Friday, December 26, 2003

Christmas in the Desert

Christmas in the Sonoran desert has become one of my most treasured experiences. Needless to say, Salt Lake City is a [cold] desert and San Diego a [coastal] one, but the hot desert with its singular beauty and distinctive glory is something else completely! As I wrote in Voice of the Holy Spirit and Voice of the HS 2, in the Exodus desert and outside of any humanly designated governmental jurisdiction Israel first covenanted with Yahweh, receiving Yahweh’s commandment to have no other gods; after Jesus’ mikvah in the Jordan, the Spirit drove him into the desert. Underneath the crazy beauty of its bleakness, the desert teems with actual and potential life! The desert doesn’t often bloom, but when it does, its flowers are spectacular beyond anything “mere” words can capture. In the desert’s austere splendor we need to search for evidence of God’s sacramental presence, but the very nature of desert is an extremely sacramental hidden yet apparent one. Mary’s and Joseph’s child was born into stranger-ness and desertedness, just as later on Jesus died deserted outside the civilization of the city.

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Voice of the Holy Spirit 2

Although I said I'd return to this topic in early 2004, it's still more like late 2003, so continuing with more about how I sense the Holy Spirit's presence and voice. I'll begin with Nate's asking me last Saturday evening in San Diego if attending Harvard Divinity School had made me more spiritual and more faithful. I replied no, it hadn't—though my life experience definitely had made me more faithful and more spiritual! A while ago on one of the UCC forums when someone asked "What tethers you," I answered with the title of Harold Friedell’s hymn, "Draw us in the Spirit's tether!" ...and by the tethering of the HS I've come this far by faith. This morning during the liturgy at Carrie's church in Tucson we publicly proclaimed the Nicene Creed with its, "We believe in the HS, the Lord, the giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father and the son, Who has spoken by the Prophets..." and then "One, holy, catholic and apostolic Church..." the Church – of course – being the work of the HS:

The work, power and passion of the HS in that prototypical Church that began appearing while God's desert people wandered as the books of Exodus and Numbers document, as the people of God's creation and re-creation received manna from the sky, water from the rock, and healing from the snake lifted up as foreshadows of Jesus' breaking bread and offering the cup of life on the night of betrayal and desertion, and then lifted up on the cross of death on the Friday we now call "Good"; the whole congregation of the people of Israel living and worshiping as a gathered assembly; later during Jesus' earthly ministry; then at his crucifixion, on the day of Pentecost, moving outward from Jerusalem unto the ends of the earth, and in the church's 16th century re-formation and its continuing renewal up through this very day. Again in the words of Luther's explanation of the 3rd article of the [Apostle's] Creed:

I believe I cannot by my own effort
Know Jesus my Savior or come to him
But the HS has called me...
Calls, gathers and enlightens the church...

Those Reformers has it so right: on our own we can do nothing much except become experts at sin and alienation; real living? It's all about the HS; and real life often is about the cleansing, refining and renewing of the desert!

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Voice of the Holy Spirit

Anita Van Ingen emailed me,

“I write a blog called Moving Godward: The Desert Blogs
"and I’m doing some research on what the voice of the holy spirit sounds like to different people."

I'm going to expand "sounds like" and include feels like, sounds like, tastes like and smells like! It’s striking the Westminster Catechism says a sacrament is a sensible and outward sign – rather than simply a visible one, so I’m thinking about sensible (sensory) manifestations of the reality of the presence and activity of the HS in our lives. And since you asked me, it’s probably most appropriate for me to respond in terms of my own experience, and not even in terms of what other people have told me – you’ve probably asked quite a few people to answer this question, right?

I’ll begin by mentioning the help the HS gives us in interpreting scripture – a witness to God’s activity in the world that from the beginning was Spirit-breathed – a witness whose canonization also was Spirit-ed. Although that can be problematic, since different people claim various and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the same text.

In everyday life we intensely can sense the Spirit’s presence in conversation, in many kinds of human and animal interaction and – traditionally – in worship (but not always in worship). I’d love to say I sense the HS’s presence within the ecclesial community, but too often church settings, like committees, etc., are so charged with conflict, overt and covert hostilities and general irreconciliation or at least non-conciliation it’s almost impossible to breathe.

But since this question’s supposed to relate to “desert blogs,” I want to go off onto something like a tangent from what I just wrote, though definitely not a tangent in the least as this relates to the work, witness – and presence – of the HS in our lives, most particularly in our experiences of seeming desertion. In the desert Israel first rendezvoused with Yahweh; in the desert – driven out by the Spirit – Jesus first met the Spirit; possibly our first meeting with the real presence of the HS happens in the desert, too...not the presence we imagine we need but the Presence God knows we need.

Scripture’s multitude of promises includes God’s assurance of life lived eternally in the presence of God. How many times have I said the real miracles aren’t the spectacular signs and wonders, but rather Yahweh’s enduring specialness is the passion of presence with the people?! What’s been going on in almost any particular scriptural passage? Lots of things, but in particular the extraordinary fact of God with the people!

