Musing about “The Distress of the Privileged”

A Facebook friend suggested reading a column on The Weekly Sifting, “The Distressed of the Privileged.” This morning I set aside time to print, read, and ponder this “sifting.”

I found much to think through, but am drawn to one the “first things” in the column—privilege. I’m always on guard for conclusions slipping into lines of reasoning at the point of stating the premise. I would want to ask the author how he would define privilege and how he would distinguish it from advantage. Secondly, I would ask why he sees such a tight linkage between privilege [or advantage] and a sense of entitlement.

There are some other spots that give me reason to pause. One is where he seems to say that only certain people deserve justice. That seems to be a self-defeating or internally inconsistent notion, because if one’s concept of justice is that only some deserve justice, the critique could be that the concept is, in fact, an exercise in injustice.

I think he slips another leap in logic into his piece where he identifies an instance of “privileged distress” when “employers’ religious freedom is threatened when they can’t deny contraception to their employees.” The Catholic Church—I’ll assume this is what he means by “employer” —is not denying anyone the freedom to purchase contraception; it is simply making the argument that religious freedom is fatally compromised when the government asserts that it may decide what constitutes the free exercise of religion.

Anyway, that’s a sampling of thoughts that “The Distress of the Privileged” elicited in me this morning. It illustrates how essential is the task of clearly defining one’s presuppositions and terms, because while many of the same words are used by people who hold mutually contradictory positions, the framework of thoughts underlying those words begins with distinctly different beliefs about the nature of the world.

A Choice in the Matter

I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking about the upcoming presidential election. One of the ways I’ve approached the debate is to search for the deeper issues lurking below the pageantry, the bluster, the ads, the soundbites, and so on. The first observation is that the political spectrum in the U.S. is severely truncated, as compared to many European countries or Israel, for example, meaning that there is no viable party of the far left or right, when compared to the range of positions taken in other countries. One of the outcomes of the semi-establishment of our two parties in the official mechanisms of our country’s governments (such as the requirements for third parties to demonstrate specific levels of support to get names on ballots), is that both parties represents a diversity of causes and approaches within their boundaries. This, perhaps, is how diversity manifests itself here —in lieu of the rise of multiple viable parties. Despite the phenomenon of this two-party entrenchment, there remain some deeply distinctive approaches that divide the majority of Democrats from the majority of Republicans. Evidence of this divide includes meaning different things despite using the same words and using different words to describe concepts key to each party. This makes true conversation between the parties more difficult.

It’s been enlightening to plough through The Federalist Papers (a little more than two-thirds of the way, so far). James Madison and Alexander Hamilton sketched the differences between these two views in 1788. Little new has emerged since then. The debate then, as now, seems to hinge on what one sees as the fundamental unit of society. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but not horribly so, to say that one party sees rights, benefits, permissions, and so on flowing from government to the people, while the other party sees government receiving its powers from the people. One would be the Democrats, the other the Republicans. Where most of the conversations get caught is in both sides missing the point that one cannot prove the validity of one position over the other in any kind of empirical fashion. These beliefs operate as precisely that—beliefs. Because one person believes that government derives its power and authority from that which individuals delegate to it, that person then embraces the point of view that follows from that. One could—and many do—believe otherwise.

So, in many ways, the debate, such as it is, is exactly what we need to have, because the issue at the root is the issue at the root of civic faith. One side will never prove the other false, but one can or another can persuade converts to join up, shifting the balance of power. The performance of parties when in power is one tool of persuasion. This underlies the metric embedded in James Carville’s dictum, “It’s the economy, stupid.” When one looks at the economy as it performs when party X is in power, is one inclined to grant that party another term to place its hand on the tiller?

