Snow Day Church

15941325_10100419657989229_6708787191655617183_n“Do you want to build a snowman?”

This refrain has been echoing through our house for the past two days.  Frozen’s  second-best known refrain is lodged in the brains of our children, right along with the first: “Let it go! Let it go!”

But it seems like they sing that mostly in response to one having a toy the other wants…

“Frozen” is a good descriptor for our reality right now.  The ground is ice and each breath burns the lungs like air-born frostbite.  Perhaps we should, like the harmonizing Harry Nilsson suggests in Everybody’s Talkin’, “Go to where the sun keeps shining, through the pouring rain/go to where the weather suits (our) clothes.”

Because our Eastern Carolina clothes are not meant for this. Escape seems like a fun fantasy right now.

But we have an opportunity now, in this time when winter forces us to womb up.  The mystics used to actively seek such times to sit and be and pray and gain insight into the Presence of God. Most of them had to shun the world to go and find some time.

But we have, at the present moment, a world shunning us and shutting us in (except for the occasional venture outside to build a snowman).

Here’s a way to use this time; here’s a way to do “Snow Day Church.”

Now, I thought about doing a Facebook Live event for church this morning, or even a Google Hangout.  Neither of those are bad ideas.  It’s just that, well, I find Facebook Live to be a really annoying feature, and while Google Hangout is great for meetings, it lacks connection for me.  As would a Youtube video or anything of that nature (and my head talking to a blank box is as visually appealing as a mud fence).

So, here we are, with this medium, and it will suffice, I hope.

For Snow Day Church I suggest you find a scripture, preferably the one assigned for the day (for an easy way to find the readings for the day, click: here), and read it through once, just to hear it.  I suggest you read it out loud. There’s something good about reading a scripture out loud.  Our faith is a proclaimed faith, and sometimes that means using words, so read it out loud, even to just yourself.

So for today, take the Hebrew scripture text, Isaiah 42:1-9, and read it out loud.

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
  my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
 I have put my spirit upon him;
  he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
  or make it heard in the street;
3a bruised reed he will not break,
  and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
  he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
  until he has established justice in the earth;
  and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5Thus says God, the Lord,
  who created the heavens and stretched them out,
  who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
 who gives breath to the people upon it
  and spirit to those who walk in it:
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
  I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
 I have given you as a covenant to the people,
  a light to the nations,
  7to open the eyes that are blind,
 to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
  from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
  my glory I give to no other,
  nor my praise to idols.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
  and new things I now declare;
 before they spring forth,
  I tell you of them.

Now, for the second reading through, take each “chunk” of scripture…however that feels right to you…and practice mindfulness with it.  Mindfulness when reading scripture can be likened to reaching into a box set before you while wearing a blindfold.  You can’t see the contents, but you can feel them, and you can name the things that come to mind as you feel around.

And I do this holding gratefulness in my right hand, and sorrow in my left.  Both poles of my heart are engaged in this work so that I don’t delude myself in “feel-goods,” but also don’t mire myself in despair.

For Isaiah 42, for me, it looks like this:

1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

My soul delights these days in some time to spend with my family, uninterrupted by the siren call of work that simply cannot be done in this weather. 
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

I pray for justice this morning: for those killed and left crying by the violence in Fort Lauderdale.  I pray for justice this morning: for those killed, injured, and impacted by the bombing in Azaz on the Turkey border (and I am saddened we don’t often hear this news because Azaz doesn’t look like the U.S., and we don’t pay much attention to places that don’t look like the U.S. in the daily news). I pray justice this morning: for those slaughtered in the Charleston massacre, as Dylan Roof is now on trial.

2He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;

I pray this morning for the voices crying on the streets that no one hears: the cold homeless in my backyard between 540 and Falls. I pray this morning for the voices crying on the streets that I do hear: children sledding and playing and laughing. I give thanks this morning for a God who works not through the screaming and crying of an angry madman making his desires known, but through the screaming and crying of a baby calling us to attend to the needs of the Body of Christ throughout the world.
3a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

I’m grateful for the ways that I was brought to the brink in 2016, but didn’t perish.  I renew my trust that God does look after the bruised in the world, and asks me to as well.
4He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thank you, Lord, for our Carolina coast.  Teach us how to treat the earth justly, knowing that we are made of the same stuff of that ground, and that you were buried in that same ground.

5Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,

I’m grateful for our sun, for the clear nights in my memory where I was brought to realize my smallness in relation to the bigness of everything else due to the stars.
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

I’m grateful for the vastness of our planet, for those who grow and catch food, those who harvest it, and those who bring it to my table. May 2017 bring a deeper connection to those people so that I don’t forget where my food comes from.
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

I’m grateful for my lungs, and my body.  I’m mindful today of my friend Sage, who died of Cystic Fibrosis in 2016.  Your breath was certainly in her, even as she struggled to breathe. 
6I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

God desires me to be in “righteousness” (which really means “right relationship”) with everything: God, others, the planet, myself.  I pray that God helps to show me what “right relationship” looks like, and leads me to see ways to make it a reality.
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

I pray for the ways that I am blind to the people around me.  I pray in repentance for the ways I have ignored those in prison, whether their sentence is just or unjust.  I pray for the ways I lock myself in the prisons of ignorance and bliss, refusing to hear the realities of those around me.  I pray for the ways I am racist and prejudice, and the ways I am blind to it. I’m grateful for your guiding light in a world, God, where the bright lights of the stock market distract us from taking stock of our true wealth.
8I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.

What are the idols whose altars I frequent the most?  The idols of “productivity”? Of “self-worth”? Of the “bottom-line”? Of busy-ness? Of fear and resentment?  Truly, in the Christmas story I am more Herod than Magi, afraid of having my power and comfort stolen from me by the unknown. Save me from this, Lord.
9See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

As I look at the former things, Lord, I pray that you give me a generous heart.  May I be gracious with my past self, and may you lead me to new ways of living into a grateful heart in this unwritten future ahead of me.  Help me to pay attention to the ways you are making yourself known, even before the next thing happens, so that I might be mindful of you, myself, and all things.

Amen.

____________________________________________

Often times I’ll read it a third time as well, more as a prayer now than anything.

So, there we are: Snow Day Church.  Don’t escape this moment. Use it.

And this method is not just for snow days…this could be for any and every day.  It’s not a new way of reading the scriptures, but it’s a way that we often forget is easily at our disposal.  We often read the scriptures thinking they must teach us something, or that we must bring some knowledge to them…which, of course, isn’t wrong.  It’s just not the only way, and perhaps not the best way.

Richard Rohr, the bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic, writes in his book The Naked Now, 

Knowledge is the gathering of information. It consists of knowing about “the ten thousand things,” as the Buddhists poetically call it.  It involves “having the facts straight.” This is beneficial to have. But all the information in the world does not of itself accumulate into wisdom. In fact, as the Franciscan St. Bonaventure noted, “Wisdom is confusing to the proud and often evident tot he lowly.”

Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Wisdom is precisely a different way of seeing and knowing those ten thousand things. I suggest that wisdom is precisely the freedom to be present.

This way of reading scripture, I think, is entering into wisdom.  It is readily available, easily accessible, and provides a gateway into being present in a way that brings us into the Presence.

In that way, it is sacramental.

I commend it to you today, and I look forward to seeing you all soon.  Now…I’m off to build a snowman.

Peace and presence,

pt…

 

 

Don’t Worry, You Have a Big God

15590572_10100411385143079_6527549212564323469_nAt the Brown home we try not to turn on the TV before 7am.  That may seem pretty early to you, but usually that means at least an hour, usually two hours, of playtime and other activities before cartoons.

This past Thursday started out early, like they usually do, opening our Advent calendar, turning on the Christmas tree and the garland lights, and getting some breakfast underway.

Markers and colored paper made their way to the breakfast table to occupy small hands as I made some scrambled eggs.  Between laughs and shouts of frustration (we’re all learning to share these days), I heard a small thud and a little voice started crying.  Alistair, our two year old, had dropped the marker he was using on the floor which, to him, seemed very far away I’m sure.

