When Shepherds Gather | Luke 2:15-20 On the day for which this column is written, many of us will be gathering to share a meal with a few friends and a passel of strangers. In our Fellowship Hall, some two hundred men, women, and children will take us up on our invitation to join us for Christmas lunch. We will hand them a glass of punch when they arrive and when they are seated, there will be candies at the table. And then someone will take their beverage order: sweet tea, coffee, water. Then a plate of roast pork, baked potato, green beans, and fruit salad will be set before them. Some will scoot over to the dessert table to make sure we don’t run out of whatever it is that caught their eye on the way to their table. Good strategy – that is how I have played it at other fellowship dinners. It will be a feast, by any standard. With a few of the folks, I can put a name to the face – mostly Hope Station residents that I have met through Linda. Some are familiar because they have joined us in previous years. But mostly, they are strangers – just shepherds who made their way to us. A couple of years ago, there was a fellow who went up to where Kathy Sandifer and some others were playing the piano and offering a little music over the meal. He took the microphone and did a little number – he sang with all his might. It was great. Someone said he was a minister, though I didn’t know him. He might have been what some people call a magi. I’m not sure. There are always some children, which is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. I can hardly stand to think about a child without a home and a table of their own. And yet, how could we really celebrate his birth without children in our midst? We get a couple of seatings before the time comes to wipe down the tables and wash all the pots and pans. We have a crew left to put everything away – innkeepers, I guess you would have to call them. Our guests? They are gone. I can’t tell you where exactly. Back to their homes. Up into the hills where they left their sheep. I don’t know for sure. What are they thinking? Who can say. Maybe Luke is the only one who knows. He said that the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. I suspect he is right. Merry Christmas, friends. God be with you.
Monday, December 24
Hibernation | Luke 2:6-7 That is what one of the nurse’s called it the evening after Kristen was born when she just slept as calmly and quietly as could be. Hibernation. The nurse explained that while we know that birth is quite a physical experience for the mother, the baby also endures an exhausting event. So, maybe there is something behind the Christmas card scene we tend to fix in our minds where Mary and Joseph, a few animals, and an assortment of shepherds are quietly watching baby Jesus asleep on the hay. Things may have been fairly tranquil . . . at least until that little drummer boy showed his face. My memory is that things stayed pretty quiet for a couple of days. We got home from the hospital, and I remember thinking that being in charge of a new-born was not going to be nearly as hard as I had imagined it would be. Then everything fell apart. I could describe what took place from Day Four to Day Eight when Linda’s mother arrived to help, but this is not that kind of book. Suffice it to say that by the time the Florida cavalry rode up, I was checking the kid over to see if there was a tag on her that explained warranties and return policies. The second memory is also a recollection that I relate to the birth we celebrate in this season. It is important that we do not try to keep Jesus asleep in the manger. He would, after all, grow up to turn the world upside down. He said it himself. He came not to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. (Matthew 10:34-36) This is a sweet season, and it is not my intent to ruin the party. But it is not enough to celebrate that the child came among us. It is imperative that we understand why he came, which was not to hibernate. He did not come simply to make us all feel good. He came to upset the apple cart . . . to tear things apart . . . to make us look at ourselves and the world in a totally different light. He came, as they say, to afflict the comfortable, which may be why God sent him as a baby.
Sunday, December 23
The Star | Matthew 2:1-2 The children in the church have a star. Not “have” in the sense that they can sell it or post “No Trespassing” signs on it, but they have it in the sense that it carries their name. We made it happen last Advent season, and we gave them all ornaments with the star’s name to hang on their Christmas trees: Star of the Shepherd (FCC Children) The coordinates are: Right ascension 7h 0m 29.08s Declination 42’ 5’ 26.5” Magnitude 8.0240000 Take a stroll outside and give a look. The children who have been around for a while have a collection of ornaments: a clear ball filled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and an olive wood nativity. That last one also came with an olive tree that the children own. It was smaller than I envisioned when I ordered it, so it has been in my office for the last two years growing – I think it is about ready to be planted somewhere on the church lawn. A couple years from now, mark my words, those kids will be pressing olive oil and selling it for a fundraiser. But again, I have digressed. The star, the star. The star, of course, is to remind the children about the story of Jesus’ birth and especially that piece of the story that Matthew includes about the star that guided the magi to Bethlehem. The star, or whatever celestial event it represents, has been debated by scholars from the worlds of religion and science for centuries. Several possibilities have been proposed: Halley’s Comet made an appearance in 11 BC, and Mars, Jupiter and Saturn appeared in close conjunction in 6 BC. Some think a supernova or new star burst out during the timeframe of Jesus’ birth. Unfortunately, the time of known phenomena does not match up especially well to when we think Jesus’ was born, and any unknown spectacles are purely speculative. But, of course, knowing is not as important as we sometimes think. Jesus was born, and word got out. So, you will note that their star is named not for the children but rather for the one whose birth we celebrate in this season: the baby, the Son, the Savior . . . our Shepherd. So again, stretch your legs and take a gander into the night sky. Their star is up there shining away in this season when we celebrate the light that has come into our world – that light that shines on in the darkness.
Saturday, December 22
Now I’ve Seen It All | Luke 2:25-35 The writer of the Third Gospel summarizes: And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.