A new column appeared yesterday on the Web site of the London Telegraph. Written by a British columnist, it offers an outsider’s observation of our current debate. One might be tempted to say the writer, Janet Daley, doesn’t have a dog in the hunt, but the truth of the matter is that, given the role of the United States in global society, everyone has a dog in the hunt of this campaign. Even so, the perspective of someone who stands a little to the side of our national conversation is worth our attention. In her column (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/us-politics/9513687/We-should-tune-in-to-the-Romney-and-Ryan-show.html), she writes:

What is being challenged is nothing less than the most basic premise of the politics of the centre ground: that you can have free market economics and a democratic socialist welfare system at the same time. The magic formula in which the wealth produced by the market economy is redistributed by the state—from those who produce it to those whom the government believes deserve it—has gone bust. … The fantasy may be sustained for a while by the relentless production of phoney money to fund benefits and job-creation projects, until the economy is turned into a meaningless internal recycling mechanism in the style of the old Soviet Union.
Or else democratically elected governments can be replaced by puppet austerity regimes which are free to ignore the protests of the populace when they are deprived of their promised entitlements. You can, in other words, decide to debauch the currency which underwrites the market economy, or you can dispense with democracy.

This is how the perennial debate has manifested itself at the root of the divide between the parties in this election. If one buys the premise that we “… can have free market economics and a democratic socialist welfare system at the same time,” then one will find oneself much more comfortable in the Democrats’ fold. If one believes the premise is rather the converse, that we “… can have free market economics [or] a democratic socialist welfare system[, but not both] at the same time,” then one will find oneself much more comfortable in the Republicans’ fold.

One can extract programs and policies from these two premises. The Democrats propose to go “forward,” as the President’s campaign slogan phrases it, along the road of pursuing both. Republicans propose to choose free market economics on the grounds that the other premise is both untenable given the evidence provided by attempts to enact it and contrary to the roots, aspirations, and genius of American society. In short, Republicans say, “we will not debauch the currency which underwrites the market economy, nor will we dispense with democracy,” noting carefully that we’ve not yet dispensed with it, but that we are leaning towards the steps would take us to its dispensing. Rather, as Ms. Daley observed,

Contrary to what many know-nothing British observers seem to think, the message coming out of Tampa was not Tea Party extremism. It was just a reassertion of the basic values of American political culture: self-determination, individual aspiration and genuine community, as opposed to belief in the state as the fount of all social virtue.

So, can we find in our political opponents people worthy of engaging in a real debate over the root issues because the conversation is serious and involves existential questions? Can we acts as worthy heirs of our country’s founders, speaking as individuals who take the questions seriously because they mattered to Madison and Hamilton, Adams and Jefferson? Can we look at one another and say, “This is a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Let’s get it cleaned up so we have an exceptional America to hand on to our children”?

I believe we can.

“Are We Able to Drink the Cup?”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, July 24, 2012. The liturgy features the feast of St. James, Apostle (c. A.D. 42), transferred from July 25.

Readings

Jeremiah 45:1–5
Psalm 7:1–10
Acts 11:27–12:3
Matthew 20:20–28

Homily

Today we recall the life, ministry, and martyrdom of Saint James. He and his brother, John, were the sons of Zebedee from the town of Bethsaida. According to the gospel accounts, he witnessed most of the miracles Jesus Christ performed in his ministry. As Acts tells us, King Herod executed James. This was probably around A.D. 42.

Matthew’s gospel tells us one of the conversations that Jesus had with the mother of James and John. Perhaps acting a little too protectively, she asked Jesus for a special favor for her sons, to grant them special positions at his right and left in the kingdom. His response is one that haunts us: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matt. 20:22, NRSV).

Are we able to drink the Lord’s cup, the cup of suffering for the faith, the cup of giving our all to God the Father in obedience to Him? Jesus raises the cup in the hours before his own sacrifice of suffering through his arrest and torture, his condemnation and crucifixion. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, this cup points to Christ’s “obedien[ce] to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8, NRSV).

Are you are able to drink the cup? Am I? No one can answer for another. Remember that the mother of James and John asked for honored placements for her sons, but they themselves answered Jesus’s question. She did not say for them, “Yes, of course they can.” And as we know from the account in Acts, James himself fulfilled his vow by dying a martyr’s death around a dozen years later.
Are we able to drink the cup? Are we able to profess Christ when faith in Him is uncomfortable, unpopular, countercultural, or even proscribed? Are we able to express our faith through witness, charity, and service, knowing we may suffer loss, setback, or ostracism for our sacrifices?

