The Week of the Two Babies

Babies

We’ve just come through the week of the two babies.  Two Sundays ago it was all about the baby Jesus.   Last Sunday it was another baby who demanded our attention — “Baby New Year.” A baby in a top hat, sash, and a diaper has been the symbol of New Year’s Day since the dawn of the 20th century when the Saturday Evening Post began putting a picture of a little baby on the cover of their year-end issues. The symbolism is clear.  The New Year arrives like a little baby who will age through the days of the coming year and after 12 months be old and withered in the end, like Father Time.

Carl Dennis, one of my favorite poets, saw these two babies – Jesus and the Baby New Year – with their respective celebrations just one week apart on the calendar as competitors of sorts.

More jubilant by far than many Christians
On the birthday of Jesus, [he wrote] the many pagans
Crowding into the square this New Year’s Eve,
Though by now they must realize that the baby
Whose birth they’re about to witness
Is doomed to grow old and die in a year,
Just as the last one did, and the one before,
Without a crumb of hope in a second coming.

I take a different view. Rather than competition for Christ, I find that Baby New Year with his message of growth and change is actually the perfect counterpoint to our tendency as Christians to linger too long at the manger.

We love Christmas. It pulls at our hearts. Christ the baby can be cuddled and cooed. We want to hold Him in our arms as he sleeps, and this is precisely the reason why we need Baby New Year to come along just a week after our visit to the Christmas crib with his urgent cry of “tempus fugit” – “time flies.” Halford Luccock, a Methodist minister who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School for a quarter of a century, warned about how our Christmas celebrations can actually become something of a liability to our Christianity. He said –

“[We can] become so entranced with the beautiful story of a baby in a manger that [we] miss the chief point of the story, and hence do not feel the compulsion which it lays on life. We can become so charmed with the story of a baby that we grow sentimental about it; it does not ask that we do anything about it; it does not demand any vital change in our way of thinking and living.”

And so Professor Luccock preached a famous Christmas sermon about how the baby Jesus did not remain a baby for very long. As significant as Christmas is, he insisted, it is far from the end of the story, and it is certainly not the bulk of the story. Christmas is just the story’s beginning. The baby Jesus grew up, and in his maturity we see a way of living that calls for a change in our own.  He asked –

“Is our Christmas only a story about a baby, or is it more, a deathless story about a person into whom the baby grew, who can redeem the world from its sins, and who calls us into partnership with his great and mighty purposes?”

You see, the baby grew up, and so must we. When Luke tells us that – “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (2:52)he was telling us that Jesus was a human being just like us who grew up just as we do.  And spiritually, because Jesus is the “new Adam,” the one who shows us the right way to live, the way God always intended us to live, I think that we can take the four categories of Jesus’ maturation as a human being that this verse describes – the intellectual, the physical, the spiritual, and the social – and use them as a way to plot and then keep track of our own maturation as human beings.

growthMy grandmother kept a record of my growth as a kid from year to year by making marks on a wall in her pantry right next to the marks of her other four grandchildren. And spiritually this is what Luke 2:52 does for us.  It tell us how Jesus grew up as a human being, and in doing this, it tells us about the different ways that we are to grow up as human beings as well.  We are in the season of New Year’s resolutions right now.  Many of us are considering the ways that we want to do better and to be better next year than we were last year.  I believe that this instinct is hardwired into us as human beings. We are built to grow, and according to Luke 2:52 the channels of our growth are going to be –

  • Intellectual because “Jesus steadily increased in wisdom.” The New Testament says that being a Christian is a matter of the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “What difference is Jesus Christ making in my thinking?”
  • Physical because “Jesus steadily increased in stature.” The New Testament calls our bodies “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:19), and then it commands us to “glorify God in our bodies” (I Corinthians 6:20), so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How does my physical life reflect my spiritual commitments and values?”
  • Spiritual because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with God.”  Every image that the New Testament uses to describe the spiritual life is an image of growth – a seed planted, sprouting and growing to the harvest, a building going up from a foundation, brick by brick to the roof, a footrace from the starting blocks, through the course to the finish line, a person growing from birth through childhood to adulthood, so the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “Where am I growing right now in my relationship with God?
  • Social because “Jesus steadily increased in favor with people.” The New Testament is very clear that we can’t love a God we don’t see if we aren’t loving the people around us that we do see (I John 4:20). So, the growth question for us to be asking ourselves is: “How am I getting along with others these days?”

