Christ as logos is in all persons. And in all things. Thus our need to care for the Earth.

The Word is life, and this life is light, This light is a beacon of light that shines and cuts through all darkness – and darkness did not and has not overcome this light. That is there is evil, not just in people but in all the created order. Our redemption in and by the Word – the logos- is a vital part of a larger project – the redemption of the entire universe of God’s creation.

Yet, we who come from this Word, this logos do not readily recognize him. He comes to those of us who claim his name as our own – Christian- and yet we know him not. This continues to be a problem. Just look around us. Two Thousand Years of claiming his name as our own, and just how brilliantly does the world around us reflect this life giving light? In a world of ongoing brutalities – torture, killings, mass shootings, capital murder as retribution, bombings, not to mention hunger, loneliness, hatred, bigotry, poverty and rejecting strangers – can we really believe it pleases God to electrocute a human being? Or, to kill him with an injection? Do we truly believe we can bring about a greater good that reflects the life-light of God in the dark places in the world and in our own hearts through such ongoing brutalities? We are promised that all who do receive him, accept him, follow him, are given power to become “children of God.” We say we receive, accept and follow Jesus, the Word, but is this at all reflected in all that we do or say? Or, in all that is done or said on our behalf by others who claim to know, receive, accept and follow this Word?

It makes it all the more remarkable that this Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighborhood. The text literally says he “tabernacled among us.” That is, he pitched his tent, this Word, this logos, this divine wisdom, set up shop right in our midst despite our not knowing him. We are meant, of course, to recall that other time in our tradition’s past when God tabernacled among us in the tent of meeting in the wilderness – that place where “the glory of the Lord filled the tent.” Again we behold his glory!

For John, this is Christmas. The Word of God comes and pitches his tent to sojourn with us, giving us another chance to know, accept and follow him. We behold his glory. He adopts us as his own.

A story is told about some Navy Seals sent to free a group of hostages in one of the dark corners of the world. As they storm into the hiding place, they find the hostages huddled on the floor in a corner of the room. The Seals tell them they are there to take them home, get up and follow us. No one moves. They are so damaged by the experience of their captivity that they do not believe these are really people sent to set them free. So one of these Seals does something: he takes off his helmet, puts down his gun, gets down on the floor, softens his face and huddles up next to the captives, putting his arms around a few of them. No guards would do this. He whispers, “We are like you. We are here to be with you and to rescue you. Let us take you home. Will you follow us?” One by one the prisoners get up and are eventually taken to safety on an aircraft carrier and brought home.

Lots of rhetoric and ink has been spilled to explain the miracle of the incarnation – how it is God becomes one of us to take us home – to redeem us as a step in redeeming a broken world and broken universe. God sees us captive to many things, unwilling to simply step away from those things that keep us in prison – often prisons of our own making. In Jesus, God takes off all his glory, gets down on the floor with us, huddles up with us – tabernacles among us, pitches his tent among us – and whispers, “It is OK – I am with you – I am one of you now – come with me, follow me, and I will take you home.”

John tells us that the essence of Christmas does not need a creche, does not need shepherds, does not need angels, or greens, or red bows, or piles of gifts, or carols, or turkeys and roast beefs with all the trimmings. All Christmas needs is for us to know the Word, to accept the Word, to get up and follow the Word. There is no way we can ever know all there is to know about God – but in Christ, the logos, the Word, we can see the light and the logos, and He will lead us home. This is Incarnation. This is Christmas. It is time now, writes Howard Thurman, for the Work of Christmas to begin.
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 flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoners
To bring peace among brothers
To make music in the heart

                        -Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Christmas (War is Over)

Happy Christmas (War is Over)
We need to put the Christ back in Christmas I am told. We need to keep Christ out of the marketplace they say. The War On Christmas is back, they shout. As I ponder these things as we are told Mary ponders things in her heart I surprise myself as I find myself joining in a Scroogian, "Bah! Humbug!"

I may as well admit it: for years I would agonize on what to say on Christmas Eve. It needs to be just right to reach everyone, to touch hearts and set them on fire, to bring the Good News of Christmas alive. I would try so hard sometimes I would make myself sick - literally feverish, bed-ridden sick at just the thought of standing in front of a church full of parishioners, visitors, family and even total strangers, some just by the look in their eyes seeming to say, "Go ahead, try to make me care about this. Yes, I would rather be at, fill in in the blank: home, the party we had to leave early, the corner bar where everyone knows my name, out on the slopes....Give it your best shot!”

