Wednesday, December 27, 2017

In the Arms of Our Mother

Merry Christmas to all!  Like most of you I spent Christmas Eve in church, celebrating the Feast of the Nativity on that special night when I get to see folks whom I haven't seen since Easter (and many whom I have never seen before at all)!  It is a holy and sacred night.  

Silent Night by candlelight on Christmas Eve at Good Shepherd, Asheboro.

O holy night, the night when angels sing, when the earth herself cries out for joy, and God breaks through history once again as a little baby.  It is the night of our dear Savior's birth.  Of course, we can get into all kinds of conversations about whether THIS is the actual night of Jesus' birth; after all, contrary to popular opinion, the Bible says nothing about December 25, or winter, for that matter, since the Roman census was taken during the spring.  And we can get into all kinds of conversations about what actually happened that night, where he was actually born--a stable, a cave, the part of the house where the animals were kept--or what miracles really took place.  Still,  there was one sure miracle:  the faith of a little girl named in Hebrew Miriam, whom we know as Mary.  

There were no banners that were unfurled, no royal procession with incense and choirs that marched around that little town of Bethlehem when God came a-calling.  Instead, there were the arms of a teenage girl, who, no doubt, must have been terrified at the prospect of what all this meant.  No one had believed her--typical!--and there was a legitimate fear that her husband would abandon her, as would have been his legal right.  Nevertheless, she persisted, resisted the social and religious constraints of her time, and said yes to God.  It is because of her that joy, hope, and mercy were made flesh, and in time the world would call her Theotokos, God-bearer, the greatest among the saints.  But right now she is just a mother holding her newborn son.  It's just Miriam and Yeshua, and like any mother she looks at him with so much love and hope for his future.  There in her arms lies everything. 

For several years now my dad has sent me an Advent calendar at the beginning of December, and this year's has been particularly special.  The doors on this calendar contain different pieces of art showing Mary and Jesus.  Most are from the Renaissance period, though there are a couple from the late-Byzantine era, each showing Mary holding baby Jesus, who is usually reaching for his mother while she has a rather annoyed look on her face, as if to say, "Why won't this kid let me nap for five minutes?!"

The images are beautiful...and weird.  In one painting, the Madonna and Child in a Garden by Tura (c. 1460-1470), Mary is a dead ringer for The Simpsons character Mr. Burns, complete with huge bald head and hands that are in the "Excellent!" position.


In another, the Madonna and Child and Goldfinch by Teipolo (c. 1767-1770), Jesus is holding a bird in his hand in such a manner that it looks as if he's going to squeeze the little thing to death.  The look on his face doesn't help!

He's totally gonna kill that bird!

Each day during Advent I was gifted with images such as these, all showing a mother and her son.  In so many, even the weird ones above, you can see the hope that she has for him and the future that he does not know or understand yet.  Each of these pieces of art has taken me back to that moment on that night, when God reigned on earth in the arms of his mother.

Those daily images have hit me in an indescribable way over the last two weeks, after my own mother, Susan Mitchell, died suddenly on December 14.  I have felt all the feels during that time, and I certainly was feeling them in the pulpit and at the altar on Christmas Eve.  Prior to the funeral my fiancee Kristen and I spent time going through a bunch of family photos, and we saw so many of her holding me, or my sister Ashley, when we were babies.  I saw my mother looking at me with hope for a life that would be better and brighter than the one she had known.  I saw love radiating from my mother, and yes, sometimes I even saw her a bit annoyed that her child would not settle down.  I saw the look in her eyes that would be echoed over and over through the years to both of her children, a look that said, "If I could take your pain away and make everything perfect for you, I would do it!" Such a sentiment is no doubt shared by every mother when her children are born.  I suspect that Mary's eyes said the same thing to her son that night, and again some 30 years later when she watched him die.  It is a kind of love only a parent can know, and as I continue to grieve for my mother I cannot help but think of this mother and her son, along with all the hope and love that was held between them on that holy night.  

