God Doesn’t Play Games

December 30, 2010

And the Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.

   –John 1. 14

Last night, I had a dream. I dreamed I was excused from an elementary classroom along with an older student. I know this was a dream because I have never been excused from a classroom in my life–I was always the Teacher’s Pet and got to wash blackboards and take notes to the Principal.

The older student began his own form of teaching to others, using me as an example. Somehow, he made the connection between the contemplative life and the sexual one in me.  Apparently–in the dream– I had found the long sought-after union. I placed a kiss on his lips, a second reason I know it was a dream, as I didn’t kiss a boy until high school.

Then, the dream switched.  The older student suggested we play a game and began explaining the rules, but I didn’t understand them. I was lost. I was in the dark. I couldn’t play because I didn’t understand how.

This dream makes me sad because there are people out there who like to play games. They play games with people’s hearts and lives as if they are in Las Vegas. They wear perfect Poker Faces and manipulate decks. They are  slight of hand experts and hold the cards close to their chest. They keep us guessing and conveniently in the dark, like a gnostic in the second century.

If you don’t know yet the meaning of gnosticism,  you need to. It is a strain of theology and philosophy that predates Christianity, but became a true ‘threat’ in the second-century CE. By threat, I mean the main ideas of Gnosticism are significantly different from what we know today as Christianity 101.

In every century, the Church wrestles with controversy, but especially during the latter half of the first century and the  second one–not long after Christ had lived and died on this earth, as the Church was growing and struggling to live within a Greco-Roman culture, as  scripture began to be canonized and theology was hammered out. The early  Church ‘Fathers’ (Patristics) sought to develop what would become ‘orthodox’ Christian thought and argued against various ideas which would become known as ‘heresies’. Docetism, Marcion, Montanus were three of these. The fourth was Gnosticism.

Gnosticism was a sort of conglomeration of Jewish apocalypticism, Platonism, strains of pagan religions, and early Christianity. It developed as an extreme dualism which emphasized gnosis, or divine knowledge. It was a secret sort of thing, and thus, exclusive. Only certain people who gained the knowledge could escape the body, which was viewed as evil. Could enter the spirit realm.  It was an insiders’ club where secret trump cards were played and could only be understood by a few.

Clearly, Gnosticism has nothing to do with Christmas.

Christmas is all about revelation and union, the mysterious–but not secret–Incarnat6ion of God’s Love in a manger. The Word come down and freely offered. Clear and uncomplicated Truth. So simple, even a baby can understand.

It is about Grace and the offering of God’s self who lived for a while among us.

God doesn’t play games or hold cards close to God’s chest. Instead, God’s love is revealed in Christ. It is as real and tangible as when you held your first baby or had your first kiss.

It is a Love which may enjoy the Dance of Courtship, the Song of the Heart, even a little ForePlay, but is differentiated from any and all obscure games, secret knowledge, or dualism. It is Real. It is Flesh It is Blood.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

   —traditional French carol, Angels We Have Heard on High

Shepherds, why this jubilee? the traditional French carol asks. Why your joyous strains prolong?

It’s a good question. I wonder how many would ask it of us: Why are you so happy, kicking up your heels in joy and jubilee?

The melancholy is over.  The long wait is complete. Now, is the time to rejoice!

Wonderful child of God, we receive your arrival with joy, eagerness, and wonder. We ask that you come to redeem us from all that is incomplete, unworthy, and broken. Come into our hearts this day and bring peace on earth. Amen.

Fall On Your Knees

December 22, 2010

Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices!

O night divine, O night when Christ was born!

    — Placide Cappeau, O Holy Night

Sooner or later, we fall on our knees.

We come like beggars to the manger, like pilgrims crawling the last few feet up a sacred hill. We come destitute and worn, our hearts, our hands torn from gripping onto what cannot hold us.

We come empty.

That’s how I came–at the end of my tether of self-will and determination. I had exhausted human possibility.

I recall a trip I made to the mountains years ago with a friend and his parents. These were intellectuals, writers, really smart and successful people who were sophisticated, competent, and maybe a little arrogant. They were good Episcopalians and good people.

