Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas East of Eden

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.  Genesis 3: 22-24

I recently had a bird’s eye view of a congregation watching a choir perform their Christmas cantata.  This was the Sunday before Christmas.  I did not see what I expected to see.  Rather than faces filled with joy, hope, and peace, I saw entire bodies in a defensive posture, with calloused expressions.  The joy of Christmas had not yet reached into the hearts of the parish.  And that’s when this scripture came calling to me.  For many of us, Genesis 3 is the setting for Christmas. 
If you have young children, or even the faith of a child, and are excited about this Christmas, this message may not really be for you.  But for the rest of us, I have a feeling that maybe you know what I am talking about.  At this time of year, our sense of being east of Eden is stronger than at any other time of the year. 
I have heard countless explanations for the Genesis story, from a factual account of creation and the first human beings, to a symbolic narrative chronicling the dawn of agriculture and civilization.  But the one that has always had the most meaning to me is this being a personal narrative of growing up.  This is the story of our lives.  If we are so lucky to have loving parents, we are created, nurtured and go about our first years in a state bliss, in the garden, untainted by the harsh realities known only to the adult world.  And Christmas is the pinnacle of the pure joy of childhood.  No birthday, summer vacation to Disney World, or Easter Bunny surprises could hold a candle anywhere close to the anticipation and fulfillment of joy that the Christmas season brings.  Presents, pajamas with footies, time with every family member we know and love – it just doesn’t get any better.

Yet, inevitably, and without us even realizing, life nudges us away from the womb of childhood and into awareness of the cruelty of living.  Somewhere along the way, we catch the virus of maturity, and the symptoms of grief, loss, mundane existence, stress and adult responsibilities set in.  Having succumbed to the inevitable temptation of knowledge of these things, we realize that we are naked, or if not naked, that what we are wearing isn’t nearly good enough.  The ground beneath us shifts ever so subtly to the east, and without knowing it, we have slid away from our center, out of the garden, and into the doldrums. 

And one day we wake up in the Christmas season and go looking for the joy that we left behind.  “Where is it?  Why didn’t the magic of Christmas come this year?  I did everything the same, but still I can’t find it.”  And as we continue the process of growing up, life takes this opportunity to really show us the true contrast from where we were to where we are now.  The abundance and leisure of childhood are replaced with financial struggle and an overbooked schedule.  Time with the ones we love is replaced with the pain of fractured relationships and the immeasurable sense of loss from the death of a loved one.  Cancer, traffic accidents, divorce, infidelity, bankruptcy, loss of faith, grief, apathy and indifference – these are the realities of going through life.  And like it did when we lived in the wondrous cocoon of childhood, Christmas intensifies the experience of our existence.  We begin to see the tragic irony of putting the holiday in the dead of winter rather than a more temperate time of year (as the shepherds’ presence would suggest).

So there it is.  We are living our grown up lives out of the garden, and we are receiving Christmas out in the cold, east of Eden.  And it can be a very sad place.  As this chapter of Genesis closes, only three chapters into the good book, we already know that this story is about us.  And many of us spend many Christmases at this point in the story.  In fact, we can find in these short verses so much of the significant parts of our lives that no matter if we keep reading, we cannot help but to think back to this part of the story.  But we must keep reading because that is not the end of the story. 

But this does draw to a close the garden part of the story.  Cherubim and a flaming sword block the way back, and the footprints of life trampled all over our backs have fuzzied our memories of where the garden even is.  To put it back in the framing of Genesis - we are infected; we have eaten from the tree of knowledge, we have known true heartbreak, and there is no cure on earth for what now runs through our veins.  That is the bad news.  We are fractured from the land of fond memories and the joy of being a child of God in the garden. 

But hear this: the Christmas story does not take place in the garden.  And it isn’t designed to show us the way back to innocence.  If that is what you are looking for (it certainly is what is being peddled on every street corner), you will be disappointed, or left with a brief but fleeting emotional boost that will not sustain you. 

The Christmas story engages us right where we are, in our brokenness.  What better clue do we need that this story is for us, broken down and in despair east of Eden, than the enunciation that God has come to us from an unwed mother in a stable?  In the deadness of the winter season, and in the shattering pain of our lives, we are told that there is more, always more.  A star, a newborn child, the comfort of an old friendship, a new friendship, a grandchild, an opportunity to minister to someone else’s hurt, the promise of a season of Spring, possibility, redemption, forgiveness, a heart of gratitude for the joy we have had and the hope of joy to come, Emmanuel – “God with us.”  We are east of Eden, but the Christmas story tells us that God is here with us, and there is plenty of rejoicing left to do.

