Friday, December 28, 2012

into 2013 - Praxis!

As 2012 draws to a close, let me thank you for reading - and more for the privilege that is mine to join you in this way as we think together, and try to live faithfully together for God. I'm grateful.
      We have exciting plans for 2013 - beginning with an intriguing, hopefully helpful series called Praxis. It's a Greek word, and a noble one; Aristotle wrote that Praxis is the grand destiny of free people.
     Praxis is the way we take theory and knowledge, and apply it, and make it real in daily life. We will consider in some depth the essentials of the Christian faith - and in utterly simplistic ways ask how and why all this matters when you're stuck at a stoplight, getting dressed, sitting down to eat, about to go out for the evening, when you have a little decision or a prickly crisis. The logo says it best: Think like Jesus, Live our Faith.
     I'm looking forward to it. You'll get 3 (hopefully not too long...) emails each week from me, we'll form groups at church - and also offer special programs. The first will be Monday, January 7, 7pm, when my friend Dr. David Chadwick of the Forest Hill Church will join with me in conversation about the essentials of what we as Christians believe.
     I'd also mention that for 4 more days, you can get my new book, Struck from Behind: My Memories of God, at a special discount. Go to the publisher's website page, and at checkout enter the coupon code STRUCK, and instead of $20 the book will only cost $12. The book is also available immediately via Kindle for just $9, and on and bookstores.
     Let's have a blessed ushering in of the new year, and a fruitful 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? Candles, and a prayer

     I hope you will be one of the thousands who will worship somewhere on this sacred day, and perhaps raise a candle.  My most moving, joyful moment of the year comes at the end of worship this day when we sing “Silent Night,” and lift our candles.  There is resplendent beauty in that moment, a sense of solidarity with each other – and a hint of defiance.  Yes, against the darkness that is life in this broken world, we declare that God is light, the Light has indeed come into the world, and the darkness does not have the final say.

     I wish for Christmas we who meet in the blogosphere could visit with each other, like in person, share some sort of beverage and sit around a tree, listen to your life, and share mine.  I do want to wish you a Blessed, Joyful Christmas, and invite you to remember to pray with me and God’s people all over the world for peace, for love, for comfort in the knowledge of God’s love which was and is so immense that God came down and lived among us, showing us God’s heart in the flesh of a small, vulnerable child, held close in his mother’s embrace.  The tenderness of our God moves us, and gives me delight and unflagging hope.

     Thank you for being in my life in this way.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #11 Curiosity

Children, as Christmas approaches, harbor an insatiable curiosity. Who’s coming, and when? What’s in the big box under the tree? A child will pick it up, examine it, shake it, plead for hints, and ask leading questions hoping somebody who knows will slip up and reveal what’s inside.

What does Jesus want for Christmas? An inquiring, questioning mind. Some buffoon from decades back pulled one over on us when it was decreed that Christians aren’t supposed to question anything. God loves questions; God even loves doubt, for doubt – if pursued energetically – will take us to a deeper truth. Every scientific advance began when somebody dared to question settled truth.

“Jesus is the answer” – sort of. Jesus also, as it turns out, is the question, his life a riddle, his teaching a gate swung open onto a maze we may explore for a lifetime and beyond.

Consider all the questions in the Bible’s Christmas stories. Mary shudders as she asks the angel, “How can this be?” The magi ask, “Where is the king of the Jews?” In our carols, the angels ask “Shepherds, why this jubilee?” To the tune, Greensleeves, we ask “What child is this? Why lies he in such mean estate?” And In the Bleak Midwinter asks, “What can I give him, poor as I am?”

In the New Year, we will begin a new series called Praxis: exploring lots of questions about what we believe and why, why it matters, how this Christian stuff came to be, who cares – the eternal questions that have given life and hope to inquiring minds and souls that refused to settle for pat answers, oversimplified conventional wisdom.

What does Jesus want for Christmas? Curiosity, the yearning to know more, to ask and keep asking, to knock and refuse to stop knocking, to listen, to wonder.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #10 - Remember

   Hopefully, at Christmas we remember, we reminisce, we tell stories of the good old days, hard times, silly happenstances.  I say “hopefully,” because it is only when we remember well, when we can look back and discern the hand of God in the past, that we can turn then in hope to a secure future with God.  If we look back with regret, or guilt, our mood moving forward will be one of anxiety and fear.

   Old stories are fun – although some are painful.  What Jesus wants for Christmas is good and painful stories – but for us to frame them in the perspective of God’s presence.  Can we recall a moment, a sequence of events, and realize (with Jacob back in Genesis 28), “The Lord was in this place, but I did not know it”?

   St. Augustine prayed to remember well so he would know God:  “How far within my memory have I traveled in search of you, Lord!”  Jesus wants us to sit for a while, thumb through an old photo album, maybe with an older relative or friend – and confess that we are lucky dogs, we’ve reaped benefits we’d forgotten, we were cast upon God’s care when we didn’t know where else to turn. 

   Our souls might be cured if we hear our oldest living kin recall giddily receiving Christmas gifts that were items like a badly needed pair of shoes, or long underwear to survive the bitter winter, not luxury items but simple necessities – beautified because they weren’t purchased thoughtlessly, but in light of the coming of Jesus into our lives.

   The last page of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping shares this hopeful, Christmasy thought:  “Every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting so long.”

   Memory is the womb in which hope is born.  We remember our lives, and Jesus, and the future is bright as the morning star.

