Monthly Archives: November 2014
What colors do you think of with Christmas?
We sing of a White Christmas – because it’s fun to sing of snow regardless of whether or not we enjoy it, and there is something about the soft purity of snow – a frozen baptism of grace to make the world glisten with wonder.
We garb in Red and Green. Evergreens giving testimony to life even in the harshest northern climates, and holly berries provide a contrasting pop of color in a world turned grey. Who doesn’t have a wonderfully garish Christmas sweater bathed in red and green and white?
But then, I think of a Blue Christmas. A reminder that we do not all gather with family for holidays – for warmth and fellowship and hope. For some, for many; this is a time to remember who isn’t sitting around the fire with us. Its time of heart-aching loneliness… winter depression sets in.
And then I come to purple. It’s the liturgical color of Advent (and also Lent and for this reason some traditions use blue during Advent). The purple is about royalty and penitence (preparation) and is wrapped up in the longing for the Messiah – the coming of God’s Kingdom.
I caught a different feel this year of the purple sense of waiting, longing, and hope. Advent is a time to look to the horizon with a sense that “over there” lies a hoped for reality. (What are you waiting for? For what do you long that will make this world a more hope-filled, wonder-lit world?) And this advent the congregation I serve is starting/re-starting a tradition of Hanging the Greens mixed with advent crafts and games and cookie baking and decorating so that tomorrow we can send out plates of cookies to people who need just a little bit of cheer. And as the happy hubbub of our gathering goes on I am suddenly reminded of the words of a dear friend of mine many years ago. It was one of those years when Christmas day was on a Sunday and many churches decided not to have worship telling their members it was a day to be with family. And she responded in a staff meeting: “But what about those for whom the congregation is their family?”
And her voice echoed out of the past for me today as we gathered as a congregational family to decorate our “house” and fill it with the warm smells of holiday yum. Our Advent waiting is meant to be charged with the very reality we wait for. We long for a time when there will be no more mourning or crying or tears at all. And I do not know that there can be such a thing – at least I cannot fathom how – but I do see how the very act of waiting for it makes it just a little bit real even now. We wait it into reality!
What we wait for forms us in the practice of longing for it. And as we long for a day of cosmic community charged with the grace and love of God-with-us, we sometimes make that more than a little bit true even now. And so I gather… with my family. And gather others into our family… and we send out loving prayers to yet others. Small bits of Kingdom presence here among us, even as we wait. And all that came into my mind as I participated in the otherwise forgettable practice of baking cookies and perplexedly trying to figure out the garland. But I don’t think that’s just in my head. Trivial goodness? Maybe. But maybe it’s the baby steps of the kingdom.
And so perhaps we do not have peace on earth and good-will towards all humanity just yet, but perhaps we also have just enough of the essence of that hope to turn our blue Christmas into purple, our grey days into white, our brown and dormant life-less husks of trees with empty arms bare offset with the eternally green evergreens reminding us that life is stronger than death, and that the light of hope burns strong in us, and the darkness did not – and will not – overcome it.
What color is your Advent season? Come purple it up with us, go purple it up for someone else. Lean into cosmic community a little more each day: and let the light of hope shine forth in you.
“Marker Moments: Celebrating our Stories”
A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, ID
Nov. 2, 2014
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2“Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”
When I sit down to put on my socks and look down at my foot there is a small discolored spot right on the inner part of my foot. You might not see it as scar but that is what I know it to be. And every time I see that scar I remember my year of living in the Philippines where I got the scar. I was there as yearlong young adult volunteer in mission after college and there are many stories of that time but I particularly remember one night. I would say I was on an island but the Philippines is a collection of thousands of islands so you are always on an island. I was on the island of Mindoro that night and we had been there for several days and we were living out of our backpacks going back into remote villages and learning about the culture, and after a long hard day we got to what looked like the very traditional image of a collection of huts in a rice field. This little village was all bamboo huts rising up out of standing water surrounded by rice. And we were spending the night here in this little community.
