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Friday, December 23, 2011

Our Own Front Doors


     There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
-Luke 16:19-21 (NIV)

Christopher Devine, it should be noted, is not an advocate for panhandling. It’s a rare occasion that he gives money to panhandlers, in fact. The 28-year-old from the upscale North Shore suburbs of Chicago grew up a long way from the problem of homelessness. But when he returned to Chicago after college, he began to notice the homeless just beyond his front door. He started taking a tape recorder out with him to interview homeless people. He asked them about their lives, asked them to tell the stories of how and why they became homeless.
    “Again and again,” he says, “it was the story of the American dream gone awry.”
    At first, he planned to write an oral history of homelessness in Chicago from those interviews. Eventually, they turned into a series for the Huffington Post. After that, his project finished, he went back to his life.
    Only, he kept noticing the homeless.
    One, in particular - a woman on Michigan Avenue - captured his interest. She was holding a tattered cardboard sign on which was scrawled, in fading handwriting, the long story of her homelessness. It would have been illegible to most of the people walking by - if they had bothered to try to read it. But they weren’t bothering. They barely looked at her. Even those who gave her something.
    “What’s the message she’s trying to get across?” Christopher thought.
    This is what came to his mind.  Homeless.
    Exactly like that - bold, Helvetica font, black on white, right down to the period. So he went  and made 35 signs exactly like that, laminated them, and started passing them out to homeless people. Then he just kept doing it. He estimates now that he’s given out 150 signs. Not everyone he approaches takes one. One guy told Christopher he was trying to  get a job and didn’t want to identify as homeless. So Chris created a second sign: Please Help.
    Chris blogs about his project at homelesssigns.org. He hopes to branch out to other cities, with Madison, Wisconsin, seemingly next in line. “If I had my way,” he says, “eventually I would paper the entire United States.”
    He recognizes that his sign project won’t cure the problem. “This project accepts the reality that in the absence of major systemic overhaul, there will be panhandling,” he says. But he has hopes that it might be a step in the right direction. While he intends for the signs to help the homeless in the short term, he hopes that they’ll also wake the rest of us up to the problem, and push us to consider solutions.
    What I like about Chris’ sign project is that he saw homeless people. He saw, and he cared, and he ventured to do something. And, while someone might say that a panhandler with a printed, laminated sign is still a panhandler, at least that someone would be talking about that panhandler. Instead of, you know, doing his level best to ignore his existence.
    It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, so the song tells us. And it reminds us of all the sights, some remembered from childhood, some maybe even from childhood movies, that tell us that Christmas is coming. It’s Christmas trees in the Grand Hotel, and toys in every store, and Santa Claus, and all the folks at home. And, of course,
the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be
On your own front door.
    But Chris reminds us to look past the decorations on our own front doors this Christmas.
    In that, he’s in agreement with the One Who Christmas is supposed to be about.
    He told a story about a rich man and a beggar that starts out exactly as you expect a story about a rich man and a beggar to start. The rich man is inside, enjoying a feast. Call it a holiday party.  Lazarus, he’s outside the rich man’s front gate - too close to be missed, too far away to get what he needs on his own. He’s an outsider, but not the kind of outsider anyone might be pardoned for not noticing. He’s right there, and he doesn’t ask for much. Just some leftover crumbs.
    The rich man never notices.
    That’s where the story comes off the tracks. The rich man and Lazarus die, and find that in the afterlife the situation is exactly the same. You might hope that there wouldn’t be suffering and want in the next world, but there is. There’s still a rich man on the inside, and a beggar outside looking in, wanting just a crumb, just a drop, of what the rich man has.
    Only now, the rich man is the beggar. Lazarus has what he never had in life.
    So the rich man asks for Lazarus to be sent from the afterlife back to his still-living brothers, to warn them, to tell them to be aware of the beggars at their gates, to feed them and clothe them and take the responsibility to care for them. Sort of a Christmas Carol kind of scenario, I guess, with the brothers playing the part of Ebenzer Scrooge. But Dickens had it wrong, apparently. The rich man is told that all his brothers have to do is listen to Moses and the Prophets. And if they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets telling them to care for the poor, then they won’t listen to someone visiting from beyond.
    We often get hung up on that story’s description of the afterlife, but that’s just the backdrop. The real point of the story is that ending: if you won’t listen to the Word of God telling you to take care of the poor, you won’t listen to anyone. Not even One Who has risen from the dead.
    So as we open our gifts and eat our feasts and sing our songs and light out candles and enjoy the company of family and friends, let us not forget that the One we claim to honor with all this is the One who warned us to be mindful of the Lazaruses at our gates. The One who said that we haven’t listened to him at all if we think we can barricade ourselves against the need around us with a little holly on our front doors.
    Chris’ signs say it all. Homeless. Please Help.
    That’s the way to celebrate Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cursing in Church


