Thursday, December 18, 2014

Where is the child who has been born...: We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 16

It was very difficult to read this chapter,"Keep Herod in Christmas," on the 2 year anniversary of the shooting of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. This tragedy is a vivid echo of Herod's slaughter of the innocents depicted in Matthew's Gospel. The children who died December 14, 2012 give us vivid portraits of the children who died at the hands of Herod.

Matthew 2: 16 - 18 tells the story of Herod's slaughter of innocent children. Herod, in his anger against the wise men and because of his fear of Christ's birth, sends his troops to kill all the infant boys living in Bethlehem. It is an echo of Pharaoh's slaughter of Israelite boys in the Book of Exodus. It is a foreshadowing of over 120 children killed in Islamabad, Pakistan. It is a tragic, violent story that feels antithetical to the "Christmas spirit."
Of course, this is why we don't tell this story very often; this is why the day for Feast of the Innocent's is rarely celebrated. Stories of the killing of children are not stories we embrace or seek to tel, especially not at Christmas. Instead, we focus, rightly so, on birth, especially the birth of Christ. We joyfully celebrate God's coming among us and the many, many implications that has on our lives. Matthew, though, does not want us to forget. Remember, Matthew seems to say, remember that there are dark places in our world. Remember that the brokenness of humanity, our desires for power and control, are real. Remember that Jesus' life is a response to the violent corruption of creation. And we should not forget. We must recognize and weave together these two sides of the story: the joyful birth and life of Christ, and the reality of corrupt power, violence, and death.

McLaren finds a way to weave these two sides of the story together. He writes, 
"[we must] grapple with what we believe about God. Does God promote or demand violence? Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults? Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf? Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?"
Our theology, what we believe about God, directly impacts our behavior and what we teach others about God. Is it the will of God that Jesus die on the cross? Or is it the will of God that Jesus' violent death is redeemed by the empty tomb? Is it the will of God that Herod murder those innocent children? Or does God weep with those who love them, and for our corrupt desires for power and violence? Is it the will of God that we compete with one another, no matter the cost, for physical and emotional power? Or does God yearn for us to practice compassion, mercy, and vulnerability? Our answers to these questions shape the way we live, our relationships, and, inevitably, our world.

Unicef recently declared 2014 as one of the worst years for children stating that up to 15 million children live in areas entangled in violent conflict. In our own county, as many as 25% of our children are hungry. Do we believe this is God's will for creation? Can we imagine that God calls us to respond, to be bearers of Christ's life in the world? Can we boldly offer a different response to Christ's birth, and life among us, than Herod's act of violent, corrupt power? Will we continue to sacrifice children on behalf of our self-interests, our desire for power and control? Or will we sacrifice our desires for the sake of our children? These are hard questions in the midst of Christmas. And yet, our answers will lead us either to Christ's manger or Herod's castle.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Impossible Possibilites, We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 15

Luke 1: 46-55 (NRSV)
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’ 
Some of us call this text "The Magnificat." It is Mary's song given to Elizabeth, and to us, as John the Baptist leaps with joy in Elizabeth's womb. The song echoes Hannah's song at the dedication of her son Samuel (1 Samuel 2). The song declares the hopes and dreams of Mary's people as they wait for the Messiah. It is a song that swells with hope and joy for the future. 

The 15th chapter of Brian McLaren's We Make the Road by Walking, "Women on the Edge," focuses on women: Sarah, Elizabeth, and Mary. Here McLaren shows how women have been vehicles of God's work in the world. There are many more women to choose from, of course, like Hannah, or Mary and Martha of Bethany. These women, though, are all mothers. More than that, they are mothers of unexpected children. Sarah is in her eighties when she bears Isaac into the world. Elizabeth is considered barren and hopeless when Zechariah learns of his impending arrival. And Mary is a young, unmarried woman when Gabriel invites her to bear the Christ child into the world. Each woman invited to believe that the impossible is possible.

The role of these stories is to do more than tell the story. They invite us to imagine that we, also, can believe that the impossible is possible. Each one of us, at some point, is thwarted by something that inhibits our potential. It may, indeed, be the reality that we will not bear a child into the world. It might also be the lack of a job, or money to pay for an education, or even money to eat. Whatever the reason, each one of us has a moment when our hopes seem impossible. The stories of these women invite us to imagine the "impossible possitiblities" (p69). We hear Mary proclaim that the "hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty" and we wonder how can this be. It is true, though, the Christ child, her child, will one day feed the hungry and send the rich away.