   My newest book is really about remembering:  Struck from Behind: My Memories of God.  You can get it now for a discount I can get for you!  Go to the publisher’s website page, and at checkout enter the coupon code STRUCK, and instead of $20 the book will only cost $12.  This holds (for you) through the end of December.  The book is also available immediately via Kindle for just $9, and has paper copy in stock now as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #9 Carols

In the few minutes allotted to me during Sunday’s Lessons & Carols, I tried to reflect on the simple fact that we have a special genre of songs known as “carols.” There isn’t a narrow style or instrumentation that makes a carol a carol – and carols are beloved by fans of classical, rock, country, maybe even hip hop. It’s the time of year, and the content.

It’s also the way everybody knows Silent Night, or Joy to the World, or O Little Town of Bethlehem, and you can sing along; in fact, it’s hard not to sing along. Never is music more unifying, never do we feel so deeply that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Carols are evocative of home, warmth in the cold, light on even the longest of nights.

Way too many artists have recorded Christmas albums. Bob Dylan’s must be the worst… I listened to some of Johnny Cash’s gravelly, smoky versions of carols the other day after reading a Time article chronicling his career: “He sang of specific injustices and eternal truths; he was the deadpan poet of cotton fields, truck stops and prisons. He was a balladeer, a spellbinding storyteller – a witness. Here was a man who knew the commandments because he had broken so many of them.”

Roseanne, his daughter, said his music “combined both elements of light and dark at the same time without negating the other.” I like that, and am reminded of something the great theologian Karl Barth wrote about “God’s harmony,” which is not just light, but also darkness, or the hope discovered in the interplay of the two: “Shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy. The light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. Life does not fear death but knows it well.”

That’s the lesson: a bright angel appearing out of nowhere, swaddling clothes in a shadowy manger, the magi chasing a star. “The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5).  That's why Jesus loves carols.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown - and what Jesus wants for Christmas

  When I was only a little bit older than the children who were killed in Newtown on Friday, Simon & Garfunkel recorded “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” the lovely carol being overdubbed by the awful news of the day.  The dissonance is chilling.
   We shudder, and can’t stop crying, when we hear the names of schoolchildren who were robbed of life just days before Christmas: Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Avielle, Benjamin, Allison.  How could this happen?

   We gather and sweetly sing carols about “peace on earth, good will to men,” but we are willing participants in a culture that is rife with anger.  Politicians can’t get along, and there’s rage on the roads, in our cities, in our homes, and even in our hearts.  Flip to almost any channel from the news of Newtown, and you’ll see violence, somebody getting shot or beaten up.  We have a taste for violence.  The shootings in Newtown are appalling, but not surprising.

   If we dare sing carols about “peace on earth, good will to men,” we had best reckon with radical changes we need to embrace.  How do we turn the temperature down on the rancor and learn to be peaceful people?

   And I can’t fathom the politics of guns and the second amendment, but let me suggest as a starting place something I am 100% sure is true:  Jesus does not like assault weapons, and does not wish for us to use them, or have them.  After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia banned rapid fire guns, and saw a steep decline in gun deaths, and have had zero mass killings since.  How can Christmas carolers not even budge on the right to own guns like the one used to slaughter twenty children on Friday?

   Perhaps the more important conversation we who sing of “good will to men” must have is about mental illness.  Thirty years ago we rolled back support for programs for the mentally ill; slashed budgets for a generation have made help for the mentally ill hard to access, and we as a people avert our gaze instead of dealing with troubled souls.  When Jesus came, he made it a top priority to help the mentally ill.

   Mike Huckabee placed blame for the Newtown horror on the removal of God from the schools.  God is not removable from any place, thankfully.  We are not big enough to shove God out – and we forget this until tragedy strikes.  At 9-11, and on Friday, crowds flocked to places of worship, and even secular newscasters kept muttering, “We need to pray.”

   Indeed:  the worst news drives us to pray as we might when the news is good, the kind of prayer that listens to the desire of God that we enact what we sing in our carols and Christmas Scripture readings.  “Peace on earth, good will to all.” 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Newtown - today, tomorrow, the next day

Today and tomor- row, we shudder, we grieve. The next day we talk about all the rage, the rancor, among our leaders, in traffic, in our homes, everywhere - and we talk about violence in the entertainment industry... and then admit we should be horrified but not surprised. And the next day, promise ourselves we will change, and prove our carols about "peace on earth" aren't just blowing smoke.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #7 Gratitude

     Here are two brutally sad Christmas morning scenarios.  1. A child (or a grownup) surveys the gifts he’s received amid the ripped paper and flopped open boxes, and whines, “Is that all?  Why didn’t I get the mini-iPad I wanted?”  Or, 2. A child (again, of whatever age) clutches a handful of gift cards, like a full house in poker, and gleefully asks “Is the mall open today?”

     What does Jesus want for Christmas?  Gratitude – and not the kind Ms. Manners might insist upon, a polite thank-you note.  Gratitude isn’t a mood that rises up (or doesn’t) spontaneously, the way craving for ice cream or a swirl of romantic desire might strike.  Gratitude is a choice.  I choose to look at life, and to be content, grateful, lucky if you will; or I choose to complain, I find fault, I want more (or newer stuff); I assume I “deserve.”

     Gratitude is a discipline, a habit.  Gratitude isn’t natural.  We learn gratitude, over time.  Children are taught gratitude, and so are grownups.  I choose gratitude, then choose it again, and again, and after some time it turns out that I am a grateful person – and thus a person of peace, a person not easily thrown off balance, a person others enjoy being around, a person pleasing to Jesus.

