Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Transfiguration Sunday: Moving Beyond Narratives of Self-Preservation

I think I would have wanted to stay there, too.

Amidst the madness that marked a first-century Palestinian and Jewish world captive to an oppressive Roman Empire, I don’t think Peter was out of line to want to permanently tabernacle on the mountain with an illuminated Jesus and the ghosts of Moses and Elijah. There are days when I wish for a similar experience- for my family and me to be whisked away from the chaos and mounting pressure only to find refuge on some sort of sacred island isolated from the noises of a despairing world. 

Throw Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in there as forever personal companions- even better. 

Yet the call to discipleship is not towards escapist retreats to holy hills only accessible to a privileged few. Amidst the many pressing realities of our day, for those who follow the crucified Christ, we must not be lured into narratives framed around self-preservation; we must reject theological plot lines that pull us away from the urgent matters of our day and the concerns of our most vulnerable neighbors. Instead, the Christian is to be informed and active, innovative and subversive, intentional and generous, open and awake, alert and self-giving in these very places.

As Jesus said to his disciples eight days prior to his transfiguration, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24).

We are to mirror the very nature of God who is self-giving, other-regarding, community-forming love.**

Yet, for individuals and religious institutions, congregations and faith-based entities, when finances are tight, pews are half empty, and Christendom is almost completely deconstructed, we are tempted to explore measures of self-preservation and the protection of what is left. When socio-political and ethical conversations become uncomfortable, "biblical truth" becomes open to new (read: reformed) interpretation, and our methods of ministry and governance require adaptation- we may want to flee from change and huddle with the familiar.  When we are dared to risk something, we may cling to everything and give next to nothing- fearing the loss of all. 

In these moments, we need the clouds to break and a voice to call out from the heavens, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)

And like the disciples, rather than tabernacle above, we break our cozy camp and enter into the brokenness of our congregations and communities no matter our perceived limitations in resources, ideas, or influence. We open our sleep-heavy eyes and ears to transfigured imaginations as we remember our call to carry cross in the midst of the poverty and the pain, even the shifting winds of our emerging world. 

We allow the good news of the gospel to be illumined in our hearts and minds as we embody reconciliation in the midst of our fractured and fragmented contexts. We listen to where the cries of our communities intersect with the call of Christ, only to carry cross and follow wherever the voice of our Teacher leads. 

This is the message of Transfiguration Sunday. It's also a good reminder for the church and each of us as we enter into the Lenten season.  

*Image Above: Transfiguration by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, 1824
**"Trinitarian doctrine describes God in terms of shared life and love rather than in terms of domineering power. God loves in freedom, lives in communion, and wills creatures to live in a new community of mutual love and service. God is self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love."  Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding 73

Saturday, January 30, 2016

On Prayer as Rhythm of Awareness

Life can be sheer chaos. If we are not careful, we can become overwhelmed and consumed by the pace and pressures we place on ourselves or have placed upon us by others. Our personal bouts with suffering, fears of death and dying, and doing our very best to raise children in the midst of today's world only enhances the distress.  Then we flip on the news, walk out our front doors, dare to stomach political debates, or encounter infinite streams of polarizing information on social media feeds, we may become all-the-more disheartened and distracted. 

We may begin to lose our center, get out of stride, and become victims to haste, anxiety, and the tyranny of the urgent.  We may ultimately be tempted to believe we are alone amidst the confusion and conflict. 

Despite fall tabloids to the contrary, these are indeed the very moments when prayer is of utmost importance; these are the places we invoke the name of God in the truest sense. Whether spoken in angst or fear, anger or grief, or even as a last ditch effort in the midst of doubt and despair, the purest forms of prayer are simple whispers or shouts of the name of Christ. 
"To pronounce the name of Jesus Christ means to acknowledge that we are cared for, that we are not lost." Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
To pray is to speak the name of God and enter into the sacred rhythm of divine awareness; to pray is to confess that we are not alone and there is nowhere God is not. Prayer as awareness moves us from long lists of requests* and theological rants and towards an opening of the mind, body, and spirit to the reality that we are always in the presence of the God who made us, sustains us, and leads us home.  In this way, prayer is less dialogical and more centering and meditative. Prayer is an awakening to the divine presence we can experience while driving or giving our children a bath, talking with a neighbor about their recent cancer diagnosis or entrenched in yet another meeting at work.  Prayer in this sense is pursued in the crowds and in the quiet, the mess and the mundane. Prayer as sacred rhythm of divine awareness gives new meaning to the Pauline charge, “pray without ceasing.” 