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Peacemaker of the World

Micah 5:2-4

2 But you, Bethlehem, David's country, the runt of the litter—
From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel.
He'll be no upstart, no pretender. His family tree is ancient and distinguished.
3 Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes until the birth pangs are over and the child is born,
And the scattered brothers come back home to the family of Israel.
4 He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by GOD's strength, centered in the majesty of GOD-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!

Luke 1:39-55

39 Mary didn't waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, 40 straight to Zachariah's house, and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and sang out exuberantly,

You're so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
43 And why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?
44 The moment the sound of your greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
45 Blessed woman, who believed what God said, believed every word would come true!

46 And Mary said,

I'm bursting with God-news;
47 I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
48 God took one good look at me, and look what happened— I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
49 the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
50 His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him.
51 He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts.
52 He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.
53 The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.
54 He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
55 It's exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

Dear Friends in Christ: grace, mercy and peace to you from our Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier God!

Three more shopping days—three days away from Christmas. Now…everyone who has everything done, stand up! Stand up and sum up what you felt when you made your last purchase, put up the last strand of Christmas lights the last ornament on the tree and the final yard decoration of the season. I'll give you a hint…the word I have in mind is right over there on that banner: JOY! Okay, now you can sit back down… Let's all take a quick moment and just relax: close your eyes, and remember your best Christmas ever. Recapture the surroundings, the smells, the tastes, the sounds, the sights; ask yourself what it was about that memorable Christmas that made it the best; look for one defining moment; keep that image in your mind and feel the emotions you felt back then; let your body and your spirit let go of any anxiety, stress, fears, or doubts you may have about this year's Christmas.

Christmas is known as a time for hope, peace, love, and joy; it is a time to be with family, to feel the warmth of a fire on a cold snowy night, a time to share a warm eggnog latté or triple peppermint mocha with a friend, a time to join in song and celebrate the joys of the entire season, and a time to be at peace with one another. However, for many folks, Christmas also is one of the most horrifically stressful seasons of the year. It begins the day after Thanksgiving, when at least half the local population rushes in to Wal-Mart or wherever to get a new DVD player or more Christmas decorations or just to buy whatever's there on the shelves or intrusively waiting in the aisles to be bought; in the pre-buying frenzy when a woman—maybe even your neighbor or my friend—gets trampled by the swarming mass of people waiting at the door in the early hours of the morning, Wal-Mart gracefully offers to put the loss-leader DVD player on hold for generous!? Our secular society insists Christmas is a time for shopping malls, 16-hour sales, clicking and double-clicking at online auction sites and consumption venues; for too many new and improved gadgets you can't live without, or that would make the perfect gift so you don't need to let guilt consume you because you've been buying so much for your family and yourself. Everyone here has dealt with the retail world in some way at this time of year; every year we hear not only in church but from the media, too, "shopping and buying is not what Christmas is all about."

Consumerism is the attitude of what we often refer to as the secular society, but what does secular mean? Here are some suggestions: a secular society can be one in which religion has become a self-consciously separate institution; or, in a secular society religion and spirituality are totally integrated with everyday life so there is no self-conscious religion per se. Our English secular comes from the Lain saeculum, meaning this present age.

Beyond this, in many ways biblical living is not "religious," since religion typically has more in common with cult, ideology or philosophy than with a lifestyle based on a free response in time to the actions of a gracious God in history, so at least in these terms, Christianity is not religious. But is it secular? As Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann insists, "We are indeed made in the image of some God." Most pre-rational societies made their gods in the image of their society, which then conveniently continued to reflect the gods. Although folks in those cultures probably did not realize their gods were made by humans, as we look back to theirs and then try looking inward at our culture and society, we realize just maybe we have made our own gods—those gods we first form and then keep reshaping into our own image of consumerism, greed, acquisition and possibly above all restlessness and discontent.

Briefly, if in a secular society religion is a self-conscious institution, probably this post-modern USA culture is secular, carrying all of us along with its tide; but then as the people of God in Christ Jesus, to an extent we qualify to be called "secular" in terms of the second definition of secular, since for us who live in Christ the Way of the Cross is supposed to be seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our lives.

But back to our talk about Christmas giving and Christmas mania! It took me until too recently to realize all the gifts in the world couldn't bring me what I have come to know as "joy," but I will come to that a little later.

A few years ago on my neighbor's dad's birthday my neighbor's family received a surprise: instead of the family giving gifts to their dad, their dad gave gifts to them, telling them the best birthday present was seeing their faces and reactions when he gave gifts to them. What he gave to each person wasn't the important part—it was the gracious act of giving, in and of itself. I'm not sure the younger kids in the family have come to realize the importance of what he gave them that day, but the teenagers and the adults most definitely have! While I'll admit I am not immune to the intense consumer attitude that fills our every day lives, I desire less every year. Christmas time has become a much more spiritual and Christ-centered time for me and in more recent years I keep experiencing more and more of the hope, peace, love and joy of Advent and then Christmas; I partly thank my neighbor's experience for that.

