Leftover Pieces

Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. –Luke 2:19

The Reverend Dr. Luke Harris and his wife Sarah knew what the two men who came to their door would tell them that Sunday afternoon, Christmas Eve of 1967.

Sarah had seen them first.

“Here they come.” Her voice, calm and even, surprised her.

Luke opened his mouth to reply, but his chin shook, so he clamped it shut.

Sarah had sat in silence in the living room all afternoon with a book in her lap, but she had lost her place hours before. The room had darkened as evening fell, but neither she nor her husband had turned on a light.

Sarah was not sure how long she had been staring out the window when the men arrived. Walking in step between the snow banks on each side of the walkway, wearing dark uniforms with medals on their chests, they marched up the steps onto the porch. They halted at the door. They could not see her in the darkened room, but she saw them standing at the door in the glow of the porch light. One of the men, a corporal, probably not yet twenty, looked as if he had never yet needed to shave. He looked at the other one, the chaplain, and Sarah wondered, when she saw the way he looked to the chaplain for guidance, if maybe this was his first time. When the chaplain nodded, the boy raised his white-gloved fist to knock, then held it in position for a second. So quickly one might have missed it, the boy crossed himself; not a full forehead to umbilicus, shoulder to shoulder; just two fingers, up and down, side to side, like a prayer mouthed but unspoken, not even whispered.

Sarah, as Protestant as any, nevertheless joined him in silent prayer, her eyes wet, but open.

The boy knocked. Neither Luke nor Sarah moved.

Until I hear them say the words, David still lives, Sarah told herself. She and Luke sat in the darkness and kept their son, their only son, alive for just a moment longer until the corporal knocked again. Luke answered the door and their lives changed forever.

“Regret to inform you, . . . killed in action, . . . . sorrow for your loss . . . grateful nation,” the memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After they left, Luke exhaled. “Well,” he said, “That is that.” He donned his overcoat and gloves. He looked at his wife who had not moved from her chair. “Will you worship tonight?” he asked.

Sarah wiped her tears and looked up at him. “Yes, of course,” she said.

Luke preached the Christmas Eve sermon he had prepared in the days before the visit of the two men. The words he had written did not sound familiar, even as he spoke them. He knew then that his life would be divided in two: life before David’s death, and life ever after.

At the communion table, he broke the bread, poured the wine, and inhaled deeply the aroma of the elements before he spoke the liturgy. “broken . . . take, eat . . .poured out . . . drink ye all….” The memorized words, spoken as a recitation, ran together.

After he had spoken the benediction and extinguished all the candles, he did not wait at the door to exchange Christmas greetings with his congregation. He did not want to put them in that position of saying two such incongruous things: “Merry Christmas, sorry for your loss.” He did not think he could bear it.

He hung his robe in the closet of the church study, closed the closet door, turned and looked around at the spacious room; the shelves of books, the oak desk and chair, and a cushioned chair where parishioners in need of comfort had, for a dozen years, found refuge in his counsel. He sat in the parishioners’ chair and could not remember if he had ever sat in it before. It was lumpy, not at all as comfortable as he had expected.

People would refer in the future to this moment as “his decision.” It was not a decision. It was a revelation. It was as if an angel appeared before him, but stood in silence, as if it had forgotten its opening line, “Fear not.”

Luke was sore afraid in the darkness of this revelation. When the curtain pulled back, he saw the place where his faith had lived, and it was cavernous and dark and hollow, like a sanctuary after a wedding, emptied of life after everyone has left for the reception.

It took him all of Christmas Day to pack his books.

He loaded the black Underwood typewriter into the car with the boxes of books. He returned to the study one last time and sifted through the drawers of the oak desk for anything that might be important. He found a plastic bag with some small black screws left over from the last time he had cleaned the typewriter, but he threw them away. He always seemed to have pieces left over.

By the end of January, he found a job teaching undergraduate Hebrew and Greek in a liberal arts college far from their upstate New York roots. Luke and Sarah settled in to a small town in the Texas Hill Country, not far from San Antonio. They began a new life together, the life Luke called, though only to Sarah, “the life after death.”

Sarah found a church, but Luke rarely attended. He spent his Sundays gardening when the weather allowed, and reading when it did not. The wheel barrow he bought at the hardware store shortly after they arrived in Texas came in a box. After assembling it, he wheeled it around to the back porch where Sarah was reading in the sun. “Only two pieces left over,” he said, unable to hide the pride in his voice.

The wheel wobbled, but Luke did not mind. “That’ll have to do,” he said, and for eight years it did.

It came to pass that on Christmas Eve of 1975, Luke had two things he was required to assemble:

One of them was a sermon, and the other was a bicycle.

Why he had agreed to preach on Christmas Eve, he could not fathom; but, he had begun to suspect that it was a conspiracy between his wife and his friend. His friend Ian, who taught biblical studies, had set him up.

