Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Consequences of Glory - Christmas XII 2017

Glory to God in the highest . . . 

Praise and thanksgiving and honor and magnificence and splendor . . .

We like the glory parts of the story and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, I want to end this Christmas run on it because it is part of the story.

I've been in a mood this season and so I've been a little focused on the less than pleasant parts of the story. It's easy to do, particularly when you feel like the world keeps taking a turn for the worst. The cross feels very relevant to me these days.

While I definitely believe we have to remember the cross---I could never belong to a church that skipped Good Friday---it must never overshadow all the ways that the story tells us that hardship, persecution, and death are not the totality of the story.

There are the heavenly host teaching us how to praise God. There are lilies in the field that out-glory Solomon in all his glory. There are miracles and healing. The hard things exist in the middle of all this. The glory doesn't make the hardships not hard, but it points to there being more than just the hardships.

There is Resurrection.

Glory to God.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Consequences of Obscurity - Christmas XI 2017

This is all pure speculation.

Every once in a while, one of my atheist or spiritual but not religious friends will post an article quoting one scholar or another about how Jesus was unlikely to have been a historical figure. I seldom get involved in the subsequent thread, but will often follow it for a bit, see where it goes.

Now, I feel like I need to say upfront that I'm not one of those Christians that feels like he has to defend every little question about my religion. If it were possible to provide incontrovertible evidence that Mary, Joseph, Jesus and the 12 disciples were all pure works of fiction, I don't know what difference that would make to me at this point. I recognize that a lot of the gospel story is a mythologizing of  . . . someone? I've read enough "historical Jesus" material to find it all interesting but not faith-threatening. I think if I were to have denounced Christianity, as I toyed with some 15+ years ago, I would have done it by now, but these stories, for better and worse, have shaped me, shaped my life and since my one attempt at dumping it all failed, I figure I'm here to stay.

But I'm as prone to speculate as anyone and often these proclamations of the fictional nature of the gospels rests on more or less on major  premise: Jesus is not mentioned in any non-Biblical material, anywhere. Well, there's the one mention of him in Josephus, but I've seen the argument that some zealous Christian added that to Josephus' history. I don't know. I wasn't there and I haven't researched that claim.

Reading the Bible stories about Jesus, it's easy to get the impression that he was like some rock star, getting huge crowds everywhere he went, known by everyone. Did he really attract 5000 that one time? Having grown up near a town of just under 3,000 population, I have to say I suspect some hyperbole on the part of the gospel writers. Was Jesus' triumphant entry int Jerusalem really create traffic jams and crowded sidewalks? I suspect that, too has some hyperbole. It was clearly enough to get the attention of the authorities, but how many would that take? I see protests on street corners here in Houston that attract law officers and there's maybe 100, 150 at those. And Houston has, I'm pretty sure, a much larger population that than Jerusalem did at the time. If Jesus did gather a couple of hundred folk, that would have been upsetting to the power structure.

But Jesus wasn't the only wandering preacher of the time. He wasn't the only figure to gain a following. One thing that Rome did well was that it squashed anything that looked the least bit threatening to their power structure.

So Jesus was just another bug to step on, really. He, and John before him, may have run foul of the powers that were, but it's hard to know how many like him there were. Jesus and the two thieves were not the only ones to be crucified, not by a long shot.

Thus my speculation goes like this: Only the few around him would have considered writing down stories about him. It was the growing numbers of people who shared the Jesus stories that made them famous.Otherwise, he was more or less just another obscure preacher with a penchant for pissing off powerful people.

In some ways, this obscurity, this hard-to-pin-down-historically aspect of Jesus fits the general point of the Incarnation. God became human, and not even a famous human, but this unremarkable, popular-with-the-wrong-people sort of human.

Of course that sort of obscurity---a sort of humility, really---that creates the theories that Jesus never existed as a historical figure.

 (Take a moment to compare to the stories, rumors, and controversies about someone like William Shakespeare, who lived a more popular and public life and only 400 years ago.)
And now that I've had my say about that, I probably won't engage on the topic again.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Consequences of Impossible - Christmas X 2017

The story we have (in Luke) goes like this:

Mary was a virgin. Elizabeth was beyond child-bearing years. Neither had any business giving birth.

Zechariah found it impossible, too, despite getting the news directly from an angel in the Temple. He lost his voice for questioning what God can do.

Mary, too, questioned Gabriel, but she didn't get the sentence of silence that Zechariah got. Perhaps her youth spared her or his status as a priest should have made him more receptive to angels appearing.

