Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Plot Twist That Changes Our Mind About God

The religious authorities demand some answers from John the Baptist. Namely, they want to know who he claims to be and what he’s up to. He’s gotten their attention because he’s drawing big crowds and shaking things up.
Tons of people have beaten a path to the desert to hear this unlikely character talk about God. Actually, I suspect they come not to see and to hear John at all. Urban sophisticates from Jerusalem and earthy, hardworking folks from the countryside are flocking to the wilderness to encounter God for themselves. John’s teaching and baptizing act as a vehicle for meeting the holy in person.
No wonder the religious authorities have grown suspicious. John the Baptist is cutting into their market share. And in all likelihood he lacks the proper license. God is supposed to be the property of the Temple and the synagogue. John the Baptist has set up a kind of black market God business. In their view, he’s got to be passing off a counterfeit.
When the theological police come knocking, John answers all their questions. He’s not Elijah redux. He’s certainly not the Messiah. And then he says something remarkably important that they completely miss. And that we probably miss as well.
Filipp Malyavin's "Laughing"

John says, "Among you stands one whom you do not know.” (John 1:26b)
That short sentence doesn’t sound significant on the face of it. Hearing those words in the narrow context of the religious leaders’ questions and John’s answer to them that day, you might assume that John is simply saying that they haven’t heard of Jesus yet. After all, Jesus hasn’t even begun his public ministry at this point.
Or, taking into account what we already believe about Jesus today and what the religious authorities could not have known at the time of this exchange, you might say that these leaders failed to recognize Jesus as God incarnate.
Given John the Gospel writer’s penchant for multilayered meanings, both of these interpretations open the text for us. But John the Baptist is getting at something deeper as well. His message to the theological experts and moral teachers and worship leaders of his day is this, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
In Jesus God reveals himself as the God of plot twists.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Play It Like You Mean It

My daughter Meredith plays the flute. It’s not likely that she’ll make a living with her instrument, but she’s an accomplished musician. She has mastered various scales over the years. In other words, she reliably plays the correct notes in a range of keys. But musicianship involves more than merely playing the right notes.
Meredith’s first flute was perfectly suitable for a beginner and for an intermediate level flutist. With that first instrument she learned to be precise. Eventually her teacher told us that, for Meredith to reach the next level, she needed a better flute.
The first time Meredith played the new flute we could hear the difference in tonal quality immediately. This instrument produced a sweeter, richer sound. With this flute Meredith would, with hours of work, be able to express the emotional depths and textures of different pieces of music.

Xu Beihong's "The Sound of the Flute"

In other words, Meredith could now work not only to play the right notes, but to achieve the right tone. Interpreting a piece’s tone requires technical precision, to be sure. And yet it also involves something deeper. Something spiritual. It’s as if she has to be inhabited by the spirit of the piece in order to play it like she means it.
At this juncture you may be wondering what in heaven’s name Meredith’s musicianship has to do with John the Baptist. Well, my daughter’s musical gifts have nothing to do with John’s personality or his scruffy appearance or his ascetic diet.
However, a musician’s life does illustrate for us what John’s message prefigures about the Christian life. John preaches repentance. And an ongoing process of repentance is at the very heart of the Way of Jesus Christ. Ongoing repentance is how we learn to find the right tone for our actions.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Keeping the Christ in Christmas

Each year at this time Christians who follow a liturgical calendar experience the disconnect between the frenzied secularized Christmas of the retail world and the Church’s quiet, reflective season of Advent. 
Lots of us church leaders—lay and ordained alike—will lament this. They will interpret the decorations at the mall and the sappy television programming and the all-Christmas-all-the-time radio stations as rushing to Christmas and forgetting Advent.
That’s certainly one perspective. Try looking at this temporal distortion in our culture another way. The coincidence of our Advent and the retail Christmas provides for us the occasion to prepare for the true Christmas.

