Monday, December 31, 2012

The Seventh Day of Christmas---Back-up to the Baptizer

John the Baptist. There's a character. He's more often associated with Advent, the season before Christmas, but indulge me here. He's an interesting piece of the story.

A couple of weeks ago, at the church I'm joining, John made an "appearance" as an interruption to the service, shouting and gesticulating wildly. Being theatrically trained, I watched for cues and realized soon enough that it was a performance, but it was convincing enough to truly frighten a few people in the congregation.

That experience has raised all kinds of questions for the congregation, but here's a few to think about in relation to Jesus.

A couple of years ago, in this blog, I wondered about "The Kind of People Who Follow Jesus." It seems it's worth wondering about the kind of people who point us to Jesus as well.

Consider: Here was the son of a Temple priest, probably heir to some kind of nice robes at the very least. Still, we find John, as an adult, on the banks of a river wearing rough clothes and eating locust and wild honey.

We'd probably shake our heads and wonder if he had a bump on the head or a bad experience with recreational chemicals. We'd be sad for poor Zechariah and Elizabeth, who are probably dead by now, and we'd wonder what might have happened had John been born to younger parents, who maybe would have lived long enough to see him into a more respectable life.

For the most part, I don't think many---if any---of us would have taken him seriously.

Many of the saints through the centuries have urged us to see Christ in the face of the poor. It's a practice worth keeping as I meet homeless folk daily in my life in the big city.

What I say next, I don't say with any glib expectation that this is easy or heartwarming, but I say it anyway in this season of Incarnation.

Maybe it's worth also listening. If we do not find the Messiah in their words, perhaps we'll be pointed in the right direction.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Sixth Day of Christmas---Of Man-Gods and Stars

The Gospels were written in a very different culture than what I experience as an American in the 21st Century. In my time and place, we want things to say what they mean and mean what they say. In Hellenistic Rome, they did likewise to a point, but not in the sense we think of reportage with just the facts. They wrote with analogy and symbolism and with mythological imagery that we would call "not true" when we it's mostly just not factual.

I have a hard time imagining the religious world of the Roman Empire. Here in Houston, Texas, there's a great deal more religious diversity than what I grew up with, but then where I grew up, in rural central Texas, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and two kinds of Lutherans pretty much made up the main claim to religious diversity. First Century Roman culture provided an expansive pantheon of religious expressions, some required by the Empire, some suppressed by it.

One of the religions (broadly defined) was the cult of the divine Emperor. Caesar was not only emperor but also a god worthy of worship. I'm not clear when or how godhood was was bestowed upon them---it appears sometimes it was while they were alive, sometimes after death.

Some years ago, I went through what I now refer to as my "Roman history phase." I was interested in what world Christianity entered and how it took hold. I don't know that I've retained any insights from that phase, but I do recall this story.

A custom at the death of a major figure was to hold games in their honor. These games, as near as I can tell, might be athletic competitions, chariot races, gladiatorial matches, maybe even theatrical events. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, some games were organized (in part, it seems, to placate an unhappy populace). During these games, a comet appeared in the sky. This comet was popularly understood to be the soul of Julius Caesar and a sign that he had ascended to godhood.

The text I was reading did not make this connection, and historically the event of Julius Caesar's death and the birth of Jesus is separated by 4 to 5 decades. Still, the immediate connection I made was the story of the Magi and star they followed to find Jesus.

Assuming that the story of Caesar's comet survived in popular consciousness for that long, I suddenly saw Matthew's story of Jesus' nativity as a dig at the Roman cult of emperors. Here is a presumably Jewish writer saying, "So, a star appeared at the funeral of your emperor and you think that makes him a god? Look, our savior was born God, a star shining over him from the start."

Boom! Take that Caesar!

As I think I said in a previous post, the stories are important, not in their factual details, but in the way they tell us who Jesus is to us. If there was a star (I feel certain I've seen stories of modern astronomers trying to account for a celestial event about the time of Jesus' birth), if there were Magi, I cannot say. I have no way to enter into a "prove this" sort of argument about those stories.

What I can enter into is a conversation about what that story means to us Christians, how we view Jesus as our true king or emperor, how we count the Reign of God that Jesus preached as the realm to which we pledge our highest allegiance.

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As a side note, I'm just going to say something that may or may not be read with some snark in it. I'm simply amused by this: We Christians, who generally will have little to nothing to do with astrology, nonetheless have in our scriptures the story of astrologers who somehow prove Jesus to be the Messiah. That is all.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Fifth Day of Christmas---Practice Incarnation

The Word became flesh, we say, and marvel this time of the year at a baby holding all of God and all of humanity. We speak of "incarnation" as if it were something God did and we are somehow separate from it. We celebrate flesh and we denigrate it, often in the same moment.

