Questions: wrongly asked, answered rightly

Readings: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Ezekiel 36:24-28; Mark 11:27-33

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” 

They argued with one another, “if we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him:’ But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?” – they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as a true prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” [Mark 11:27-33, NRSV]

Their Response: We do not know. 

Their Honest Thoughts: We know, but we are afraid to say so.

The True Answer: We do not know.

The elders, scribes, and priests weren’t seeking God when they asked their questions: they were doing their best to keep God’s grace confined to the accepted venues and authorized dealers. A controlled God, a predictable God, a God that colored within the lines. John was the human embodiment of scribbling outside the lines, regardless of his baptism coming from heaven. That’s not how truth is supposed to look; he’s not the one God is supposed to choose.

The problem isn’t in the answer, it’s in the asking. If I ask bigger-than-life-and-death questions for reasons other than wanting bigger-than-life-and-death answers, I won’t recognize the truth even when it comes from my own lips.

How often do I ask profound questions, not wanting the answers? How much of God’s grace and presence am I willing to ignore because it doesn’t dress in the right clothes or conform to my limited expectations?

Maybe this Advent waiting time is necessary – not because I don’t know the right question and answer, but because I’m not really prepared to receive either one quite yet. Maybe this walk through scripture, this road to Bethlehem, is my best shot at wanting the answer God gave to my ultimate question: Do you love me?

 

The word of the Lord came

Readings: Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Acts 11:19-26

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” [Jeremiah 1:4-10, NRSV]

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah in a vision.  The word came in different ways to other Biblical figures. For example:

to Mary and Joseph from an angel,

to the Wisemen from a star,

to Moses in a burning bush,

and to Elijah in the “still small voice”.  

God’s words were those of comfort, challenge and direction, and God continues to speak today in ways that are unique to each of us. 

God speaks to me in the still small voice found in morning prayer, in the challenges of sermons and news stories of tragedies and heroics, in the signs of death and resurrection found in nature, and in the love of family and friends, to name a few ways.  But, as Psalm 85:8 says Let me hear what God the Lord will speak.  I must want to hear God’s voice.  How will the word of God come to you today?

Once we hear the word, we must be willing to share that word with others.  Jeremiah felt he was too young.  I often feel that I am too old or not as wise as others or I am afraid to appear foolish.  There should be no excuses.  The word comes to us and then must be passed through us, to encourage and challenge others. Who needs a word from you today?

I end with a blessing by Nan Richardson:

That you will see in the way God longs you to see.

That you will be given vision that speaks precisely

      To and through who you are.

That the holy will reveal itself, divulge itself in you.

Offered by Ann Fowler, spiritual director, bound for Bethlehem.

Doorway

Readings: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; Hosea 6:1-6, 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10

“Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;

he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.

Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.”

What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have killed them by the words of my mouth, and my judgment goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. [Hosea 6:1-6, NRSV]

Irrational: Believing that all my problems will simply dissolve into a puddle of happiness and security because I profess faith in God is about as realistic as believing that the world is flat. Sure, it looks flat from where I’m standing – but my lack of a wider perspective doesn’t change the shape of the planet I call home.

Rational: Accepting that wishes and my best efforts to do the right thing won’t change the fundamental truth that suffering and loss will be woven into the fabric of my life makes it difficult to assign to God the pettiness of vindictive action on those who share my faith and those who most certainly do not. How can I square the love of God with the notion that all the good things in life and all the hard things are just so many gold stars and F’s I’ve earned in some cosmic grading system? Sometimes, it’s easier to let go of those thorny scripture passages in favor of trusting my own common sense and and sense of justice. Or at least cherry picking the acceptable and leaving the embarrassing.

non-Rational: Perhaps I’ve missed the point because I’ve mistaken the purpose. Holy writ is holy because its words create a doorway. If the beauty, ugliness, reassurance, and doubt it offers gets me to stand still, even for just a moment, a miracle has surely happened. It only takes that moment for the Spirit to enter, embrace the imperfect child I am, and draw me into a love so deep that I cannot find its limits.

Sometimes, standing before the door scripture builds can feel like death – and death at the hands of God, no less. And maybe it is. It’s the tearing and striking down of a faith too small to hold me or God. But I’ll only know that in retrospect. The question is: am I willing to stand before whatever door I’m offered to get there?

The In Crowd

Readings: Psalm 79; Micah 4:6-13; Revelation 18:1-10

In that day, says the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted.