I was a new Christian—new in the sense that I had experienced a profound and radical reconversion as a young adult. My whole world turned upside-down, or right-side-up. I knew what it meant to be saved. God had saved me not only from sin and death, but also from myself. Salvation to me was a beautiful word.

We passed by one of those crude signs on the side of the road you see in the Bible belt. The hand-painted bold letters asked the fundamental question : Are you saved? They laughed and said, From what? like everything was dandy.

I kept my mouth shut though I felt sad for them: sad that they didn’t know their limitations, sad that they thought they could ever be good enough on their own, sad that there seemed to be no sense of human frailty and the darkness inside us and the world. Sad that the word ‘saved’ was something to be mocked.

Jesus was first and foremost a Savior. He came to save us from sin and death—and from ourselves. He came to save the nations of the world as the long-awaited Messiah. He came to do something for us and for all creation that we cannot do for ourselves.

Fall on your knees? You bet.

Come Together

December 21, 2010

There’s a song in the air!
There’s a star in the sky!
There’s a mother’s deep prayer
and a baby’s low cry!
And the star rains its fire
while the beautiful sing,
for the manger of Bethlehem
cradles a King!

   –Josiah G. Holland, There’s a Song in the Air

Come together right now over me.

  —McCartney, Lennon, Come Together

Last night was interesting, astronomically. I’m sure astronomers–and astrologers–were paying close attention as the earth experienced a full lunar eclipse on the winter solstice.

I would imagine you know that the winter solstice is the longest night of the year. From now until June 21st, the days will start to win and light will increase steadily.

This morning, NASA posted photos of what is described as a phenomenal and rare total lunar eclipse.  

I missed it. I was in bed while the moon went missing and the night was dark and long. I slept through both phenomena.

Today, I think about the Beatles’ song, Come Together and the lyrics which say, Come together right now over me.

It seems to me that much is coming together, even as the world seems to be falling apart. Planets line up, moons are eclipsed, the day and the night do battle, and into all of the stars of the Cosmos–there is a baby’s low cry.

The beautiful carol, There’s a Song in the Air, says it so well: a song, a star, a mother’s prayer, a baby cooing in a cradle of straw. The large and infinite, the tiny and faint, birth and songs, prayers and poems. They all come together in four days.

Christmas is a coming together, a union of all that is lost and missing. A perfect constellation. A juncture of all desire and longing, where every dream is fulfilled. Hope flickers like baby stars being born. 

Jesus is where Light and Darkness meet and things begin turning around. There is a shift in the universe and the balance goes another way.

The second verse of the carol says, There’s a tumult of joy o’er the wonderful birth. A loud sound like a Big Bang, a trumpet, a heavenly chorus, and the Song of the Universe.

We don’t want to sleep through it. We don’t want to miss it.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

and Heaven and nature sing.

   –Isaac Watts, Joy to the World

We are nearing the end of our Advent preparation, the liturgical season of penitance, reflection, and anticipation. Soon the church bells will sound, the Gloria in Excelsis will be sung, the Feast of the Nativity–Christ Mass–will be celebrated.  We will receive Christ once again on our tongue.

Christians around the world will sing Joy to the World in their own tongue. The Good News is universal and on this day , we are one.

The hymn lyrics, written so long ago by Isaac Watts,  pen a profound truth: The Lord is come. Not only has he come as the Bethlehem baby, not only will he come as the King of Glory; He is come in the present tense. He comes again and again.

Christmas is about giving, but even more, it is about receiving–receiving a gift large enough to change the whole world, to change us. We spend our life preparing. Emptying ourselves of all that would get in the way of His birth inside us. Making a manger of our heart to prepare Him room.

Mangers are concave, they are sloped and gentle to hold hay. They are made to be filled up with food. Into the concave cradles we have formed during Advent, the Lord is come, as food, as Joy, as Bread.

Stick With Me Baby

December 19, 2010

For unto us a child is born,

unto us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulders:

and his name shall be called

Wonderful

Counseller,

The Mighty God,

The Everlasting Father,

The Prince of Peace

   –Handel, Messiah (Isaiah 9.6, KJV)

Stick with me baby,

Stick with me anyhow

Things should start to get interesting right about now

   —Bob Dylan, Mississippi

It is 5:13 AM. I’ve been sitting on the porch of my friend Lynn’s house. It is cold and damp. I wear my green cape, the hood pulled up. I look like a monk and I pray. The cock crows.