My mother with my sister Ashley and me at Ashley's wedding in 2007.

The holy night of Christmas Eve, and the season of Christmas as a whole, reminds us that Blessed Mary is not just the God-bearer, but she bears all of us.  Christmas reminds us that Jesus is, of course, Emmanuel, "God with us," and that means that God is not some "Divine You Up There", utterly unknowable and far away.  No, Christmas reminds us that God is here, all around us.  And God is here, inside each of us.  The dualities of old are gone, and there is no separation between us and God, for Mary has brought God here among us.  This Christmastide she is our mother.  She holds us as she holds her baby boy, she knows our joys, our excitement, and our Christmas dreams.  She knows our sorrows, our sadnesses, and our pains, as well, just as she knew his.  (As an aside, regardless of what the song says, Mary most certainly DID know!  Read the Gospel of Luke!!)  Mary holds it all, as a mother holds her child, and she looks at us with that same hope, that we may be agents of healing and love, along with her little boy, who, in all our trials, is born to be our friend.  This Christmas, whether you are filled with joy and excitement, or with sadness and sorrow, you are held in the arms of Miriam, as you were held in the arms of your own mother at your birth.  You are safe.  You are loved.  For you too are a child of God.

This is God's dream for the world, the dream of shalom, of the kind of peace that comes when we all know that we are children of God.  It is the dream that we will love one another in that deep, powerful, earth-shattering way that Miriam's baby boy loved.  He is the living embodiment of that dream, and this Christmas, thanks to the faith of a little girl, that dream is ours for the taking.  Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 11, 2017


Make his paths straight.

Prepare.  It’s that time of year when we are all scrambling to get things in order, preparing for all sorts of things and doing so at a frantic pace.  Did we get all of the gifts? Is the house in order?  Do we know who is coming in from out of town and where they're staying and for how long?  We have to be prepared, we tell ourselves.  But what is it, exactly, for which we are preparing so feverishly? 

Advent is the season when we prepare for Christmas, right?  It is a time to get our house in order for the greatest guest of all to come and visit us once more.  I wonder, though, if we sometimes treat Jesus less as the greatest guest, and more as that one relative who comes each Christmas and criticizes everything from the color of the wrapping paper to how dry the turkey turned out.  Y’all know who I’m talking about!  That’s not a person we’re hoping to see; in fact, it's more like a person we’re afraid to invite into home for fear of being judged the whole time.  It doesn’t exactly make for a pleasant visit, and if we know that that person is coming to stay for a few days we’re likely to prepare from a place of fear and dread, rather than hope and joy. So what does it mean, then, to prepare for Jesus?

Our preparations during Advent are not just in anticipation of Christmas Day, after all, but of Jesus’ coming into the world once again.  It’s a promise that is at the core of our Christian beliefs. Santa Claus knew that promise, which is why St. Nicholas was at the Council of Nicea, which gave us our Nicene Creed, and week after week we affirm that promise that Jesus will come again, and his kingdom will have no end.  Yet many Christians look forward to this promise with the same fear and dread as that unwanted relative coming to stay at Christmas time.  You know, it's around this time of year that I see those church signs that say, ‘Jesus is coming.  Look busy!’  We have to hurry up and get the house in order and everything just right because he’s not going to be happy when he gets here!  Is that really the kind of preparation that Advent is about? 

It’s certainly not the preparation that was illustrated in our Scripture readings this past Sunday, all three of which are urging God’s people at various points in history to prepare for the greatest guest of all.  Seven hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah was speaking to the Jews held in captivity in Babylon, calling them to prepare for a glorious day of salvation, as God was about to bring them home (Isaiah 40: 1-11).  In the beginning of the Gospel of Mark we hear John the Baptizer preparing the people of 1st century Palestine for the promised Messiah in their midst, who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1: 1-8).  Fast forward about 35 years, and the writer of Second Peter encourages his audience to prepare for that promised day of Jesus’ coming again and to do so by being at peace with one another and through patience and repentance (II Peter 3: 8-15a).  Any of those messages of preparation sound fearful to you? 