No one can answer for us. On the other hand, we are not left alone to make our answer. The Holy Spirit binds the Father into loving union with Jesus, the Son, so that He may drink the cup, carry the cross, and submit to sacrifice. The Father pours out that same Spirit upon us in baptism and rekindles it in us in the Holy Eucharist so that we, too, may say, along with James and John, “We are able” and then live by that vow. Amen.

Practice and Perseverance

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The liturgy features the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia, Abbot of Monte Cassino (c. A.D. 540), transferred from July 11.

Readings

Proverbs 2:1–9
Psalm 1
Luke 14:27–33

Homily

Since early 2000, I have studied Tai Chi, the ancient Chinese art that adapts moves designed for self-defense into patterns that carry strange and wonderful names like “Crane Spreads Wings” and “Ride the Wild Tiger.” My teacher continues to remind me that practicing Tai Chi is just that—practice. One does not perfect the practice; even the masters continue to refine their movements throughout their lives.

That’s an insight that helps to shed some light on the treasure we inherit from St. Benedict, whose Rule forms the foundation of western monasticism. In the Prologue, he writes:

And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from His school, but persevering in the monastery according to His teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in His kingdom (RB Prol. 45–50, The Rule of Saint Benedict, Leonard Doyle, trans., Collegeville, Minn., The Liturgical Press, 2001).

In today’s Church, the religious—monks and nuns—live by this rule in cloistered communities. Others are oblates, who live by the spirit of this rule beyond the walls of monasteries. All of God’s people, as Proverbs tells us, hear His summons to seek to “incline our hearts to understanding” His wisdom. As Jesus reminds us in Luke’s gospel, He calls us to “carry the cross and follow him.” In that way, Benedict writes, “… we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ …” (RB Prol. 50).

These acts of discipleship and obedience are ones we practice, but do not perfect, despite a lifetime of attending “a school for the service of the Lord.” St. Benedict encourages us not to lose sight of the benefits of our practice: “… as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love” (RB Prol. 49). Amen.

A Theology of Decision-Making: National Symbols in Places of Worship

NOTE

This work originally served as a resource for leaders of a local congregation facing questions about the placement of the U.S. flag in the sanctuary.

INTRODUCTION

God gathers his Church around the Word and calls this community to order its life in accord with his Word. If the Church decides to order its life around other priorities and according to other criteria, it becomes a community other than the Church. The question that faces a congregation regarding the placement of the U.S. flag in the sanctuary is the question of whether or not that congregation will order its life in accord with the Word of God.

CHURCH

I. The Church is the community that the Father gathers around his Word.
II. The Father calls the Church to encounter his Word and to proclaim it so that the Holy Spirit draws others to encounter it in turn.
III. The Church encounters and proclaims God’s Word within worship in audible, visible and tangible forms.
IV. The Church’s focus upon God’s Word distinguishes it from other communities.
V. The Church’s focus upon God’s Word dictates the criteria of its decision-making.
VI. The Church makes its decisions by asking, “How would this decision enhance or impair the Church’s proclamation of the Word?”
VII. The Church’s responsibility to God is to make decisions that enhance the proclamation of the Word while avoiding decisions that impair the same proclamation.
VIII. The Church makes its decisions about worship, in particular, according to these Word-centered criteria.
IX. Decisions about the places the Church uses for worship are decisions about worship.

