Archive for November 2015
This was my sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015 at St. Luke’s United Church of Christ. Our series is entitled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I wrote new words to that tune to go with the lighting of the Advent candle each week. The scripture for the day is Luke 1:5-25.
The song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was written by Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker in 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A known duo, they had been asked to produce a Christmas album, but hesitated because they did not feel comfortable with the consumerism of Christmas. However, when the nation found itself on the brink of a nuclear holocaust–people fearful of enemies among them, digging backyard bomb shelters and praying to avert another world war–Regney was inspired by babies being pushed in strollers along the streets of New York City. He returned home and penned the words to this song of peace, since sung by countless high school choirs, recorded by hundreds of artists, and played endlessly on Christmas radio.
The imagery captures something of our longing, too, as we prepare for Christmas in another era hovering on the brink of war, with fear of our neighbors and worry for our children. The night wind speaking to a little lamb, the shepherd boy and the king singing about a star, a song and a child, such humble, earth-bound creatures, somehow give us a sense of hope amid the fear and violence of the world—a promise that peace is out there, asleep in the ordinary, whispering and waiting for us, if we only awaken our senses to hear it, see it, feel it. Though I took some liberties with the words for our season, the original words evoke the Advent spirit on their own. Do you hear what I hear? Do you see what I see? Do you feel what I feel? Do you know what I know?
That’s what Advent is all about. These weeks before Christmas are supposed to awaken our senses to the presence of God in quiet, ordinary places, because when God-With-Us arrives on Christmas Eve, it is in the humblest of stables. So we prepare by remembering that God is seen in the glow of a midnight angel, felt in the leap of a child in the womb, known in the song of a mother-to-be, and today’s story—heard in the silence of the priest.
Yep, you heard that right—heard in the silence of the priest.
(The irony of preaching a sermon about the silence of a preacher is not lost on me, I assure you.)
Zechariah’s story is the tale of a man of words, the man to whom the community had assigned the task of speaking about God, even speaking FOR God, being struck mute when God actually spoke to him.
It was Zechariah’s big day. There were thousands among the priestly clans, each rotating through the temple, taking their turn to care for the Holy of Holies. When his family, the sons of Abijah, came to take their turn, they lit the fires, tended the sacrifices, oversaw the prayers for the whole temple, the whole people of Israel. But only one man could step inside the Holy of Holies to perform the ritual there. Only one man each time, and no man could enter twice—it was a once-in-a-lifetime honor, and most, even among the priestly families, were never chosen.
This was no popularity contest or piety award—Zechariah and the members of his family stood around and drew lots, and Zechariah’s hand happened upon the lucky straw. He would step into the holiest sanctuary, the sacred room in the Temple inhabited by God’s own presence, representing the whole of his people before the Holy. When he emerged, the people would gather around and await a blessing, a word from God himself, delivered by Zechariah.
The Gospel writer goes out of his way to tell us that even though he got this honor by sheer luck, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were people of exemplary faith. They prayed, they followed the law, they were righteous and blameless, good and faithful in every way. Zechariah must have trembled in holy awe that he was chosen.
And yet, even though Zechariah and Elizabeth had been faithful all their lives, but God had not rewarded them. They were barren, childless. They had prayed, they had obeyed, but God had been silent. Month after month, cycle after cycle, nothing but silence. Silence in Elizabeth’s womb, silence in their home, silence from God. By the time Zechariah was chosen to enter the Holy of Holies, it was too late. Too many moons had come and gone, and they grew old. God had remained silent for years.
When Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies that day, I imagine he believed that God still had a word for the people he represented. Certainly God had a blessing for everyone else, a message of hope and encouragement for the masses—even if God had only silence for he and Elizabeth.
