Christmas Card

Virgin Birth. [Smirk goes here.]

We think we are so wise to scoff at a fairy tale and hoot at the simplicity of a gullible people who would accept the premise of a virgin birth; as though in Biblical times there was no such thing as a cynic; no winking, clucking crones who knew better than be taken in by that ruse. Or, as is more likely, we’d like to conveniently forget that in those times even disobedient children were stoned to death, so greatly did fear rule the hearts of men.

We live in a day where we can now easily witness a real stoning on our iPhone if we choose: A real woman. Solid stones. Yielding bones. For us, a horrible snuff film. For the zealous of Islam, a righteous lesson and stern warning to the unbeliever.

Such zealots fear Christmas for their own reasons. I’m more interested in why we do, too. We’re not afraid to recite the story in the safe surroundings of the adjunct scenery: makeshift stables and glittering cardboard stars made by neighbors and friends, whose children giggle at Harold Angels.

But we don’t really, really want to contemplate what it means to believe it. What it costs. It’s bothersome. Maybe to ourselves, our own sense of tradition and sentiment we’ll admit a smattering of transcendent notions about some one, or some idea, or angels, and light feelings, and—

But not really, really. . . not. . . well, really? A virgin birth?

It’s so stupid. A virgin birth. *snort!*

Half a world and not so far away, angry, cowardly Islamic men stone women so that they can uphold the darker fairy tales of their own goodness and purity. But we all have attempted something similar in thought if not in deed. In some way, it’s a story as old as life itself:  the shifting of blame, the shedding of blood, the scapegoat of our fears sent from our camp of awful reality– and so we are made good again. A fractured fairy tale of life as we seek a way out and up.

We live in a world of elites who tell us far grander fairy tales about ourselves, and we, being so wise in our fear of being stupid, we’ll follow any star as long as we don’t have to leave the couch. Vague comfort and diaphanous joy is all we seek. No need to saddle up and risk everything for more than that.

I’m curious. Is there some dark harm in believing in a virgin birth at that time, in that place, in those inconvenient circumstances? In believing in such a thing, am I inspired to fear and loathing, or might I share in an utterly unlikely miracle that makes me doubt my own goodness– and to look up for answers instead of around for a stone?

So, did a young girl, paralyzed with fear, have nothing to lose by telling a stupid lie? Or did she give birth to Life while under the shadow of death? What man of Joseph’s day would stand with such a woman, and not take up a stone, but instead take a wife?

I mean, c’mon, really?

Yes, really. It’s all Good.

(From Christmas 2010.)

Mourning Into Dancing

First, this: John 20

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

 

“Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

You’d think, at the very moment when all of man’s past history focuses narrowly into the very point of Heaven coming down to earth, and which, from that same Point all of the future would fan out in a new understanding of God, that we could expect something a bit more sober and serious from the account of the resurrection. Some sort of Behold! like the angels in the shepherd’s fields announcing Jesus’ birth. But no. The account of the angels in the tomb starts things off with a wry or even dramatic, “why are you crying?” as if they didn’t know.  It suggests to my mind that they are leading her on a bit in her grief because they want the joy to be that much sweeter.

It’s not unlike all the videos we see of soldiers coming home and delaying their reunion for the sake of a good surprise. Yes, we can think it a bit cruel when our heart is so sore with grief that our long-lost loved one would delay for even a moment.  But Love’s ultimate success is in its surprise. Jesus is in on the joyful joke here, at his own tomb, asking the woman there who she’s looking for in his tomb! It positively carries a tender sentiment that rings of an affable, approachable and human Love infused with Heavenly joy.

The long separation is over. God and Man can now be at home, together! A surprise in the making! It was a long time coming. Calls were made, plans drawn up, friends called in to help, secrets suppressed, hints dropped.  But first, a terrible journey. When you consider all the pain endured, and the horrific price paid, I suppose it’s not unlikely that the power of Heaven’s holy joy would still be bursting forth from the tomb like an atomic afterglow.

Consider for yourself the long waiting, the endless longing for your heart’s own fulfillment.  The separation from joy feels like death.  But the reunion is Life and Love and Joy unspeakable.  The wholeness and joy of a loved one’s embrace that was too long denied by distance and circumstance has now restored everything to its proper place.

“Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing!” is the wonder of Easter.  Let Love surprise you this Easter. Love has found you, that’s all that matters:

“Why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

A New Commandment

Imagine being a disciple of Jesus, having walked thus far with Him, seen miracles, seen His care for his friends, his marveling at the faith of a Centurion, his rebuff of a Canaanite woman seeking healing for her daughter–and His subsequent joyful concession to her fearless faith. You’ve seen him weeping at Lazarus’ tomb, as well as having had a woman wash his feet with her tears, which was maybe dodgy but great in the re-telling. And perhaps you were there just a few days ago watching as he drove out, with whips and imprecations, the banksters in the temple. That was gutsy.

You’ve listened to His sermons and parables and maybe you’ve understood them, or just enough of them to stick around. You heard him completely own the elite lawyers, and you secretly delighted in every bit of the testy exchange, knowing that you were useful to that crowd only as long as they thought you had an inside line on this guy, Jesus. Damnable power-mongers all. Maybe you, too, chafed a bit at the whole, “before Moses was, I AM” gambit but nevertheless, that kinda thing woulda gone viral on YouTube. And you know what you’re thinking? “This guy, this Jesus guy, everybody’s saying He’s the Messiah and maybe He is, but it’s not sitting well with my power base. I depend on these guys to be there for me, but Jesus is an unknown guy with a fuzzy background from a backwater borough in Nazareth. But the lawyers are pressuring me.  They tell me He doesn’t stand a chance, that the hoi polloi cheering him the other day were just a buncha low info rabble looking for free bread.. I just don’t know what to think, but the truth is, I gotta go with the winning hand.  Gotta stop this before it gets outta hand. Wait and see for now.”

So now you’re there with the others, in an upper room, having a strange interlude before your meal. Jesus, here alone with all of his disciples, seems to be acting out another parable. Only it isn’t. He really is stooping quite low and washing your feet. Like some common slave would. And He’s saying, what, exactly, about cleanliness? “Crap!” you think, “He’s onto me! Who’s set me up and tipped Him off?”

And now, bread and wine He offers you. You take it because your mind was made up before now, so eff it all to Sheol if He’s gonna call you on it in this way. Time to go.

Now, imagine you’re another disciple, sitting there in the awkward silence having watched Judas leave to go get more bread and wine, so you think. So why the big hush? Peter, James and John look pretty pale and agitated. Here we are, on the cusp of hope and change, a new Messiah ready to make Israel great, you think. It’ll be awesome, and you’ll be there to see it. The foot-washing deal means, maybe, that the disciples will all be equals in His kingdom and man, that will be a refreshing change. The little people won’t be as corrupt and tiresome as the ruling class you now have, that’s for sure. And no secrets or word-twisting or hair-splitting. You will all set a good example– as leaders of course– of nobody thinking they’re better than anyone else. And just imagine the things that’ll be set right politically when you and the others bring back the Ten Commandments. Back to basics! The Founding Documents. It’s not the Ten and Ten Thousand commandments! Really. What would Moses do? That’s what you’ll do.

And hey, speaking of Moses, you notice Jesus is talking about the commandments. “Yep. Exactly, Jesus! What? Wait. A new commandment? Don’t we have enough already?” you think. “Probably foot-washing. Makes sense in these filthy towns.”

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

“Huh,” you think, “I wonder what that’s gonna look like?”

 

 

 

 

Yet Higher

Exalted
Far above all the Earth
Beyond the Heavens
Above all knowledge
Behind all good
More vast than oceans of time
More radiant than galaxies of suns
Higher than thought can think
More.
Higher.
Bigger.
Lovelier.
Right.
Good.
True.
With us.

*****

Merry Christmas to those who still seek Him!

And since RSS feed won’t update a WP repost, check back for the annual Christmas stories. Peace to you all, and thank you for your many kindnesses and good will.

Freedom Is A Default Setting From The Manufacturer.

Minding what's important.


This fleeting moment of pure freedom is brought to you by the many men and women of the United States military who have spent the strength of their youth, the blood of their inheritance, and the heart of their honor in defense of an Idea.