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For most of my life I have prayed the same Order for Morning Prayer. In part, it says –

 O merciful God, confirm and strengthen us; that, as we grow in age, we may grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

I prayed these words when I was 12 years old. I prayed these words when I was 32 years old. I prayed these words when I was 52 years old. And I expect to still be praying these words when I am 72 years old. To live is to grow.  To live is to change.  This is not just a Christian truth, this is a human truth.  What makes it “Christian” is the direction that our growth as human beings takes.  As a Christian, I want to grow in grace as I grow in age, and what this aspiration means is that I know that I’m not finished yet.  I’m still very much a work in progress.  I’m still figuring out how Jesus Christ affects the way that I think, and how He determines what I do with my body, and how He makes it possible for me to relate to God, and how He informs the way that I treat you.  I was working on this when I was 12.  I was working on this when I was 32. I was working on this when I was 52.  And I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.  I expect to still be working on this when I am 72.

I find that this week of the two babies is my annual invitation to grow up in every way into Christ – intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially – and my timely reminder that I’m not finished yet. We’ve all still got some growing to do.  DBS +

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Christmas Movies and the Gospel

movies

This Christmas at my house we watched “Elf,” “Christmas Vacation,” “The Santa Clause,” “Christmas with the Kranks,” part of “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story,” and the “Miracle on 34th Street.” Movies are some of our culture’s most familiar texts for interpreting the meaning of this season. And I predict that they will only grow in importance in the future as fewer and fewer people go to church and publicly identify themselves as Christians.

buddySomething Christmas movies buffs like to discuss are their favorite characters. Online you’ll find lists and lists of people’s favorite characters in Christmas movies – Buddy from “Elf,” Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Clark Griswold or Cousin Eddie from “Christmas Vacation,” or any one of the characters from “A Christmas Carol” — Jacob Marley… Tiny Tim… Ebenezer Scrooge.  The character from a Christmas movie that I personally find most spiritually intriguing is “old man Marley” from “Home Alone.” Old man Marley is the across-the-street neighbor of Kevin McCallister, the kid, who through a series of blunders, gets left behind when the rest of his family flies to France for the holidays. We are introduced to old man Marley in “Home Alone” when Kevin sees him shoveling the snow on his sidewalk.  Kevin’s older brother, Buzz, has convinced him that old man Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer,” a man who had infamously murdered his family with a snow shovel, and so every time Kevin bumps into old man Marley early in the movie, he yelps, turns, and runs away.

HomeAloneThe best scene in the movie, in my opinion, is when, alone and afraid, Kevin slips into a dark church where a children’s’ choir is rehearsing for Christians Eve and old man Marley, who is also there, alone and afraid in the dark, slips into the pew beside Kevin. Their conversation eventually gets around to their families, and old man Marley tells Kevin that he’s there listening to that children’s choir rehearse because it was the only way that he could hear his granddaughter sing.  You see, old man Marley hadn’t murdered his family, they were estranged, they hadn’t talked to each other for years.  Old man Marley lived his life in the pain of this isolation, and poignantly he told Kevin, “You can say hello when you see me. You don’t have to be afraid.  There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”  These are the words of someone who’s been pushed away and who just wants to belong somewhere, to somebody.  There’s Gospel in these words.  Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus Christ came to specifically bring people who felt pushed away back into the circle of God’s care and concern. “He is our peace… He broke down the barrier of the dividing wall… He came and preached peace to those who were far away” (2:13; 17).

shadowsIn Luke’s familiar version of the Christmas story, the shepherds are old man Marley. They were the ostracized ones, the people who were pushed away and lived in the shadows. Shepherding was hard and dirty work. Living with their flocks in the open fields, shepherds stank of sheep.  Nobody wanted to be around them, and not just because of their poor hygiene. Daily contact with blood, manure, and dead animals rendered shepherds unclean spiritually. And so they were excluded from the community of faith, and from the ceremonies in the Temple.  They didn’t belong.  They weren’t fit to be with God, and they weren’t fit to be with other people. They were the “far off” ones, and then on the night when Christ was born, Luke tells us that they were the very first people to be told of it and to be invited to come and see it.  This is not an insignificant detail of the story. The way that Luke tells us his story of Jesus, God makes His way in Christ to all of those who have been pushed away – the poor, the sick, the different, the unclean, the needy – and He invites them all back into the embrace of His love.  And here’s a secret that we all live with, every single one of us — in some way we’re all old man Marley.  In some way, we’re all the shepherds.  In some way, we’ve all been pushed away.  In some way, not one of us really feels like we quite belong.

