Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas: Abiding in God's Future

The train loaded up its passengers, and there they were, not “the” Holy Family, but a young family with a little baby, settling into seats near us. The couple could not have been older than perhaps their early 20s, and the baby was not quite a toddler, content to sit on a little table between his parents. For the record, the baby was not a “tiny terror” baby: that child that you somehow get “blessed” to be with on a transatlantic flight, who bellows at high decibel shortly after takeoff and just before landing, or who keeps wondering all over a public event, getting agitated once the parent finally scoops the child up in arms. No, this baby knew he had a good deal. He was cute, and with every burble, every passenger playing “peek-a-boo” with him (myself included), the baby held court among his loyal subjects.

The train door opened, and a grizzled looking old man, postcard of Ireland perfect, came through the doorway, heading for the diner car just behind us. The guy looked like he was itching for a Guinness and some conversation about the latest football match and his scowl said do not stray him from his task. As he passed the young couple, he stopped in his tracks, and a slight smile creased his wrinkled face. With a long bony finger, he tickled the baby’s chin and the baby gurgled with glee.

The old man said, “Long life to thee. May ye walk the earth many years.” With that, off he went.

In the midst of the hubbub of life, in the struggles and challenges of the Holy Family, along comes this elder named Simeon. He spotted them across the courtyard, made his way to them, and as he beheld the infant Jesus; he could not help but burst into song.

Simeon is described as an elderly man who lived his long, long life “awaiting God to comfort Israel”. He has kept a deep and abiding sense of hope that God would provide for his people. The Greek word for “comfort” is “paraklesis”, which is to say that one has “a sense of an aid or help [that] one [can] lean on”. In another Gospel, Jesus tells his faithful that after He has returned to God, Jesus will send the Holy Spirit to be with them, calling the Spirit the “Paraclete”. Simeon has spent his life not worrying about how things are going, or when things will come crashing down. Simeon has learned to wait upon God.

The Gospel of Luke keeps tossing that word paraklesis here and there into the narrative, particularly as it relates to what people ought to be looking for. Jesus claims the rich, the select few “elite”, have to find their comfort. To Jesus, the poor comprised most of his audience, inner circle, and nearly anyone else around. He claims the poor have another sort of gold standard: the kingdom of God, a vision of the world that Jesus’ disciples have continued to seek, live out, and await for two millennia.

Simeon sees the world with its rough edges, undoubtedly the scars to prove it, just like you and me. He knows that Rome likes to keep control by peace-veiled fear, he knows the Temple itself has become less than what it was intended to be. He knows that this baby will be the great hope he is awaiting as well as one who will suffer mightily in bringing things about. Yet, Simeon knows that in the moment, as well as the beginning and the end, God has the last and abiding word.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Four: Saying Yes to God

As Advent prepares us for Christmas, Mary appears on the stage of Luke's gospel (ch. 1) with two stories of being faithful, even when God surprises us with unexpected news.  Sometimes called the Annunciation and the Magnificat (the Song of Mary), these stories tell us of Mary’s faithful “yes” when asked to bear the Christ Child and as she sings a song celebrating God’s work in the world.  Retold through countless works of art, artists strive to capture this moving moment of the young woman initially frightened by the angelic messenger yet confidently saying “yes!” to what is being proposed.  In turn, the song of Mary has inspired many works of music and literature, celebrating the soaring faith of the gospel just about to unfold.  Here, we see Luke the storyteller giving us a glimpse of what happens when people say ‘yes to God’ and follow the way of Jesus.

Such euphoria might be hard to take to heart, with Luke’s nativity seeming too idealistic to be true.  In the midst of these songs and prayers of praise, we are also a people journeying through the end of a calendar year, trying to get last minute details done for work or holiday gatherings.  The frantic pace of the holidays looms large, and we still find ourselves behind, trying to get the house together, ensuring our kids stay healthy, and most of all, staying somehow ahead as the days ‘til Christmas or New Year’s Eve count down.  A prayer more likely said this week is, “Dear Lord, send me some little elves to finish the shopping for me, or at least to clean the house so that I can finish the shopping. And, Lord, if you can throw in sending somebody to work in my place this week at all my jobs, even better.  AMEN.”

Somehow each year as we harbor the suspicion (fear?) that the holidays just get more hectic each year, Advent shows up to be the voice of reason among Christian believers, a voice that says, “Slow down”.  At worship, there is a weekly invitation awaiting us that somehow through the hymns, prayers and Scriptures, we might find time to recharge our drained energies, rekindle our faith and look beyond the hustle and bustle to get at the heart of faith.