So just as I was beginning the annual panic attack I found myself in Towson, MD, with time to kill. Can you really kill time, you might ask? Does time even exist I might reply. So I grabbed a book, The Mood of Christmas, by Howard Thurman, long time chaplain at both Howard and Boston Universities, and an influential African American writer, theologian and civil rights leader.

I sat down at a small table in what used to be called Kenilworth Bazar and I think is now The Shops At Kenilworth. People were bustling around, buying gifts, looking at the magnificent Christmas Garden model trains, buying and eating slices of Pizza (note to self, be sure to get a slice soon), checking out Joe Bank for dads and the Fells Point Surf Shop, one of several pop-up shops for the holiday.

Thurman writes that Christmas is a mood, a quality and a symbol more than an historical event. The mood is set by thoughts and memories of people here and gone, an angel that crosses one's path, an iridescence that radiates sheer delight throughout the whole world. The quality is the fullness with which fruit ripens or flowers blossom, or a sunset over the mountains seen from the shores of the lake beneath. And the symbol is the brooding presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smoothed, tired hearts refreshed, while dead hopes stir with newness of life.

I think of my mother who moved on before Christmas last year. I was a confederate in her modest ritual of hope every week: "Please get me a ticket for the Mega Million this week. It’s up to 223 Million this week."  Dutifully I would purchase one for her and one for myself. We understood the odds, but someone has to win, right? It is as close as we ever had to an eschatolgical conversation, but it did sustain a modicum of hope however misplaced it might have been.

As I ponder all this I notice first a group of three, then another of four teenage girls walk by. These, however, are not the usual customers of the Bazar, but rather they all have those small white lace caps and long skirts Mennonites wear, with modest sneakers. No Jordan's to be seen. I look up to see more and more of these young women clutching what look like tattered music folders, while a group of young men set up a stage and sound system. Soon the mall is awash with the sounds of Oh Come All Ye Faithful from about 75 young men and women.

I ask a bearded gentleman nearby where they are from and he says, 'Lancaster, PA. They are going on from here to Keswick Care, The Helping Up Mission and other stops around Baltimore.  "Oh come, let us adore him, oh come let as adore him...." I think, where is this War on Christmas I keep hearing about? It was on the Opinion page of The Sun the other day. Angel sounds from girls in lace caps and boys in Dockers and jeans. No, there is no war on Christmas. He is here in the marketplace, he is here in their singing, he is here in the people who stop eating pizza to stand and do nothing but listen for however long it takes for the Lord to touch us.

"Glory to God in the Highest!" Suddenly without warning the mall is transformed into a mood, a quality, a symbol of Christmas. It is suddenly a way of being. It is a way of being not in the church, but beyond the doors of the church into the ordinary hum-drum activity of people anxiously scurrying about to get ready for the Big Day! Those church doors marked, by order of the Fire Marshall, "Exit" ought to read, "Entrance," for it is beyond those doors Christ calls us to enter the mission field, his people sent, apostles and proclaimers of the Good News of God in Christ by word and deed; everything we say and everything we do.

It is a way of being that is faithful to our story. Why is the story written the the way it is anyway? A couple, at least temporarily homeless, she pregnant, he looking for kinsfolk to put them up. The kid grows up not as a great and reputable citizen of Rome, but rather a non-citizen, a typical Jew, yet atypical in that he intentionally sits to share meals with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners and outcasts of every possible kind. What I am thinking is that if you wanted to make up a story that would really convince people that he is the Son of God wouldn't you make it up with a more majestic story line?

But this is the God of the marketplace after all. "Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding Joy!" Listen to these young people. They get on a bus all the way from Lancaster, PA, to perform this pop-up concert among the pop-up shops so that their love of Jesus can suspend time and space for a few moments. So that hearts will be touched, and people moved, and love and hope abound. He is here. He is always here in the market place. As one wag put it, just when you think the last word in the last sentence about Jesus has been read or spoken, someone in the back row stands up, raises a hand and says, "But what about....." The truth about Jesus is not that we can never be through with him, but in fact he is never through with us!

As I hear the familiar carols, as I think about my mother and father and sister and grandparents and aunts and uncles and Christmases past, as I think of all those agonizing nights before the night before Christmas, I realize that were Christ to come back right now, right here, right this minute he would not have one iota of interest about putting Christ back in Christmas! I believe he would be moved to see his mood, his quality, his symbols of hope and care and love for others, all others, alive and well in the marketplace and in the hearts of all those who know him, and more importantly, are known by him! He is all around us all the time, that in fact is the Good News! He is not finished with us yet!