SYMBOL

X. A decision whether or not to place any national symbol, and in particular, the flag of the United States of America, in places dedicated to worship, is a decision about worship.
XI. The flag is an object to which people ascribe a variety of symbolic meanings.
XII. These meanings include: “The flag represents freedom;” “The flag represents support for the nation’s military;” “The flag represents patriotism;” and “The flag represents a history at least partly described by discrimination and domination.”
XIII. Symbols with multiple meanings cannot speak with only one meaning.
XIV. Any flag, as a symbol, cannot speak with only one meaning.
XV. The question then becomes, “Would the placement of the U.S. flag, a symbol with multiple meanings, in spaces dedicated for worship, enhance or impair the Church’s proclamation of the Word?”
XVI. When people in worship view the flag and take it to represent freedom, it speaks a message consistent with the Word.
XVII. The freedom this nation gives to people derives from the freedom God gives by conquering death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, represented symbolically by the cross; this makes the flag, as a symbol, both derivative and redundant.
XVIII. When the flag speaks of respect for the military it speaks of honoring a vocation some people accept as part of their lives as Christians.
XIX. Christians find their primary vocation or calling in baptism, the symbol of which is the font; other Christian vocations flow from this primary vocation.
XX. When the flag speaks of patriotism it speaks of a loyalty to country that may conflict with faith in God.
XXI. When the flag speaks symbolically of a history and practice of discrimination and domination it speaks at odds with the God who embraces all people as his children and grants them liberation from bondage through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
XXII. Thus, at best, the flag speaks a message that is both derivative and redundant, and at worst, a message that conflicts with the Word.

DECISION

XXIII. This leads the Church to answer the question, “Would the placement of the U.S. flag, a symbol with multiple meanings, in the space dedicated for worship, enhance or impair the Church’s proclamation of the Word?”, by saying, “Placement of the flag in the sanctuary would, on balance, impair the Church’s proclamation of the Word.”
XXIV. Thus the Church ought not place the flag in places dedicated to worship.
XXV. If it is the intention of a congregation to live faithfully as a local community of the Church, it ought not place the U.S. flag in its space dedicated for worship.

CONCLUSION

This decision is one of asking how best to proclaim the Word, a decision of discerning the Spirit and not one of tallying votes. Essentially, what the members of a congregation say and do in their gathering for worship is their sermon as God’s people. This sermon, indeed any proclamation, does not derive its content from votes to determine popular opinion, but from prayers to seek the will of God.

“… We stand here as free, under God’s sky ….”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, July 3, 2012. The liturgy features the memorial of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Writer and Prophetic Witness.

Readings

Isaiah 26:7–13
Psalm 94:16–23
1 Peter 3:8–12
Matthew 23:1–12

Homily

Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Connecticut from 1811 to 1896. She is most famous as the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, the nineteenth century’s bestselling book. Despite its formal tone, it depicted in powerful ways the horrific effects of slavery on families. Many Northerners found inspiration in her writings to fortify their opposition to slavery, while numerous Southerners reacted with anger at the message of her work. The escalating tensions soon found their release in the outbreak of the Civil War.

It may be an apocryphal story, but President Abraham Lincoln, after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, is reported to have said, “So, this is the little lady who started this great war!”

Remembering this author’s life and work so close to Independence Day leads us to reflect upon the power of ideas and words to overcome the forces of arms and actions. Great revolutions always find their roots first in thoughts, which then grow into deeds. Our Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George Harris, a slave, gives voice to his own declaration of independence, saying, “We don’t own your laws; we don’t own your country; we stand here as free, under God’s sky, as you are; and, by the great God that made us, we’ll fight for our liberty till we die.”

President Lincoln echoed these thoughts when he stood on the grounds of the national cemetery in Gettysburg in 1863 and said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. …[F]rom these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Taking increased devotion from the honored dead—that’s just exactly what we do when we memorialize our forebears in the faith. So today, we remember Harriet Beecher Stowe for giving written voice to the truth that all people have receive liberty as a blessing from God. With this blessing, God grants us the grace to live as St. Peter guides us, “Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but, on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9, NAB).

Amen.

Mystical “Friends of God”

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, June 12, 2012. The liturgy features the memorial of Evelyn Underhill, Anglican teacher.