“Immanuel is a small congregation between pastors,” Ian had said. “I would preach there myself if I hadn’t already committed to Kerrville.”

“I don’t preach anymore,” Luke said. “I don’t even know what I believe anymore.”

“For God’s sake, Luke,” Ian said. “You know you don’t preach your own faith. You preach Christ’s faith. Just read the story. Tell them what it says. Throw in a Greek word here and there, it will impress them.”

“I just don’t think . . .” he objected, “that I would be up to it. Especially on that night.”

Ian interrupted him, “Pull out an old sermon. Touch it up, if you want. This congregation is a handful of saints so solid in their faith you can’t do them any harm. Just tell them the Christmas story, light the candles, celebrate Communion, and sing Silent Night. They have it all memorized by now, they just want to hear it again.”

Luke opened his mouth to object again, but Ian stopped him. “I would be eternally grateful,” Ian said.

Whatever Luke did or did not believe by then, he did believe in doing things for a friend, especially a friend who had done so much for him; who had warmly welcomed Sarah and him, even with their Yankee accents and Northern reserve.

He had only one more objection. “I don’t have a robe anymore,” he said. Luke had left his black Geneva gown in the church closet back in New York.

Ian waved his hand as if brushing away a bit of dust. “I have one you can borrow.”

And so, Luke sat in his home study at his old Underwood typewriter on Christmas Eve morning and stared at a blank sheet of paper. By the time Sarah brought him lunch, the paper had begun to stare back at him, blankly.

At two in the afternoon, he opened his Bible to the Gospel According to Luke and began to type. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus . . .” He hit the return handle on the typewriter and the carriage flew off of the typewriter across the room and landed on the floor.

He stared at the carriage lying in the corner, then looked back at the remains of the typewriter in front of him, and the black inky ribbon that floated to the carpet between one and the other. Had it been red or green, he thought, it would have been festive.

A memory emerged, like a dream that returns in the middle of the day: a little plastic bag with two small black screws. The leftover pieces had caught up with him, even as he knew they would.

Luke opened his file cabinet and found an old Christmas Eve sermon manuscript. He folded it up and stuck it between the pages of his black leather Bible.

“It’ll have to do,” he said, because he still had to go back to his office and pick up the robe Ian had left for him.

And, since it was Christmas Eve, he had to go downtown and buy a Christmas present for Sarah. It was not that he had procrastinated; no, it was part of his plan. She wanted a bicycle, she had pointed to a bicycle in the window of Treadwell’s hardware shop, and that is exactly what he planned to buy for her–not a boxed up bicycle from the back that he would have to assemble, but the very bicycle in the window.

When he arrived at Treadwell’s it was nearly four o’clock on Christmas Eve, so he delivered the pitch he had prepared: “I’ll give you $20 extra for the bicycle in the window already put together.” The young sales clerk, a girl named Maria who lived down the street from Luke and Sarah, said, “I don’t really have the authority to do that.”

She called Mr. Treadwell at home. He stood firm. “That’s a man’s bike in the display. Luke needs a woman’s model for Sarah.”

So, instead of a bicycle, Luke bought a big box full of bicycle parts.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said. “I put together the bicycle in the window. It only takes a couple of hours.”

Luke sighed with a prayer too deep for words as he loaded the box into the trunk of the Monte Carlo and headed for his office. He found there the robe Ian had left for him; Ian’s extra robe; his white robe. And, Luke had not thought about the fact that Ian was over six feet tall and Luke was not. Their students exaggerated, but only a bit, when they called Ian and Luke “Goliath and Zacchaeus” whenever they walked across the campus together. The robe would swallow him, but when he tried it on and looked in the mirror, he sighed, “It’ll have to do.”

Luke arrived home just in time to change clothes so Sarah could drive them across town at six o’clock for the seven o’clock service. Luke went through his mental list: Bible, old sermon manuscript, church address, robe. He plowed through that nagging feeling that he had forgotten something, and got in the car.

Sarah drove as night fell and a light fog settled over everything. On their way, he remembered. “I was supposed to bring communion bread,” he said. “That’s what I forgot.”

Sarah sighed. “I’ll go get some bread. You go sit down in the church and get focused. Go pray until the service starts. I’ll be back soon. Something is bound to be open.”

Luke stepped out of the car at the corner and watched the taillights of the Monte Carlo fade into the foggy night. He did not wait until he was sitting in the church to begin praying because when he looked up, he saw the choir already gathered outside the front door. He heard organ music. He prayed, “God help me, I thought it started at seven!” and ran across the church yard, pulling on his long white robe at the same time.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, as he pushed through the choir and took his place at the front of the procession. The choir broke into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and the procession moved into the church and the man next to Luke, eyes wide, asked, “Who are you?”

