Archive for November, 2011

Sometimes the greatest of stories have the humblest of beginnings.

Our story of Christmas begins in a small town.  It’s a town that has never mattered before.  In fact, it’s only mentioned once in all of scripture and some in the New Testament even tell jokes about it.

  • Nothing good ever comes out of Nazareth.
  • Nazareth, a small town in the province of Galilee.
  • Nazareth , the outcasts of Israel.  A place where the lesser Jews lived – those who couldn’t keep the Laws of Moses like their more sophisticated cousins in the metropolitan areas of Jerusalem.

It could have been Hickory Tavern, Chappels, Hodges, Due West or any other small town you can think of. Yet, the story begins in Nazareth.

TWO TEENS, BETROTHED

Two families came together to make an arrangement.  One had a daughter and the other had a son. At the time the families entered into this arrangement, this daughter and son were probably in their early teens.  That was the common age for young people to be brought together into this arrangement.

During this period called a betrothal, the young man and woman would have been considered to be married, technically.  They did not live together and they certainly would not have been having children yet – at least not until the end of this betrothal period.

They had supervised visits.  The purpose of this period was for the families to work out the arrangement – the payment that would be made to the woman’s family.

The only thing that could end this betrothal was a divorce or the death of the young man or woman.  A pregnancy during the betrothal period would have brought great shame to the young woman.  The young man would have had grounds for a divorce and could have moved on (even if it was his own child).

Yes, there is a gender bias in the law.

TIED TO SCRIPTURE

So this provides the background as our story begins.

  • A small town where two families have come together to arrange a marriage.
  • A teen girl and a teen boy who are now in their betrothal period.

And so far, everything seems to be going as expected. But…  that’s the thing about the Christmas story.  Things change quickly.  The unexpected and the improbable happen.

So let’s meet the young woman named Mary and read about the encounter she has with God’s messenger.  The text comes from Luke 1:26-38 and is found in the Common English Bible.

 26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant

Let’s pause here just a moment.  Elizabeth is Mary’s cousin and she is married to Zechariah, a priest.  Elizabeth and Zechariah were both very mature – beyond the child-bearing years.  And so the first miracle of the Christmas story is that Elizabeth is pregnant with a child who will be called John – as in John the Baptist.  And so our frame of reference is that Elizabeth is six months pregnant.

26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house.   

Something happens when angels appear.  Listen to a couple of accounts:

  • The angel appears to Zechariah:  When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear.  The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah.”
  • The angel appears to the shepherds after the birth of Jesus: Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night.  The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them and they were terrified.

Mary has a different response.  She’s not terrified.  She’s confused.  That’s just more proof that she’s a teenager!  But the angel’s message is that she’s favored – the favored one.

30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”

In the time in which Mary lives, this statement is a loaded statement.  The people have been looking for a promised Messiah – this goes back to the prophets in the Old Testament.  They’ve been looking for someone from the family of David.  And there’s a promise that, unlike the kingdom of David, this is going to be a kingdom that goes on and on.

And Mary’s response isn’t, “Wow, really?”  Listen to what she says.

 34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.

Here are some more loaded words.   The Holy Spirit will work in you.  This child is going to be holy.  This is God’s son.  And Mary, don’t get wrapped up in figuring out why.  Even your cousin Elizabeth is having a child.

This isn’t about God giving us some biological details on this happens.  It’s about God acting in love to reach out to God’s people.

Why?

37 Nothing is impossible for God.”

Maybe this is a way to sum up the entire history of salvation – Nothing is impossible with God.  It is certainly a statement that sums up the improbability of the Christmas story.

38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

At the end of the day, at the end of the conversation, Mary comes to a place where so many others have been before in God’s story.  Some have asked many questions.  Some have argued with God about what it is they are called to do. Some have asked God for proof; they’ve needed a sign.

Zechariah, the priest, the husband of Mary’s relative Elizabeth, asked for a sign.  He asked, “How am I supposed to believe this?”  The sign he received?  Zechariah didn’t speak until John is born.

Mary doesn’t do that.  Mary responds by saying, “I am God’s servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said.”

That is probably one of the greatest statements of belief and faith in the Bible.  The call of God is a call of love, but it’s also a call of sacrifice and surrender.

God doesn’t ask Mary to do something and then, angels singing in the background, the road is perfectly cleared for her to stroll through.  In fact, what Mary is asked to do is going to be one of the most difficult things that she’s ever done.

  • She’s going to have to tell people that she’s pregnant and the questions are going to go.  Well, who’s the father?
  • She lives in the world where someone in her current predicament – a pregnant teen who is not yet officially married – is  considered to have committed adultery.  The potential punishment for adultery in Mary’s world is death by stoning.
  • She has to tell Joseph.  Only two things end the betrothal between Mary and Joseph.  Divorce or death.  And this is grounds for Joseph to seek divorce.  He can move on in his life, but she would never be married.
  • At the time in which Mary lived there was an extremely high rate of mothers dying during childbirth.  What we see today as tragic, yet infrequent, was in the time of Mary both tragic and commonplace.

When add up everything that Mary is facing, she seems to be handed a virtually impossible task.  Yet, we return to that verse, that reminder:  Nothing is impossible for God.

Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Mary makes a choice to believe in a God for which nothing is impossible.

So what does Mary, in her story, say to us in our story?

Let’s not discount that Mary has a reason to be fearful.  The angel even tells her not to be afraid.  Up-close and personal calls with God can be frightening and life-changing. They are unpredictable and scary.  So we don’t have to sanitize this so much that we fail to acknowledge that Mary is going to be afraid.  Fear is a natural, God-given reaction and it is to some degree a part of how anyone of us as a living breathing person would react.

