Sunday, December 22, 2013

God the Child

“To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  Luke 2:11-12

“Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ” – Elizabeth Stone

“And then something really beautiful happened, Daddy...” This morning my three year old decided he’d take a turn reading a story to me.  He pulled out a book about a rabbit we hadn’t read in a while, and he started.  This one had great pictures, and he has a wild imagination.  When he gets on a roll and gets excited, he gets hard to understand.  I was doing my best to follow along as the rabbit dodged one “spooky creature” after another, but his thought process and speech were about to lose me.  And then a deep breath, and clear as a bell: “And then something really beautiful happened, Daddy...”  Out of nowhere, he changed things for our rabbit, and out of nowhere the joy of being with this kid overwhelmed me. 

This time of year, we look at two stories in the bible – Matthew’s tale of great threat and peril, and Luke’s, of annunciation and joy.  Both stories setup the themes of who Jesus was and what his life was about.  And in Jesus we see a culmination of our revelations of God – from creator to deliverer, redeemer, and on to crucified and resurrected lord.    

But Christmas gives us a season to ponder God as something else too – a child. 

So here's an invitation to do just that – think about God as a child.  Think about God as your child.

We always call God “father” and ourselves “children,” and that is wonderful and deeply true in its way.  But take this Christmas invitation to turn things upside down for a minute. 

Think of the love you have as a parent for your child.  I am incapable of imagining greater love than that. What joy they bring us, what meaning and purpose.  What salvation.  Life is indeed never the same.  

And what utter amazement.  Every parent knows the tingling feeling of sitting in the dark, just watching your child sleep.  You know the joy of watching a kid open a present, ride a bike for the first time, and, well, you fill in the blank.

And what vulnerability.  The more you think about it, the more you see the genius of God in this parenting thing. Deep, true love, is born in vulnerability, and what is more vulnerable and loveable than a child? 

How immensely lovable our God is when we see this total vulnerability.  Stay with it – this is not the God of power and might; this is God the child, our child, completely powerless.  And yet we’d move heaven and earth out of love for our child.

This is our God, isn’t it?  The one that turns everything upside down.  The one who puts the last first, who turns the other cheek, who dies to give life.  And this is the God who comes to us as a child.  Our child. 

Christmas has many invitations; seeing God the child is mine to you.  Because this feeble soul, try as it might, can think of no love more powerful than love for a child.      

And then, maybe think out a little, a year, five, ten, twenty years from now.  Oh, the care we’ll take with this child.  And we’ll mess up loving him, but not too bad.  But we know this in our bones: we’ll try harder at this than at anything we’ll ever do because of this love, this animating love for this child.   

Friday, November 15, 2013

Words Without Knowledge

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:  ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? – Job 38:1-2

“God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.”  Frederick Buechner

“You are going to have to speak up sir, not everyone can hear you,” the bishop said to the young man in front of an audience of about 600 fellow Methodist strangers.  “OK, sorry,” his voice cracked as he tried his best to move closer to the microphone.  “OK. So, someone much wiser than me once said, ‘You don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to…’” 

It was the young man’s second day at his first annual conference, a gathering of ministers and lay people every year in the Methodist church to fellowship and take up church business.  He was looking forward to the fellowship, and being the grandson of a Methodist preacher, he was looking forward to learning about the business of the church.  Little did he know, he was walking into a culture war mine field, and little did he know that he’d soon feel compelled to speak in front of a room of complete strangers.

Apparently every four years it get likes this.  The year before the bigger general conference of Methodists from all over the world, people at the local level submit petitions to be voted on that get submitted to the bigger gathering.  Every hot-button issue of our culture was well-represented on the list – abortion, homosexuality, evolution, you name it.  And not just once; they voted again and again on these topics.  They had discussion time before each vote with time for people to speak both for and against each petition, which was a more gracious version of a cable news point-counterpoint, though the arguments were the same. Could it have been any different? 

Someone should’ve warned him, but they didn’t.  He kept thinking back to the story of a vagabond who came in dirty and smelly to a prim and proper church who was asked by the preacher after the service to “Go home and pray, and ask God what he thinks you should wear when you come into this church.”  When he showed up the next week dirty and smelly again, he was reminded, “I thought I asked you to pray and ask God about what you should wear when you come to this church,” to which the vagabond replied, “I did, and God said he didn’t have any idea, said he’d never set foot in this church.”

So on the third separate resolution about banning homosexuals from some part of church participation, he asked to be recognized and spoke – not about homosexuality, but about Christianity - the good news of god’s presence, grace, love and mercy - and how any message we send to anyone should at its heart be about that, and how a “no” vote wasn’t a “yes” for anything but a “no” against clothing ourselves in our faith and speaking of anything other than the gospel. 

Maybe it was just his imagination, but he thought the vote after he spoke was at least 575-25 in favor of the resolution he'd opposed, compared to the 580-20 in favor of the other two.

Reading Frederick Buechner talking about Job this week reminded me of that story.  Job can only hang his head when God in the whirlwind asks: “Who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  And so should we hang our heads too.  We sow this wind and reap this whirlwind with him.  We all trade in “words without knowledge,” don’t we, when we talk for God, when we quote scripture for a moral code or try to speak to someone’s darkness that we’ve never encountered. 

“Words without knowledge” is a simple concept, but it is enormous; it’s everywhere, and it’s in so many of our beliefs.  “Words without knowledge,” is anything - scripture, creed, doctrine, opinion, argument - anything not grounded in experience.  Albert Einstein puts its much better than me, “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience.”  The only part of me that resists that universal truth is not my faith, it’s my ego. 

“Words without knowledge” are a cheap and dangerous substitute for experience.  They soothe our egos, “Hey, you are right!”  They keep us away from people we are called to love, they keep us away from feelings we need to feel, and they keep us bound up in ignorance and away from living life in the world with ourselves and others exactly as God made it all: very good.

Paul tells us this as well.  He opens the famous “love is patient” chapter of 1 Corinthians with, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”  Love is the language of God.  And love, no matter how much we read and study about it, can only be known by experience. 

No one can tell you with any conviction what they don’t know by experience.  And so let us tell of our faith only what we know. 

I know a God who has carried me through some very dark times.  May I be there for others and help them experience it when the time comes. 

I know there is always hope.  May I speak that kind word to others when they are in need of it. 

I have known the pain of deep regret and failure.  May I share that experience with those I see walking a similar destructive path. 

I know there is always redemption.  May I encourage those who are outcast by their own shortcomings.

I have known the freeing power of forgiveness and mercy I’ve never deserved.  May I grant them both before they are asked for. 

I have witnessed personal destruction wrought by hate and injustice, and I have played a part in perpetuating both.  May I stand with those who are persecuted and pray for those who persecute.

I have had the rough edges of my perspective smoothed time and again by simple conversation with good friends, complete strangers, and my three year old kid.  May I carry the candle of peace in my heart to quietly share with others as well.

I’ve known immense joy and happiness.  May I look for ways to pay that joy forward in this life, and may a deep sense of gratitude be the lens through which I see the world.

I have known the unyielding grace of God in Jesus in ways unspeakable and dumbfounding.  May I live a life in communion with the rest of creation that in ways ever so small but ever so significant spreads the good news that I have come to know through experiencing this life.

Buechner is right.  God gives no answers, only himself – on the cross and in our lives again and again and again. 

What can we proclaim more honestly than that?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fully Human

“Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’” – Mark 2:27

We call Jesus many things – the Christ, the Son of God, Lord and Savior. But in Mark, the oldest of the gospels, these aren’t the titles Jesus wants us to hear. Over and again, he refers to himself as the Son of Man. Thrown in with those other titles, we take the enigmatic “Son of Man” to be a high title. But “Son of Man” is not a title like the others. A “son of man” as opposed to a “son of god” is another way of saying “a person,” or “a human one” or even “the human being,” as people have translated it.

To hear Jesus refer to himself as “the human being” for an entire gospel is refreshing to me. So much of the message of salvation I hear preached has a singular focus: your fate in the afterlife. And please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying the message of salvation Jesus preached has nothing to do with eternity; but I am saying it has at least as much to do with life on this side of the grave. Jesus did not simply come to sell us fire insurance for when we die; he came to teach us what it means to be alive. In Jesus, our concepts of human and divine merge into one. He is both human and divine. And I think he would say the same thing applies to all of us, each a son of man, and each a child of God.

Jesus took living seriously. He ate and drank, he healed, he tore down social barriers, he told stories, he forgave, he taught, he loved, he subverted, he prayed, he did grand gestures, he gave thanks, he spent serious time with friends, he suffered, he gave life. And he tells us how we live matters. In his story of separating those to be rewarded and those who are cast out, those who have missed out ask, “When did we see you and do nothing?” and he tells them, “Whatever you did to the least of these, so you did to me.” This is a serious call for us to tend to those hurting in the world, but it is also a serious wakeup call to us to pay attention and start living.

Paula D'Arcy puts it wonderfully, “God comes to you disguised as your life.” My own experience has taught me this as well. In the times that I am alive, really alive and not on auto-pilot, God is there. If you are there with a friend in need, surely you have sensed it to. When you are laughing with friends, fully present, you see life brighter. If you have ever fallen in love or had a child, the joy there is nothing if not holy. If you have ever suffered or been fully present to someone who has, those dark times can be sacred space if you have the courage to walk through them. When you stop, really stop, and give thanks, you see it – a life and world shot-through with the glory of God and the suffering of God both just waiting to be attended to by you.

So we have choices every day. The first is to decide that God does come disguised as our lives, and the second is to live and live with that in mind. And by living, I think I mean something positive and negative. Positively, I think I mean loving on people & loving life as fully and as often as we can. Maybe that means - sincerely paying attention to people around us, whether it’s a spouse, a customer, the girl bagging groceries, or an elderly relative or person from church; setting aside time to pray, whether that’s with your bible and a verbal prayer or whether that’s on a bike ride with a thankful state of mind; being deliberate about having a positive attitude about this amazing God-disguised life no matter what is being thrown at us; reaching out to people who are hurting (this is serious living) and asking how they are doing and letting them know you are praying for them (it’s that easy & that hard); making quality time much more often for the important people in our lives; planning and crossing some things off the bucket list and doing generally things that make us happy; finding places in our communities to pay forward all the wonderful time and influence people invested in us along the way; and expressing gratitude to God and others often for everything they do for us.
Negatively, I think I mean turn off whatever is distracting us from doing the positive things: turning off the cell phone (don’t let it buzz or beep while you are trying to live or let it lure you into idly reading it instead of smiling and talking to the person next to you); turning off the computer and television as well when you’ve got somebody you could be talking too; turning off negative influences and negative people who darken your view of this God-disguised life; not letting fear of failure, awkwardness, or not knowing what to do or say stop you from trying something or saying something to someone or generally living your God-disguised life; and not waiting until tomorrow to do what there is time to do today.
Here is our one promised shot. And the Human One wants us to experience being human as much as he did. In so doing, both our faith & our experience teach us that we’ll meet God again and again and again disguised in our lives. And the more we practice being fully human, the more we’ll pick up on the disguise.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” - Saint Irenaeus