This part of our story, the Christmas story east of Eden, is a time to reflect with immense gratitude for our time in the garden of life’s joy, to wrap our gratitude around our grief and allow God to mourn with us for what is lost, and to find hope and salvation for where we are now.  It is my prayer for you that you will follow the story to this point, find the faith to believe it, and continue writing it for a long, long time to your own wonderful conclusion. 

Hallelujah for the miracle of life and the wonder of it all!  Merry Christmas, 

(written Christmas 2009)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


“Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 5: 19-21

2011 is a year of many firsts in my life.  We celebrated the first birthday of our child in July.  We’ve made it through our first year on one income.  I tried my first case all the way to a jury verdict (& won!).  I bought a Jeep.  I started this blog.

But 2011 is also the year I lost my dad.  So it was my first birthday without talking to him, my first moments of joy without being able to share them with him, my first moments of doubt and concern that I could not talk about with him.  And this will be my first Thanksgiving without him. 

Life has come at me full throttle in 2011.  And in all of it, Paul says, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  So here’s what I’ve learned lately about thanksgiving and singing “hallelujah” in all circumstances.

First, there is little to no room for “hallelujah” in a heart and head that hasn’t accepted life exactly as it is.  God is, was, and always will be found in life where we are.  Listen to Moses asking God to define God:  But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.’”  So to Moses’ question of, “What is your identity?” God answers, “I am.”  It is a cryptic and at first blush utterly unsatisfying answer to the question of the character of God, but it is also the secret hidden in plain sight for where we are to meet God.  We meet the “I am” when we accept life where “we are.” 

Acceptance isn’t resignation.  It isn’t numbness or turning off your feelings.  And it isn’t apathy or indifference toward wrong and injustice.  Acceptance is honest acknowledgment of where we are in life.  It is overcoming the fear of what it will feel like to really know who we are and the state in which we find ourselves. Acceptance is an invitation to feel.   

And equally important, it is acknowledgment without judgment or excuse.  Let them go.  Just simply be where you are.  I’m hurting.  I’m lost.  I’m fretful.  I’m tired.  I’m anxious.  Wherever you are, this is where God wants to meet you.  Paul can say “rejoice in all things,” because Paul has ridden life’s rollercoaster all the way, including the scariest parts.  “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’”  It took Paul a long time to accept a part of his life, but when he did, when he stopped trying to make it something it was not, when he allowed himself to embrace his weakness, he found God there saying, “My grace is sufficient for where you are right now.  My power is made perfect in weakness.”

Hopefully acceptance and its invitation to feel will do what it is intended to do - to wake us up to being fully present to our lives as they are.  So much of life is lived on auto-pilot with us looking forward to some better day in the future, backward to some better day in the past, or out the side window at someone else’s life or how we want ours to be.  But in doing so, we miss out on our own present life.  And we miss God.  As Richard Rohr so eloquently says, “God comes to us disguised as our life.”  If we are paying attention, if we are allowing ourselves to unplug, turn down, slow down, and see the people and things right in front of us, we will experience God.  For me personally, this is hard.  With so much access to so much information and entertainment, it’s as hard as it’s ever been to turn it all off and just be with those around you. And even scarier, to just be with yourself. 

A Sunday School lesson we’re doing right now on “attentiveness” makes this point wonderfully by contrasting living in the world we’re born into versus living in the world we're baptized into.  It is a different lens through which to see life, and it illuminates everything and everyone around you when you have the belief that God comes disguised as your life.  And my, how we all do shimmer in the light when we see God among us.

Out of this acceptance and present-ness flows a general approach to life grounded in gratitude.  A thankful heart is your hometown from which you go out and experience life.  And it’s entirely appropriate (and inevitable) to visit other places like sadness and grief.  It’s even perfectly OK to visit anger, anxiety, and other dark and lowly places.  Because you always remember where you’re from. You take home with you everywhere you go. 

Gratitude goes with you because you know God is going to be wherever you go, waiting with grace sufficient and power to meet any weakness.  This promise is fulfilled in so many ways, but most especially through the kindness of others.  And along the way you’ll start looking for every opportunity you can to pay that kindness forward, because you’ll never in a million years be able to pay it all back.
So wherever you go and however deep you go, you know that you’re just visiting, even if it’s a long visit, but that one day you’ll return home when you are ready.  You’ll probably come back with scars, but you always want to come home to a heart of gratitude. 

And don’t the scars make us wise? 

Of course, Mary Oliver can say all this in 13 lines so much better than I can in 200.

Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Hallelujah, anyway I'm not where I started!

And have you been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years?