hollowhillsIn her book, The Hollow Hills, the novelist Mary Stewart told the story of a young man who had been raised in one of the great households of Northern England. But deep inside, he knew that he didn’t belong there.  He’d been told the story for as long as he could remember about how he had been left in a basket at the gate of the castle as a baby.  He was unknown and unwanted — illegitimate, an embarrassment, an object or shame and scorn. He belonged to no one; no one belonged to him. He knew all too well the pain and fear of being pushed away. And then one day, unexpectedly, he was brought to the court of the king.  And as he stepped into that royal hall, the king stepped down from his throne, and gathered that boy up into his arms.  With tears in his eyes, the king explained that he was his son, his first-born, the heir of the throne, the next in line to become the king of the realm.  The king explained how he’d had to send him away at birth to shield him from the plot of an enemy who sought to destroy him, but that now the time had come to finally restore him to his rightful place, and this story is ours.

Somewhere deep inside we all feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for. There are painful ways that we have all been pushed away. We’re all familiar, in our own way, with the pain of not fitting in, and with the fear of never belonging to anyone, anywhere.  And then, in that darkness we’re told about a little baby born in Bethlehem to be our Savior, and we’re invited to come and see Him for ourselves.  And it’s there, kneeling at the manger that we discover that we are in fact wanted, that we are in fact loved, that we are in fact accepted, that we do in fact belong.  In Christ the “far off” are brought near (Ephesians 2:13-17), and that’s me… that’s you… that’s us… Merry Christmas!  DBS +

babyjesus

 

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The Hopes and Fears of all the Years

blue

Genesis chapter 35 is where Bethlehem gets mentioned in the Bible for the first time. Ordinarily, when we hear about Bethlehem we hear about its connection with David.

Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. (Luke 2:4)

This is an important plank in the argument that the New Testament builds about Jesus being the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah promised throughout the Old Testament. Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem because He was the son of David (Matthew 1:1), and Bethlehem was David’s hometown.  But long before Bethlehem got associated with David in the story of salvation that the Bible tells, Bethlehem had an association with Rachel, the second wife, but first love of the Patriarch Jacob, and one of David’s great ancestors.

holylandOn my first trip to the Holy Land some thirty years ago, long before the partition and the scar of the wall that now separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem had been built, we stopped at a little domed shrine on the outskirts of Bethlehem on our way to see the Church of the Holy Nativity. It was Rachel’s Tomb, the traditional site of her burial, and it was crowded with people, especially women, who had come there to sit and ponder, weep and to pray.  The way Genesis 35 tells the story, Rachel died in childbirth on the road just outside of Bethlehem as Jacob and his household were making their way to Hebron, back to the home of his fathers.  Jacob buried Rachel right there on that lonely road outside of Bethlehem and erected a pillar over her grave as a memorial, and Jewish tradition says that from that moment on her grave became holy ground, a special place of prayer, especially for people who were discouraged, or distressed, or despairing.

Jewish tradition says that when Joseph got sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, as the caravan that was heading to Egypt passed by Bethlehem, that Joseph escaped and ran to his mother’s grave where he cried out in fear and was given hope in the promise that the Lord would always be with him no matter what. “Consoled and strengthened,” that tradition says that “Joseph voluntarily returned to the caravan” with “the courage he needed to face the future.”  Later Jewish tradition says that when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried off the Jews into their 70 years of exile after the destruction of the Temple, the dispirited captives passed by Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, and when they saw it, that their fears and sadness were immediately met by its witness to God’s faithfulness to His promises. In fact, Jewish tradition says that Rachel was deliberately buried by Jacob on the road outside of Bethlehem and not in Bethlehem itself so that later on when God’s people were being carried off into captivity that they would pass by it and remember the covenant that God made and kept with His people. [Dovid Rossoff, “Tomb of our Matriarch Rachel.” http://www.jewishmag.com].