Mary's song offers one other impossible possibility: that God's power subverts and undermines our human desires for violence. In other words, the incarnation is the divine creative force born into the world by the grace of one who nurtures and hopes. Imagine if we mirrored this creative force in our own lives. We might find ourselves living differently: scattering the pride from our hearts and seeking out the lowly. We might put down our weapons and encounter one another. We might discover a new way of life that embraces hope, and nurtures life. We might realize that we have the power to bear God's grace, compassion, and mercy into the world. Mary invites us on a journey that embraces a new way of life: a life that believes the impossible is possible.
I wonder, what seems impossible to you? Can you imagine that it is possible by the power of God? What are the impossible possibilities that Christ's life makes real for you?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Stop Wishing, Start Traveling: We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 14

Beginning last Sunday, our church began a journey with Brain McLaren's book We Make the Road by Walking. The best way I know how to describe it is as a devotional book. Each short chapter considers a few Bible texts along with some themes of the church year. The chapters end with questions that include opportunities for meditation and action. In my humble opinion, it is just the right book for our parish to engage in small group or individual spiritual formation.

Our small groups meet at the church on Sundays and Wednesdays. At the end of the week, I hope to post a reflection here on our conversations. These reflections are meant to support our small groups, and those who are doing individual study. Wherever you are, I hope you'll follow along with us; maybe even start your own small group. 

The book is designed to follow the church year. However, McLaren was aware that many churches begin their studies in late August, early September. We decided to wait and start the study with Advent, the beginning of the church year, which means we started with Chapter 14: Promised Land, Promised Time.  

Isaiah 40: 9-11 (NRSV)

Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   ‘Here is your God!’ 
See, the Lord God comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him. 
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep. 

The season of Advent is the season of prophets. During this time, the prophets (including John the Baptist) try to raise our awarenenss and prepare our hearts for God's work in the world. This is ancient work begun thousands of years ago. 

When I was a child, the prophets were the bearded, old men who said strange things about six-winged beasts. To my teenage ears, the young activist, I thrived off of some of the prophets words, like Amos' image of justice rolling down like water. It was in seminary that I learned the prohets were the ones who called Israel back to YHWH. 

McLaren writes, "Prophets in the Bible have a fascinating role as custodians of the best hopes, desires, and dreams of their society. They challenge people to act in ways consistent with those hopes, desires, and dreams." (p64). This definition caught my attention. I spent some time reflecting on this description of a prophet. To me, it is a liberating definition; it opens the way for any person in the community to be a prophet. Parents can be prophets for their children; preachers prophets for their churches; board members prophets for their organizations. Of course, as Christians, we add some specifics like: how do our hopes, desires, and dreams align with God's way? Together, McLaren's definition and our discerning questions, allow for our lives to become vehicles for God's work in the world.

The season of Advent is also a season of hope. This is a time when we prepare for Christ's coming into the world, an act that changes the world. God with us, Emmanuel, creates a bond between creation and our creator that cannot be dissolved. This bond gives us the hope that even in our darkest days the light will always scatter the darkness. 

And McLaren makes an important disctinction between hoping and wishing. "Wishing is a substitue for action," he writes, "...In contrast, our desires, hopes, and dreams for the future guide us in how to act now." It occured to us, in our small groups, that we don't often make this distinction. We hope for things (like world peace) and never really act on them. Or we wish for things (like more money in our bank account) that become primary motivators for acting. Neither is bad; our wishes and hopes, though, don't always represent our best hopes, desires, and dreams of our society. And, we might resist acting on our hopes if we are afraid. Thus, our hopes become wishes.

This is why the prophets are so important. They invite to stop wishing and start hoping. Do you hope for world peace, they say, then act as a peace maker. Do you wish the hungry had food, they ask, then feed them. Do you have hope that justice will rule, they write, then be a justice-bearer. They call us out of our fear and complacency, and invite us to action. 

Driving down Lebanon Road, a friend and I pass the same Travel Agency. We both got a chuckle out of their sign this week: stop wishing start traveling. What a coincidence! This sign sums it all up: if we hope to be closer to God, we must act. If we wish for a deeper faith, we must act. If we hope for Christ this Christmas, we must seek Him. 

I wonder, what are your hopes and dreams? What are the hopes and dreams of our community? How do these hopes, dreams, and desires unite with God's desires, God's way? 

Who are the prophets calling us to action? What keeps us from acting? 

How will we be bearers of Christ's life into the world? How will we be prophets? How will our lives bear prophetic hope into the world?