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?

Advertisements

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.

Oracle of Possibility

It almost seems fitting that the last day of the calendar year would come to us with such a richness of daily lectionary texts that it is hard choose much less move on into what may lay ahead. With that in mind let us begin to begin.

One of the lessons for today is from the prophetic book of Isaiah:

Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,*
because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you,
the wealth of the nations shall come to you.
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you,
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall be acceptable on my altar,
and I will glorify my glorious house.
Who are these that fly like a cloud,
and like doves to their windows?
For the coastlands shall wait for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from far away,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the Lord your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has glorified you.

—Isaiah 60:4-9

This text reminds us that liturgically we are in the season after Christmas, the season in which I always eagerly await Epiphany—keep reading your WWSIC advent devotional for that story. As I read this text, the oracle telling of people coming from “far away” on “camels of Midian” with “gold and frankincense,” I can not help but think of the three scholars or kings who followed the star to find the baby called Jesus. As a hospice chaplain who knows that music touches us in deep ways we do not fully understand I find I have been singing the hymn “We Three Kings” quite a lot this week and will continue to do so next week. There is one verse from this hymn that stands out as shocking to me, it goes:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

It is as if our tradition really wants us to understand that the good things yet to come only do so with the death of what currently is.

It is of course not the best policy to read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the New Testament, historically this has lead to many problems. So I had to look into this text to see if it was hinting that the old must go away to make room for the new. As I look at the scholarship on Isaiah 60:4-9, I note that David Peterson in his book The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction comments on the “global religious perspective” of the oracles in Isaiah with reference to these verses and earlier chapters of the book (78). Marvin Sweeney (whom I will always call Professor Sweeney) in his book writes that Isaiah 60:1-9 is an “announcement of restoration directed at Zion concerning the return of YHWH’s glory and the approach of nations who will return Zion’s son’s and daughters and bring gifts and sacrifices to YHWH’s altar” (81). In some ways, the text today is an oracle of hope and peace, the return of God’s Kindom on earth. And, yes that does seem to indicate a change—from what is to what will be.

What does change mean to us? On the micro and the macro levels, certainly this is something we are all considering this week if not today and tomorrow. Here we have an oracle of change, and oracle of hope and restoration from what for the people and context the oracle was given to was complete destruction. Let us think about that for a moment….Few of us in the modern context know total destruction and exile as behind the context of this text. There does seem to be growing recognition in our American society however that the social and economic structures we live with are not working for us as they once did. Might this oracle also be for us? Might it also bring a message of hopeful change to us as we stare into the sunset of 2011? It is possible there could be that hope for us, too, in this text? Look again at the text. It is not grace freely given here, but grace after surrender, grace after intentional move toward the Kindom of God. I wonder what it is that we need not just to surrender, but as Sweeney suggests “sacrifice” and allow to die so the new may come into being? For this is what both the Christian and the secular traditions of New Years Eve suggests. What is it we must we let go of in order to bring our gifts and riches to the Kindom of God to proclaim the glory of God?

***

“Kindom of God” is not a misspelling of Kingdom of God, but a known and accepted feminist interpretation of that ideal. Read our Feminist Eschatology for more information.

The Power of Silence

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 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 into the way of peace.”

—Luke 1:67-79

He was not the first Zechariah to prophesy the mercy of God and deliverance from enemies. It had been some five hundred years since the writing of the prophetic book from which his name derived, and nine months since he had been able to speak. Perhaps in those months of enforced silence he had found himself listening not only to the Holy Spirit but to his people as well, and perhaps he heard their laments as they labored under the harsh hand of the occupier. We will never know; but those nine months of silence brought Zechariah to obedience—nine months of silence that broke like the sudden and forceful eruption of a geyser. In that moment he recognized that his own son would be a prophet to usher in the reign of the Prince of Peace. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

PRACTICE: You are invited this day to sit in silence for some time. To ponder. What is it that God puts before you to recognize in this season of your waiting? What is it that God is waiting for you to recognize? How can you proclaim that to the world in celebration the arrival of the Christ Child? —Kelli Parrish Lucas

What the Lectionary Doesn’t Say This Advent

Advent in Scotland. I think that Scotland is a country made for Advent: the outside temperatures—and I mean the outside low temperatures—the lack of sunshine or simply blue skies, the rain, the mist: everything is on hold, waiting for better times. Reflecting a bit on my Advent in Scotland, I set out to reading the readings that the Catholic Church has for today: a reading from the Book of Isaiah (Is 45:6c-8, 18, 21c-25), followed by Psalm 85:9a, 10, 11-12, 13-14 and the Gospel reading from Luke 7:18b-23. And I could not help it, but I started to laugh.

Why? Well, I noticed immediately the pick-and-choose mentality of the lectionary. Not only are the lectures picked so that they fit with each other, comment on each other or elaborate on each other (and I have to admit the choices are sometimes good), but they also cut up the text into pieces of verses and then present a new whole. In other words, the lectionary does what I always try to avoid: namely hopping from one verse to another, skipping others, and just dealing with the nice verses. After all, we want a smooth reading in the lectionary. But that is not how texts work. Imagine reading Harry Potter’s Deadly Hallows without having read the earlier volumes. One plunges in the story not knowing about horcruxes or not knowing that Dumbledore has died. The story just would not make sense.