Hallelujah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.*

So in all things, hallelujah.  Hallelujah for our clamoring.  Hallelujah for the comfort in hard times and the joy in the so, so many good.  Hallelujah for kindness and the epiphany that it is upon us to spread.  Hallelujah for the chance to be fully alive at this very moment.  Hallelujah for the chance at this life and the God who we constantly meet in its disguise.  

* (Mary Oliver, "Hallelujah," Evidence, Beacon Press: Boston, 2009, p. 19)

Monday, October 10, 2011


“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being…For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear.”  Deuteronomy 10: 12-20

In a little country church, you wear many hats.  Finance chairman, usher, alter guild, trustee, Sunday school teacher, communion grape juice cup filler-upper…at some point in your life, each hat will get passed to you to wear for a turn.  In a bigger church, maybe you go where your calling and talents are: “I’m good at singing, I’ll join the choir…I work at a bank, I’ll be on the budget committee…I love kids, I’ll teach 3rd grade Sunday school…”  But in a small church, you go where there’s a hole to be plugged.  The pianist plays “Hear I am Lord,” the Sunday before committees are announced, and for some mystical reason, we aren’t able to say “no.”   And despite our grumblings and dismay (“You want me to lead what?!”), this is how our body of Christ moves.

So on the Tuesday before our Fall Wednesday night activities began, this little square peg volunteered to man the empty round hole that is our youth group.  Lord knows I owe a cosmic debt for the grief I gave the youth volunteers at my church growing up, so it was the least I could do.  Turns out, not much has changed.  Youth are still working through hormones and cliques, acne and heartbreak, insecurity and revelation.  And I have grown to love this group.  I coached one of them in basketball a few years ago, and now to everyone in the youth group, I’m “Coach.”   

But something is different for this youth group than the one I grew up in.  These are all Hispanic kids.  Dial back the clock a year, and that’s a distinction without a difference.  Kids are kids are kids.  I’ve coached every ethnicity out there, so I know.  But today they are carrying a burden that I cannot know.  My state passed a new law targeting undocumented immigrants.  The law gives police the right to demand paperwork of people they reasonably suspect of being in the country illegally, it makes schools verify the document status of students, and makes it illegal to hire, contract with, or even give a ride to an undocumented person.  It was in the news last week that a local water authority refused to turn on service to a Hispanic family that couldn’t provide immigration documents.

So instead of the traditional “morally navigating the immoral teen landscape” program, can you guess what we’ve been talking about with 4th to 9th grade Christian kids in youth group?  “Why do they hate us?  This is the only home I’ve ever known, so I don’t want to go to Mexico.  Kids in the next town over don’t go to school anymore because the cops will take them to jail if they do.  Coach, can the cops come try to get us if we are just walking down the street?  What did we do wrong?  My mom got laid off & we have to struggle for food (I know this is true because they use our church food bank.)  I was born here, but I may still have to go to Mexico.  Do you want us to go to Mexico, Coach?”  And as of yesterday, the heartbreaking but inevitable, “I’m moving Friday, Coach.  Not sure where, but we’re not staying here.  My mom pulled me out of school last week.” Watch the news or talk to any school administrator and you'll learn that countless parents are now keeping their kids out of school out of fear.

These are good, sweet, normal kids having to struggle with this.  They want nothing more than to just be kids, and this gets handed to them:  “You are no longer kids.  You are ‘Illegals,’ or at best, ‘Anchor Babies.’”  How deeply, deeply sad both for them and for the good people of my state, one of the most professedly Christian places on the planet. 

How does this happen? 

I think we’ve just forgotten.  We’ve forgotten what God has to say about welcoming strangers, and we’ve certainly forgotten one of the reminders he puts behind it – we too were once strangers in a strange land. 

Somewhere along the way the storyline got broken.  Little by little, the last several generations have been distracted and haven’t received what was passed down – we too were strangers.  That narrative is dead.  It has no meaning for white American Christianity in 2011 (and I fear it’s dying in black American Christianity too).

And in forgetting this narrative, we’ve forgotten the context for almost the entire biblical account.  Interrupted by periods of home rule, much of the bible (all of the New Testament) is the story of an occupied people – Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persian, Greeks, Romans – they occupied or enslaved the land and people of Israel.  Our story is unequivocally a story of being the stranger again and again and again.  

The preachers leading the Civil Rights Movement knew this.  The work they did was heroically hard, but the message was easy because the bible already told their story.  And their faith was strong because God had already shown them the outcome.  Grab the whole story and you’ve got a whole lot of time being the stranger and plenty of verses reminding us to remember what that was like, and to remember to be kind when it is another who is the stranger.  And oh yeah, if the strong force God to pick a side, God is going with the weak.