But the angel had not come with vague promises or generic words of comfort. This was no anonymous platitude or nameless blessing. It wasn’t for everyone else. The angel of God came with a very specific word to them, Zechariah and Elizabeth, a silence-shattering, new-world-opening, mind-blowing, unthinkable, impossible word. “Your prayers have been heard,” the angel said. “Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and you must name him John. This child of yours will not only bring you joy and delight, he will be the one who brings many people back to God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah, terrified and stunned, responds to this breath-taking announcement in the most awkward, graceless, bumbling way possible. “How can I be sure? We’re old,” he says. If there were a soundtrack, you’d hear one of those record-screeching-to-a-halt sounds right here.
I can almost hear the angel Gabriel sigh. “Because I am the angel Gabriel, and you’re standing in the Holy of Holies, and I’m telling you so.” Shaking his head, Gabriel continues, “Because you didn’t believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen.”
Some would like to see this silence as punishment for Zechariah’s sin of disbelief, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I’m with Barbara Brown Taylor, who calls it “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit of hopelessness.” (Bread with Angels, 93)
Zechariah had grown so accustomed to God’s silence that he was unable to receive the word of God when it came. While he never stopped praying, never stopped obeying, he had long ago abandoned any sense that God was listening. Zechariah, whose very name means “God remembers” had become convinced God had forgotten.
Who could blame him? How many of us, likewise, have prayed and obeyed, but long ago given up hope for an answer? How many of us have ceased to imagine God hears our prayers? We pray that our family could grow, our illness be healed, our relationships mended, our job meaningful, our finances successful—but how strong is our hope in God’s response? We pray for peace and justice and love to win, but it is murmuring into a void. The news of more shootings, more hatred, more violence, more abuse have given us likewise “a failure of imagination, a fear of disappointment, a habit if hopelessness.” Imagining the promises of Isaiah about a light in the darkness, a Prince of Peace, reigning with justice and righteousness forevermore are impossible dreams. The best we have come to hope for is some nameless blessing, generic word of comfort, or vague platitude.
Instead, what Zechariah discovers is that God has a hope just for them. He and Elizabeth, their deepest and most intimate prayers, have been heard, and God is about to fulfill their hopes and dreams, even when they themselves have given up on them. Zechariah’s name and his story instead proclaim that God remembers. God’s silence will not be forever, and when it arrives, God’s voice will not come to us as a vague, generic, nameless message. When God speaks, it will be so stunning, so personal and convicting and convincing and life-changing and mind-blowing and new-world-opening that it will render us speechless.
The 19th century mystic Baron Von Hügel said, “Sometimes when we speak before great things we shrink them down to size. When we speak of great things sometimes we swallow them whole, when instead we should be swallowed by them. Before all greatness be silent, in art, in music, and above all in faith.”
When Zechariah emerged from the Holy of Holies, the greatness of God had swallowed him whole. The people stood around him awaiting his message, the blessing he would give directly from God. There were no words. Sound caught in his throat, his hands flapped helplessly. This man assigned to speak for God found himself mute when God actually spoke to him. The look of holy awe must have lingered on his face, the reflection of the angel still in his eyes, because the people could tell he had seen a vision, and they fell silent too. Because they know God remembered, God heard, and they had hope.
This opening Sunday of Advent, hear the story of Zechariah and know that God remembers. Even when there is only silence, God is still there—and when God does speak again, it will be a word so surprising and life-changing, so for you, that it will swallow you whole and leave you speechless.
So maybe then Zechariah’s story is also an invitation to fall silent, a reminder to just shut up, because the greatness of God is all around us. Just shut up and listen, in wonder and hope-filled imagination, to the night wind and the little lamb, to the child and the shepherd boy, to the presence in the Holy of Holies.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
Do you hear what I hear?
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, HarperPerennial, 2012, 337 pp.
When NPR’s Fresh Air calls this the best book of the year, you know it’s on my list to read. The book jacket is covered in “best book” endorsements from the New York Times, Boston Globe and many other trusted sources. Beautiful Ruins earned every one of them.
Just listen to this opening line, which won me over immediately:
April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy
The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.
I mean, already we have a beautiful writing and a story about a dying actress and an Italian man in a remote Italian village in the early 1960s. I was hooked.
