December 29, 2008

I. W. T.

Made of steel, and
a comfort to many.
Storied. Hilarious.

Be warmed, after
the long winter of
your brave demise.

December 25, 2008

Our Mirror

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. - Hebrews 1:3

Mirrors are wonderful gifts: a simple piece of glass, with a silver backing, suitable for seeing a reflection. They reflect light from one place and shine it another. They allow you to see angles of perception otherwise unseen.

What an astonishing thing we Christians claim at Christmas: That the wailing, wrinkly, writhing baby in the well-attested manager ... the one sought by scruffy, smelly shepherds and mysterious sages from afar ... the one entrusted to an otherwise unknown little Palestinian family from across the tracks ... Our confession is that this one, in faith and in fact, is the “reflection of God’s glory.” We are bold to believe that he is our mirror.

So come to the manger; gather to the creche. Push your way to the front of the crowd, past herders and travelers, past angels and oxen, past father old and mother young. Push your way to the front and peer into the bed of straw. You’ll find there a living piece of glass, a little new life with a backing of silver.

And note the angles (not just the angels), because angles are everything with mirrors. His is 30, maybe 40 degrees, such that when you look down, expecting to see a burgeoning baby boy, you see instead the glory of the living God.
Your line of sight is miraculously redirected upward: from the lowliest of accommodations, to the splendorous wonder of God’s habitation; from a feeding trough turned crib to the exalted throne of God’s perfect judgement and more perfect mercy. You sight moves from a fledging baby, 20 minutes into the world, to the great eternal One, timeless and mighty--who was, who is, and is to come. I give to you Jesus of Nazerth -- God’s ironic and illuminating mirror for all to see.

You might ask, quite rightly: Have all these Christians who have come before us, who gave us Hebrews 1:3 and who have pointed to it ever since, do they mean to say that to see this baby is to see the real God, to see what one looks like in person is to how the other appears in eternity? Does the Divine skin favor the complexion of a 1st century Middle Eastern family?

No. God is Spirit, more real than even our fleshly reality. God is no more brown than God is white. If anything, all of our various skin tones are but mere shadows of God’s mysterious and illusive image.

Well then, do they mean to say that because we got a baby boy and not a baby girl, God is He as opposed to Thou?

Hardly. That God is “He” in our parlance is only a statement about our ridiculously limiting English pronouns. Gender is God’s gift to us, not our category forced upon God. Besides, that Jesus was a boy and not a girl is only proof that God is willing in God’s grace to condescend to the lower forms of creation in order to make known good news. “It’s a boy!” might just be another way of saying “God has to do what God has to do.”

No, look again into the mystery before us. Hear again the astonishing conviction of scripture.

Its not the skin or sex that is the mirror in the manger. It is the manner, the way, the words and deeds of deliverance of the one whose birth we remember this night that reflects back to us the real look of God. This curious little baby does his best reflecting in his living, in his dying, in his rising again.

Want to see what God looks like, what God is up to in the world, what is most true in God’s heart of hearts? Look over there, says the New Testament. Look at this long-promised messenger, look at his words and his ways: he gives eyes to the blind, legs to the lame, hearts to the heartless. Look and see the glory of God reflected among you.

Now look over there, on Friday. See the cross of Christ, as he hangs on your death nail and cries out your stricken grief. See God’s eternal word, dying before you, and see the glory of God reflecting among you. Now look again, one more time ... look to Sunday. See the empty tomb; see his astonishing new life. See the scars of your sins now no longer deathly. He is alive. Death and all its derivatives have not the final word. Look at his resurrected body, and see the glory of God reflected among us.

Teaching and healing; dying and rising. That’s what God looks like to the naked eye.

It is the mirrored mystery of our glad confession: that in Jesus of Nazareth -- particular, peculiar, perplexing Jesus of Nazareth, born this night -- that in his word and in his way we catch a living glimpse of God on the loose.

Your mirror is he.
Your angle on the mysteries of heaven.
Your silver-backed, light-reflcting, 30 degree up angle to God.

See him born this night.
See him for what he is.
See him, and believe.

December 24, 2008

A Prayer for Christmas Day

O Christ, born this night in sacred simplicity, conceive in us tomorrow a living, breathing, growing faith in you. Deliver us from holiday diversions and distractions, and in our homes and hearts bring forth in the morning gifts of awe and wonder and jubilation--that we might sing the praises of our God.

O Christ, giver of sight to the blind, open our eyes on the morrow, that we might see—not only the comfortable companions of our familiar lives—but also our neighbors in need. Remove from our lenses the cataracts of comfort and consumption, and give us eyes to see afresh the places and people and problems to whom you bid us go in lowly service.