    The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
-John 1:14


    While some work is being done in the assembly area of our church building this week, I’ve grown kind of accustomed - in a way - to the foreman of the work crew, Rich, using, well, colorful language. He’s actually kind of a master at it; he interchanges profane nouns, verbs, and adjectives in a way that I didn’t think was possible - grammatically or otherwise. Most people who know what I do kind of make an effort to guard their tongues around me, but not this guy. It seemed almost unconscious with him, like his native language. Or maybe like a reflex. A profanity reflex.
    One day, though, Joe, the sales rep who we had worked with, came by to check on things. As we were talking, he called Rich over to get his input on something. When Rich opened his mouth, Joe got very uncomfortable. He looked at me, then back at Rich. “Remember where you are,” he hissed, embarrassed. “You’re in a church.”
    Rich looked to the front of the auditorium, where the communion table, pulpit, and  such would normally be - but were missing because of the work. “Ahhhh (blank) ,” he said. “There’s no altar here.”
    And with that, he continued speaking his native language. Fluently.
    Joe reminded him that it was still a church, but to Rich it didn’t matter. For him, without an altar it was just another building.
    Actually, of course, he’s not entirely wrong about that. I know of a church in Chicago that meets in a rented tavern. Every other day of the week, that building is a bar. On Sunday mornings, it’s no less a church than the most ornate, impressive cathedral. For Rich, the difference between a church building and any other kind of building is the presence of an altar. I’d argue something similar, though I’d say that what makes a building a church building is the presence of, well, the church.
    But that’s actually because I believe something very similar to what Rich apparently believes - what makes a church a church is the presence of the Lord. Rich might say it’s an altar that contains his presence. I’d say he’s present in the people who wear his name and who are inhabited by his Spirit.
    I think I’m in good company. Paul calls believers the body of Christ, not as metaphor, but as a reflection of the Spirit’s real presence in us. So the church, for him, is the temple of God. This has all kinds of implications for morality and ethics; anything you can’t imagine Jesus doing is not something any part of his body should do. It has implications for relationships; divisions and interpersonal conflict in the church threaten Jesus’ body and undermine God’s temple. It has implications for the way we use our gifts and fulfill our roles in the church - for the good of Jesus’ body, and not just for our own good.
    But all of that just connects to something Jesus himself pointed out - that he’s present  among those who gather together in his name. Even just a few believers embody the presence of the Lord. It’s not because we’re so good, or so eloquent in our testimony, or so single-minded in our worship, or so correct in our doctrine, or perform the right acts of worship in the right ways, or have the right feelings in our hearts. In fact, Jesus is regularly present in and among those who are sinful, tongue-tied, doctrinally unsure, and of mixed motives. That’s the good news of the gospel, and that’s why even an imperfect church can find him in their midst. It’s because he chooses to be present with us, and among us, and in us. It’s because he loves us.
    That’s why he came, and that’s why he continues to stay with people who have neither the right nor the ability to contain or explain or even comprehend his presence.
If he condescends to allow a manger to contain his presence, so can we.
    “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” John wrote to start his gospel. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Those two sentences are John’s nativity story, his equivalent of angels and mangers and swaddling clothes. The Word of God, the creative power by which God made the heavens and earth, became human. Flesh. He became flesh and lived among us. John uses a word there that translates the Hebrew for “tabernacle” - he “tabernacled” among us. And, as the Tabernacle did for Israel, so he does for us - he contains the glory of God. In him, we come face to face with God’s grace and truth.
    The difference, of course, is that in the old Tabernacle the presence of God was a deterrent to coming near. “No one may see me and live,” he told Moses. But, in Jesus, “we have seen his glory.” And not only have we seen it - through Jesus we have become its residence. Now the Lord is the Spirit...” wrote Paul. “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (emphasis mine)
    As the song says:
Oh, holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the heavenly angels
The great glad tidings tell.
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord, Immanuel.
    That’s what Christmas should remind us of: that the holy child of Bethlehem won’t be content to stay in the manger. He wants to live in us, be born in us, to bring us face to face with the glory of God and to radiate it from our lives. He comes to make us his body, his physical presence on earth. He comes to make us God’s temple, a suitable home for the Holy Spirit.
    That’s why, if Rich is a believer, he should be careful of the things he says. And that’s why we should guard our own tongues and hearts and minds and steps. Christmas reminds us that, as those who have been redeemed by Jesus, wherever we are his presence goes with us.
    May we always radiate with his glory. Wherever we are. Whatever time of year it is.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Saving Jesus


    Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon... It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
       “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
   For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
    The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.
-Luke 2:25-35 (NIV)

    New York’s BrickHouse Security is offering a solution this Christmas season to something that I didn’t even know was a problem. Using free GPS tracking devices, the security company is giving the gift of peace of mind to churches and other organizations beset with this particular problem. “The holidays are about helping people,” BrickHouse CEO Todd Morris explains. “We’re happy to expand the program and help even more people this year.”
    The problem: an epidemic of stolen baby Jesus figurines from Nativity displays.
    I’m not sure why the theft of Baby Jesuses seems to be up, and I have no statistics to show how steep the rise in this crime is. (Mostly because I have better things to do.) “The theft and vandalism of treasured holiday figures is a problem we can empower communities and congregations to solve,” says CEO Morris, and that’s good enough for me. Mostly, what I wonder is, “Why?” Why would you steal a Baby Jesus from a creche? Is it a hostage-type thing, to guarantee the gifts you want are under the tree?  
    After I read this story, I noticed that the church down the street from me has steel cables securing Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Wise Men. (Who aren’t supposed  to be there anyway, right?) Are there really determined nativity thieves who bring bolt cutters with them?   
    BrickHouse calls the program “Saving Jesus,” and this season will mark the sixth year the company has supplied the devices to organizations and churches. Qualifying organizations will receive the Spark Nano GPS Tracker device, which is described as “matchbox-sized” and can be hidden either on or in the Jesus figurines. BrickHouse even ships the device for free, and it arrives ready to use.
    I’m thinking of another holiday that might benefit from the addition of GPS transmitters. It would take all the guesswork out of Easter Egg hunts, wouldn’t it?
    All kidding aside, just a quick look around my corner of the world makes me think that it might be a very good idea if someone saved Jesus this Christmas. I don’t even really mean to refer to the trend in recent years to turn Christmas into a more neutral “Holidays,” with Santas and “Holiday Trees” and sleighs replacing Jesus and mangers and shepherds. Why should that surprise us, and why, for that matter, should we expect non-Christians or nominal Christians to validate our faith in the court of public opinion?
    No, if Jesus is to be “saved” at Christmas, it will be the responsibility of those of us who wear his name to do the saving. If we don’t want Christmas to be a completely secular holiday that’s about nothing more than shopping and parties and hanging stockings, then we’ll have to be the ones to locate Jesus under all the gift wrap and fruitcake and holiday cheer.
    As we decorate our homes for Christmas, we’ll need to be sure that some of our decorations witness to the story of Jesus.
    As we shop for and give gifts, we’ll need to make sure our choices of what we give, and how much, and how, and to whom all reflect the love and grace of Jesus.
    As we brush up against our friends, our family, our colleagues, our neighbors this time of year, we’ll need to especially remember to speak and act in ways that make Jesus visible to them.
    And as we hear the innumerable, wistful references to peace and goodwill toward man that are always a part of the season, we’ll need to speak of Jesus as the source of that peace and goodwill. And we’ll need to remember that many of those for whom Jesus came as yet know of neither peace nor goodwill.
    Simeon saw the connection, through his faith, between that infant in his arms and God’s salvation. He saw in that baby revelation and glory and the rising and falling of many. Years later, Paul wrote that in the fullness of time, Jesus was born of a woman to redeem us and make us God’s children. The angels proclaimed good news of great joy, peace, and good will because of that baby born in the city of David. They all pointed, in their way, to the birth of Jesus into this world as the embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s grace to hurting human beings in need of salvation, redemption, and rescue. That’s the hope to which we must testify, not only this time of year, but surely this time of year.
    Whatever your favorite TV show’s “very special Christmas episode” may say, there is no disembodied “Holiday spirit” which will solve all our problems and fulfill all our longings if we’ll just let it. Whatever the songs say, our hope isn’t in being home for the holidays, or in Santa Claus coming to town, or even in decking the halls in boughs of holly. The Holy Spirit is embodied in Jesus, and our world with its problems and longings needs him. Our hope is in him. As it’s always been. And it’s up to his people to declare that hope.
    May we not lose track of him this Christmas.
    