And honestly, I have to wonder about people who are being addressed by an angel and then question what they're being told. The angel appearing made perfect sense, the message did not.

Still, here's what the story tells us---the virgin and the post-menopausal both give birth. It's a recurring theme throughout the Hebrew scriptures, too, particularly the "barren" giving birth. The whole Jewish religion begins with such a story in Sarah.

But because I'm in a warning sort of mood this Christmas, I can't help but notice and point out that both of this boys, Elizabeth's and Mary's impossible children, they come to sad, cruel ends at the hands of powerful people. In most stories, told from the perspective of the powerful, these endings would be all there is to it.

Fast forward some 20 centuries and you have powerful people claiming the stories of John and Jesus as their own. They find no irony in claiming to be followers of Jesus while acting like Herod and Pilate.They take the impossible and turn it into the mundane, the banal.

We have to remember the impossible work of God. It is work that upends our ideal of what makes sense and what the natural order of things should be. It becomes stories that are first squashed and then co-opted by the powerful. They result in obscure wilderness preachers being remembered for centuries even as we remember the rulers of the time only for the way they opposed the preachers.

The impossible has it's consequences, but it is the way of God. We lose our way when we forget it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Consequences of Hope - Christmas IX 2017

I'm moving a bit beyond the tradition Christmas stories today, but I'm thinking about Simeon. Here's what Luke has to tell us:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
   according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
   and for glory to your people Israel."

 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too." [Luke 2:25-35]  

Simeon had lived in expectation of seeing the Messiah before he died, and when it happened, gave us this song, which in my youth we called by the Latin name, "Nunc Dimittis."  It's an "I'm ready and thank you" hymn, basically, and something I've said over dying people.

It's the next part that I'm thinking about, though, where Simeon tells the young mother that her child will have trouble in his life and that her own soul will be pierced, too.

Not the blessing a mother might hope for.

Unlike Matthew, Luke doesn't have Herod threatening the baby Jesus, nor is there the flight to Egypt and other moving around. Luke is more into foreshadowing like Simeon's blessing.

New Year's Day, I woke to a Facebook news feed full of hope and defiance for 2017. There's a general consensus that 2016 was hard for a number of reasons, the least being a contentious election with the contention unlikely to let up anytime soon. I, too, felt the urge to post something defiant and full of resistance for the year ahead. I wanted to post something about how our hope for 2017 lies in defiance and resistance.

I didn't post any of that because seeing so many such posts in succession seemed to point toward something we can't be sure of. I do feel the incoming president has given us more than enough to be concerned about, to keep vigilant about. I do think resistance will be called for.

I'm also aware of the soul-piercing will accompany this. There is more than a little potential for pain and loss. I wasn't quite ready to add that bit to the news feed.

I see friends posting memes about how the institutions won't save you. It's true, they're too much a part of the power machinery. As troubling as Simeon's words to Mary are, we will have to look, like him, for salvation in unexpected places, like the baby he's just called God's salvation.

As Christians, we are fond of saying our hope is in the name of the Lord---a scriptural enough claim. Like Simeon, though, if we pay attention and are truthful, we know that such hope costs.

I do not know the future, of course. What I know is extrapolation from history and I'm aware of similarities and differences from past eras to our current situation. I have my hope, and I like to think my hope is something more sure than just wishful thinking. It is a hope that requires action.

All of this will have consequences.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Consequences of Names - Christmas VIII 2017 The Holy Name

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. [Luke 2:21]

Today we remember the naming of Jesus. January first gets this festival due to the Jewish custom of holding the naming ritual---and circumcision---of all boy infants the eighth day after they are born. The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel to make mention of this event.

A popular notion about naming is that it gives you power over whatever is named. Over people, yes, but also other things. I've heard more than once that a proper medical diagnosis, even if it is a difficult one, is a relief because it was no longer an unknown thing and it could now be treated.

It is this "power over" theory that is often used to explain why the Hebrew God was so cagey about being named. "What is your name?" Moses asks The Almighty. "I Am who I Am," is the only name Moses gets.

Children on playgrounds call each other mean names. Nicknames sometimes get used more often than a birth name. We accept or deny a name. We form our identity around our name or names. Even names we don't accept shape us.

Names give first impressions. I've known people who would not date people with certain names. Names that are from certain ethnic groups get passed over when employers scan job applications. Parents sometimes give daughters sexually ambiguous names so their resumes won't be judged based upon gender.

