December 24, 2009

Welcome Christmas Child

"Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day"

"Fah who for-aze — Dah who dor-aze"

Of course, adorable as they are
and with all due affection for their creator-physician Seuss
we, here, are not the Whos down in Whoville

On the corner of Market and Maple this night,
perhaps our prayer is “Welcome Christmas, Christmas Child

Welcome child
While we stand
Heart to heart
And hand in hand

Christmas news is in our grasp
as long as we have hands to clasp

And what news, exactly, are we clasping?

Middle-aged Joe
Teenage Mary
commonplace Jews

who welcome parallel angels
that bring provocative signals
that hang providential shingles



a birth to be
an unexpected expectancy
a divine intrusion
an unwelcomed welcome

a baby messenger ... teacher ... deliverer
the well-known stranger
born for all, known by many, followed well by few
(surely not well by me)

Welcome, welcome, Christmas child

And so it is, then, we Who-Christians
all around this Who-world

when the weather turns chilly
and the days grow short in the month of 12
and the kids come home from expensive educations

we gather in our who-churches
and sing the oddest of who-songs
with the strangest of who-words

Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace.

Christmas words, at once
familiar as the snow
right as rain

a refrain as orienting this time of year
as your neighbor’s pumpkin roll

And yet, upon reflection, their meaning
is as obtuse to us as the person they praise

So, on the one hand:

Welcome, Familiar Friend

After all, do we not see ourselves in this Bethlehem baby:

squeals and fits of life
naked before God

He is we. We are he, Seuss might say.

And so we assume we know all about him. Our Who-savior.

Yet when a little later he opens his mouth
his holy babble is not recognizable to our who-ears,
invested as we can be in our who-world and its who-ways

He says:

Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you also should forgive.
Want to take hold of your life? Let it go, for God’s sake.
Want to live? Take up your cross and follow me to mine.

What words are these?
What Seusical nonsense does he rhyme?
From what planet is this babbling-baby-Lord?

It may as well be
Dah who dor-aze
Fah who for-aze

Word now breaking heaven’s silence
Long-awaited, familiar stranger
Welcome, holy other

He comes from a place, from a grace, we cannot comprehend
His origin is beyond our telling
His purpose, beyond our control

Yet upon his arrival,
he looks as though he could be your cousin’s child,
from Greensburg
(Nice people, in fact. As long you don’t talk football.)

Welcome, confounding mystery

How can your Deoxyribonucleic acid be both ours, and God’s?
How is it you speak our who-language,
yet you know first-hand the one who is?
How are you both my brother and my God?

Fragile finger sent to heal us

Tender brow prepared for thorn

Tiny heart whose blood will save us

Welcome, splendorous mystery
Welcome, holy child

Welcome to our church, our homes, our block
Welcome to our time, our space, our mess
Welcome to this corner, this service, these hearts

Take your place
amid packages, homecomings, and fantastic fudge
amid sledding and sautéing and secret sobbing
amid new who-scooters, new who-boyfriends, new who-disappointments

Gather with our great Aunt Ellen
Gather at our great big meals
Gather up our great hunger
for justice
for renewal
for life
for all

Welcome, welcome, Christmas child
to this season of deep gladness
to those who know departing sadness
to this era of ambivalent madness

Wrap our injured flesh around You

Breathe our air and walk our sod

Rob our sin and make us holy

Welcome, child of God.

Born to expire that in dying we might live
Sent from high to serve down low,
that those bent low might stand up tall
Word of God now disturbing heaven’s long quiet

Your Christmas grace is within our grasp
Give us hands, and hearts, to clasp

Welcome, holy child

Welcome to our world

(some words above from Welcome to our World by Chris Rice)

December 12, 2009

Advent prayer

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,

And usher in the morning;

O shepherds, shrink not with afright,

But hear the angel’s warning.

This Child, now weak in infancy,

Our confidence and joy shall be,

The power of Satan breaking,

Our peace eternal making.

Break forth, O beautiful heavenly light. Break forth around us and illuminate the world in which we live. Give us eyes to see what you see, O Lord: a world broken, rent, in a thousand cross-like ways; yet a world, being reconciled and redeemed by your love—with a million resurrection possibilities.

We come to worship this Advent morning with six days of living on our hearts: 144 hours of walking in the Way while walking in your world. 8600 minutes is long enough to gather a week’s worth of intercessions, our fervent prayers for those we know in need—for neighbors, strangers, lovers, friends, coworkers, roommates … even our enemies. We pray for them now …

Break forth, O beautiful heavenly light. Break forth into the lives of those who are today covered in the darkness of grief, mourning the death of someone they love. We pray for all we know who are shadowed in grief …

Break forth, O beautiful healing light. Break forth into places of struggle and illness. Shine on those in need of healing and hope, cause cells to grow and hearts to heal and spirits to quicken. Shine upon those we name now …

Break forth, O beautiful Christ-refracted light. Break forth into the lives and homes and places of all those who walk in darkness—the darkness of doubt, of despair, of disappointment and dread. From the smallest family to the largest nation, where there is bad blood, bring healing; hatred, peace; resentment, freedom; wreckage of relationships, healing and new life. Shine your light, O Christ, in the places we name now …

How we thank you O Lord that we need not shudder in fear.
How we thank you for the angelic message of purposeful hope.
How we thank you that Christ shares our weaknesses
and makes buoyant our confident joy.

December 11, 2009

Nothing Accursed

And the one who was seated on the throne said,
“See, I am making all things new.”
-- Revelation 21

R. and her husband spent forty plus years in the business of helping people find just the right place—a place for shelter, a place for family, a place for living. After all, as they say: “Location, location, location.” I bet a great many of us occupy our places of habitation because of their guidance and transaction.