If we let this season enter into our lives, we might find the stress, the ever growing list of “things to do” and even the grief that some carry through this season from loss recent or lingering, Advent might just help us get ourselves refocused for the wonder and awe that the celebration of Christmas is about:  welcoming the Christ child and the fullness of what the Christian story holds for us, our households and our world.

 I imagine Mary being in the midst of laundry when the angel of the Lord shows up.  She has put in a full day’s work and it is only midday.  Lunch needs to be sorted out, yet somehow her thoughts about what to fix has evaporated as she sees the angel in her kitchen.  In an otherwise ordinary day, Mary finds God’s messenger standing there, trying not to knock over the jars on the table with his wings and Mary too frightened to say anything other than a stammering hello.  In the moment of the normal and the “out of left field” colliding together, the angel says what Luke will have said a number of times: “Fear not.”

Mary is asked to bear a child who shall be the Son of God, the one through whom God will bring great good to the world.  It is a grand promise, made even more so by the angel delivering it.  While some would remain in fright or ask questions, Mary responds with a very confident affirmation.  She opens herself to the possibilities of saying ‘yes’ to God, taking a remarkable word to heart and daring to see what happens next.  Hence in the Catholic tradition, it is said Mary is the first disciple of Jesus or a model for the type of faith Jesus calls us to keep.  Indeed, throughout Luke’s gospel, we will encounter characters galore who dare to do the same.  Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus will say such people like his mother are “those who hear God’s word and do it” (Luke 8:21).

Such faith is not without its challenges.  The Baptist New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper reminds us to read the story of Mary with due caution.  There is a scandal inherent in Jesus’ origins:  conceived by means that defy expectations, born into humble means and no great claim to status.  The Son of God appears in the world in a corn crib, not a royal palace.  Culpepper suggests Mary raises this child with a completely different take on being “blessed”:  a life lived in fidelity to God, not needing the measure of greatness found among those of great means or power.  Together with Joseph, Mary raises the child as many mothers around the world raise daughters and sons:  with great dedication, determination and sacrifice.

In responding to God, Mary’s “yes” becomes a long-term commitment, one shaping the way her life plays out.  She hears God’s word and cannot do anything other.  The “yes” to God just keeps going on and on.  The laundry kept piling up, meals still had to be prepared, yet in the routine and the hustle and bustle of the world just spinning around from week to week, year to year, Mary, the mother of Jesus, kept her faithful promise.

            In saying “yes” to God, we begin finding a story to tell and a song to sing. When God calls us to keep the faith, we can choose to think “it’s all over” or “it won’t happen” when it comes to seeing the world grow closer to God’s goodness rather than the indifferent or drifting world as we tend to experience it.  Just as Mary will sing of God’s mighty works, so the faith Jesus taught his disciples to live out has a healthy sense of vision, even when it is out of step with conventional wisdom.

            Again, Mary models a type of discipleship to embrace.  She sings of what God is doing in the world, even if it is difficult to see the fullness of her song or the teachings of Jesus becoming the “good news” to all persons.  Mary sings, and we have the choice of whether or not to listen.  Can we embrace her song as one we want to learn to sing and live out?  Are we willing to wrestle with this sort of worldview where the ways things are is turned upside down?  Are we willing to welcome the gospel into our lives in ways that make Mary’s song resound within us and through us?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Three: Rehearsing the Joy

During the Sundays of Advent, most folks, including long-time church goers, usually expect to hear the Nativity story as told by Matthew or Luke as well as the host of Christmas carols.  What a surprise (or disappointment) it must be to have the lectionary's contrary roadtrip through the less hyped parts of the Advent season, calling on the prophet Isaiah, readings from even John, whose Gospel lacks an overt narrative approach to Jesus' birth (even if folks will be enthralled by the Prologue of John's lofty language).

John the Baptist appears frequently during Advent gospel selections.  He's a cranky and contrary sort, drawn from later on in the Gospel narrative when Jesus is entering into adulthood.  In Luke's gospel, John is part of the Nativity narrative, the cousin of Jesus by Elizabeth, Mary's sister.  Nonetheless, the older, crankier John is often the sour note to our ears filled with shopping mall muzak arrangements of O Holy Night.

The modern hymn writer Brian Wren offers a good word about John the Baptist through a prayer Wren wrote for Advent.  Wren prays:

“Spirit of God, give us the wisdom of John the Baptizer,
that in knowing who we are not,
we may find out who we are and be glad”

(Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, 62).