In the end though, Mary’s faith is stronger than her fear.  Her belief and love of God moves her beyond being trapped in this moment to seeing the possibilities.

In one of the Mission: Impossible movies, the leader is speaking to Ethan Hunt, the character played by Tom Cruise.  Hunt is complaining that there’s no way this mission can work.  And the leader says, “Mr. Hunt that’s why we don’t call it Mission Difficult, we call it Mission Impossible.”

When we look at Mary, we see someone who strongly and quietly in front of a seemingly impossible task and believed in a God for whom nothing is impossible.

God is still calling us, just as he called Mary, to incredible tasks.  We’re called to live lives that have eternal importance.

And yes, God invites us to take part in the same call to self-sacrifice and surrender to which he called Mary.

  • Do we in the face of sometimes mild inconvenience, say, “Uh, no thanks, not today?”  Or do we like Mary say, “I am God’s servant.”
  • Do we in fear of losing something – our place, our privilege, even our dignity – say, “No thank you God, find someone else.”  Or do we like Mary say, “I am God’s Servant.”

As Our Story begins, Mary has an incredible moment of invitation to something that is still hard to imagine – being the mother of Jesus.  She makes an epic decision and commits her entire life to seeing it through.

In our stories, we have the same opportunities.

  • We have been invited to be a part of something epic.
  • We are called to lives of eternal importance.
  • We have fears and doubts, but we also have faith.
  • How can we, beginning in this next seven days, let our fear take a backseat to our faith in a God who, on a regular basis, accomplishes the impossible.

Mary’s life changed when she said, “I am the Lord’s Servant.  Here I am.”

How much more can your life change today, how much better will your story become, when you too can say, “God, here I am?”

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The God with dirty hands

Posted: November 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

“AP News Alert!”

In my previous life, when I worked in journalism, that phrase was a game changer.  When that alert moved across the news wire, there was the potential that everything I had done that night could be thrown out the window.  I might have to redesign the front page or move things around.  Some of those alerts had been huge — the bombing in Oklahoma City, the death of Princess Diana.

So, when I saw that moving in the news feed online, I was interested.  I just had to know what was happening.

And then, I opened it up and, well, what a letdown.  This AP News Alert told me that Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were calling it quits.  Stop the presses (honestly, it’s never that dramatic in real life!).

The article talked about how Ashton and Demi have been tweeting back and forth about it.  It’s just time to move on, they say.  Time for a change.  And as I read that, I was thinking about the people I know who have been through divorces and breakups and have had families forever changed.  There’s nothing easy there.  It can’t be tweeted away.

And I wondered how they felt when they read that news about this celebrity couple and how seemingly easy it is to simply move on.  I wondered what they were thinking.

Tweeting the end of a relationship.  That’s certainly a modern approach to the institution of marriage.  We lived in a world of disconnected connections where news can move in a second and we can friend and unfriend people at will on social media sites.

That stands so much in opposition to the passage that we read today from the lectionary — Matthew 25:31-46.  It’s Jesus telling a parable about the return of the Son of Man.  He sits on a throne and separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep are those who have fed the hungry, given something to drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick and comforted those in prison.  The goats are those who haven’t done those things.

And then there’s the twist.  Jesus says that he’s the one on the receiving end, the least of these.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ — Matthew 25:40 (CEB).

Jesus is calling on his followers to be the ones that are willing to go and do the things that others won’t.  Followers of Jesus are the ones who seek out the “least of these” when others are seeking to avoid them.  Followers of Jesus are the ones who do things for those at the margins of society without determining their worthiness in receiving those kind acts.

In fact, as I read these verses and thought about them today, it struck me that we can be superbly religious and still miss out on an encounter with Jesus.  All of the reading of Scripture and times of prayer and preparation and time in worship on Sundays or in Bible studies at other times of the week are meaningless if we aren’t willing to put it into practice.  The words of Jesus must become living words in our hearts.

In Jesus, God stepped into our world, got his hands dirty, suffered and sacrificed and  ultimately goes to the cross.  Jesus is Emmanuel (God With Us) and gives us the ultimate connection to a God who loves and feels and experiences life with us.

If God loves us so much that God is willing to get dirty hands, then can’t we expect that our gift of grace will bring us some dirty hands too.

Here’s to the God with dirty hands and those who follow that example.

Writing is something that I seem to do naturally.

At least, until I start to think about writing.  Then, it becomes an ordeal.  Images and words form a jumble in my mind that is difficult to manage.

When I get some of those thoughts down, I get a tendency to “select all” and hit the delete key.  Those thoughts just aren’t profound enough, I’ll say to myself.  No one else wants to read them.  No one cares.

So, those thoughts and images go back into my mind and are locked up again because I struggle with determining whether they are worthy of occupying space on a page.

What if I could actually write what I wanted to write?  What if I could actually put it down on the page, trust my instincts and just go with it?

Lately, I’ve been thinking back to the time I worked in journalism.  Writing was part of my job then and it was produced on deadlines.  I didn’t have time to sit around and wonder about its worth.  Production was the key.  The more that I was able to create the easier it became to create more.

Now that I’ve been involved in the chaplain training program (CPE), I’m starting to think about my experiences and  feelings a lot more.  From my CPE point of view, I’d look at my statements on writing in journalism and ask, “How does that make you feel?”  Or, “What does that view of writing say about you today?”

I feel like that part of me is still there and wanting to have more of a chance to come to the surface.  Probably with more effort and regularity, I will find that it is easier to create and write more regularly.

And maybe I’ll get past the writer’s block and the uncertainty and I’ll experience the freedom of using a gift.

So, hello again, Mr. Blog.  I hope we get the chance to see each other more often.