O Christ, calmer of storms, of threatening winds and rains, speak tomorrow a word of peace—your quiet shalom—into any troubled homes and hearths. Where there is strife, speak a word of healing. Where there is pain, speak your calling to forgiveness. Where there is grief, speak words of hope. May the day be a balm for all who struggle in this life.

O Christ, present for all time in the Godhead, resident of heaven’s borough, break open our boredom and unstop our imaginations, that we might learn again to see the wonder and majesty of God’s glory—the livingness of our Lord made known in your life. May Christmas Day assault our spirit’s senses. Tune our hearts to sing your praise for all the ways you have blessed us with astonishing new life.

O Christ, lowly in your service to us yet Lord of all forever, we offer to you the Christmas Day now before us. Bless our homes with charity, bless our hearts with faith, and bless our congregation—all congregations!—with witness and work worthy of your kingdom and its goals.

This we pray for Christmas, in your good and lasting name. Amen.

December 23, 2008

Nothing Wagered, Nothing Gained

I find a get a little tense this time of year. I want to believe I’m simply being honest with myself. My wife tells me I’m just a Grinch. Could be. (I do know that if I hear Johnny Mathis sing “Sleigh Bells” one more time on my car radio I’m likely to commit a heinous crime.)

But it’s more than Muzak.

It’s these well-traveled “Christmas stories” in our Scriptures. They make me nervous. I find that Gospel readings are like small dogs: the smaller and cuter and more cuddly they appear, the more likely they are to nip you where it hurts. I worry that these gospel tales have grown so familiar to us that they no longer pop as they should.

For instance, we all love those wisemen from the East, with their Burger King crowns and boxes of bling, following the star on their well-known adventure. It’s comfy tale. But, my God! They follow God’s light right up to Herod’s doorstep, right into the throws of a murderous political machine that makes Illinois’ Governor whatever-his-name shenanigans look like kids’ play.

Is Matthew suggesting that following the light of Christ will inevitably bring us into conflict with the anxious powers of the world--when the boss suggest you cook the books, when the big kid suggests you all beat up on the little kid, when the neighborhood gossip group invites you to tear down the stranger. Is Matthew suggesting that God’s great light, while bringing warmth, also exposes darkness? “Be prepared,” say the wise men, “to grapple with all sorts of selfishness, sinfulness, and sanctimony.” What a narrative! And to this we say, “Look here, I just want to celebrate Christmas.”

But these are unsettling stories. Old Zechariah: He cannot imagine his geriatric wife giving birth to a prophet--or anyone, for that matter. So in response, God takes away his voice until John the Baptist is born. Lovely. Shepherds: minding their quiet business late into a third shift. Suddenly the sky is ripped open. Luke says, simply, “They were terrified.” You think?

And then there’s Mother Mary. Christmas would not be complete without hearing from good old Gabriel, with his soothing baritone voice, Canon in D playing lightly in the background, and 
a rose-colored gel softening the spotlight on Mary’s pristine face.

(Now you know why my wife calls me a Grinch.)

Yet my sarcasm is not about deriding Scripture, but about naming our propensity to domesticate it, to tame it, to turn salvation -- God’s dogged insistence that the world be set to right -- into a sentiment. We want to keep at bay this potent Holy Spirit that advances on Mary and turns her young life upside-down. We want a “holiday,” not a life-change, so we tend to plane off the rougher edges of Jesus’ birth until there is no more risk telling his story.

But this is a risky narrative, full of delicacy and danger: an unwed teenage mother; an intruding, insistent angel; an overcoming, overshadowing Holy Spirit.

Could there be in a sacred tale a finer line between disaster and triumph? Could there be a more dangerous announcement to young girl than an angel letting her in on the fact that you, Mary -- untutored, unknown, unwed, unsophisticated Mary -- you will be vessel for divine revelation. Could there be a more delicate venue for God’s activity than a young virgin’s womb? Consider it: The living God! Flying in low and under cover, sneaking into world under our radar, in the fuselage that is, of all things, a virginal uterus. (Even our English Bibles get in on the domestication. Note the NRSV: “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It sounds like they’re having tea.)

Astonishing gospel! Dangerous narrative. Unbelievable God.

And yet what I respect about the Bible is its dogged insistence on presenting the story. To my laments of risk and danger I hear the Bible saying back to me: “You know what, preacher? It is a remarkably hard tale to swallow. We know that better than you do, in fact. But nothing wagered, nothing gained. Risky? Absolutely. But also righteous. And revelatory. Her little womb, a window into God’s way with the world.”