It reminds one of Parents Night at the elementary school when your child’s teacher says to you, Oh, Taylor is such a delight to have in the class . . . so polite and pays such attention. And you are looking at the spouse and the two of you communicate without words, How many Taylors are there in this class – she must have our kid confused with someone else. In another sense, it is a little baffling that Mary and Joseph haven’t caught up with the headlines of the story, being as they had been listening to angels and shepherds in recent days.
But Simeon is all in. The Holy Spirit had told him that he would not die before he had seen God’s Messiah. And while scripture does not explicitly say so, you come away with the feeling that maybe he had been waiting for a good, long while. Then one day, the Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the Temple. He settles in, and in a moment, these two new parents come up the steps of the Temple carrying their new-born. There, says the Spirit. There. They are the ones. That is the child.
That was all he needed. He lifted his eyes towards the heavens and prayed with words of praise: Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word. I think no one has ever been more certain than that old man standing in the shade of the Temple walls: my eyes have seen your salvation. All he needed was a quick look. To get to hold the baby for a couple of moments was an unexpected bonus. He knew. Simeon knew who he was holding as sure as he knew his own name.
I think we waver in our own time – the waiting is so hard. Or maybe we just settle after a while. Perhaps we rest those eyes that have been looking everywhere for holiness and settle for whatever seems pretty good. We could use a dose of whatever Simeon is offering – that confidence that cannot be shaken that God’s word is rock solid.
Friday, December 21
Changing Your Mind | Matthew 2:12 I’m hearing that there are some in the church with a partiality toward Hallmark Christmas movies. These holiday flicks begin about the time football season opens in August, so some families have to strike a bargain in order to avoid spending autumn in separate rooms of the house. I watch a movie about two people who can’t stand each other who fall in love because of Christmas magic, and she watches the second half of the Panthers-Saints game. Well, my expectations for Hallmark fare are not high – modest writing and acting but clean with a sweetness that pushes one toward diabetes. So, no one was more surprised than I was to hear something that made me engage at a scriptural level. The lead role in one of these movies, while trying to convince the obligatory Scrooge character to give the Christmas season a fresh try, suggested that the magi were examples of people who changed their minds. They started out going to spy on the Christ-child, but instead they worshipped the baby and left for home without reporting back to King Herod. Okay, not the most profound theological treatment of the nativity story that I have ever heard, but there is something there to consider. The stories that Matthew and Luke tell prompt a whole series of people to rethink their lives, starting with Mary and Joseph. And the rest – Zechariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, and the magi – all of these characters end up having to rethink their expectations and their beliefs in light of what is happening around them and to them. Why are we rooting around in stables instead of palaces to find a king? How is strength revealed in weakness? Why is the arrival of a Davidic Messiah is not accompanied by marching armies? What is righteousness given this scandalous birth? The truth, of course, is that this theme would continue throughout Jesus’ life and ministry. His affection for sinners over religious people rattled the people who were considering whether he was worth following. Crucifixion forced many to come to a whole new view of what he was doing and, truthfully, there were many who couldn’t make that leap. It is no less true in our time, I think. Oh, we may think we have all the answers since we have the story behind us, but to encounter the Lord in our time is never accomplished, I think, without baring our lives and letting go of what we “know.”
Thursday, December 20
Villain | Matthew 2:16-18 Truthfully, the story has no power without him. Herod. His role appears almost accidental, but it is not. I mean, if the magi hadn’t stopped to get an updated roadmap, he would not have even been in the cast of this production. (I have always suspected that at least one of the wise men must have been a wise woman. What are the chances that three guys would have pulled their camels over to ask for directions?) But I think we know that he would have gotten into the story anyway. Somehow. His son, Herod Jr., got into the story some thirty years later when he taunted Jesus on the night before his crucifixion. And maybe we can be clear-eyed enough to see that evil always finds its way into life’s stories. The pages of history are riddled with names like Genghis Kahn and Attilla the Hun, Caligula and Nero, Ivan the Terrible and Vlad the Impaler, Hitler and Pol Pot. Herod had children under the age of two killed in order to preserve his throne; he had wives and sons murdered. He was evil, and he is part of the nativity story. Indeed, he is an instrumental part of the story of Jesus’ coming. Why? Because otherwise, the story is all fluff. Without Herod, the story has no more weight than a Holiday Hallmark movie. The plot would turn on some misunderstanding, but in the end, characters all see through it, and everyone lives happily ever after. Who, after all, doesn’t love a story about a baby? Who is not drawn to a story about a beautiful, rosy-cheeked child? Herod has to appear because the story of Jesus coming into our world is hard and real and honest. The question is not whether hope and peace and joy and love are good things, but rather whether we can believe in any of that in a world where evil runs rampant. Tell the true story of children slaughtered, and then ask whether it is possible to believe in goodness. If Herod were not in the story, everyone would believe. There would be no cynicism and no doubt. But evil lives, and sometimes, it seems to reign. So, the story of Christmas asks us in the face of evil, who we believe is on the throne.
