REMEMBERING OUR JOURNEY: When We Came to Be

 

"Birth of Christ", Robert Campin, c. 1425-1430

Scripture Text:  Luke 2: 1-7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“In those days, a decree went out.”…There it is!  It is probably the best known story of all time and a great story it is–forced occupation, poor couple, long trip, impressive ancestry,  a last-minute birth, animals, humble beginnings, angels, assurance, surprise visitors, well-trained angelic choir, and God.  (You know, in hindsight, if there had been a coach and a glass slipper, this would have been perfect!)  But, seriously, think about it.  This story has gripped the world for more than twenty centuries.  Jesus of Nazareth was born a human gift to this world, born the way we were all born.  No, the Scripture doesn’t speak of morning sickness and labor pains.  In fact, in our haste to welcome the Christ child into our lives each Christmas Eve, we forget the humanness of the birth.  We forget that he first appeared in the dim lights of that grotto drenched with the waters of Creation, with the smell of God still in his breath.  We forget that Mary was in tears most of the night as she tried to be strong, entering a realm she had never entered, questioning what the angel nine months before had really convinced her to do.  We often sort of over-romanticize it, forgetting that Jesus was human.

But that night, that silent night, was the night when the Word came forth, Incarnate.  In its simplest form, the Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity, the mingling of God with us.  It is God becoming human and, in turn, giving humanity a part of the Divine.  It is the mystery of life that always was coming into all life yet to be.  This night, this silent night, was the night that we came to be.  In this moment, Humanity and the Divine are somehow suspended together, neither moving forward, both dancing together in this grotto.  This is the night for which the world had waited.

God has come, sought us out.  Eons of God inviting us and claiming us and drawing us in did not do it.  So God came, came to show us the sacredness that had been created for us, the holy in the ordinary that we kept missing.  God has traversed time and space and the barrier between us and the Divine and as God comes across the line, the line disappears.  God is now with us.  We just have to open our eyes.  And then, the walk began, a walk that is passing through Galilee and, soon, Jerusalem and Golgotha.  And at each point, God asks us to dance again.  And we will never be the same again.  This notion of “Emmanuel”, God With Us, means that all of history has changed.  It means that we have changed.  Lest we over-romanticize that night as one of beauty and candlelight and “Silent Night”, that night was the night we came to be.  We have passed through to another time with our feet still firmly planted here.  God is not asking us to be Divine.  We are not called to be God.  God is asking us to be who God created us to be and came to walk with us to show us what it meant to be human, to be made, not into God, but in the very image of the Divine.

Tradition tells us that the birth happened just a few miles from Jerusalem.  We think of it as another world.  We think of it in the silence without remembering that God came into the midst of a world that is filled with pain and darkness, filled with danger and injustice, filled with the stench of death.  We forget that Jesus was born just a short distance way from a place that is called Golgotha with a waiting cross.  But God still came.  God always comes.  God came to show us Light in the darkness and Life in the midst of death.  God came to show us how to be.  Our journey that we are on now is not separate from that night.  That night was the night it began, the night that God, even in the face of the madness of this world, poured the Sacred and the Divine into our lives.  We were changed forever.  And we can’t separate our past from who we are now.  We can’t help but carry the manger with us on this journey and try our best to make room.  It is part of us.  It is part of when we came to be.  It is what sent us on this journey, the journey that leads us to Jerusalem.

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.  We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us.  The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

On this day in this Lenten journey, remember when you came to be.  What do you remember about knowing what that means?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

When We Came to Be

 

"Birth of Christ", Robert Campin, c. 1425-1430
“Birth of Christ”, Robert Campin, c. 1425-1430

Scripture Text:  Luke 2: 1-7

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

“In those days, a decree went out.”…There it is!  It is probably the best known story of all time and a great story it is–forced occupation, poor couple, long trip, impressive ancestry,  a last-minute birth, animals, humble beginnings, angels, assurance, surprise visitors, well-trained angelic choir, and God.  (You know, in hindsight, if there had been a coach and a glass slipper, this would have been perfect!)  But, seriously, think about it.  This story has gripped the world for more than twenty centuries.  Jesus of Nazareth was born a human gift to this world, born the way we were all born.  No, the Scripture doesn’t speak of morning sickness and labor pains.  In fact, in our haste to welcome the Christ child into our lives each Christmas Eve, we forget the humanness of the birth.  We forget that he first appeared in the dim lights of that grotto drenched with the waters of Creation, with the smell of God still in his breath.  We forget that Mary was in tears most of the night as she tried to be strong, entering a realm she had never entered, questioning what the angel nine months before had really convinced her to do.  We often sort of over-romanticize it, forgetting that Jesus was human.