This is where Richard Rohr is most helpful, 
“This unspeakability [of the name of God, Yahweh] has long been recognized, but we now know it goes even deeper: formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed.  Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation.  The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God.  This makes it our first and last word as we enter and leave the world….When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly- breathe.” (The Naked Now 25-26)
That is, prayer is an on-going, occasionally involuntary, holy ritual. There are even moments when prayer as breathing needs to be slowed, engaged with great intentionality or some form of assistance.  Sometimes our prayer breaths are erratic in the midst of fear and uncertainty, other times our prayer breaths are patterned; sometimes our prayers are congested in the midst of ill spirit and realities that lead us towards despair.  There are even moments when the breath of our prayers is “taken away” as we are left in awe of God’s mystery and lead to expressions of gratitude and grace. 

Prayer ultimately breathes the divine life into us and enables us to have particular movement in the world- to be aware of our most vulnerable neighbors. As we breathe in and out the name of God, we are reminded of our human agency as co-workers with Christ in the reconciliation of all things. So may we pray without ceasing, aware that God is forever with us, for us, and sending us, too. 
“The children of God are not anxious about work.  They work because they pray.” Karl Barth, Prayer 50
“The core task of all good spirituality is to teach us to ‘cooperate’ with what God already wants to do and has already begun to do.  In fact, nothing good would even enter our minds unless in the previous moment God had not already ‘moved’ within us.  We are always and forever merely seconding the motion.” 
Richard Rohr, The Naked Now 23

*This is not to say that prayer does not include the request, for it indeed must. Rather, prayer is not to be reduced to the ask. Prayer must move us into the divine life and presence, an awareness of who God is without the need for our words or speech.  In this sense, some of the best prayers are those left unspoken and more simply breathed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas as Invitation to Godbearing Life: Belated Reflections on the Third Candle of Advent

The joy candle is my daughter’s favorite. Probably because Joy is her middle name. Probably because she loves the color pink. Probably because, once we have reached the third week of Advent, she gets to light this candle and blow it out after dinner. 

She also loves the joy candle because of the traditional link with Mary.  As she will point out, Mary was a girl just like her. 

Side note: If you want to discover the patriarchy laced within Scripture, just read a Bible with a four-year-old girl. She’ll make you aware of it every single time. 

I think my daughter's on to something; Mary may even be quickly ascending the ladder of my favorite Biblical characters, too.  After all, as the Theotokos, Mary is a beautiful microcosm of who we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ in the midst of our tired and fearful world:
“The Eastern Orthodox tradition calls Mary Theotokos, or ‘Godbearer,” because she (quite literally) brought God into the world…And while God does not ask any of us to bring Christ into the world literally as did Mary, God calls each of us to become a Godbearer through whom God may enter the world again and again.” (Kinda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life 17). 
This is the invitation of Christmas.  Christmas dares us not only to witness the climbing down of God [1] into the brokenness of the human condition, but also to nurture the very life of God within ourselves and among our most vulnerable neighbors.  Each Christmas we reclaim the words spoken to Mary, “do not be afraid,” as the holy nudge to respond with the same willingness to bear the love of Christ and subvert the many reasons to despair. 

