A Star and Dreams More Powerful

Today is Epiphany, my favorite day of the Christian calendar! It is the celebration of when the wise leaders, religious  leaders, scholarly leaders of the world acknowledge the humility of God-among-us-in-the-flesh. It is the great revelation of the world acknowledging God–even as a small helpless babe.

In the narrative of the wise men (Matthew 2) God is found because the learned, the insightful, the sought-out-for-advise-giving saw a star rising in the East. These leaders, the wise men, saw a new star and followed through foreign lands in the hope of seeing the greatest of a kings–a babe asleep in his mother’s arms. I wonder what the other wise men said as they packed their bags for the long  journey. Were they laughed at? And if not why did only three make the journey? What would they have told the border guards as they crossed from nation into nation? Surely, telling them you were going to see a new king would have raised suspicions. Is that why Herod called them to meet with him? Come to think of it, the wise men surely knew Herod was among the most ruthless of rulers in the ancient world, and THAT is saying something. And still the wise men had the courage not only to cross the desert on their journey, but to risk their lives in crossing Herod because they held onto the hope that the child beneath that star was more powerful than the most feared ruler of the world.

One of the things that always strikes me in the Christmas-Epiphany narratives cycle is the role of dreams. Joseph is encouraged in a dream to remain with Mary rather than dismiss her in her pregnancy. The wise men are warned in a dream after seeing Jesus the infant, not to return to Herod, and they go home by another way. And finally, the dream seldom heard as more that a footnote, is Joseph’s dream in which the angel again comes and warns him to take Mary and Jesus and flee into another nation. We live in a world where we seldom make decisions based on dreams, at least the ones that come in sleep. In the modern world we are more apt to follow the big dreams that come to us by way of national pride or Hollywood. These are not the dreams of the biblical narrative. The dreams of the wise men and the dreams of Joseph are, rather, those dreams that come to us seemingly out of nowhere when we have gone inward enough to still ourselves and discern the will of God.  It is often God’s dream for our lives that leads us on journeys more powerful than we could have imagined, even if it is not a journey that follows the screenplay we ourselves had envisioned.

What dream has God put into your heart, that frees you from the tyranny of oppressive forces, and calls you onward to great journeys in search of the promised hope of justice and the personal opportunity to behold God and know, beyond all doubt that no matter the cruelty of the world, that God is with you, and indeed all of us?

God Bless the Child

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name, ‘Righteous Peace, Godly Glory’.
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look towards the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.

—Baruch 5:1-9

The Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern churches include Baruch in their Bibles but it’s a Deuterocanonical book; not really part of the Hebrew canon and not quite Christian. As a Protestant Christian I have only occasionally skimmed its text. Still, these verses were familiar to me because the writer saw himself in the tradition of Hebrew prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah – who also wrote of returning exiles, and Isaiah, who wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

Maybe Baruch’s message this Advent season is for those who have lost their young people to drugs or depression or mental illness, to prisons or cemetery plots, or even just to family dysfunction or the pursuit of instant gratification and material wealth. No matter how much we love our children, no matter how hard we try to protect them and teach them right from wrong, we really have no control. Ultimately, they are responsible for themselves. It reminds me of the song made popular by blues singer Billie Holiday:

Them that’s got shall have
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have
Papa may have
But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own

God knows such families need peace of mind. They need the assurance that “the valley of the shadow of death” that has become all too familiar will be filled, lifting them into the light of God’s love. They need the assurance that the mountains they’ve had to climb, gaining a little ground only to continually slide back, can be conquered.

Like those earlier prophets, the message of Baruch is for the nation or the community, not for an individual. Every hurting parent and grandparent wants to believe that her or his child will be restored from whatever exile has claimed it, but the story may not play out for every lost child exactly the way we want it to. Still, there is something to hold onto: See your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. The good news is that regardless of how far our children may stray from us and from the ways of righteousness, the Holy One is still watching out for them and loving them with an everlasting love. In that assurance may we find peace.

What’s Coming?

I have come to learn that I am one of those people who loves to travel. One of the most memorable trips I ever took was a cross-country train trip: west to east and then south to north, when I was seventeen and all by myself, even with a broken foot. One of the things that struck me during that trip was the great cross-section I saw of America—the well-to-do; the black, browns, and whites; the poor; the drunk; the unruly. There is a great diversity that we live in, a diversity that becomes pronounced in some ways and blurred in others over the holiday season. This blurring of the diversity of this season is similar to what I saw on that great monthlong train trip, and Advent is about that long as well. But on that trip, I also learned that despite all our diversities we have much in common. We are all travelers. Despite our station in life we all have to show our tickets when asked, and if we get too unruly we may get put off the car at the next stop.