The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forevermore. [Micah 4:6-7, NRSV]

It’s the beautiful people, the wealthy and famous ones; it’s the ones with open concept homes, tastefully decorated; it’s the best and brightest, and the camera-ready: the In Crowd. The ones who don’t suffer in comparison, who don’t fall short, the ones who look the part, that make up that In Crowd. It’s not the ones who get picked last for kick ball, the ones who can’t afford the amenities, the ones without beauty or grace, or those who don’t get the joke. Outsiders don’t get in the In Crowd.

But that’s not really how the universe works, because the universe is God’s beloved creation. In the small, lower case sense, reality may be defined and limited by our superficial and inadequate standards. In the true, broader sense, it isn’t up to our limited judgement and prejudices. Those we would exclude from the In crowd, those of us excluded from the In crowd, are gathered and honored, valued not for external factors but for their very existence. God delights in every single life. There are no exceptions.

Happily, there are no ins and outs for God. There’s just the crowd and the invitation: join the party.

Making Enemies?

Readings: Psalm 79; Micah 4:1-5; Revelation 15:1-8

Return sevenfold into the bosom or our neighbors the taunts with which they taunted you, O Lord! Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise. [Psalm 79:12-13, NRSV]

He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.

For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. [Micah 4:3-5, NRSV]

I love the psalms for many reasons. They are beautiful verses, bringing comfort in difficult times and give words for the joy and praise I offer God. But they are honest, giving voice to my worst fears and prejudices. If it’s a feeling I can have, it’s turned into verse somewhere in the psalms. That’s what psalm 79 is – an articulation of primal, authentic feelings. Authentic, not necessarily admirable. Wishing those whose words make me feel small and unworthy a taste of their own medicine isn’t exactly commendable, is it?

But that’s the psalms’ secret: offering up my worst, most fearful feelings to God rather than throwing it at my neighbor gives me a way to let them go before I return damage for damage. It gives me a choice of not making enemies of my neighbors.

Walking in faith isn’t running over the faiths of others, punishing them for their misunderstandings about God and life (as if I don’t misunderstand all the time); walking in faith is meaning good things for my neighbors, alleviating fear rather than adding to it.

Please God, give me the strength and wisdom to walk in faith and love. Amen.

 

The Counter-Attraction of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. [Mark 13:24-27, NRSV]

I am drawn to Advent like a moth to the flame.

As the endless, tedious Sundays after Pentecost grind to an end I cannot wait to turn purple. But why? Why do I long for gospels of darkened suns and blotted moons? Why pine for prophecies of doom-cum-dawn? Why raise my hand for a helping of judgment?

My family says it’s my Nordic noir, the shadowed world of Ingmar Bergman, August Strindberg, even Henry Mankell. Maybe, but there are legions of non-Scandinavians who love this season’s art of darkness. It’s because we need to know that the whole of our lives, the whole of the world, is good—and not just the best, well-lit bits.

In the first creation story of Genesis, God separates the Light and the Darkness, naming them Day and Night (1:4-5). This is the eternal cycle of light and dark that is the backdrop of all creation. Every day passes into night. Every year is equally split between the two. And every human heart holds both its light and (how could it be otherwise?) its shadow—if we dare to meet it. Unless we can understand the Night, even befriend it, we are missing exactly half the action—and, as it turns out, the most powerful half! For, like Jacob at the river Jabbok, it is what we meet and wrestle in the darkness that holds the power to bless us.

That or something like it, bigger even than I know, is why I am so attracted to the days and nights of Advent. As the earth makes its final December descent, Advent pulls us into the great big shadow, the planet’s and our own. There we meet an apocalyptic Jesus—as in the gospel for today—warning of a time when the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I’ve studied those words, preached on those words, and I still have no earthly idea what they mean. Doesn’t matter. Advent bypasses the brain and simply wallops the heart. I know what that kind of black-out feels like, and the eschatological preacher is painting this chiaroscuro canvas, calling me to repentance. You must change your life. Now, while you yet have time.

I don’t believe in some Hieronymus Bosch vision of judgment, but this stabs my heart. I know about regret, remorse, lost time. Whatever I “believe” or don’t, I feel the urgency of this moment, and the hope hidden in all true judgment, the promise that change is still possible and love has not given up on me yet.