Wednesday, December 19
Third Shift | Luke 15:4 I wonder who drew the night duty? Among the shepherds. They are lying around doing whatever it is shepherds do at night. I rather imagine they are dozing while keeping one ear open for any sound or stirring that is not quite right . . . maybe a wolf or a bear creeping up on the lambchops. Suddenly, there is a racket that is more than some predator lurking around – chaos breaks out, what with an angel delivering a speech and other angels singing out in four-part harmony. Then as quickly as it all started up, it is quiet again. But the shepherds can’t go back to sleep. They talk it over and decide to head into town. Surely, they left one guy behind. Surely. I mean Luke doesn’t tell us how many sheep they have out there on the hillside, but does it really matter? Ten . . . twenty-five . . . a hundred . . . five hundred. However many sheep are out there, it makes no sense to just abandon them for an hour or two. How many would be missing by the time they got back from town? No self-respecting shepherd would abandon sheep. I checked the internet and found that you would have to pay something on the order of $50 to buy a common lamb at a fair though you could spend 6 or 8 times that much for a purebred. And if, for instance, you were in the market for something rare – say a Valais Blacknose – you could be look at dropping 4,000 bucks. Yeah. Do the math. You leave a good-sized flock out there, then find you are missing a half-dozen sheep when you get back, you could end up with a bank account that is hurting. The shepherds had to have left somebody behind to keep an eye on things. But maybe they didn’t. Most stories have at least a little connection to some actual event, and the child the shepherds went to see that night grew up to be quite a story-teller. And one of his best stories was about a shepherd who lost a lamb, and this shepherd left his other 99 sheep on a hillside to fend for themselves while he went to look for the one, lost lamb. I know – it makes no sense economically, but the man that this baby grew into was forever bringing his unique take on life. The child was born into this world to save us, and that is not something accomplished without seeing the value in each and every one of us. Truth is, most of us know a little bit of what it feels like to be lost. What we don’t always remember is that there is a shepherd who cannot seem to write us off.
Tuesday, December 18
Holes, Nests and Stables | Matthew 8:20 These words, spoken by Jesus to a man who professed a desire to follow him, are hardly a Christmas text, but they often come to my mind in this season. Luke says that the Christ child started his life in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. He began his life as he would end it – wandering, with no place to lie down. Matthew tells it more ominously, reporting that Jesus’ family spent his first years in Egypt as refugees, fleeing violence. That is something to consider these days with so much talk about what to do with refugees. Our friend Carla spent a few weeks on Lampedusa - an island off Italy which is closer to Tunisia than Sicily. Waves of people who braved the Mediterranean are housed there, though many others drowned in attempts to flee war, famine and persecution. Not far away, more than 10 million people have fled Syria in a desperate attempt to survive. At home, what to do with refugees and immigrants on our southern border is a front burner debate. So, here is my question. At the crossroads of our living, how do we “do” scripture. How do we faithfully interpret and apply holy words? My sense is that we can derive something of a deeper perspective by studying the actions of Jesus’ followers . . . the culture of Jesus, if you will. And when I study the Bible in that way – taking it with great seriousness, mind you – I feel drawn to what I think are central themes: justice, compassion, inclusion, peace, rejection of evil, love. We read, You shall not kill, and we can debate whether that technically addresses war, capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion and more; but when we read, but I say you shall not hate, we are pressed by a broader challenge to our living. And so, in these infancy narratives, the holy family is presented as homeless, even refugees. Jesus came to us as a consummate outsider . . . one who did not belong . . . one who was powerless. He is known to us as one who had no place to lay his head – not in a Bethlehem inn, not in his own land, and not in the course of his ministry. Like the would-be disciple to whom he first spoke those words, if we want to follow him, let us prepare to follow that. I don’t know what you will draw from it, but it forces me to consider again what it means to be powerless and with no place to call a home. What we do with refugees may be a political matter, but how we look at others is a profoundly a matter of faith and scripture.
Monday, December 17
An Emperor and a Census | Luke 2:1 It was an exercise in counting, I suppose. How many people are there in the province? It seems like an odd way to go about it, having all the men take their families to the towns where they had been born, but it was a different time and place. Lots of extra movement, but who am I to criticize?
Of course, let’s not kid ourselves. The emperor was not just curious. And he was not looking to do something for the populace. Say, for instance, budgeting so that a fair share of money was returned to every district, weighted on population. No, this was about moving the money in the other direction – toward Rome. Augustus wanted to know how many people there were, so he could make sure every one of them submitted a Form 1040.
Not every monarch thinks that way. The child who would be born in Bethlehem, possibly adding to Joseph’s tax bill, would grow up to say that God knows how many sparrows exist – not a one of these insignificant, little creatures is overlooked by God. As for us, God doesn’t need to tax us. More than knowing how many of us there are, God knows how many hairs are on any one of our heads. And this information – already in God’s hand – has nothing to do with taxes . . . nothing to do with what God intends to take from us.
It all has to do with what God intends to give to us. This is a story is about him . . . about the child. Well, kind of. Truthfully, in some very real sense, this story is about us. To you is born this day, said the angel to the shepherds. To you. Emmanuel – God with us. With us.
