Friday, December 21, 2012


And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
    But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
    Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
   and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
-Matthew 2:8-14 (NIV)

Feeling violent today? If so, it might just be in your nature.
    A study published this week in The Journal of Experimental Biology suggests that the human hand evolved into its present shape because its form is the best combination of physical dexterity and - that’s right - punching power. David Carrier, a University of Utah evolutionary biologist and co-author of the study, says that the shape of the human hand and its ability to clench into a fist “turns this relatively delicate musculoskeletal system into an effective club” that’s able to deliver the force of a blow to a smaller surface area, without being injured.
    So, according to this study, the human hand evolved for fighting. Human beings evolved the ability to make a fist so that we could punch and brawl our way to biological superiority.
    I’m no biologist, but I’m not convinced. I just don’t think that this study adequately deals with all the data.
    I’m not really talking here about the whole “evolution vs. creation” debate. To be honest, I think that argument’s pretty non-productive, as both sides tend to make it into something it isn’t.* All I mean is that the study seems to take one possible use of the human hand and extrapolate from that the purpose for which it came into being.
    Couldn’t you just as readily say that the human hand is made for stroking a child’s head as she cries?
    Couldn’t you just as readily say that the human hand is made for helping someone who’s sick take a sip of water?
    Couldn’t you just as readily say that the human hand is made for placing a coat on the back of someone who’s cold, or offering food to someone who’s hungry, or holding the hand of someone who’s dying? Isn’t there just as much data to suggest that the human hand is ideally suited for gently caressing a husband or wife, or comforting a discouraged friend, or greeting a brother or sister in Christ? Building a house for someone trying to make a new start? Fixing a car for a widow?
    Isn’t just as likely that the human hand evolved, or was created, to do the will of its Creator?
    Or have we forgotten, at this time of year of all times, that the Creator clearly showed us the purpose of a human hand?
    A hand is for reaching from a bed of rough straw to clench the finger of a mother.
    A hand is for touching a leper and passing on love and grace and healing.
    A hand is for beckoning a sinner down from the place where he’s hiding and watching from a distance.
    A hand is for healing the blind. A hand might even be for raising the dead.
    A hand is for blessing children.
    A hand is for saving a friend who’s drowning in fear and faithlessness.
    A hand is for opening the Scriptures.
    A hand is for sharing bread and fish with a crowd of thousands, or bread and wine with twelve. A hand is for washing feet.
    A hand is for prayerful supplication, alone in a dark garden.
    And a hand is for offering, when necessary, to wood and nail.
    But a hand is also for pushing aside a stone. A hand, with its wound still open, is for convincing the doubting.
    A hand is not meant for the shackles of sin and death. It isn’t intended to be scarred and calloused in service to evil.
    A human hand is meant for life. It’s meant for service to God.
    This time of year, lots of us talk about peace. We sing songs and hear sermons and read scriptures that tell of it. But peace is never created by mouth, by lip, by tongue. Peace is created by hands.
    Peace is cobbled together out of the ruins of God’s creation by hands that don’t mind getting dirty, or calloused, or contaminated. Peace is rescued from the pit of death and sin and violence by hands that don’t mind touching the sick and dying. Peace is liberated by hands that aren’t discouraged by the thickness of the chains that have to be broken. Peace is offered as a gift to the world by hands that don’t hoard, but that share God’s grace generously.
    The angels announced peace to the shepherds, but Jesus made peace a reality. If we learn anything from that, it’s that peace is brought to the world in every generation by hands that are eager to do God’s will in the world. And that don’t flinch from cold iron and rough wood.
    So as we celebrate “peace on earth” this week, let’s remember that we will always do so, until Jesus comes, with a touch of irony. Our world, after all, is filled with people for whom promises of peace sounds like a cruel joke. They have no one willing to get their hands dirty to bring about peace for them. Their hands have long ago lost the will to create peace. So as we celebrate the coming of Jesus by exchanging gifts and singing songs and eating with family and friends, may we also celebrate by doing what Jesus did - by working with the hands God has given us to make peace a reality. In his name. For his glory.
    May God bless the work of our hands.