Very quickly, we come to know that the man in the story is Pasquale Tursi, a native of tiny Porto Vergogna who has inherited his father’s small inn and his passion for making it (and the town) a tourist destination. The dying actress is Dee Moray, who is in Italy to play a lady-in-waiting in the movie Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A doctor tells her she has stomach cancer, and the movie’s publicist, Michael Deane, ships her off to Porto Vergogna and leaves her there. She is the inn’s only guest, apart from an American, Alvis Bender, who ostensibly spends a few weeks there every year to write his novel, but really just drinks the days away.
The story then jumps to “recently” in Hollywood, California. We meet Claire Silver, a young woman interested in film as literature and currently working as an assistant to Michael Deane. Between 1962 and “recently,” Deane became one of the most powerful, innovative producers in Hollywood, but has fallen from success and is now a washed-up has-been, making bad reality TV shows. We also meet Shane Wheeler, an aspiring filmmaker who is coming to make a pitch to Michael Deane.
On the day Shane shows up to make his pitch, met by Claire, Pasquale Tursi also appears–and the past secrets all begin to pour out. The novel moves back and forth between the events of 1962 and “recently;” between Porto Vergogna, Cleopatra and today’s United States; between Pasquale, Claire, Alvis Bender, Shane, Dee Moray, and Michael Deane, with major doses of Richard Burton thrown in for fun. Their lives become intertwined, chance encounters become lasting relationships or missed opportunities, and the story keeps the reader wondering how it will all work out in the end. I cared about all of the characters, and wanted to find out if they would get what was coming to them–whether love or healing or punishment or justice.
Beautiful Ruins sometimes made me shake my head in shame at the human condition, then made me weep at the beauty, then made me laugh out loud. I couldn’t put it down, and it was beautiful from beginning to end. I can’t wait to read Jess Walter’s next book. Find Beautiful Ruins. Read it. You won’t regret it.
The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction by Eugene Peterson, Eerdmans, 1989, 171 pp.
I read and return to Eugene Peterson whenever I need to be grounded again in my pastoral calling. I don’t always agree with him, and sometimes see his generation and gender coming through too much, but I always find much wisdom and inspiration for what the life of a local church pastor ought to be all about.
Having read The Pastor and Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was disappointed, but not surprised, to discover that The Contemplative Pastor did not contain a lot of new ideas or concepts. As always, Peterson emphasizes that the pastor should be a local theologian, an unbusy presence in people’s lives, attentive to what God is doing in a particular community, focused on reading and teaching more than administrating programs. This book also contained a unique focus on poetry, arguing that pastors should also invest in the art of poetry, as both readers and writers. Each chapter begins with a brief poem, and the closing chapter is a collection of Peterson’s poems.
Rather than big, new insights and ideas about what the true essence of ministry is, or how to do the work of pastoring, I found in this book a series of short, beautiful statements that remind me of my purpose and reorient me toward my mission as a pastor. I share favorites below.
Here is an example of that reorientation toward mission:
The pastor’s question is, “Who are these particular people and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” … I’m responsible for paying attention to the Word of God right here in this locale. The assumption of spirituality is that always God is doing something before I know it. So the task is not to get God to do something I think needs to be done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can respond to it and participate and take delight in it. (4)
Again, later, he emphasizes the pastor’s task as listening and pointing out what God is already doing in the church and its people. This is what it means to “cure souls.”
What has God been doing here? What traces of grace can I discern in this life? What history of love can I read in this group? What has God set in motion that I can get in on? (61)
One of the things Peterson does best is talk about prayer in the life of the pastor, and its central role in the pastoral way. I love how he addresses the tension here between God and pastors:
Prayer is the joining of realities, the making of a live connection between the place we find ourselves and the God who is finding us. But prayer is not a work that pastors are often asked to do except in ceremonial ways. Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives. They prefer something less awesome and more informal. Something, in fact, like the pastor. Reassuring, accessible, easygoing. People would rather talk to the pastor than to God. And so it happens without anyone actually intending it, prayer is pushed to the sidelines. (42-43)
Following a long exegesis of Annie Dillard, he concludes that teaching prayer is primary.
My primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical background of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. … The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did. (89)
Peterson is always good for me when I lose my way in this work, and need to get my feet on the ground and my heart right with God again. While The Contemplative Pastor was not as good as the other two listed above, and less likely to receive a reread in the future, it still served its purpose and moved me to prayer.
Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.
I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.
This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.
The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.
There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.
Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.
Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2008, 240 pp.
This book is the more technical, less practical prequel to The Abundant Community. Most people who write about community are touchy-feely types who want to share stories, espouse big ideas, and inspire mutual affection. Not Peter Block. Block writes like an engineer, drawing a blue print for load-bearing walls and structural soundness for communities. He writes like a pathologist, dissecting the body of a community to determine sources of health and sickness, identifying the systems and structures that bring it to life. This analytical approach is novel and insightful, if a bit dry at times. Peter Block is clearly passionate about the importance of communities, and this book is a call to action in the work of building stronger, more integrated neighborhoods and communities.
After an introduction and a literature review, Block states the imperative for building community in an age of increased isolation. He then gives his first insight into what creates community–one that holds up for me in my lived experience.
Community building requires that we engage in new conversation, one that we have not had before, one that can create an experience of aliveness and belonging. It is the act of engaging citizens in a new conversation that allows us to act in concert with and actually creates the conditions for a new context. …
We must begin by naming the existing context and evolving to a way of thinking that leads to new conversations that produce a new context. It is the shift in conversation that increases social capital. Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create. (32)
I could not agree more. When I work with a group or committee, the most difficult aspect is to change the conversation to something that creates new energy and opportunity, rather than rehearsing old patterns. And–even more–we have to model that future in every small way when we gather, from the arrangement of the room to the role of leaders to the nature of the questions.
Block then names common but ineffective strategies to move beyond stuck or stagnant community: seeing people as problems, believing that increased laws or oversight will fix problems, waiting for a stronger leader, and undervaluing associational life. By contrast, Block describes a “restorative community,” one with the power to act and engage, the power to hold one another accountable and create a new future together. Restorative communities are not about entitlement, and they do not expect others to fix our problems for us.
Block, following his future collaborator McKnight, addresses the problem and isolation caused by current social services systems, and the way they destabilize community.
To continue, as a community, to focus on the needs and deficiencies of the most vulnerable is not an act of hospitality. It substitutes labeling for welcoming. It is isolating in that they become a special category of people, defined by what they cannot do. This isolates the most vulnerable. Despite our care for them, we do not welcome them into our midst, we service them. They become objects. (58-59)
By contrast, what Block identifies as the “transforming community” as the one capable of changing individual lives and the community. Transforming communities “focus on the structure of how we gather and the context in which the gathering takes place, working hard on getting the questions right, and depth over speed and relatedness over scale.” (73) When I was involved in both community organizing and church revitalization, this proved the right strategy and focus for building transforming communities. Block’s next several chapters address the important elements of building transforming communities: leaders are conveners, small groups are the units of transformation, questions are more important than answers, six conversations materialize belonging (each gets its own chapter: invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment, gifts), hospitality and welcoming strangers is central, physical and social space support belonging.
Block’s concluding chapter argues that creating these kinds of structures of belonging in transforming communities can eliminate unnecessary suffering, which is often caused by isolation. He especially identifies youth, health care, social services, local economies and public safety as areas that could be dramatically changed and improved by the presence of transforming communities. The book then adds an extensive overview of its contents, and a lengthy lists of organizations and individuals that are role models for this process.
Block’s book is a helpful contribution for those of us doing the work of community building. His analysis felt to me like taking someone who cooks freestyle, and measuring and recording everything they do to concoct a recipe for others. I’m not sure anyone could create community experience simply by following the recipe, nor does any recipe for a complex dish adequately convey every nuance. Yet, it’s helpful, and even insightful for those of us always tossing things together to make sure we’re not leaving anything out. I’m not sure how helpful it would be to someone not already actively, thoughtfully engaged in community building efforts.