Archive for December 2010
I didn’t have the time to post a sermon sapling early in the week, so this is a copy of my final manuscript. However, I did not read from the manuscript in the pulpit, so the sermon as delivered can be found here.
B has been seeing the ads for a new Disney movie for weeks, broadcast during morning cartoons aimed at a preschool audience, and he had been begging us to see it. The movie is called Santa Paws, and the previews show an array of adorable scenes of talking dogs and singing children and Santa Claus. The only way to see the movie was to buy the DVD, and we were reluctant to spend the $20. But his grandparents visited this week, and, well, you know how that goes.
So we gathered to watch Santa Paws together. What we wanted, what we expected, was a cute story about talking dogs and Christmas, about Santa’s love for a particular puppy, and a little bit of Christmas magic. What we got was a rather maudlin story about a family business going under, the death of a beloved grandfather, abused orphans locked in basements, a Santa with amnesia who ends up nearly dying in the ICU, and the talking dog dies not once, but twice in the movie. Of course, it is a kids’ movie, so everything turns out alright in the end. The dog saves Santa, Santa saves the dog, the family business turns a profit and the orphans find a warm and loving home. But 85% of the movie is one disaster after another in the lives of the characters—it just keeps getting worse and worse as the movie goes on. Poor B was fearful and tense and sad for 75 minutes of a 90 minute film. As the talking dog dies the first time, he turns to me and says, “I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.”
That’s exactly my sentiment about the Gospel story this week. I made a commitment to preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year schedule of readings for worship, that began the first Sunday of Advent. I didn’t want to break that commitment on week 5, but “I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.”
Just the night before last, we gathered in such beauty and sang carols and held candles. We celebrated the birth of a baby with angels and shepherds and glorias. Now, less than two days later, the lectionary confronts us with the slaughter of the innocents. Jesus and his family are refugees, running for their lives from an evil dictator set on murder. Instead of learning to coo and laugh and roll over and sit up, the Baby Jesus is running for his life to Egypt. We wanted adorable sheep and quiet donkeys, and we get soldiers and murderers and refugees.
“I didn’t think it would be like this. I don’t like this.” Yet one story follows another.
But those things always co-exist in Christmas stories. It’s not just Santa Paws. It’s a Wonderful Life is about a suicide attempt. A Charlie Brown Christmas is about a depressed kid who gets no Christmas cards or presents. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is about misfit toys and misfit elves and misfit reindeer rejected by the North Pole community, running away and lost in the snow. Even Frosty the Snowman lives under constant threat of death by melting.
I even considered trying to get away from this story by celebrating St. Stephen’s day, a major feast day and holiday in many Catholic countries, but then we’d just end up talking about St. Stephen, whose major claim to fame was that he was the first martyr, stoned to death for following Jesus Christ.
So the story of Christ’s beautiful birth stands side-by-side with the slaughter of the innocents. The baby Jesus is born homeless, and immediately they try to murder him. His family turns into refugees as they flee the angry King Herod. They leave everything behind, not returning from Bethlehem to Nazareth to fetch Joseph’s carpentry tools or introduce the baby to his grandparents or say goodbye to their families. This is part of the Christmas story, as much as the sweetly singing angels are a part of the Christmas story. As much as abused orphans and dying dogs are a part of Santa Paws.
We want to hold on to the beauty of the manger, the candlelight and the serenity of “Silent Night,” but the real world interrupts with its violence and messiness and struggles. Because Jesus didn’t come for Christmas beauty, Jesus came for the real world.
As much as we all enjoy the beauty of Christmas Eve, Jesus didn’t come to give us a glorious night of singing and prayer and praise. Jesus came to topple empires and threaten earthly kingdoms. It’s no wonder that his trouble with the authorities started at such an early age. He came to overturn the tables in the temple, to speak challenge to the Pharisees, to call people back to God. He came for tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. He came for orphans locked in basements and patients in the ICU, for those who are grieving and heartbroken and lost and afraid. He came to give hope to the poor and justice to the oppressed. Jesus came to die on the cross. And if you have come into this world to be so disruptive that they are going to try to kill you, you’d better expect it will start as soon as word gets out that you were born.
It may not be what we thought it would be like, but I suspect God knew all along that this is what it would be like. If God came to redeem sinners, to live in the real world with us, then that’s just where God had to go.
What does it mean for us? It means that we need not cling to Christmas memories as our only light and hope. Because God-with-us, Immanuel, Jesus Christ, comes to live in the real world, not just in the perfect places. We need not fear the disruption of arrogant kings or violent forces or brokenness and imperfection or illness and sorrow, or even just the every doldrums of real world life. Because that is exactly the real world that Jesus came inhabit, and came to save.