Sunday, December 16
Pure, Unadulterated Politics | Luke 1:46-55 I write this just a couple of days after the mid-term elections. That is to say that these words flow after long and hostile weeks of campaigning, and if you can remember back a few weeks, you will recall that the early post-election days did not bring much calm or relief. The Attorney General who recused himself has been summarily sacked, there is some saber-rattling about impeachment, and a reporter’s press credentials have been lifted. Threats are in the air. The polls have not been closed for forty-eight hours yet and the mood continues to be ugly. Sadly, if I were to make a prediction, I would guess that the mood is no better by the time you are reading this, perhaps a month after the voting. I know that historians say that there have been other times in our national life when political life has been this ugly, but not in my lifetime, I think. Some of the most strident and offensive voices speak out of a conviction that their politics and their faith are identical – their God and their country are identical and inseparable. If this is what you believe, you are wrong, but that is alright because I am not talking to you right now. No, I am talking to the many people who feel very strongly that religion and politics should not mix. I get it – we like our church life to be well mannered, and infusing political discourse into our church conversation can turn things ugly fast. The problem comes when we extend our reluctance to destroy polite conversation because we conclude that faith and politics have nothing to do with each other. And while I am deeply reluctant to delve into partisan politics while preaching or doing ministry – that is, to endorse this candidate over another – neither can I land in a place that says faith is not political. How we feel and act about capital punishment, abortion, racial issues, gay and lesbian relationships, poor people, immigrants, and much more is inescapably theological. And the Bible does not shy away from such talk. And if any of us believes that God sent his son into our world simply to take our confessions-of-faith and get us to heaven, then . . . then, well, we are wrong again. Take this piece of oratory that comes from the mouth of Jesus’ own mother. We call these verses the Magnificat, but they are nothing less than a political manifesto. Check out her words: 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. Pure, Unadulterated Politics – words from the mouth of a woman who may have known how to ruin a lovely dinner party. As did her son.
Saturday, December 15
Hometown | Micah 5:2 Bethlehem is a town in the hill country of Judah, down the mountain, perhaps 6 miles south-southwest of Jerusalem. Today, the population is a little over 20,000, less than half the size of Wilson but, in the time of Jesus, estimates are that about 1,000 people lived there. The first mention of the place dates back more than three millennia during Egyptian occupation. It is an early Canaanite settlement, but it is actually a fairly important Old Testament site. Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, was buried there, and it is the setting for the story of Ruth. The great-grandson of Ruth and Boaz, of course, is David, and it is as his birthplace that Bethlehem begins to be crucial to the story of Jesus. The Jewish expectation for the coming of the Messiah became linked to Bethlehem. By the time of Jesus, it was a given that the Messiah would be born there. It is natural then that in the story of the magi, when Herod consults his scholars about the place the Messiah will be born, the answer is Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke seem to deliver the birthplace differently; the First Gospel would seem to have Bethlehem as the Holy Family’s home town, while in the Third Gospel, a census brings the family there from Nazareth, some hundred miles to the north. What is to be gleaned from all this, I think, is that we are to understand something about Jesus on the basis of his hometown. We do this all the time. We boast about where we came from as though everyone from “down east” is a simple and honest soul, or as though everyone from Texas is a braggart wearing boots and a Stetson. If you’re from the South, you are patriotic; if you are from California, you are laid-back and freewheeling; if you are from New York, you are rude. And so, the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem. He had to be in the mold of King David – a great warrior and leader who would throw off Israel’s oppressors as David had conquered the nation’s enemies in his time. So, Bethlehem is home – the birthplace. And while some of those stories about where we came from are a stretch, some of the stories really do tell us about what made us who we are.
Friday December 14
The Hospital | Luke 2:6-7 At the mention of Jesus’ birth, we immediately think of a stable complete with a feed trough for a crib, but Justin Martyr says Jesus was born in a cave. It is likely that he had in mind a type of home – not unusual in first century Palestine – that was built in front of a cave, thus providing housing for animals complete with a kind of natural cooling system. As early as the second century, Justin Martyr wrote of a cave in Bethlehem that was being venerated as Christ’s birthplace. Less than two hundred years later, Constantine and his mother St. Helena commissioned a church to be built over the cave. It lasted two centuries before being torn down and replaced by Justinian with a much larger church that remains to this day. It is amazing that the structure has survived. I say that because it is amazing that any religious shrine has survived in that part of the world which has seemed to be in a state of war since time began. But what is really amazing is that the Church of the Nativity has survived in large measure because it has been a place of grace and inclusion. It is said that the Persians spared the church when they invaded in 614 AD because they were moved by the representation of the magi and the fellow-Persian depicted in the church art. In 1009 AD, Hakim decreed that all Christian monuments should be destroyed, but his fellow Muslims prevented that order from being carried out because, for 400 years, they had been permitted to use the south transept for worship. Who knows how much of this is actually true – start to examine events that took place before history began to be recorded in more modern ways, and you find that history, myth, and legend get intertwined. But that awareness does not keep me from savoring the stories of how the Church of the Nativity has survived, and like so many quasi-historical records, if it didn’t happen that way, it should have. And maybe in our day, this is a lesson that is worth rediscovering. The child born in Bethlehem, after all, grew up to validate those who were healing in his name though not following him. Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, he said, will by no means lose the reward (Mark 9:41).