I had spent the whole day miserable. I had one of those ear infections where it felt like someone had taken a letter opener and punched it through my ear. I was exhausted and had grown numb but we were far from doctors or medical care and so you just continued on. We had been trying to delicately walk through these rice fields but I will tell you that big ugly American feet do not skillfully traverse rice fields. It was a hard day. So then we were to sleep in this small bamboo hut that was about 8’ x 8’ and there were 8 of us sleeping in it. The guy who was sleeping next to me – well I wasn’t sleeping, but the guy next to me was and he kept rolling over and putting his arm and leg around me. And if you don’t know this about me already, I’m an introvert. I do love you all – but I love to go home to my own space too! Introverts struggle in the Philippines because there is no individual space there, it’s not a culture for introverts and if you try to get off by yourself they think something is wrong with you and seek you out and crowd around to talk about it.
So here we are and I’m miserable and in pain and I’m down about being here at all. I rolled out from under the guy next to me and went for a walk in the rain – of course it’s raining because there are only four seasons in the Philippines: hot, hotter, wet, and wetter and we were somewhere between wet and wetter at the time. And there was a massive thunderstorm I can see out on the horizon probably out over the ocean and lighting was flashing and I could just barely hear the slight rumbling of it… and that was all demonstrative of my mood. And I remember walking and standing in the rain and talking to God, I remember being upset with God, upset at feeling abandoned.
“God I think I’m here because of you. I think you wanted me to be here to learn and to serve and I think if I’m here doing your work, but you could have my back and help me out a little more.”
And I felt… abandoned. Not complete but still – abandoned. Do you know what it’s like to feel radically alone when you’re are surrounded by people?
I remember feeling that aloneness and frustration and questioning.
I do not know what happened the rest of the night… I seem to have blocked that part out but I know that after spending some time there in the morning we walked out and to hiked most of the day to get the Oceanside where we were going to stay to have some reflection time of what we had seen and learned the last week. So we walked to the ocean and we set our bags down and I changed into a bathing suit and ran out to the ocean. Now the Pacific Ocean is a very poorly named ocean. There is nothing passive about it. Particularly the day after a storm and there were huge rolling waves crashing on the beach. And it was the most therapeutic thing I could do to dive into those waves. It was like being a kid again diving again and again head first into those waves and letting them crash against me. It was cathartic and I beat my frustration out on those waves and it was a baptismal water kind of moment, being washed clean, renewed, refreshed.
And it had become night and walked up that beach and the stars had come out. And I was feeling alive – the yuck that was in me had fallen away, I had this sense of calm and comfort. I had a sense of awareness that I wasn’t alone and I looked up and a shooting star went by but I swear to you it was God winking at me. No hindsight. Right in that moment it felt like God looking me in the eye and winking at me with a smile saying, “Andrew, my beloved, you are not alone, you have never been alone.”
So every time I look at that scar. Every time I see it I see far more than just a spot on my skin that didn’t heal. I see that memory from the time when I got that scar. I feel that memory. I am taken back to that moment in the water when I realize that I wasn’t alone. And that is exactly what is happening with Joshua and the Israelites in our story today. There journey – their journey out of Egypt to Promised Land – began at waters, at the Red Sea. The time in the wilderness began with God parting the waters for them to enter. And forty years later on the other bookend of their journey Joshua leads them through waters again. By God’s decree the ark – a abode of God – passes before them into the Jordan and the flow of the river is cut off so that they may walk across the land into the Promised Land beyond the river. God is right in the middle of the water, in the turbulence, in the chaos of their journey and says, “I am here with you, I will get you through this.”