A witness does not worry about whether or not he or she will be found credible or popular.  In speaking the truth and knowing that this is who we are called to be, we find our reason for being.  A witness is one who may have to speak a word that is deemed unpopular, yet in so speaking, the witness becomes one who upholds the truth of the message that has them so convinced.  The witness of John the Baptist is difficult to live out, yet he is content to be the person bringing this word.  As John's gospel will remind, The Light shall shine, and John cannot help but testify to its truth.

One year at my previous congregation, the Christian Education Director Alycia and I got out the costumes from the storage closet and sorted out the animal outfits from the Magi’s crowns, Mary’s robes from angel’s wings, we put each costume on the floor to ensure we had found all that was needed.  When we finished our work, I looked around and saw the Nativity story taking shape, though obviously one important element was missing:  the young actors who would don these outfits and make the story come to life. These costumes would make little sense without the children to wear them, stepping into the roles that help tell the story.

In a sense, that’s what Advent and Christmas observances are asking of those who follow Jesus.  You may find yourself over familiar with the story and the rituals and traditions we have around the Nativity of Jesus, yet do not discount the importance of offering prayers or singing the Advent hymns or Christmas carols.  Take time to read the stories of Nativity (Matthew, Luke and even John!).  We are in rehearsal right now to take on the role of witness, spending our lives telling others about this Light that the world desperately needs (and sometimes does not recognize or accept).

All of this is a refresher course for those who would dare follow Jesus and take up the part of witness, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent Two: A Song Reshaping the World

Luke’s Song of Mary, a canticle or song of praise, is a song of the Advent and Christmas season, but with an edge that goes beyond sentimental carol of babe in the manger, shepherds watching their flocks by night, and three kings reverently making their way by star light.

The Song of Mary presses us to sing a different tune during the holidays. Mary’s words imagine a world more in the style of a 1960s protest song than a quaint 19th-century English carol. Her words are raucous: the powerful are brought low, the greedy get sent away with nothing, and the Lord, not the rulers of the day, having the last word about what is just. Indeed, when we begin taking the Song of Mary to heart, one has to ponder carefully the question, “What song shall we sing?”

In her book Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, feminist Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Mary’s canticle praises God for the kind of salvation that involves concrete transformations.” Johnson challenges centuries of historic and hagiographic interpretations of Mary by drawing us closer to Mary in her historical context: a peasant woman living in the margins of society in whom God entrusts bearing the very Hope of the world. Mary’s song becomes the voice of the otherwise voiceless, proclaiming God’s just blessing for all while declaiming the “powers that be” that perpetuate an unjust world. Johnson claims,

People in need in every society hear a blessing in this canticle. The battered woman, the single parent without resources, those without food on the table or without even a table, the homeless family, the young abandoned to their own devices, the old who are discarded—all who are subjected to social contempt are encompassed in the hope that Mary proclaims.  (Truly Our Sister, p. 269)

Mary’s song becomes a challenge. What song does the Church sing? In my upbringing, the Baptist tradition sings of sin, salvation, and the sweet bye-and-bye. The music was in the key of atonement, singing of being washed in the blood, or marching to Zion. Of course, the church of my upbringing would say that it was your Christian duty to take care of your neighbor, yet talk of justice and peace was a distant third or fourth place to saving souls and keeping up with attendance records. Social justice, or at least talk of justice as a religious value, was not as commonly heard a theme of scripture.

This is not to trivialize the Church and the call to evangelism and mission, values highly impressed upon me early on. As one raised to read the Bible faithfully and reverence the Word, I must say that little was said about this part of the Bible, whether in Sunday school (which I attended faithfully: bible study on Wednesday evenings, and both services on Sunday, morning and evening alike). I lament that it was not until college and seminary studies that I encountered the Song of Mary and heard its haunting refrain as a call to follow Christ. I note that other Christians would find this reflection surprising, given the use of this text in other traditions, however, while speaking as a Baptist to other Baptists, I suspicion to most of us Baptists this Song of Mary is a lesser known text.

As part of the Bible, the Song of Mary harmonizes with the prophetic cry for a just world, the yearning for equitable ways of living embodied in the epistles, the calls to discipleship in the gospels, the radical witness of Christian community as practiced and recounted by the early Church in the book of Acts. The words of Mary resound through Luke’s gospel, sort of a prelude to the great symphony about to unfold as the adult Jesus lives into the vision Mary proclaims.