Findley, our 3 year old, turned to him and said, “Don’t worry Alistair, you have a big brother.” And he got down off of his chair and stopped the crying by finding what was lost and returning it.

Yes, it’s sentimental, but let’s be honest: it’s Christmas.  And really this season in the church year is for reminding one another about the story of a humanity crying out…continuing to cry…and God saying, in big and small ways (small like a baby in a manger), “Don’t worry, my child, you have a big God.”

And then God comes to retrieve what is lost and gives it back to humanity: hope, lost love, salvation from the destructive and sinful ways we operate, a peace that seems fragile and very far away (if it exists at all these days).

Theologian Edward Schillebeeckx puts it this way, “Christ gives us back to ourselves.”

That’s the story of Christmas.

Christmas is the time when we all tell one another of the miraculously big God who shows up in the smallness of the night and the smallness of a baby to stoop low and retrieve all the things that we have lost and continue to lose in this world, including our very selves.

So don’t worry, Beloved, you have a big God.

See you in church.

Christmas Eve is at 5, 7, and 9pm.  Christmas Day is at 10am. Let’s celebrate the season together.

The Marks on God’s Arms: A Christmas Thought

16dc5961a3eb2f5635f762b34c610653At Christmas our thoughts are brought to that impossible sight: God as a tiny baby, with little baby fingers, little baby toes, and the swaddling diapers reserved for the smallest amongst us.  A fleshy divinity if there ever was one.  We look at that in this season and say to one another, “That’s incarnation, that’s God enfleshed.”

But that’s not the only image we’re blessed with on Christmas. At Christmas Day services this year we get a really wonderful reading from Isaiah that alludes to a different form of fleshy divinity.

Click here to read the Isaiah passage.  I’ll wait.

Finished?  Great. Onward…

What was your favorite part of the reading? I especially love verse 10.  The image of God baring an arm for the nations is striking to me…because it could be interpreted in so many ways.

It could be interpreted as God making a muscle, pulling back the sleeve, striking a strongman pose, having just accomplished something that seemed impossible.  I’ve seen that.

It could be that God is pulling back the cuff of the shirt to expose a new tattoo, a physical mark on the body that signifies some sort of emotional mark left by an experience or an event.  “Come!  See what I just went through,” God says to humanity.

It could be God rolling the sleeve to the elbow, revealing scars.  More than one person has done this for me, showing the painful parts of life played out on their arm with a blade or a burn.  Survivors of attacks, mental illness, depression…our arms tell stories.

Perhaps God bares the arm and shows where the chemo port is, or where the iv was.

Christmas is this season where we remind ourselves that God does not pretend to put on skin, but actually does it in Jesus.  Which means that God does not pretend to know our pain, but actually knows it.  

And this provides us some insight into Christ and what Christ means for us. Luther explained it like this: in the Incarnation we get Christ’s blessedness, and he our wretchedness.  Only in assuming humanity could God redeem humanity.

That’s what the theologians tell us.

But I think the priestly poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says it best:

“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.”

An appropriate thought for Christmas where the sounds of brass and heat of fire accompany our worship.

In becoming us, we get a share of God otherwise out of reach.

The thought of God having a chemo port, a tattoo, or scars from self-mutilation may be troubling to you.  I get that.

But remember, Beloved, in the upper room after the resurrection Christians believe that God bared an arm for Thomas to touch the wounds of the one who knows the pain of abandonment, false accusations, violence, and yes, death. “Come! See what I just went through,” Jesus says, and we all lean in with Thomas to get a better look.

In the post-resurrection world we believe that the church, the people of God, are the body of Christ, a continuation of that skinny baby in the manger.

So, in that sense, the body of Christ indeed has tattoos and chemo ports, scars from botched suicides and strong-arm muscles, all of it and more.

And, yes, the chubby baby-rolls that gather at the wrists and the elbows, which we eagerly await again in this season.

At Christmas this year I’m thanking God for bared arms reaching out for bread and wine, reaching out in friendship, reaching out in love to one another, scars and all.  For tiny bare arms that hug me around the neck each morning, and for elderly arms showing wisdom and the marks of a well-lived life.