It’s not always all about crusaderism and “making the world a better place.” Sometimes, we need to see what we were created for; and if not for the occasional moment to contemplate pure joy, then what’s a Heaven for? Little glimpses of Heaven, of peace and holy silence– the supreme idea of just existing without someone else’s permission to do so– is a power that used to be reserved for kings. Our American Idea was that it should be available to anyone who valued it enough to go after it. If that’s not an Idea born right out of God’s Heaven, then I don’t know what else it could be.

Thank you, deeply and humbly, to all who fought and died to bring Heaven’s own Idea to earth: peace, dignity, freedom. For all.

How I Spent Veteran’s Day

It was the best Veteran’s Day ever, actually. My new job affords me opportunity to be more involved in the community as I am actually working for myself. So, I make an effort to get out of the office and into the area clubs and meet-ups of varying interests. One of my favorites is volunteering at the local senior center nearby, and also singing in their chorus. I get all kinds of crap from my elders in that group, but they are lovely folks.

So yesterday, the chorale presented a 30-minute tribute to the Veterans and their families who attended the mid-day celebration. Peeps, there is nothing better than singing songs of freedom and liberty in front of the hoary heads who made it possible. The most fun was singing the marching songs for each branch of the military. Each group in the audience would rise, however difficult they found it physically, to shout their enduring pride for country and comrades. We could hardly see our music for the blurry vision. We kicked it off with the Coast Guard anthem (yes, Vman, I now know the Coast Guard fighting song! Semper Paratus!) as some feisty half-pint of a woman of indeterminate antiquity jumped up and fist-pumped the air and shouted like she was twenty year old! And so it went for each until we ended with strains of homeland worship, “oh Beautiful, for spacious skies. . .” and a prayer for God’s grace on Thee.

And that wasn’t the best part.

Afterward, the floor was given to whomever wished to share. There was a 90-year old war-bride who served as a German radio operator and ended up marrying the American soldier who captured her. Unable to send her to a POW camp, he sent her to a farmhouse family where he would check in on her until she was returned home to Austria. Two years later, he brought her to the U.S. to marry her. Others tried to briefly encapsulate their service and travels, and out of modesty and courtesy for all they fought back the urge to over-share and so cut short many stories I would have enjoyed hearing more about. But the last and best was from some tall, slender woman trapped in a wheelchair and croaking with emotion. Her service branch was the USO and she told of flying back from a Bob Hope show in Okinawa, and in bad weather they had to ditch their plane in the Sea of Japan. With much emotion she described being rescued by Japanese fishermen. The room stood up and honored her with more hoopla than you can imagine and tears from every eye. Then she went on to say that the survivors have had a reunion every year since that day, but had to sassily add that only she and another remained, since all the smokers died first! Which left the room in roars of laughter and giggles. It gave us a good closing point for the program, which cleared the way for the cake and coffee reception afterward. Spry old folks still know how to charge the chow line, I tell ya. Had to keep my wits about me to escape the room!

Joseph Ambrose, a then-86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982, holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in that war.

Many thanks to all of America’s Veterans, today and every day. May we be worthy of your sacrifice.

“You are going to ladle ‘begging the question’ all over everything like some sort of idiomatic gravy.”

That man, Sippican.  He’s at it again.

He has what you’re looking for: blessed relief from banal blog posts. 

Plus, a smolderin’ hot picture of Sophia Loren.  Which I must re-post here or the J.R. will disown me:

The Gold Standard

Go read it all. 
 
The Internet. Useful like that. Also,  Laura, over at Fetch My Flying Monkeys, is going with a similar theme, but with words we all  understand.  Oh, and for the shorthand approach, go here, but not if you’re squeamish about the more, um, rudimentary parts of speech.
 
 

Sunday Sermon: A Right To Exist, Even After You’ve Died

Ezekiel 37:12-14

12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”

Read it and weep, Islam.  It is not mere men you have set yourself against, but God himself.

There are so many directions to contemplate, so many tangents. I’ve erased them all. Today, with Israel surrounded by her enemies, I think I shall let the very fact of her existence stand in testimony of the resurrection power that we soon shall celebrate.

Dear friends, if the God of the Universe had a plan for Israel that was so important He saw fit to breathe new life into its dried bones, don’t doubt that He can do the same for your own heart of stone. Froward, rebellious, sinful and useless as dry bones, it seems God won’t accept your excuses or even your self-assessment. “You alone Lord, know.”  Don’t presume.