In her song, Mary uses verbs in a curious way. Mary speaks as if these things already have come about. Already, the proud have been scattered, already are the powerful brought down, and the lowly lifted. Already the hungry are full and the exploitative left. That sounds so promising, yet so lofty. Mary’s words seem to sing a song with optimistic yet unfulfilled vision.

In 1907, a respected but somewhat unknown Northern Baptist seminary professor published a significant book calling for the Church to transform the world through social engagement. In 2007, Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis was released again in celebration of the book’s centennial. When it first appeared in 1907, Rauschenbusch’s book was a surprise bestseller. Christianity and the Social Crisis dealt with the need for the Church to become engaged in the social issues and problems of the day. The centennial edition celebrates the legacy of Rauschenbusch’s challenges to the church; its book jacket claiming this is “the classic that woke up the Church”). Inside the new edition, Rauschenbusch’s original text is presented alongside essays by contemporary scholars, pastors, and activists who offer comment on what this book still teaches us, even if a few of the concepts are outmoded a century later.

The centennial edition features an introduction by Paul Rauschenbush, the great-grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, a chaplain at Princeton. The great-grandson notes,

The 21st-century is a time of unprecedented capability and possibility, yet we too live in a time of social crisis and are in need of the power of God and the vision of Jesus….We are called to dedicate ourselves to the task of doing the work that Jesus set us here to do: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves in concrete and practical ways. (xiii)

Reading the 1907 text, I find myself stirred by the words of a century ago. I can appreciate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation at mid-20th century that his own reading of the original book “left an indelible imprint on [his] thinking”. (xii) In this book, I see a strand of Baptist spiritual DNA emphasizing social justice as part of one’s Christian discipleship. Rauschenbusch’s book embodies what I cherish most about being a Christian and being a Baptist: speaking up for the minority, defending the freedoms of conscience and belief, and letting the witness of scripture, which includes salvation and social justice alike, be known and lived out to the ends of the earth.

It is appropriate to note that the social gospel movement started by Rauschenbusch and others did not come up all roses. Missed opportunities and ill-conceived notions abound just as in any other movement in history. Another of Rauschenbusch’s descendants writes a modern day commentary for the 2007 centennial edition: the philosopher and secular humanist Richard Rorty, Rauschenbusch’s grandson.

Rorty’s essay draws its focus from the last lines of the original 1907 book, which ends with this optimistic, almost heady, note that soon the Church will be bringing great things to flower. Watching fruit trees bud and bloom as he wrote the conclusion to his book in 1907, Rauschenbusch claims that something is on the cusp of blossoming with the Church and its social witness. He writes, “Perhaps these nineteen centuries of Christian influence have been a preliminary stage of growth, and now the flower and fruit are almost here”.

One hundred years later, Richard Rorty writes of “buds that never opened”. Rorty criticizes the expression of Christianity in the intervening decades as ill equipped and inattentive to bring about the change Rauschenbusch envisioned. Rorty writes, “By 1907, centuries of preaching had created a climate of opinion in which it was reasonable to anticipate flowers and fruit. Rauschenbusch and his contemporaries could not have foreseen the fierce, blighting storms that were to come” (p. 350).

As I read these words, I nodded in agreement with “grandpa” Rauschenbusch and the spiritually disinclined grandson alike. The giddy joy at the outset of an era hailed “the Christian Century” sounds off-key in what is surely a “post-Christendom” era. There have been buds that never opened, opportunities for a radical witness to the Gospel missed as parts of the Church failed to address racial issues, economic disparities, religious persecution, genocides, and two world wars. In the century separating both editions of Christianity and the Social Crisis, we have experienced perhaps the most violent and bloody era in human history. In 1907 and today, we are still dealing with the same sin-fractured world and a Church still unsure of its true Kingdom priorities.

Despite my respect of Rorty’s criticism, I do take issue with Rorty’s dismissive word that Christianity has missed all of its opportunities and is no longer of any intrinsic relevance. It is painful to admit that those pews will not be at capacity Christmas Eve. It is necessary to admit that the era of the Church at the center of U.S. civic life has evaporated, that golden era when white, middleclass mainline Protestants felt like they had all the power and relevance they could ask for. Despite the evidence around me, I still hear a song that says God will bring otherwise to pass, and indeed, already has done so.

If we listen to the Song of Mary and follow the Gospel that unfolds thereafter, the Song of Mary is sang not with overconfidence, but abiding hope. The vision of Mary, pregnant with the Christ child, already foresees what shall be God’s promised end. It is not a case of “will it happen?”, it is the sense that God will never fail, nor should we give over to inaction. As Clarence Jordan, another cranky Baptist now departed, was known for saying, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.