John the Baptizer.  He got it.  

I wonder sometimes why the thought of Jesus coming again is so scary, resulting in some fear-based modes of preparation.  I suspect it is because, as we look around us we see a world that, quite frankly, doesn’t look much ready for Jesus.  It’s a world that has gotten so far away from Jesus’ message of hope and salvation, and many Christians end up scapegoating others as a result, pointing the finger at this group or that group and saying, accusingly, "They are the problem!  They need to prepare for Jesus' judgment!"  I reckon if Jesus came back and saw us acting like that then yeah, he'd be pretty unhappy, and maybe we would have every right to be afraid.

But that, brothers and sisters, is where we come in.  We who are the Body of Christ are the very ones who must prepare this world for Jesus to be born anew.  We could use those scapegoating fear-tactics to try and get people in-line, but what good has that ever done?  That's too easy, too seductive.  It's the Dark Side! (Yes, I got a Star Wars reference in this week!)   Instead, we do the actual preparing ourselves.  We prepare for Jesus first and foremost with prayer, which is always an active engagement with God. We prepare by feeding the hungry and not just during the holiday season—plenty of folks go to volunteer at soup kitchens this time of year—but year round.  We prepare by clothing the naked, and not just with our ratty hand-me-downs that we’ve been meaning to throw out, but with the kind of clothes that we ourselves would wear.  We prepare by welcoming those who feel estranged or unwanted, not just by handing them a bulletin at the door of our church, but by sitting with them, asking them to tell their story, and inviting them to coffee hour or to one of the many Christmas parties we have planned.  We prepare by loving our enemies, not just by saying that we hope they change their ways, but by genuinely praying for them, commending them into the care of the God who loves them, even when our hatreds are so very fierce.  We prepare by striving for justice and peace for all God’s children, not just by hoping for change but in action inspired by prayer, by speaking up against the sins of racism, misogyny, and systemic violence and oppression.  We prepare, in the words of St. Augustine, by praying as if everything depended upon God and working as if everything depended upon us!"

These are ways that we prepare the way of the Lord.  Not with gloom and doom, or with fear and dread, but with energy, excitement, and the same hope we hear in Isaiah, Mark, and Second Peter.  How can we be so hopeful in our preparation when the task seems so daunting and the world seems so insane?  Because of Jesus!   What we do we do with the very love of Jesus in us, stirring our hearts and calling us into action.  It has been said that God is a woman, and that her house is a mess!  Well then, if that's the case, let’s get out there and clean it up and get it ready for the greatest guest of all to come in and take up residence once again.

Prepare, brothers and sisters.  Prepare your hearts for Jesus to be born in you anew this year, but what's more, prepare this world for his coming in real and meaningful ways, by praying as Jesus prayed and doing for others exactly the things that he himself did when he was here the first time around.  He is the greatest guest of all, the one for whose coming we should be hopeful, not fearful.  Together, let us prepare this world to meet him.  

Friday, December 8, 2017


For those who have been following the social media campaign #AdventWord, the word that was used for this past Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent was 'awaken.'  #Awaken.  It's a fitting word to describe the beginning of Advent, the time when we prepare for Jesus to be born anew in our lives, for Christ to be awakened once more.  It's like a whisper on the ever-cooling winds, inviting us.  Awaken.  From what?  To what? 