When he first came to live with us, an exile from Manhattan at the beginning of the plague, my five year-old grandson was afraid to go down into the basement at night. His room, his parents’ room was down there so it was often necessary, but he wouldn’t go without a hand to hold. If someone had turned on the light at the bottom of the stairs it was all right, and the hall just beyond was well lit. It was just that fearful descent and the well of darkness at the bottom. It gave me such deep joy to take Dashiell’s hand and accompany him on such an important journey. Now that he is no longer afraid I am a little wistful.

Advent is the hand I hold to make that same descent. It is primitive exposure therapy, like the bronze serpent raised on a pole. When I fear darkness, I am to turn into it, flee into the stories of apocalypse and warning and judgment, because, paradoxically, they are the only source of actual hope.

If you take those awesome downward steps, one day you will come to know the sweetness of the light because you are, in Robert Frost’s words, “one acquainted with the night.”

Offered by David R. Anderson, priest, preacher, grandfather bound for Bethlehem. [www.findingyoursoul.com]

Sands

by Hazel Ward Adcock

Scientists tell of singing sands

What songs?

What songs sing the singing sands?

I went to a desert place

To learn the song of the singing sands

These offspring of rocks

Forever lost, wanderers of the winds

Flowing obliterating tracks

In high wind fury

Blowing into newly-sculptured dunes

Burning at noon time

Shivering, quaking in moonlight;

Calm burning days

Of diamond shimmer and mirage

Bright water waving, lapping

Glimmering fading forever

As we approach.

At last I heard the song

Its grand song

Song of the only truth or certainty

The grand song of time and change.

Never lost, never the same.’

Kindly offered by Martha Zinger, Hazel Ward Adcock’s daughter.

Business, not as usual: default quarantine

An indirect brush with Coronavirus changed all the plans I had for the days leading up to Thanksgiving. No one at home was sick, but someone who tested positive had interacted with my husband. Social distance and masks were both used, but quarantine-by-default was still the result. We adjusted our plans and expectations and began to figure out how to get our work done in isolation.

The first thing that surfaced for me: not everything I had on my to-do list really needed to be done before the end of quarantine. I prefer getting everything done well in advance, but that’s not the same as things needing to be done within my original time frame.

The second thing: the worst that would happen would be delay, not cancellation, in delivering Advent materials. The world would not stop spinning, and Advent would arrive.

The third thing: any inconvenience I might experience does not compare to the suffering of those who are sick. To suppose otherwise is at best ignorant, at worst callous.

Quarantine is a hard thing, but it offered me a better view of what is and is not important. Thanks be to God for that.

Thank you, John Landis Mason

They are my storage heroes.

They come in many different sizes, with weight and volume listed on their sides – cups, ounces, and milliliters all marked with raised dashes that can be felt as well as seen. Beyond their original canning purpose, they are freezer, fridge, microwave, and oven proof. They don’t break easily. They are inexpensive to buy in bulk, and free to anyone who buys Classico pasta sauce. There are multiple lids that make it easy to use them for spill-proof drinking glasses, tea light candle holders, and flower vases. Right now, I have a dozen storing pasta and dried beans, still more keeping herbs and spice mixtures fresh. Several are in the fridge, filled with salad dressings and leftovers (cut onions and their aroma are both easily contained in one). Mason jars are our drinking glasses, too.

In addition, Mason jars remind me of some important things:

  1. Life is richer and more joyful when I am able to adapt to a variety of tasks and contexts.
  2. Value isn’t measured solely by a price tag.
  3. the inner life will reveal its beauty – no need for disguises or fancy coverings.
  4. None of us was put here for only one purpose.                                       [Thank you, John Landis Mason, for your inventiveness. You make my life and the life of the world so much better for the jars and lids you created.]

Window Washing

It took over an hour, getting the windows ready for cold weather. Out came the screens and the glass outer windows, top and bottom. The double-hung inside panes were squirted with a vinegar/water/soap spray – twice each. Pollen, dust, a few leaves and some spider webs were removed, leaving behind a much cleaner set of windows. It’s the same every year: I’m amazed at how much the accumulated dirt of the past few months was blocking my view. For an investment of time and a little scrubbing, I get a better view of the world outside my own home.

Window washing is a good metaphor for teaching in faith. Study and practice can help me scrub the dirt off the glass, allowing a better view of the world. It doesn’t create the world or dictate the view, but it can make it easier to see and share. That’s good enough for me.