We use "body-mind-spirit" as a marketing phrase and yet it seems most of us count each of those as distinctly separate "things," each important and somewhat connected but existing alone.

I bristle at the notion that we are merely spirit trapped in material. I bristle at the notion that we are only body, an animal with a particular personality. Without breath (ruach, pneuma, spirit) we are, in fact just a pile of water and some protein and carbon compounds. Without a body, we are just wind.

We proclaim Jesus fully human and fully God. Maybe we need to remember that we are fully body and fully spirit.

Just as I've said this Christmas season that there is a cost to following the Christ child and it include the ever-present shadow of the cross, I'll now say this notion of Incarnation is tightly connected to Resurrection.

The poet Wendell Berry has encouraged us to "practice resurrection" and this has become a personal mantra. I've asked performers working with me to do so as a movement meditation before rehearsals begin.

And today, it occurs to me that it might be just as important to "practice incarnation," and all the ways that might matter to those around us. If we teach that Christ took on flesh for the salvation of the world, we might consider that we are likewise enfleshed for reasons other than our own amusement.

Practice incarnation. Practice resurrection. Practice birth, rebirth, life.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Fourth Day of Christmas---Feast of the Holy Innocents

Today is the day we remember the slaughter of innocent bystanders, children under the age of two years old. How this became a "festival" day, I'm not sure.

If you want to read the story, it's in Matthew, Chapter 2.

Reading the story today, I'm struck by questions and demands of God that are, I realize, probably the questions and demands of a democratized world, where we understand us all to be equal and worthy of fair play. This is not the world of first century Palestine, where I believe it was more readily accepted that some people were blessed, protected, worthy and others weren't. Such is a world with royalty and birthrights and such.

Still, I can't help but ask how God could warn Joseph to take Jesus out of Bethlehem and not warn the other parents?

Well, no matter. This is the story we have and it's likely the writer of it was simply playing up how important the toddler Jesus was. That's how mythological thinking (as opposed to the more modern historical thinking, or news reporting mindset) works.

Beyond the details of the dream warnings and successful escape of the Holy Family, this is another somewhat shocking story for the Christmas season, especially as understood by too many people, religious and secular. We have the birth of the savior, redeemer, liberator---and it's still a bloody, violent world. The Prince of Peace is despised and hunted and seen as a threat to the powerful; those who follow the Prince of Peace are likewise targeted.

And those mad with power (or simply mad) will not care who gets in the way.

Which is why we, in a democracy (writing from the standpoint as an American), must do our part to see that the powerful do not destroy the powerless. Even more, we need to help the powerful to see that their power is a mirage, an idol, incapable of making truly any more powerful than any of us.

We are all vulnerable. We are all powerless. We are all in danger of being innocent bystanders in the wars waged by those who don't understand this.

I'll close with a prayer I found on, the prayer appointed for today:

Blessed are you, weeping God,
whose heart is pierced by the cry of the innocent.
You receive into your arms
those whose lives are wasted in violence;
You confront the powers of fear
with the confident power of love;
and you help us to stand with all of your creation
which bears the weight of cruelty and greed.
For these and all your mercies, we praise you:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Blessed be God for ever!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Third Day of Christmas---Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist

Well, this is awkward. There are bits of Johannine literature that I find lovely, but much more of it is problematic, at least to me (and some other people). Add to the fact that I find no need to harmonize the various Johannine texts as being written by one individual (to me, it's fairly clear they're not, although they certainly are texts in conversation with each other, possibly from one community of early Christians), and I'm not sure what to do with this feast day. (Wikipedia has a pretty good overview of all this, for those who want to read up on it.)

It's also slightly humorous to me that John gets the third day of Christmas as his feast day, when we do not get a birth narrative from him, no angel choirs, no shepherds, no manger, nothing.

The Gospel of John is the most different of the four canonical gospels, and many scholars believe it to have the least relation to the historical Jesus.

And there's the whole thing with John constantly referring to "the Jews" as if Jesus and his first followers weren't Jewish, setting in motion a long and horrific history of antisemitism . . . well, here we are.

The Third Day of Christmas, the Feast Day of St. John the Evangelist.

We still have the poetry and mystery of that fist chapter of John. "In the beginning was the Word . . . "

It is the most incarnational of the Gospels, emphasizing the embodiment of God among humanity, the God with us (even if it is Matthew's Gospel that uses the name Emmanuel, not John). And if John and I might have a lengthy and occasionally heated discussion about what that means for each of us, I do still find that fist chapter of John, the traditional reading for Christmas Eve in liturgical churches, to put me in another mind-space, a place of pondering the God who has lived, is living, and lives on with us.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

How do we not catch our breath and hold out our hands for this promise?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Second Day of Christmas---The Feast of Stephen

Earlier today, I pulled out my Bible and read the story of Stephen, in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6-8, primarily 6-7. (If you want to read it and don't have a Bible, you can find online Bibles easily enough. I mostly use the Oremus Bible Browser.)