I think there is a part of the Christmas narrative that gets rushed over. It’s the journey to Bethlehem. All the people, no matter their station, had to return to the land of their fathers to be counted. This Christmas account is an odd and troubling requirement really since it deviates from the Levitical code that required a similar return to homeland, albeit for a very different reason. On the one hand, all the people had to return to the home land of their forefathers—the family land—which was a periodic requirement of the Levitical codes. However, unlike the required Levitical return in which the land and debts would be resettled at this return to the family land so as to reestablish national life in accordance with the provision and justice of God, the Christmas narrative relates that the people are merely counted for Caesar. This is not settling of debts and return of land but an ancient form colonization and subjugation of the people of ancient Israel to the largest empire of the time, Rome.

The reason and consequences of the journey to Rome are not the only thing that gets glossed over in the pageantry telling. There is also a poor and young Mary who is very, very, very pregnant making the journey of several days to the temple city. They were traveling many, many, many miles on foot—if they were lucky they had a pack animal Mary might have ridden. One can imagine this journey would have been very uncomfortable for the mother-to-be. It was no baby shower for sure! What an exhausting physical trip before giving birth! (I consider the experience of Mary’s physical journey fresh and anew this year as I await the news of a friend who is expecting a child, a boy, this very week!) But Mary’s experience was not only a physical one. It was a spiritual and emotional one as well. Mary was a young woman at a precipice: a young woman about to give birth for the first time. A young woman about to give birth as her people enter into a new form of subjugation under a new emperor. A young woman about to give birth to a son come to pronounce a new way of relating, a new way of justice and peace at the end of an empire. And I wonder what it was like for Mary to give birth in such times. Mary, having been told this was the Child of God. Mary, wondering if this was the Messiah for whom they had been waiting. Was she ready to give birth? Was she ready for what was to come?

Let us dedicate this day in prayer to the women waiting to give birth, to pray for their preparation and safety in this transition of life to life.

And let us wonder, if we are ready.

Hold on…wait!

Moses spoke to them, “Wait, so that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.”
—Numbers 9:8

I have already been a bit of Ba-hum-bug this year. I pooh-poohed the Advent and Christmas decorations that went up  the day after Thanksgiving, or before. It still seems too early in the season for much fanfare. The annual hanging of the church greens reminded me that the time was indeed coming. And slowly the sound and colors of advent are starting to march their way even into the ba-hum-bug of this Rev. So I did it, decorated our Women Who Speak in Church with the purple background for Advent.

It’s not that I dislike the Advent season and don’t want to see the decor or hear the familiar tunes and words. It’s not that at all. I actually like all of that. It’s just that the season is just now coming upon us. Why rush it?

We live in an instantaneous world. We crave immediate gratification. We instant message. We check our Facebook accounts multiple time a day, sometimes even in the presence of others.

Part of me thinks this is too much. If the basis of civil living is relationship, and we can not be in the presence of others without looking at our devices to connect with other people at the expense of disengaging with those we are in the presence of, then we have failed to live the basic spiritual value of the I-Thou relationship through which the holy enters our realm (Martin Buber, I-Thou). It also makes me long for the “Be Here Now” philosophy of my parents’ generation.

Advent is a season of expectation, not gratification. It is a time of waiting. That is something that is hard to do, waiting takes practice. But remember we are waiting on a baby to arrive, that is something that should not be rushed. There are still somethings that take time in the world. Things like birth, the response from a loved one we hope to hear from but may not, illness, waiting for the job interview and the response, and death. The timing of these events are normally far out of the control of human beings.

Advent. Waiting. Hoping. It is something that seems countercultural and yet there is a spiritual lesson to be learned when it is done. I have found that waiting brings a fullness, a wisdom, a maturity not able to be reached in any other way. I have experienced this personally. But I have also seen it in the faces of the very aged persons nearing the end of life whom I serve. There are somethings we can only learn in waiting. Sometimes it is the long waiting that helps us to understand that there is a difference in our time and God’s time. Sometimes it is only through settling into the waiting that we can start to hear anew God’s leading in the moment, and slowly tune ourselves to it for the journey ahead, even if the journey is one of more waiting.

This year, I challenge us all, myself included, not to rush the season. Let us pray, Loving God who knows no time help us your children, stuck in time, ignore the ticking of the clock, the passing of days, the agony of years when that is what it seems. Help us to hear you in the here and now, help us to rest in your time though we cannot comprehend it. Help  us be your partners as You enter and move through the world.  And when all is said and done, Lord, welcome us at last to your eternity. 