We are beckoned to bear the love of Christ as we welcome neighbors into our homes and explore possibilities to host others from distant lands looking for refuge and safety. We are called to nourish the life of God as we advocate for victims of violence, legislation that can make such violence more difficult to repeat, and peacemaking efforts that do not require a sword or gun or weapons of war. We are invited to carry the life of God through hospital visitations, solidarity extended over a cup of coffee with a friend, and the embrace of neighbors who face daily prejudice due to their ethnicity, heritage, and religion. We are moved to care for the life of God as we journey alongside the family who has been struggling with infertility, for whom the Christ child is just another reminder of the void they have yet to fill. We are dared to nurture the Advent of Christ when we give anonymously to families looking for assistance so they can provide for their little ones at Christmas. We are called to bear the life of Christ when we engage in new relationships and confront the realities of racism, bias, and privilege. We are inspired to share in the identity as theotokos whenever we welcome guests, many for the first time, into our congregations, sanctuaries, and worship services and assure them of their belonging. 

And we bear the life of God in all these places with great joy. This joy is more than mere sentiment, rather the perspective of the faithful fixed on God’s promise and presence wrapped up in the Christ child. Joy as perspective is what propelled Mary towards the God-bearing life. 

But there’s a bit more as to why I am beginning to favor the lone pink candle of Advent.

As a young, marginalized first-century woman living under ethnic, religious, and political siege, carrying the child who does not belong to her betrothed, Mary reminds us God’s preference is for the unexpected other. When God acts, God does so among the least of these.  When God calls, God does so through and for the sake of those frequently relegated to the fringes of our nations and neighborhoods. So Mary’s witness beckons us not only to be the bearers of God, but also to recognize the theotokos all around us who show up in persons most have written off as insignificant or threats to power and privilege. 

So this Advent, as you light the pink candle…and the one next to it…and the one in the middle…be reminded that you are called to bear the very life of Christ into the world. Even more, as the light of this candle lingers during these last days, dare to take notice of the theotokos in neighbor, stranger, and the other. Who knows what God is birthing in and through them…

[1] Karl Barth once wrote, "This is the miracle of Jesus Christ's existence, this descent of God from above downwards- the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary. This is the mystery of Christmas, of the Incarnation" (The Dogmatics in Outline 96).  The "descent of God" has frequently been translated as the "climbing down of God."  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

What If St. Nicholas Really Did Come to Our Town? Keeping Advent Eyes Open in a Tired World

On the heels of St. Nicholas Day (December 6), I believe it's time for the annual post as homage to the most mystifying saint of the Christian Way.

Nicholas of Myra was born towards the middle of the third century in Patara, a town on the coast of modern-dayTurkey. Nicholas’ birth was surrounded by mystery and his earliest childhood laced in legends about piety- like how the infant rose from the baptismal font and pronounced a blessing to the congregation. 

As time passed and folklore grew, Nicholas’ faith and charity inspired the masses until one afternoon, upon a vision given to a local church leader, Nicholas walked into a sanctuary in Myra and was immediately anointed archbishop.

Apparently the Book of Order and Presbyterian polity had not yet arrived to Myra.

Nevertheless, Nicholas served as a prominent leader in this ancient-Turkish city around the time of the council of Nicaea. Legend has it St. Nickwas there, fending off heretics with his sandal. 

But this is not what historians and hagiographers most emphasize when they write about Nicholas. Instead, they underscore the Bishop’s obsession with advocacy, justice, and God’s concern for the poor, oppressed, wrongly accused, and victims of violence- especially children.

And much like our world today, there were more than enough reasons to advocate and intervene.

One such story tells of Nicholas, who had learned of a family on the brink of bankruptcy and about to sell their three daughters into a trafficking ring, secretly tossed two bags of money through the family’s window, which landed in their shoes. The amount was enough to pay a dowry and prevent life-long captivity and exploitation of the young girls.  

But there was still one daughter left.

Anticipating another act of covert generosity, the father camped out on the roof of his home and waited until he caught a glimpse of the Great Giver. That’s when one starry night he saw Nicholas, dressed in his red clerical robe, drop a bag of money down their chimney and into a sock hung out to dry.

Chimney. Stocking. Rooftop. Shoes. You get the idea. 