It is six days until we celebrate the birth of a baby. A six or seven pound bundle, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The lyrics of Handel’s Messiah sing through my head: And the government shall be upon his shoulders. Isaiah’s prophecy would become true.

Do you ever think about how absurd it is that the government, the world, would kill something so good? So full of Light and Peace and Love?

I think about that this morning as I listen to a rooster in the distance. I guess that means all of us.

Christian theology tells us we were all there, at the cross, killing Love.

It is hard at Christmas to think about Good Friday, but they are ever so closely linked. You can’t separate them. Christ came to die, but he also came to live, to show us a better way.

I’m afraid it is all too easy for us to sentimentalize Christmas. To make Jesus over in our own image–a nostalgic one–which forgets the harsh reality of why he came–and why he comes.

From the time he was born in Bethlehem, people wanted to kill him. To hunt him down like Herod’s army. To throw him in the river, to bury him.

Eventually, that day would come. But until then, Jesus did his own hunting. He hunted down sinners and prostitutes, lepers and blind men, a woman caught in adultery and the men who would try and stone her. He hunted the weak, the innocent, the children, the outcast, those sick and hungry and needing to be fed, those looking for deliverance from all things which oppress.

He still does. And he asks that we follow.

Bob Dylan’s lyrics in Mississippi contain these words: Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now.

Things got interesting alright, I’m sure Mary and Joseph would agree. Magi from the East would come bearing gifts. Humble shepherds would make their way from fields. And it wouldn’t be long before another angel would whisper in Joseph’s ear, Flee.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  (Matthew 2. 13-15).

The Holy Family was a flight risk. Jesus’ life was one big risk, the risk which comes when we love so much.

I am so thankful for Christmas and these last few days of Advent. I need the time to process the magnitude of the gift and what it asks of me, of us.

 

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

  –Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,  I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

My neighbor’s friend is leaving today. I am sad.

I have only known him for two weeks. He is here from Bristol, Virginia and sees a break in the weather when he can return home safely.

I am sad for two reasons: Change is hard and he is kind.

Although it’s only been a few weeks that he has been here–and I don’t even know his name–he has brought some comfort as I’ve sat on my deck. He is the best friend of my neighbor, Ryan, and they grew up together in grade school. They almost look like brothers and I have loved seeing them putter around in the yard, work on the car, build a fire ring out of an old drum. They have raked leaves and chatted. They are so comfortable together. I am sad for my neighbor, Ryan, as well, for I know he will miss his best friend.

Isn’t this the way of life? We get comfortable with things the way they are–people who are kind and friendly and uncomplicated–and then they are gone, poof, like that?

I’ve had the illusion that I embrace change well, but the older I get, I realize that I don’t. Change is hard, even when it is a small shift, like someone I barely know, but have grown used to, leaving.

I believe one of the hardest aspects of life on earth is change and that change is integral to Peace on Earth. Kindness is the link between them.

Mr. Frost said Good fences make good neighbors, but I disagree. Good fences detain prisoners on a bay in Cuba where water-boarding without representation is the status quo. Good fences divide cities like Berlin and Jerusalem, countries like the Irelands and Koreas and the families among them. Good fences keep Indians on reservations where they drink themselves to death and Japanese American citizens in prisoner of war camps. Good fences create ghettos where both Jews and blacks are treated as ‘niggers’. Good fences morph into national apartheid law. Good fences cause Mexicans to suffocate in semis to escape being shot by border patrols. Good fences keep the rich in and the poor out in gated communities and subdivisions lily white. Good fences hold Albanian citizens in Kosovo where they are murdered in ethnic cleansing. Good fences keep girls and women out of schools and imprisoned in burqas in Afghanistan.

Good fences divide humanity and thus, cannot be good at all.

This past week, my neighbor’s friend asked ever so diplomatically if I needed more firewood. He could see my pile was getting low and offered to cut and split some logs for me. I was so touched by his kindness.