Readings

Wisdom 7:24–8:1
Psalm 96:7–13
John 4:19–24

Homily

Evelyn Underhill, an Englishwoman, lived from 1875 to 1941. Her adult life was rich with her study, writing, and teaching about the rich traditions of the mystics in the Church. While she felt drawn to the Catholic Church, in the end, she found her home in the Anglican Church.

A hundred and one years ago, she published Mysticism, the fruit of her research into the depths of the Church’s wealth of experience and insight invested in her mystics. The book explores the ways that some of God’s people find themselves strangely and powerfully attuned to His presence in human life. It shares how they struggle, at times, to express those experiences and to share their visions of God and their passions for His presence.

A verse from today’s first reading reminds us of the powerful and mystical ties that bind God and people together: “And passing into holy souls from age to age, [Wisdom] produces friends of God and prophets” (Wisdom 7:27b, NAB).

Friends of God. That strikes me as a good way to define a mystic. A friend of God wants to spend time with Him, to hear about His life, to learn His history, to grow closer to Him, and to bring others to Him. The friends of God our Father find their holy souls alive with His Wisdom—Jesus Christ—and moved by His Spirit, so that they cannot help but be attuned and consumed by that life-changing friendship.

In her work, The Light of Christ, Evelyn Underhill writes these words about Julian of Norwich, a mystic: “Julian says at the end of her Revelations that what she received from her vision of Christ was ‘Light, Life, and Love’; everything was gathered in that; an energy to show us the Truth, quicken us to fresh vitality and fill us with adoring devotion.”

We might not think of ourselves as mystics; they seem to be spiritual sprinters and marathoners, while we are amblers and mosiers at best. But God our Father has made us His children by water and the Spirit, baptizing us into the death and life of His Son. That means we are the “holy souls” in this age, the ones into whom God passes His Wisdom. This gift makes us friends of God. As God’s friends, we are invited into the mystery, to abide in the Light, to find strength in the Life, and to share the Love of God with others.

Amen.

Testifying to the Light

Introduction

St. Mark’s on the Campus Episcopal Church, Lincoln, Neb., celebrates the Holy Eucharist on Tuesdays at 12:30 p.m. The parish’s rector, Father Jerry Thompson, asked me to lead worship on Tuesday, December 27, 2011. This is the third day in the Octave of Christmas and the Feast of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist.

Readings

1 John 1:1–9
Psalm 92
John 21:19b–24

Homily

In Advent, we heard the cries of John the Baptist calling to us from the wilderness, baptizing and saying, “Repent” (Matthew 3:2) and “Behold, here is the Lamb of God” (John 1:36b). As John’s Gospel reminds us, “[The Baptist] came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:6–8).

Today, we celebrate the feast of the other John, the saint and apostle and evangelist. In his letter, he reminds us that the apostles say, “… this [word of] life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it” (1 John 1:2a). Their testimony is simple and pure, like the clear ringing of a bell that cuts through the noise of our lives and calls us to silence, to reverie and prayer.

John’s testimony is this: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Right there is the Good News in a simple sentence. Jesus Christ, who is the Word in the flesh, is the light that shines in the darkness and overcomes it.

Even when we may feel that darkness presses in upon us like a wall of unbreakable stone, like a wave of irresistible force, the light—who is Christ—shines in our lives. He breaks that wall; he repels that wave. Darkness may seem unstoppable when Christians die in bombings in their churches on the Feast of the Nativity, when families lose loved ones in tragic house fires, when relatives do not speak to one another, when congregations face division and disintegration, and when we know that “we lie and do not do what is true” (1 John 1:6).

Darkness may look victorious. But John tells us: stick to the light; walk in it; live in Christ. As he says in his letter, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

And so, here we are, coming into the light, gathering around the table, offering our gifts in sacrifice, praising God our Father, receiving the body of God the Son—the bread of heaven—and the blood of the Word—the cup of salvation.

Soon we will leave, heading back into the darkness. But we will bear the light that shines unstoppably. We will testify to the light—Jesus Christ—who overcomes all darkness. Amen.