A few things struck me about this story.

Like Jesus, he was brought before a council of judgment on trumped up charges. Unlike Jesus, he defended himself with a long monolog (amazingly long, really---the writer of Acts seems to have thought this very important to spend the parchment and time writing it out).

Stephen's "defense," if you want to call it that, was basically a recounting of the salvation story for Israel, from Abraham, through Moses, to the building of the Temple. He doesn't even mention Jesus by name in his speech, but he does tell the council that they are in line not with Abraham and Moses and David, but with those who opposed the prophets. He appears to give this history lesson because the charge against him is that he has spoken against Moses and the Law, against the Temple and its customs. He soundly demonstrates that he knows the stories of the established religion. Had he stopped with the recounting of the story of Israel without telling the council the part they play in it, he might have lived to be an old man.

But he spoke to the council without hesitation and with boldness that they were in opposition to the movement of the Holy Spirit. This was enough to get Stephen dragged out of the city and stoned to death.

The stoning is an interesting detail, given the contrast to Jesus' death. With Jesus, it appears to be a long-brewing plot with a desire to make the Romans the bad guys and so a death by Roman means---the cross, which the Jews were not allowed to use. With Stephen, he gets a quicker "trial" and is dispatched by a means allowed by the Law. The Jewish council seemed less worried about taking the matter of Stephen in their own hands. Not sure we can say why. Perhaps Stephen wasn't as popular as Jesus.

Of course, the ending of Stephen's story---paralleling Jesus' prayer for forgiveness for his murderers---has the added twist the most important voice of the canonical New Testament writings is there approving of the stoning. Saul, later Paul, is not participating in the stoning of the first Christian martyr, but he's present, watching, and approving. 

So on this Feast of Stephen, the questions that arise for me are:

In what way have I acted (or am acting) as the religion's traditionalists, throwing out the Spirit-filled voice on trumped up charges because I did not like what this voice had to say?

In what way have I stood by approvingly and how have I been converted to the very thing I persecuted? (I can answer that in one concrete way: I, a gay man, used to speak against LGBT folk in the church, or at least against their ordination, and I certainly wouldn't have been for anything resembling marriage rites for same-sex couples. I may not have stoned anyone, but I stood by and watched. Who do I stand by and approvingly watch get stoned now?)

When, where, and how am I willing to follow in Stephen's footsteps, speaking truth to power, willing to die for my convictions, and praying for those with rocks in their hands?

I've long believed that as the church calendar developed, there is something fitting and horrifically right that we remember Stephen on the second day of Christmas, the day after we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It's too easy to make these twelve days a sentimental greeting card about a newborn and angels.

There is joy in the journey, and there is a cost to discipleship. We forget the latter so easily, it's good we have Stephen to remind us immediately after singing "Joy to the World."

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

First Day of Christmas---The Liberator is Born

The funny thing about Bible stories is that their importance is seldom in the facts behind them. More often, it is in the power of the story itself. The funny thing about stories is that who and where you are can intensify the power.

It took me a long, long time to come to this place. Let me say that up front. There was a time when my faith depended upon the stories in the Bible to be historical, factual. I no longer believe that to be the case.

But I do believe in the power of the stories. I also believe I can be much edified by the perspective of others. To that end, I offer this long paragraph from Dorothea Soelle's Thinking About God (page 41). Briefly, just before this paragraph, Soelle has been comparing orthodox theology and liberal theology (by which she means specific things, I think, but suffice to say, that'll get us to this paragraph).

But liberation theology with a Latin American stamp is quite different: here the theme of the virgin birth is not superfluous, but is bound up with the struggle for liberation. It is decisive for the liberator to come into the world from among the poor. The majority of people in Latin America are born out of wedlock; many do not know who their father is. The situation of the young woman who is expecting a child without being able to count on protection or help is quite normal. She gets into difficulties; perhaps asks an older friend like Elizabeth for advice; she is afraid of being abandoned, of being punished for infidelity. These are all normal situations which often happen in our society too. They are incorporated into liberation theology like this: Mary is one of us; she gives birth to the light, the liberator, the redeemer. In the gospel of the peasants of Solentiname, the angel who announces the birth to her is regarded as 'subversive': And Mary immediately also becomes subversive in listening to this message. I believe that she already felt as though she were going into the undeground. The birth of a liberator must be kept secret. That is a complete new approach to the story; it is quite different when one thinks from the perspective of the poor, moreover of the poorest, the wives of the poor. In this sense, the story of the virgin birth is not made superfluous by criticism, but understood in a different way. Here liberation theology takes up the orthodox paradigm, but at the same time understands it differently in the framework of this new exegesis, from the poor/for the poor. It no longer conveys hostility to sexuality and domination, but subversion and rebellion. For liberal theology the virgin birth is a stumbling block which is best removed. For liberation theology it is a piece of bread.