Thursday, December 13
e Waiting Room | Luke 2:8-14 A little ways out of Bethlehem to the southeast there is a little chapel – the Chapel of the Shepherd’s Field – which marks the traditional spot where the shepherds first heard about the birth of Jesus. The chapel that is on the spot today was built by the Franciscans and designed by Antonio Barluzzi, often called the “Architect of the Holy Land,” because of his part in creating and redesigning a number of pilgrimage churches in Israel/Palestine (Garden of Gethsemane, Mount of Transfiguration, Mount of the Beatitudes and more). The chapel of his design dates back to 1953 but has been built over more ancient ruins depicting the location as well as a grotto or little cave. The chapel is twelve-sided and evokes the image of a tent as might have been used by shepherds in the first century. That last part, about the tent used by shepherds, bothers me. My whole life I have pictured the shepherds sitting around under the stars – talking, dozing, and taking an occasional walk through the flock to check on things. I’ve had to rework the image to imagine the shepherds stepping outside a tent to deal with the heavenly hosts. But that is my problem, not yours. I just imagine a coffee pot with a stale brew and some magazines that are six months past their publication date, and I can make it work, tent or no tent . . . a proper waiting room to a maternity ward. That field is where the waiting ended, of course. The shepherds were waiting, though I don’t suppose they could possibly have known that before the angels arrived. They were waiting though, sure enough, as an entire nation had been waiting, pretty much since the beginning of time. A young woman shall conceive, they said and heard all the time. The day is coming, says the Lord, and with a thousand other phrases, people had given voice to their waiting, their hunger, their deepest desires. It is possible to wait and not really be conscious of the waiting. I am sure that is so. We do it all the time. Wait, and wait some more. What are you doing?, someone could ask, and we would say, Oh nothing. But that would not be true, of course. We are waiting. Our whole lives, we are waiting still. For holiness, I think.
Wednesday, December 12
The Baby Shower | Matthew 2:11 I am guessing that a registry had not been set-up. As a result, the magi were sort of left to their own best judgments in buying gifts for the baby. Clearly their discretion was lacking something. Now I hate to digress here, but my wife savors every opportunity that comes to her to tell stories of some of the gifts I have given her over our thirty-eight blissful years of marriage. These gifts include but are not limited to a hubcap, a carbon monoxide detector, and a cubic yard of compost. I would point out the practical nature of each of those gifts, and I feel it incumbent upon me to say that I was the one who actually spread the compost on her flower beds. To repeat, when you think back on the gifts of the magi, yes, perhaps they could have done better had there been the Internet in those days and Amazon Prime two-day delivery anywhere. Mary and Joseph unwrapped the first gift and discovered the gold. Perfect - they could put it toward one of the more expensive items they might not receive: the bed or that camel-stroller. They could work with that. They unwrapped the second gift – frankincense. A little hesitation, but sure. Used diapers carry a certain fragrance that is offensive to some, so a little incense might solve some problems. Then they got to the myrrh. A medicine. An ingredient for embalming. Ah . . . thanks. That’s what they said, but what they were thinking is, a set of baby monitors would have been nice. Or maybe Mary and Joseph were not like my beloved. Perhaps they got it: gold for royalty, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for sacrifice. Wonderful gifts; horrible gifts. Gifts that reminded before his journey even began that we could never afford to forget who he was.
Tuesday, December 11
The Cradle | Luke 2:7 Thirty years ago, I had agreed to build a creche for some church Christmas event. It was to be filled with straw, with the only requirement being was that it not buckle under a little weight. Rough-hewn was okay . . . good, in fact. The program was set for 6 pm, so at 4 o’clock on Sunday afternoon, after the morning service, lunch, and a football game with a half-time nap, I vaulted into action. I grabbed a hammer and a handful of nails and called out, Running to the church for a couple minutes. With my hand was on the doorknob, the worst thing that could possibly happen, happened. My visiting fatherr-in-law said, I will go with you. I tried to avert the impending disaster – said I was only going for 10 minutes . . . would be right back . . . he might want to stay and get ready for the service. He wouldn’t bite. So, I launched the first and pretty much only heart-to-heart discussion I ever had with him: Les, here’s the deal. I’m making a manger . . . 10 minutes . . . no designing . . . no measuring. Just four sticks crossed into two X’s and several slats. Then back to the house. He looked at me with those sad, puppy dog eyes, like, What, you think I would interfere in your project? We went to church. He made suggestions which I rejected. Twenty minutes later, we left a wobbly cradle and headed home. You didn’t know Les, but I did, and I almost killed him that day. I made him live knowing that the baby Jesus was lying in a manger poised to collapse and crush him. Had he been asked to lead the manger project, our Savior could have slept in a beautifully polished olive wood bed. Not for another twelve months, but it would have been sturdy enough that the shepherds and all three wise men could have danced on it. It would have been a gift from one carpenter to another. Not to defend myself – what defense is there for slipshod manger building? – but I imagine that Jesus’ actual manger was more like mine than what Les would have created. Had they all known who would make a bed in that barn, sure, they would have built it better. But someone grabbed what was there, teaching us in the end that Christmas cannot be orchestrated . . . at least not by all of us. For at the heart of this season that really matters, all of our planning is just so much comedy. It unfolds in the middle of ordinary days, and all we can do is recognize it and give in to it.