Keeping Christ in Christmas

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we would have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah.
—Isaiah 1:1-9

Since “X” is the first letter in the Greek word Christos, from which we get the word “Christ,” and since “Xmas” has long been used as shorthand for “Christmas,” I have no problem with the abbreviation. The behavior and attitude of Judah and Jerusalem as described by the prophet, though – yes, I have a problem with that: rebellious, iniquitous, evil, corrupt, despisers of God, and either unaware or uncaring that their actions affect those around them:

Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.
—Isaiah 1:7-8, NRSV

All this took place during the reign of four kings of Judah listed by the Gospel writer Matthew as ancestors of Jesus. Uzziah wasn’t a bad king as far as kings go, but he was prideful. His son, Jotham,

…did was right in the sight of the Lord … but the people still followed corrupt practices.
—2 Chronicles 27:2, NRSV

Ahaz was a crook who looted the Temple and Hezekiah was a weakling. Quite the “rogue’s gallery” of rulers.

I could take this opportunity to chastise the leaders of my own government, men and women who frequently exhibit similar poor judgment and flawed character, but that would be too easy – a cheap shot. Instead, in this Advent season and in this week of Hope, I prefer to call on not only those in positions of political power but on everyone to consider how our actions affect our sisters and brothers. My Hope is that we might learn, collectively, that contempt for Creation is akin to despising God; that ignoring the Biblical witness that calls us to compassion, justice, and love of neighbor distances us from the God who loves us; that hoarding riches effectively takes the food from the mouths of the most vulnerable of God’s children; and that the desolation described by Isaiah can be avoided when the survivors… the remnant… learn to work hand in hand to build the righteous realm of God described by Jesus in the Christian Gospels. I have Hope.

Hope for Justice to Come

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
—Jeremiah 33: 14-16

Does it ever seem to you that the world is just not right? It does to me. Does it seem that injustices abound and individuals can not always do too much to get  ‘ahead’ in the world? Maybe it’s not just the individual, maybe there is a more systematic force preventing justice.

If this is true, it is not the first time in human history it has been experienced. The Bible is full of examples of when the world was unjust and details some of the lives of the greatest freedom fighters in the cause of justice to ever walk the planet. It’s one reason to open the Bible and the find the juicy stuff.

The devotional passage of this first day of Advent speaks to one of the times in history of great injustice, but it is also one that looks back at a plan for living in justice and a future in which people will live with the hope of justice restored. Jeremiah may have been a strange character walking through the town streets with a yoke and eating items we would consider unsuitable for consumption—read your Bible, the disgusting extremes of injustice are detailed there alongside the juicy audacious doings of the prophets. In today’s passage, Jeremiah has gone to purchase the future crops of a field belonging to his family which had been sold to pay the debts of his family members. Yet Jeremiah is prevented from doing this, and that is the problem. That Jeremiah is prevented or delayed in reclaiming the land of his ancestors, is in some sense the straw that breaks the whole world apart and not only sets the prophet into motion but sets God to speaking through the prophet. To understand the significance of this we need to understand that Jeremiah is attempting to act in accordance with the laws laid out in the book of Leviticus (Marvin Sweeney, The Prophetic Literature, 112). These laws require him to redeem his family’s land in an effort to maintain the balance of power within the community that God ordained as a part of creation. The very balance of power that allows for justice. If Jeremiah cannot do this then the whole of creation, particularly human society within creation, is at risk of falling back into chaos. Thus God must intervene to reestablish justice.

And thus this passage looks to the future, a future of justice. Traditional Christianity, and scripture, has held that the coming Christ child is the shoot of David. I tend to think it is near irresponsible to impose elements of the New Testament on the Hebrew Bible to get such a reading. The beauty is, however, that we do not have to do so. The ministry of Jesus is one that challenges the Levitical codes pertaining to individuals so individuals may be embraced by community (experience justice), and a calling the community to the responsibilities of  humane society (to be just) as called for in the Levitical codes. In some sense, both Jeremiah and Jesus call our attention to the role of the Levitical code in ordering human relationships within society and human society as whole as a guest within God’s creation. Jeremiah and Jesus remind that we are guests welcomed to experience God’s justice but also, as members of human society, quite a way from the Justice of God’s Kindom.

