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.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Consequences of Hearing - Christmas V 2016

Luke's Gospel tells us about shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night.

You need to know something about shepherds in first century Bethlehem. They did not rank high on the social scale. They were dirty, smelly, probably of poor manners --- not the people you invited to a nice party with the nice china.

And this is who God chose to hear about the birth of the Messiah. Not the Temple, not the Palace, but the fields with smelly, poor, shepherds.

To me, the shepherds are one of the great dropped plot lines in literature. They see the angels, they go see the baby Jesus, they go back to work, never to be heard from again.

But it seems to me that there are consequences to being a witness to all this. There are consequences to hearing the Good News (glad tidings) of great joy. Can you really just go back to work after that?

Well, yes, you can when you have to in order to keep your job.

When Jesus began his public ministry some 30 years later, he attracted people similar to those shepherds. Fishermen (who handled nets of fish in days before easy access to showers) and such. Jesus told them the Reign of God was at hand and for them. Unpopular folk like tax collectors responded to Jesus. They heard in Jesus' words that their shady business (look, they had families to feed) did not automatically bar them from the love of God.

Certainly, the people from the Temple and the Palace heard Jesus, too, but they couldn't hear Jesus.

They were too rich or powerful or too concerned with being rich or powerful. Not being able to hear that God favors the poor, the outcast, the smelly, the morally questionable, they tended to ask Jesus about laws and morals, which Jesus usually turned back on them.

I think we in the so-called First World have a hard time hearing Jesus, too. We're too wealthy or concerned with wealth and we end up worshiping security.

Even as I write these words, I think of all the ways I can't hear Jesus. My material comforts and daily showers clog my ears in ways I seldom recognize in the moment. And, let's face it, hearing Jesus---or angels or any good tidings of great joy---has consequences.

The teachings of Jesus have shaped and guided my life. There is more shaping and guiding to come---if only I have ears to hear.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Consequences of Light - Christmas IV 2016

[Note: Yesterday was the Feast of John the Evangelist, but I got ahead of myself and posted about the Holy Innocents, who are actually remembered on this day. So things are a bit out of order and backwards. Welcome to my life.]

"I can't unsee that" is a common comment on social media, particularly something that is disturbing or unpleasant (which, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but that's another discussion).

Being unable to "unsee" something is, however, a two-way street. We may hold images that are unpleasant in our memory, but also the beautiful, the enlightening.

This is how it is with me, at least. And what's more, what has been enlightened, pushes back the darkness.

The Gospel of John, while having some of the best writing in the Bible, is problematic for me. John's Jesus is the most self-assured, most self-aware-as-God of the gospels. This is a triumphalist Jesus with little room for doubt or questions. (This is why, of course, that evangelistic organizations tend to hand out individual booklets of the Gospel of John.) Then there's the issue with it being most oft quoted by anti-Semites because it's written at a time when the nascent church was struggling with it's identity and separating itself from the parent religion, resulting in some easily twisted passages blaming "the Jews" for all manner of things.

I can't read the Gospel of John and not notice the problems with it

And yet it gives us so much more than problems. Like the famous opening lines:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

The light of all the people. The darkness did not overcome it. I cannot unsee that.

I feel a darkness in the world right now. An encroaching shadow that would like to overcome a lot of good accomplished. At this moment in my life, I feel a foreboding unlike anything I've ever felt before.

The Gospel of John teaches me darkness cannot overcome light.

I'm looking around for some candles to light.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Consequences of Weakness - Christmas III 2016 The Holy Innocents

[Edit: Hours after posting this, I realized I'd gotten ahead of myself a day. December 28 is when we remember the Holy Innocents. This entry should have been for John the Evangelist. So, this year, John and the Innocents are transposed. Perhaps I'll do better next year.]

In case the Feast of Stephen wasn't enough to check the triumphalism of Christmas Day, the church gives the Third Day of Christmas to the Holy Innocents.

It's a terrible story, included only in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men, after consulting Herod, have just found Jesus (not in a manger but still in Bethlehem and apparently not quite two years old) and then they have a dream (dreams are Very Big for Matthew's Gospel) that warns them to avoid Herod on their way home. Herod, in his rage, orders all the male babies under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. Joseph, however, has a dream that warns him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt before this can happen.

There's so much to unravel in this story, not the least of which being why all the parents of infants couldn't get a dream to get out of town? In higher criticism, we talk about how Matthew is concerned with giving symbols that a Jewish readership/listener would recognize. Hence all the references to the Prophets. (I contend, however, Matthew is sufficiently Hellenized to have conflated the Hebrew prophets with the Greek oracles, and the damage done follows us to this day. But I digress.)

I don't want to talk about all that this year. (So if you got bogged down in that last paragraph---don't worry about it.)

Anyone who has read any of my Christmas postings over the last few years know that I read the Gospel stories as political stories. They're not only political stories, but they definitely take place within a particular political situation, with men who exercised power absolutely. And here's what I want you to notice.

When people with power (absolute or not) feel threatened, they tend to do what they need to in order to keep their power and position. Powerful people seldom consistently do nice things for poor or weak (physically or politically) people. The weak are apt to become collateral damage in their efforts to maintain power (note every war ever waged).

And what's more, they don't care if you support them or not. They appreciate the support while they have it, but ultimately don't really need you when they have a larger agenda.

We don't really know how many infants were killed in this slaughter. There's no extra-canonical reference to it, so it's questioned if it really happened or if it was just a literary device for Matthew to reference Rachel and her children. I've read an article somewhere years ago that took into account the assumed population of the time and figured that if it happened, it was likely under 20 male infants in all of Bethlehem. So if it really happened, one theory goes, it wasn't a big enough slaughter to be recorded anywhere else. For the Empire, it was just another day at the office.

