Keeping Christ Alive

On Christmas Eve, for the first time in many years, I simply attended worship. As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I couldn’t help but see the many servants who make worship happen. They unfolded chairs for the overflow crowd, hurried outside to make last minute preparations, and turned up the sound to ensure we could all hear the scripture speak. They are the ones who rehearsed many hours that the music of Christmas might lift us. And they are the ones we don’t see–unless we hang around awhile–who clean up the sanctuary after the celebration ends.

They are the ones who are willing to sacrifice family time to make Christmas Eve glorious for the family of faith they don’t see as often.

The infamous Scrooge contrasted the life of a lonely man to that of a family man (Bob Cratchit). It contrasted wealth with love. The spirits showed Scrooge what could have been if he had been generous, not let his past define him, and sought love instead of money. He too could have known love…he still can. It is within his power to give. And, because of Cratchit, it is within his realm to receive.

Christmas is often cast in such Dickensian images. A family sharing a meal together is the image of American Christmas celebrations. Many are moved to give to the needy, to share from their wealth a gift that someone might not feel forgotten or miss the holiday meal. And, as much as we want to complain about shopping centers, many of us enjoy choosing and wrapping gifts to put under our own trees, wanting to give to those we love something that makes them smile. Might we even admit to enjoying the moment when we get to tear open a gift or two, having a new toy with which to play?

I like all these things. But what I most missed this year was hanging out with the church servants who keep the candles lit. They aren’t paid to be there, they just are. You might want to picture them as elderly, but in churches that are most alive, all ages of people gather long before Christmas Eve worship begins. These servants wrap their gifts, go to malls, and make sure there is a meal on their family table. But these things are done around their faith commitment. Their table decorations may not be as fancy as those who use the entire day to prepare. But they don’t mind. While many people fit church into their Christmas Eve plans, these are the faithful people who choose to make Christmas Eve plans around their commitment to welcome in those who are seeking the Christ.

And not just on Christmas Eve….

It is tough. Many of you have heard me say it is easy to fill a day. Jesus intrudes. It is much harder to plan a perfect meal when you are taking the time to act on your prayers. Jesus gets in the way because he believes we are meant to do ever so much more than Ebenezer Scrooge.

When I read the scripture that I will preach on next Sunday (Laguna Beach Neighborhood Congregational Church, 340 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.), I recognize Simeon as one of these faithful people who I’ve been privileged to know over the years. He is one who is moved by something more powerful than images of ghosts.

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”

He believed that there could be a way forward for the broken nation he lived within. He was devout, choosing the way of faith. He was righteous, not self righteous, but one who worked at finding the right way.

“Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…”

Before I wrote today I read two of my favorite current writers, a Congregationalist pastor and a Franciscan monk. While their messages differed, their tone was the same. Although they have been working at living this faith longer than I have, there was no hint of cynicism when they spoke of the birth of Jesus. After many years, they still enter into the awe and wonder. “Don’t let us spoil it,” says one.

They made me think, if there is something that gives Christ’s people their spark, it is that they don’t spoil it! They allow the wonder that is Jesus’ grand entrance to intrude again and again, arms open, ready to receive that which God has sent. And, so I pray may each of us be granted—no, may each of us work–to keep such faith alive!

Heather

An Outsider’s Faith

When Jesus was born, we left behind the promised land.

By that first Christmas day, something had happened to the temple–scripture tells us it was no longer a place of true worship.  It no longer led the heart, mind, and soul into the knowledge of the love of God.  Instead, it was a a place of duty–where you had to bring your offerings in order to expiate your sin.  And it was a place of politics, having authority over, and making laws for, a special group of people in the Roman Empire; a people for which it had become the most exclusive of clubs.  Soon it would become a place that would lead the persecution of God’s chosen. Scripture, often in the words of Jesus, suggests the temple had lost its soul, the desire to be with and of God. 

 When God chose to send Jesus into the world, God chose to do so outside of the temple.  Mary and Joseph had to leave their home in order to make their way to Bethlehem.  The shepherds were on the hills when the angels arrived to tell them of Jesus’ birth.  The wise men who came later leave behind their country to find what God has brought to life.  While Luke has poetically drawn Simeon and Anna in the temple waiting for Jesus to arrive for his blessing, even he has to admit that the arrival of Jesus, the incarnation, happened outside. 

 Christianity is, at its very beginning, an outsiders’ religion. 