     To Jesus the teacher we ask, Can you show me how to be, inside?  To the Spirit we pray, Lord, make me grateful.

     Christmas wars against gratitude, as it’s all about getting more stuff, or the bogus gratitude that greedily is pleased we have so much.  Genuine gratitude is grateful for what Jesus, Mary and Joseph had that first Christmas night:  breath, love, stars shining, hope, mercy, affection, a roof over their heads, enough food for the day, a keen awareness of God, a visit from some neighbors, and even a little concert of angels singing.
     We can give Jesus what he wants for Christmas – by simply realizing the great gift Jesus himself is, and being... grateful.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #6 - FAMILY!

     A peculiar wonder of the Thanks- giving-Christmas time zone is the way we get together, not as we usually do, with friends or neighbors of our own choosing, those who share our interests or are fun to be with – but with family.  Say the word family, and some faces light up, others stifle a grimace.  No matter the state of our relationships, we make that drive, we puzzle over what to give, we cook and eat with people we’ve quite literally known all our lives.  We stick with those we’re stuck with.
     And sometimes it’s hard, subterranean emotions surface, fully grown men revert to juvenile boyhood, and a puzzled shudder is all we can muster when we hear mom, dad, sister or uncle declare a political opinion.  How am I related to these people?  It must be God’s good humor, or something of a hazing.

     Or training in holiness.  We are in relationships we cannot escape; we know the worst about each other, but we have to deal with it, and we have no choice but to learn mercy, and humility.

     What Jesus wants for Christmas is for us to grow into the surprising, arduous holiness that just might evolve from these seasonal visits to those we cherish and adore, those whose minds have grown clouded and confused, those who’ve hurt and been hurt, the strangers who share our DNA but not much else.  They are your past, the big hidden truth about yourself. 

     And they are your future.  I love Judy Garland singing “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” in Meet Me in St. Louis – and its lyric which invites us (if we’re diligent, patient, and a bit lucky) into a more holy life:  “Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more… Through the years we all will be together.”  Of that we can be certain; I suspect Jesus ordained things to be just this way for us.



Monday, December 10, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #5

“Holy infant so tender and mild.” “Silent night, holy night.” “Infant, holy, infant lowly.” “Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy… Breath of heaven.” During December, we sing the word “holy” often enough to lead us to believe there is something “holy” about Christmas.

While we may harbor some negative, smug connotations when we hear the word “holy,” I suspect that each one of us has a deep desire to be holy, even if we feel we’ll never get there. Mary was holy. She wasn’t perfect, but she kept her mind focused on God, she avoided things not pleasing to God, she strove for a match between the will of God and her daily routine; she examined her motives, she thought carefully about God before she acted, she imagined her body to be a vessel for God to dwell in, and to use.

What does Jesus want for Christmas? The first face he saw was Mary’s – so his first Christmas gift was the holy, tender face of his mother. Jesus wants us to be holy, or at least to try. He wants us to be “good,” not in that loose sense of generally “doing the right thing” in society’s eyes, or not breaking the law. Holy, as in my thoughts, words and actions are watched carefully by God, so I try to keep them in sync with God. I want to be clean. I don’t mind my behavior being an open book – for it certainly is to God.

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.” And what do we sing next? “Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.” This is what Jesus wants for Christmas: to begin to become holy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #4

A fruitbasket.  Now that’s a nice gift.  Paul imagined a basket of fruit, “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5), sweet evidence of God’s life-giving power – including generosity.  This year, for Christmas, Jesus wants generosity.

   Hey, that’s easy:  I’m already quite generous at Christmas!  I give grand things to my family, we drop off goodies for the Christmas collection, I catch up on my year-end giving. 

   But wait:  Jesus?  You say that type of generosity is all about me?  Hmm.  Now I recall that slogan Mike Slaughter dreamed up:  Christmas is not your birthday.  All our lives, we’ve acted as if it were – and have felt rather noble and downright spiritual about it.  Jesus’ birthday party! – with gifts for me and mine.

   Generosity, the kind Jesus wants for Christmas, is different.  It’s not about me; it’s about Jesus, it’s about the people Jesus cares most about.  Sure, he loves us all – but he has a special affection for the hungry, the homeless, the depressed, the impoverished, those facing their first Christmas after a marriage dissolved, the ache of grief made worse since ‘Tis the season to be jolly.

   Generosity is very close to joy, for it is very close to Jesus’ own heart, and the closer we can get to Jesus’ heart, the more joy we will experience – not the faked “fun” malls and parties offer.  Real joy.  Real peace.  Real generosity.  It’s not about me.  It’s not my birthday.

   What is my budget for Christmas?  If someone studied my December tally, would there be evidence of Jesus?  Just a trace?  My goal is to give much more (and more each year!) to the causes Jesus espouses than to the Howells who already have more than they could possibly handle.

   Where the Spirit is, the Spirit of Christmas, there is generosity, the kind that pleases Jesus, what he really wants for Christmas.

Monday, December 3, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #3

   Through the centuries, artists have tried to figure out how to paint or sculpt that shimmer- ing moment when the angel came to Mary and asked her to let Jesus take on flesh in her.  Almost always she has an open book – God’s Word, the Bible.  The angel didn’t flit into her life in a vacuum.  Mary was a student of God’s Word, and when asked to become the mother of God, she replied, Let it be to me according to your Word (Luke 1:26-38).