This is what I want to say this morning: We who have loved someone and then lost someone … We who have felt the ache of imagining the world without a father, mother, or a loved-one in it ... We who grieve … We are, in our heart of hearts, looking for – longing for – just the right place—a place of refuge, a place of release from suffering, a place for life eternal. We are in the business of hoping. Our hearts cry out to God:

Location, location, O blessed new location.
O for a place, for a time,
where and when God’s creation
and God’s children within it
are no longer threatened
by advancing time,
by encroaching tumors,
by goodbyes, untimely.

It is to those who grieve, to those who ache for another place, to those who struggle with the brokenness of the world that the news of Revelation 21 comes, a sweeping vision a place soon to be unveiled. It is a large, living picture of time soon on its way. It is, if I may, the New Testament’s best property listing. It is a sacred prospectus. It is a glimpse of God’s future, the precise details of which are beyond telling, beyond technical description.

Contra the cable TV preachers, Revelation 21 is not interested in vacating the mystery of how it will be. It is simply interested in the news that it will be. Not because we can explain it, decode it … but because God has promised it.

A new heaven and earth. No more sun or moon: God is the light of all. No more temples or sanctuaries, as handsome and helpful as they are: God is all in all. No more tears: God has remade creation, from top to bottom. In fact, “nothing accursed will be found there.”

No disease,
no departures,
no despair.

R’s baptism is the mark that she is sealed in this vision. Her profession of faith was her own indication that she was confident in this living hope. And so we name today the good news that she is bound up in this sweeping promise; she is already glimpsing the leading edge of this stunning vision; she will, together with all of creation, together with all the saints of God—not by their virtue but by God’s grace—she will be raised up holy and whole. And until then, she is held safe in God’s good care until it fully and completely unfolds.

This bold New Testament faith does not cancel out our grief, or sequester it, or judge it … as if, one either believes the good news or one grieves. Christian hope in the vision of Revelation 21 honors our grief, gathers up each precious tear, affirms every ache of the heart. Because, every lament is a prayer for a new location, every tear is a bold request for a new time, every sign is a plea for a coming time when God will be all in all.

In honor of her roots, we borrow four questions and answers Episcopalian catechism, from The Book of Common Prayer:

Q. What is the Christian hope? 
A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world.

Q. What do we mean by the resurrection of the body? 
A. We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of the saints.

Q. What is the communion of saints? 
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Q. What, then, is our assurance as Christians? 
A. Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God.

December 1, 2009

Out on the (Holy) Periphery

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … -- Luke 2

Who doesn’t enjoy the Christmastime tale of the sheep-herders abiding in the fields, and who hasn’t dressed up a child in a bathrobe and towel for herding in a pageant full of cardboard sheep? The shepherds of Luke 2 are a holiday staple. Hearing their story again brings a sense that all is right-side-up with the world.
Yet God is turning the world upside down.

It must be so, if we are to believe Luke’s account that it is to shepherds, of all people, that the messengers of heaven make their explosive appearance. “God’s chosen fellow has come!” they sing out. Only, let us observe that this choral anthem is delivered, not from the choir loft of the downtown temple, or from the steps of the royal city hall, or on the stage of the popular amphitheater. The song rings out in the outskirts of town, out in the fields, on the periphery of the world’s typical attention. The first hearers of God’s gospel: third-trick sheep-tenders whose names we are never even told. Not preachers, not priests, not theologians. Shepherds. Sideliners.

It could be that one of the body’s finer attributes is the eye’s peripheral vision—the ability to notice the sidelines, what’s afoot off center. “Who’s that coming up behind me? Is that my turn there? Watch out … here comes a fast ball out of nowhere!” There is a lot happening on the margins of our existence, and, similarly, it is the account of Luke more than any other gospel that summons us to imagine God busily at work in the margins of the world.

Consider Luke’s cast of characters. Father Joe: a first-century Jewish everyman. Mother Mary: an otherwise unknown teenager from the lower ranks of society. She herself gets the joke inherent in God visiting her, of all people (Luke 1:48). Fisherman. Tax collectors. Hemorrhaging women and leprous men. In this tale, old women get pregnant (1:18) and even dependent children are welcomed in to the fellowship of those of follow God’s unlikely messiah (18:16). Luke presents us with a shepherd willing to risk the safety of the centered hoard to secure the protection of one stuck in the margins (15:4). This is God, out on the holy periphery.

So then, insists Luke, Christmas is a time for clearing our tangential vision. Rub your eyes and pay attention all-around, because if God is whimsical enough to dispatch a sky-splitting singing telegram to a band of third-shift animal wrestlers out on the edges of reality, then this God is just as likely to be up to something marvelous and life-altering out along the margins of your life, too.

Some stranger speaks truth. Some coincidence smells of providence. Some impossible dream will not go away. Some forgotten piece of your story jostles for attention. Some summons to serve keeps popping up in the oddest of places. Some hint of resurrection tickles your imagination. Each could be dismissed as the ordinary weirdness of the world; each could be embraced as the movement of God. Meanwhile, all the Bible knows how to do is to demand that you your seatbelts are fastened and your tray tables are locked, because one is never quite sure what improbable, peripheral means God might use to invade and heal the world, and your life in it (1 Corinthians 1:28).

So have the merriest of Christmases. He is born in Bethlehem.

Oh, and watch your flank.
We serve a sneaky God.
(Just ask the shepherds.)