Friday, December 2, 2011

Rachel's Weeping


    When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
  “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” -Matthew 2:16-18 (NIV)

Herod’s thugs came in the middle of the night. They hammered on the door with the butts of their spears for just a few seconds, then kicked it in before I had a chance to get up and open it. They   said they had some questions to ask. Clearly, though, they were men who were looking for trouble.
    They started by demanding to know who owned the house1. When I spoke up, the leader of the group took me into a room away from everyone else. I could hear what was going on out there, though. The others were searching, waking everyone up. I could hear them yelling, something about children, baby boys.
    Obviously, this was not going to end well.
    “Who else lives here?” the Head Thug demanded. I ticked them off.  My wife. Our children. Our elderly parents. My wife’s uncle. He cut me off when I mentioned the children; “How old are they?” he asked.
    “15, 13, and 11,” I told him.
    He dismissed that with a wave of his hand. “And has anyone else stayed here recently?” he demanded.
    I laughed. He obviously didn’t care for that, so I laughed again, just for emphasis. “Everyone who owns a house in Bethlehem has had someone staying with them recently,” I explained. “The census. Everyone with family ties to Bethlehem had to come back. All our guests have left, though.”  
    As I said this, I heard something strange. It sounded like wailing, a sound like the grieving would make at a funeral. My hair stood on end. I started to walk past the soldier to see what was happening in the rest of the house, but he stepped between me and the door. “We’re not finished here, yet,” he growled.
    Then I realized that the sound wasn’t coming from the house. It was coming from outside.
    The soldier leaned close, scowling. “Did any of your guests give birth while they were here?” he asked.
    I thought immediately of that young couple. What were their names? They were friends of our neighbors. I knew when they got here that three of them would leave. Joseph and Mary - I think that was it.
    All that wailing was making it hard to think.
    Wailing. Like young mothers mourning the deaths of their sons. Rachel, weeping for her children.
    I understood, suddenly. Or, at least, I knew what was happening. Joseph and Mary had left in such a hurry with their newborn son. Right after those foreigners had visited. First them, and now Herod’s soldiers. What about a peasant couple from up north and a newborn baby could attract such attention from foreign magi and King Herod himself?
    Joseph and Mary leaving so quickly, the soldiers coming - Well, Herod had murdered his own sons when he thought they might be plotting against him.2 This should come as no surprise. My eyes stung with tears as I listened to the voices of those grieving mothers, the cursing of angry fathers. Something shattered outside, and the soldier interrogating me looked away for an instant. Then he turned back to me.
    “You have children,” he said. “Did any of your guests give birth while they were here?”
    It was too much to risk for a lie that wouldn’t matter one way or another. Joseph and Mary had a couple of days’ head start. They were likely out of Herod’s reach by now anyway.
    “Yes, there was a couple who had a baby boy while they were here. They’re gone now, though.”
    “And I suppose you don’t know which way they were headed,” the soldier asked.
    I shrugged. “They might have been heading north.”
    Well, they might have been.
    The soldiers left, and we went to comfort our grieving neighbors. I drank with the fathers, and listened to their ranting against the corrupt king who would murder innocent children like that, against a world in which the poor and powerless get ground into the dust under the heel of the rich and powerful. Even against a God who doesn’t do anything about it, who continues to punish the children for the sins of their fathers.
    And I prayed. I prayed that God would do something for those grieving families. That he’d comfort them in the loss of their sons, and that he’d make the tyrant responsible pay. I prayed that somehow he’d save his people from the sin and death which had defined us for generations now. And I prayed that he would scatter the proud, arrogant rulers for whom the world was a personal playground, that he’d lift up the humble and broken and grieving, that he’d sweep away the kingdoms of the world and make his own kingdom a mighty mountain that fills the whole world.
    That he’d remember to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever.
    Take care, Joseph and Mary. Take care, little boy. May you grow up in a world where tyrants like Herod can’t hurt you.

1I’m assuming here that the “inn” in Luke 2 was the guest room of a private home, already full because of the large number of visitors in Bethlehem for the census. Bethlehem was probably not a large enough town that anyone would have expected to find an inn, per se.

2Alexander and Aristobolus IV in 7 B.C., and Antipater II in 4 B.C.

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