Change is inevitable. Good fences are not. And Peace on Earth will  come only when we are willing to change, to tear down any and all walls. Kindness is the key.

 

 

Fire

December 14, 2010

Go, tell it on the mountain,

Over the hills and everywhere;

Go, tell it on the mountain,

that Jesus Christ is born.

   —John Work, Go, Tell It on the Mountain

I just want to light you up

light you up

like a fire

   —Shawn Mullins, Light You Up

Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be changed into fire?

   —Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Once upon a time, I was a ‘fire boss’. A fire boss, according to the National Park Service’s (NPS) procedure and protocol, is the first person to a fire and the last one to leave. The Fire Boss is the one in charge.

This was pretty funny as I was 24, never had even seen a forest fire, and was a seasonal ranger. But my boss-supervisor–was a stickler for doing things by the book and was also a great empowerer. He is the reason I can change a flat tire and carry a canoe on my head.

So, I coordinated the efforts between the Cobb and Fulton County fire departments who responded to the call, as well as the NPS staff. We mostly dug ditches and raked around the perimeter of the Class B fire while the fire engines supplied water and hose. The fire was almost out by evening, and I stayed after everyone had left, until the last coal burned and the smoke ceased.

I have a great photo of me in uniform, so little then, with my ranger hat in hand and ashes on my face.

That was  long ago, and since that time I have put out many fires. Some in churches, some in communities, some in my own family, some in my heart.  Fire can easily spread and become wild in its burning. It can destroy everything in its path.

I learned so much from the NPS. I learned the right way to carry a tool and place it down (think ‘scissors’ and what your mother taught you–never leave a rake or shovel facing up on the ground); I learned how to use a wrench to remove lug nuts and where to place a jack under a truck; I learned that I could contribute to the creation of a new park plan alongside the professional expertise of regional NPS staff; and I learned the three things necessary for a fire to burn: 1. fuel 2. heat and 3. oxygen.

Now, I build fires in my woodstove everyday. I remember these three rules as I stack the wood, leaving room between for oxygen to get in, adding logs when it gets low, making sure the fire is fed and remains hot.

I think about fire this morning as I use my senses. There is an art to firebuiding and it is such a sensory thing. The crackles and pops give signs the wood is catching, the warmth radiates from the stove and makes my face flush, the smell escapes into the living room and clings to my clothes. The visual allure of the hot coals–orange and glowing embers– deep in the iron well captivates my imagination.  It is all but the sense of taste that a fire touches. And yet, it touches another sense.

It is alive. It is a brother as St. Francis called it. It is intrinsic to our life on earth.

I believe God wants us to live the fire of his love. To be burned by it as the desert abba’s hands. To turn into flame from the beauty of His Presence within. I believe we become the fuel and the Spirit blows the oxygen and the heat–well it is everywhere. Wherever there is need. Wherever there is hunger and cold. Wherever people hurt.

The early Church spread like wildfire because the world was longing for its truth–that God loves us enough to become Emmanuel.

The gospel carol we hear at Christmas, Go, Tell It on the Mountain, conveys this message from the early Church–the message so fueled by the heat of Love that it cannot help but spread. It spreads through our fingertips, through our burning passion, though our Soul in Love.

 

 

Angel

December 11, 2010

Angels we have heard on high

Sweetly singing o’er the plains,

And the mountains in reply

Echoing their joyous strains.

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

Gloria, in excelsis Deo!

   —Traditional French carol,  Les Anges dans nos Campagnes

Yesterday, I saw a hawk. It wasn’t just any hawk, riding high in the thermals or sitting on a fence post. It was a huge and magnificent thing, broad tapered wings spanning great distances as it flew low to the ground right below the deck. It was up close and personal in a way I could not miss.

I don’t know why, but God has used hawks in my life for years. Usually, to affirm a decision or direction or thought. I can’t explain it. But the combination of timing and intimacy is unmistakable in its gift.

When I first went on facebook, my children coached me. They told me to put up an ‘attractive’ photo of myself and fill out the profile. So I did. Soon, my elder son called me. I could hear his wife laughing in the background. He said, Mom, is there something you need to tell us? I asked what he was referring to. He responded that I had checked that I was interested in both men and women. I said, But I am. I am interested in men and women and children and old people and all creation. He explained the box meant my sexual preference.