Now for a little change of pace: I know the sermon title sounds as if I'd planned to talk about Peace, but that was so two weeks ago. I took the title from the passage in Micah we read this morning, which tells of the coming of one who is to rule in Israel whose origin is from old, ancient days. One of the best parts of the scripture reads:

Micah 5:4

"He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by GOD's strength,
centered in the majesty of GOD-Revealed.
And the people will have a good and safe home,
for the whole world will hold him in respect—
Peacemaker of the world!"
Micah also foretells the one who is to come will be from the people: to hear this in that particular time had to be some pretty great news, since in those days God was a high, lofty, faraway figure; God was an eternal immortal Wholly Other and Holy Other looking down upon the earth and zapping the people who refused to believe in him and follow him; therefore, most people feared God, not as in the fear of awe-filled but in the fear of afraid. And as Mary tells her story to Elizabeth, she says, "His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him." But that's not the important part! The good news is he who is coming, the one God is sending is a mortal, a human, one from the people and one of the people: a friend, a neighbor, a human being, a person exactly like each of us, but without sin, to share our common lot and to live a life like ours, including being born of a woman and dying and being buried. As the infant in the Bethlehem manger, to this world of the earth, our God descends, willing to live among us in the image of our humanity so we might take part in his divinity!

The scripture readings keep bringing Christmas day closer and closer, focusing our attention focus more on Mary and the baby's birth; life in the world around us is reaching a peak of anticipation. The big day is almost here! Yet do all the gifts, the ornaments, the lights, the decorations and everything else Christmas has become really fill us with true Joy? How can there be any room for the true joy during this season if we fill it with all this stuff? I don't mean to be cynical, because I too find some sort of fulfillment all of it brings, but it's only second best to what we can truly get out of it all. To experience joy is to experience an intimate connection; joy is truly a spiritual experience. Christmas joy, Christ's joy is being 700 miles from your family on Christmas day, but still feel like you're part of a family here. Christmas joy, Christ-filled joy can be found in the moment a parent first sees their newborn child's eyes or at a moment in the forest when you begin growing deep roots like the tree you are leaning against and you realize you are the same as the tree, connected to the earth and to all that is in the earth. Joy could be some dark summer night when the stars seem to reach into your body and fill you with their light, or a moment when you look across the room and catch your lover's glance and know you belong. Or here in church, today, on the last Sunday of Advent: in the silence; in the music; in the laughter; joy is in everything and everybody.

Like Mary, we each carry Christ in us; each of us carries an image of the divine, but we can't look only to ourselves to find joy. We can't look to who we are, or what we can do, or what we can get. It is in what Mary and Elizabeth are celebrating. Both Elizabeth and Mary rejoice, but they are not celebrating anything of their own doing; they don't celebrate because of what they have accomplished, or because of what they deserve; they celebrate because they have been given Joy to share with the world. So again I ask, is it all worth it? Are all the things you bought going to help you to experience Joy? Maybe. It is possible if there weren't all the commercial hype surrounding Christmas, and all of it simply was a sacred celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ—if that were the case, it might get old, and we might get weary of celebrating it. Maybe the commercialization adds that variety we need to continue to feel moved by it year after year. But I ask one thing: please, never, ever forget to look for the joy of God-with-us and God-among-us in the vulnerability of the baby in the Bethlehem manger outside of all of that! Thank you!

To God be the Glory!

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Advent 2, 2003

  • The Spirit and the Church cry – Come, Lord Jesus!

  • And all who yearn for his appearing say – Come, Lord Jesus!

  • All creation pleads – Come, Lord Jesus!

  • Maranatha!

Thursday, December 04, 2003


“Why did we ever retreat into the sanctuary in the first place?”

Without delving into a lot of history and in this short space necessarily leaving out the multitude of vital functions the cathedral church assumed earlier on, especially in Europe, that whole sanctuary development has a lot to do with the rationalization and bureaucratization of Christianity ...and, as Max Weber pointed out, when religion becomes rationalized – and maybe denominationalized! – with a dichotomy between professional and non-professional (“lay?”) practitioners, that’s when the division between sacred and secular begins really big-time, and often assumes horrendous proportions, as in the Jerusalem Temple. And “horrendous proportions” as in the late Medieval church, as well, though always there have been faithful and even re-forming individuals and movements.

But modulating into a different key, I also love thinking of the church sanctuary as a place of safety, of prayer and worship, and a place where God and the people of God meet in a unique and focused way, preparing the people to recognize God’s presence wherever God and people encounter each other. In this context I need to refer to the sacraments again, since not only does God come to us with specific and special grace in the sacraments, as well as helping us remember Whose we are, but the Eucharist particularly forms one of the ways God enters our world in common, routine and everyday things and ordinary, day-by-day actions – like breaking bread and sharing a meal!

“’s important to remember we’re “marketing” the gospel, not the church! I think there’s a big danger in confusing the two. Don’t you?

Marian, yes, oh wow – thanks for the reminder this is about the gospel and about the church as one of the various vehicles that can convey the gospel...however, we also need to remember the Church is the Body of the Risen Christ!

“...maybe that should be return the church to the marketplace! Remember Luke 5:1-11?”

Called from where we are right now to go where the Spirit leads! I’ve heard that called “the mark of the stable” – begin where God says! :)