motherIt’s appropriate that the memory of Rachel would elicit this kind of response. You see, Rachel is remembered and celebrated in the Jewish tradition as one of the Bible’s great mothers, and significantly, one of the words that gets translated “mercy” in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word for “womb.” In the Bible the mercy of God gets compared to the tender and tenacious love of a mother that will not let her children go. And so in the book of the prophet Isaiah, God asks “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” And then God says – “Even should a human mother forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).  Think of the finest, strongest love of a mother that you have ever seen, and then understand that God loves you even more than that!  Knowing that they were loved by God with a mother’s love like this, it was only natural that the tomb of one of Israel’s most revered mothers would become an important place for our spiritual parents, the Jews, to pray, especially when they were in trouble and needed some reassurance that God was still there for them, and that He still cared about them.  For generations, Jews have made pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem when they got to the end of their ropes, when they have felt alone and afraid in the universe, when the have been unsure of where God is or what God is doing, uncertain even if God was there, or if He cared. They went to Bethlehem looking for some tangible connection with the God of history and promise, and they found it in the story of their mother Rachel and in their remembrance of God’s “womb” love for her children.

nativityThe Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” contains what just might be my favorite line from a Christmas carol – “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I am intrigued by this idea of Bethlehem being the place where our hopes and fears as human beings meet. I find this to be a really meaningful way to think and talk about the meaning of Christmas. We come to Bethlehem each year as Christians for the very same reason that our spiritual parents, the Jews, go to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem — to get some proof that we have not been forsaken or forgotten. And it’s in the story of another mother that gets told from a manger in Bethlehem in the middle of a dark night that we get our assurance that we are not alone in our dark nights or abandoned to our fears.  As the Swiss Theologian Emil Brunner (1889 – 1966) wrote in his book “Our Faith” in the chapter on “Prayer” –

sinisterAs children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness – and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the somber blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am. Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.” It is a tremendous moment when a man hears this voice and knows he is safe. God is at hand!

Merry Christmas!

DBS +

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The Gospel in Christmas Cards

I remember the great care that my parents took every year with their Christmas cards. Early in the fall there was always a trip, and sometimes more than one, to the stationary store where together they poured over those big sample notebooks for hours looking for just the right Christmas card.  Mom and dad certainly had their standards.  It had to be traditional and not contemporary, religious and not secular, show Jesus and not Santa, and be about Bethlehem’s manger and not about Christmas trees, or reindeers, or snowy forests.  I learned my appreciation of Christmas cards from them, in fact, through the years I’ve become a kind of Christmas card connoisseur. While I appreciate every Christmas card that I’ve ever received, and honor the spirit of friendship and affection that they signal, purely on the level of image, symbol and art, I have my favorites.

card

Years ago Mary Lynn and I received a Christmas card that was a print of Pieter Bruegel’s painting “The Census at Bethlehem.” It shows a typical 16th century Flemish village on a cold winter’s day.  There’s nothing distinctively “religious” or “Christmas-y” about it, except for a “wreath” over an open window where a crowd has gathered and seems to be conducting some kind of business with the official looking people inside the building. In the middle of the picture there’s a man with a basket of tools on his arm leading a donkey with a pregnant woman sitting on it toward the crowd at that open window, and only gradually does it dawn on you that this is Bethlehem and that is Joseph and Mary!  Mary Lynn and I liked this Christmas card so much that we later bought a print of the painting, had it framed and it now hangs in our home.

egypt

Another favorite Christmas card of mine is one that shows Mary cradling her infant son against the cold of a winter’s night. Now that’s a familiar enough Christmas card image, isn’t it?  What makes this one so unique is where Mary and her baby happen to be.  You see, on this card she sits in the lap of the Sphinx in Egypt cradling the Christ, reminding us of the flight of the Holy family from Herod’s brutality.  It’s a powerful image, one made even more powerful today as a reminder that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were political refugees who had to flee the violence of a Middle Eastern tyrant and who found a home in a different culture where they were welcomed.

baby jesusI think my favorite Christmas card image is the one that I have of the baby Jesus reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a lamb with both of His hands. In my mind and heart, this is the perfect picture of what Christmas means. Now, technically, the Bible says nothing about there being any animals at the manger in Bethlehem.  Oh sure, we have them prominently positioned in our crèche scenes on the mantle at home, and they regularly show up in the Christmas carols that we sing in church.  But technically, there are no references to animals of any sort in the Bible’s story of the first Christmas apart from Luke’s note that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night (2:8).  But that wasn’t in Bethlehem at the manger.  No, that was in the fields outside of town.  The Bible actually says nothing about animals being present at the manger. Nevertheless, it seems perfectly logical to me to conclude that animals were there.

