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So this month’s Synchroblog is an invitation to lighten up. Our faith blogs tend to become so very serious as we discuss theology and life and church and wounds and wonder. But even with all of our ponderings, we know a good belly laugh can minister to us in the deep places far more effectively than anything else at times. It seems to short-circuit our tensions and fears. Anne Lamott says that laughter is carbonated holiness. It knits our souls back together.

A consistent source of laughter for me is my dog. She’s silly, as dogs tend to be. She’s over enthusiastic about pretty much everything. She’s free of shame and conceit – she doesn’t care what she looks like. She only knows what makes her happy. Treats make her happy. Running makes her happy. People make her happy. Toys make her happy. Her favorite bed makes her happy. Her food makes her happy. Our food makes her happy. The cats’ food makes her happy. Learning to master the stairs (a big deal for track-raised greyhounds) makes her happy. Hearing her leash jingle makes her happy. The dog park makes her happy. Someone she hasn’t seen in five minutes makes her happy. You get my drift. She shows her happiness by turning in circles. Zoe’s life is made of circles.

She runs and bounces and races and gets completely distracted (squirrel!) and then pants with her long tongue lolling about, flapping like a wet sheet in the breeze. With ears pinned back behind her head, a panting greyhound looks to be all mouth, like a Pacman with legs. There’s times when she’s had me laughing for 10 minutes straight.

But laughter isn’t just about hilarity, though I certainly enjoy that. Sometimes it’s a lightness of heart that knows that no matter what, all shall be well. It’s a deep sense of rightness and joy that causes us, like Gandalf at the end of the great war in Lord of the Rings, to throw our heads back and laugh as if we’ve seen the end of all things, and we know it’s good. My goofy dog also brings about that sort of laughter. She’s taught me that dog walking is a spiritual practice. I recently posted these observations from a morning walk with Zoe:

1. The Colorado sky is bluer than ever, if that’s possible.

2. It smells like Spring.

3. Birds are really noisy but somehow their voices enhance solitude and meditation, unlike human noise.

4. Dogs are good mentors in mindfulness. They’re always in the moment.

5. Robins are magnificent.

Sometimes life isn’t very funny. But I can’t return from a walk with this simple, happy creature without that that thought in my mind: All shall be well. That makes me laugh out loud. My neighbors probably think I am just laughing at my silly, circling dog. But I also come back with the suspicion that the creator God who, in all his Holy, Glorious, Righteous, Immutable, Ineffable Seriousness created my circle dog, is in truth, hysterically funny. GK Chesterton suspected as much about Jesus of whom he writes: “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

God laughs, because s/he does know the end of all things. Sometimes we can hear the echoes if we are mindful enough. I think dogs hear them all the time.

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Here’s an old post of a book review I did on a book called “Jesus Laughed: The Redemptive Power of Humor”. It’s received a huge amount of hits. I think that might be because there’s something very hopeful about the laughter of God. Click: Jesus Laughed

This is part two of my St. John’s Bible post. If you’d like to read about its history and to see some of the other illuminations, the first post is here. There are 160 illuminations and there were 17 of them on tour at the Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs. We attended a wonderful lecture by Sr. Irene, a member of the creative Committee on Illuminations and Text that brought this work to life. I share some of her insights and a few of my own ponderings as well.

 

The 10 Commandments- Exodus 20

This illumination contains lots of words. The 10 commandments were written on stone by the finger of God and it was the first time the revelation of God was given in written form. God says, your carved gods are not ok but here I am, revealed in the written word. Most people were illiterate so this brought a significant shift in the history of writing.

It was the most significant religious event in history up to that point. It is yet another re-creation story. Into an anarchic world of oppression and cruelty, God bursts in to bring order into the chaos once again.

The images recall the Israelites’ story: the burning bush, the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, and their exodus through the Red Sea. There are 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

The bottom of picture reflects the sense of chaos that is always pressing in around us but God there too. In its midst you can just make out the words “I am the Lord your God”.

 

The Nativity Story – Luke 2

This illumination is from the nativity passage in Luke. Once again, God moves into chaos and brings new life. You may notice that the one person not clearly present here is the infant Jesus. Sr. Irene told us that the artist offered several trial sketches of the baby, but none felt right. Finally, he decided not to portray the baby at all, but instead bathed him in descending light in order to to bring to mind the incarnation. Heaven came down to earth.

The ox is from a Neolithic cave painting in France and is a nod to early Christian writers who often used an ox as a symbol for Luke. The ram is a foreshadowing of sacrifice. The shepherds are mostly women and children, which was apparently the norm in that day. My favorite part of the nativity story has always been the presence of these humble (and often despised) people, being amongst the first along with the strange Magi to see Christ in this world.

 

In this illumination of the raising of Lazarus we are given a new perspective. We are not outside the tomb weeping and waiting. We are inside the tomb awakening to the tunnel of white light beaming from the outside. At its center is Jesus. Do you choose life or do you choose to stay dead?

 

John 1

The beautiful words of John 1 recall the Creation story. In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Here we see the figure of Jesus stepping out of eternity into time. The figure seems unfinished, because incarnation is ongoing as Christ is being formed in each one of us. We are his incarnation now. Transformation, beauty, order, life is called out of chaos (both in and outside of us) once again.

The images of the universe surrounding him were taken by the Hubble telescope.

 

The Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1.

The Spirit once again is hovering over the waters. The heavens are opened and humanity is created anew. There is a hint of the birth of the Church, seen in a gold stamp in the background. In the foreground John the Baptist is a large figure, moving away. Jesus is golden and small in the background, bringing to mind the verse, “I must decrease so he may increase.” I don’t know if this was intended here but in iconography, the true perspective is always from heaven’s point of view. So the larger, closer figures as seen through our perspective are actually lesser than the ones that are further away. Jesus then, is the Center of the Story. “This is My Son, with whom I am pleased.”

The book of Mark is fast paced. After the baptism Jesus is immediately sent out into the desert to be tempted. We see that demons are already present to tempt him. The angels are ready and waiting to minister to him.

 

An illumination from the book of Acts. You will be my witness in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth… How far is the end of the earth? Here, it goes out into the universe. We see it is filled with crosses, literally crammed with heaven, and God’s presence fills it all. All things will be made new.

These are but a few of my favorites and this Bible is not even fully finished! There are far too many to write about here and you simply must see them for yourself and bring your own eyes to these pages. I’d love to hear about it when you do.

In the mean time, here is the link so you can page through it for yourself.

http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/see/explore.htm

(This month’s Synchroblog explores the topic of growing spiritually by learning to let go of things that may have hindered us on our journeys, even good things. I will add other bloggers’ links as they come in this week.)

I bought into the belief that life must be a certain way to really be successful and happy and full. I felt that if I worked and prayed hard enough, I’d find the secret to get there. That mysterious way seemed to come all too easy for some folks, who then looked disdainfully at what others like me had possibly done wrong to miss out. But I suppose that we all buy into the illusion that we have much more control over our lives than we really do, and that if we have a relationship with God that is just so, we can convince him to do what we want. Even so, housing markets plunge, friends betray, churches split, babies die, dreams fade. I am realizing now that my life will never become what I dreamed it would be when I was in my teens and twenties, when the future was made of possibility.

As I reflect at this point of my life, I realize that I thought my husband and I would have had more children, a bigger quiver to enjoy. I thought I would have my PhD or DMin by now. I thought I would have written many more books. I thought I would be in a very different career or perhaps be writing full time and living on a farm full of greyhounds and cats. I thought I would have shed false selves and false concepts of God and others much more thoroughly. I thought I would have learned better how to live in a way that would change the world around me in more significant ways. I thought I would have found the key to suffering well, and to sustained joy. I thought I would have loved better.

I have reached my 50’s, an age which for decades I thought impossible. Perhaps I really thought I would be 35 forever! It truly felt that way. I thought I was grown up enough and forever young at the same time. Now I understand writer Anne Tyler when she compared the later years of life to the end of a game of solitaire. At that point, most of the cards in the deck have been played and laid out, and there are fewer options left in order to finish up the game. And even when many of the cards have been played well, the reality is, you still may not win.

While all this might sound sad or heavy, it is truly not such a bad thing. There is much in my life to celebrate, much richness and blessing and much gratitude in my heart. There is fruit born from the past to enjoy and relationships to treasure and new seasons to explore. However, there is both a joy and a gravitas present in the realization that this is a time to “set my face resolutely towards Jerusalem”, as is spoken of Jesus. He set himself on a path of no turning back – to the place of laying all things down, even that of being God.

In Pixar’s beautiful movie called “Up” there is an old man who lost the love of his life to death. He and his beloved Elly had worked hard their whole lives but never were able to fulfill their dreams of adventure to exotic places. They had never had children, having been denied that dream as well. The old man had nothing left but his house and her pictures and unused tickets to far off lands. Finding himself alone in their once joyful home he entrenches himself grimly into the old patterns that had made up the lonely rhythms of his life for so long. He lives in what-should-have-been. He becomes a dead soul in a still breathing body.

A construction company threatens his staid existence and he battles back, winning nothing but a placement in an old folks’ home. It seems that what little life was left for him was also being taken away. He decides to flee. He fills hundreds of balloons with helium which lift his house aloft and away from all that had gone so wrong.

He finds a stowaway on board, a young and earnest Boy Scout named Russell. The natural curiosity and energy of youth messes up the old man’s world. However, Russell’s interference ends up putting them on a path to what was once the old man’s dream destination for himself and his beloved. They arrive at some beautiful waterfalls in South America. The old man wants to plant his house beside the falls and continue his routine of existence, living in the painful shadow of his past.

Of course, as is the case in any good story, more conflict and trouble ensues. (*This includes some hilarious dogs – this movie was obviously written by a dog lover!) Ultimately, the man must choose love for this small boy and other lonely, helpless creatures over his small, numb world. The clincher comes when he must give up his prized home. He pushes all his precious belongings out the door to make it light enough to fly again. He gives up all that bound him to a time long past. He let it all go for love. And he does save the day, gaining both love and his own soul back.

The secret is, life is a journey of kenosis. That is the word from Philippians 2 when Jesus empties himself out –of everything- for love. Life is a constant journey of letting go, of unclenching our fists and letting what we think we must have slip away. We can hold onto old dreams and regrets and expectations and demands and stay tethered to them. Or we can push them out the door and lighten the load for the journey ahead. Without letting go, there is no love possible, for real love does not grasp and cling. And without letting go, there is no more growth into our true selves, because our identity will always be shaped by false images and dreams of what “should” be rather than what is.

My pastor has been doing a lot of reflecting on resurrection life during this Easter season. She reminded us that Jesus came not so we can be good (do it all right) or nice (everyone will like me!) but so we can be made new. And she reminds us, we can’t be made new if we are clinging to the places where we have forged an image of life and God that keeps us safe and certain. Those things keep us restricted and bound to a flat existence – our own creation of reality. And hands that cling cannot open up to receive what is new. But if we choose the courage to begin to let go of what we are sure we know, of what is certain and safe, of what we feel should be, our hearts and minds can be released into in the flowing river of Life that is far mightier than our ability to harness and control. We become people of the larger Story, buoyed by its current and perhaps finding ourselves bumping up into the hope that is greater that what we could ever manufacture. Our emptied hearts just may make enough room at last to become filled and stretched out of size into love. And we just may lose our grip on certainty, watching it fall far behind us as we enter finally, finally, into faith.

Those who lay down their lives for my sake will find it. ~Jesus

Enjoy these Synchrobloggers:

John Martinez – Indiefaith 
Letting go of the Holy me

Beth Patterson “What is passed over is not love”

Jeremy Myers Help! I’m Lost and I Can’t Find Myself!

Marta Layton On Burdings, Blessings, Babies and Bathwater

Kathy Escobar Letting God Off The Hook

Alan Knox at The Assembling of Church – Where Did I Go? 

Crystal Lewis – What Happened When I Let Go

Pam Hogeweide at How God Messed Up My Religion – Letting Go of a Church-Centered Me 

K.W. Leslie at the Evening of Kent – Legalism, Anti-Legalism, and Anti-Anti-Legalism

Ryan Harrison  at How We Spend Our Days – Scraping the Barnacles 

Christine Sine at Godspace – Giving Up For God, What Does it Cost?

Liz Dyer at Grace Rules – What Do You Do When You Are Not Sure

Dan Brennan at Faith Dance – Letting Go for a Greater Good

Elaine Hansen – Recovering Control Freak – Let Go?

Wendy McCaig at View From the Bridge - Embracing the Grey

Chris at The Amplified Life - Seasons of Life 

Kerri at Practicing Contemplative - Synchroblog 

Jeff Goins What You Get From Giving



Years ago, I attended a church that avoided beauty. They met in a little white steepled building with a wood paneled arched ceiling within it that I just loved. However, the rest of the furnishings in there were worn and sparse, making it look like a forgotten and neglected room in an old house. I happened to mention to a friend once that the sanctuary would look so beautiful if it only had a carpet with a rich, deep color to set off the earthy tones of the wood. My remark was met with a terse, “It’s not that sort of church.”

Being new to the faith and having not yet discovered my own voice, I recoiled in embarrassment. I had obviously missed something important or perhaps I was engaging in the dreaded sins called lust of the eyes or the pride of life. I learned to believe that beauty was something that should be suspect, and that my love of beauty could be a character flaw. I learned to not trust my inner senses.

I have since come to understand that those church folks were simply afraid, for beauty can be a perilous thing. It sparks the imagination and moves it beyond safe boundaries, carrying the soul away with it to uncharted and unknown places. If we don’t protect ourselves, we become caught up in it, far beyond the mind and beyond the words in which we have always felt at home and so confident of what we know.

Many others have described to me their experiences of transcendent beauty, whether it be on a mountaintop in the Rockies or during a sunset on the beach. And so often, when they have described their sense of awe, wonder and encounter with sheer Presence, it was tamped down quickly by a well meaning Sunday School teacher who wanted to protect them from those new age-y ideas. Like my little church, they felt it best to keep this experience of beauty reined in.

However, an essay about creativity and Christianity is, in effect, an exploration of beauty. Beauty inhabits the cutting edge of creativity, says John O’Donohue. He proffers the idea that beauty speaks of things beyond words and rouses memories hidden in the depths of our hearts- memories of things both ancient and beyond time. Beauty reveals the wholeness and holy order of things. Beauty infuses our creative acts with meaning.

Frederick Turner adds that beauty enables us to go with, rather than against the deepest tendency or theme of our universe. It calls us back to something deeply ordered and good. In other words, beauty leads us to truth. It speaks of God. Therefore, the church is the right place to develop eyes for beauty; to learn to truly see. For in our relativistic world that is embroiled in either polarizing arguments or apathy in regards to what is good or true, beauty is able to transcend.

Beauty calls forth from our hearts the capacity to love and gives us sight to find the sacred anywhere on earth. It sees beyond exteriors, even the loveliest ones that tempt us to get caught in measuring a person’s worth by their physical attractiveness or charisma. It also sees beyond off-putting exteriors and actions that offend those who only have eyes to see failure or sin. O’Donohue says that beauty creates in us a reverence of approach for each other. Beauty does not allow us to see a mere human being. Instead, it gives us eyes to see sacred space, a container of the Holy in the other. We are led to draw near to one another with quiet astonishment.

Beauty gives us eyes to see God in the most distressing of disguises. Years ago there was a huge kerfluffle about Andre Serrano’s photograph, “Piss Christ.” It is a disturbing portrait of a plastic crucifix submerged in a vial of the artist’s own urine. Many people were deeply offended at this, feeling that the photo was an act of blasphemy. It became a prompt for all kinds of philosophical arguments and meanderings.

I cannot say what was in the mind of the artist when he made it. But my first reaction was “Oh my, he got it.” For isn’t this idea the essence of the gospel? On the cross Jesus submerged himself into the depths of what is dirtiest and darkest about us, plunging into our refuse, our shame. The unabashed and unhesitating descent of God into our garbage is love in its most powerful manifestation. The cross is that scandalous and it is that beautiful. Typically, our religious eyes want to claim only what is most clean and acceptable as a fitting receptacle for God. Yet God came not for those who are already well, but for those who are in most need of healing. Eyes for beauty will illuminate the presence of God in those whom we are very certain are offensive to him. Eyes for beauty may also help us to see God in ourselves.

What is probably most surprising about beauty is that it is enhanced by flaws. O’Donohue says that the beauty that emerges from woundedness is a “beauty infused with feeling; a beauty different from the beauty of landscape and the cold beauty of perfect form.” This sort of beauty can compel us to cross the threshold of our separate selves into the experience of another in the form of compassion. It is the beginning of healing in the world. Some of the most amazing gifts in my life are my friends who are lifelong members of alcoholics anonymous. They trod along day by day, trading their thirst for the vine into thirst for the divine, carrying each other’s burdens and teaching the rest of us how to do it as well. Their lives have taken on a lovely Eucharistic shape. They exude beauty in a way that too few may ever understand.

Beauty illuminates the gospel story. It reminds us that the gospel is not a piece of theological doctrine to be apprehended, but a love story that tells of God breaking down walls of separation and then joining together God and man, heaven and earth, neighbor and enemy. Beauty “mediates between the known and unknown, light and darkness, masculine and feminine, visible and invisible, chaos and meaning, self and others.” Beauty transforms.

Ultimately, the question we must ask is not what is beauty, but who is beauty. I think it is right to say that God is beauty. To quote O’Donohue one more time, “When we claim that God is beauty, we are claiming for beauty all the adventure, mystery, infinity and autonomy of divine who-ness. Beauty is the inconceivable made so intimate, that it illuminates our hearts.”

Amen, church. Teach us to see.

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Links to Synchrobloggers below. More will be added as they come in!

[This post is part of a group synchroblog. This month the bloggers will share stories of epiphany. I will add links to the other synchrobloggers below as they come in. Check them out!]

This is the season of epiphany. The synchroblog mission this month, should I choose to accept it, is to share an epiphany.  I like the description shared with us by Liz Dyer: “The word “epiphany” is rich in meaning.  Epiphany is derived from the Greek epiphaneia and means manifestation, shining forth, revelation or appearance. In a religious context, the term describes the appearance of an invisible divine being in a visible form. It can also indicate a sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something.  An “epiphany” might refer to those times in life when something becomes manifest, a deep realization, a sudden recognition that changes one’s view of themselves or their social condition and often sparks a reversal or change of heart.”

I pondered a long while as to what to write about the times I have experienced something like an epiphany. I even worried that people my judge my experiences as not quite fantastic enough or perhaps dismiss them as just a fancy of imagination. One such time was a lovely sense of transcendence during the sharing of the wine and the bread amongst a large group of friends. The glow of light in the room seemed to become more golden and the music muted and warbled as if my senses were shifting out of time. I felt people moving past me and around me as we made our way to the Table and back, yet I was aware of many, many more people pressing in on us as if the veil between this world and the next had dissolved and we were mixed with all the saints from all times. My head bowed low with the weightiness of so much life. There we all were, belonging together and being knitted together by that salty sweet wine and yeasty bread. It was a very thin place, as the Celtic Christians would say. It all seemed too much to ever speak aloud.

Then there have been times when I have heard God call my name. I don’t remember much else of those times except that the reality of God seeing me was utterly transforming, changing despair to energy to move me upward and out of myself. It only took the utterance of my name.

However, I think the most transforming epiphany that I have had was when I gained the courage to kill God. I have the ugly persistent habit, as many of us do, of re-creating God in my miniscule mind over and over. The God of my making starts off pretty cool. He’s the Good Shepherd. He is filled with compassion. He loves us all as we are and He wants to change our lives for the better. He wants to change this world. But eventually this God becomes too weak for the suffering that I bear and the questions that I struggle with. Then this God seems to bolt his doors and lock his windows at the sound of prayer. He seems indifferent to the cries of the women mutilated by multiple rapes in the Congo, people ravaged by mental illness in the US, and the despairing mindset of the chronically poor. He tells me to buck up. I am afraid of this shepherd. I am left wanting.

This God seems like a master of transactions, neatly swapping blood for crime, stamping our jail release cards with steely jaw and furrowed brow. He likes us busy and noisy and proving our worth. He loves agendas and programs and living in victory (whatever that means) and measuring people by our morality (whatever that means). He surrounds me with “superior” Christians and their truth.  He looks down a long nose of disappointment. He takes on forms reflected by so many certainties in which so many dare to prescribe what he is like. He creates enemies. Sometimes he wears suspenders and rolls his eyes at right-wingers, sometimes he wears sporty glasses and shoots bears in Alaska. Sometimes he speaks in tongues and sometimes he wears the collar and the stole. Sometimes, he lures me to believe he is all about my prosperity. And sometimes, my pastor has noted, he is an abusive boyfriend. The rod and staff are critical and controlling.

My faith dies at the hands of this God. My heart withers under his gaze. Courage came when I told God, “No more.” If I cannot love you, I cannot do this anymore. Ministry, evangelism, writing, counseling – all I did in God’s name. No. More. How does one pours out a life for anything less than love?

Florence Nightingale once said, “I can’t love because I am ordered– least of all I can’t love One who seems only to make me miserable here to torture me hereafter. Show me that He is good, that He is lovable, and I shall love Him without being told.” That was my epiphany. God wins hearts by being God. None of those things – actions or inaction that I don’t understand, doctrines that seem far removed from incarnate expression and polarizing sentiments that ravage church and community-  none of these things win hearts to God. They may win followings and fanatics, but they do not win hearts.

I needed to shed this God even if there was nothing to replace him. In a way that was both wonderful and strange, a Buddhist friend helped me to this realization. “Tell God what you feel,” he said. “Tell him!” So I did. I told him off. And that God faded away like a shadow in the rising sun. Then GOD, big and bright and solid, danced around me the way a caged animal kicks up its legs upon first freedom. He danced for joy at my release. Finally!

All shall be well and all shall be well. The words of Julian of Norwich rang out in my soul. Nothing had changed yet these words felt undeniably true in the presence of this dancing God. And the dancing God dances not because he cares little about suffering; he dances because of the deeper good that is happening right in our midst, a deep magic that works backward through time. He dances with mirth that knows not only the end of the Story, but also the whole Story as it plays out right now in our midst. He dances because his shed blood forms a sticky glue that will knit us together, all of us together, filling in all the gaps and holes through which too many have slipped away. He dances because he knits together new life in his womb away from our prying eyes, waiting to be birthed in us at the right time. He dances because he is about life, life and more life.

The joke on me is that it was God who gave me courage to kill God, of course. He is the Great Iconoclast, as CS Lewis says. He will destroy false images of himself. He’s willing to die to show us himself. And the deep magic of God has a way of bringing dead things back to life. To paraphrase Lewis’ close friend JRR Tolkien, beyond the “small and passing” shadow that creates such a distorted concept of God, there is always “light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

May each of us be graced to know this epiphany again and again. May we walk through the valley of the shadow of death without fear. May our false gods die in our heads that God might be continually born anew in our hearts.

The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwellin the house of the LORD
Forever.

Psalm 23

Synchrobloggers:

Mike Victorino – What To Do?

Beth Patterson – A Robust Universe Includes The Botched and Bungled

Jeff Goins – The Manifestation Of God

Jeremy Myers – Pagan Prophecies Of Christ

Mark Smith – Manifestation Of God

Minnow – When God Shows Up

Alan Knox – A Day I Saw Jesus

Liz Dyer – God Breaking Through Moments

Kathy Escobar – orphans

Josh Morgan – The Manifestation Of God

Steve Hayes – Theophany: the manifestation of God

Sarah Bessey – In which Annie opens the door of her heart

Christine Sine – Eve of Epiphany – We Have Come, We Have Seen, Now We Must Follow

Tammy Carter – Paralysis In His Presence

Katherine Gunn – Who Is God

Peter Walker – Epiphany Outside Theophany (Outside Christianity)

The Ache for Justice and the Compassion of God
Pomegranate Place – December 16, 2010
by Ellen Haroutunian

Each week, we’ve begun with the lighting of the advent wreath. The first week we lit the shepherds’ candle, recalling the ache for acceptance in us all and the astonishing welcome of God to these folks who were considered unclean due to the nature of their work and who were cast out from polite society and from temple life. They were considered a seedy bunch. Yet they were the first to be invited to worship God-with-us, the infant Jesus. The unclean were invited to a Holy place.

Week two brought us the story of the Magi. They were astronomers and dabbled in magic. Yet their divinations showed them an amazing message from the stars and legend has it that they traveled long distances to seek this newborn King, bringing gifts that prophetically reflected who this baby was and the path His life would take. They represented the ache in the human heart for meaning, and God’s answer in Himself. And here at this coming of God into the world, in the circle of this little Jewish family, strangers with their strange ways and strange worldviews were also welcomed to worship this baby.

We are now in week three of the Advent season, when we light the pink candle. The pink candle represents joy, and it brings a beautiful irony to the story we will engage tonight. The advent candles were originally borrowed from the observance of Lent. Purple represents the idea of repentance and suffering but Lent is also tempered by hint of the coming joy of Easter and resurrection. Tradition says that the Pope used to hand out pink roses during the 3rd week of Lent as a reminder of the coming joy.  That’s where we got the pink candle. The purple of advent also is a call to repentance, that is to change direction and prepare for the coming of God, but there is great joy in the anticipation of His coming.

Read Matthew 2: 13-23 (The Massacre of the Holy Innocents)

That is an intense story, full of mystery and prophecies that would fill dozens of sermons. But there are these couple of verses that describe a horrific crime. This feels like a disconnect, almost a spiritual whiplash – weren’t we just talking about joy? How does this fit? We love the story of the Magi mentioned at the beginning of this Matthew text, who, as Dave mentioned last week, are colorful and intriguing and make it into every Christmas pageant. We love that God drew them from afar and spoke to them through means that they would understand to bring them to the Christ child. We love the story of the humble shepherds and the chorus of angels whose song echoed across the hills in the night. Many of us have a nativity set that contains such characters and many of these sets are quite pretty. Here’s one (see illustration below): it is painted with nice folk art design just like the original one, I’m sure. The stable is clean and the robes of the Magi are tidy and beautiful after their long journey, as are the robes of the new mother and father. There’s no manure and the shepherd doesn’t have B.O. Our quaint nativity scenes don’t often portray the humble reality of poverty and powerless faced by this young couple and their newborn. They don’t show the grit and the dirt, the reality into which God chose to be born as one of us.

I confess that I like the pretty setting. It makes it easier to distance myself from the harsh realities of life faced by the majority of people in this world. Isn’t that our tendency? But then comes the gospel writer Matthew who brings us a part of the story that is almost too much to bear: the slaughter of little ones, baby boys, by the swords and spears of Roman soldiers. In church history this has come to be known as the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.

What is that horrific story doing in the midst of this pretty one?

These children were not outcasts, not strangers from afar. They were the children of the local villages, your neighbors’ kids and mine. Some doubt that this story actually happened because the 1st century historian Josephus who chronicled so much of Herod’s works didn’t mention this, but others say so many of Herod’s crimes were so horrible that it might not have seemed worth mentioning in comparison. These innocent ones, powerless and voiceless, would have been lost to history. Often, this is still the case, as it is for so many from Darfur or the Congo. The sound of Rachel’s weeping still echoes around this world.

Yet the gospel writer remembers them, right here in the midst of the Christmas story. And they are remembered on December 28th in the Church calendar each year. They are a reminder that there is no easy comfort for those who have suffered violence or violent loss, whether it be the loss of a child, or the experience of war, or even a wounded place deep within yourself. The coming of the infant Christ into a world that was far too dangerous for babies, and a world that is full of unspeakable sorrows is all that can begin to touch the depth of healing that is needed in the human heart.

We live in a world enslaved to fear. Violence is the response. The frightened human heart is enslaved by the constant drive to win, have enough, have more, to own, to grasp, to be justified in who we are. We are in a struggle that goes back to the days of Cain and Abel; where being threatened by the approval received by another brought the will to murder into a brother’s heart. There is an inherent belief in us that for you to have more (wealth, power, affirmation, beauty), means I will have less. We measure ourselves against each other and live by these comparisons as if they tell us who we truly are. The fear and pride in us creates little room for the other to flourish. That has created a world in which the helpless, the voiceless, the meek, the poor, the powerless, the loser, anyone with any weakness, is not safe.

Herod, a King of great power and influence, was afraid of a baby. He quaked at the thought of what this baby could mean to his might and success and beliefs about himself, so he crushed the helpless and innocent to keep his own life intact. I believe that here, he is a picture, even a type, of the nature of the sinful human heart. Sin is the opposite of love. Sin says, I will take from or use you or even destroy you, to protect or elevate me. We know that the powers that be would continue to fear Jesus for his message of love that brought the mountains low and filled the valleys as John the Baptist and Isaiah foretold.  He stood against the power structures of this world in a way that brought even the most pious to frustration. This would eventually bring Jesus to crucifixion.

My husband and I have had a tradition in which the Christmas tree is stripped of its limbs, broken in two and the pieces are nailed together to form a cross for Good Friday. This action foretold that Jesus is God’s response to the cruelest, coldest parts of this world. He meets us in the places of our worst rejections, where we have also been hated unto death. [Lutheran Pastor Pam Fickenscher says that] “Matthew invokes the matriarch Rachel in the midst of this story of God-with-us, the birth of a child whose name is a verb: save. God’s salvation may seem far off and inadequate to the mothers who mourn, and to people who hurt, but the promise is deeper than this moment in time. As the scripture told us, the threat of this Herod passes for a time, only to be replaced by another Herod, yet another ruler without scruples. But when this child of Rachel, Jesus, returns to Jerusalem as an adult, God enters into the fate of every doomed child, and every bereft parent” and I would add, every frightened and hurting soul.

I once heard the only answer to a theodicy, which is just a fancy word for the attempt to reconcile the problem of so much evil and suffering in this world with belief in a good God, is a theophany, that is, a manifestation or appearance of God Himself. Here in the Christmas story is our theophany. God coming into the world as a human, born of a woman, born into poverty, into an unclean place, touched by unclean people, who will eventually become the one, the Innocent One, who will also die at the hands of Roman soldiers. He’s God-with-us in every imaginable way.

The Franciscans say that if all that ever happened in the gospel story was the incarnation (God become man), it would have been enough. The coming of God into this world as one of us was enough to change everything because it sang loudly of God’s love and acceptance for humankind. But there is more. At the cross God became the sinner, the Roman soldier, the tax collector, the leper, me, you. And now heaven and earth are forever joined, the veil between the holy and the profane is forever torn open, God and man are supping at the Table together. God overwhelmed the overwhelming powers of the earth with love. And Easter tells us, love wins.

The candle for this week is pink, representing joy. The passage that the gospel writer Matthew quotes about Rachel’s grief is from the prophet Jeremiah. It is significant that in his writing, after Rachel’s lament, Jeremiah goes onto offer words of hope of restoration by God. A promise of joy.  Rachel’s heart will be healed.

Yet we still wait, though the Light has come. Our swords are not bent into plowshares yet. The government that lies upon the shoulders of the Christ is not present yet. We ache for the restorative justice of God, when all will be set right and all sorrow and crying and pain will be no more. We have waited and we now wait again. But, the Light that has come into the world has remained. The Apostle John, who is known as the Apostle of Love said, we are like Him in this world. We can seek to overwhelm the world with love.

The Quakers say, When the song of the angels is stilled, 
when the star in the sky is gone,
 when the kings and princes are home, 
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost, to heal the broken, 
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
 to make music in the heart.

This year we at Urban Skye are presenting a Liturgy of Peace in Denver at Pomegranate Place every Thursday evening during the month of December. Advent is a waiting time during which we may focus on the ache of our hearts and the longing for the coming of God into this hurting world. The first evening focused on the ache for meaning and the hope of God. The reflection is written by guest blogger, Urban Skye director Dave Meserve.

The Magi:  Strangers (The Ache for Meaning and the hope of God)
Pomegranate Place – December 9, 2010
by Dave Meserve

They blow into the Nativity Story somewhere “from the East,” enjoy their 12 verse cameo and then disappear into legend. All the while the Church asks, “Who are those guys?” They are The Magi and few characters in all Holy Scripture capture our imagination quite like them.

At our second week of Advent Liturgy, we consider our “ache for meaning” with these mysterious Magi as our guides.  If the response to our “ache for acceptance” (our first week’s liturgy) was The welcome of God, our ache for meaning is met in the Hope of  Faith. The beautiful irony is that this path is most clearly revealed through strange, pagan astrologers.  Not your typical models of faith, especially if you grew up a first century Jew with stories of “Daniel vs. The Magi” embedded into your earliest memories.

Our best guess of their origin is Persia (modern day Iran).  In AD 614, a Persian army swept through Palestine destroying church and synagogue but sparred The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem when they saw a mosaic of the Magi in Persian garb.  Other than that, we know little.  We refer to “We Three Kings” because of the John Henry Hopkins verse (1857) reflecting the sentiment of the day where three gifts equals three kings.  The idea of them being “kings” comes from Isaiah 60:3,

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

The wise men, as we rightly call them, have become archetypal symbols of faith for all who seek and particularly for those who are outside the mainstream of religious faith.  For our liturgy, we will follow their hope of faith through three well known archetypal symbols found in Matthew 2:1-12.

I. The Star.

Apparently, the heavens really do reveal the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-4). Historians debate what celestial anomaly actually transpired to lead these astrologers. Some think a conjunction of planets in 7 BC or a lunar eclipse in 5BC.  Regardless, these star gazers where watching ones (see our “consecration of space” prayer).  Their “pagan” practice of astrology revealed to them the birth of king that was to change the course of history.  How they knew the meaning of the star is a mystery, but they recognized in its glow that a Voice not their own was beckoning to them.

Our Disney version of “the voice” does not come from the heavens but from within us.  My cynical daughters (who grew up loving Disney) now mock their ubiquitous message of “just follow your heart” as the path of all modern princesses.  In fact, they toss me that line when I question their actions with a sarcastic, “Pops, I’m just following my heart!”

The Magi and their ancient wisdom did not seek within as much as without.  They watched for a Voice not their own to guide them on their path and found it in The Star.  It was this hope in faith that animated their lives supplying a meaning they could not muster on their own.

Meaning comes through seeing God’s stars and following the Voice that is not your own.

Where do you see “stars” that speak to you?  When have you found yourself in a “thin place” (as the Celts called it) where the distance between you and The Divine is small? What leads you to perceive the wonder of Christ in a fresh way?

Lend us the eyes to see

And the courage to act

On Your revealing of the Peace Child.

May Your stars grant us meaning this Advent.

II. The Journey.

Sadly, the “journey” has become something of a tired metaphor.  Everyone seems to use it to describe the path of faith (it now finds its way into Church names) but this is all for good reason; it is an enduring, archetypal image for life and symbolic of Magi’s story.

In America, one of our strongest symbols is that of “home,” especially at this season of the year.  We are routinely asked if we are going home for the holidays, or who is coming home to join you and then we sing of that sentiment.  Yet, our model of meaning from the Magi is to leave home on a journey.  All journeys of meaning involve leaving what is familiar and homey in order to experience something beyond.

Like Abraham before them who left country, people and home (Genesis 12:1-4), the Magi left the East and traveled West in search of meaning. That’s where the star led them and that cross-cultural journey seems to be important.

Professor Peter Kreeft writes of this in his article, “The Meaning of Christmas.” He articulates the need we have to mimic the Magi in their pilgrimage as Oriental wisdom must turn West to find Christ, and the West—Rome—must go East. For Christ is born at the center.

The East’s mentality is mystical and mythical. The Eastern mind has no trouble believing in the supernatural. It needs to make a pilgrimage to the material and the natural, to the Christ in whom all truths in myths become historical fact. He is the dying and rising God myths point to like a star.

The West, on the other hand, has a practical, materialistic mentality. This was  true of Rome and it’s still true of the modern West. It must make a pilgrimage to the East, to the spiritual and the supernatural. Christ is everything: Each culture  can become whole only in Him.

Whatever our journey of faith, it moves us beyond what we know in the trust that God will reveal more.  The Magi needed Jewish wisdom to complete their quest (though their trust in Herod was tragically misplaced).

Meaning comes by living faith as a journey and especially a journey with others.

We may be home for the holidays yet we can still experience a journey of faith during Advent.  Are you on a pilgrimage?  Are you on with others?  What words do you use to describe the journey you are on?  Can you trust that God is leading you?

Though our destinations lack clarity

And our roads bend and twist,

Help us lean into our journeys

With Your peaceful confidence.

May our journey grant us meaning this Advent.

III. The Gifts.

We all know of these gifts and remember nostalgically, “The Gifts of the Magi” (whether or not we’ve actually read it!)  Beyond their sentimental quality, the gifts have long held symbolic meaning for the church:

Gold Reveals that the Christ child is a King in fulfillment of all prophecies and worthy of such obedience.

Frankincense Used in worship (Jewish and pagan) and reveals the Christ  child as one worthy of worship and will be a priest for the nation.

Myrrh Valuable for its medicinal qualities and widely used for embalming, it reveals the Christ child as fully human and one  born to die for the world.

If you have a church background, you’ve likely heard these theological connections.  They do have a deep meaning.  Yet, this Advent, I’m caught by something else: these are very impractical gifts!  This is not your typical baby-shower.  Like an ancient version of the “gift card”, the Holy Family would have likely cashed these in over the next few years while they were living as refugees in Egypt.  Where’s the fun in that?

We’ve all been taught that giving is meaningful in and of itself.  True enough.  And we’ve been schooled in the “it’s the thought not the gift that counts” mentality (but try telling that to an 8-year old).   Yet, the meaning of the gift is not completely in its “usability” for the receiver.  Gifts have meaning for us because we value them.

The wise men brought gifts that were deeply meaningful to them.  They represented what they wanted to bring into the relationship with the receiver, the Christ child.  They gave to the Holy Family what they most cherished. And that speaks of a different kind of meaning.

Meaning comes in the giving of what gifts you find meaningful to share.

In the humility that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above” (James 1:16-17), we offer our gifts this Advent.  This is in contrast to the false humility of being hesitant to know and to show the beautiful gifts we bear.  What gifts do you have?  What do you uniquely bring to the party?  Can you own your gifts and then offer them wherever your journey takes you?

May we remember from where our gifts come

And see for whom they are most needed.

May we be generous in ways beyond us

To bring peace to others as we find peace within ourselves.

May our giving grant us meaning this Advent.

We ache for meaning in our lives and may have lost hope that this season leading up to Christmas will provide anything more than busyness.  Advent offers a way to be counter-cultural, to live in the ache rather than numb it, and to renew our hope that there is a God who gives us stars to follow.  There is a God who invites us on a beautiful (and risky) journey toward the Peace Child.  There is a God who has granted you gifts needed for others you meet along the way.

This is the God of the watching ones, the waiting ones, the slow and suffering ones.  The God who gives us a good word for our souls.

Peace.

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