Then consider the Gospel account of Lazarus found in John 11. Apparently, God won’t be thwarted in His plan for you. That doesn’t mean you can’t delay, resist, run, and avoid . . . maybe even die. Dead and putrescent is no excuse! Imagine that. Lazarus minds his own business and shuffles off this mortal coil and God calls him back to life to be a testimony of Christ’s power and to be a reproach to the pretenders to power. Next thing you know, Lazarus is alive and well and has a death-warrant on his revived head!  Don’t assume.

We remember that we are dust and we do well.  We must also remember that He can breathe life into the dust.  “If that same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, it shall quicken your mortal body.” Dust isn’t your destiny. Don’t resume.

During these last weeks of Lent, seek out new life for your soul and spirit. Let the living waters flow, let the Breath of Heaven call you forth from the mess you’ve made, from the restrictive grave clothes of mistakes and regrets, from the cave of your alienation from Life itself. Live, and move and love.

God never posts “DNR” over your deathbed.

Un-Democratic Parents

Last night a friend was expressing her gratitude for her parents’ non-democratic style of raising their family. They wisely refused to be bullied or blackmailed by their children’s threats of withholding affection. They ignored such tactics and went on with the business of building a future for the little ingrates. They had the long vision and the advantage of years and authority and weren’t afraid to use them. Completely un-democratic upbringing results in adults who are able to enter into the human community with mature expectations of what a representative republic looks like. It looks nothing like “democracy.”

We were having a discussion about fairness and envy. I offered up as how, being the last of eight kids, I often heard my mother chiding us with, “Do you have enough in your own belly? Then why do you care what your brother has?”

This moment of political clarity brought to you by [good] moms everywhere. You’re welcome.

Sunday Sermon: Politics, Religion and Sex

John: 4:5-29

5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17 “I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

*****

The Samaritans were a monotheist cult that recognized the Pentateuch and not much else; neither the prophets nor priests of the Jews. They were also used as a political pawn against the Jews by the Romans, who appointed them to Judean towns. They were fairly despised by the Jews in Judea. Jesus decides that three out of three taboo subjects are just the thing wherewith to capture a heart.

“Yes,” says the Samaritan woman, “I want that living water to make my life easier.” Now that he has piqued her curiosity– after He obviously startles her political/racial prejudices by merely speaking to her– Jesus keeps her off-balance with yet another tack and brings her gently, if quickly, to the post: “I know everything about you, and it’s not good.”  He could not have pierced her heart more deftly had he been a modern-day surgeon.

I think she is scrambling for some sort of high ground as she challenges His legitimacy as a Prophet. I don’t see her as immediately rapt with His method; she isn’t asking Him where to worship, she is pointing out that His prophetic gifts possibly may not apply to her casual sexual morality.  Perhaps it’s a desperate ploy to get out of the shame and bring up some rather large theological difference to point out the gulf between them. So Jesus has to get direct with her.

“You don’t know what you worship.”

For the Samaritans, their god had spoken once and that was good enough for them.  They were an erudite, urban culture that was quite open-minded and influenced by their pagan neighbors, and so it was all a nice “religious” thing. Something to identify with, but certainly not make a big deal about except as a point of pride. Think about that: a static faith, a static idea of God. Jesus says to her, “You don’t know what you worship.”

During the Lenten season, take some time to discover just how far away and long ago you may have buried your sense of worship, your sense of the Spirit of God’s nature and where He dwells within your heart and mind. He calls us to repent, He reveals our sins, He pierces our pride, and then tells us He’s seeking for something within us: Spirit and Truth.

It may be hard, at first, to open up to the Living Water that quenches all thirst, but harder still to find it has become a stagnant pond where nothing really grows or thrives. We don’t dismiss it entirely as it provides a lovely reflection of our cultural identity. But lacking an outlet and an inward spring of fresh life, it eventually strangles all life within it and becomes useless to others who are thirsty.  Water is basic to physical life just as the Spirit is basic to a life of faith. Might be time to let God to strike the hard rock of our heart and command living water to come forth. “Spring up, oh, Wellspring.”

A final thought: The Samaritan woman had only just then breathed a hope for revelation, for knowing the answer to her own inward doubts when the Messiah revealed Himself to her.

What are you waiting for? Ask!

Evermore give me this water!