We need not fear a return to the real world—because, even more than in the beauty and pageantry of Christmas Eve or the serenity of the nativity, the real world is where Jesus dwells. The real world is what Jesus came to save. Thanks be to God.
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, by Kenda Creasy Dean, Oxford University Press, 2010, 254 pp.
This book seriously knocked my socks off. I was expecting a sociological look at youth ministry based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, filled with statistics about how our youth are falling away and the church is threatened with greater decline. I also expected some of the traditional suggestions about revamping our church style to attract the next generation. This book was none of those things. Instead, what Kenda Creasy Dean offers here is a prophetic indictment of American Christianity, based on the perspectives of our young people and solidly grounded in theology and biblical perspective. I read it once, and anticipate reading it again.
The core of the book centers on an interpretation of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), which was a massive research study from 2003-2005 into the spiritual and religious lives of youth, including surveys and extensive interviews of young people across the United States. The book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers published the initial results and introduced the concept of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as the true faith practice of most teens. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a pseudo-religious belief system that emphasizes being good and nice, feeling happy and good about oneself. The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism created the world and watches over it and helps out when we have problems, but is otherwise uninvolved in our lives and makes no demands of us other than being good, nice and fair. Soul Searching talked about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a displacing substantive religious faith with “personal happiness and interpersonal niceness.” (Almost Christian, 14)
Kenda Creasy Dean does not take issue with the research of Soul Searching, since she herself was a researcher in the NYSR. What she does, however, is shift the burden (and blame) away from youth and squarely on to the shoulders of the church, parents and the example we have set. She argues that, in the interest of making Christianity appealing, we have failed to make it anything of consequence. Youth in the study generally have positive feelings about religion, because they don’t think it matters very much. We have not shown them, by the example of our lives and the missional imagination of our churches, that Christian faith makes any difference at all.
I have seen Moralistic Therapeutic Deism at work in the lives of the youth in my congregation, and I have struggled to break through it in my conversations with them. I also recognize my complicity in the problem. I have shied away from the hard truths of sin and sacrifice in an attempt to make Christianity appeal to young people. I have downplayed the reality that the God of Jesus Christ demands we give up everything to follow, that we take up our cross and abandon our possessions, in fear that such a high price might scare them away altogether.
The good news is that it’s not too late, and the church already has everything needed to invite our young people into consequential faith. Dean names the arts of “translation, testimony and detachment”–practices that help us understand our story as part of God’s story, that help us articulate our faith for others to hear, and help us let go of the things of this world and see with God’s perspective. The way to teach people that kind of faith is by example—the example of parents and church members living lives of sacrifice and service in God’s name, sharing their faith with the next generation.
Anyone who cares about youth and youth ministry should read this book. So should anyone who cares about the future and the vitality of the church. There is much more substance and sophistication than I can convey in this short review. It is a rich and compelling read. Dean’s convincing argument is that the faith of our teenagers is the faith of their parents, and the faith the church has been teaching. We all find ourselves co-opted by the power of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The power of this book is the depth of analysis Dean offers, steeped in theological, biblical and spiritual insight. Like all good prophets, she offers a scathing conviction, and then she tells us how God is going to redeem us and sets us on the path toward righteousness.
Last night I dreamt I danced with Dionysus. We met at a conference of some sort, and his nametag said, “Dion.” He was handsome, dashing, winsome, youthful. We flirted across the room, startled by chance connections. We talked with delight about subjects of pleasure and indulgence. There was intrigue, but always innocence.
When we arrived at the party, I asked if he knew how to dance. He took my hand and led me onto the floor for polkas and swings and foxtrots and waltzes with pivots. He swept me off my feet and made me feel giddy and girlish. We both wanted to linger with this bliss. I told him it was my birthday, and he had given me a great celebration.
When the evening ended, there was a choice to be made. Would I follow him? I didn’t even have to say the words: he knew I could not, would not go with him, to run away for a life of dancing and parties. I knew in a new and deeper way that, in spite of the elation of the evening, I did not want to spend my birthday dancing with a stranger. I still yearned to come home to my husband and son, a homemade cake and dirty dishes in the sink. My life, even with its burdens and responsibilities and stresses, was where I wanted to be. It had meaning and purpose and mission. I follow another God, who places stringent demands on me but makes my life matter in the lives of others. I am happy in my life and my chosen path.