   What does Jesus want for Christmas? He wants the blueprint of my life, the content of my calendar, to be the enactment of Let it be to me according to your Word.  For me to let God’s Word be the main thing, I need to know what’s in there.  I need God’s Word not to be something I read like a novel I stuck on the shelf when I was done.  I need to know more than a verse or two.  I need the living Word to be alive now.  I need to study.  I need to harbor the ambition of being a Bible scholar.

   But how to begin?  Maybe I begin when Jesus began, with the Christmas story.  I could just procrastinate and hear it on Christmas Eve.  But maybe I read right now.  Luke’s story is a grand total of 4 pages, Matthew’s just a page and a half.  Can I work that in? 

   We might please Jesus even more if we use our gadgets to download the story and listen while driving or on the stairmaster.  The terrific recording of Luke’s narrative in The Bible Experience takes just 10 minutes.

   St. Augustine was converted when he heard a voice tell him, Take up and read.  Twenty six days until Christmas.  For Jesus, I’ll take it up, and read.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas? #2

Let every heart prepare him room.  But my heart is cluttered, jammed to over- flowing, and it’s not all pretty.  I’m booked, slammed, juggling because two hands won’t hold it all.  I have commitments, activities, responsibilities, possessions.  I suspect that when Jesus knocks on my door, he hears me holler, Uh, hang on a minute… and while he waits his mind drifts to the story his mother told him about the inn in Bethlehem having no vacancy.

   What Jesus wants for Christmas is a vacancy, an opening, some room.  He can’t be crammed into my heart if I keep everything I’ve accumulated.  I have to do some letting go, I have to get on my Spring cleaning here in late November. 

   What Jesus wants from me for Christmas isn’t so much some ability I might have – although he gave me whatever ability I have so I could use it for him.  What Jesus wants isn’t my ability but my availability.  I may have ability, but frankly I’m just not available to God, or to the people God loves – and thus I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal.  No wonder I wonder what the point of it all might be.

   Can my prayer be listening more than talking?  Dare I pray Speak, Lord, your servant is listening?

   Can I divest myself of a few things this Christmas?  Santa Claus wants to haul more things down the chimney and into my cluttered world.  Maybe in my imagination I reverse that chimney function and toss my busyness, my over-commitments, my divided loyalties, my frenetic pace, into the fire, and let the holy smoke waft up toward Jesus, who will then know I’m here, I’m available, there’s room in the inn.

Monday, November 26, 2012

What does Jesus want for Christmas - #1

O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. O little life of mine, how hard it is to be still. Twenty nine days until Christmas, so much to do. I feel like a victim of the calendar, the clock, the to-do list.
But am I really a victim? I have a choice, it's my decision, nobody else's. I know that what Jesus wants for Christmas, from me, from you during the 29 days left, is some time, some being still, behind a closed door, out under the stars, in the sanctuary, every day, more than once a day, time to be, to be quiet, to pray, to reflect.

I had best book it in right now, in ink, even in stone. I will be quiet, and prayerful, for ten minutes, or maybe thirty. In the morning; maybe when I get home; or turn the TV off in the evening.
Maybe I ask a friend, or somebody who's kin, to do it with me, not to chat but to be still together. That might give me not just good company, but some accountability.

I plan now: if someone asks me to do something during that time, I quite truthfully say I can't, I'm busy. Busy being not busy for a change. Like an old grandmother in a nursing home, what Jesus wants this Christmas is for you to visit, and just sit for a while.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

The earliest date in November upon which Thanksgiving can fall is the 22nd – as is the case here in 2012. November 22 is a date of tragic resonance, as people my age and older recall precisely where they were and how they felt when they heard the news of the assassination of President Kennedy.

A few weeks ago I read Stephen King’s intriguing novel, 11/22/63, which imagines a time traveler going back to try to prevent JFK’s killing. Without giving the plot away, the outcome is theologically interesting, and profound. We might wish to rewind our lives and change a few things, and divert the plot of our life in a different direction. But who can know then how things would really turn out?

Johannes Tauler, a 14th century German mystic, wrote that when we think we could have changed things for the better in our lives, we foolishly fantasize that we are in control of our own lives – and show we do not trust God. More importantly, if we are fixated on regrets, and what-ifs, then we can never be grateful.

The posture of thanks is the liberating gift God offer us when we look into the past. We could bemoan hurts we’ve endured or missteps we’ve made, or we can choose gratitude, to see the goodness of God, the mercy and continuing care of God through every circumstance. Then, if we can get the hang of gratitude instead of regret when looking back, we can look forward, not with anxiety or fear, but in hope and joyful anticipation.

Certainly we have made a mess of things, and fallen woefully short of what God dreams for us. Mae West, the sultry actress (who incidentally also died on November 22!), once wryly said “I was pure as the driven snow until I drifted.” We have drifted.

Or more optimistically, we might say we have shrunk God’s magnificent vision for our lives down to something we can manage – but how sad! C.S. Lewis, whose death on November 22, 1963, went unnoticed in the wake of JFK’s shooting in Dallas, wrote that our problem is not that our desires are too strong; instead our desires are too weak. God wants us to desire very much indeed, to crave things like fulfillment, ultimate purpose, loving belonging, and eternal glory; sadly we settle for less, for cheap wares like money, pleasure, and attention.

