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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Bethlehem

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler 
who will shepherd my people Israel.. 
-Micah 5:2, 4, quoted in Matthew 2:6 (NIV)


We know where to find the rich, the powerful, the movers and shakers, the VIPs, don’t we? The opinion leaders, the world shapers, they live and work in very specific places. 
     You find them in Washington, D.C. In London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Beijing. You find them moving in the rarefied air of world capitals, in impressive government office buildings and chambers. You find them making policy, writing bills, passing laws, making deals.
     You find them in Hollywood, churning out the movies and TV shows we’ll be watching talking about next year, determining by the designers they wear and styles they favor what the rest of us will wear. You find them lending their voices to causes and projects, influencing what the rest of us will care about. 
     Or you find them in corporate office suites and boardrooms, creating the products and services we’ll buy. You find them making deals and wooing investors and convincing stockholders. 
     You find them in the financial centers of the world, making transactions that trickle down to affect the interest rates we pay and receive, the value of our homes, the cost of college, the price of a gallon of gas. You find them at universities around the world, teaching the next generation, doing research that affects our health or our understanding of the world. You find them in advertising offices developing strategies that will influence what we buy. You find them in military headquarters, planning operations that can affect even the borders on our maps. 
     Two thousand years ago, if you wanted to find the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers, the VIPs, you’d have looked in the same kinds of places. You’d have gone to Rome. Alexandria. Antioch. Ephesus. Athens. A little farther down the list, you’d have found Caesarea, and probably a little farther still Jerusalem. In those places, you’d have found the same sorts of people doing the same sorts of things merit a place on the VIP lists of today.
     You know where you wouldn’t have gone? Bethlehem. It was a hole in the wall on the way to Jerusalem, known only for who had once lived there, a thousand years earlier. We don’t have cities in America that old, but imagine that we were still calling London the City of Harold I. That was Bethlehem — nothing of significance had happened there since David was alive. If you were looking for the rich, the powerful, the movers and shakers, the VIPs, you’d have gone somewhere else. Anywhere else.
     So it shouldn’t surprise us that no one was looking that night for the birth of a King.
     Oh, when the movers and shakers heard something about a king being born, they consulted together and decided that the prophecies indicated Bethlehem as a likely birthplace. City of David, after all. But that was after the fact. No one was looking for a King in Bethlehem that night. And, if they were, they would have looked first in the biggest, nicest house in town. It would have taken them a while, even in a town as small as Bethlehem, to find the young, tired couple bedded down with the animals out behind what was likely an average home overflowing with visitors. It would have taken them a while to find a baby wrapped in whatever rags they could find, asleep in a feed trough.
     That’s why everybody missed it. We don’t know where in Bethlehem Jesus was born, exactly. Oh, people say we know, but that was long after the fact. We don’t even know the day; December 25th was just a convenient date, though some Christians were celebrating Jesus’ birth on January 6th before that. 
     In short, we don’t know where or when he was born. That’s because there wasn’t anyone of importance around the mark the date and place. Why would they have been? The important people were elsewhere, doing their important things.
     But someone needed to pay attention. Someone needed to mark the event. If the important people had known, they would have had a festival. They would have had a choir in lavish costumes singing praises to the gods and to the newborn king. His subjects would have come to bow before him. His armies would have assembled before him. And so God marked the birth of his Son with a choir of his own, since the VIPs didn’t notice. The ranks of heaven’s armies assembled. But the only people in the whole world that noticed were a group of shepherds in the fields with their flocks.
     They were the first to tell the story of Jesus, the first to share the news that the King had been born. 
      “The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…But I am among you as one who serves,” Jesus once said. Our world says it’s preferable to be a mover and shaker, but Jesus was content to be among us as one who serves. And so we who follow him should aspire to the same kind of greatness — the greatness of service.    
     The VIPs of the world have never been very good at worshipping Jesus. Their solutions never include him. So may this Christmas be a time for us to give up once and for all our need to be VIPs. May we leave behind our compulsions to matter, to be important, to be known and admired, and instead go and bow before him. May we give up chasing dollars and things and security and happiness, and may we leave behind the illusion that the right politicians will solve our problems, and may we stop looking to  celebrities and corporations to tell us how to live the good life. 
     Go back to Bethlehem. Go back to the fields and hear with the shepherds the proclamation of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Go to that manger, pick your way past the animals, and kneel there before the King.