A Frederic Huntington quote from the 1890s came to mind when thinking of this forgetting: "It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity." 

Isn’t this where we are?  When we forget the backdrop for the gospel story, we also forget our humility, our compassion and our frailty.  And tragically, we also forget our trust in God.  This passage in Deuteronomy is as much about trusting in God and his ways as it is anything else.  And he tells us to trust him and go ahead and welcome the stranger and dare to remember that that was once us as well.  And later Jesus tells us to do right by the least of these (undocumented migrants are most certainly America’s least of these) because how we treat them is how we are treating Jesus himself.  But we are afraid or indignant.  So we’ve put aside our mandate to welcome the stranger already among us because “well, somebody’s got to do something about this.”   And we are not trusting that God can work through us to do something big and wonderful, like come up with a humane and Christian way to deal with people who are in this country illegally and their kids, many of whom have the same citizenship as you and me.  

But citizenship status is beside the point for us, isn’t it?  Because Paul tells us in Christ there is neither “American” nor “Illegal.”   God tells us to be kind to the stranger, Jesus reminds us that he is in the least among us, and then Paul tells us whatever any of us are, we all are the same in Christ. 

So to my beloved state and country, may we have the faith going forward to remember that we too were strangers when dealing with the strangers now among us.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Doing the Loaves and Fishes

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. -Mark 6: 34-43

Yesterday, about 65 people at our small country church got together and did something wonderful.  We packaged 10,122 meals to send to a school in Uganda.  In this part of Uganda, parents send their children where they can get fed.  Usually that means into the fields to work or into the streets to beg.  But if they are guaranteed a hot, nutritious meal at school, well then they will be sent to school. 

So this group called Stop Hunger Now supplies schools with meals in places like Uganda to give kids a meal a day and to give them an education and a chance to break through the crippling cycle of poverty.  The folks at Stop Hunger Now, who coordinated our event, shared some sobering statistics with us – about 1 in 6 people alive right now are hungry (a BILLION people are hungry) and don’t know where their next meal is coming from; 25,000 people die per day from hunger or hunger-related illness; half of those that die are kids (about one kid every six seconds); and yet the world produces enough food for each person alive to have 4.3 pounds of it per day (more than most of us could eat).  So a retired Methodist minister started this program to try to get much of that surplus food into the bellies of hungry kids across the world.  They do this for just 25 cents per meal.  And they are having success. 

And yesterday, our church plopped down $2,500 to participate in that.  Our fellowship hall was filled with people in hair nets manning stations – a packing station that would put rice, soy protein, dehydrated veggies, and a vitamin and flavor pack into a bag that had enough food in it to feed six hungry people; a weighing station where we added or subtracted a little bit of rice to make sure each bag weighed the same so they could be easily processed and shipped; a sealing station that sealed the bags to keep moisture out and all the goodness in; a packaging station that counted bags and loaded them into boxes ready to be shipped across the ocean.  All the while we had people buzzing from station to station, refilling what was empty and moving the meals through our holy assembly line.  Before we knew it, a loud gong rang out signifying that we’d packaged 1,000 meals, and we all cheered.  Ten joyous gongs later, we were out of bags to fill and we’d loaded over 10,000 meals onto the Stop Hunger Now truck.

To repeat the first sentence from that last paragraph, we came together “to participate in that.”  In the story of the loaves and fishes, it always seems to go unnoticed that all the work is being done by the disciples.  YOU “give them something to eat,” says Jesus.  YOU “go and see” how much food we have, and YOU “get all the people to sit down,” so I can give YOU the food “to set before the people.”  This story is as much about participating in what Jesus is doing as it is about what Jesus is doing.  It is a call to action – to do what we can with what we have.  And it is also a promise – if it passes through Jesus, it will always be enough.  In fact, the story tells us there will be more than enough.

Jesus does with the loaves and fishes exactly what he does with the bread and wine at the last supper (read it above): He takes the food, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it.  And at the last supper he tells us, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  So in holy remembrance of him, let’s see who needs to be fed, or clothed, or visited, or comforted, or noticed, or loved (and it’s a lot of people!).  And rather than be daunted by the task and tell Jesus to “send them away,” let’s answer his call – “You give them something to eat.”  Let’s take what we have (ourselves, our time, our resources), offer it to Jesus who will bless it, and let’s give it.  We are promised that not only will it be enough, but that there will be plenty left over.  And the question for us is - do we have the faith to act as if this is so? 

Whatever your answer, find 50 people and $2,500 to host one of these events, and my promise to you is that you will grow in your faith in this story.