And I’m giving thanks this Christmas that all of these arms first learned all of this from the one whose tiny bare arms reached forth from that manger, and whose scarred bared arms were stretched out on the cross for all the nations to see.

That’s incarnation.

 

Why We Need Poetry at Christmas

John 1:1-5, 10-14

alitd.jpg1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Why We Need Poetry at Christmas

Let us pray:

Stir up your power, Holy One.

In our shadows, shine your light

In our emptiness, provide your wholeness

In the parched and arid places of our lives

            And in the desert places of our memories

May your love grow again, green, today.

Amen.

Blessed evening.

If we take just a tiny step forward in our calendars, we’ll be at the Winter’s Solstice, you know.  It’s very close, the 21st…Wednesday.  It’s almost like if we just imagine the world taking one small step, we’ll be there: that day where the daylight is so brief, if we sleep too late, we’ll miss it.

And one of the signs we’re having a “blue Christmas”…or a blue anytime in our lives, is that we just want to sleep.

The blue colors of Advent speak to blue periods in our lives.  In fact, the whole season of Advent speaks to that blueness.  The world is jumping to Christmas joy, but Advent calls us to sit vigil with a different time.  And it’s not a sad time, per se.  But it is a time of waiting; waiting for something that hasn’t arrived yet, perhaps even something that, after waiting so long for, you fear will never arrive.

I have a friend of mine who has particular trouble with Advent.  After having six miscarriages, she can’t hear of Mary’s joy at an unwanted birth without feeling a bit resentful.  She, who desperately wants a baby, who wants to feel a life growing inside her, who has felt the pain of the empty womb, just can’t hear it sometimes.  Her patron saint is Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, who only conceived in her very old age.

Elizabeth surely understands the pain of the empty womb.  Miscarriage is a shadow pain that the church would do well to be more honest about.

I have another friend, one of my very best, who is facing his first Christmas without his wife.  The large house where they made a home feels cavernous to him these days.  He gets lost in it, sometimes.  Tripping over her things still. Finding makeup cases in the bathroom drawer still, and no cheek to put it on.

It’s hard for him to talk about to some; I know.  They don’t understand, try as they might…and they do try.  We do try.  But I also know that you cannot see the view from the other side of grief without walking through the valley of the shadow of death yourself.  And that valley is different for everyone…

I was just chatting a few days ago with another friend of mine who said, after I asked how things were, “Well, I’m coming out of my clinical depression, so that’s good…”  Depression is like this unwanted house guest who knocks on the door, takes up residence, eats all your goods, hits you and hurts you and doesn’t know when to leave.  Not the Christmas guest he was hoping for…

I say all this not to be sentimental nor to be sad, but to be real.  To say a hard truth that the world of Deck the Halls has trouble saying: sometimes these days are hard.

Did you know that your nose is the best trigger for memories?  And with all the evergreen and pine, with all of the baked cookies and burning candle wax and holiday roasts and hams and breads: no wonder this season is blue for many.

The memories are ripe for flooding in, here.  It’s difficult to understand.

That’s a great word for tonight, by the way: “understand.” Grief is hard to understand, and yet it seeks understanding.  And the Greek translation of this John text can be read in a few different ways.  You heard me read, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  But that word “overcome” could just as well be translated “understood.”

And so we might hear tonight, with fresh ears, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood it.”  Try that on for size for a moment.

The shadow times of our lives understand many things.  They understand tears.  The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 42 understood this when she penned, “My tears have been my food both night and day.”  The image of tear streaked cheeks, with the saltwater ending up on the lips…it’s one we all know.

And the shadow times of our lives understand gut pain.  That feeling that you have when you can’t catch your breath and you double over and you feel like you’ve been kicked even though no one has touched you.

That shadow times in our lives understand silence.  Silence can be a gift.  But sometimes it can be deafening, especially when you long to hear that voice you once heard again, but don’t hear anymore since the divorce, or since their death or since they left you without a word.

In the shadow times of life we seek to understand everything: why did they die? Why did I live? Why did that relationship dissolve? What did I do?

We think salvation from the pain will be found in understanding.