But assuming it did happen, are we to assume that all the families who lost infants were anti-Herod? Probably not. Surely some of those families liked Herod and his rule well enough, and if they'd had a chance to vote, whould have voted for him.

There's where I want to draw your attention. Even in my country, our democracy, it's never safe to assume that we're safe because we support the president in office. If they feel sufficiently threatened (or if they have a sufficiently fragile ego), they won't care if you voted for them or not. If they feel that a broad-based pogrom is justified, there will be no protection for anyone. There won't be time or bureaucracy enough to figure out which of the little people are worth protecting. They're after this one goal, and if it takes out all the infants in a town to achieve that goal, so be it.

Now, this isn't to cause paranoia or fear---it's just describing how things are. It's not even a call to exercise our (in the USA) Second Amendment Rights. Those rights won't mean anything if the full fury of Empire comes down on you.

It's to say that while most of us are weak, lacking in political power, we have a God who became flesh and lived among us----not among the powerful, among us, the weak. He resisted and saved a few people. He was crushed but he lived on in a community that, at it's best, continues to resist Empire.

Obviously, I'm not naming names this season. The names are less important than the patterns.

We often quote Paul and his assertion that in our weakness we are made strong. I actually do believe that. Nothing I wrote above is an argument against that.

As I ponder the consequences of Christmas, however, I simply state: Here are the consequences of being weak. It is our strength, yes, and the blood is still real.

A note about today's photo: This was an accidental photo taken last summer. I had my hand pressed against the lens and pointed at the sun when I accidentally hit the button to take a photo. This photo, therefore, is my flesh as seen through the sun. It seemed like a good photo for today.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Consequences of Speaking- Christmas II 2016 The Feast of Stephen

The Feast of Stephen, the first Christian martyr recorded in scripture. We remember his witness and his stoning before the Christmas dinner leftovers are barely touched.

It's a peculiar and torturous form of execution, stoning. Look it up and you can find different practices over the centuries, but there are a few things worth noting.

It's a collective execution. It's not a single executioner dropping the guillotine, pulling the trigger, opening the trapdoor beneath the noose. There are executioners, a community of them, acting in agreement. Sometimes the judge who set the sentence gets to throw the first stone, sometimes a witness to the crime.

Sometimes this first stone-thrower purposefully uses a small stone that couldn't possible kill on first strike. Wound, sure, but not kill. It's an execution sometimes designed to take a while. In terms of a quick and painless death, it ranks with crucifixion as being among the least humane.

And what did Stephen do to get this condemnation?

He talked back. He spoke up. Really, he just defended himself.

Do some good things, get some recognition, and the powerful will come along and try to tear you down. The powerful will see your popularity as a threat to their power and so they'll turn public opinion against you if they can. They'll lie if they have to.

The writer of Acts takes pains to create parallels between Stephen's arrest and execution and the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, but in one matter the stories differ. Stephen speaks up and gives an extended defense of himself.

Not that it mattered.

We observe these saints and martyrs days with some admiration for their courage, witness, and faith. There are numerous women and men throughout the last 2,000 years to admire, both named and unknown. They are worthy of admiration. At the same time, I regret that their lives played out that way and would wish there would be  no more. I might hope that I would be so courageous in the face of persecution, but I really wish it not to happen.

We don't get to choose these things. Did Oscar Romero set out to be murdered when he spoke up for the poor? I don't think that's how it works. Still, he spoke up because it was right and true. His death was quicker than Stephen's but the lineage is the same. Replying to power, telling power where it is wrong and misapplied, can and often does get you killed.

We need not be surprised if it comes to our turn.

I've long found it interesting and instructive that we follow the birth of the Incarnate God with a martyr's feast day. It's a tension of celebration of God's humility followed by the cost of it. At our best, we accept this and continue to work of Jesus, inspired, like Stephen, by the Holy Spirit. Occasionally you have a powerful person giving up their power to follow Jesus, but it seems more often they cling to the power, ignoring their shared Image of God, deny the Image of God in others, and serve only their ego and amassed power.

Speaking out has consequences and our frail bodies receive them.

 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. [Acts 7:54-57]

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Consequences of Incarnation - Christmas I 2016

Being human has consequences.

While (or just before) angels were singing to shepherds watching their flocks by night, a young woman, a teenager by most estimations, was giving bloody birth to a child in less than optimum conditions.

Our story goes that this newborn was God incarnate. In-carne. God made of meat.

This baby, named Jesus by his mother and her betrothed, was all the mess any other baby is at birth. He had to be cleaned up before he was wrapped in swaddling clothing.

No doubt, his diapers stank.If Jesus was a child like any of us, he had a colds, scraped his knees, and knew all manner of hardships a child might experience in first century Palestine.

Because those are the bare minimal consequences of being meat. We bleed, perspire, vomit when we're sick. We defecate, urinate, expectorate, ejaculate. We're gross.

It's a wonder, really.

Our story goes that the God of all creation became meat and all the mess that entails.

Stinky diapers and runny noses, yes, but also the world of the senses, experienced within the nerves running through the meat. One might argue that the God who created everything would know the scent of roses and the softness of skin and the music of birds and depth of a starry night.

But can God, who is the fullness of creation, understand hunger? And would  a pot of stew smell as good until you experienced hunger?

This meatiness is frail and strong, able to feel pain and ecstasy. We are full of healing capacity and ultimately corruptible. 

I am about equal parts full of faith and full of doubt bout these stories, but they have shaped and are shaping my life. Today we tell the story of baby Jesus, who we also say was fully human and fully God. Full of glory and full of frailty.

I am pondering this year the consequences of it all, because there were, are, will be consequences.

Friday, December 2, 2016

#adventword #light

I took two photos this morning and couldn't decide . . .