November 28, 2010

Saying Yes to God with Zechariah

Welcome to my Advent blog. For the next few weeks I’ll be looking at how those involved in the Nativity narrative responded to God’s call. Please join me on this last journey of 2010 to see what God can say to us through the actions of Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds, and even Herod and the Magi.

We enter these 4 weeks of preparation for Christmas, called Advent, with a look at Zechariah. His story is found in the Gospel of Luke (1:5-25). Zechariah was a priest who served in the Temple. He and his wife, Elizabeth, “were both righteous before God.” Like another righteous couple from generations earlier (Sarah and Abraham), they were childless and “getting on in years.”

One day Zechariah “was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.” This must have been a proud moment for the old man. We don’t know if he ever had this honor before. It is unlikely, because by this time in history there were many, many descendents of Aaron who could claim the right to serving in the Temple. In fact, even by the time of David and Solomon, the priesthood had already been divided into ‘divisions’ (see I Chronicles, chapter 24).

So Zechariah entered the Holy of Holies, the nearest any human could come to the Living God, to burn incense. This was a time of holy fear and trepidation for priest and people. A rope was tied to the ankle of the priest serving, just in case he was overwhelmed by the Holy One, so he could be pulled out. The people were separate from God and only the appointed priest could go into the Holy of Holies.

Michael Card’s song, A New and Living Way, gives an image of how it was for the priest.
“Year after year, there the priest would stand.
An offering of blood held out in his hand
Before the curtain there He would stand in fright.
It hung there to hold in the Holy to keep in the Light.”

Zechariah had no way of knowing that this time something amazing, life-changing, and indeed world changing would happen. “There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was "terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” The angel addresses Zechariah with comforting, if seemingly impossible, words, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”

I suspect I would be just as skeptical as Zechariah who asks, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” It would seem that priests of the Lord are no more open to the interruptions of God than the rest of us! Even though he was knowledgeable in the writings ABOUT God, Zechariah was not used to being impacted BY God.

It is difficult to wrap our mind around things when God acts in ways that we don’t anticipate or that seem impossible. We have our little corner of the world all mapped out and we are quite content with life the way it is. True, it’s not paradise, but it could be worse. Then God comes in and turns everything topsy-turvy. A job change or new opportunity makes us pack up and move. An accident or illness interrupts our carefully laid plans. Change happens to our carefully laid plans, no matter what.

Zechariah and Elizabeth had long ago come to terms with the fact that they would not be parents. Now, in the twilight of life, God announces, ‘you are going to have a child’. Not just any child, either, but the prophet announced by Malachi who prophecies, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

The angel tells Zechariah, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Being struck dumb seems a bit extreme, but perhaps it was God’s way of giving Zechariah time to come to terms with this event that would start to turn his life upside down and then transform the rest of the world. He finally came out of the Holy of Holies, unable to speak, “and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary….When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.”

Somehow he explained to his wife what happened. Ultimately, “Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’” Elizabeth, in her own body, had confirmation of the words of Gabriel. As she grew great with child, she and Zechariah likely paused often to praise the amazing acts of God. They came to understand that their child would usher in the “New and Living Way” Michael Card sings about:

“When the time was full, another Priest came to save
He would offer forgiveness, for He was the offering he gave
From His sacrifice, from that dark disgrace
Came the power to make anywhere a most holy place
A new and living Way…”

When Zechariah was asked to ‘Say Yes to God’, he found that all his years of learning had not prepared him for meeting the Living God. I find I can relate. It can be easy to be busy studying (and writing) books and articles about God. The danger is that sometimes we think we’ve got God figured out and try to put God in a convenient ‘box’.
This week, I’m going to try an activity. In a box I’ll put images and words that are reminders of God. I know a photo of a sunset will be one thing I will add. There are Bible verses, too, that I like. I hope this exercise will make me a bit more aware of how I limit God’s action by the way I think.

Next week we’ll meet Mary, a young girl whose response to God was very different from Zechariah’s.

November 21, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving. The grade school images of Pilgrims and Indians linger in our minds. Traditionally the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in 1621 with their Indian neighbors. A good harvest meant that the small colony would survive the winter in the new world. This was certainly a reason for the religious refugees to give thanks. Other locations have claimed the honor of the first Thanksgiving, though. Florida, for instance says that the earliest ‘thanksgiving’ celebration was by the Spanish in 1565 in St. Augustine. Virginia, too, notes that a ‘day of thanksgiving’ was in the founding charter 1619. Even Texas lays claim to the being the location because the Spanish explorer Coronado celebrated a thanksgiving Eucharist in 1541 in what is now the Palo Duro Canyon of West Texas.