But one thing the shadow times of our lives don’t understand is the light. I remember being at my first death as a chaplain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital on Chicago’s lakefront.  It seemed like we were there for hours, as we held hands and said goodbye to this dear one that I had just met but knew was a father and a husband and a son.

And I walked outside and the sun was shining and it was a beautiful June day and the birds were chirping and I was so resentful of that.

Didn’t they know?  Didn’t they know what had just happened up on the 7th floor in the ICU where that father/husband/son left the world?

Of course they didn’t.  And yet, in some ways, I’m sure they did.  Creation knows the cycle of life and loss intimately.  Which makes me think that they take advantage of times that we take for granted, knowing that when you have the opportunity to sing, do it!

Do it.

The shadow times don’t understand the light, and so they sometimes convince our heads and our hearts that all the rest of our existence will be spent in the shadow of this loss…whatever “this” is.

But that’s not true.  It feels true sometimes, but it is not true.  Things will never be perfect, and certainly won’t be the same, but they won’t always be so enshrouded.

It’s hard to understand that, though, in the shadows.

You know, I love this reading from John. In many ways I love it even more than the stories of Jesus’ birth in Luke and Matthew. Luke and Matthew are stories with characters and plot. Prose, if you will. “Now it took place in that time that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be taxed. This was the first taxation that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria…” it begins…

Oh, Syria…talk about a shadow place today, that is it…

But John, always the dreamer, knows that the story of what God is accomplishing through Jesus is too heavy for prose. Prose can carry only parts of it. But for the truth of what God is doing to come forth, we need a little poetry where the only characters are God and us.

Poetry is the language that we speak not when we want to understand something, but when we want to express something too deep to understand. When we want to feel it.

Because we feel something deep within our bones, Beloved. A truth about relationships, and a truth about God, a deep truth that defies understanding. This is why it hurts, physically, when we feel loss, even though we haven’t been physically hit. Our bones, our flesh, our molecules drip with a weight that we can’t see, touch, feel, or taste, but which makes itself known in those shadow moments.

And only something that can match that, feel for feel, pound of emptiness for pound of wholeness, will do. And light does that to shadows, and poetry conveys that, thanks be to God.

In shadow moments we need a promise that comes from the tongue of a poet.  An acknowledgment that even though the shadows, the darkness, doesn’t understand the light, the promise is that the light shines still, showing us that salvation from the pain doesn’t lie in our understanding, but in the promises of a God who understands the pain.

The promises of a God who hung in the shadow of the cross, but still burst forth in resurrection light, full of grace and truth, which is really the only shadow we’ll always be in, the shadow of grace and truth.

Tonight we’ll light some candles at the very end.  You can do so if you want to, too.  And when you do, I encourage you to feel the light if you can.  Feel it on your skin.  Let it cut through the emptiness that you may feel.  Let it cut through the saccharine of Christmas pageants to the real visceral, poetic truth that even though we can’t understand how it can be, even though we can’t always see it, even though we can’t always feel it or even know it:

The light of God’s promises still shine, and the shadows, the darkness, can’t understand it or overcome it.

Disrupted in the Ember Days of Life

embers-493390_640A resource I use for spiritual growth in these Advent days calls this time, just past half-way to Christmas, the “ember days.”

I like that.

I can visualize that.  Those days when things are running thin: patience, time, health, sanity.  So thin that they’re not even a small flame anymore, but an ember-shadow of their former selves.

The words of Edna St. Vincent Millay ring in my ears:

My candle burns at both ends;

it will not last the night;

but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

it gives a lovely light!

But if I am honest with myself–and though I try to be, I so rarely am–I have to admit that, even as we talk about the sacredness and scarcity of time and energy most in Advent (especially those of us who call ourselves Christian), the rush-rush life is not special to these four weeks.

Much of the time I am burning my candle at both ends. A glimpse at my January calendar will reveal that I learn very little about slowing down in this time of intentional housewarming. January is filled to the brim already. And even though we hear John the Baptizer yell at us to “turn around” and the prophets scream at us “stay awake!” my pace neither allows me to change trajectory nor stay aware, what with all the running around.

The train has left the station, and I can’t slow down…at least not without considerable disruption to my life.