     That’s where the important things are happening. That’s where they’ve always happened. If only we could see.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Consolation

     Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout.  He was waiting for the consolation of Israel,  and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 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…
-Luke 2:25-28 (NIV)


Do you remember, like I do, laying awake Christmas Eve? You seemed to lie there forever, too excited to be still, to close your eyes, much less go to sleep. The poem says “not a creature was stirring,” but you were certainly stirring, probably not with visions of sugarplums but Barbie or G.I. Joe or a new bike  or “a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time” dancing in your head. Whatever you were waiting for, sleeping was out of the question. All you could do was lay there and wait. (For, like, 45 minutes, and then you were asleep. But it seemed like the whole night.)
     That’s what anticipation does to you, doesn’t it? It’s a wormhole that slows down time. 
     I bought movie tickets weeks ago. I don’t ever do that; with the same movie showing on 75 different screens, why bother? But the movie I bought tickets for isn’t just any movie — it’s Star Wars, Episode VII. I hoped it would happen, even though there didn’t seem much reason to think so. And then when George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, I started to think it might happen. And then they announced it, and then the trailers started appearing. And now it’s almost here. The week’s going to crawl by.
     One of the things that happens as you grow up is that you lose your sense of anticipation. Take Christmas, again, as an example. Now, if we lay awake before Christmas is because we’re making a list of all the things we still have to do. Wonder is replaced with dread. Joy gives way to fatigue. There are gifts to buy at malls full of people who are as stressed as we are. Decorations to put up, food to prepare, travel plans to make. At some point the problem with Christmas isn’t that it takes forever to get here. It’s that it doesn’t take long enough. 
     Simeon is one of the background characters of the Bible. He’s a part of the scenery. But when we meet him in the Gospel of Luke, we’re reminded that even the background characters in our lives have stories. Simeon’s story, says Luke, is that he’s been waiting. Maybe better, anticipating. He’s looking forward in hope for what Luke calls “the consolation of Israel.”
     That’s an Old Testament thing. It’s a promise for those who pursue righteousness and seek God that the day is coming when he will wipe away the tears of his people, take them in his arms, and comfort them. The memories of their hardships will fade and be replaced by joy, gladness, and thanksgiving. 
     Sometimes we lose sight of that hope. We think that if we don’t console ourselves, no one else will. And so we lose our sense of anticipation over what God will do while we rush around trying to make life work on our own terms. In the process, we can easily run roughshod over others and add to the pain and sorrow in the world around us. 
     Simeon didn’t forget. He had probably lived a long life, long enough to see a lot of ugliness and experience a lot of grief. But he hadn’t lost his anticipation for God’s promised consolation. He had laid awake at night thinking about it. He had bought into it long ago. And so when the Holy Spirit nudged him that day to go the temple, he went. Maybe he wandered around for a while, not knowing what he was supposed to be looking for. But then he saw this young couple with a baby, and he knew. 

“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”

     In some impossible way, this child would be God’s salvation. He would bring comfort and consolation to God’s people. Simeon didn’t have to be alive for it — he had seen it. He knew that God’s plans sometimes take more than one lifetime to come to completion. But he had seen it all the same, staring into that baby boy’s eyes and feeling his fist around his finger.
     Maybe it’s no surprise that Jesus called the Holy Spirit the Comforter, the Consoler. Jesus has sent him to us to stoke the fires of anticipation, to remind us that Simeon wasn’t wrong. Jesus is still the consolation of God’s people. He’s the one through whom millennia of anticipation are fulfilled. We’ve seen his salvation in Jesus, and we’ll see it in fullness when he comes again. And until then he lives with us and in us to remind us not to lose our hope.
     So please don’t. Don’t sleepwalk through life, blind and deaf and dead to the signs of hope that Jesus will awake in you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that consolation is something we can do for ourselves. Don’t lose your sense of joy and wonder in God’s salvation. And if you find yourself forgetting this Christmas, then go back to the beginning of the story, before the gifts and parties and what we’ve made of Christmas. Go back to a baby boy, and see in his face the consolation of God’s people. The end of death and grief and pain and hatred and violence. Your consolation. 