But that night, that silent night, was the night when the Word came forth, Incarnate.  In its simplest form, the Incarnation is the mingling of God with humanity, the mingling of God with us.  It is God becoming human and, in turn, giving humanity a part of the Divine.  It is the mystery of life that always was coming into all life yet to be.  This night, this silent night, was the night that we came to be.  In this moment, Humanity and the Divine are somehow suspended together, neither moving forward, both dancing together in this grotto.  This is the night for which the world had waited.

God has come, sought us out.  Eons of God inviting us and claiming us and drawing us in did not do it.  So God came, came to show us the sacredness that had been created for us, the holy in the ordinary that we kept missing.  God has traversed time and space and the barrier between us and the Divine and as God comes across the line, the line disappears.  God is now with us.  We just have to open our eyes.  And then, the walk began, a walk that is passing through Galilee and, soon, Jerusalem and Golgotha.  And at each point, God asks us to dance again.  And we will never be the same again.  This notion of “Emmanuel”, God With Us, means that all of history has changed.  It means that we have changed.  Lest we over-romanticize that night as one of beauty and candlelight and “Silent Night”, that night was the night we came to be.  We have passed through to another time with our feet still firmly planted here.  God is not asking us to be Divine.  We are not called to be God.  God is asking us to be who God created us to be and came to walk with us to show us what it meant to be human, to be made, not into God, but in the very image of the Divine.

Tradition tells us that the birth happened just a few miles from Jerusalem.  We think of it as another world.  We think of it in the silence without remembering that God came into the midst of a world that is filled with pain and darkness, filled with danger and injustice, filled with the stench of death.  We forget that Jesus was born just a short distance way from a place that is called Golgotha with a waiting cross.  But God still came.  God always comes.  God came to show us Light in the darkness and Life in the midst of death.  God came to show us how to be.  Our journey that we are on now is not separate from that night.  That night was the night it began, the night that God, even in the face of the madness of this world, poured the Sacred and the Divine into our lives.  We were changed forever.  And we can’t separate our past from who we are now.  We can’t help but carry the manger with us on this journey and try our best to make room.  It is part of us.  It is part of when we came to be.  It is what sent us on this journey, the journey that leads us to Jerusalem.

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us.  We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us.  The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

On this day in this Lenten journey, remember when you came to be.  What do you remember about knowing what that means?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Threshold

Journey to Bethlehem-colorScripture Passage for Reflection:  Luke 2: 1-5

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 

There is a word that we do not use much called “liminality”.  It is from the Latin word for threshold and is used to describe a state of being “betwixt and between”a point of being suspended between what has happened and what will be.  It is likened to being on an airplane flying over the ocean between two continents.  For a few hours, it is as if you are suspended between times, cultures, and nations.  It is as if you are nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  It is a place of enlarged vision, enlarged perspective and no real place to put down roots.  Liminality is a place that our souls crave, a place where our spiritual sense is somehow heightened, a place where se can see both who we are and who we will become.  On this eve of the Great Eve, we find ourselves a little “betwixt and between”.

Think of this day so long ago.  Bethlehem was in reach for this scared young couple who were so unsure of exactly what the world held for them.  They were rounding the final peaks of their journey.  But this day they found themselves no longer a part of their old lives and yet they didn’t really know what tomorrow would hold. But now, now they were traveling through a foreign land.  It was the land of Joseph’s family.  He had been there often as a child.  But the place was different somehow, full of those who followed this emperor, nothing like he really remembered.  The road was packed with travelers returning to the place of their ancestors to make their presence known to the government.  Joseph felt like he should know these people and, yet, they were all strangers to him.  Mary and Joseph did not feel like they were part of this new world and yet their old world did not exist.  There didn’t seem to be any room for them at all.

We are indeed standing on the edge of a brave new world.  Oh sure, we do this once a year whether we’re ready or not. Once a year, the night of nights comes and we sing Silent Night and we light our candle and once again welcome the Christ Child into our lives.  Why is this year any different?  Because, in this moment, standing on this edge between who we are and who we will be has the possibility of changing everything.  This is the moment when we decide whether or not to turn toward Bethlehem or to turn and go back.  Standing in this place of “betwixt and between”, we see both, fully in our view.