And, can we talk about my current life state? Parent of two young ones, one of which, in his two-ness, sees fit to call the midnight hour his crying hour these days.

In many ways my life is disrupted enough already, with all that baby crying, and not in a holy way.  And I tell myself that I just have to push through it.

Push through it.

Work through it…

If there’s one thing that Advent makes clear it’s that Christmas is meant to be a big disruption.  In fact, Luke and Matthew portray the night as a cosmic disruption, where the very heavens were lit with signs and signals that a new thing was happening, causing people on the hillside to be on alert and kings in castles to shake in their boots!

But I too often just keep pursuing things that don’t give me life at a pace that steals from me like a thief in the night.  I didn’t learn to push through the rat race from God, after all.  I learned it from well-meaning embered mentors who didn’t know any better and told me I shouldn’t know any better, either, if I want to make it in a world where our full calendars provide purpose.

And so I learned to like it, running at full steam.  I learned to believe the light created from burning the wick at both ends was lovely and not a warning sign.

My spirit knows better, though.  And in these ember days, when hope and heart may feel like they’re giving out on you, you’re invited to take some solace in this story of cosmic disruption, woven for us in the fabric of time, about a God whose love is so strong it forges itself into the shape of a tiny baby cry to coax the tiny embers of our faith, life, and spirit back to life.

And you know the way to keep an ember alive, right?  You stop pushing it so hard, or else you may extinguish it.  Instead, you bend down low to it, spend some time on it, gently pouring your breath into it until it flames again.

So let’s stop “pushing it,” and let’s set aside “working through it.”  Let’s take the wheels off of our nonstop transit, make Advent wreaths out of them,  sit in a stable before we’re more shadow than ember.

Because in that small place, that stillness, we’ll hear once again of a God who loves us enough to sit close to us, again and again, pouring breath into us, coaxing the world back to life through a baby cry.

And I’m praying, in these ember days, that it will totally disrupt my January.

In a good way.

 

 

 

Where the Wild Things Are

<You can listen to the sermon by clicking here. Listening to a sermon, as opposed to reading it, is like getting a back rub as opposed to watching one happen.>

Matthew 3:1-12

11660917846_8437372a32_bIn those days John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Turn around, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.  Then the people of Jerusalem and all of Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he wll clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Where the Wild Things Are

Let us pray:

Stir up your power, Holy One.

You call to us from the desert of our souls

            Those arid places that need your baptismal water

                        Again and again.

But we are like snakes: without ears, and we don’t hear well

            What with all our distractions.

Send us the baptizer again.

            We’ll take John

                        But who we really need is Jesus

                        Immanuel

He’s the one we’re waiting for in these Advent days.

Amen.

What’s your favorite children’s book?  Anyone?

Mine is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

I know it by heart. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind/and another. His mother called him ‘wild thing’ and said ‘I’ll eat you up!’ So he was sent to bed without eating anything at all.”

The imagine of Max in his wolf suit captivated the young me, and still today the not-so-young me. Wild things, wild beasts, wild dreams: these are the things of excitement and urgency and danger.

 

John the Baptizer falls into that category, the family and genus of the wild things.  His manner of dress and his diet give clues to the reader of what stock he is from.  Sure, he’s son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, but his PETA-offending clothes, his long, wild hair, and his food of bugs and honey put him in the lineage of the desert-roaming prophets: Elijah, Elisha, Amos.  He calls to people from the outskirts of the city, down by the river, reminding the nice town-folk that God cares little for their attractive floor coverings, their polite language, their proper technique when it comes to exterior illumination.  God doesn’t even care if they sing Christmas songs in Advent.

“You sneaky snakes,” John says. “You distract yourselves with your rules, in competition to get life right.  But God is more like a farmer than a judge in a competition.  In competition you get points for style and effort, but the farmer’s attention is on the heart of the fruit.”

The words of this wild John the Baptizer thing do eat us up.  And the urgency is real, not manufactured like all the fake urgency manufactured by all the fake news flying around our world today.  The urgency is real because, as John the Baptizer rightly says, the time is now.

It is always now.  So why, Beloved, are you still living in the past or anxious about the future?  The urgency doesn’t lie there; it is now.