Monday, December 10
The Ultrasound | Luke 1:41 The angel Gabriel left Mary with the news . . . the big, big news. That seems to have prompted Mary to head toward her relative Elizabeth. It is not clear why Mary chose Elizabeth. Presumably she had many relatives. Maybe the two women were especially close or, maybe in the younger Mary’s eyes, Elizabeth represented something especially decent and faithful. Possibly she sensed she would find some protection there. Perhaps, Mary thought that if anyone could understand what had been relayed to her about the turn her life was to take, it would be Elizabeth. We are not told. But what we are told is that the second Mary walks into the house, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb jumps. It is rather like our modern ultrasound imaging, I suppose. It provides evidence that there is life in that womb and, oh, was there life in that womb. You brood of vipers, John would rail at his listeners a few decades later. He marched out ahead of Jesus, serving as his advance party, taking out the hostiles. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. The mission was never going to be work for the faint-hearted. But in John, God found the right person: perhaps a little thin on people-skills, but fearless and devout. He was more than the kind of person who could move mountains and fill the lowlands. John was the one who could and would speak truth to power . . . the prophet who was better at afflicting the comfortable than the other way around. And we who are apt to treat these days with a kind of sentimental sweetness will do well to remember that we will never see Jesus until after we hear John. Because the Lord did not come simply to confirm our lives – he came to convert and change and repair us. So, listen to the one who was the first to leap upon learning who was coming – perhaps leaping for joy, or maybe in dread and fear over the cost of holiness. Let us listen to him, friends. You brood of vipers!
Sunday, December 9
Elderly Primigravida | Luke 1:5-15 I’m not lying. The OB/Gyn actually called Linda an Elderly Primigravida. What it means in medical terms is a first-time mother who is over the age of thirty-five. In our day, that is not such a big thing, I think, but still, you have to wonder about the wisdom of a man calling a woman an elderly anything. I mean, if you are going to hide behind the Latin, don’t go just half-way. The Latin for elderly is seniorem. Yes, there are still hints of a problem, but I still think Seniorem Primigravida has a hint of respect and honor about it. Elderly? I’m not using that word with a woman . . . not even on the phone . . . long distance. Elizabeth was a Seniorem Primigravida. Not that Zechariah tossed the phrase out there. He tells the angel straight-up, I am an old man, but when he turns to Elizabeth, he says, and my wife is getting on in years. Getting on in years – a guy at least has a chance with that turn of a phrase. The thing is this – the story of Jesus starts out in disbelief. The angel shows up to tell Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are going to have a baby, and his response is to ask how this could possibly be. Luke does tell exactly how old these people are, but it is clear that some time ago, they had come to terms with their situation. They weren’t going to be parents. They would have to settle on showering their nieces and nephews with their surplus love and affection. Life was still going to be good. It was settled. So, when God’s messenger steps into unsettle everything, the immediate response it to resist . . . question . . . argue. His protests get Zechariah a little tongue-tied, but that is another story. This story begins in disbelief. But every story about God seems to begin there. God, who is forever doing a new thing, dives into in the middle of our lives, and our first response is almost always something like, Well, that can’t be right. Sure it can. And if Zechariah is slow on the take, it would seem that Elizabeth is not. While she may have been an Elderly Primigravida, in terms of her faith and devotion, she was fresh and young. It is abundantly clear that she was ready for wherever God was preparing to take her. So may we be.
Saturday, December 8
Stille Nacht | Luke 2:8 This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first performance of Silent Night, which was played and sung on Christmas Eve 1818 at St. Nicholas parish church in Oberndorf, a village in present day Austria. The words had actually been penned two years early by Joseph Mohr, a young priest who had recently come to Oberndorf. Because the church organ was not available (stories suggest damage by mice or rust), Mohr shared the piece with Franz Xavier Gruber, an organist in a nearby village with the request that Gruber compose a melody for guitar. In a matter of a few hours, Gruber completed the assignment, and the piece was played for the Mass on Christmas Eve. A couple of travelling families of folk singers picked up the carol and began to spread it throughout the region, so that it became a favorite of several emperors. In fact, King Frederick William IV of Prussia was so taken with the carol, he ordered it sung every Christmas Eve by his Cathedral Choir. It was first performed in the United States in 1839, after having undergone minor melody changes to become the tune we know today.
It is, I would think, the most popular Christmas Carol today. (Several lists I consulted put White Christmas first, clearly failing to grasp the distinction between a carol and a song. The world is enormous, and Casey can only do so much music education.) But Silent Night is surely the favorite for most of us and for that reason, it is always the closing music to our Christmas Eve services; you walk out of the sanctuary on Christmas Eve and you find yourself humming, sleep in heavenly peace.