Pull up a chair in the delivery room, the OB/GYN office that is Luke 2. Take a seat and see how God’s living word brings forth impossible new life. After all, could there be any more provocative an image for what God might be up to among us than the delicate picture of God’s divine Spirit -- that same breathing, brooding Spirit present at the creation of all things, hovering over the unformed waters of chaos and nothingness of Genesis 1 -- that same Holy Spirit brooding over the wilderness of an empty tomb. (Did I say tomb? I meant womb.) Christmas and Easter … they start to look a lot alike when you begin to get their New Testament meaning: God’s love brings forth unimaginable life.

So amid all that is before you this week, amid wrapping and running and baking and driving -- right on the thick of your life, be it blessed or beleaguered -- I invite you once again into this riskiest but most righteous of confessions: Consider the dangerous possibility that the same Holy Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation, the same Holy Spirit that brooded over Mary’s waters, is the same Holy Spirit of God broods over these moments when we gather in Jesus name, and the same Spirit that broods over your bed every morning -- unbidden, unsolicited, but always inviting farther and farther down this Jesus way, toward the Father.

This same Holy Spirit hovers over your life, inviting you to consider what impossible new thing God might do with the pregnant possibilities of new day: those fertile but not-yet-realized possibilities for fresh faith, new ministry, living witness.

No matter what dangerous road God calls you down, no matter what impossible dream God invites you to dream, no matter what risky, barren wilderness God invite you to cross: Remember, God’s love brings forth unimaginable life. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” says the angel.

Our dangerous response? “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”

December 22, 2008

The Same God

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, rag-wrapped laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said, "Yes,
Let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in this place."
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
And says, "Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in THIS place."

Leslie Leyland Fields

December 19, 2008

Matthew 20:34

What a practical gift it is to rediscover your own contingency in God's sprawling cosmos of necessity. What a take-home prize, to stumble again into the penultimate status of your knowing what's really up with reality. Like Atlas before us, we are prone to carry around too large a burden--the shouldered heavy ball of our presumed omniscience. But we don't know all that much, really. And this could be the gift, not the curse.

After all, perceptions come and go with the day's winds, like snow that blankets one hour then melts away the next. Without some hard work on the inside, we inevitably see what we need to see when we need to see it. The life-lenses we presume are large and smudge-free are actually, quite often, rather compact and cloudy--the kind of view of things you got as a kid when you turned your father's binoculars around and looked through the wrong end. Only, if you didn't know you had them wrong-ways to your face, you'd think the world was simply distant and bulging. Normal is only lamron spelled backward.*

Most days we don't know the whole truth of things. Stumbling onto this fact is only a lurching disappointment if in the first place you imagined it was your vocation to run the world. Believing that the "reflection of God's glory" (Hebrews 1:2) can open blind eyes is bound to be the hardest for those who already think they can see. Otherwise, our contingency in the face of God's necessity is a true gift, the ground of our glad assurance. Thank the Lord that the Lord is not depending on little old me for a firm and final rendering of the day's reality. Most days I'm lucky if I get my eyes opened at all. In my blindness, the light tends to bend to fit my brokenness.

So of all the things "being saved" might mean, surely it includes being saved from myself--the tempting tyranny of my own little truths. (God help the sinner who confuses his sure faith with God's inviolable grace.) If I see at all, it is because I have been seen. My assurance of a reality firmer than my own is not finally bound up in my knowing, but in the unforeseeable promise of my being known.

People say they want to see proof of God's existence. I'd rather prefer that God envision proof of my own. At least when the looking moves in that direction, there is a good chance that the data is really real.

With deep gladness we rejoice: It turns out God's vision is much better than our own.

*To turn a phrase from F.B.

December 13, 2008

Psalm 37:7

I love snow.

I love that it sparkles.

I love how it turns on and off.

I love how it descends in slow motion.

I love how it sounds, crunching under my boot.

I love that my daughter likens it to mashed potatoes.

I love how one can long for a season never really known before.

I love how revealing one’s snow-giddiness in conversation separates the sheep from the goats.

I love how the world sounds, or doesn’t, when the snow has fallen for a time and the lawn is covered in mass and no one has come by in a while; when it feels as though the sky has unfurled over every corner of the neighborhood some long-stored-away quilt. Every yard a cot, tucked down tight for inspection.


The world is padded in a way not so just an hour ago. Cotton. I cannot hear the neighbor kids. No howling mutts, no highway swoosh, no heat pump starts. And no news from across the seas.