 Wherever it started, Thanksgiving has only been an actual holiday since 1863, but the date of the celebration varied. It was established as fourth Thursday of November when President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law on December 26, 1941. Two years later Norman Rockwell painted what has become the iconic Thanksgiving picture as one of his Four Freedoms series. Entitled Freedom from Want, it was published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1943 and then was featured on war bond posters.

Some of us are blessed with having family nearby to share Thanksgiving with. Others will travel to share the home fires. For many, Thanksgiving isn’t the Norman Rockwell painting, but another equally homey gathering. There are others who will not find much to give thanks for.

I hope you will have a lovely, blessed Thanksgiving, however you celebrate, and that you will find a way to offer a helping hand to someone less fortunate.

Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent. During the season, I’ll be exploring how we ‘say yes’ to God by looking at the response of Mary, of Joseph, of the Magi, and of the Shepherds. I hope you’ll join me.

November 14, 2010

God Routinely Blesses

Baruch Atah, Adonai Elohenu, Melech Ha-Olam…
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe…”

This ancient Jewish blessing is the start of many, if not most, Jewish prayers. The shofar calls the Jewish men to pause in their work and pray. According to Barbara Brown Taylor, an observant Jew will say “at least a hundred blessing prayers each day…upon waking up…before setting out…wearing new clothes…for pastries, fruit, vegetables, and wine.” This fall we’ve looked at various routines that can bring us closer to God. When we become aware of our routines, we wake up to their real purpose, which is to bring us blessing.

Even the interruptions and discomforts, even the pain and dis-ease of life are ways to find (and be found) by God. Perhaps we would do well to consider the practice of some of our faith predecessors who blessed even the seemingly bad things. Paul talks of being in chains as a way of preaching the Good News: "I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel...the whole praetorian guard and all the ret [know] that my imprisonment is for Christ...the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment." (Philippian 1:12-14)
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God,” says Paul later. (Hebrews 10:31) We have to be open to the blessings that happen every day, all around us! L’Engle adds “We live under the illusion that if we can acquire complete control, we can understand God…but the only way we can brush against the hem of the Lord…is to have the courage, the faith, to abandon control.” When we let go of control and are open to being blessed and to offering blessings for all things, we come closer to God than in the Cathedrals of the world. It is about how we live and are blessed by the One who imbues all things with Life.

A long time ago someone introduced me to the poem “Well” by G.A. Studdart-Kennedy. Studdart-Kennedy was a chaplain during WWI. He earned the nickname “Woodbine Willie” by giving Woodbine brand cigarettes to the wounded soldiers he ministered to. I've always been struck by Studdart-Kennedy's vision of meeting God after death and how that one word 'well?' sums up our response to God's blessings in all that happens, but esp. in our interactions with one another.

This poem is a soldier telling a dream. It’s a bit hard to read until you get into the rhythm of the Cockney accent. He dreams he dies and finds himself beside “a solemn kind o’ sea…A throng ‘o faces came and went, afore me on that shore.” The soldier sees everyone he has met and realizes “the dirty things I’d done to em, when I ‘and’t played the game.” Then “there before me someone stood, just lookin’ dahn at me…
And 'E said nowt, 'E just stood still, For I dunno 'ow long.
It seemed to me like years and years, But time out there's all wrong.
What was 'E like? You're askin' now. Can't word it anyway.
'E just were 'Im, that's all I knows. There's things as words can't say.
It seemed to me as though 'Is face, Were millions rolled in one.
It never changed yet always changed, Like the sea beneath the sun.
'Twere all men's face yet no man's face, And a face no man can see,
And it seemed to say in silent speech, 'Ye did 'em all to me.
'The dirty things ye did to them, 'The filth ye thought was fine,
'Ye did 'em all to me,' it said, 'For all their souls were mine.'
All eyes was in 'Is eyes, – all eyes, My wife's and a million more.
And once I thought as those two eyes Were the eyes of the London whore.
And they was sad, – My Gawd 'ow sad, With tears that seemed to shine,
And quivering bright wi' the speech o' light, They said, ''Er soul was mine.'
And then at last 'E said one word, 'E just said one word 'Well?'”

The narrator, knowing he has failed to live a good life, asks to go to Hell, but
“'E answered 'No
'You can't, that 'Ell is for the blind, 'And not for those that see.
'You know that you 'ave earned it, lad, 'So you must follow me.
'Follow me on by the paths o' pain, 'Seeking what you 'ave seen,
'Until at last you can build the "Is," 'Wi' the bricks o' the "Might 'ave been."'