Know my sisters and my brothers, Jesus calls you to be with him wherever you are
He calls you to know, he is here, even now
He calls you to do something beautiful with your life and bear much fruit
The World needs you, The Church needs you, Jesus needs you
They all need your love and your light
There is a hidden place in you heart where Jesus lives
This is a deep secret you are called to live
Let Jesus live in you! Go forward with him!

Since he promises to be with us always, to the end of the age, there is no way that he cannot be in Christmas. He is always in Christmas no matter what, and in every other day as well. Look around this room. Look around the mall. Wherever you look he is there and The Mood of Christmas is eternal.

Merry Christmas. God bless us everyone. Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Dr. Larycia Hawkins, from my home village of Oak Park, Illinois, currently a professor at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Liberal Arts school, has been suspended through the spring semester for explaining her Advent practice this year. A student had suggested to her that all female college students should wear the hijab, or headscarf, on flights home for the holidays to stand in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who are under increased discrimination and attack for doing so following the tragic attack in San Bernadino, CA, and the harsh campaign rhetoric that has flooded the airways. When challenged for wearing the hijab on campus her response, in part, was to quote Pope Francis who recently said that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. School administrators defended her suspension saying that her actions and explanation had profound theological implications, and that, "By placing her on leave, the school says it doesn't believe Muslims and Christians worship the same God," he said. "The college had no choice."

The Song of Mary, The Magnificat (Luke 1: 39-45), also contains profound theological implications which I would argue support Professor Hawkins in her chosen Advent Discipline. An angel of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Jesus and Muhammed addresses a young Israelite woman named Miriam. Miriam, of course, was also the name of Moses’ sister and prophet who helped lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt . It was Miriam who led the sisters in dancing and singing to celebrate their new found freedom in the Lord!

Our Miriam finds herself in a profoundly awkward and yet privileged situation. Unmarried, yet betrothed or engaged, she is told she will bear a child on behalf of God. Quite sensibly she responds, “How can this be?” She is told that with God all things are possible, that her cousin Elizabeth who had been barren (much like the Biblical Hannah, 1 Samuel chapters 1-2) was already with child, and that all shall be well. Miriam says, Yes, “…let it be with me according to your word.” It is on a visit with Elizabeth that the young Miriam sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior….”

This song, The Magnificat, goes on to lay out a dramatic set of reversals such as God bringing down the powerful, lifting up the lowly, sending the rich away empty, filling the hungry with good things, all according to “the promises he made to our ancestor Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It helps to remember his direct descendants are Isaac, the father of Jacob later named Israel, and Ishmael, Isaac’s brother and the accepted father of Islam. That is, all monotheists, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, are “descendants of Abraham forever.” Forever is a very long time.

Our story, then, is that God chose a young woman to give birth to the beginnings of a whole new world. And, she chose to accept the responsibility to do this new thing – to work with God to change the world as we know it.

I have been fortunate to know young women like Mary. At St. Timothy’s School for Girls, I met students from Afghanistan who are actively involved in changing the world they live in. One girl began blogging as part of the Afghan Women's Writer's Project as a young teen. We are all familiar with the efforts of Malala Yousafzai on behalf of education for young women throughout the world, but what we don’t know is that there are literally thousands of girls like Malala stepping out with great courage and faith doing things as powerful as blogging and writing essays and poetry and songs calling women to claim their rights, to things as simple as riding a bicycle through the streets of Kabul which, it turns out, is a prophetic action that in itself has the power to change lives and minds and attitudes toward women.

My friend, I will call her Sharifa, writes on her blog, “Most of the girls, including myself, had always thought that the only attitude we could expect from people, especially men, about girls biking in public in Kabul would be negative. However, we were wrong.

“On our second group bike ride in Darlaman, an old man stopped us. To be honest, all of us were scared, but he told us: “You girls raise Afghanistan’s flag. Foreigners will change their minds about Afghanistan when they see you biking around. Let me tell you something, I am in charge of that park right there and I am not allowed to let bicycles inside, but today is a good day, and I am proud of you so I can make an exception!”