The Thanksgiving God dreams for us is not being glad we have money, comfort, much food or HDTV. God wants us to be grateful for far more: life, the breath you just took, eyesight, God’s merciful forgiveness, the colors of Autumn, the wisdom of God, the glory of Jesus crucified and risen, the tenacity of the Church and the stirring of the Holy Spirit, love wherever it appears, and hope for a future no matter what we may suffer in this life.

So this week, let us look back, and look up, and thank God in expansive ways, for the really grand things – even as unspeakably all-enveloping as God’s presence, and unquenchable love for all of us.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Anxiety and the Christian

 Every time I mention anxiety in a sermon, people become very attentive. We are an anxious people, living in an anxious culture. So I read, with considerable anticipation, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety. In this book, written in Switzerland 60 years ago, he approaches the topic, not from the perspective of psychology or therapeutics, but in an explicitly biblical, theological way. Quite rightly he begins: “When one surveys how often and how openly Sacred Scripture speaks of fear and anxiety, an initial conclusion presents itself. The Word of God is not afraid of fear or anxiety… For the Word of God, anxiety is not something to be ashamed of.”

Lovely. We typically suspect faith and anxiety are incompatible; but we need not blush if we are anxious. “God’s Word accepts anxiety as a fundamental given of human existence so as to revalue it from God’s exalted vantage point.” Von Balthasar doesn’t thunk the anxious on the head with the Bible saying “Don’t be anxious!” Instead, he “revalues it.”

How many of the Psalms, the Bible’s recommended prayers, are expressions of intense anxiety? We hear in the Psalms an opening up of anxiety to God, not hiding it. And there are two kinds of anxiety voiced in the Psalms. The human kind of fear and uncertainty in the face of what is unmanageable – but also an “anxiety for God’s reign and justice.” We see all that is not of God – and we quite justifiably feel an uneasiness, an anxiety, that God will right what is wrong, that God will come and deliver us. God does not mind when we feel we are merely hanging by a thread – “provided that thread is God”! Von Balthasar suggests that the anxiety of those who do not know God is futile; but the anxiety of the faithful is “permitted and will by God” as a “right and earnest fear.”

In fact, when Christ came, he bore human fear and anxiety upon himself! This human anxiety that is ours became his: “It rolled toward him in waves; at the grave of Lazarus it was an initial ‘shudder’ as he brushed against the world of the dead… On the Mount of Olives it was a final, precipitous plunge into the abyss of anxiety that immediately broke over him… All anxiety was here gathered together and infinitely surpassed.”

“It is, finally and most profoundly, the anguish that God (in human form) suffers on account of his world, which is in danger of being lost to him – which, indeed, at that moment is an utterly lost world! So as to be able to suffer this anxiety and therein to demonstrate humanly how much the world matters to him in his divinity and how concerned he is for the world’s sake: for this purpose he became man. It is an anguish he wanted to have without any consolation or relief, since from it was to come every consolation and relief for the world.”

The wonder of this for those who are anxious? “All subsequent anxiety is seen now to be revalued. Now it is possible for anxiety to participate in the fruitful anguish of the Cross.” When we are anxious, we are drawn very close to God; we participate with Jesus in the unmanageable weight of a world that is out of sync.

But Jesus didn’t come just to wallow in anxiety with us. “Human fear has been completely and definitively conquered by the Cross. Anxiety is one of the authorities, powers, and dominions over which the Lord triumphed on the Cross and which he carried off captive and placed in chains.” Indeed, Jesus’ constant invitation is “Fear not!” A kind of calmness is commanded, and possible under pressure. So we are not daunted by the “facts” that the world tells us we must tremble before; these are struck down by Christ’s resurrection, which subverts all such facts. “Christ has borne the anxiety of the world so as to give to the world instead that which is his: his joy, his peace.” The Cross is anguish – but the Cross of Christ “opens up something completely different: grace, and, in the measure granted by grace, permission to suffer anxiety as a share in Christ’s anguish. It is evident how thoroughly this grace revalues anxiety, and even turns it into its opposite.”

Mind you, von Balthasar presses us when he speaks of “sin-anxiety,” the uneasiness and fear we bring upon ourselves by bolting away from God, living self-indulgently, or simply ignoring the things of God. This “sin-anxiety” is “forbidden to the Christian.”

At the same time, our striving to be holy, our determination to follow Christ, actually induces a new kind of holy anxiety. You could choose just to live mindlessly in the world and not think much about God. But as soon as you make it your business to be holy, and to be a campaigner for the things of God, you begin to wonder if it is worth the effort. Anyone who is immersed in the things of God “will experience enormous disappointment with the world. The spiritual he is, the more profound his disappointment.” Not surprisingly, “to be a Christian in the Church requires courage. Courage is by no means the opposite of anxiety… We are talking here about the Christian virtue of fortitude.”

So von Balthasar is strangely helpful. Anxiety isn’t anything to be ashamed of; Christ is one with us in our anxiety. And yet the facts, the fears that drive anxiety have been surmounted by Christ – so our fears are set in proper context, and thus diminished, and managed not by us but by God. When we seek healing from sin, we reduce much anxiety – and yet we are comforted even in the thick of that holy anxiety that frets over the coming of God, the disappointment of living in a world that is not of God – and thus we who are anxious might simultaneously take courage.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Pilgrimage to Assisi

Heading out for a week in Umbria, Tuscany and Rome, I noticed how many well-wishers said things like “Enjoy your vacation.” Leading a pilgrimage of 40, I was working – and yet not working, but still not vacationing. We tried to retrace the steps of St. Francis – and the focus wasn’t sightseeing, touring, photography or shopping, but spiritual growth, even daring to get closer to Jesus. A pilgrimage.