angels

In fact, when you go to Bethlehem and visit the church at the shepherd’s fields on its walls you will see a series of three wonderful frescoes that tell the story of the first Christmas, and prominent in them is another animal, a dog. In the first panel where the angels are making their announcement of the birth of Christ that dog cowers in fear behind a rock. In the second panel where the shepherds are shown going to Bethlehem see this thing that happened, that same dog runs ahead, leading the procession.  And in the third panel, that dog reverently sits at the side of the manger adding his devotion to that of his masters for Him who was born to be the Savior of all creation.  And as whimsical and attractive as all of this is, it is nevertheless a fanciful addition to the story.

We can only talk about sheep at the manger with any degree of Biblical certainty. And the symbolic significance of this for the Gospel comes later in the New Testament’s story of Jesus Christ when John the Baptist identified Him as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29; 36).  Gary Burge, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, says that he once asked a mature Christian why Jesus is called “the Lamb of God.” The answer given was this: “Because Jesus is so gentle and nice.” But this is the wrong answer.  The right answer is that Jesus was called the Lamb of God because in the world of the Bible lambs were the animals of choice for sacrifice.  We’ve never seen an animal sacrifice, and would probably be horrified if we did.  And the problem with this is that sacrifice was an enormously important part of the Biblical world, and if we can’t get our heads wrapped around what sacrifice meant in the Biblical world, then we will never understand what John the Baptist and the rest of the New Testament means when it tells us that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God.

lambIn ancient Israel sheep drove the economy. Their wool kept people clothed and warm.  Their meat kept people fed.  And so, when it was time to show God just how much He meant to someone, or just how desperate a person really was for God’s help, then something of real value to that person would be offered in sacrifice.  And nothing was of greater value to the people of ancient Israel than were their sheep, especially an unblemished male lamb.  That was your money maker.  His reproductive capabilities was the key to one’s prosperity, and so when offered up in sacrifice, that lamb became a powerful outward and visible expression of the intensity of the inward and invisible intentions of a person’s heart.

In the ancient ritual of sacrifice no gesture was more important than the laying on of hands. “You are to lay your hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on your behalf to make atonement for you,” is what the Law prescribed (Leviticus 1:4).  This point of contact, this physical connection between the animal being sacrificed and the person who was offering it as an expression of what was in his heart, this is what made this whole ritual of sacrifice personal.  And in that picture on my favorite Christmas card of the Son of God reaching up from His manger to touch the head of a shepherd’s lamb what the artist was symbolically telling us that just like the lamb that He touched, Jesus Christ came to be our Savior through an act of sacrifice.

adoration

Now, the Christmas Card that I really want to receive is the one with Benedetto Bonfigli’s (1420 – 1496) painting – “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross” (The National Gallery, London) – on it. This painting expresses my Christmas faith as powerfully and concisely as any image I have ever come across. The way that it surprisingly brings together Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the manger and the cross, the Magi’s Messianic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with Messiah’s self-offering on the cross reminds me of Dag Hammarskjold’s famous observation in Markings (1964) that – “the Manger is situated on Golgotha, and the Cross has already been raised in Bethlehem.”  Rodney Clapp argued that the best way to keep Christ in Christmas was by always keeping it clear that Easter and not Christmas is the central Christian holiday. He said that when Christians are known “for our Easter, then we will have our Christmas back.” And that’s why I love this image.  That baby who sits on Mary’s lap is the Savior who will die on Calvary’s cross (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:11), and when this is clear, so is the Gospel. DBS +

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“More than watchmen for the morning…”

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 Between graduating from Christian college in May of 1975 and starting seminary in the fall of 1976, I got married and worked as a youth minister at our church in Pocatello, Idaho.   Now, in Idaho they think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t hunt and fish, backpack and camp, snowmobile and ski.  And so part of my job description at the church in Pocatello was to serve as the assistant Scout Master for the church’s troop.  That’s what I was doing at 7800 feet in the Grand Tetons camped next to Hechtman Lake in the shadow of Mt. Berry.