Things like the virgin birth are not things I'm willing to argue about. Whether it is a factual or historical event or if it is a mythologizing of Jesus' origins so as to convey in the shorthand of the day who Jesus was---these matters do not absorb my attention. What does catch my attention is that we understand something of what the story tells us about power structures in this world, and even more my attention is caught by the understanding that someone without any power has of these power structures.

From the perspective of the poorest (which is not who I am), the important piece isn't if Mary never "knew" a man. The important piece is that God chose to take flesh within (and hence among) the powerless.

We can look at the story as an example of God's power to create a baby without the benefit of sex, or we can look at the story of the example that God's power comes from weakness, or at least weakness as we tend to understand it.

This is big to me. This is where I lose language. While I can type words around this, I can't say anything that brings into focus the enormity of this---perhaps precisely because I am enormously privileged in my culture.

However this story of a virgin giving birth strikes you, whether you hold to the orthodox view or the liberal view or the liberationist view or some other view that is separate from or an amalgamation of these views---this Christmas season, I invite you think on Soelle's last phrase above.

How is the manger story, for you, in your place, in your circumstance, a piece of bread?

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An addendum: Several weeks ago, I ran into the Reverend Michael Rinehart, bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We got to speaking of the importance of story (and the importance of a liberal arts education so one can hear and interpret story). I think I may have lied to him. 

I referenced Dorothee Soelle to him and spoke of her experience working and learning with women in Central and South America. I thought I was referencing the above passage, but I had it incredibly wrong. I thought what I told the bishop was a story from Soelle's Thinking About God, but I cannot find it back. If it was Soelle that I got this from, I'm guessing it was another book. Or else this was my own extrapolation from Soelle's words above. Or I'm just making up stuff. Anyway, what I told the bishop is something I still think is an interesting way of looking at the virgin birth story from the perspective of women who are poor and oppressed not only by their economic status but often further oppressed by the men in their lives. I do not believe this is original with me. 

I believe I read somewhere that for poor, uneducated women, the power of the virgin birth story is that they found strength to believe and hope that to bring God into the world, you do not need a man. 

Men might bristle at this---and surely men can and do bring God into the world---but for a woman who is forced to have sex, who is forced to bear children, who has no say over her own destiny, it is a subversive and hopeful and exciting thing to think that God (or, if you will, the Reign of God) can come without any of that forced-ness. A woman, an unmarried girl even, can give birth (literally or metaphorically) to someone or something that will change the world.

So this is the other thought I offer on the first day of Christmas: where in your powerlessness can you bring God's Reign into the world? Who is your Elizabeth, who you will consult and share in the secret joy of this birth? How does the Lord magnify your soul?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

You, Me, Love: Watch

Abba Arsenius contended that a monk needed only one hour of sleep each night, “if he be a fighter.”

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Love keeps vigil.

Watch your neighbor as yourself. Not in some creepy, spying way. Watch for depression. Watch for addiction. Watch for bullying. Watch for anger that leads to regrets. Watch me. I’ll watch you. Intervene where necessary. Love watches without judgment. Love watches without seeking power over another.

Love keeps vigil.

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Some things are beyond our control. Most things are beyond our control. I’m not entirely where I want to be at this point in life. Did I not keep vigil? Was someone not watching me closely enough? Had one of us been watching more carefully, intervened, could I have avoided this spot?

Or am I in this spot to watch for a miracle? 

Whether led to this place by God or stumbled here by carelessness, I must practice vigilance. I must watch with the presumption that I’m needed here. This does not excite me. Perhaps it should.

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All this watching and, honestly, I can’t see. Can you? Some claim they can. It’s not a moral failing, this blindness. It’s not my fault or my parents'. I can only hope to run into someone to put some mud on my eyes and open them, if only for brief moments. I can only hope that walking by faith, not sight, will get me somewhere . . . else.

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Abba Arsenius  was wrong, of course. We know everyone needs more than an hour of sleep each night. His dedication to keeping vigil remains admirable, however. I’d like to emulate his resolve. It’s just hard to know where to focus attention. There are many distractions, many problems, many points of overwhelm. I want to sleep in self-defense.

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It’s not only about my not being where I want to be. I know so few people who are. I keep vigil not only for myself, but for those around me. I watch for language that denigrates those who cannot defend themselves. I watch for power gone awry.

And for miracles.

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I need more than one hour of sleep a night. Love keeps vigil.