Why travel so far, when you can tap into God right here at home? Fact is, we all will go someplace this year – so why not travel to a holy place, with other seekers after God, and at least try to sanctify a journey? It is the reality of the place, and thus the saint or Jesus himself, that is so striking when you find yourself in a holy place like Assisi. Not a pastel myth for a child’s coloring book any longer, Francis becomes as real as the notes he wrote in his own hand, which we inspected, or the elephant tusk the Muslim sultan gave him as a present, a lock of the hair of St. Clare, Francis’s friend, or the stone caves in which Francis prayed, and slept.

So we call this kind of travel “pilgrimage.” For centuries, Christians have left home to make arduous treks to holy places, believing the act of going will imprint some holy mystery forever upon the heart. Timing is everything during a pilgrimage. We arrived at Santa Chiara, one of my favorite, most prayerful churches in Assisi – but three other busloads dumped out at about the same time we arrived, so the prayer chapel was choked with people. Bad timing.

Later we made a last second decision to glance into the obscure little church, San Stefano. No one was there. So small was this chapel that we filled the place – and sang hymns to exploit the acoustics. Very moving, great timing. I planned in advance – and it worked! – to arrive at San Rufino, the church where St. Francis was baptized when no one would be there. We gathered around what must be the world’s most effective baptismal font: not one or two but three saints (Francis, Clare, and Gabrielle – and an emperor, Frederick II for good measure) were baptized there!
Gently we touched water to our heads, remembered our own baptisms, and thought of how parents dream dreams for their children, and how we might dare to dream what God’s dream for the rest of our lives after walking out of San Rufino might actually be.

The ability to take some time in a holy place is everything. I adore the simple chapel of San Damiano, which Francis rebuilt with his hands, and where he prayed and heard Jesus ask him to rebuild the church; but my group was unimpressed, as we were rushed, the press of lunch and closing time bearing down upon us. And yet when we scaled the heights to Monteluco, the prayer convent near Spoleto, we could dally – and so we sat in the monks’ chamber, and tendered moving prayers to God for the world, for loved ones, and for ourselves.

For a pilgrimage to achieve emotional trans-formation and memorable moments, some luck is required. We drove through Tuscany to the obscure mountain hermitage of La Verna, where Francis prayed to be united to the sufferings of the crucified Christ, and was gifted with the stigmata, wounds in his hands, feet and side – a curious miracle if there ever was one, as we usually seek the miracle of a cure, not additional wounds. I had heard there was a processional of monks at 3 pm – so we hustled, somehow got there two minutes in advance, sat through a longish, formal liturgy entirely in Italian and in a wicked cold sanctuary. And then we filed out in line behind the monks, carrying a large wooden cross to the place where Francis was blessed with wounds. We were dumbfounded by finding ourselves part of such a sacred moment. We got in the bus, shivering but warm of heart, and contemplated our own sufferings, and those of the world, and how Jesus is so very near when we suffer. The bus driver, who typically blared bad pop music over the loudspeaker system, played some lovely, simple piano music that was more perfect than anything I could have asked for. I didn’t bother fighting back tears.

Weather is of interest in pilgrimage. It rained when we tried to have Holy Communion on the mountain refuge of Eremo delle Carceri. But instead of dashing for cover, we stayed still. The prayer Rev. Laurie Clark read was one in which Francis thanked God not only for sun and moon but also for wind and rain. Drenched, and blessed, we shared the Body and Blood of our Lord in the rain.

Art and architecture in such pilgrimage zones are both lovely and tacky. We see buildings that have stood since Francis walked into them, but then we grimace over the Baroque kitsch stuck over the original stones, glitzy gilding someone must have thought was attractive once upon a time. The famed Giotto frescoes of Francis’s life are startling in their humanity and emotional intensity. Yet seeing them from floor level is a challenge – hence our gratitude for the touristy books for sale at the gift shops, so at home you can see what you could only dimly see on location.

Sometimes the dissonance of the gaudy and the lovely can be jarring: the monumentally ugly Santa Maria degli Angeli looms over the little dollhouse-like stone chapel, smaller than your kitchen, which Francis adored and kept standing with his love and masonry skills.
Sometimes what we see is just plain weird – like mummies of holy women in San Agostino in Montefalco, and then the mummy of a guy who came to see their mummies, perched on one elbow, eerily petrified in just that posture.

Seeing the mummies of people who arrived at these medieval churches centuries before we did reminds us it’s all about the people. Pilgrimage thrives or falters depending upon the people on the journey, whether they buy into the program of prayerful contemplation, arduous climbing as a spiritual pattern, and trying out holy hospitality on one another. My group in Assisi was marvelous. Being on time is crucial – so when one couple was rather late, everyone rallied around them with compassion, love and laughter. We prayed, and we shared.

We certainly had fun, and even did what others do when they are in Rome: indulging in pasta and tiramisu, plucking linen and icon bargains, and sipping wine late into the evening. Speaking of wine: we loved our visit to the Tabarrini vineyard near Montefalco. I worried for a nanosecond this was a ploy to balance overly spiritual endeavors. But the sanctity of a vineyard: how many of Jesus riveting stories were about vineyards, and stewards? What about the wine he said could stir recollection and even the reality of his shed blood? And as Frederick Buechner reminded us, wine is a potent symbol of the Spirit: it loosens the tongue, makes the timid brave, and heightens laughter and community.

