Tuesday, December 31, 2013

we are here as we have never been before

I hope you have had a blessed Christmas season these last few days.
I stumbled onto this poem last winter while reading Wendell Berry's volume, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and I've had to sit on it all the while, until the right time. Merry Christmas.

"Remembering that it happened once"

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night's end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countess times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning's light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Monday, December 16, 2013

You better watch out, You better not cry...

Yesterday morning in worship, the choir at Grace Church presented its Christmas Cantata. Every year it's a fun, pretty, jubilant sort of service, an hour of celebration of the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

This year, right before the music began, I stood up and read our gospel lesson, Matthew 3:1-12, about John the Baptist. John was yelling at the Pharisees and Sadducees - "brood of vipers!" - and warning folks about judgment: "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
The passage ends with the words "unquenchable fire."

This is not really the best way to lead into a Christmas Cantata.

The Cantata is full-blown Christmas. The last thing the narrator says is "Christ has come, Hallelujah!"
The gospel reading is full-blown Advent. We're still waiting on Jesus to come - waiting for his birth at Bethlehem and waiting for his coming again in glory.

John the Baptist doesn't seem very Christmas-y, yet every December he rears his shaggy head in our worship services, bellowing his words of judgment. (Think Charlton Heston in The Greatest Story Ever Told.)
We hear about John each year because the weeks leading up to Christmas are the weeks of Advent, and part of the hope of Advent, one of the things we're all waiting for, is Christ's coming again to judge the world. Jesus is the one appointed by God to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42).

And that's a good thing!

Throughout scripture, judgment is actually something God's people eagerly anticipate. Why on earth would that be?
There's an Old Testament way of answering that and a New Testament way. The OT answer would be: because the Lord will judge the world with righteousness and truth and equity, that's why! (Ps 96:13; 98:9) The NT answer might say: Well, who is in a position to condemn? "Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns in power for us, Christ prays for us!" (Rom 8:34)

Judgement is good because the Judge is good.

That's why we hear about judgment during Advent, while we wait for Jesus, no matter how un-Christmas-like it might sound. Judgment is something we hope for, not something we fear.
This time last year, two days before I was supposed to preach on John the Baptist and judgment, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, and killed 26 people. That atrocity helped me understand: judgment, God putting an end to all the mess in our world, that's a good thing. God's going to judge the world and set things right.

Or maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it best. When faced with the very un-Christmas-y words of John the Baptist in the gospels, Bonhoeffer wrote:
God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us; he purifies us; he sanctifies us; he comes to us with his grace and love.

We've still got a week of waiting until Jesus comes in Bethlehem. May God fill you with anticipation and hope for the arrival of our Lord, for his birth at Christmas and his coming again.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

God is actually quite Great: Antonia Brenner

I remember hearing, back in October, that Sister Antonia Brenner had passed away.
If you are like me, that news makes you wonder: who's Sister Antonia Brenner? 

As if turns out, she was a faithful sister in Christ with a beautiful story. After several marriages and raising children, Sister Antonia felt called to move into La Mesa penitentiary in Tijuana, Mexico. So, in 1977, she moved into a cell at La Mesa, and she ministered to the prisoners and staff there until her death this year.

When Sister Antonia died, the Los Angeles Times published a powerful obituary telling her story, which you can read here. I started to share this at the time, but I fell behind in blogging and didn't get to it.
But today I was reminded when I read Richard Beck's recent post about her life, "The Little Way of Mother Antonia." It's a quick read, but it paints a vivid picture of the kind of life this woman led. I hope everyone will check it out; it's absolutely worth your time.

Here's a snippet from Dr. Beck's post, to give you an idea and hopefully whet your appetite:
From her cell in La Mesa Mother Antonia cared for sick and dying prisoners. She brought food, medicine and dental care for the poorest of the inmates. She fought in courts for those wrongfully imprisoned. She buried the prisoners who died without family. She tirelessly spoke out against the torture and harsh treatment of inmates. And she loved and cared for the guards as much as she loved the prisoners, spending untold hours holding their hands, listening to their problems, offering advice and spiritual counsel.

No one was beyond the love and embrace of La Madre.

She had such respect that she could walk into the middle of violent prison riots and shut them down. When the men saw La Madre in their midst they threw their guns out the window.

And every night she went back to her cell to sleep in the exact same conditions of those she cared for.

Reading about this woman, in her 70s and 80s, living in a prison cell like everyone else... it sounds a bit extreme. A little nuts.

Until I remember how God came to dwell here with us, a baby sleeping in a feeding trough - whatever it took to bring healing and salvation to the world.

You can read the rest here. Take some time today and learn about this woman of faith.

More posts from the "God is actually quite Great" series:

the Rwandan martyrs
Father Damien
Annalena Tonelli
Churches that raided slave ships
Maria Skobtsova

Monday, December 02, 2013

the beauty of the Church

Again and again and again, ever since he ascended to the papacy, Pope Francis has dazzled the world.

It literally started on day 1. I remember reading about the election of this new, South American Pope, and how after his election the man turned down the papal limousine to ride back to his hotel on a bus with the rest of the cardinals. A few days later he decided not to move into the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace - instead he'd just stay on in a Vatican guesthouse.
And his humble, likable, and surprising style has been pretty consistent ever since. It seems like every week or so you'll see another report in the news from some journalist stunned by something Francis has done or said.

The most recent story focused on the Pope's compassion for a man suffering from severe boils all over his body. You may remember this moment: Francis spotted the man in the crowds, hugged him, kissed him, and prayed for him. And the world was in awe.

Now a new story about Francis is starting to circulate. The official Vatican alms-giver - whom Francis encouraged to "sell your desk. You don't need it. You need to get out of the Vatican. You need to go out and look for the poor." - hinted in an interview this week that Pope Francis may have actually sneaked out of the Vatican at night to give alms to the poor on the streets of Rome, something he had done before when living in Buenos Aires. There hasn't been any kind of confirmation of this that I know of, but it would certainly fit Francis's MO.


I don't know when (if ever) the Roman Catholic Church has received so much good publicity. Certainly no time in recent years. Francis is living up to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most beloved and respected figures in Christian history, a man known for his humility and love. And all of these stories leave me wishing... not so much that I were Roman Catholic, but that Francis was a 'United Methodist Pope', so to speak. I'd be proud to be more directly affiliated with the man, and it would be thrilling to be a part of a church whose leadership has that kind of reputation.

Of course, the crazy part is that this man is dazzling the world simply by following Jesus. Following Jesus in the public eye, obviously, but that's really all there is to it.

And that makes me wonder. Why doesn't the UMC have this kind of reputation? What are our leaders doing that makes the news, and what should they be doing? And what could happen if I committed myself to those simple, powerful acts of love and humility that can dazzle? What if you did?

I don't think that what we're seeing with Francis is some kind of anomaly. I believe that the Christian life, a life spent following Jesus, really is a beautiful thing. Some folks would scoff at this, but I believe the Church really is a beautiful thing. All Pope Francis is doing is faithfully embodying the Church's mission. He's showing us what the Church looks like when it's true to itself.
And the world's in awe. I can't tell you how many times I've looked at the comments following these news stories - and remember, comments in stories about the Church online are usually pretty ugly - and seen things like 'he almost makes we want to go back to the church' or 'I'm an atheist, but...'
The faithful Christian life is a beautiful, moving thing to see.

And it makes me wonder.
What can I do, what can you do, what changes could I make in my life that might show the world around me just how beautiful this faith really is? Because there is untapped beauty in God's Church, and the only way it can shine through and dazzle the world is if Christians, with our attitudes and our words and our actions, set it loose.