I was with my Boy Scout troop one day out on a scheduled weeklong trek through the backcountry. It had taken the better part of that first day just to get from the trail head up to Hechtman Lake, and on the second day we were planning to go up and over the Mt. Berry pass into the high Alpine Meadows beyond it. We pitched camp, caught our dinner – dozens and dozens of small Dolly Varden trout that went straight from the frigid lake into our frying pans and then into our bellies, and then we sat around the camp fire telling stories and talking about how hard the next day’s climb was going to be.  A few hours after dark everybody was fast asleep in their tents.

The storm came up suddenly and violently as they do high in the mountains. There was a flash of lightening followed almost instantly by a clap of thunder and then it began to pour.  Too late did we realize that we had pitched out tents in a natural runoff for the rain from the granite peaks above us to the lake below us.  And thus began the longest and most desperate night of my life.

I was awakened by the screams of some of my boys being washed into the lake in their tents with all of their stuff. There was a mad scramble to get the boys untangled from their tents and out of the water.  And then once everybody was accounted for, the next critical task was to get out of the rain and to save our campfire for some warmth.  We quickly rigged a canopy over it and slowly fed it firewood that was just barely dry enough to burn.  We unzipped the sleeping bags that we still had to make blankets that we draped over little clusters of boys who looked like drowned rats and then we huddled around the fire against the dark, and the cold, and the rain, impatiently waiting for the sun to rise.

Psalm 130:5-6 says –

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

 My terrible night on that mountain with those boys helps me appreciate what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote these words. The trouble he was in that prompted him to write this familiar prayer is unspecified in the text. Lots of interpreters say that they appreciate this ambiguity because it allows each reader to fill in the blank with his or her own particular crisis.  Our “depths” are different, and this cry from “out of the depths” is vague enough to be able to take them all in.  This is a prayer that anybody can pray no matter what it is that is threatening to undo them.

What drives the spirituality of this Psalm is the experience of waiting. Simone Weil, one of the great Christian mystics of the 20th century, said that the experience of “waiting patiently with expectation” is the “essence” of the spiritual life in the Bible, and I think that’s right.  The Bible defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), and that means that faithful people are going to have to get comfortable with waiting because it concerns things that are “hoped for,” things that are “not yet seen.”

The God of the Bible hears our prayers and acts on our cries for help, to be sure, but always on His terms and in His time. And so, in this Psalm, we who believe get compared with “watchmen for the morning” who wait for the rising of the sun.  That’s literally what I did with my Boy Scouts high up on that mountain in Wyoming back in 1976.   We watched and we waited for the rising of the morning sun.  We understood that with the coming of its light and warmth that everything would get better for us, and this is why the Bible frequently uses the image of dawn as a way of talking about salvation.

The Christmas Canticle that Mark preached on last Sunday morning, the “Benedictus” (Luke 67-70), is the hymn of praise that Zechariah sang to God on the day when his son, the baby who would grow up to be John the Baptist, was born.   This is a song that gets sung in many parts of the church every single day as part of Morning Prayer, at the beginning of the day, just as the sun is rising.   From personal experience I can tell you that there’s some real power in saying – “Because of our God’s tender mercy the dawn will break upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” – as the first streaks of light are crossing a dark night sky.  The sunrise – the “day spring” – is a good picture of the true meaning of Christmas.  Just as the first streaks of light on the far horizon signal the start of a new day, so the humble birth of Christ in Bethlehem’s stable signaled the fulfillment of a promise, the arrival of the long awaited Messiah, the coming of God’s Savior to begin the work of repairing all of creation.  But it takes faith to see, and it takes time to unfold.

I know that we are living in a time of real “depths” – personal, social, political, and cosmic.  And I understand the very real feelings that many of us have that God has inexplicably absented Himself from the very real struggle in which we find ourselves these days. “Where is God?” is our cry in the face of terrorism, and natural catastrophe, and glaring injustice, and inconceivable violence, and abusive power, and blatant greed.  Why, there’s even a theological category for this feeling, it’s called Deus Absconditus,” and it refers to the way that God so often appears hidden in our experience and world. Reflecting on this, theologian Peter Leithart says that it’s when the world spins out of control and our instincts are to “rush to cockpit to take over the controls before we crash,” what we need to remember is that this plane already has a pilot. And because of who that pilot is, we can know that “confusion is not the final word… that confusion will itself ultimately be confused and dispelled.” That’s the promise of Scripture.