Pilgrimage forms community, as travelers form lasting bonds that endure back home. Not surprising: the places we visit were places where ancient people befriended one another. In a square in Assisi, St. Clare saw St. Francis dancing as he preached, left her parents and formed a band of women to live at San Damiano.
In a stone cell in Santa Sabina (sporting the finest views in all of Rome), St. Francis met with St. Dominic – and how I wish I knew what they talked about!   Maybe they were just still – which our group learned is all right, and liberatingly peaceful.
At the convent Le Celle in Cortona, the silence of the place, the absence of the sounds of cars, electrical appliances – the general din that is the omnipresent background music that never can be shut off – was overheard with placid delight.
We noticed two friars simply strolling, slowly, not talking, on a stone path on the hill above. Genuine community, those two men not talking, just being with God and each other.

This pairing of people, the merging of the centuries is for me nowhere more poignant than in a British World War II cemetery, dotted with small stones, each displaying the name of a felled soldier, with some tender sentiment from mum or dad or a wife (“our dearest boy,” “the light of our life,” “we will miss you forever”).
What a perfect location, the specter of death against the backdrop of the cit of the saint of peace, throws the whole enterprise of war not only into question but imagined in light of the designs of God’s ultimate grace.

I am a firm believer in Christopher Lasch’s thought: Children need to learn about faraway places and olden times before they can make sense of their immediate surroundings.” This is why Jesus, his mother, everyone in ancient Israel, and Christian pilgrims throughout the ages, have made pilgrimage to holy places. “Blessed are those in whose heart at the highways to Zion” (Psalm 84:5).

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Emailed Political Rage - again...

   I’m so weary of emailed political rage.  Two weeks ago in my sermon, and then again in a column in the Charlotte Observer, I warned people against forwarding angry emails.  Then one flies around the past couple of days, it gets forwarded to me - all about the DNC refusing to let Christian groups provide gifts for delegates, how they welcomed Muslims, how Christian values aren’t accepted by the DNC.  However…

   1. The “news” story” had a newspaper-like font, but not attributed to any remotely reliable news source, or any news source at all.  Just a guy named Austin Miles, who appears to be not a journalist but a minister in... California?
  2. The source quoted in the story, complaining about the DNC, is David Benham, the son of Flip Benham, the notorious protestor who was rude to people outside my own church for weeks ramping up to the convention.  The Benhams were at Trade and Tryon St. every day with megaphones, spewing venom, condemning everybody to hell.  I don’t know what “gifts” they offered, or what transpired, but I don’t see David Benham as a reliable source.

    3. The story says Christians couldn’t do anything for delegates.  But several downtown churches did provide snacks, respite, organ concerts, etc., with no troubles.

    4. I was personally part of a panel at the DNC on God and politics, and not only the panelists but several Democratic politicians were there, and Jesus was spoken of quite fondly.

    5. I do not know many of the DNC delegates personally, but the ones I know are church folks, good folks.  Some delegates worshipped with us during the DNC, and were very kind and appreciative.

   So readers, please:  an unsubstantiated email isn’t something to get riled up about, or even to bother reading. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Rollercoasters - and their theological significance

      When I preached to preachers about Mark’s report that when Jesus preached he “amazed” those to whom he was preaching, I suggested we who preach might not be amazing, but we can at least be amazed.  But how does the preacher come to be amazed?  I wryly suggested that for every minute of the sermon, prepare – not for an hour in your study! but go be amazed.  Then I trotted out a laundry list of possibilities:  run across a street with heavy traffic, go skydiving, go to a bar at midnight – or ride a roller coaster.

     I’ve ridden dozens of roller coasters, many dozens of times, all over this country and in a few other countries.   Riding may be nothing more than sheer daredevil craziness – but I wonder if there are theological implications lying around unnoticed.  There usually are when we dig in to things that seem utterly secular or just plain fun.
   Or terrifying.  While my son and I will burn frequent flyer miles to ride Millennium Force one more time, my wife will never, ever get on any even tame kiddie coaster.  The first time I kidnapped my daughters and strapped them into Top Gun, as we clacked our way up the first hill, one shrilly pleaded for me to make it stop; the other swore she was about to throw up. 

    But you can’t get off; you can’t hit the brakes and stop the thing.  I wonder if people quite rightly balk at the prospect of getting on the Christianity adventure, for it might just sweep you away and then it’s too late to back out.  Of course, when Top Gun eased to a halt, both my previously mortified daughters giddily asked, “Daddy, can we do it again?”

     Statistics prove nobody gets hurt on even the steepest, speediest rides.  In fact, people exiting are giggly, and get back in hour long lines to do it again.  It is the abandon, the vulnerability that frightens us and yet is finally the allure.  Roller coasters aren’t equipped with jet engines, or a steering wheel.  It’s all about gravity – and you yield to the whims of the designer of the thing.  God invented the gravity, and structured reality in a way that, if you give yourself over to it, can be a thrill.  To buck the direction of the thing is foolhardy.  If I pull too hard on the restraining bar, or lean way left or right, when I get off my neck hurts or my hip gets bruised.
     Veteran riders hold up their hands while whooshing down the big drops or around lunatic curves.  I suspect that on old-timey rides, when you weren’t as tacked down by shoulder restraints as you are on more modern rides, the hand raising was indeed a gutsy move.  I wonder if Pentecostals, by percentage, raise their hands on rides more than pew-stiff mainline denominational riders. 