Luke began to introduce himself, to say, “I’m the preacher tonight,” but when he looked at the man next to him at the front of the procession and saw that he wore a robe and an intricately embroidered stole, his words caught in his throat. He looked up at the front of the church and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary.

This, he realized, is not a Presbyterian Church.

The question still hung in the air, “Who are you?”

That was when the first miracle of the night arrived. His sense of humor, long buried in a fog of grief, returned.

“I am an angel of the Lord,” he told the astonished priest, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” By this time, they had reached the chancel and Luke spotted the side exit. As he glided toward it, hoisting his flowing white robe to keep from tripping over it, he turned and called to the priest, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all.” With that, he dashed out into the night. He crossed the street where the plain white prairie gothic church stood waiting. The sign in front announced candlelight and communion at 7:00 pm.

Stepping inside, he caught his breath and greeted the puzzled man who handed him a worship bulletin and a candle. The man stared at him from windblown hair to white robe that dragged on the floor, and back up to the sleeves that covered his hands.

“Merry Christmas,” they said to one another in unison.

When the service began, Sarah had not yet returned. Luke preached with an eye on the communion table which had a chalice and pitcher, but no bread, and an eye on the door at the back, where, any minute, he knew, he hoped, he prayed, Sarah would walk through with the communion bread.

He spoke slowly and drew out each dramatic pause to give her more time.

When he reached the end of the sermon, the congregation sang “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” As the last chorus began, Sarah stepped in, carrying a basket of bread, and came, faithfully, down the aisle and up to the communion table where Luke took from her the basket with bread wrapped in a white napkin.

As the congregation sang, “O come, let us adore him,” and Luke placed the bread on the table, Sarah mouthed something to Luke. What was she saying? “Took the bus?” He wondered if the Monte Carlo had broken down and she had to take a bus and that was why she had taken so long.

When he lifted the cloth from the bread, it came to him. She had not said “took the bus.” There were no busses running on Christmas Eve. There were, in their little town, no grocery stores open after 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve. She had gone all the way back to their house and found the only bread they had, far back in the freezer, left over from summer.

She had said, “hot dog buns.”

bread-and-wineThough she had cut them into neat little cubes, she left one of them sitting on the top, unbroken. The second miracle of the night arrived when he looked out over the congregation and recited the invitation to the table, “This is the joyful feast of the people of God.” Something fell into place; something fell back into place that had been missing since the two men had visited that Christmas Eve eight years before. It began with an overwhelming sense of gratitude when he looked at Sarah with her mischievous smile; it grew into his own barely stifled laughter when he looked at the neatly cubed hot dog buns on the communion table and thought about the befuddled priest across the street.

All the absurd pieces of his life, and his son’s death, came together for just a moment when he broke the bread and poured the wine and he knew, deep in his bones, that this story was for him. God had become flesh and blood. And though Luke had long ago memorized the liturgy of the table, it did not feel rote. The words did not run together, but instead they soared around the sanctuary and landed somewhere deep within him.

For a moment, the space thinned between heaven and earth. That vast emptiness between this broken war-torn world where death reigns and God’s new creation where love conquers all, filled with hope, and peace and joy.

That night, after Sarah fell asleep, Luke rose quietly from bed, padded out to the garage, pulled the box of bicycle parts from the trunk of the car and went to work assembling Sarah’s present by the light of the Christmas tree.

Maria of the hardware store had not been far off. After two hours, Luke had assembled a bicycle.

With only two parts left over.

One of the parts looked like a heavy-duty bobby pin and the other resembled a thick paper clip. Luke considered his old mantra, “That’ll have to do,” but the vision of his typewriter in pieces haunted him.

It was midnight when the third miracle of the night arrived.

Luke read the directions, all forty-two steps.

He found that he had put everything together just as the directions described. At the very end, after step forty-two, Luke read, “When the bicycle is fully assembled, you will have the two parts pictured, a cotter key and a chain clip, in duplicate. Place them in a safe place where you can find them when the original pieces wear out.”

Luke sat by the Christmas tree with the leftover pieces in his hand, and remembered the story he had repeated that night in church. He remembered how the words of the shepherds amazed all those who had gathered around the newborn baby Jesus. Nobody, including Mary, knew quite what to make of the words of angels and shepherds that night in Bethlehem.

But Mary kept all these things, these absurdities, these puzzles, these leftover pieces, and treasured them, pondered them in her heart.

Is American Idealism Obsolete?

I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.–Matthew 25:25

From a family systems theory perspective, we can hear two different conversations occurring over the recently released torture report. One conversation is self-differentiating and the other is reactive. The self-differentiating conversation can help us think through our nation’s moral and national security priorities. The reactive conversation dooms us to name-calling, reinforcement of social and political divisions, circular arguments, and a spiral of ever-increasing anxiety that helps nobody except those who sell advertising on fear-mongering news shows. [No link necessary. You know who I mean.]