dawnNo matter how dark the night, or chaotic the storm, God’s got this. And this is the kind of trust that the faithful waiting of Advent is meant to activate in us.  It’s by crying out from our depths, and then watching and waiting for God’s tender mercy to break upon us from on high like the dawn that we enter into the spiritual experience of Psalm 130, and the spiritual meaning of the season of Advent, and will wind up with hearts that are truly prepared for the celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas. DBS +

 

 

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“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…”

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee…”

The line I used as the title for this week’s “Soundings” comes from John Donne’s (1572 – 1631) 17th meditation in his book Devotions upon Emergent Occasions a book he wrote during the course of a grave illness from which he suffered in December of 1623.  It was on the 17th day of this illness that John Donne heard the bell of a nearby parish church tolling the death of someone in the community, and that prompted him to write –

blog1No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

 John Donne didn’t specifically know who the person was for whom the bell tolled that day, but the very fact of its tolling stirred in him a deep sense of personal solidarity with the whole human family. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” he explained, because he was “involved in mankind.” This “involvement in mankind” was for John Donne, an Anglican Poet/Priest, a basic affirmation of his Christian faith.

Our shared humanity – our identity “in Adam” – creates a foundational bond that we share with everyone, everywhere, and always.  As Paul told the Athenians in his sermon on Mars Hill – “From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth…   We are [all] his offspring” (Acts 17:26; 28), and as he prayed in Ephesians – For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name…” (3:14-15). Furthermore, all of humanity as the object of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ puts a redemptive icing on this creation cake of “involvement” with all of humanity.  As Peter Kuzmic explained in his inaugural address as a Professor of World Mission at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, the reason why we who are Christians must care about the hurts and hopes of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages is because “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16).

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Violent death is not sectarian. Neither is anguish, nor fear.  Terror has no religious preference. When Christians are slaughtered while they are praying at their house of worship in Central Texas, and when Muslims are slaughtered while they are praying at their house of worship in the northern Sinai Peninsula, our response must not be different.  Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  But I sense that our response has in fact been different.  Because of the long, complicated, and painful history that exists between Muslims and Christians, and the ongoing “War on Terror” by the West on ISIS, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militant expressions of global Islamic fundamentalism, I have detected a certain ambivalence about the horrifying news of the Islamic terrorist attack at the Mosque in Al-Arish, Egypt, last Friday.

There was no hesitation whatsoever in the moral outrage and spiritual concern that got voiced by us when a single armed gunman burst in on the morning worship service of the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Sunday, November 5, leaving 26 dead and 20 wounded.  I doubt that there was a church anywhere in North America that didn’t pray for their slain and wounded brothers and sisters in the Christian community the following Sunday morning. But I’m pretty sure that there were significantly fewer expressions of solidarity in those same churches with the Muslim community after 25 armed gunmen burst in on the Friday prayers [the Muslim “Sabbath”] at the Al-Arish Mosque in Egypt leaving 305 worshippers, including 27 children, dead and another 128 people wounded, even though Muslims are our spiritual cousins in the Abrahamic family of faith.

Looking for a Biblical model of response to help frame our own response to this recent episode of unimaginable violence in Egypt, I gradually arrived at the story of David’s retrieval and burial of the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and their descendants that gets told in 2 Samuel 21.  This is a text of terror chock full of the kind of violence and vengeance that we find so problematic as Christians when we read the stories of the Old Testament.  Sometimes it takes everything I’ve got not to wind up with Marcion’s 2 Gods – an Old Testament God of death and destruction, and a New Testament God of love and grace. But buried deep in this story, if you will see it through to its very end, is a moment of a real grace and healing when David gathers up the remains of his rivals and pays them the final respect of giving them a proper burial – a religious obligation for a Jew.

12 David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan from the people of Jabesh-gilead, who had stolen them from the public square of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hung them up, on the day the Philistines killed Saul on Gilboa. 13 He brought up from there the bones of Saul and the bones of his son Jonathan; and they gathered the bones of those who had been impaled. 14 They buried the bones of Saul and of his son Jonathan in the land of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of his father Kish; they did all that the king commanded. After that, God heeded supplications for the land. 

In his truly insightful essay on this Biblical narrative – “David, Rizpah, and the Sons of Saul” –  written by Peter and posted @ https://eloquentmumbler.com/2016/09/02/david-rizpah-and-the-sons-of-saul/, 2 Samuel 21 is described as “an example of the beauty and complexity of the Old Testament – and a reminder of why Christians should still read it.”  It was not “getting even” with his long-standing enemies and their descendants that finally brought healing to the land in this story, instead it was David’s response of mercy to the anguish of a mother.