 Terry, a friend of mine, was sitting in her car at 5:30 in the morning yesterday.  Her skin is of a darker hue than most in Southern Orange County.  Seeing her in the car in that pre-dawn hour, a woman was moved to go to her and offer her $10. What did Terry do?  Take offense?  Get angry?  Drive away embarrassed?  No, she invited the woman to her party that day and asked her to bring gifts for kids who are staying in a shelter.  The only reason we know this story is the woman arrived with her daughter and gifts in hand.  If Terry had thought only of her dignity in that bizarre morning moment, this would never have happened. 

 A church musician who recently felt the barbs of those whose selective reading of the Bible put him, because of his sexuality, outside of the Christian Way rehearsed countless hours to present a program which honored many musicians who created the organ repertoire.  He used his words to lift up others, and his talent to create memories and draw us into a world beyond our own.  As is his way, he added a few more pieces at the end. One moment inviting a soprano to sing with him a favorite soft operatic piece, gladly taking his place in the background.  Another moment, playing a song he knew was the favorite composition of a man in the audience because his wife (who had passed) had often played it.  He played on because he knew this music would minister to those who were present.  His focus was never on himself.

Christianity is an outsider’s religion. In the scriptures that tell of Jesus’ birth, there is no sense that those involved argued or felt sorry for themselves.  They didn’t put down a precondition of acceptance or welcome before they responded to God’s call on their lives.  Rather, scripture shows them responding with willful abandon.  Mary and Joseph lay down on the hay and, when Jesus arrived, they made good use of the feeding trough.  The shepherds most likely left their sheep on the hill, overcome by the message they had been given by the angels in the sky.  God didn’t mind having Jesus arrive to the song of the mooing cows.  It wouldn’t be wrong to say God planned it that way. 

 Not only did Jesus come to welcome the outsider into God’s love, but God depended on the outsiders to bring Jesus into the world, to announce his arrival, to bray in the new kingdom.  And so perhaps if we are feeling a little more like a donkey than a king today, we might choose not to put our tale between our legs.

                    Heather

For the Love of Mary

During Advent, Mary takes center stage in the Biblical story.  Believers who speak a historical creed speak of her as the Virgin Mary, underscoring the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth.   Some whose faith lives outside of the historical creeds speak of her as a young girl, pregnant before she was married; they see in God’s use of her another sort of miracle.  And yet, both traditions find their souls singing the words of Luke 1:46 – 55, the Magnificat.  In this telling of the pre-birth stories of Jesus, this is Mary’s response to the news that she is carrying God’s son: not the easiest of jobs even for an experienced homemaker!  Luke chooses to reveal Mary’s faith and God’s world-turning ways through a song:

 

My soul magnifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God

my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the

lowliness of his servant.

   Surely, from now on all generations

will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great

things for me,

   and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

   from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the

thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful

from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with

good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel

   in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to

our ancestors,

   to Abraham and to his descendants

forever.

Through Mary’s faithfulness, God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, and reaches out to us.

I didn’t think much of Mary until the day I stood with my husband David in St. Peter’s square, being soaked by rain.  From high above and far away the Pope, appearing as a faint, fuzzy dot in a distant window, blessed us.  I felt more cold than blessed, and mostly I worried that I would miss what I most wanted to see that day: the earliest Christian art found in the underground catacombs, the burial place of the first Christians. 

 After a lunch on our feet, we took a bumpy bus ride down the Appian Way and entered again into the rain and the mud.  There was a sign pointing to catacombs, but they weren’t the particular catacombs I had hoped to see.  It was winter.  The light was quickly turning to darkness.  I mentioned we were cold and wet.  Stomping the ground because of my irritation with having spent time waiting for a rainy blessing on a PA system instead of making it a priority to see what I wanted, I gave in and went reluctantly into the available catacombs.

We went on the tour, going underground with flashlights and a Franciscan monk.  He asked David what he did for a living; David talked about his software business.  Then he asked me what I did.  At that time I was studying for the ministry and I said so, hoping I wouldn’t offend.  He took no offense– instead, knowing what I was doing made him more passionate about what he was showing us.  He added to the usual tour.  When we were done, he asked me to wait a moment.  He had something to give to me.  It was night–the rain had momentarily stopped–when he returned with an iconic picture of Mary, the kind you would pick up in a Catholic store.  With a kind smile, he pressed the picture into my hand and said “this is Mary, the Mother of God.”  And the peace of God descended upon me as it does when one has truly been blessed.