It’s the same old struggle that humanity must face only in a new age. As we enter into this season of Advent, particularly this week of Hope, Let us reflect on how we can be instruments of God’s justice allowing others to feel that the are welcomed alongside us in God’s Kindom. Let us pray that God would empower us each to move into a future of liberation, a future in which all peoples and all creation can live together in justice. It is the after all part of our most famous prayer, Your kindom come, Your will be done.

The Wisdom of Women

I must confess, Epiphany is my favorite day of the Christian year. It is ripe with possibilities that often go overlooked. It also has deep personal meaning to me because of the tradition my family of origin created to celebrate the arrival of the “kings.”

The three kings, found in only one gospel, add a mysticism to the Christmas story that I venture to say we find no place else in the entire Advent-Christmas-Epiphany story. It is the kind of mysticism that may only exist in one other place in Christianity, namely the Resurrection.

Epiphany—realization. It’s the story of the arrival of the “kings” into the presence of the babe called Jesus, and his parents. It’s a story not only of realization but one of being equipped for the holy journey. Here we have the three “kings,” scholars from afar, arriving to welcome the child of a young and unknown Mary and Joseph. Mary and Joseph we know had been told in visitations and dreams that there was something of celestial destiny associated with their child. But the then there was the arrival of these strange kings who had held audience with the local ruler in their search for Jesus. It does not seem strange to me that scholars, kings, paying attention to the signs of their time and heeding the leading of the divine in their own lives would seek Jesus out. Indeed, I think the grown Jesus once spoke of the need to heed the signs of our own time.

We too, I believe, are each in some way to be equipped for the journey ahead of us, be it a journey we anticipate or not. There are signs of our coming reality that we may not always see for what they are. Perhaps one of the reasons I love Epiphany so much is that each January 6th of my school age years, I would awake to find three wrapped gifts at the foot of my bed. They were not Christmas gifts, and although they were wrapped, they were never shiny toys designed to delight. No, they were shoes, socks, a shirt…usually things that needed to be replaced at that time of the school year. I looked forward to these gifts sometimes more than gifts from Santa, and often I was allowed to discover what lay inside the wrapping in the privacy of my own room—no family snapping photos, no requests to model what might lay inside. Simple gifts designed to equip me for the journey ahead. It would be some where in my twenties that I would realize one of the reasons behind my visits from the wise men was the fact that—living paycheck to paycheck—my mother could not always buy what she wanted to get me for Christmas at one time and this was her way of “making up” for what seemed to her—not me—as meager Christmas mornings. Mother’s wisdom.

As I think about the story of the three kings, it really is strange that they would give Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What strange gifts. Yes, we get that they were valuable, but what is a baby from a poor family to do with those? Ah, yes, the family was soon to flee into Egypt to escape from Herod. Gifts of wealthy to empower refugees fleeing for their lives. The gifts the wise men gave equipped Jesus’ family for the journey but the gifts were also over-the-top extravagant. They were gifts in the ancient tradition; gifts of tribute given to a king—a person of great power in the world. And in this sense the gifts were ones of recognition of the arrival of the person come in the form of a babe to live among the marginalized in an occupied land.

—A babe whose ultimate omnipresence in the world we just celebrated at Christmas. Wait, what? Usually we think of God as omnipresent in the world, not Jesus. Yes, I hear the theologians among you complaining. And I protest. My thought for Epiphany 2012 is this: the gift we received in Jesus’s birth was Jesus bringing God to us and showing us how to bring out the recognition of the Holy Spirit into the world in return. It was the gospel and work of the grown Jesus to invite in the poor, the disabled, the women, the children, those who had no voice in society into the conversation, to demand that they be heard and that they be fed both literally and with justice. Christmas is the beginning of that, Epiphany the recognition of it, and the rest of the church year is a discussion on how to live into and out of the babe recognized by kings.

This is hard work. It is being shaken to the core, ceased by the spirit, and acting upon completion. As I write this, I am returning from a denominational meeting in which the discussion of diversity and inclusion not only left out but further marginalized people with disabilities. In the meeting, I was sitting and processing how to respond. But then a lone woman stood up, interrupted the meeting, spoke out for justice, and sat down. Then I stood up and spoke on the same topic. Then a third. And the church was silenced into the realization that Jesus is still present and calling for the inclusion of the marginalized, and the Spirit is still moving within the church with an overpowering wind when necessary. Woman-Spirit in partnership with wisdom.

As we close this devotional season at Women Who Speak in Church, I invite you to take this realization of the omnipresence of Jesus calling for liberation of the marginalized, and the knowledge that the Spirit is still blowing the winds of God’s justice with you into this new year. May we all live fully, knowing that we have been somehow equipped for journey ahead.

Amen for Epiphany!