Truth is, I have stepped out into the night air after quite a few late Christmas Eve services and found myself humming the melody. I will tell you that the world looks and sounds different in those moments. The world that we know seems like an angry world most of the time, and I suppose whatever rest it gets is usually a fitful sleep. But on that night – in the earliest hours of those Christmas mornings, the world seems happy . . . calm . . . satisfied. That is a moment when I can go home and let holiness rock me to the sleep marked by a heavenly peace
Friday, December 7
Not Ready | Galatians 4:4-7 I don’t expect to be ready for Christmas by the time you read these words. Truthfully, I am never ready. These past weeks have set me behind: the tree is still in the attic, which is just as well since there have been no gifts purchased to put under it. It is worse at work where I have been bending – err, destroying deadlines. I have not been able to give Casey firm preaching themes for her planning purposes (fair enough – that is my normal). But there is a Fellowship Dinner, several rounds of parties, Christmas Eve services, and the community luncheon, all coming up fast. I am not ready for Christmas. My only consolation is found in the realization that none of them were ready for it either. The innkeeper had no vacancies, the shepherds were working overtime, the magi were lost, and Mary and Joseph seem not to have quite figured it out. And don’t we know that Christmas is not something you can get ready for anyway . . . at least not spiritually? If you think you are ready for his birth, then you just don’t understand it. His coming, you see, cuts against everything else in our lives. If we were ready for it, I suppose we wouldn’t need it. No, it is all about a voice crying out in the wilderness. It is all about turning our lives around and finding a new direction. It is all about waking out of a deep sleep and seeing what you have not seen before. It is all about being amazed and overwhelmed. So, I am not ready for Christmas, and I hope you are not under any illusions that you are. That is what these days of Advent are meant to be. For hearing different sounds . . . for pausing to see if we can get a bead on what is passing in front of us . . . for lighting a candle . . . for getting lost in a beautiful piece of music . . . for being startled by a story we have heard every year of our lives. I guess what I am trying to say is that even if we are not ready for Christmas, it is quite possible that God is ready for us.
Thursday, December 6
23 and Jesus | Matthew 1:1-17/Luke 3:23-38 Some time back, I gave Linda one of those DNA kits. For Mother’s Day. And yes, I gave myself a Mother’s Day gift, as well. I thought we could do this together. In case you don’t know, the company sends you a kit, and you spit/drool/salivate into a test tube. You seal it up, mail it back, and six weeks later you get a report mailed to you. They check a number of points in your DNA, and they can tell you where you came from and what your ethnic mix is with fairly high levels of certainty. And, and, and, they can tell you within certain probabilities whether any of you relatives – close or distant – have submitted DNA samples to the data base. For instance, you will see that you have an 80% chance that “Jake R from Little Rock, Arkansas” is your 3rd or 4th cousin. Fascinating stuff, and I can report that Linda loved the gift – she checks for new relatives every night before she turns out the light. (Okay, that is a lie.) Anyway, when you read through the opening chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, you will see that they ran the same test on Jesus, and they furnish a report on from where he came. Again, I suppose their reports come with certain disclaimers having to do with probabilities, and when you compare the lists, you will find more discrepancies than similarities. Matthew starts the genealogy with Abraham, while Luke runs it all the way back to Adam. Matthew also has a kind of structure in which the generations are grouped into three clusters of 14. However, the most interesting thing about his list is that while he tracks it through the men, he deviates to mention four women in addition to Mary: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. There are a couple of theories for Matthew’s departure from his standard was the father of. Sometimes, it is supposed that the women were sinners or that they were foreigners, but both of those theories are rather tenuous. Perhaps the better understanding lies in seeing that each of the births associated with the women named in the genealogy were out of the norm. They would not have happened if not for some extraordinary, even divine, activity. So, make what you will of the ancestral lists our Gospel writers provide. But without having anyone spit into a test tube, the Matthew and Luke report that Jesus comes from a line that is Davidic and Messianic. What’s more, each writer in their own way, assures us that Jesus is in a line in which God has participated. But, of course, we suspected that all along.
Wednesday, December 5
Snakes and Babies | Isaiah 11:8 I must have been about 17 when I encountered my first coral snake. I was mowing the back yard when I heard a shriek coming from the next yard. I turned and saw a woman with a look of horror. At the back of the yard, her toddler was holding a small snake in his hand. In the next moment, my adrenaline spiked and my mind locked up – I jumped the chain-link fence, grabbed the child, and swatted the snake out of his hand. I handed the child to his mother who hugged him and then me and then him again. The woman told my mother I was a hero, and indeed I was, for while the snake was small – only 6 or 8 inches – it was a coral snake . . . a deadly variety.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. ISAIAH 11:8
Now here is where I have to tell you that education is a terrible thing. I say that because I have lived almost a half century believing that I might have saved the child’s life. Or at least have saved him from a trip to the emergency room. But not long ago, I came across an article about coral snakes, only to learn that there are non-venomous snakes which look like coral snakes. It has to do with the color of the bands: red and black, friend of Jack; red and yellow, kills a fellow. If you weren’t seventeen and juiced up on adrenaline, you probably could tell the difference. To diminish my heroism even further, I read that coral snakes – the poisonous ones – are actually reclusive, and their defense mechanism is to get away from humans. Prophets are apt to say wild and weird things, and in this, Isaiah is no exception. Because poisonous or not, snakes are not creatures that decent mothers allow their infants to caress and pet. Dogs and cats – sure . . . rabbits – okay . . . goldfish – absolutely . . . snakes – you’ve got to be crazy! So here is Isaiah, prophesying some seven centuries before Jesus was born, envisioning a time when a wolf and a lamb will live together. Leopards and kids, calves and lions, cows and bears. And children will be able to hold coral snakes and not be harmed. The final note to take from the text is that this new reality will not come about due to some change in those species marked Prey. The change will be with the Predators. Indeed, the lion will eat straw like the ox. That would be some kind of kingdom of which to dream . . . for which to work . . . to which to give ourselves.