In our Eucharistic Prayer we pray, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us…”

We see that in the thousands of women in Afghanistan writing at great risk to themselves and their families bringing about positive change in the world. We see that in Brittany "Bree" Newsome as she climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol. And we see that in women like Dr. Hawkins as she persists in her Advent discipline and witness to her Christ, the Jesus of the Magnificat, as she defends her her choice to wear the hijab in solidarity with those Muslim women everywhere who face danger and discrimination every day for simply practicing the traditions of some of the descendants of Abraham “forever.”

Whatever else The Song of Miriam, The Magnificat, may be about, it stands as a monument in poetry to the bravery of women everywhere throughout all time who not only magnify the Lord in word but in their everyday choices and actions.

I pray that Dr. Hawkins’ Advent practice will change the hearts, if not of her colleague administrators at Wheaton College, of people everywhere of all minds and traditions to look to the witness of young women all about us who call us to usher in a new world of justice and peace for all people – not some people, not a lot of people, not people just like us, but all people. For that is what truly will magnify the Lord and rejoice the spirits of all.


Afghan Women's Writers Project

Saturday, December 12, 2015

We Are Evergreen People

We Are Evergreen People

“The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” –Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Or, as Stanley Hauerwas might put it, Christians are those people who have a story, conform their lives to the shape of that narrative, and who sustain hope in a world that rarely gives evidence that such hope is justified.

This brings us to the Advent Wreath – a custom that predates Christianity in northern Europe and adopted by the Church sometime after the middle ages, with the custom we now know as a ring, a circle or a wheel of evergreens decorated with candles perhaps originating in Germany in the 19th century.

The circle or wheel of life is a part of spiritual practices ranging from Buddhism in the Far East all the way to the native peoples of what would come to be called the Americas. This circle represents the circle of life and the eternal cycle of seasons, while the evergreens represent the persistence of life in the midst of the bareness of winter. The candles, of course, burn as symbols of light in a world which literally is getting darker and darker until the sun begins to return day by day beginning with the winter solstice.

Sometime around the 4th and 5th centuries Christians established the celebration of our savior’s birth to coincide with the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a festival leading up to the increasing light of the solstice. December 25th was the conclusion of Saturnalia, and the Church hoped to attract non-Christians by celebrating The Feast of the Incarnation on that day. Customs like the wreath with candles and actually bringing an evergreen tree into the house eventually were adopted and given a Christian re-interpretation.

The greenness of the branches and the light of the candles have come to symbolize that Christians, like Christ, are to be those people who sustain the hope of life in the midst of death and light in the midst of darkness.

A story from the Cherokee people pre-dating European immigration to the Americas well illustrates the kind of people Jesus calls us to be. It is sometimes called, Why Some Trees Are Evergreen. John Shea, a priest from my native Chicago, tells it this way.

When the plants and the trees were first made the Great Mystery gave a gift to each species. But first he set up a contest to determine which gift would be most useful to whom.

“I want you to stay awake and keep watch over the earth for seven nights,” the Great Mystery told them.

The young trees and plants were so excited to be trusted with such an important job that the first night they would have found it difficult not to stay awake. However, the second night was not so easy, and just before dawn a few fell asleep. On the third night the trees and the plants whispered among themselves in the wind trying to keep from dropping off, but it was too much work for some of them. Even more fell asleep on the fourth night.

By the time the seventh night came the only trees and plants still awake were the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the holly and the laurel.

“What wonderful endurance you have!” exclaimed the Great Mystery. “You shall be given the gift of remaining green forever. You will be the guardians of the forest. Even in the seeming dead of winter your brother and sister creatures will find life protected in your branches.”

Ever since then all the other trees and plants lose their leaves and sleep all winter, while the evergreens stay awake.

This tale, concludes, Shea, talks about greenness in the midst of barrenness and associates this greenness with the ability to stay awake. “Staying awake” is standard code in spiritual literature. It means remaining aware of our life giving connection to divine reality even when inner and outer forces militate against it. Just as the light in the darkness reminds us of this truth, so does the green-leafed tree in the leafless forest.

When we light the candles of the Advent Wreath and gaze at the vigilant greenness of its branches, we are to remember who we are and whose we are. In a world that appears to be overrun with darkness, barrenness and death dealing, we are those people of God who stay awake and sustain the truths of light and life as ever present realities. When others are obsessed with fear and darkness we are to be those people who stay awake and sustain visions of hopefulness.