Rizpah bore two sons to Saul as his concubine, and they have just been executed. It’s possible she was there when it happened. When everyone else leaves and the bodies of her sons and five others lay rotting, she stays. She stays and mourns, fending off not only the birds that come by during the day, but the “beasts of the field” at night. Beasts of the field? This woman is not only mourning the loss of her two sons, but she’s fending off beasts of the field? At night?

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…I’m not the only one who is affected by Rizpah’s devotion – it moved King David to action as well. David went home after making his deal with the Gibeonites, but he heard about what Rizpah was doing. His response was to go get the bones of Saul and Jonathan, which had been buried in haste to stop the Philistines from desecrating them. Once he has these, he has the remains of Saul, Jonathan, and the seven sons of Saul taken to a proper burial ground and put to rest. It’s an act of kindness to Rizpah, a posthumous nod to his dear friend Jonathan and his master Saul, and probably a weight off of his mind. And then God ends the famine. [https://eloquentmumbler.com]

What David did in the end didn’t change the painful things that had happened in the past, and it didn’t undo the very real damage that had been done to everyone involved in the long years of their bitter rivalry, but it did write a different ending to the story, and that new ending created a new possibility.  It was the public anguish and courage of a grieving mother that opened the way to the healing of the land in the story that we are told in 2 Samuel 21, and I can’t help but think that this same possibility exists for us, or that this is the moment for a display of that kind of mercy that heals rather than another expression of the kind of hatred that just deepens old wounds and prolongs old conflicts.

When we weep for the Muslims of Al-Arish, Egypt, in the same way that we have wept for the Christians of Sutherland Springs, Texas, I truly believe that the terrain beneath our feet will begin shift and we will soon find ourselves standing on holy… healing ground. 

Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”

DBS +

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Thanksgiving in a Time of Anger, Anxiety, and Anguish

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In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32).  And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence.

Blog_image2The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.”  To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people.  The traditional doctrine of Providence tells us that God knows what we need even before we tell Him, and that God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him.

Now, I believe that this is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and I believe that it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith.  As Romans 8:28 famously says – We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  John R.W. Stott used to say that this Biblical doctrine of Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go.

Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention.  He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era.  And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence.”

All the time people I hear people say – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening.  Where’s God? What’s He doing?  How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?”  And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by their circumstances, victimized  by injustice, and abandoned by help and hope.  But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.”  

My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent.  In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God has always been present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing those circumstances might be in the moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson).  And so my belief in God’s providential care and concern does not demand that everything make perfect sense to me right now, or make me completely happy in the present moment, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but rather that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but rather that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely).

I have kept a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of the Bible that I take with me on pastoral calls with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) on it –

Blog_image3Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.  

It’s in many of those pastoral situations that my confidence in God’s Providence gets most severely tested.  In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for me to get back to my car after one of those calls sad, or mad, about the suffering that I have been allowed to share for a moment, and with an angry fist, or a broken heart, I have cried out to God demanding to know here He is, and wanting to get some explanation about what He is doing. And that’s when this little slip of paper with St. Francis de Sales’ spiritual wisdom scrawled on it becomes a link in the chain that holds my anchor of hope in God during the storms of human suffering and sorrow that I face as a person and a pastor.  And right now it sort of feels to me like we are sitting in our car as a society after having been given access to human suffering and sadness on a scale previously unimagined.  It feels like “all around our soul is giving way,” and that what we desperately need right now is some assurance that “God is still our hope and stay.”  So this Thanksgiving I would encourage to sit down, write out St. Francis’ words on a slip of paper, and then to put it somewhere it can be found easily when life comes at you hard, leaving you sad or mad, and you need to know where God is and what it is that God is doing.

You see, I believe that the other St. Francis got it exactly right. I believe that God is in fact  with us right here and right now in this moment, and that what God is doing is slowly bending our lives, and the life of the whole world, in the direction of His intended and eternal shalom.  And my Thanksgiving Prayer for you this year is for the faith to be able to catch just a tiny glimpse of this, and then for you to be able to give real thanks for the promises that God has made to us, and is in the process of keeping.   DBS +

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