With Advent comes a new season and a new start to the church year.  Gone is our Ordinary Time with its day-in, day-out routines.  They’re comfortable, but comfort can lead to complacency, and by this time of year many of us find ourselves tired and weary, and we’re not sure why.  Perhaps because we have been lulled into a dream-like state by the intoxications of our so-called Ordinary Time, and our anything but ordinary world. We see some pretty extra-ordinary things happening around us, yet we are so numb to them that we write them off as normal, ordinary.  We see people in power abusing that power, people dying in senseless ways, and humanity continue to destroy this planet of ours, yet when we see it all we just shrug and say, "That's ordinary." If we settle in too much into the ordinary we can get caught in that dream-like state.  Still, by the grace of God, it happens again every year:  here comes Advent, reaching out to us, calling us to awaken from that ordinary state, to breathe in something new that is not so intoxicating, something that will allow fresh life to be born in us as we wait for him to be born.

It’s like a scene in The Matrix, one of my favorite films, and one of the most theologically rich films ever made. The protagonist, Neo, finds himself in a world that is ordinary, routine-based and lulling him into an almost intoxicated state.  Deep down, though, he knows there is something more.  He meets Morpheus, a man who offers him a choice—Neo can take a blue pill and remain in this ordinary world, or he can take a red pill and be awakened to an existence that is nothing like where he is now, but one that is, in fact, his true calling.  Neo takes the red pill.  Go watch the movie and find out what the reality looks like to which he is awakened. 

Morpheus offers Neo the choice of the blue pill (stay in the ordinary world) or the red pill (wake up) in The Matrix. 

Advent is like Morpheus, reaching out to us and inviting us to awaken to our own true callings.  We get so caught up in the day-to-day grind—get up, go to work, come home, eat at some point, fret over the state of our world, go to sleep, get up and do it all over again—that we seldom stop to pay attention to that invitation that God is giving us to something that is not so ordinary.  Advent is that invitation, and it is not just about remembering Jesus’ awakening from the darkness of eternity and being born into our world, rather it is a present reality that invites us all to be awakened to who it is God is calling us to be. 

We use the word call a lot in church circles, especially with regard to people who have gone to seminary.  Those folks have to routinely answer questions about their call:  when did you feel it, what do you think it means, how will it change in five years???  It can be overwhelming.  Honestly, though, call is something that God puts on the heart of every person, not just those with fancy degrees from seminaries, but when you’ve got this kind of world vying for your time and attention, it’s hard to hear or see God, or to even find time in the day to be with God.  We end up feeling like Isaiah felt, like God is distant, hiding from us (Isaiah 64: 1-9).  All we want is for God to come and give us the red pill and wake us up.

The truth, however, is that God is always there, even when the noise and stress of Ordinary Time overwhelms us.  Even when the world around us is madness and we cannot see, hear, or feel God, the ever-present God that we know and love is always still there.  Isaiah knew that, deep down.  So did Paul.  “God is faithful!” he told the Corinthians (I Corinthians 1: 9).  That means that God does not give up on us, even when all around us is madness, even when we can’t hear or see God or understand the call that is being given to us.  God comes to us now in the stillness of this season of Advent, inviting us to be awakened.  To be awakened is to know our true calling, that one thing that only we can do, the one way that only we, and nobody else, can grow the Kingdom of God. When we are awakened to our own calling, then, we can heed Jesus words to keep awake, to hold fast to that calling in spite of the madness (Mark 13: 37).  Keeping awake means knowing our calling and living into it each and everyday.  Advent reminds us that we are waiting not only for Jesus to be born anew in us, but we are waiting for his coming again.  If we keep awake, living into the call Jesus has placed on our hearts, then when he comes he will find a world that is ready for him.  

Awaken, brothers and sisters.  Awaken your hearts and minds to the love of God that is ever-present in your lives.  Awaken your spirits to your own calling, to a reality that is more real than anything you’ve ever known.  God is inviting each of you.  It can sometimes be like a parent trying to awaken a sleeping child, and we might might need to yawn and stretch and move about, but the invitation for us sleepers to awaken is still there. It will not pass away, for it is of God.  What does your call, your awakening from the ordinary, look like?  Welcome to Advent.