Secularized retail Christmas celebrates consumerism. Words like joy and peace mean feeling gratified. You’ve gotten what you want. Giving devolves to feeding someone else’s desire for stuff. This has either nothing to do with a celebration of the Nativity our Lord or it is a vulgar debasement of our most cherished belief.
And what is that belief? God fleshed himself out in an ordinary person to bring peace and joy. Temporarily gratifying our desires—wants often generated by clever ads and our own yearning for comfort and status—should not be confused with the peace and joy inaugurated by the Nativity.
In the birth of Jesus, God inaugurates the Kingdom of Heaven on this frequently un-heavenly planet. Peace and joy emerge from God’s reconciling presence among us. We know ourselves as God’s beloved and feel solidarity with all of God’s children. God’s presence saturates our lives with meaning and weaves bonds of affection among the unlikeliest of people.
Dana Levin's "Heaven and Earth"

The dissonance between the clamor of secularized, consumerist Christmas and the quiet reflection of Advent is a spiritual gift. That clash urges us to prepare to keep the Christ in Christmas.
Keeping the Christ in Christmas has nothing to do with shallow arguments over proper holiday greetings and misspent time in our courts over mangers in public spaces. Instead, Advent quiet and study and prayer and service keep Christ in Christmas by stretching our hearts and minds again to receive Christ anew in our inner life, in our habitual practices, and in the face of the stranger.
During this Advent season, I look forward to joining you, wherever you are, in contemplation and reflection, in works of charity and self sacrifice. And as the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity dawns, I will join you in wishing the world a holy and merry Christmas.

This Advent meditation will appear in the December edition of the Alive! diocesan print publication.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Body Language

My mother learned English informally by immersion. She entered America through Ellis Island from war-ravaged Austria speaking only her native German.
By the time I came along, her accent had grown faint. She navigated our English-speaking world effortlessly, but her vocabulary remained limited and you would never have sought her out for helpful grammar tips.
Her functional but limited command of English made writing a chore. That’s why she favored sending greeting cards over writing letters. When I was away at college or studying abroad, a card from her arrived in the mail at least once a week.

Vasily Verschchagin's "Letter to Home"

In her florid, Old World handwriting, she would sign each card, “Love, Mom.” Sometimes she would add, “I miss you and love you.” She never wrote a note longer than that. And yet, she always chose cards with lengthy poems or quotations.
For years I looked at those cards in the same way that you might look at cards. They’re thoughtful. A handwritten note is the gold standard of thoughtfulness, and cards don’t quite match that depth of personal touch. But cards do show that a person took some trouble to connect. They just didn’t reveal as much about themselves personally to you as a note writer might.
My perspective changed when my mom told me about her approach to card buying. She said, “I love you so much. And I’m so proud of you. I don’t have words like you do. I can’t say how I feel. So I spend hours looking for a card that can tell you what you mean to me.”
My mother never rushed by the grocery or the drug store to grab a card. She studied them so that she could send me just the right message.

Johannes Vermeer's "Woman Reading a Letter"

Greeting card messages may seem too generic to be genuinely personal. They’re written for a general audience. And yet, my mother had invested each card that she sent to me with her own sentiments. In her hands, the message was meant uniquely for me. She was sharing herself with me.
Once I understood the depth of my mom’s personal investment in those cards, I realized that my response to them had been woefully inadequate.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Learning to Let Go of the Cookies

Like most of us, I have a few disjointed memories of my early childhood. Fragments. Isolated episodes with little or no context. I can’t quite piece together a complete narrative from my personal memory bank prior to about age five. But some of those early memories endure and even still bear emotional freight.
For instance, I remember a preschool at a private home in a room above a detached garage. We lived either in Mississippi or South Carolina at the time. Each of us brought our own lunch in indistinguishable brown paper bags. 
One morning my mom told me that she had packed freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for my dessert. As I remember it, I couldn’t find my bag when the lunch period came. Then I heard a girl say to the teacher, “Look, I’m feeding Becky her lunch. She’s eating it. She loves the chocolate chip cookies.”

John Stuart Ingle's "Still Life with Cookies"

I didn’t say a thing. Already then I struggled with speaking in public. Other children had discovered that my speech impediment made for an easy target. So as best as I can recall, I sat in silence and simply didn’t eat lunch. But I remember feeling stung that someone had taken something that belonged to me.
With some embarrassment I admit that for years I would feel the same sense of violation and resentment every time something triggered that memory. 
That’s pretty petty, I know. To make matters worse and my own smallness even more obvious, I eventually recalled that Becky was handicapped, and the girl who fed her (and whose name and face I cannot recall) was doing an especially kind thing.
So you see, there’s a part of me that sympathizes with the third slave in the Parable of the Talents.  That’s the misguided part of me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s review the parable and then I’ll explain why I can so easily fill the shoes of the third slave and why I hope to outgrow them.