*On the one hand, evidence for evolution doesn’t disprove “the truth of the Bible.” On the other, expecting the Bible to offer a scientific account of human origins shouldn’t be a test of faith or orthodoxy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

When Rachel Weeps

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)

    Twenty Connecticut families sent children to school this morning.
    In those twenty homes, there will be empty beds tonight. Funerals to plan. Children to bury. There are holiday gifts that will go unopened.
    As I write this, those families don’t even know why.
    As I write this, my son is home sick from his school. He’ll have homework to catch up on. Classwork to make up. I’m glad he’s home, though. That means I don’t have to watch slyly out the window for him to come up the sidewalk this afternoon. It means I won’t be tempted to call him this afternoon, when his school lets out and he heads for the train.
    It means I can tell him I love him an extra time or two today.
    Twenty families in Connecticut won’t have that chance again.
    I guess you can tell what a generation of adults fears most by the drills we put our kids through in school. My parents had air raid drills. I had fire and tornado drills. (Apparently, tornadoes can’t get to you if you sit in an interior hallway with your back against the wall and your hands over the back of your head.) Now that we’re the adults, we drill our kids on what to do if there’s a terrorist attack. Or an intruder in the school with a gun.
    Makes more sense today, doesn’t it?
    It’s tempting to talk about how the world has changed, how our towns used to be safe and kids could go to school without fear, and parents didn’t have to worry that they might not come home again. And maybe it has changed, to some degree. Then again, there have always been people to whom nothing, not even the lives of children, meant more than their own agendas.
    That’s the world Jesus was born into, in fact.
    It’s the part of the Christmas story we never retell, it seems. For good reason. How many homes did Herod’s thugs invade? How many families were destroyed? How many parents spent the rest of their lives grieving ? Christmas is about peace and goodwill. It’s about a silent night, not a night split with the cries of Rachel weeping for her lost children. But Jesus came into such a world as that. Such a world as this, where parents can’t take for granted that their children will be OK.  
    He came “to save his people from their sins,” the angel told Mary.  
    Today, I’m sort of wondering why he didn’t save those eighteen kids in Connecticut, or those nine staff and faculty who died with them, from the sins of their murderer.
    Somehow, I think if the parents of those children who died in Bethlehem could have known why their kids were murdered, they wouldn’t have been comforted a great deal. Messiah? Well, maybe. But I imagine they would have preferred that their kids survived. “Why couldn’t the angel have
warned us?” they might have asked, understandably. “Why did he alone get the chance to escape? And where was  this Savior while our kids were dying? Hiding in Egypt?”

    At least, I think those are some of the questions I might have been asking.
    Historically, the church has used this time of year, as Christmas approaches, as a time to ask questions very much like that. In our largely secular approach to “the Holidays” in our time, even believers have lost sight of it. For us, it’s a time to shop, and cook, and decorate, and go to parties. But all that can distract us from seeing the difference between the world we inhabit and the world Jesus came to show us and bring about. It distracts us from seeing the distance between the people we are and the people God intends for us to be.
    You can hear it in the old holiday music, though, if you listen:

     O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight


For lo! the days are hastening on,

By prophets seen of old,

When with the ever-circling years

Shall come the time foretold,

When the new heaven and earth shall own

The Prince of Peace, their King,

And the whole world send back the song

Which now the angels sing.

    Though Rachel wept, and Herod killed toddlers, the day came when God called his Son out of Egypt to come and save the world. And when he came, the worst the world could do - and even the power of death - couldn’t stand against  him.  And though today another generation of parents grieves lost children, the day will come when God will again call his Son to come and save the world. And when he comes on that day, “the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace, their King.” The hopes and fears of all the years will be met. The worst evil and sin in our world, and in ourselves, will be finally dealt with, and even death will be forced to give up those he’s taken.
    While that might not seem to be much comfort to parents grieving today, one day, it will be everything.
    May God comfort those who are mourning tonight, and may the hope and promise of Jesus be truly in their hearts.