In both conversations, we hear voices in favor and voices opposed to the interrogation methods used on detainees outlined in the report.

In a reactive conversation, people speak and act out of their automatic reflexes, especially fear.

In a self-differentiating conversation, people speak and act out of a clearly-articulated moral framework.

In the reactive conversation, even when the participants appeal to reason, they construct reasonable-sounding arguments to support their emotional reaction to the report. Whether one responds with revulsion to the reports of forced rectal feeding and freezing to death a man whose affiliation with terrorism was never established, or with anger that the report was released because it fans the flames of our enemies’ hatred, the argument that follows will be constructed from the foundation of that reflexive feeling. Cherry-picking facts always reveals an emotional reaction rather than a thoughtful self-differentiated argument. Evidence that supports that feeling will be included and evidence that supports the opposite will be dismissed or ignored.

The self-differentiated argument begins with identifying a moral framework and ethical foundation and builds a position and a proposal for action on the basis of that foundation.

John Stuart Mill argued in favor of human liberty based on a cost-benefit analysis. His mentor in utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, advocated abolishing physical punishment, but called the theory of natural rights “nonsense upon stilts.”

For example, arguing in favor of the use of any means necessary to extract information from detainees, a self-differentiated argument begins with John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian moral framework. It builds its argument on the postulate that the ultimate goal of government is the protection of its citizens. Since that goal stands supreme over all else, the argument over the use of torture emerges as an argument over whether or not torture is effective in extracting actionable intelligence from detainees that will give the CIA the ability to catch enemies or prevent plots against the U.S. from succeeding. Killing or torturing some innocent people is the necessary price of attaining a greater value.

While Locke agreed that a government’s role was to protect its people, he argued in favor of natural human rights rather than Mills’ and Bentham’s utilitarian cost-benefit approach.

Within this same utilitarian moral framework, the argument against the use of torture argues that the cost is greater than the benefit—that the use of torture yields very little if any actionable intelligence and that it yields a great amount of misinformation from detainees that just want the torture to stop so they say whatever they believe their interrogators want to hear. Further, the utilitarian argument against torture claims that the use of torture fans the flames of hatred against us and puts our own citizens who are prisoners of war at a higher risk of being subjected to similar treatment at the hands of our enemies.

The argument that I made in a previous post stands on a different moral foundation, a moral framework elucidated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, based on traditional Jewish and Christian religious values and shaped by the humanists of the Enlightenment, both Christian and secular, especially John Locke. On this moral foundation, I argue (along with John McCain) that the ultimate goal of our government and its agents is to act out of the moral foundation of our country: that all people are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, and entitled to due process in the quest for justice.

In the self-differentiating approach to argument, the position we ultimately take requires two steps: first, articulating the ultimate value on which we stand, the utilitarian commitment of government to protect its citizens at all costs, the commitment of government to act out of its foundational values of human rights, or something else.

Second, the self-differentiating realm of argument weighs the evidence of whether torture serves each framework—whether it makes us safer, if one stands on the utilitarian argument, or whether the interrogation techniques used by the CIA violate our nation’s moral foundation, if we stand on the human rights argument as the ultimate value.

Here are the questions I invite you to consider:

  1. Are we too far gone toward reactivity and societal regression as a nation to have a self-differentiating conversation?
  2. Is the idealism of the American revolution (equal rights for all people) obsolete in a day when terrorism rather than tyranny threatens us more?
  3. From what ethical foundation other than utilitarianism and universal human rights might we find common ground in our national conversation on torture?
  4. How do you know when a conversation has become more reactive than self-differentiating?

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Torture, the Constitution, and The Pirate Code


Jesus asks, “What does it profit those who gain the whole world but lose themselves?” Luke 9:25

The Torture Report summary released earlier this week lays out an argument that torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” did not work, that the intelligence gained from torture had already been obtained by other means. Former Vice-president Cheney appeared on television to argue that “enhanced interrogation” produced actionable intelligence that led to the capture of our enemies.

Because this page is about theology, ethics, and biblical interpretation, I want to raise a different question: does the quest for security trump every ethical concern? To put it another way, have we sold our nation’s soul in our quest for national security?

I use the word soul in its most inclusive sense, both spiritual and secular—our nation’s essence, her identity shaped by values and history, her ideals described in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Pledge of Allegiance. If we betray those values, that all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, that everyone is entitled to due process and protection from undue search and seizure, that we strive for justice for all, not just our own kind, what is left of our nation’s soul?

Recent text book wars in Texas have swirled around the question of Moses’ influence on the constitution. Perhaps the more urgent question is whether or not we will abide by our constitution’s values whether they came from Moses and Jesus or John Locke and John Stuart Mill or the Code of Hammurabi.