Christmas Reflections

The Holy Family

Memories are sometimes fluid and elusive.
We can come to believe
that we recall an event
in the kind of vivid detail
that only arises from personal experience.

But as we turn the memory over and over in our mind’s hands,
and look at it from different angles,
it gets hard to tell when our actual recollection ends
and our memories about the stories of those memories begin.

It’s what happens when we look at faded snapshots
taken when we were children.
Do we remember the lived event
or have we just built a memory
around the image in the photograph,
the stories our relatives have recounted over the years?

It’s hard to tell.
But in the end,
I don’t think it really matters,
because memory is not a transcript, a recording, a documentary.

It’s less than that, but infinitely more.
It’s our personal story,
and even if it’s not accurate in every detail,
it bears the truth of the meaning of the memory of the event.

That’s why our original memories
get overlaid and adorned and filigreed
with snapshots and anecdotes and stories and new memories
about those times when we have shared our old memories
with friends and family.

The picture we can envision
to help us understand ourselves
is of an attic, with boxes and chests
scattered in delightful disarray.

Some of these treasures are well marked,
but others are just a jumble,
waiting for us to come and to sort through them,
to make sense of them,
to put them in order.

This common and familiar experience
is what I imagine we share with Mary, the mother of our Lord.
Luke’s familiar telling of the birth of Jesus
reminds us how she and Joseph
found themselves swept up
in the Spirit’s whirlwind of action.

We know that God’s angel, Gabriel,
had announced to Mary
that the Spirit would come upon her
and she would conceive and bear a child,
the Son of God and Savior of the world.
That’s why the Church calls her Theotokos, or God-bearer.

And Mary remembers all of this, vibrant with detail.

And then the political powers
do what they do,
and upend the lives of the common people
to achieve their own ends.
So Mary and Joseph journey to Bethlehem
in the midst of her pregnancy.

And Mary adds to her memories.

They end up finding shelter with the beasts.
Then Jesus—God in the flesh—is born among the animals
and rests his head in a feed trough.
Soon the shepherds come and testify to the angels’ message:
“Do not be afraid. A Savior, the Messiah, the Lord is born.”

And Mary remembers this as well.

As St. Luke tells us,
“But Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV)

It’s the treasuring and pondering
that draws a picture for me
of the ministry of memory we share with Mary.
As the years go by and Jesus grows up,
Mary finds time to go to the attic of her memory,
she kneels beside a great big box,
and takes from it some straw,
a long strip of cloth,
a curl of lamb’s wool.
They are reminders to her—
in an age with no cameras
and in a time when she had no money
to pay scribes to write the memories on scrolls—
of the miracle of her son’s birth.

And “Mary treasured all these words
and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19, NRSV)

The Greek words Luke chooses are powerful.
What we read as “treasured” is the Greek word suntereo.
It means “to preserve (a thing from perishing or being lost),”
or “to keep within one’s self, keep in mind (a thing, lest it be forgotten).”
(http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/suntereo.html)

And where we read, “pondered,” the Greek is sumballo.
This means “to throw together, to bring together,
to converse,
to bring together in one’s mind, confer with one’s self,”
or “to encounter in a hostile sense.” (http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/sumballo.html)

It’s the work of a lifetime
to sift through memories such as these,
to keep them fresh in one’s mind,
to sort through the jumble,
to let the conflicts that arise work themselves out.

This was Mary’s work,
but it is ours as well.

We are like Mary in being swept up by the Spirit,
having our lives changed by the birth of God’s Son,
finding our journeys redirected,
walking to places we had not imagined,
meeting people we had not anticipated,
hearing messages we had not expected.

This is what happens when God our Father
gets to work in our lives,
when he breathes his Spirit into us,
when he comes among us in the flesh of his Son,
the Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ.

There is nothing else for us to do
but to follow Mary’s lead,
to “treasure[] all these words
and ponder[] them in our heart[s].”