A sabbath from their assumed cacophony.

I hear creation waiting stilly.

I love this sanctuary.



December 10, 2008

Have a Very Daring Christmas

With Christmas comes four sets of familiar New Testament characters - some shepherds, father, some sages, and a mother. I suspect we annually underestimate just how daring their stories invite us to become.

This season, dare to believe that your otherwise diminutive position in the world matters to God. A chief challenge of modern living is the daily overload of painful world news coupled with the reality that 99.9 percent of it is beyond our control. I am not the president-elect, the pope, or the prince. What can I (we) do about a sickly Sudanese child halfway around the world? Yet remember the witness of our Advent friends the shepherds, working third shift on a hillside full of sheep. In a world of Herod the Greats and other big names, they remain nameless throughout history; yet it is they, not he, for whom the heavens are opened and God’s angels deliver their wonderfully disruptive news. “What’s this?” ask the nervous pastors and elders, “God is supposed to work through the proper channels! We have an appointment in the temple come Saturday, right?” Yet there is their God, alive and well out on the dodgy end of town, conscripting nameless herders into the ministry of good-news-telling. Shepherds? It’s a joke. Dare to believe there is work for us all to do.

This season, dare to risk public disrepute for the sake of some worthy calling. How often do we sense a divine nod in this or that new direction, a slight Spirit-filled push toward a scruffy neighbor in need, or some growing sense of call to bold new action in the world. But who wants to appear the fool? Who wants to disrupt the social patterns that have worked so well for us for so long? So instead we lay low, dressed in the warm sweater of other’s esteem. Yet remember the witness of our brother Joseph, who nine months from December finds himself in a real pickle: a pregnant fiancee and high-minded neighbors. But in the middle of the night, a messenger gives him a provocative invitation to move through the disgrace, not around it. God asks him to trust that some larger effort of goodness and grace is afoot--a ministry that will, in the end, vindicate all the public mumbling. Neighbors and their opinions come and go; the love-summons of the gospel remains for us all.

This season, dare to imagine that there is treasure worth seeking beyond what can be procured on Black Friday, or Cyber Monday. Here we are, called to practice a spirit-filled ministry in a time when Big-Box greeters are trampled to death in the mad rush toward “everyday low prices.” How much is a life worth these days? Indeed, these are strange times for us Christians on this continent: On the one hand, we are the very people who most know how to celebrate that the material treasures of this world are God’s created-good-gifts. We know the Giver and thus we name the gifts, so we should be the last people on the block who are scrooge-ish about material matters. But on the other hand, you and I make our profession in a time of hyper-abundance. Christians around the world must hold to this faith under a tyranny of oppressive powers; we hold the faith under the tyranny of Costco, Ollie’s, and Fuel Perks. What’s real treasure when credit comes (came) cheap? Can one find one’s life at the bottom of a bargain bin? What does it a profit a people to secure gifts for everyone on your list, only to sequester your soul? Remember our wise travelers “from the east,” who for reasons no one will ever truly understand, set out on a journey for some treasure more substantial than what already fills their coffers. In the end, even these elites from the east seem willing--wanting!--to lay down serious coin at the feet of an otherwise lower-class child on whom such astounding promises are attached. This season, dare to believe that you will find your God-given life in the unlikeliest of places ... like a Bethlehem barn.

This season, dare to imagine that the barren places in your life are the seedbeds for God’s next act of newness. Families sometimes falter. Marriages grow cold. Hearts are held captive, rubber-banded to broken events decades in the past. Our lives are a curious concoction of grace and wilderness. Is it any wonder that some among us come to the end of their ropes, unable to imagine anything new under the sun? Yet remember our sister Mary, the Christ-mother, whose understandable metaphysical doubt at the news of her pregnancy is met with an angel’s assurance that “nothing is impossible with God.” What a risky narrative we steward: an unwed teenage mother conscripted to surrogate the divine. It’s a tale so provocative it irritates “family value” hawks and fierce feminists alike. I say, let the scandal of Mary’s life-filled-womb rock us from our religious slumbers; let it summon you to imagine what impossible new thing God might do with the lifeless, wilderness places of your life. Don’t get hung up on the biology of her virginity (as the church has done for centuries); think as the Bible thinks: Mary the Virgin is one more willing-but-unable servant in a long line of Biblical stories wherein God makes a way where there was none before. It cannot be; it was. There was no life; there was life. He was dead; he is risen. Dare to believe there can be a bright Easter morning on your twilight Christmas Eve.

Have a very daring Christmas.