In arguing that the ends justify the means, the former vice-president and the FBI director imply that those of us who advocate applying the Constitution’s values in even the most extreme and difficult circumstances are unrealistic idealists. Values are all well and good, but our security must come first. If torture provides us with more security, we are obligated to use it, they argue, and we should be grateful to those who carried out their orders and those who issued the orders to administer torture.

jollyroger I laughed at the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean when the pirate captain takes a prisoner who had asked to parlay. “You can’t do that,” the prisoner argues. “It’s against the Pirate Code.” The pirate captain says, “the Code is more what you call guidelines than actual rules.”

Is the Constitution nothing more than the Pirate Code? Is it to be thrown out when it does not meet our immediate needs?

I’m not laughing now.

Among those who argue against torture on our behalf is John McCain, a hopeless idealist who has been called much worse. Having endured torture himself as a prisoner of war, and endured vicious political smears from members of his own party, McCain has had a broad range of experience in which to consider both the effectiveness and morality of torture. Here is a paragraph from his speech on the floor of the Senate this week:

[I]n the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily.

“Our enemies act without conscience. We must not.”

What do you think? If living by our values endangers our security, should we ditch our values? Does national security trump the constitution and the human rights that it advocates? What, if anything, can or should we do to prevent our national leaders from authorizing torture in the future?

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Turning the World Upside Down

Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2014. To subscribe, click here.

Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. —Luke 1: 46-55

Turning the World Upside Down

Our Advent journey leads us today into the hill country of Judea where we find two pregnant women conspiring to take over the world. I have been thinking this week about John Williams’ description of the difference between the four Gospels: how if you asked them how to get to Dallas City Hall from here, Mark would send you straight down Highway 75 to IH 30, take the Ervay Street exit and you’re there. Get there, get there, get there.

Matthew would take you in a fairly direct route, but he would keep stopping along the way to tell you why each street is named what it is, who they were and why that matters.

John would take you in a space shuttle; or, just answer, “City? What exactly is a city?”

Today, our tour guide is Luke. Luke will not hurry the journey. All around us, the world is getting ready for Christmas, but Luke says, “Wait, let’s walk slowly here and meet some people; not just the people who have Closeup5streets named after them, but also the people sleeping on cardboard sheets under the eves of old buildings. Let’s take a tour through Deep Ellum and Oak Cliff, Swiss Avenue and that renovated Park Street warehouse across from First Presbyterian where Robert Johnson recorded the blues. Luke would say, listen to the songs, both music and lyrics.

Luke would say that we find God and the Gospel not just in the people who had streets named after them: Herod, Emperor Augustus, and Quirinius governor of Syria, but with these two women: Mary, a young girl from a backwater town in Galilee, and her cousin Elizabeth, the wife of a priest and a woman who describes her life so far as one in which she has endured the disgrace of her people because of their childlessness. Both of them are country people, far from the seat of power; and yet, we find them here singing about turning the world upside down.

More accurately, of course, we hear them singing about God working through them to turn the world upside down.

Luke began this Gospel by telling Theophilus that he has set out to write “an orderly account.” And, Luke does that: this happened, then that happened, then another thing. But Luke is not opposed to some poetry along the way.

In an oppressive system like the late first century Roman empire, poets are dangerous. Those who attack the Empire directly, through editorials and pamphlets or armed uprising will be dealt with directly.

But how will the Empire strike back against poetry and song? How will the Empire suppress metaphors that seep into the cracks of power and slowly degrade the political infrastructure, and reveal its weakness and fragility?

When Luke gets to the part about Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies, he revels in the metaphor: the world is pregnant with revolution. God has struck the match, lit a candle, and started the fire not with a battle cry, but with a baby’s cry.

To all outward appearances, the cry has not yet been heard. When Luke’s first readers looked around at the world, Rome still ruled with a brutal hand. If God was at work in the world, it was not altogether visible.

And yet, Mary sings in the past tense.

With Jesus growing inside of her, the victory is won, she sings, as only a poet can say: the hungry have been fed; the oppressors have been thrown down; the lowly have been exalted.

In Mary’s song, we hear the promise of God to anyone who lives under oppression: that all unjust systems of power are doomed.

Pregnancy, of course, is uncomfortable. Or so I have been told.

Shannon Kershner told the story of her parents coming to visit their grandchildren shortly before Christmas one year, and bringing a Christmas story book for Shannon’s five-year-old.

Her mother and her daughter began reading it together. It told a very sweet version of the Christmas story–beginning when the Angel Gabriel came to tell Mary what was going to happen in and to her. The book said, “and when the angel told Mary she was going to have the baby Jesus, Mary was very happy.” At that point the five-year-old stopped her grandmother: “Well, actually, Nini, that’s wrong. Mary was afraid.”