I contemplated kissing him, not as a prelude but as a farewell. As I reached to embrace him, Dionysus buried his face in my shoulder and wept. It became clear that he also had a settled life to return to, although I do not know if he was happy or unhappy in it. As he sobbed into my shoulder, I woke up.
I awoke feeling grateful for the night of dancing and nostalgic for my youth, but also profoundly at home in my own grown-up life and relationships and responsibilities, even with the mess and stress they bring. Dionysus, the god of ecstasy and epiphany, the stranger who comes, gave me a great bacchanalia. The party was a gift, and it made me grateful to return home again. One night with Dionysus, and I was eager to return to Deus, Yahweh, the God of Hope and Sacrifice, the God who also comes—not to help us escape, but to save and to sanctify.
What a great dream-gift to start out my birthday morning.
Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.
I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.
Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.
This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.
So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.
In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.
Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.
When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)
No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.
I spend a lot of time making pastoral visits to aging members who are no longer able to attend worship, whether visiting them at home or in senior living facilities. Currently, there are 20 households on that list, and I try to see most of them every 4-8 weeks, depending upon their situation. I celebrate Holy Communion with many of them at every visit, although some prefer it only at holiday times.
Most of the time, I wonder about the value of these visits. Yes, it is a comfort to lonely or isolated individuals that the pastor comes to see them, to express the church’s ongoing care and concern. Sometimes—oftentimes—visits from lay people can accomplish the same message even better. We often just chit-chat, catching up on news from the church family. We pray, but we don’t talk about the deepest things of the heart.
Until we do talk about those things. And then things get very profound, very fast. Although I always try to invite those deeper conversations, it still catches me off guard when people venture there. I am surprised by how much people yearn to unburden their hearts to me. They move swiftly sometimes from chatting about the weather to disclosing deep secrets of their past. We visit five, ten, 20 times and tell the same pleasant stories, until the one time I come and they open up about the guilt and self-doubt they harbor, the questions they have about God and salvation, the fears and anguish they bear for themselves or members of their family.
I become a secret-keeper, a holder of stories, a bearer of burdens. I hear stories that break my heart, things I can never forget, sadness that cannot be overcome. Long after the teller of the story has died, I remember. On the next visit, when we return to talking about the latest church social or who’s been in the hospital lately, I wonder if they will want to talk about it again. Always, I pray, and through those prayers I try to surround us with comfort and forgiveness and hope, to release the story to God’s hands.
I am honored by these confidences, even though sometimes they can feel overwhelming. I am humbled by the trust people place in me, even when it leaves me emotional and exhausted. Most of all, I am grateful that God knows too. I do not carry these stories alone, and it is not upon my shoulders to provide the healing, forgiveness, hope and courage they require. All I have to do is show up every few weeks, ready to talk and to listen about whatever—just as prepared to talk about whatever has been going on, whatever the weather is, and whatever matters most, whatever the Spirit summons. And trust that whatever happens, it matters.
Highlighted Passage: Isaiah 35:1-10
I am struck in my initial reading by the audience for this passage from Isaiah. The prophet is declaring joy and courage and gladness, but for whom? For the wilderness, the dry lands, the weak hands, the feeble knees, the fearful hearts. Those are the places and peoples that probably need joy the most, but they also seem the least likely to find it, at least in their current condition. Usually, we believe that joy is something that comes after—after we have powerful hands and strong knees and courageous hearts, after we have overcome our fears. Then we have joy.
But Isaiah here, at least at the beginning, seems to point to something else. He declares: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1) I think Isaiah might be describing the possibility of joy before all those things happen, while we are still weak, feeble and fearful. If that’s what he’s talking about, then I’m definitely listening—because weak, feeble and fearful feels a lot more like my life most of the time than strong, powerful and courageous does.
It’s the image of the crocus that speaks to me of joy “before and during,” rather than only the joy that comes “after. “ I don’t know much about flowers, but I do know what a crocus is, and when it blooms. The crocus is a tiny stump of a flower, just a few inches off the ground, and it comes in all kinds of colors—purple, yellow, lavendar, white. This ferocious little flower is most renown because it blooms when nothing else does. Before the snow has even melted away, before the trees show the smallest bud or the grass hints at green, you can find crocuses poking their heads out and displaying their colors for the world. And after the fall has taken its toll, when leaves have fallen and trees are bare and grass is withered, the crocus appears again, defiantly spring-like with its colorful petals and green stems amidst the grays and browns on the landscape.