     It’s coming, because it’s already come.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Ashamed of Prayer?

       …[T]he prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective..
-James 5:15-16 (NIV)


In the aftermath of the murders this of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, social media have been alive with the usual debates over how to stop mass shootings going forward. Predictably, a lot of the back and forth has been centered on the issue of gun control. Well and good, except why does that debate only seem to take center stage when families are grieving such tragic losses? It seems like the victims get lost, don’t they, obscured by the ramblings of politicians from both sides of the aisle currying favor with their voters and constituents? 
     One might, I suppose, make the same accusations about ministers writing on blogs.
     This week, though, has seen the inclusion of  a new issue du jour: prayer-shaming.
     That’s what Atlantic contributor Emma Green called the trend, anyway. She was pointing to the reactions by some to the usual outpouring (again, largely by politicians) of “thoughts and prayers” messages. “Think and pray about passing sensible gun reforms,” says one. “Stop thinking. Stop praying. Start acting on gun violence prevention measures,” says another. One writer re-tweeted the “thoughts and prayers” messages of several prominent politicians, along with the amount of money they have taken from the NRA. The implication of responses like that is that prayer can be a hedge against the need to actually do anything. (And that “anything” is stricter gun control legislation.)
     The New York Daily News captured the feeling with their headline: GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS
     Though it might shock some who have no idea what Christians believe beyond what media tell them that we believe, Christians differ over gun control. For the purposes of my credibility in writing this, let me say that I don’t think there is any reason for the average person to own many of the weapons and high-capacity magazines that the San Bernardino shooters apparently had in their possession. I think that’s more common sense than liberalism, by the way. So what I’m about to say has nothing to do with whether or not I think tighter restrictions on gun ownership is a good idea — I think it is. 
     It has everything to do with the fact that I think prayer is a good idea.
     Those of us who are believers can and should pray for the families of the victims, that God will comfort them, and that they will find healing and hope in the promises of the gospel.
     We can pray for justice. We can pray that people who believe that their hurt and anger is justification for murderous intent will be found and stopped before their intentions can be realized.
     We can pray for forgiveness, asking ourselves if we may have had any part in creating a society where mass murder is so easy. We can pray for forgiveness when we stereotype entire cultures and races based on the actions of a few.
     Maybe most challenging: we can pray for our enemies, as Jesus commands us and models for us. We can pray for the repentance of those who persecute us, their conversion, their salvation. We can pray for the healing of their broken minds and hearts that have led them to such a terrible place. We can even pray for their forgiveness, secure in the knowledge that God’s justice will be done, and that vengeance and retribution belong to him.
     The foundation of our faith, after all, is that God acts, that he is at work in the world, and that sometimes he acts in response to the prayers of people of faith. He doesn’t always. There’s no rule that says he must. We don’t control him or manipulate him with our prayers, and sometimes for his own reasons he doesn’t answer the prayers of the community of faith as we’d like him to. But we don’t stop praying, because to stop praying is to give in to the conceit that the only way to change anything is through legislation or power or aggression or wealth. People of faith believe that it’s foolish to trust in human resources to the exclusion of God. That’s why we pray.
     Not to avoid actually doing anything. 
     That’s because when people of faith pray, it changes our outlook on the world. There will always, of course, be those in our world who wear faith like a costume. Jesus called them out for what they were doing: play-acting. They haven’t disappeared from our world, and it’s probably true that some of them have successful political careers going. But when believers pray, it sharpens our concern for the world around us. It doesn’t dull it. Think of Mother Teresa in Calcutta: she prayed for the poor, but she didn’t stop there. Her prayer led to her being among them. When the community of faith prays about the grief and violence in our world, it raises our eyes toward the horizon and leads us out into our world to be the hands through which the Lord does his work. 
     So, begging the pardon of those who doubt its efficacy, or who have political points of their own to score, when tragedies like the one in San Bernardino occur, I’ll pray. I’ll pray for comfort for the victims, and that the perpetrators will be stopped, and that further incidents will be prevented. The Holy Spirit helping me, I’ll even pray for the repentance and forgiveness of those who do such things. I’ll pray because God can do so much more than I can, and because he knows what do to when I don’t.
     I’ll pray for wisdom and guidance to see what has to be done, and strength to do it.

     I’m not going to be ashamed of that.

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