Tuesday, December 4
Stringing Lights in Unlikely Places | John 1:5 Last year, Linda’s parents spent their 70th Christmas together and their first at Hawthorne Village in Brandon, Florida. The custom there is for residents to put decorations on a small table outside their door, so when we visited at Thanksgiving, Linda fired out one day to buy some clever Christmas decorations. After an hour, she reported with profound distress, They are out of Christmas decorations – it is all picked over and there is hardly anything left! (Now Linda knows as well as anyone that if she wanted Christmas themed decorations, napkins, serving items, etc., she should have bought them around the 4th of July. But, this is not a column about the sins of Madison Avenue and how Zeb Whitehurst is starting Christmas earlier and earlier every year.) I found myself thinking about how much I am accustomed to seeing Christmas lights at malls, in bank lobbies and on downtown streets, but I suppose I have less expectation about seeing Christmas lights in other places . . . like Hawthorne Village and here in Wilson at The Landing where Linda’s mother is spending her first Advent season. I guess it is because most of the residents in these places are widows and widowers. Do you put up Christmas lights when your partner of umpteen years is not there to help? Sure you do, and we are reminded that even when life is different from what we want, there is hope. When I am passing down the halls of a hospital, sometimes I will see a string of lights or a sprig of greenery, and I am reminded that amid sickness, hope can abide. In nursing homes and soup kitchens, there are signs of hope that get tacked to walls or set on coffee tables. I don’t suppose I should be surprised by lights in such places . . . by the evidence of hope in such unassuming places. Because the places where we might suppose it would be hardest to celebrate a birth promising hope are the very places where those celebrations are most desperately needed. In prison cells . . . hospice facilities . . . hunger centers. Whether we do or not, God seems to have a feel for the places where people are most desperate to hope again. We probably can find those places as well. All we have to do is follow the lights. And maybe we can tell the difference between those places where the lights are up because someone wants to sell us something and the places where the lights are up because someone is hoping against all odds.
Monday, December 3
Lists | John 1:1-4 Last week, everyone was home for Thanksgiving, and by everyone, I mean Kristen, Ryan, Ali, Grandma, Linda and myself. I took the opportunity to call a family meeting for which I had set a two-item agenda: (1) discuss how the “family” cell phone plan is working for everyone, and (2) give me your Christmas lists. Agenda Item #1 was dispatched quickly (in case you are wondering, everyone is fine with AT&T). When I gaveled for Agenda Item #2, there was an immediate movement into strategic offensives and counter-offensives. As in, I am not going to show you my list until I see your list. As in, I don’t want to appear greedier than her. As in, I might need to get this myself because you probably wouldn’t get the right color or the right size. As in, there is nothing I need or want, so just don’t get me anything this year. We ended the meeting with their lists in my hand, and by lists in my hand, I mean I had some vague promises that they would text me their lists via our continuing AT&T cellular account. (Life used to be simpler . . . my dad said when he was a kid, he and his brother tore pages out of a Sears and Roebuck mail order catalog.) As things developed, the kids were traveling back to their homes on Black Friday, and Linda and I traveled back to work. Little shopping was done. And by little shopping, I mean no shopping was done.
We are in the midst of a season of lists. I have lists all over my desk: people I need to see . . . people I need to call . . . thank-you notes I need to write. I have a list going for the Nominating Team and one of things to check for the 2019 Budget. And a shopping list to come if those children actually remember to text me. Lists, lists and more lists.
How did that first Christmas even happen without lists? People just seemed to act and to react . . . to give themselves to what was moving before them. Follow a star . . . listen to the angels . . . go to Bethlehem and see for yourself.
Maybe we can somehow learn again that Christmas is never the result of successful strategic planning. Christmas is always about being aware . . . listening . . . seeing. And taking a chance.
Sunday, December 2
Speaking Hard Truth | Matthew 3:7-10 True Story! A couple of months ago, Steve Kite is walking out of the sanctuary, saying something to the effect of: I gave you a B+ on your sermon today . . . maybe I could stretch it to an A-, but a solid B for sure. But what I really want to tell you is that the new sound system is fabulous. An A+++. I said, Well, that’s great Steve. And I don’t want to sound insecure, but I am sort of used to getting A’s on my sermons. He headed out the door as he said, Yeah, but that was before people could hear them. Steve apparently has some of John the Baptist in him. He’s a straight-talker . . . shoots from the hip . . . doesn’t pull his punches . . . calls ‘em like he sees ‘em. The point is sort of, I love you, so I am going to tell you the truth, and if the truth hurts, well then . . . Just like the Baptizer who whales into the crowd that had come out to hear what he had to say. You brood of vipers . . . even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Apparently, they knew he was talking about them because they asked him what they should do. His words are the only way to start the season, because if we rush ahead to look at the baby, we are apt to forget that he was not sent to validate our lives. Love us yes, but not to leave us as he finds us. In matters of faith and religion, I have found that it helps not to be thin-skinned. After all, there is always someone like Steve – I mean John – walking around, talking in your ear.
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