     Last time I was on the ridiculously fast Millennium Force, I raised my hands – and remembered the last time I’d raised my hands was actually just the day before, at the end of worship.  After the last hymn, I stand before the congregation, raise my hands in a gesture of blessing, mutter some words, and then it’s over.  As we whizzed around Milllennium’s corners, I felt a rush of wind into my palms.  What do I feel when I bless the people?  The air seems still – but something is rushing from them to me.  It’s not adulation, or even a blessing back.  I think they look my way and (not counting those wishing I’d hurry so they can get to lunch) are blowing toward me something like appreciation for the worship, or more importantly, fervent wishes that it’s all true, their yearning that it won’t be just as temporary as the ninety second ride, their dreams, hopes, griefs and faith borne to the altar when I receive it into my raised palms.  Now when I extend my arms, I try to detect the wind.
     Recently I flew to New Jersey, not to ride a coaster, but to preach.  Saturday night I was walking around and came upon a fairly tame roller coaster, bought my ticket, and got on – alone.  It was fun – sort of.  Roller coasters are designed when two, or four people sit side by side – rarely three, and never one.  The exhilaration is heightened exponentially if you share the moment. 
     I do not buy those cheesy photos the amusement park people hawk of you screaming and hanging on for dear life.  But I bought one, and it may be my favorite childhood photo of my son.  We are on Magnum XL200; both of us have that zombie like facial squish, where the G forces press the front of your face to the side of your face – and both of us have hair flying.  Noah’s mouth is wide open, and I can almost hear the delighted scream just by studying his mouth.  I’m next to him, but my head is turned toward him, and I’m smiling my biggest smile ever at his larger than life smile. 
     Joy is communal, and we only know true joy when we notice and celebrate the joy that has infected the one we see, and love.  And you never just get off the ride and walk off in silence.  Whoa, that upside down loop! or The tunnel surprised me! or That reminds me of the Hulk! or I thought I was gonna die!  There’s a story, an experience shared, a moment to relish.  And even if you’ve ridden a great ride quite a few times, the thrill is always fresh, the edge is never lost.

     I can’t get to a roller coaster every week, but I plan to identify with the teenager who’s employed at every roller coaster, the one with the mic who welcomes you, asks if you’re ready, and tantalizes you with some titillating fact about the thrill you’re about to embark upon.  I want my sermon to do that somehow.  So I’m a rider.  I’m always amazed by the ride, and feel entirely out of control – and then I’m readier to preach, and maybe to devise a little thrill ride of a sermon to shed their securities, to feel the plunge, to see if some of that mighty wind might blow through the place, even to my uplifted palms.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Homosexuality and General Conference

The petitioning, debate, and aftermath of the homosexuality issue at our General Conference every four years is dispiriting, leaving the winners and losers both feeling not exactly bursting with the fruit of the Spirit. I see the petitions that are coming, and I’m wondering if I might offer an alternative, which I actually submitted a few hours late due to a life and death week-long vigil I kept in an intensive care ward with my daughter’s boyfriend (who survives, thanks be to God).

This effort allows for the strongest possible disagreement on the matter (which we have, and which accurately characterizes the truth of where we are as a church). It can’t be wise to pretend we have some strong moral stand on such a personal issue when in fact thoughtful, faithful people disagree – and with intensity.

Some have asked me how we would handle ordination if we agree to disagree, and the answer would be that local boards of ordained ministry could decide – which oddly would work quite well in divergent cultures.

I realize any such effort might fail; but if it fails, many of us still feel the current language (if retained once more) is harsher than necessary (especially the term “condone”), so after my substitute petition I will share an edit to our current language that might be more conciliatory.

So here is my suggestion for the kind of thing I hope we might pass:

¶161 F) Human Sexuality. One of God’s most mysterious, confusing and lovely gifts is sexuality. Therefore, we reject any sexual expression that damages people, or exploits adults or children. This good gift of sexuality is to be exercised responsibly, with integrity, fidelity and holiness, as our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” The Church bears the wonderful burden of not only teaching but exemplifying a faithful stewardship of our bodies and minds in sexual relationships. And yet the Church is not one on the issue of whether God’s intention has been to restrict sexual expression to heterosexuals, or if homosexuality can also be accepted. Faithful, thoughtful people have grappled deeply with the issue without coming to consensus. Many, with biblical backing, and given the cultures in which they live, believe strongly that homosexuality is wrong; there is and will always be a place for those who believe this in the Church. Others, with theological logic and given their understanding of humanity, believe just as strongly homosexuality can and should be blessed; there is and will always be a place for those who believe this in the Church as well. The truth is we disagree on the issue, and about God’s people, all of whom are of sacred worth. We continue to reason and pray together with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will soon bring reconciliation to our community of faith. In the meantime, God’s welcome, and ours in the Church, is to be extended to all people, which is our most faithful witness.

And then, if we “retain” the current statement, might the following be a way to make the current statement more palatable – and I’d say Christlike, without the demeaning verb “condone”?

Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. Faithful United Methodists who have grappled deeply with this issue disagree with one another, yet all seek a faithful witness. Our best wisdom remains that we have no unarguable, compelling theological rationale to overturn centuries of Christian teaching, and so we do not endorse homosexuality. Yet we pledge to continue to reason and pray together, with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will soon bring reconciliation to our community of faith. We affirm God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.