So, curious as I am, I checked which verses were deleted. Which dark powers were at work and why? In Isaiah 45, the lectionary has skipped the verses about Cyrus, the Persian king who is portrayed as the rescuer, saviour of the Jews… of course, we don’t want to hear that in our Christian churches. We usually do not consider outsiders to be our saviours, right? Next, the questioning of God the creator who chose Cyrus is deleted. We do not question God, nor God’s choice, right? So why would we incorporate in our readings a Biblical text in which that is said. Last but not least, the reference to other nations that pray to a god that cannot save, that verse as well is deleted from the lectionary. And note that a god that cannot save does not deserve a capital G. In other words, with advent, when listening to the beautiful text of Isaiah, we cannot be reminded of good foreigners, of foreign saviours, of gods that cannot save, and certainly not of dissenting voices questioning the so-called one and only God, with capital G.

Similarly in the Psalm: the beautiful verses in which it is described how God restored the fortunes of Jacob/Israel and how God forgives Israel are not taken up, the somewhat strange verses in which the people again ask to be forgiven—these verses seem strange as they people seem to ask for something that they already received—they too are not read in the liturgies.

There is less cutting in the gospel text. Actually, there has been no cutting at all in this section. John’s question is not shortened and Jesus’ answer is fully produced. So, why is that that we cut, pick and choose, that we skip verses in our texts? Do we avoid looking at things we don’t like? Are we afraid of strangers and foreigners? Can we not deal with the idea that there is maybe a god that can’t save? Similarly, does the omission of the verses in the Psalm which show God’s (or the author’s) irritation with the idea of questioning God point to our not-willingness to see that there could be questioning of God and/or that God does not like it. And why did the lectionary drop the verses that contain the repeated request to be saved? Can we not understand that we liked to hear the same thing twice, or do people get frustrated with repetition?

I think that precisely the omitted verses should be part of the advent readings. Of course, the rest of the readings are nice and sweet and beautiful: God creator of everything, God, the safe-place to be, God proclaiming peace and salvation, God giving benefits, what more can we ask for. But then again, the other elements belong in here as well: we have to learn to deal with the unexpected, with the questioning, with the idea that a god cannot save—whether it is God or god—, with an irritated God, with a people that repeats its questions. All these elements have an essential part in our process of waiting, for in our waiting time, in our waiting rooms, in our not yet being there, we have to reflect on all the things that obstruct or seem to obstruct our going ahead.

***

by Kristin De Troyer

Waiting, Watching

When I was in elementary school I loved Fridays. Not only was it “tater tot day” in the cafeteria, but every Friday we played dodgeball during PE. Dodgeball was one of my favorite games; running, jumping, and yes, even the occasional opportunity to throw a ball at your classmate! (You know the one!) However, one of the best aspects of dodgeball was even when you were “tagged out” and having to wait on the sidelines, if your teammate caught an opponent’s ball your teammate could choose to have you come back into the game thus giving you a “do-over.” What I have learned in life as well as in dodgeball, is that the waiting can be hell. How absurd then that Advent, a whole season in the Christian tradition, is about waiting.

Like most seminarians I was coerced into studying biblical languages; it was just one of the many gifts of seminary. Through all the blood, sweat, and tears studying these languages caused me, I learned to love and value the original meaning of each intended word. For example, the words for waiting in both Greek and Hebrew are used at times as synonyms for watching. To make things worse, both languages suggest an attitude for which these two verbs should happen—both positive. Excuse me, but I am a child of the 80s. My generation has never known life without a microwave! We don’t wait well. According to the biblical languages, I am told not only to wait, but to be positive about it! It was one thing to wait on the sidelines as a kid, but as an adult? Come on! Let’s just be honest: waiting is about being in transition and transition can bring up a multitude of feelings, most of them unpleasant!

Over the last three months I have had a crash course in waiting, watching, and attitude adjustments. After almost a year of prompting by Spirit I did it; I quit my job, packed my stuff, and moved me and my dog to the great state of Washington in order to pursue more education. In my head I expected everything to be nicely wrapped and just waiting on me—after all, I did what Spirit prompted. I knew things would eventually work out, but did not expect to be waiting on a job, especially in this economic climate. As you can imagine, as the days passed with no calls of offers the fears grew and the questions began to surface. The questions soon led to deeper questions which I now see was part of the watching/preparing. The time I was able to dedicate to these questions has had a profound impact on the way I will go about my future work and practice. I almost missed it because I was too busy grumbling, complaining, and cursing at God about the waiting and so I forgot to participate in the watching. What I have learned (or maybe re-learned) is that the gift of waiting is the watching. Watching is finding God in the present even when the present is filled with uncertainty. Watching is our part; our participation which we do by asking the questions and going ahead by preparing ourselves as if that for which we are waiting is already here.

This year, my Advent is remembering that no matter how much I think I know what I need, God knows more. God is more creative than my wildest dreams, and when God insists that I wait, it is for a reason! My job offer did come and once again I was humbled and in awe not only because of the job itself, but because of the details that are so tailored to my situation—this job was created for me. If you find yourself like me, questioning and doubting while waiting, watch for the gift within the present and remember, God is always on time.