The second half of the passage speaks of more traditional rejoicing. Of course we rejoice when the blind can see and the deaf can hear and the lame can walk. Of course we rejoice when the drought is ended and the green growth returns. When we have security from lions and beasts, when we are on the right path and nothing can deter us, when we get to go home again—of course the sorrow and sighing flee away when that happens. The second half of this passage from Isaiah reassures us that that day of rejoicing will come, that God’s promises are true and God will make those things happen, and we will rejoice when they do someday.
While that is an important reminder, what’s far more compelling to me is that crocus, which seems to tell us that we don’t need to wait for all that stuff to happen to find joy. A joy that, like a crocus, blooms when it is illogical, impossible, inconceivable—that’s the joy I need. A joy that doesn’t wait for me to get myself together, to clear away the icy relationships or nurture the fallen prayer practices back into life or fix the withered courage in my heart. A joy that comes before we are healed and fixed and organized and prepared and reconciled and righteous and whole and holy. That kind of joy could only come from God.
I have to think that our God of Christmas incarnation is a God of that crocus-like joy. After all, God did not wait for the world to get its act together before sending Christ. Mary and Joseph didn’t have their lives arranged just right to welcome a baby. They didn’t even have a proper place to stay in Bethlehem. The shepherds were terrified of the good news, and certainly did not prepare themselves for the holy. Yet God came anyway, the tiny babe was born, and everyone rejoiced. A crocus in the snow, a spring of water in the desert, joy in spite of fear and doubt. Feeble knees and weak hands and fearful hearts, there is joy for you as well. Flowers bloom even in the desert. Joy is possible even amid doubt and fear and struggle. God comes to us just as we are, right now.
Thank God, because I don’t think I’d find joy any other way.
Today marks exactly one year since I started this little blog project. When I look back over the year, it is the thing I am most proud to have accomplished. I am pleased not because I think I have created masterful works of literature, but because I have returned to writing as a spiritual practice.
I write myself into being and I write myself into the presence of God. When I was a teenager and young adult, I poured my heart out into journals. Through those critical identity-forming years, I wrote in order to try on ideas, to sort through questions, to ponder faith, to pray, to figure out who I was. When my relationship with God fractured along the way, I wrote the angry, angst-ridden missives to the Spirit to give voice to my aching spiritual loss. God came to me and our relationship was repaired as I put paper to pen and imagined God’s responses in love.
As I got older, I drifted away from writing as a spiritual practice. When I fell in love and got married, conversation with my partner took the place of my journal as the place to process and heal from daily events. When I entered ministry, my writing became my work, a public project for worship and preaching instead of a private place for prayer and contemplation. After 13 years of marriage and nearly 10 years of ministry, I am glad for both the ongoing conversation with my spouse and the public voice I have cultivated in ministry. But something was lost when I stopped writing just for me.
A year ago, when I started this blog, I had a surplus of ideas and stories and concerns and questions. I wanted to dedicate time and concentration to reflecting on them. I needed to write about it all, to talk it through, to sit with words, to feel the Spirit move to sort and challenge and synthesize. I also realized that I wanted other people to participate in that conversation. I wanted to do my own reflection, and then invite others to weigh in. I made the move from private journaling to public blogging.
I still write just for me, about whatever it is that I want to consider, without trying to be entertaining or professional or focused or niche. As I wrote in the first introduction to the blog, some posts may eventually develop into more published, professional writing—but the goal is not the publication, it is the practice of writing itself. The Book Reviews and Sermon Saplings have blended the personal and professional in ways that feel organic and whole. Yet the blog still contains reflections on all aspects of my life. I simply open those conversations to others who might be interested in eavesdropping on them or participating in them. Today, I am taking another step toward making this writing public by attaching my real name, so that when you search for me on Google you will not only find out about my ministry and my marriage, you might find this page too.
Writing regularly has made me more attuned to the presence of the Spirit in my daily interactions with my family, my church, my work, my world. My eyes and ears are more alert to God and aware of God’s action. I have slowed down to contemplate life more, and sought escape and distraction less. I have met new friends in the blogosphere, and gratefully found others considering the same questions and concerns. I have been vulnerable to the fleeting ecstasies of praising comments and escalating hit counts, and to the cutting edge of trolls and detractors. I have put ideas out there, only to be filled with doubt and questioning. I have edited myself when I probably shouldn’t have, and spoken stridently when I probably should have remained silent. These experiences remind me always of God’s grace.
Writing regularly here has put me back into deeper, more sustained conversation with my spiritual self. It has opened my private prayer life in new ways and strengthened my public voice for ministry. It has connected me more profoundly to God’s presence around me and the ongoing movement of the Spirit. I am grateful for this space, and for the chance to share it with you. Thank you, and here’s to year number two.