On this day we remember that the God who was cagey about giving a name received a name as well as the fleshly mark of the covenant given to Abraham. Circumcision and a name becomes another way that the humility of Christ is signified.  The name of Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, gained a reputation and a following. It made him recognizable to the sick who sought him out for healing and to the soldiers who arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In receiving these human constructs, Jesus receives some of the most subtle and persistent consequences of being human. It's another way that we celebrate incarnation in this season.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Consequences of Dreams - Christmas VII 2016

The nativity story in the Gospel of Matthew is full of dreams. Like his Old Testament namesake, Joseph is forever having a dream telling him to this or that. Take Mary for his wife, even though the child she's carrying isn't his. Leave Bethlehem and head to Egypt before Herod starts his attack on infant boys. Leave Egypt because Herod is dead. But go to Galilee because Herod's son is now ruling in Judea. Then there's the dream the Wise Men had (collectively?) to go home via a Herod-avoiding route. But then, that's pretty much it. We get one more dream, from Herod's wife, at the trial of Jesus.

I think it's interesting that Jesus never dreams. Or it's never recorded that he dreams. And that the dreams are, almost exclusively, dreams of warning.

I dream often. I even often (not always) relate them on Facebook the next morning. I puzzle over some. Some have felt "more real" than others. For instance, I often dream of my deceased parents, but have only had a couple of dreams where I felt like I was being visited by one or the other. In at least one instance, I feel like I got some motherly advice.

But for the most part, I don't think of them as giving me such specific direction as "Got to Egypt" or "Avoid Herod." Oh, nearly four years ago, when I knew I had a mass on my pancreas, but didn't yet know what it was, I had a dream that in a convoluted way seemed to be my body telling me that what was going on was serious but not life-threatening---and it turned out to be right. That's about the extent of significant dreams, though.


I know other people put more stock in dreams than I do. That's sometimes most apparent in the responses I've gotten when I post the dreams to Facebook (not that I always get responses). I find them interesting and I suspect they have something to do with my inner life, and sometimes I know what it is, other times not so much.

It's New Year's Eve, the date when we tend to look forward, make plans (or resolve) for a better year ahead. We dream, but mostly waking dreams. Wishes. Maybe some hope, but I tend to distinguish between wishing and hoping and mostly we engage in wishful thinking.

This last week of 2016, I've not slept well. There have been dreams, yes, and even one that was a bit disturbing (I almost never have nightmares). Nothing that I would qualify as a warning dream, but perhaps I'm not "reading" them correctly. My waking hours are full enough of warning. Maybe my dreams don't need them.

All this free-association on dreams, biblical and personal, leads me to one thought: dreams, if they mean anything, require action. Joseph had to act on his dreams. The Wise Men, too. For dreams to have consequences, they have to move beyond the realm of dream and into the world of decision.

As the clock runs out on 2016 and we begin 2017, it is this that we might best recognize. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Consequences of Humility - Christmas VI 2016

In all the New Testament, only two gospels, only Matthew and Luke, talk about the birth of Jesus. John and Mark are silent on Jesus' earlier life and none of the letters make reference to the infancy.

If we can call the first chapter of John's gospel a Christmas text, then I think this hymn from Paul might qualify as well:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father. [Philippians 2:5-11]


No baby in a manger or angels singing, but an emptying of self to take on a lower status. It is Christ giving up the form of God and taking on human form. Incarnation. It is a hymn to Christ's humility. Humility, of course, comes from the root humus, which means earth (as in soil, not the planet).

My heroes, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, had a lot to say about humility, how it was what made all other service and love possible. It was a chosen posture that has many paradoxical consequences.

For one thing, humility has to be chosen in order for it to be humility. It's word relative, humiliation, is not humility---which is why we have a different word for it! Lowliness of stature that is not chosen is oppression, not humility. One has to have some level of power to choose humility.

For another thing, the powerful will always see the exercise of humility as a weakness. Or so they'll say. They'll say so even as they crucify, behead, or otherwise assassinate our humble ones.

We are dust and we return to dust. To know this and really own it (I don't yet, a few do) is to create fearlessness in the face of those who exercise power for their own ends, to the detriment of others.

With Mary, the teenage mother, we remember that God chooses those who are lowly. It is a defiant and costly stance. It is an obedience that leads to a cross. We know the cross is not the end of the story, but we also know the cross is real.

To sing Paul's hymn, to let the mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, is to invite trouble. And glory, true, but first trouble, real and bloody.

Humility leads to it, and saves us in it. The consequences of humility are trouble and peace within it.