(From The Unutterable Beauty: The Collected Poetry of G. A. Studdert Kennedy--you can read the whole poem here)

From the ground we walk on to the people we meet, all are incarnations of the Holy. When we are blessed, we ought to live in a state of returning the blessings. Like the observant Jew and in company with Paul, we ought to try to ask a blessing on everything that comes our way. Some things won’t be easy to bless or find a blessing in. In the Hebrew tradition, a prayer of blessing for bad news is “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, the Judge of Truth.”

It is up to me to be open and aware of the blessings in all things. L’Engle quotes H.A. Williams who says, “Justification by faith means that I have nothing else on which to depend except my receptivity to what I can never own or manage.” I ran across a gentle reminder of the importance of accepting each step as a blessing. Probably you’ve seen the “Daffodil Principle” since it circulates the email regularly. It’s the true story of a Rushing Springs, CA woman who annually, since 1958, planted daffodils on the hill near her home. Apparently tours ended in 2009 (at least according to the articles I found.) (If you haven’t seen it, one version is found on the internet here  and a video of the garden here.)

At the end, the narrator says, “’It makes me sad in a way,' I admitted to Carolyn. 'What might I have accomplished if I had thought of a wonderful goal thirty-five or forty years ago and had worked away at it 'one bulb at a time' through all those years? Just think what I might have been able to achieve!'
My daughter summed up the message of the day in her usual direct way. 'Start tomorrow,' she said.
She was right. It's so pointless to think of the lost hours of yesterdays. The way to make learning a lesson of celebration instead of a cause for regret is to only ask, 'How can I put this to use today?'”

I hope this series of blog-meditations has left you with some thoughts about how to be receptive and open to the presence and blessing of God in all our routines. I hope this week I can remember to ask “how can I put this to use today?” Next week is Thanksgiving. See you then.

* Quotations from Walking on Water, L’Engle and An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, unless otherwise noted.

November 7, 2010

Routinely Labeling or Naming

God is found in the routines of our lives. Whether we are hiking through a forest or plodding down a city street, God is with us. If we are aware of the sights and sounds and smells around us or if we are lost in numb repetition, the Holy lingers on the edge of consciousness waiting to be invited in. Finding God nearby can be as unexpected as coming across this squirrel I saw in a public garden in downtown Denver a couple of years ago.

George Eliot says, If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat…As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” That ‘stupidity’ keeps us from awareness of the One who created all and makes us prone to labeling things and people. We may say liquor or candy are bad, while milk and fruit are labeled as good. People are lumped into groups with convenient tags. In this election we’ve heard more than enough of candidates categorizing each other as pro-this or anti-that. It is too simple to make decisions based on such rhetoric, but we are all guilty. Someone poorly dressed and dirty approaches and we automatically assume they are homeless and planning to ask for money. Maybe the person is a day laborer heading home or even an eccentric millionaire.

Madeleine L’Engle insists, “To name is to love. To be Named is to be loved.” She says, “The name of God is so awe-ful, so unpronounceable, that it has never been used by any of his creatures…But we, the creatures, are named, and our names are part of our wholeness.” The converse is true, too says L’Engle. When we label those around us we are Un-Naming them according. She notes, “It seems that more than ever the compulsion today is to identify, to reduce someone to what is on the label…If we are pigeonholed and labeled we are un-named.

We have to be careful and aware of the way we encounter others as I blogged a month ago. It is easy to label or just ignore, but as Taylor reminds us, “At its most basic level, the everyday practice of being with people is the practice of loving the neighbor as the self…it is the practice of coming face-to-face with another human being, preferably someone different enough to qualify as a capital “O” Other—and at least entertaining the possibility that this is one of the faces of God.”

Seeing the Face of God in each other is an awesome responsibility. The group Casting Crowns song “If We are the Body” is a not so subtle reminder that as Christians we are the Body of Christ and as such we are the hands, arms, feet of God.

It's crowded in worship today
As she slips in
Trying to fade into the faces
The girls' teasing laughter is carrying farther than they know
Farther than they know.

But if we are the body
Why aren't His arms reaching?
Why aren't His hands healing?
Why aren't His words teaching?

And if we are the body
Why aren't His feet going?
Why is His love not showing them
There is a way? There is a way?

A traveler is far away from home
He sheds his coat
And quietly sinks into the back row
The weight of their judgmental glances tell him that his chances
Are better out on the road...
But Jesus paid much too high a price
For us to pick and choose who should come
And we are the body of Christ…

In the coming week, I plan to try to be more aware of times when I ‘label’ rather than ‘name’ people—and in some cases it won’t be easy. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll see in the ‘Other’ the face of Christ. Maybe, just maybe, I can be the hands or feet or face of Christ to someone else.

Next week will be the conclusion of this series with a look at the Blessings we can find when we see God in the routines.

* Quotations from Walking on Water, L’Engle and An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor, unless otherwise noted.