Thursday, December 28, 2006

realism for Christmas Eve

Our Christmas Eve candlelight communion service is at 9:00pm, and since we had cleaned up from our family dinner by 8:00pm, I decided to walk to church that night. We live only 4 blocks away from the church, so it usually only takes me about 7-8 minutes to get there. The evening was chilly, but not cold, and it provided me the time to pray and reflect on the evening's liturgy without being too rushed. The walk also provided me the opportunity to step in something. I was not aware of this ripe addition to the sole of my shoe until, of course, I had gotten into the sanctuary, walked up through the chancel a few times to fix the altar for communion, traveled up and down the middle aisle to get the lighting ready, and gone into the sacristy to get my alb and stole ready. Actually, I didn't even realize I had stepped in something and tracked it all over church until a choir member spotted a big chunk of it on the tile right in front of the altar and little stains on the carpet outside the choir room. She pointed to it and said, "Oh, it looks like one of the poinsettias tipped over!" It took me one second of cleaning it up to realize it wasn't poinsettia soil.

Needless to say, I had to remove my shoes and put them outside. They really stank. And I spent a few minutes running around trying to clean up whatever brown stains I could. The sacristy smelled particularly bad. I called my wife and told her I needed another pair of shoes, and 5 minutes later my dad showed up bearing them in hand. I still had to figure out a way to explain the strange odor to the worshippers who would come. So that evening, at the start of the liturgy, I announced that my shoes were not placed outside with the hopes Saint Nick would leave gifts in them that evening but so they could dry out. After explaining what had happened (without being too graphic), I told them that I had not intentionally tried to recreate the atmosphere of the stable, but that if they did get a whiff of anything just to mark it up as a "mood thing."

As it turned out, the worship service went really well, and all the worship assistants performed their extra duties with confidence, including the girl who had never before been an acolyte. The turn-out was great, and, as far as I know, no one reported any funny smells.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

On the Incarnation of the Word

My wife gave birth a month ago to our daughter, Margaret Clare. She is our first child and the first grandchild on both sides of our family. Until she came along, I have not had the opportunity to hold very many babies, especially ones this little. Of course, presiding at baptisms has afforded me the opportunity to be near a few, but the moment is usually so fleeting and I tend to be concentrating on not dropping the baby, pouring water, and talking all at the same time that I don't get to drink in the moment properly.

But now that I've held my own for awhile and gotten comfortable with her squirminess and fussiness, I marvel at the incarnation in a way I never have before. It is ludicrous that God would do this! It is utterly preposterous that the Lord of heaven and earth would take this route! It's absolutely absurd. I have never had a problem imagining Jesus as a grown man, even a young one. Because I've walked those shoes myself, in some way I have always been able to envision Jesus being "just like me," or just like someone else who is in control, so to speak, of his or her actions and able to fend for him or herself and engage the world in a "mature" way. This is how Jesus is presented in 99 percent of the gospel stories, so it's easy to swallow somehow. Making the leap from man to God-man is not so great, comparatively-speaking.

Making the leap from baby to God-man is another story altogether! To think that God would risk himself in that birth and those first few months and years of utter helplessness! To think that God would deign to let us swaddle him in our cloths, to change his soiled diaper, to clean his spit-up from our collar! To think that God would get a little scared or cold or hungry and need to be comforted in our arms! Our arms?! Didn't he come to hold us in his?

I know it sounds cliche, but I view this holiday Christmas--I view the Incarnation--quite differently now that I have a child of my own that depends on me so. (I am learning that all the cliches about parenthood are wonderfully true, by the way). I truly understand for the first time what Martin Luther was preaching about in one of his nativity sermons:

"Are you afraid of God? He places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to man than a babe...To me there is no greater consolation given to mankind than this, that Christ became man, a child, a babe, playing at the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother."

Playing at the breasts of his most gracious mother? Clare does that and it drives Melinda (who is very gracious, too) crazy. God, what were you thinking?

Thank you for thinking it. And doing it.

Blessed Christmas.

Friday, December 08, 2006

On Jordan's Banks

The following reflection is my submission for the pastor's column in the upcoming edition of our local news rag, The Citizen. I always struggle with this task, which rotates to me every six weeks or so. In part, I don't know the audience very well (a preacher relies heavily on his/her "audience" to know what to say). I also never find this genre of reflection too helpful, myself. I like to exegete Scripture, but that's difficult to do in the Citizen's forum.

One of the most familiar messages of Advent—the four Sundays leading up to Christmas—is that strident voice of John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” Quoting from the ancient prophet Isaiah in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah, this rugged figure issues a call that is part invitation, part warning: “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain will be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth!” Some of the gospel writers describe John as an eccentric man, dressed in camel fur and eating wild locusts. Often I picture him with a hardhat and an orange construction vest, motioning drivers past a big dig.

In fact, the cry of John the Baptist echoes in my head every time I go shopping at the new Mt. Nebo Pointe in Ohio Township. Over the past three years, I watched developers with amazement as their bulldozers made that mountain low (and perhaps fill a valley or two) in order to place buildings on top of it. What was once an ordinary, forested and uninhabited hill is now a wide shopping complex with parking spaces to spare. At the top, the large Target logo beckons shoppers to come and spend to their hearts’ content. I confess the red-and-white bullseye has lured me more than once, but as I wind my way up that long road to the summit, I can’t help but think about the monumental effort it must have taken to prepare. Making room for just about any new construction in western Pennsylvania requires a good deal of mountain-carving.

The destruction of a nice piece of forested real estate notwithstanding, that transformed hill at Mt. Nebo Pointe, with its relatively straight roads to the summit, serves as a visual suggestion of the type of repentance and reflection that John expects of us as we wait for the Lord to arrive. In a season that usually focuses on being ready in terms of decorating, shopping and baking, John the Baptist reminds us that, in fact, all of that could get accomplished and we still might not be prepared for the Lord to transform our lives. Preparation for Jesus involves some internal mountain-carving. It entails re-prioritizing, re-adjusting, re-organizing the matters of the soul. John calls it repenting. When the crowd of passers-by ask John what this means, he replies with a practical example, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Can’t you see the bulldozers working? Not only are wealth and possession re-distributed a little more evenly, but eyes are opened to take seriously the need for compassion. Oh, but how often we like the mountains to stay the way they are!

The good news is that, as John declares, the Lord will come. His kingdom will bring forgiveness and hope. It will come even to the tax-collectors and the sinners. Heeding the invitation-warning of John, we certainly trust that the Christ still visits us, often under the guise of a stranger in need or in the unexpected invitation to serve and the command to forgive. In light of this, we would do well to change our direction, change our outlook, and level down the habits and attitudes which, not unlike mountains, have obstructed our view of true life in Christ, the reality of that great love. It would be helpful to clear the terrain of our hearts, covered with the underbrush of apathy and conceit, so that his journey to us will be quick and its outcome fruitful.

Yes, we may fault you for being a little eccentric and pushy, Baptizer John, for getting in our way as we try to drive on past to wherever we’re going, but we need to hear your voice again and again: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!”