Wanting to maintain a spirit of anonymity and humility, the pious bishop made the father promise to refrain from revealing who had provided such elaborate funds. Thus the beginning of the mystery behind the man with a beard, red mitre, and prophetic witness.

Yet the story was too good not to be told. It was a glimmer of hope amidst their reasons to despair and fear. The prophetic and radical generosity of those who benefited from and followed behind other secret graces of Nicholas birthed new tales.

My favorite is the story of three men wrongly accused of a crime by the governor, Eusthatius, who in turn sentenced them to death. Just as the sword was about to come down on the innocent, Nicholas intervened, ran towards the platform, climbed the wooden steps, seized the downward thrusting sword in his calloused hand, tossed it aside in disgust, and refused to cease protest in the governor's courts until their accusations were expunged and wrongs righted.

Not your typical illustration of holly and jolly. 

As I made my final sermon preparations this past Sunday, with the images and stories of our nation and world swirling in my mind, the images of Nicholas laying his own life down for the lives of others took over my homiletical imagination. 

After all, his world was not all that different than our own.

So I wondered, what would happen if St. Nicholas really did come to town? 

On Monday he rode around Philly on a motorcycle blasting festive carols (see picture above). 

But I am not sure that's where you'd find him. 

Instead, I imagined the Archbishops's red cloak and mitre being spotted at rallies and protests alongside those who continue to demand that their lives matter. I imagine him echoing their chants from Baltimore to Chicago, Ferguson to New York.

I imagined the saint listening to the voices of those wrongly accused and unjustly sentenced in the midst of broken penal and justice systems fueled by racism and discrimination. 

I imagined letters with his signature at the end demanding the welcome of refugees fleeing nations torn by violence and religious persecution.  I imagined Nicholas housing such refugees in his church and home, regardless of the law of the land.   

I imagined St. Nicholas tossing aside guns and the broken legislation that makes them so readily available.  I imagined him at the office steps of his political representatives and demanding change. 

I imagined St. Nicholas waving his sandal in disgust, a sign of condemnation and offense, when he learned of the rally cries to carry concealed elicited by evangelical university presidents who claim to follow the same Jesus who said, "blessed are the peacemakers." I imagined Nicholas doing the same when candidates for political office suggested religious testing, registries, and exclusion of religious people groups as their only thoughtless responses to terror and immigration. 

I imagined Nicholas walking alongside persons of different faith traditions, shedding off fears of the other, and working to alleviate ignorance and prejudice. He would call them neighbor and friend. 

I imagined St. Nick coming to the poorest of towns and working tirelessly to end pervasive poverty and broken education systems that left children with a bleak future at best. 

Then I rememebered- there are many Christians and faith communities already doing these very things. They just do so in a way that doesn't always get noticed by the press or the public. They frequently work in subversive means for the sake of the common good- humble yet bold and determined witnesses to the gospel.

Sounds a lot like St. Nick. 

So this Advent, I am doing my best not too allow the despairing world and the irresponsible and unethical remarks of "Christian" and political leaders to overshadow the reality that God is with us, for us, and calling us to something far more gracious. I am keeping my Advent eyes open to the many faithful witnesses who have taken seriously their call to prepare the Way to God's coming peace and justice. I am looking on rooftops and street corners, in cities and suburbs, at protests and advocacy groups, and even in sanctuaries each Sunday morning, assured the same Spirit who moved and motivated the life of St. Nick equips and inspires saints 1700 years later. 

"The message of Advent about the coming of the light requires that we become people of Advent; people who persistently await the victorious light. Where there are such people, Christmas can happen. Christ waits for people who will not compromise the light with darkness, neither in themselves nor in anything else, but who are moved by the serious need for the light of Christ and who are aware of whence the help comes. May God give that we may go forth to the festival of Christmas as moved and motivated people. Then we will experience Christmas with the gifts of grace and blessing."
---Karl Barth

Helpful Links

Blogpost with Adam English and link to an excellent podcast about hardcore St. Nick: