Sunday, December 27, 2009

Peace on Christmas Night

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)

Christmas Night. The gifts are put away. The food eaten. The sounds of tearing wrapping paper, the tones of my son’s new keyboard, the laughter of family and friends have given way to quiet. Even the weather has slipped into the peace of this most peaceful of nights, the rain that pattered steadily against the windows all day having turned a few hours ago into a light and silent snowfall while my attention was on other things.

That’s a nice parable, really, a good analogy for the way the peace of Christ comes: quietly, softly, while we’re focused on other things. It comes in dingy stables in out-of-the-way places, on silent nights when only a few have eyes to see and ears to hear what’s happening. It comes in turmoil and chaos, while the world roils and writhes and tyrants seem to carry the day. Into fear and grief and pain and even death it comes, in the labor pains of a young woman and the faith of a young man.

The peace of Christ comes crying and wailing, wrapped in rags and lying in the hollowed-out log where cattle usually munch hay. No wonder so few seem to recognize it.

Read an article from a magazine called Slate yesterday ( The article, written by Melinda Wenner, was titled “Can a Virgin Give Birth?” I was struck, as I read the title, that if not for Jesus and the story of his birth I would have laughed out loud at that title. After all, it’s so ridiculous a question that except for the Christmas story, no one in her right mind would even entertain it. Can a virgin give birth? Might as well ask if an anvil can float.

Well it turns out that, according to the article, a virgin can give birth – it’s just very, very unlikely. I’ll spare the details, but basically it comes down to three or four one-in-a-billion genetic mutations occurring simultaneously. The conditions have only been replicated in a lab, and not with human beings. But according to Ms. Wenner, it’s at least theoretically possible.

Of course, that does nothing to ease the embarrassment of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. That’s right, embarrassment. Just ask Joseph, who when he heard of Mary’s pregnancy was of a mind to end his engagement as quickly and quietly as possible. By the time Paul wrote his letters, some 10 or 15 years after Jesus’ death, the embarrassment seems to have lingered. Paul never mentions the virgin birth; the closest he comes is when he makes the point that Jesus was “born of a woman,” more to emphasize that he shared in the human condition than to theologize about the meaning of the circumstances surrounding his birth. In fact, it’s pretty significant that the church has never placed much theological weight on the virgin birth. And, since the word translated “virgin” in Isaiah 7 is probably better translated “young woman,” we don’t even need a virgin birth for the prophecy to work.

Biblically and theologically, then, there doesn’t seem to be a need for God to bring Jesus into the world in so strange and potentially embarrassing a manner. Incidentally, that’s a very good reason to believe it. There seems to be no reason at all for Jesus’ followers to have preserved the story of his conception – except that it happened that way. The word Matthew chooses is “virgin” – not “young woman” – and the best explanation for that is that it’s the story he heard.

So with all of its technical detail, the article misses a very important point. We don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus because it makes sense in terms of science, or because it might be possible under the right laboratory conditions. We celebrate his birth because it doesn’t make sense. We celebrate its strangeness and wonder at its weirdness. In the unlikeliest of circumstances, God came to be with us in Christ. The virgin gave birth to a son, and we call him Immanuel – “God with us.”

As the article demonstrates, he comes when we have our attention focused elsewhere. While we make our plans and meditate on our theories and make our decisions, Jesus comes like a Christmas night snow and disrupts everything. He comes in less-than-ideal circumstances, in ways that are easily missed or misinterpreted. He comes in turmoil and chaos, into fear and grief and pain and even death. He comes crying and wailing, wrapped in rags. And he comes that way because those are the people for whom he comes. Those who cry and wail. Those who are wrapped in rags. Those who feel the chaos and turmoil of a world gone wrong, who feel the tyrant’s hand keenly and have lived too long in death’s shadow. He comes, in short, to people like us, and brings peace to real lives like the ones we live.

Apparently, though, the peace of Christ is something we have to let rule in our hearts. I guess that’s because it’s human nature to let other things rule: doubt, or fear, or guilt, maybe. Or, on the other hand, our own abilities, plans, common sense, or intellect. The peace Jesus brings doesn’t come insisting on being heard and heeded. It comes offering another way to live, another compass by which to calibrate our hearts. It comes promising that the things we can see and hear and touch around us aren’t the only things, or even the most important things. It comes suggesting that what we understand is far too shaky a foundation upon which to build a life.

So as Christmas comes to a close for another year, it would be a shame if we put the peace of Christ away in the attic with the decorations, only to be taken out and appreciated for a few weeks next year. The peace he brings is for our everyday world, much more than it is for some mass-marketed “holiday season.” He offers us everyday peace, and invites us to choose to let our hearts be ruled by it. Let’s begin now to trust him, even when everything around us is messy and chaotic and shouts that we should panic. Allow his peace to rule in your heart: to set your agenda, determine your priorities, and inform your thoughts, words and actions.

That’s Christmas. That’s the point.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"His Name Is John"

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David… (Luke 1:68-69)

“His name is John.”

The angel was very clear. Our son – Elizabeth’s and mine – would be called John. You’d think that God would have much more important things to do than choose the name of our kid. Then again, his birth was anything but usual.

For starters, Elizabeth and I are – well, “well along in years” is a nice way to put it. I hope he’ll be out of diapers before we’re in them, if you want to know the truth of the matter. Elizabeth’s prayed faithfully for a child for our entire life together, but, honestly, I had given up hope. Wouldn’t have said that to her, of course, but with every year that passed I knew the chances got worse. I know – it’s not like God hasn’t done it before. We’re not nearly as old as Abraham and Sarah were. Still, when we take him out people will mistake him for our grandson.

I guess that’s why I didn’t believe it. People always ask me that: “Zechariah, why didn’t you just believe that angel?” I know, it sounds stupid: an angel appears and tells me I’m going to have a child, and I doubt his word? It wasn’t, I guess, that I didn’t believe God could give us children in our, umm, golden years if he wanted to. I just doubted that he would want to. I mean, I’m not Abraham, and Elizabeth isn’t Sarah. We’re not building a nation here. We’re just an old priest and his wife who were getting used to the notion that we’d never have children.

Believe me, I’ve had plenty of time to think about what I said. I’ve replayed in my head countless times. The angel speaks, and I say something like, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Honestly, though, what I actually said was a lot more honest: “How can I possibly believe this?”

Apparently I didn’t get points for honesty. Nine months is a long time when your wife is pregnant and you can’t talk. (Though, actually, Elizabeth now thinks all men should temporarily lose the power of speech when their wives are expecting…) Not having the ability to speak certainly gives you the chance to listen, though. And think. And pray. Everyone else has been talking: about my story, about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, about what it all means. Everyone’s got a theory, and they all want everyone else to hear it.

I think that’s why Gabriel told me I couldn’t speak until John was born. I thought at first it was punishment, but I don’t think so anymore. It makes more sense to me now that he took away my voice so that I could shut up for a little while about my own agenda and pay some attention to God’s. Thinking back to that day at the temple, I was going on so much about not being able to believe what God said that I couldn’t really hear him.

Like I said, though – I’ve had plenty to time to think about it since then. And when I finally stopped talking, God visited me with some understanding.

God only does things like what happened to Elizabeth and me when cataclysmic things are happening in the world. The last time something like this happened, God created a nation for himself.

Now he’s doing it again. I’ve been thinking a lot about what Gabriel said about our son: “Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” He told me, that day, but I just couldn’t hear him. Our son will call God’s people back to him, like the prophets of old. His birth is the sign that God is coming to redeem us, to save us from our enemies. He’ll forgive our sins and come to us in his mercy like the sunrise at the end of a long, dark night. He’s going to show us that the covenant he made so long ago means something to him – even though we’ve taken it too lightly.

And when he comes, our son will prepare the way for him. He will bring “the knowledge of salvation” to us, the people God loves so dearly.

Oh, I don’t know any more than you do how it will happen. I just know that it will. In one way or another, God will come to save his people – just like he’s always done. He’ll come in judgment, in righteousness, and – for those who want it – in peace. You can write it down. You can quote me on it.

On second thought, don’t quote me. The most significant thing I ever said was something I never actually said. “His name is John.” Not that it would matter to God’s plan if I named him Fred or Garth or Aloysious. I like “John,” though. It has a nice ring. And it has come to mean something to me. It signifies the day I stopped doubting God, stopped dictating to him how he should behave, and learned to shut up and trust him. “If you say his name’s John, Lord, then John it is.”

Maybe that speaks to you where you live. If so, then I’m glad. Trust me – it’s never wrong to shut up and trust the Lord. He won’t always do things the way you would, or when you would. I can guarantee you that. Sometimes people will look at you like you’re crazy when you decide to shut up and trust God. “John? Where did you get John?” they’ll say. Or, you know, something like that. But when they question, and wonder, and argue, you don’t have to answer. You don’t have to say anything. Just smile, and shrug, and say it again. “His name is John.” What God says, goes. If no one else understands, or agrees, or even has a clue, that’s OK.

If nine months of being quiet has taught me anything, it’s that all of us are at our best when we shut up and trust the Lord.

You can learn that the easy way, or the hard way. This is the easy way. Trust me.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Difference

“…Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:15-16)

“Joseph – you say his name was Joseph. That’s a good name. I mean, it must be, since every other family on our street had a son named Joseph.”

That was Eleazar’s response when I told him about his great-grandson (in my imagination). He was considerably more enthusiastic when I told him what Joseph did for a living. He smiled – beamed, in fact. “A carpenter. Like me. Like his grandfather. Like my father and grandfather. You know, carpentry’s a good trade. Everyone needs things made of wood, and so everyone needs a craftsman who knows how to join and shape and finish wood. Do you know that someone who knows what he’s doing can make a mortise joint so tight that…”

I cut him off there. (It’s my imagination, after all…) Truthfully, I didn’t really want to talk to Eleazar about carpentry. I was really sort of looking for something, to be honest – some kind of insight into what made Joseph the man he turned out to be. Not that Joseph did anything overtly heroic, of course. But he trusted God, and he faithfully took care of the people God gave him. And I wondered if any of that came from Eleazar.

At first, I thought I was going to be disappointed. Eleazar was much more comfortable talking about woodgrain and chisels than he was talking about faith and angels and dreams. When I told him about Joseph’s strange betrothal, and the circumstances of his first son’s birth, he got a very strange look on his face. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably, cleared his throat a couple of times, and opened and closed his mouth as he tried to think of what to say, and how to say it. Finally, he was able to get it out.

“And the dream…what the angel said…was true?”

I nodded, and he shook his head and chuckled nervously. I told him that Joseph did exactly what the angel told him to do: he swallowed his pride, took Mary to be his wife, and named her baby Jesus.

“The Lord saves,” he said, half to himself. “I always liked that name.”

He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “Well, I guess if an angel speaks to you, you really don’t have much choice, do you?”

I asked Eleazar what he’d taught Joseph’s grandfather, Matthan, about God. He thought for a moment. “Well,” he began, “I sort of think I didn’t teach him enough. I mean, there was always work to do. Something to build. Something to repair. Something to plant. Something to cultivate. Something to pick. Most of what I remember telling him had to do with work. But I showed him how to make a mortise joint so tight that…”

I cut him off again. (It’s still my imagination.) I asked if he ever prayed with Matthan. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Every day, we thanked God for our blessings. And we all prayed together when business was bad, or when the rain didn’t come.

“I told him the stories, too. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Moses and the Exodus. Joshua. I told him how our family was descended from kings, from David himself. I told him about Goliath’s defiance and his ancestor’s bravery, and how God saved him and defeated the giant through him.”

He went on, gathering steam. “The commandments were big in our house,” he remembered. “We kept the Sabbath and the festivals, and the fast on the Day of Atonement. We went to Jerusalem for the Passover most every year.” He laughed. “There was this one year when Matthan got lost, we thought. But we found him with my cousin and his kids.”

I started to tell him, but he broke in. “I guess, maybe, I taught Matthan more than I thought. Do you think…maybe…I don’t know…maybe he passed on what he learned from me to his son?” I told him I thought that might very well be. “And maybe his son passed that on to Joseph, then? And maybe that had something to do with the man Joseph turned out to be?”

“I’m thinking that too,” I told him.

“And what happened to Joseph’s son? I mean, Mary’s son. Jesus.”

So I told him. I told him about Jesus’ life and death, and he wiped tears from his eyes with his carpenter’s hands. And I told him about Jesus rising from the dead, and he gasped audibly. And then I told him that millions and millions of people had found hope, redemption, and life in his adopted great-great-grandson, that they had lived for him and died for him and spread the word about him through a world that was many times as large as he had ever imagined. He turned his face away for a few moments, stoically trying to compose himself.

When he turned back, he looked at me and, voice quivering, asked if what I’d told him was true. So I pulled out a Bible and read to him: “Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

He gasped when he heard that last. Christ. Messiah. “The king the prophets promised would come and restore Israel.” And then he laughed out loud. “And I’m his great-great-grandfather.” He laughed, hard, and then it seemed to suddenly turn to sobs. After a long, frankly kind of uncomfortable few minutes (even if it is my imagination), he whispered, “I never imagined.”

Of course he didn’t. How could he? I don’t know what I expected him to be, but what he turned out to be was better. He was just a guy who found it much easier to talk about carpentry than God. But as he taught his son about life, he passed on his faith, too. That’s the way it always is with faith – it’s taught best in the context of life. Faith’s great lessons are learned most memorably in carpentry shops, around dinner tables, and in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.

And we never know what difference those lessons will make in the lives of those who learn them. What difference they’ll make in countless lives. We can’t know. But we can be faithful. We can pass on our faith, tell the stories that have made us who we are, believing that God will do wonderful things with those stories.