We are to be evergreen people for one another and for the world. The future, says Father Teilhard, belongs to those to give the next generation reason for hope! We are called to gaze upon the Advent Wreath and become the kind of people it has symbolized for thousands of years: a people of life, of light and of hope.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Parable For Johnny B

A Parable For Johnny B
Our story begins, once upon a time, in an ancient and far away country, when there were no towns, no cities, but only small tribes and caravans of people living on the land, wandering from place to place looking for vegetation to feed their sheep and goats, there was a sacred mountain.

When people climbed to the top of the sacred mountain they would feel the presence of God who would say,  “Love the One God who loves and cares for you always, and always care for one another, especially the others, those who are poor and have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land.”

And the people would leave the sacred mountain and remembered to care for others the way the One God who loved  them cared for them. Throughout the years turning into ages people would come and go to the top of the sacred mountain and return with the message – to love the One God who loves them, and to care for one another, especially the others, those beyond the tribe.

As they would leave the sacred mountain many would place a stone there as a reminder that this is where they heard the message from God. Many also came who had not heard from God themselves, but had heard the stories of those who had. They too would leave a stone to commemorate that sacred place and the remarkable stories they had heard about those who had heard the voice of God.

All who climbed to the top of the mountain left a stone as a token, a reminder, one stone on top of another until over time a magnificent Cathedral was built upon the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence could be found and God’s voice could be heard.

People would come from all over to the Cathedral, knowing that something important and wonderful and true was there. They would pay their respects, listen to the stories, praise the name of God and experience God’s love and care for them and for all people, especially the others, those who are poor and have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land. Each one would leave a stone and carry the message to all to whom they were sent.

Over the years more and more people came and left stones on atop the other, until a great city was built around the Cathedral and all over the mountain, with long, winding, narrow streets, lined with homes, shops, fountains and plazas. People who came to the mountain would need to stop and ask the way to the Cathedral so as not to get lost in the back streets of the city, each one leaving a stone.

The years continued to roll by, people coming and going, each leaving a stone until a great wall was built around the city with majestic gates on four sides. People now would have to find a gate they would be allowed to enter. The gates were sometimes open and sometimes closed. For many, even those who lived in the city, the top of the sacred mountain became difficult to find now that the whole mountain was covered with so many many stones to remember the message heard at the top of the mountain for so many years.

The streets were crowded and narrow and winding. There was so much noise and activity throughout the city, that soon no one could hear the directions to find their way to the top of the sacred mountain where God’s presence would remind them to love the God who loves and cares for you, and to care for one another, all others, especially those beyond the walls of the city.

Far away beyond the gates of the city, far beyond its walls, was a man, lonely in the wilderness. A voice crying in the wilderness. Above the crowded streets, above the noise of the city, above the very top of the Cathedral towers a voice could be heard soaring on the wind. So loud and lovely and lonely came the cry from the wilderness, calling people to come to the banks of the river.

First one, then another went beyond the gates of the city and followed the sound of that voice, the voice so loud and lonely floating on the winds, like music in the sky. As they came upon the man lonely in the wilderness they could hear his cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Soon more and more people came out of the city into the wilderness, following the voice carried on the wind, until everyone, all those inside and outside the gates of the city were there with the man lonely in the wilderness. And the people all joined in his cry: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” All their voices together were carried on the winds to the four corners of the earth.

Then the man lonely in the wilderness led them to the banks of a river and invited them all to bathe in the waters – the waters their ancestors had crossed so many many ages ago. As they bathed in the river, cleansing themselves, renewing themselves, he said to them, “Remember, remember, our God also speaks to us in these sacred waters. Remember, remember what he has said, ‘Love the One God who loves you and cares for you, and always care for one another, especially the others those who are poor, have no families, widows, orphans and strangers in the land.’ This is how we prepare The Way of the Lord. This is The Way of the Lord!

"And, oh yes!  Another one is coming who will lead us all the way back to the top of the mountain. Yes, you will remember, remember, remember today, but The One who is coming will show us The Way. We have nowhere to look and nowhere to go. He will tell us that the Cathedral and the top of the mountain is here, in the midst of us, wherever we are as a community of his people.  Together.  All of us.  Including the others beyond the community. Especially the others.  Here in our midst, wherever we are, God's presence, God's voice, God's message does dwell.  Remember, remember, remember today, but the one who shall come will show us the Way."

So it was, the beginning of our story. And so it is today. When you listen far above the crowds and noise, a voice can still be heard floating on the winds, beyond the gates of the city, above the tops of the highest cathedral, calling to us, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight the roadways, make the way smooth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Remember, remember, remember today, but the one who shall come will show us The Way.