It’s the kind of reply you get, I suppose, from a child whose mother and grandfather are Presbyterian ministers.

And of course, five-year-old Hannah was right. Mary was afraid and perplexed, and she ran with haste from her parents to her cousin Elizabeth. She ran out of there as quickly as she could and went to the only place she thought might be safe; after all, Gabriel had told her that Elizabeth also was pregnant with a child miraculously conceived.

And so, when Luke brings us to the blessing from Elizabeth and the song of Mary, “from now on, all generations will call me blessed,” the blessing comes into a world full of fear. In Mary’s pregnancy, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Where do your hopes and fears meet? In pregnancy, yes, for some families now. In the waiting and hoping for all to go as planned.

And, for other families, the hopes and fears meet in a hoped-for pregnancy and the fear that it will not happen.

And, for some, hopes and fears meet in the hope for a better life for their children, and the fear that they cannot provide it.

And, for all who work for the justice Mary proclaims in her song, the hope is clear, but the fears are real, even in the face of love that casts out all fear. Love does cast out all fear, but not all at once, and not on our timetable.

Today our youth group gathered around the Advent wreath and lit the candle of Joy. The song of Mary, even when sung in the minor key that foreshadows the birth pangs to come, bursts with a joy so unrepressed that we’re not entirely comfortable with it.

Isn’t it a bit too exuberant for grownups? Isn’t exuberance over a world into which God is breaking in with justice a bit premature in a world where wars rage and, well, Ferguson, Missouri.

A friend told me that when he was driving around after a snow storm, he saw an old man with a piece of cardboard for a sled, riding down a hill with a huge grin on his face and his hands raised above his head. He was all by himself, no children or grandchildren in sight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf it had been a young person, it wouldn’t have been such an unusual sight. But, as we grow older, even if we can preserve our bodies from broken bones, our joy somehow gets mashed down. An adult, a grown man or woman, laughing or singing in unrestrained joy, becomes an unusual sight.

The self-exposure, the fear of looking like a fool, the fear of getting hurt emotionally if not physically, maybe that’s part of it.

But the other part is that as we grow older, we see the world’s sorrows. We lose people we love to disease and death. How can we have joy in a world in which teenagers walk into a school and gun down children and teachers; a world in which war claims not just those who abuse power, but the innocent, the children caught in the crossfire, and the would-be peacemakers who go hungry?

How can you read the news and be joyful? How can you live for even a handful of decades and hold on to joy?

Here’s Luke’s bottom line: Joy is not the same thing as happiness, or fun, or pleasure. All of those depend on good conditions, health, happy family, financial security, lots of toys. Joy is something different.

Joy comes from the awareness that we are walking a path God has set before us, and that God walks it with us.

Joy doesn’t happen when we get what we want. Did Mary want what happened to her? It is much more likely to happen when we do not get what we want and we find ourselves laughing instead of crying, because God’s ideas are so much better than ours, only we have a hard time seeing that until our own wishes have crashed and burned.

Joy in the face of loss–that’s how you know God is present–because nobody else knows how to make life out of death. No one else knows how to come into a dark room and turn on all the lights, surprising everyone inside with the last thing any of them ever expected.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. The Gospel story of this pregnant moment tells us that our fears, however real, can be met in the cold and darkness of winter, by the light of Christ.

The light has come into darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

Thanks be to God.

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A Gift for You

81tTwaiPleL._SL1500_If you stumble upon this post by Friday, December 5, you can receive a free e-book I published on Amazon, Eyes Peeled for Elvis: Haikus from a Road Trip. As I drove to New Hampshire from Texas to take my daughter Suzannah to her new job at New Beginnings, I recorded the trip on social media with a series of Haikus and many of my friends answered in Haiku form. Some are funny, some just slightly amusing, and some are bittersweet. This book includes my own Haikus and some from my friends, including a couple of award-winning poets. The e-book is free until Friday. After that, it’s still a bargain at $2.99. Any profits we make from this project will be donated to New Beginnings, an organization to prevent domestic and sexual violence and provide support, advocacy, and/or shelter for victims.

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.

Third Sunday of Advent

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Here are a couple of Advent sermons for your reading pleasure as we await the Second Sunday of Advent. Enjoy.

John 1:26-27 (From The Message)

26-27John answered, “I only baptize using water. A person you don’t recognize has taken his stand in your midst. He comes after me, but he is not in second place to me. I’m not even worthy to hold his coat for him.”

Chipping Away At the Darkness

A legend of Michelangelo says that his patron looked upon the finished sculpture of David and asked, “How on earth did you carve such a realistic sculpture?”

Michelangelo replied, “It was easy.  I took a big piece of marble and carved away everything that didn’t look like davidDavid.”

The Gospel writer John, telling us his Christmas story of the Word becoming “flesh and blood and moving into the neighborhood” (The Message) begins with the other John, the cousin of Jesus, and begins to chip away at all that is not Jesus.

Nope, I’m not the Messiah, John says.

Nope, I’m not the Light; no, I’m not Elijah, no, I’m not the prophet.

John, in the tradition of the prophets, presents himself as next to nothing, just a voice, “thunder in the desert,” a sound that comes before the life-giving rain.  Amos said, “I’m only a shepherd;” Moses said, “I can’t speak well enough;” Jeremiah said, “I’m too young.”  John says, “I’m not worthy.”

That’s not the response we would expect from someone who is about to get a ticket for baptizing without a license.  We might expect him to flash his credentials, to defend himself, to say, “Hey, I’ve got a right to be here!  God sent me!”  Instead, the voice crying out in the wilderness echoes Isaiah who resisted his call, saying, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

It’s the third Sunday of Advent, and we’re about ready to hear Luke’s version of the Christmas story, about Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, ending up in a stable where Mary gives birth with all the farm animals, then the shepherds coming to tell them what they heard from a chorus of heavenly angels.

But, that’s not how John tells it.  If all we had was this gospel, our Christmas pageants would be easy:  just one child, standing on a dark and empty stage, reciting or singing about the light:

“In the beginning was the Word,

and the Word was with God,

and the Word was God.”

And instead of Joseph and Mary riding into Bethlehem, as we imagine, on a donkey, in the Gospel according to John, there’s just one guy, the other John, maybe not even visible, but just a voice out of the darkness, because he is not the light, but a witness to the light.

Which brings us to the reason the temple police came all the way out from Jerusalem to Bethany, some backwater village known for its lepers and outcasts:  “If you are not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet, why do you baptize?”

John’s answer, of course, is a non-answer.  He doesn’t tell them why he baptizes; instead, he tells them that those who are baptized with water are a preview of the One who comes after him.

A few years ago, I served a congregation as it went through a building project that included a small chapel. The building committee counted the cost, listened to ideas from the whole congregation, prayed and discussed and tried to discern the shape of a building that would serve as a tool for ministry in the decades to come.  The architect, began to draw.  The committee looked at the drawings and said, “We like this; this part, not so much.”  The architect drew some more.  He drew the floor plan, then the elevation from each direction, then more detailed drawings for the plumber and electrician.  By the time we broke ground, we had a stack of drawings an inch thick.

I studied the drawings carefully and felt like I knew this building.  I knew what it would look like inside and out, and I knew how it could be used.

And then, after construction had continued for a few weeks, I drove up one morning and the framing was underway.  By that afternoon, the walls and the joists were all together and it looked like a building.

When I walked through, and came into the middle room on the north side with the vaulted ceiling, I realized that the drawings were just pointing to the space.  They could give us information, they could describe the space, but they were not the same as walking into a place that instantly opened all my senses to the presence of something Holy.

Looking at the drawings, I knew that the middle room would be pretty.

Walking into the space, I felt the need to worship God.

That’s something like what John is saying about baptism with water.  It’s the architectural drawing.  We who are baptized are not the light; we’re not Elijah, we’re not the Messiah.  We are people with ordinary names.  Like architectural drawings, those names may be beautiful.  And all together, we are called the church, the body of Christ.  But, we are not Christ.  We are not the light, we only point to the light, the Word made flesh and blood.

In a culture where Christmas has become primarily a marketing event, we in the church have to struggle to keep our attention on the light to which John pointed.  At a time of year when the days are short and the night is long; when all the music and merriment can emphasize the loneliness and heartache for those on the sidelines, it is a struggle to focus on the incarnation, the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

If your Christmas tradition includes giving to organizations that are changing the world, you may have noticed must how much need there is in this world. Browsing through the Alternative Christmas Market catalogue could be a downer.  Without a faith in the light of the world, it would be easier to keep our spirits up through the darkest time of the year if we tried not to think about the intractable poverty of the people of Haiti; tried not to look at the haunting photograph of a child sold by her parents as a sexual slave; if we tried to forget about people who will spend this Christmas on the street or in homeless shelters.

For some among us today, this is the first Christmas after the death of a loved one.  For those in the still-fresh pangs of grief, the merriment of the season can deepen the sadness of all we have lost.

This, however, is the darkness into which the light of Christ came.  The light of God, the Christmas light, God made flesh, came into deep darkness.  The good news of Advent is that the light still enters the dark.  With the Christmas story of John, we have no fear of the dark; the darkness of the world is like bits of stone that Michelangelo carved away from the marble to reveal his vision of David.

As those who are baptized with water, we chip away at the darkness with the faith of those who know that the light is breaking through in Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

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Second Sunday of Advent

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Mark 1:1-8

Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 

The Christmas Angel

To find the Christmas angel in the gospel according to Mark, we have to look hard. There is no angelic appearance of Gabriel to Mary, as there is in Luke. There is no angel appearing in a dream to Joseph as there is in Matthew. In Mark, Mary the mother of Jesus is named only in passing and Joseph is nowhere to be found.

The Christmas angel comes in the quotation from Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;”

The angel is almost impossible to find until we remember that the word “my messenger” is the English translation of the Greek word, angelon. There it is, not Gabriel, not Clarence, but John the Baptizer in the part of the Christmas angel, announcing the advent of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us, the Son of David, Messiah, God in human flesh. Mattia-Preti-St-John-the-Baptist-Preaching-600x360

There is an old Saturday Night Live sketch in which Eddie Murphy steps out on the set with a strange smile plastered on his face. You know immediately he’s doing an impression of someone, but it takes just a second to realize who it is. It’s when he puts on the cardigan sweater and the tennis shoes that you know, even if you don’t have the sound turned up, that he’s singing “It’s a beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and channeling Fred Rogers.

John the Baptizer, when he slips on the camel hair and leather belt and crunches in his teeth those delicious locusts dipped in wild honey, we know what kind of angel, what kind of messenger John is channeling. Even if we don’t have the sound turned up, we can hear the tune of that piece from Handel’s Messiah,

“All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way . . .”

Ah, a prophet like Isaiah or Elijah.

And, sure enough, John comes preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

This is not the Christmas angel of our culture, not at all; but then, the church, at its best, does not follow the world, it follows Christ. Imagine if we sent out Advent cards instead of Christmas cards. Perhaps the front of the card could feature the prophet in the wilderness dressed like Elijah, with a cartoon balloon from his mouth saying, in huge capital letters, “REPENT!”

What would the inside say? Perhaps, “Wishing you a season of shocking self-awareness and humble contrition.” Imagine receiving such a card from a loved one, perhaps with a list of suggestions of sins you in particular might want to consider putting on your repentance list.

Well, thanks a lot, Mark the Gospel writer. I can already feel that Christmas spirit.

It may sound kind of ridiculous, given how far removed such a thing is from the world in which we live, and yet, that is exactly where the gospel leads us on the path to Christmas. We cannot realize the depth of God’s gift in Jesus Christ until we realize the depth of our need. It’s a paradox, this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

On the one hand, traveling that path from the starting point of blaming others into that dark and frightening forest of seeing our own sin as part of every problem we care about can overwhelm us. It can lead to pain and heartache. It’s not exactly the kind of Christmas preparation the secular world presents as a pathway to comfort and joy.

And yet, the comfort and joy God has prepared for us waits at the end of that very path.

In the movie Blood Diamond, Solomon Vandy, a fisherman from Sierra Leone, is taken prisoner by the rebels and forced to work in a river panning for diamonds that will be used to finance the civil war. His eleven year old son is kidnapped and forced to become a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, forced to participate in such atrocities they can hardly be described. His wife and daughters become refugees, barely escaping the violence of the civil war.
When a very dodgy character, a diamond dealer and gun runner, asks a journalist named Maddy to take Solomon with her and reunite him with his family, she says, “All this suffering, millions of people dying, and you want me to help one guy? Why should I do that?”
And then, you can see it on her face. She hears what she has said. In the next scene, we see her next to Solomon in a helicopter on the way to a refugee camp where he will begin to put his family back together.
What difference can I make? Why bother to help one child with an angel from a tree, why bother to give a few dollars toward the problem of sexual slavery when the problems of human suffering are so huge? Surely we can do nothing more than bail out a cup of salt water from the Gulf.
The Advent message is that God has come to earth in human flesh. Even when all we can see is suffering and sin, we gather at this table and affirm that God has not abandoned this world. We commit ourselves to rise up and live for the Prince of Peace. In these few years we have, we will walk in the path that God has made, even when we cannot see the sweet fruit hidden deep in the orchard.
Ruth and Billy Graham were traveling through the mountains of North Carolina one afternoon, and they encountered sheadstoneeveral miles of road construction. There was one-lane traffic, there were detours, it was a little frustrating. Finally, they came to the end and they saw a road sign. Ruth Graham turned to her husband and said, “Those words, on that road sign, that is what I would like to have printed on my tombstone.” The words on the road sign read:
End of construction. Thanks for your patience.

Until we reach the end of construction, the journey will be full of road blocks, frustrations, and rough patches.
The courage to take this Advent journey comes from knowing our destination, that place where peace reigns, where every path is made straight, every rough place made plain. Until then, remember the words of the Christmas Angel: “Fear not.”
Thanks be to God.

If you would like your free copy of “Cheaper Than A Seminary Education,” a 45-page e-book on reading difficult passages of Scripture in context, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. If you decide it’s not for you, you may unsubscribe at any time.