And when they get to the other side they are told go back to the middle of the river where the priests were with the ark and get some stones – not some small rocks but stones you have to haul up on your shoulders – and take one for each tribe and carry them across to the other side of the river (your side of the river) and create a tower of the stones. Do this so that it will be a tangible reminder to you, you will see it and remember that in the middle of the chaos, of the challenging times, of the questioning times, of the times when you aren’t sure how you will carry through the day, build it so that in the middle of such times you can remember that you have been there before and you do did pass through, you did survive, and I was there with you all the way to the other side, from beginning to ending you were not alone.
And the even better part is that the memorial of stones isn’t just for them – though we need such memorials and reminders in our own lives. But this is also for their children and their children’s children. So in the time to come, Joshua says, when your children ask you what those stone mean to you. “What’s that?” “Why is that there?” You can tell them a story. THE story. “Ooooh, that. Yes. A wonderful question, dear one, let me tell you a story. Come on, gather around. Sit here on my lap… let me tell you about a journey your parents went on… your grandparents went on… your great-great-grandparents… let me tell you the story.”
It’s our story too. And that is the point of it all. We are a storied people. God writes us into God’s story. So we hear the stories of those who came before, and we pass on our stories to a generation that will create their own as well. And as you read through the Old Testament you will notice that God liters the wilderness and the landscape of the Israelites with such reminders, memorials, altars in the wilderness – scars on creation if you will – that remind us that in the hardest times of our lives we are not alone. God desires to be a God that is in the midst of the waters, God lives with us in the waters, God lives FOR us in the waters, and we will be carried through.
On this All Saints Sunday we think about all those who have come before us. Who has been a saint for you? Who is someone particularly dear to your heart who taught you something of love, of grace, of carrying through the hard times? Who has helped you to know that you are not alone?
We celebrate the saints in our lives, we celebrate those who told us a story of what the “stones” meant to them. Who wrote us into the story of creation, wove us into God’s tapestry of life.
But we are also story-tellers. For whom have you told stories? Where have you placed yourself so that children and adults alike might ask you to tell them your stories? How have you helped invite people into God’s story who have felt too alone to be a part of it? Who have you woven into the tapestry they were excluded from, who are you being a saint for?
God has called us into God’s story, to be a people who are storied and story-tellers. People who are ministered to by the saints even as we are saints to one another.
Who are you celebrating, and who is celebrating you?
Thanks be to God, Amen.
Sunday I preached one of my favorite texts which is the beginning of the fourth chapter of Joshua. The crossing of the Jordan and the pile of stones to remember, and call to mind the memory for generations to come, that God saw the people of Israel through the waters of the Jordan (book ended to the Red Sea earlier), out of danger to a place of safety.
Later that day I remarked to myself that sadly from here on out it becomes a very bloody book. A book I want nothing to do with. There are a lot of Christians who want to point out the violence in other traditions and other holy books. They need to spend some time reflecting on how our holy scripture presents God as violent and genocidal. (You might begin with Deuteronomy 7 and 20 with commands from Moses to wipe out whatever settlers are in the way when we get to the Promised Land, and then Joshua 8 and 10 which are some examples of living that out).
The entry into the “Promised Land” is a conquest narrative. The land wasn’t empty. It wasn’t waiting with a reserved sign hanging on it. It was populated with families with dreams and hopes and people with long memories of having worked that land. It was already a home to a people, to individuals we should call neighbor, at least it was until they were killed by those who felt they had greater claim to it. They were promised that land, and that we were promised that land meant we didn’t have to recognize the humanity of those already on it. They weren’t a people, they were obstacles. Like stones in the field you need to plow for seed. And when you do not recognize the humanity of the other than you do not feel any moral need to check your behavior toward them. All things become right and good.
Even slaughter. Genocide.
It was a war of aggression. On an individual level you would call it assault and battery which turned into murder and theft. We just call it the gift of a promised land. It was a home prepared for us after years of being homeless on the streets of the wilderness. We don’t want to look closer. We don’t want to examine what is really happening. We prefer to put blinders on to the harsh reality and buy into the myth we tell ourselves to justify our acts. We buy the myth that God created this land for us alone and we are its rightful inhabitants. We buy into the myth that we are better fit to make the most of this land. That we have a better claim. And that our fitness and claim means we can do whatever is necessary to maintain our vision of the world without regard for those who have a different view.