So let’s tell our stories. Let’s live our faith with the people who God gives us. There’s no way to know what difference we might make in the lives of the generations that come behind us. No way for us to know, I mean.

God already does.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Letting Down Our Hair

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:40-43)

Her actions were rash. Heedless of the limits of politeness. Even scandalous. It was a serious enough breach that she walked into the home of a respected religious leader and interrupted his banquet without an invitation or introduction. Her faux pas was made worse by virtue of the fact that she was a woman. And everyone knew what kind of woman, and about the life she had lived – even if her exploits were more lurid in the town’s collective imagination than in actuality. She was pushing the boundaries of propriety by even showing up.

But then what she did…oh, what she did.

It seems, maybe, that her intent was originally to offer him the most valuable thing she owned – an alabaster jar of expensive perfume. She approached him as he reclined at the table on his side, his feet extended. But as she drew closer, the tears started to fall. One landed on Jesus’ feet, still dusty from his walk to Simon’s house. Then another. Then another. And then she noticed that his feet hadn’t been washed, and then she loosened her hair – loosened her hair – and used it to wipe off the tears and dust. And then it just made sense, somehow to open the jar and pour the perfume on his feet.

Simon, predictably and even understandably, is shocked. His righteous indignation builds with every moment the woman is in his house. His disapproval of Jesus, noticeable from the beginning to judge by his failure to see that Jesus’ feet were washed, rises accordingly. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner,” he sneers to himself, comfortably satisfied that his initial judgment of Jesus in on target.

Maybe Jesus was able to read his mind. Most likely, he didn’t need to. What he thought of Jesus – and the woman – was probably written all over his face and body language. So Jesus can’t resist the opportunity to tell a parable, try to help Simon, or at least his other guests, to think differently about this woman and her actions. And more importantly, maybe, themselves and their own actions.

What Jesus does, in short, is to recast the woman’s actions in terms of gratitude. Even Simon, in his pious sanctimony, can see that the larger the debt forgiven, the greater the gratitude of the one forgiven. And therein lies his problem.

Simon sees Jesus, you see, entirely in terms of the religious system he’s inherited. For Simon, good people and bad people are easily distinguished, and movement from one category to the other is unlikely. Simon sees himself as “good,” probably always has, and so he doesn’t know much about the way grateful people behave.

For Jesus, though, the woman’s actions aren’t shocking at all. They spring from her gratitude. She’s heard, somewhere, Jesus’ message of God opening his kingdom to all. She’s believed that God’s kingdom is for the “prostitutes and tax collectors,” and so she’s come to imagine that it might be for her, too. She’s received God’s forgiveness, grace, and love, in spite of her sin, and her tribute to Jesus is the spontaneous response of a grateful heart.

“If you don’t get it,” Jesus tells his host, “then it might be because you don’t know what it is to be grateful.”

That’s what happens when religion starts being about defining ourselves as good, and stops being about celebrating the one who has given us such love, grace, and forgiveness. Our church pews can easily become full of Simons who wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he came in and sat down with us, and we show ourselves for who we are in the way we treat those who come among us full of the joy and gratitude of newly-received forgiveness. Too often we sit with arms folded, scowls on our faces, dwelling on who people used to be and oblivious to who God is making them into. Sometimes traces of gratitude and joy are hard to find in our churches, obscured as they are by our concerns for rigid respectability and religiosity. It’s been so long since some of us have considered how much we’ve been forgiven that we’ve forgotten how to love – love God, and love others.

Thankfully, though, the rehabilitation of our inner Simons isn’t as difficult as we might think. Gratitude isn’t that hard to recapture. It starts with acknowledging that we’re sinners, and not all that different from the folks that we’re tempted to look down upon when we’re in our “religious” frames of mind. We need to confess our sins, to ourselves and even to one another, for the simple reason that we need to know how much we’ve been forgiven. We need to stop excusing ourselves, stop justifying the things we do by minimizing them in relation to other sins or telling ourselves that they’re understandable under the circumstances.

If gratitude has to do with knowing how much we’ve been forgiven, then let us affirm that we’re sinners in need of mercy, and then joyfully proclaim the good news that in Christ we have received it. Let’s honor Jesus for what he has given us, and let us welcome into his presence other sinners who are learning the joy of God’s grace. And let our expressions of gratitude be so extravagant and un-self-conscious as to make Pharisees everywhere squirm uncomfortably.

Maybe then our churches will become what they’re supposed to be: communities in which all who want to express their gratitude to Jesus can let down their hair and find a place with us at the table.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.