Bearing Witness

Sometimes I feel like I live on the road. I commute, I travel to people’s homes to do chaplaincy. My car is my office. I live in southern California–traffic is horrible! While I have thought of getting a catchy licence plate or clergy bumper sticker I have hesitated to do so. Why? Because I drive 500-700 miles a week on southern California freeways…and people do stupid things on the road… and I, well, I like to use my horn! I try to be polite on the road. I know that the time I arrive is not as important as how safely I arrive. I do drive through some beautiful areas and I try to enjoy the scenery. That being said I have seen road rage, perhaps I have even felt rage on the roads at times. I do not like driving as much as I do. Yet this is a necessary part of the work that God seems to want me to do right now–and that’s a whole ‘nother blog!

What annoys me most are those big traffic slow downs. You know the type. Traffic just slows down and seems to come to a halt; and then you realize that all this is due to some looky-loos staring at an accident on the side of the road rather than driving like they should. These slow downs annoy me because they seem completely unnecessary and all they do is slow me down when I already have too little time for the important stuff.

Recently I found myself stuck in one of these slow downs as I drove home from work. It was the dark side of dusk and I saw in the distance the red and blue flashing lights of a police personnel on the side the road with more than one car, a sure tip off that it was an accident and not a traffic stop. Come on people, you can do nothing about it. Keep moving. Mind your own business. I want to get home already. I thought as I approached the scene. And then as I passed the scene, I looked over and saw the people on the side of the road with the bumpers torn off their cars and a new wave of compassion came over me. And I realized, what if the other drivers slowing me down are not just annoying looky-loos looking to peer onto another person’s misery, or looking for a bloody scene? What if they are bearing witness to the trauma and pain of the people on the side of the road who had had an accident?

Now that’s a thought. As I reflected on this idea of looky-loos bearing witness to the troubles of others even as they are keeping me away from home longer on an already too long day it became apparent to me that there is some theology going on here, some moral and ethical working of the post-modern age taking place right before my eyes. Its true there was. Even in this age (are we still in the post-modern age or is it post-post-modern? well what ever age it is), even in this age when we are so seemingly glued to our individual experiences and mediating relationships through cell phones, text messages, smart phones, and ipods, it seems that we still respond to the misfortunes of others. And, that is hopeful. For here it was before my eyes, four our five lanes of bumper to bumper traffic slowing down as if in acknowledgement of the pain being experienced, in that moment, by the stranger they were in the process if passing by. And is not the call to bear witness to our fellow human begins not central to core of our biblical teachings? I mean bearing witness is the first step in “doing unto others”, to helping those with need, being the good Samaritan, to being our bothers’ and sisters’ keeper. Wow, I thought. That, thought. That’s something. Maybe, just maybe there is still hope that we have not, even in this technological and individualistic age, driven to far off track.

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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.

Advent Welcome

What a great time to read this story again!

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

“But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

For many are invited, but few are chosen.

—Matthew 22:1-14

Are you widening the welcome this advent?
The guest list is not for us to choose.
It is not for us to decide.
As a new church start, how to we decide whom to invite?
When do we say you are not welcome here? There are so many people looking for light…
Once I knew a man who wore women’s clothing to church.
He was going through the therapy to become a woman and it was going to happen on my watch. He had three young children that he was raising alone. And soon he would be a she.
I was honored to be a friend to him.
But the church as a whole couldn’t tolerate what was happening.
No matter how hard we believed all would be well, wellness was not to be had!

She had her operation but ended up leaving our church.
She said she just did not feel the welcome I had wished for.
She cried with me when she told me she had to leave
and I cry every time I remember her disappointment.
Why do we think can control the light? Why are we such hypocrites?
I wonder what would happen if we would just let go…
For me, I am going to widen the welcome and let God fly this year
I am going to let go of all of my fears.
It’s about time….

***

Michele Mellott, M.Div., is a graduate of Claremont School of Theology, a Member in Discernment with the United Church of Christ, and is starting a new church start called All Creatures UCC in Arizona.

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

Death and Advent

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it.
For the ransom of life is costly,
and can never suffice,
that one should live on for ever
and never see the grave.

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
… Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish.

—Psalm 49: 5-11, 12

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.

—Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11

I must admit I am composing this devotional afresh just before it is to be posted. I had to. The mixed metaphors of this holy season have caught up with me. Advent, a season of waiting, formerly a season of penance, is full upon us today as we enter the midpoint of this season. I have been struck in reading the devotionals written for WWSIC (particularly those that follow the daily lectionary) at how the advent season is so admixed with the passages of Jesus’ death and ultimate resurrection bringing new life into the world, even life after death.

Life and death. Are these not the crux of the Advent season? In the time of year when we witness the “death” of the sun and foliage; in this time of year when Earth herself seems to go into hibernation, it is hard to not be reminded of the realities of death. I think of this both figuratively and literally.