Somehow, I think the way I checked it makes more sense. For everything and everyone interest me, and in this, I believe I am like God, made in God’s image. 

God is interested in all of us–our comings and goings, our sitting still. God numbers our hair and the strands which have gone missing.  God numbers our days and the moments we have lost. God knows when the sparrow falls and when we take a tumble. And God often sends a messenger.  

When I was a pastor in the local church, we had Advent Guests. Each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, a different visitor would appear in our sanctuary. They would share their perspective on the birth narrative, and help the characters in the story become real. Over the years, we heard from the Innkeeper with his coin box and efficient set of keys. Old Elizabeth sat down on the altar steps as she reflected on her son, her cousin, her nephew.  Zechariah walked up the aisle swinging priestly incense, having regained his voice after being struck dumb. I remember this distinctly because members of the choir began coughing and later complained about the smoke. They would never make good Catholics.

There were shepherds and wisemen and the often neglected Joseph. We heard from Herod and a midwife who surely was in that stable coaching Mary to push. We even had a real sheep one year.

The most colorful character was always John the Baptist, played by a history professor from Young Harris College, Dr. David Franklin. Dressed in the  sheepskin rug I had bought in Cambridge and a leather belt, he scared us all to death as he shouted from the back of the church, You brood of vipers, repent! I believe we all did at that very moment. If there was water nearby, we would have been baptized again.

These are fond and vivid memories and perhaps I will one day publish the notes and the scripts, but there was an entire group I missed: Angels. I don’t recall that we were ever visited by a throng or even one.

Angels are God’s messengers. They come to announce Good News, to point with wings as fingers and say, Go. They appear in dreams and at a campsite under the stars. They proclaim glad tidings and help us name new birth. They often greet us with these words, Don’t be afraid–which ought to tell us something.

Hearing from God can sometimes be terrifying. We are overwhelmed with a sense of awe and grace. We want to fall on our knees from shock and dismay. But God always says through these creatures, Don’t be afraid.

I have seen hawks but I have never been visited by an angel, unless you count the one who sat with me on my deck yesterday. Her hair was blonde and still wet from new highlights. She smoked a cigarette, looked me in the eyes and said, Be not afraid.

In the Bleak Midwinter

December 10, 2010

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan

earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow

in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

   —Christina Rossetti, In the Bleak Midwinter

It isn’t the bleak midwinter, it isn’t even winter yet, but it is bleak. Earth stands hard as iron and the water in my fountain is a stone.

I’ve always loved this poem by Christina Rossetti set to music. It tells a great story of the Christ child who came to earth and the only thing we can really give him–our heart. When we give him our heart, there is no room for anything else.

In 1990, I buried my best friend from theology school. It was a few days before Christmas. I listened to carols as I drove the bleak stretch of I-20 from Augusta to Atlanta. The landscape was bare and  moaned from the cold. I was the only car on the road for miles on end. It was one of the loneliest, bleakest stretches I have ever driven. And my heart was broken in grief as I mourned my beautiful friend.

This is what I said at the funeral: There was no room in the inn for Christ; and there was no room in the Church for Tim.

Tim was gay and he loved Jesus and he was gifted and called to be a minister.  Yet the Church refused to receive him as one of her own. He was cast aside, thrown into the cold. He froze to death from closed doors and closed hearts.

I know there are many loving persons of faith who feel differently on this ‘issue’ than I do. But my friend, Tim, was not an ‘issue’. He was a human being.

I had coffee with Mandy this week. She is barely thirty, married, with two small children. She works with Mayan women from Guatemala in a community in Canton. She tells her son about the Nestle Company which employs child labor to produce chocolate on the Ivory coast of Africa. Her six year old son wouldn’t even eat his Halloween candy if it was labeled Nestle. He told his friends at school.

Mandy is passionate about the world and human beings. She cares about their rights. And this is what she said to me: I have no use for religion because of the ways it has hurt people and is used to justify hatred and violence and atrocity. She is a history major and knows too much for me to argue a different truth.

What can I give her? What could I give Tim? What can I give Jesus?

My heart, nothing else.