Never mind that if we were presented this scenario as a case study we would NEVER countenance the act. If this was done today to us, a neighboring country, or any country (or at least one we had financial investment in) we would likely go to war to help to stop it. Never mind that. Because we are justified. We look close at other people’s crimes and allow no introspection that might reveal our own. We do not look closely so we don’t have to think about what we have done.
The problem is… this isn’t a one-time thing. This whole conquest narrative – unexamined – has come to dominate our history, our present, and our future. With great religious fervor we fought Crusades. Not simply to the Holy Land (isn’t all land holy?) but to Northern and Eastern Europe, to pagan and Jew (from whom we took the story) and even other Christians who got their theology “wrong.” We took the sword to them because we had a divine right… a divine right that somehow invalidated their humanity. But we didn’t stop there. The Conquistadors did it around the world. Spanish conquests arm in arm with the Church took the sword (and the Bible… and an empty ship waiting to be filled with goods) around the world. There is no land unscarred by our conquest narratives. Our myth of Promised Land.
So here is what got me going down this road. I’m starring at Thanksgiving just a few weeks away. A holiday to be thankful for a native people who helped a fledgling people survive in a world in which they were strangers woefully lacking in the skills to survive. But you and I know how that story goes. Manifest Destiny; Promised Land. Thanksgiving is a myth with two very different sides. We are thankful but a native people have nothing but regret…
But its okay, look what we’ve done with the place! We are good at cultivating civilization, what does it matter if some people who stood in the way of that had to die to make space for us? The Conquest Narrative goes on… it fueled us from shore to shore, it fueled us around the world in Imperialism and wars for democracy became a stand in for religion but whose borders are messy (American democracy and our non-state religion of Christianity are very close bedfellows whatever our rhetoric may claim).
The problem with not looking closely at the horrors of Joshua – at the horrors of the conquest narrative and the Promised Land myth – is that it continues to power our actions on the world stage. We never stopped to acknowledge its existence and check its power, so its power only grows like a viral infection. Like a cancer in everything we do.
Now I will confess – proudly – that I am an American who loves my country. Given the choice I would be born here again and live here today. I am a passionate follower of Jesus and clergy in an institutional church that I love: that I would choose again and give my life and work to promote. I put my trust in the God attested to in Holy Scripture and I number the book of Joshua as part of my cannon that speaks a history of God and God’s people.
This story – this horrific narrative – it is my story. It is a part of me. I claim it as it has claimed me.
But I do not endorse it. And I pray we can transform how it operates in our lives.
I do not critique the violent narratives of my country and my faith to judge the whole thing evil. I critique the evil within our story because I love and value the whole. Because there is much to be loved and valued about it. But there are also scary tendencies within them both that have to be paid attention to in order to keep us from living into the more hurtful aspects of who we have been and all too often are. I do this in my own life. I do this in my family. I do this in my culture. I do this in my civic life, and I do this in my faith. I have to name and claim the ways I am capable of being a terror in the life of the other so that I do not actually become it.
And we must do it regularly and repetitively because our addictive narratives and myths (be they family past, national stories, or faith foundations) cannot simply be cut out like a tumor and be done with – they are insidious cancer we must constantly monitor. There are powerful blessings to our stories, and damaging baggage. I do not, will not, discard the narratives that give my life meaning whole cloth. But I will call attention to the strands that unravel the fabric of life – and do my best not to let them spread.
I have no promised land. I have no promised rights. I have no promised status. At least not any more than everyone else. And my life is not lived to secure my good, but our good. The good of all people. And yes – I’m not equal to the task… but I sure will do my best to work towards it. As I heard said once before: it’s not only an idea worth dying for, it’s an idea worth living for.