Our ancient mothers and fathers conceived of God as being a bit wild.  Why do you think the angels always open with the words, “Fear not!”? We’ve domesticated God, equating God with Santa Clause, the giver of gifts and tally-taker of who is on the nice and naughty list.  But God’s encounter with Moses was not the red of a flannel suit and rosy cheeks, but a bush on wild-fire, defying physics and tantalizing the imagination.

We’ve domesticated Jesus, pretending he votes our values (or we vote his), putting him in stark white robes so that he looks like the pastor we’ve always dreamed of (with considerably more hair).  But perhaps Jesus is more John the Baptist than John Smith.

We’ve domesticated the Holy Spirit, relegating her to a peaceful dove who gently alights07-pentecost-764x764 upon shoulders and inspires beautiful paintings.  But maybe the Holy Spirit is more gadfly than dove, aggravating more often then alighting.  For this example I appreciate my Celtic ancestry.  They referred to the Holy Spirit as “Ah Gaedh-Glas” or “The Wild Goose,” sending the Celts on a wild goose chase, literally, as they sought out the Spirit to inform their lives.

And if God is wild, then the kingdom of God is wild.

The kingdom of God, the one John claims is near, does not look like an earthly kingdom.  It looks more like, well, a wilderness: where you can’t tell who is good and who is bad because those categories don’t exist when everyone is loved. Where you can’t tell who is servant and who is ruler because everyone is servant, and therefore, everyone is ruler, and the first is last and the last is first, and who could figure out the rules of living in such a confusing world?

It’s like a strange wilderness where all rules are broken.  It’s supposed to be what the church looks like.

Perhaps we’ve been domesticated by the world.

Because this world expects us to live for money, power, fame, and fortune.  It expects us to reinforce the idea of who is in and who is out.  Those are the rules. It expects us to love our own, take care of our own, and be with our own, and survive on our own.  Those are the rules.

But in Advent we remind ourselves of this story of a lonely couple, on their own, who are trying to follow the rules even though the rules oppress them, who in their time of need become surrounded by the strangest crew, brought from the rule-breaking wild margins of society: dirty shepherds, elusive angels, and pagan sorcerers that we’ve domesticated by calling them “magi” or “kings.”

The wild one, John the Baptizer, calls to us in Advent to remind us of just who we’re waiting for: a wild one from the margins who will minister to those on the margins and who invites the church to move from the center to the wilderness of the margins.

Into the wilderness of walking with those with mental illness.  Into the wilderness of walking with those who are oppressed because of their skin color, their ethnic heritage, their family ancestry.  “Do not think that your family is better,” John the Baptizer tells us.  “God can create families from stones to rival yours.”

Called even into the wilderness of your soul, where you will search for certainty your whole life only to have those tables overturned numerous times throughout your life.  I’ve seen it, Beloved.  At age 12.  At age 33.  At age 40 (we’ve domesticated it by calling it mid-life crisis, but it’s really a table-flipping feeling, as if everything is upended).  At the empty-nest stage.  At the death of a partner, parent, lover, child.

In these wilderness places we hear the voice of God speak, cutting through all this fake news we watch on TV and post on our social media, that fake news that creates a fake urgency.

And in the wilderness place we hear the voice of one, crying out for us saying: I love you, you are mine.  Crying out with us: my God my God, why have you forsaken me?  Crying out on behalf of us to God: Forgive them, they know not what they do.

And only a wild goose of a God who loves with such wild abandon, who is willing to break the rules to love and forgive those broken open on the so-called rules of the world, can swallow our lives, sinliness and saintliness…all of it…into the waters of baptism, into the heart of grace.

Look, I know.  I know some of you feel like you’re in a wilderness time.  The bed at night is empty.  The job is mindless, or non-existent.  The marriage is empty.  The chemo leaves you empty. The pantry is empty. For some democracy seems empty.  For others civility seems empty.  The emptiness seeks to devour us, or at least it feels that way.  I know it because I at times feel all that, too.

But, Beloved, even as we wait for Christ in the manger, perhaps the real truth is that the Wild Goose is on the loose even now, always now, chasing us down in our wilderness spaces, seeking to infuse those empty places of our lives with the wholeness that comes only from a God who is wild and more powerful than any other wild thing seeking to devour us.

At Christmas we are reminded that God always invites us to dine at this table of continual grace in the wilderness of our lives, and that God sends those other things that try to devour us to bed, to the grave.

Without eating anything at all.

Swept Away in Advent

water-flowI’m feeling swept away these days.

I hopped off a plane late last night (almost this morning) from a trip out West where I married two life-long friends.  It was a sacred time, and it was “away time.”  And away time always seems to require “catch-up time,” which is not the kind of time we ever have, right?

In the office today I met meeting upon meeting, back to back, teaching and then evaluating and then writing, listening and advising and driving children around, and then now at my desk.

Which is a mess, by the way.  My creative process requires that I surround myself with books, but this is just ridiculous: books to shelve, letters to respond to, birthday cards and open folders and gifts to unwrap.

Oh, and it’s a holiday week, too, which means my already tight work-week is abbreviated even further, and there are pies to bake still, and bags to pack, and words that need writing.

And next week?  We fall headlong into Advent where we encourage everyone to “slow down” and “wait together” knowing full-well that they’ll all be running around buying presents and baking gifts and hitting up the holiday sights/sites and attending the holy-day services (or deciding which ones to skip this year because, who has the time?!).

Exactly.  Who has the time?

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is about time.  “But about the hour and the day, no one knows…” exclaims a cryptic Christ. “Stay awake…you must be ready…” he goes on to say.  God can come at any moment.

I have the “awake” part, Jesus, but the “ready” thing is what I need help with.  Because if God can come at any moment, well, that’s another setting at the table that I have to plan for, and maybe we’ll stick God next to Aunt Elma because, Lord knows I don’t want to sit there…

I need help with the “ready” part of it, God.

Or do I?

I think these mini-apocalypse readings that dot the beginning of the Advent season are a gift to us.  They make us pause for a second in our goings-about.

Like the people in Noah’s day, leading lives of ordinariness, we too are swept up and carried away by all that must be attended to in these days.

And all of a sudden, splash, the flood comes.  For Noah’s neighbors that meant bad news.  But for those of us on the other side of the rainbow (or, better yet, God’s hunting bow hung in the sky and painted with finger paints, never to be used for killing again), the splash we get is good news.

A flood of grace, in fact.  Swept away in a flood of grace that we call baptism; that we call endless love; that we call Advent.

People read these texts and think that they’re about some sort of rapture moment when people are taken away, but actually a close reading will reveal that Jesus is encouraging the hearer to lean into time, not try to escape it.  Lean into this moment, for it could be the one, that moment of grace, that Christ moment that you need.  Don’t escape or fight it; lean into it, Beloved.

So, instead of fighting time, I’m going to encourage you to flow with it.  Be swept up in it.  Advent days are a deluge of grace moments.  Because no amount of  a preacher yelling “slow down” is going to make you do it. And you don’t know the day or the hour when you’ll need that little bit of grace that the baked cookie provides, that the sparkled light gives, that the thoughtful card will express, so by God, don’t pretend this rush of the holidays is anything but holiness.

Because it is when we see it that way.

Advent gives us the gift of time, holy time, to warm our houses, prep our hearts, buy a few presents (only a few!) with deep love, carefully wrap them, and imagine a world where trees grow inside, cookie jars refill endlessly, and relatives come invited to a meal that seems to go on and on into the night.

Because, dear one, you never know, right?  So be swept up in the grace of these days, of this holy time of the holidays.  Don’t fight the current, flow with it. Let every sentiment sparkle and every second shine like the glorious gift it is.

Notice that I said “let it,” not “make it.”

Because if there’s something I’ve learned from being swept up by grace over and over again in my life it’s that, when I try to make something happen, I’m actually just fighting the current.

Let Advent happen; no need to be ready because we’re never really ready, and only delusional if we think we are.  Instead of delusional, we need to be deluged in the grace of these days.  Just flow with it. Be swept up in it.

And just see if Christ doesn’t show up again.

Because he’s got the time.  And that’s all that really matters, right?