As Psalm 49 from today’s lectionary reminds us, none of us shall live forever. Rich or poor, we are but creations of God, and no matter how wise or wealthy we may work to become, “Mortals cannot abide in their pomp; they are like the animals that perish.” And yet, many of us find ourselves in a culture that wants us only to seek knowledge and wealth. Moreover, we find ourselves in a cultural season that celebrates overconsumption and greed. If we find ourselves not pondering physical death this season, we may be pondering spiritual or financial demise. And, just where in a season of joy, hope, love, and peace are we to sit with such woes? In Advent we await the birth of Christ and all that means. But this does not mean that all is “well with my soul” in the waiting. In the waiting we find the realness of life: the aches, pains, fears, and contractions that come before birth, particularly when it is unknown how the labor may go.

The season of Advent is dark. The love, hope, joy, and peace we yearn for may not yet have come. Still we wait. It is a wonder to me how and why we do this. Professionally and personally, I am keenly aware this season of how myriad emotions of the human experience—particularly loss—changes the waiting. And I’m aware how experiences of injustice and oppression make the waiting seem like it will simply go on and on, and that change to finally bring relief may never arrive.

And there it is in the lectionary this week: the presence of death in the season of Advent. It is a reminder that we do not live forever. But it also a reminder of God’s promised work in the world. In the passage of Isaiah for this week we are told that God intentionally sends one to help the “oppressed,” “broken-hearted,” “captives,” “prisoners,” and “all who mourn.” It is a promise that even when the world seems most troubled, God is still working out a way out of no way. It is a hopeful text, telling us that God is seeking to liberate those who have been exiled for years—even generations—in a foreign land; that God is coming even for those in a culture that leads them to believe that materialism and greed is all that exists. And God is not only coming for those who mourn—for loved ones or beloved values—but God is going to provide all who mourn “a garland instead of ashes.”

What stands out to me most from this week’s Isaiah text is the promise that God has already “clothed me with the garments of salvation / covered me with the robe of righteousness.” It is a comforting promise, even as I mourn a colleague, and as I am reminded of all those whom I/we have lost this year. It is comforting to me as I think of a friend fighting for life in the ICU even as I write. It is promising to me, this promise that God is not only coming but has already provided garments and robes for me, and all people, at our meeting, the way a mother prepares for her newborn. As the darkness of the season deepens it is comforting to know God is sending someone to meet me on the way, someone who will bring good news and will make me—and all of us—welcome even in the darkness. In the end, it is a mixed metaphor of both death and birth, of waning and waxing.

Prepare, Be Silent.

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

—Luke 1: 5-27

During Advent we hear a lot about the coming of the baby Jesus, and that coming is the cause for our celebration at Christmas. On this second Monday of Advent, however, Jesus is not yet here. But there is another Advent baby who is already here. It is John the Baptist whom we often hear of in Advent. John the Baptist who as a grown man will cry from the wilderness, “prepare the way of the Lord!”

But who is the John the Baptist? Where did he come from? The first chapter of Luke tells us that John is the son of Zechariah, a temple service priest, and Elizabeth, a cousin of Mary. We often come across the text, during Advent, in which the pregnant Elizabeth and the pregnant Mary meet and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb is said to leap at the approach in the womb of Mary. It is a scripture from later in Luke that points not only to the divinity of Jesus but that divinity being present and recognized before Jesus’ birth.

We seem to know Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, bearer of the prophet who proclaims the divinity of the human Jesus. But who is this Zechariah? Well, he is a priest—so what do the clergy know? And are they not the ones who will later bring Jesus to Pilate? Well, yes this is true. But, Zechariah is not just a priest; he also has a profound spiritual experience in meeting the Angel Gabriel not just in the temple, but behind the veil of the temple in the Holy of Holies—where only a priest could approach. It is here that Gabriel approaches Zechariah, as opposed to beside the kitchen table where Gabriel approaches Mary. And Zechariah, being the priest he is, argues with the angel, wanting to know how this can be so, wanting to know how the impossible can come to be true. We have no way of knowing how the angel emotionally reacts, if he is angry or annoyed with Zechariah; likely for an angel it is none of these emotions, as we understand them. What we do know is that Gabriel admonishes Zechariah for questioning rather than believing, and then proclaims that Zechariah will be silent until this child is born.

The story of Zechariah can be read as a harsh critique on the clergy and perhaps it should be. We clergy need to remember we do not know it all, just as those we minister to sometimes need to be reminded that we are not perfect. Perhaps this is so, but in the season maybe there is a more seasonal meaning to draw from the text. Perhaps it is a reminder to all of us to listen and prepare for the most unexpected impossible event of all time.

Perhaps this text is an invitation to listen to God. To ponder not just the words in our own hearts, but to ponder the words of God, and to ponder those individual spiritual experiences we are blessed to have. Perhaps we even need a harsh a reminder to be silent and to watch and listen for what God is doing. For only then can we be prepared to welcome, and respond to and with God in the world.