When I think about Mary and that day, I realize that God knows that a blessing from on high can easily  miss us.  When the rain is pouring down, when all around us seems to be mud, words spoken through a loudspeaker don’t mean much.  But when the words are spoken by one willing to walk with you through the dark, one who is also a person of faith, the raging ego is calmed, the heart opened, and God can get in. 

I know many of those who were brought up in non-Catholic Christianity want to run right to Jesus as the one who walks with us through the dark.  Mary seems like an idol, one who gets in the way of our direct relationship with God (I’ve been told by some I’ve served that they are uncomfortable with the way Catholics lift up Mary). Consider this: there are times when even Jesus seems too distant, too perfect, too much a Lord rather than a friend.  Jesus had titles.  Mary has only her name, her humanity, her arms that held Jesus. 

Holding Jesus is what we imperfect human beings are called to do on Christmas.  We can contemplate Mary that we might be strong enough to hold and love the one who will die. We can picture Mary’s strength bringing us comfort when we feel alone in the storm.  And, if in so doing, we find a like courage to joyfully sing out a faith where God disrupts the cosmos–rather than orders it according to our plans–then thank God.

 Maybe then our souls will magnify the Lord. 

             Heather

Waiting for God

When we spend so much of our lives battling, striving, and working as hard as we can, the image of waiting outside in the dark, hoping for the door to open, is one of the most challenging passages of scripture (Matthew 25, a traditional reading for Advent).  Matthew’s ten virgins standing outside, waiting for the bridegroom to let them in, is enough to send many of us right back to the real world–where many doors open when we feel like it. Virgins?  Clearly this was the pre-Katy Perry (much less Madonna) era.

In Jeremiah one of the refrains of God’s word is this:  “I will banish from them the sound of mirth and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” (Jer. 16: 9, 25:10).  Jeremiah plays strongly on the image of a bride who has gone astray: one who has gone after other husbands, idols and images of other gods.  Those who heard Jeremiah’s message understood that the unfaithful bride was all of them, all of Israel. The prophecy is written in a way that is sympathetic to God.  God’s lavish love has been pushed aside for others.  God has a right to move on from those who have polluted themselves with loyalty to other gods.  The covenant has been broken.

When Jesus begins his ministry, he says God also has the right–and has chosen–to invite us back into the covenant.  The wedding feast becomes a symbol of the restored relationship between God and God’s people.  The kingdom of heaven is marked by such a feast.

The virgins (sometimes referred to as bridesmaids, acknowledging Jeremiah’s construction) that populate Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” story are not intended to suggest that these women are incomplete, but rather that they are able to give to God their all.  They haven’t claimed or been claimed by another.  No one has taken God’s rightful place.  Encumbered only by the lamp and oil, they enter into the night, believing God will meet them.

Those who choose the heavier load, who carry extra oil, are prepared to wait longer than the others.

I was reminded recently that our neural pathways are shaped by our habits.  The more we do something, the larger the pathway, and the more apt we are to fall onto it.  I like to have my hands free, so I’m always more apt to take less than more, believing I can get what I need on the way.  But that comes from a life based on movement, going here and there, in my mind, in my work, and in my play.  I can always go and get what I need.

This scripture suggests a different way.  The kingdom of heaven will be experienced as a wedding feast when we do what is necessary to be still and wait on God.  It requires a commitment; our hands are not free. It requires faith, a belief that the door will open.  It requires that we are available, unattached to that which seeks to take the place of God.

Fittingly, forming these connections takes a conscious effort.  When the familiar smaller gods shout out their command for our loyalty, we recognize them for what they are, and let them be.  The corresponding pathway shrinks.  When we stand in front of the closed door, growing angry by the unfairness or fearful that we have been left behind, we can deliberately choose to speak different words: words of expectation of what is to come, words that know God to be good.  The better pathway grows.  When we get ready to meet God, we realize that to change our connections takes time, and we allow ourselves enough fuel to keep our lamp lit.

“At midnight, there was a shout, ‘Look!  Here is the bridegroom!  Come out to meet him.’”  (Mt. 25: 6).

Come out…from behind those lesser gods, from the underside of fear, from your own self…come out and meet your God.  There is a party going on, and you are invited.