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Other Fiscal Cliff

    “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things,  but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
    “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them,  so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
    “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses  and the Prophets;  let them listen to them.’
-Luke 16:25-29 (NIV)

“Fiscal Cliff.” Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? A disaster looming ahead, waiting for a whole country to plunge headlong over like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner.
    It’s supposed to sound ominous, of course. Politicians who choose to lead by fear lose their power unless there’s something for the people to be afraid of. Folks on both sides of the aisle use the specter of the fiscal cliff as a way to push for their pet projects and champion their agendas. Special interests, afraid of having their government funding cut, line up to court favor with their chosen leaders. But the cuts have to come from somewhere, and come they will.
    Whose concerns will be heard: Pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies depending on the government to protect their enormous profits, or senior citizens who have to decide which of their prescriptions they can afford to fill?
      Whose voice will be louder: Massive agribusinesses demanding government subsidies, or low-income families who depend on programs like SNAP to provide sufficient food for their families?
    Who will politicians listen to: oil companies, or students applying for financial aid for college? homeowners desperately in need of mortgage refinancing, or homeowners asking the government to retain tax credits for second and third vacation homes? veterans who come home with very real needs, or defense contractors pushing their projects through congress?
    By and large, you know the answers as well as I do.
    There’s a fiscal cliff looming, all right, but it’s not the one we think it is. It’s not even one we should necessarily expect politicians to even recognize. Back when politicians were answerable to prophets for their policies, the prophets’ consistent message was always that they should look after the most vulnerable - the widows, the orphans, the aliens. Justice and righteousness were to be the marks of those who ruled. And when the prophets looked forward to the ruler who would come to save their people, they saw him bringing justice and righteousness.
    It wasn’t that the needy never got overlooked in the day-to-day business of government. But it was always clear that when they were overlooked, God was not pleased. “By justice a king gives a country stability,” says the proverb. “But those who are greedy for bribes tear it down.”
     Now, our politicians are more answerable to profits than prophets.
    Those of us who are believers, who have some idea of what God expects from those who govern and some say in the way they govern, should speak with voices that match the voices of the prophets of old. We should say to our leaders, in no uncertain terms, that our votes for or against them will not be determined by party lines. They won’t be bought by tax cuts or tax credits for the wealthy or even the middle class. They will be determined by the important decisions those men and women make about how the marginalized and vulnerable in our society will be treated. We should say to them that we want to see some courage from them: courage to say no to those who have the clout to game the system, courage to say yes to those who have no clout and who have been failed by the system time and time again.
    Make no mistake; many politicians will promise nearly anything if it benefits them in some way. Don’t imagine that our well-being, financial or otherwise, depends on decisions they make in marble halls and back room committee meetings. But if we sell our souls in order to maintain or improve our standard of living by empowering leaders who ignore those who most need compassion and generosity, we are as responsible as they are.
     God forbid that we live more afraid of losing our standards of living than we are of him. God forbid that the widest radius of our concern extend no further than our own portfolios, bank accounts, and 401(k)’s. God forbid that we elect and support only the leaders who promise to give us, and ours, and the people like us, the prosperity that we’ve come to expect. God forbid that we fail to see the Lazaruses at our gates.
     The fiscal cliff followers of Jesus should be concerned about is the one that separates us from comfort and peace, but doesn’t prevent us from seeing those who we should have noticed and  comforted in this life being comforted in our stead in the next. It’s frightening how easy it can be, even for believers, to justify our lack of concern for the poor and marginalized. When our votes and our charitable giving seem more tied to our confidence in the economy than our concern for the biblical mandate for justice and righteousness, then I’m afraid we’re dancing right on the edge.
    But here’s the good news: that fiscal cliff isn’t one that we have to figure out with tax increases or spending cuts. Avoiding it doesn’t depend on politicians or accountants. Whether our leaders successfully avoid the economic mess they’re worried about or not, we know how to avoid the precipice the Lord was most concerned about. It has nothing to do with tax increases or spending cuts, balanced budgets or special interests. It has to do with opening our lives to people in need. It has to do with opening our hands and letting go of some of our stuff. It has to do with speaking up for people who have no voice themselves.
    The prophets say that righteousness is quantified by how a people treat the poorest and most vulnerable. Jesus said how we respond to “the least of these” is indicative of how we respond to him. I guess that’s because our treatment of the most poor and vulnerable among us most genuinely shows who we really are when we aren’t prevented by factors outside ourselves from taking what we want. History shows how quickly and easily human dignity can be compromised by economic and political powers. Protecting the most vulnerable is the only way to safeguard everyone.
    That’s the fiscal cliff that matters, and the one that will continue to matter long after the one in the news these days is just a minor footnote in history.