And as we do,
we can kneel together
before the manger
and tell one another in gentle whispers
how this helpless infant,
so “tender and mild,”
how this Son of God,
has touched us, changed us,
given us life and freedom,
blessed us with love
that we might follow him,
no matter what and no matter where it leads,
even to the foot of that baby’s cross. Amen.

Children of the Light

SCRIPTURES

“Be silent before the Lord God!
For the day of the Lord is at hand;
the Lord has prepared a sacrifice,
he has consecrated his guests ….
At that time I [the Lord] will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
‘The Lord will not do good,
nor will he do harm.'” —Zephaniah 1:7,12, New Revised Standard Version

“But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of the light and of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness …. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” —1 Thessalonians 5:4–5, 9–10, NRSV

MEDITATION

With each passing week, we draw closer to the end of the church year and to the beginning of Advent, the time of anticipating the coming of our Lord in his birth, in the life of the Church, and in judgment at the end. The readings for this Sunday, November 13, speak to us of the end of this world in ways that may give us discomfort.

As we overhear Zephaniah’s prophecy, we easily can find ourselves among those who—in the secret places of their hearts—don’t really trust that God is at work in their daily lives. We say to ourselves that we are on our own to make our own fortunes, to fix our own problems, to plan our own futures. “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.”

This saying captures the sometimes-subtle shape that our disbelief assumes. Think back over our conversations in the meetings of our task force. How often do we focus on the mundane: the tallies of our demographics; the patterns of our culture; the influences of our marketing; and the predictions flowing from our habits? We leave God out of our reflection. He is there, somewhere, but what matters most is our effort and insight. “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.”

We tend to believe, or at least to act upon our convictions, as if God cannot and will not take that surprising, day-of-the-Lord action to upend our congregation’s life and to do something new and wonderful, something that purifies with judgment and rejuvenates with grace. When we trust in this conviction, we cling to an illusion.

Zephaniah calls us to “be silent before the Lord God!” He reminds us that “the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests.” As Christians, we cannot help but be reminded by these words that the Father prepared Jesus Christ to offer himself for all of humanity—including you and me—as a sacrifice for our sins. Then, by virtue of our baptism into his sacrificial death, we arise from the waters as his consecrated guests, both at his Eucharistic Table and at the gates of his heavenly city.

This is why St. Paul reminds us that we are “children of the light and of the day.” He proclaims that we have been adopted into the family of the God and Father who “destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” His reminder helps dispel the notions we might want to hold, that we are on our own, that God has withdrawn his guiding hand from our lives, and that we must trust only in our own efforts and plans.

In these dark days, conflict and confusion threaten to rend our world, our lives, and our congregation. We find ourselves succumbing to the temptation to travel only along the paths that we have picked out for ourselves. But by faith, we hold in a creative and uncomfortable tension these two truths of God’s work in our lives: he punishes us in our complacency and he destines us for salvation.

REFLECTION

  • When will you “be silent before the Lord God?”
  • Where in your life do you find yourself trying to make your way on your own? How have you pushed God to the margins of your life?
  • What can we do as a congregation to turn us from relying on our own powers and solutions to trusting the work of God to help us to live as children of the light and the day? What can you do in your own life to make a similar change?
  • What prayers will tell God of your desire to live as a child of the light and of the day?

PRAYER

Gracious Father, bless us with the silence we need to hear your voice. Help us to abandon both our complacency and our trust in ourselves so we may rely upon your promise to work your will in our lives. Inspire us, by your Holy Spirit, to trust in your Son’s sacrifice to consecrate us to live as children of the light and of the day; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

AUTHOR

David Frye is a member of the Spirit-Driven Task Force and its Steering Committee.

NOTES

The people of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Hickman, Neb., have organized a Spirit-Driven Task Force, bringing together almost forty members who have committed to a year of study, prayer, reflection, and deliberation to discern how God is calling the congregation to renewal for the sake of his mission.

This is the twenty-sixth of a series of weekly meditations with the aim to inspire reflection and encourage conversation among the members of the task force as we journey together in obedience to our Lord’s calling to serve him.