We are not that different from that scared young couple.  We find ourselves pulled between the life we’ve so carefully created and the life we’ve been promised.  It is hard to not hold so tightly to those structures that give us power and prestige and security.  And yet, God doesn’t call us to leave our lives behind but to live all that we are and all that we have within that vision that God holds for us.  And it is in this moment, standing here between the two that allows us to see how to do that, that allows us to see our lives the way that God sees them and journey on.  It is in this moment that God gives us new eyes and asks us to follow the star.  And if we do that, this year WILL be different.  We are standing in the threshold between a waiting world and one in which the Divine has already poured into our midst.  We live in the already and the not yet.  But for those who see with new eyes, the road ahead is the only one that makes sense anymore.  Because that is the way to Bethlehem.  Let us go and see this thing that has happened.  There’s a world about to be born.

This text speaks of the birth of a child, not the revolutionary deed of a strong man, or the breath-taking discovery of a sage, or the pious deed of a saint.  It truly boggles the mind:  The birth of a child is to bring about the great transformation of all things, is to bring salvation and redemption to all of humanity.

As if to shame the most powerful human efforts and achievements, a child is placed in the center of world history.  A child born of humans, a son given by God.  This is the mystery of the redemption of the world; all that is past and all that is to come.

All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger:  these are the ones who will truly celebrate Christmas. (From Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. By Manfred Weber)

Reflection:  On this eve of Eve’s, name those things that are holding you back from THIS year being different.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Traveling Mercies

Mary and Joseph Journeying to BethlehemScripture Passage for Reflection:  Luke 2: 1-5

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.

The journey has begun.  We know the drill.  We’ve seen the pictures of the very-pregnant Mary on the donkey with a worn-out Joseph leading the way on the road to Bethlehem.  We know the story.  They were going to Bethlehem, to the city of Joseph’s ancestors.  Now there are reputable scholars that claim that more than likely the writers of Luke and Matthew’s Gospels were mistaken.  There was not,after all, a requirement to return for this registration and so, perhaps, Jesus was actually born in Nazareth (as in the “Jesus of Nazareth”) or EVEN in a small town outside of Nazareth called Bethlehem of Galilee, a Roman-Byzantine town in the northern part of the Jezreel valley.  (Again, does it matter?)  But to make this story work with all the Christmas carols and the myriads of Nativity scenes, they need to go to Bethlehem of Judea.  And so it becomes our journey.

Jezreel ValleyThe 80-100 mile journey probably would have taken about 8 days if Mary was truly bouncing along on some sort of equine creature. So in the second day of their journey, they would have entered the Jezreel valley south of Nazareth and journeyed along the hills of Samaria.  It’s really a foreign concept to us, this traveling of about 10 miles a day or so through weather and wild animals and the certain threat of bandits and thieves as they neared what was essentially foreign territory for them.  But I’ve always had this sense that they did not travel alone but rather were accompanied by other family members, townspeople, or others that would have joined them along the way.  Sadly, I guess I envision traffic!  I mean, after all, this thing didn’t happen in a vaccuum.  Life was going on even in that moment. And life includes traffic!

That’s the way journeys are.  We seldom travel alone.  Together, we begin to let go of what we know, leave behind our securities and all things familiar.  We try to come prepared, packing as many provisions as this poor donkey can hold. And then we try our best to make our way through the sometimes-rough terrain.  So, why do we go through this?  Well, have you ever noticed that the entire Bible is full of people on the move, migrating from one country to another, from one way of being to another?  I mean, it started with that garden story when, essentially, Adam and Eve were moved on for whatever reason.  And Abraham, well he was like the journeying king, dragging his family across miles and miles of land in search of a promise.  In fact, that was the whole deal.  You know, “if you’ll leave your country and journey to a place that you’ve never seen and that you don’t know, this is all going to turn out.” (or something like that).  And then Moses, ah…Moses…dragging hoards of people through wilderness wanderings for 40 or so years.  Are you sensing a pattern here?  Maybe it’s not about where we are headed but the journey itself.  After all, we know this whole Bethlehem tale.  We know that they’ll get there and there won’t be a place.  There’s never a place.  None of these people built a mansion and settled in the gated communities of their lives.  They kept going, sometimes making it and sometimes never seeing the place to which they were journeying.

Our journey is no different.  There’s never a place.  You see, God does not call us down roads that are paved with our plans and our preconceptions.  God calls us instead to travel through the wilds of our lives, to journey with our eyes open that we might see this new thing that God is doing.  T.S. Eliot once said that “the end of all our exploring…will be to arrive where we started…and know the place for the first time.”  There’s never a place.  We never really “arrive”.  The journey does not end. It’s always new, re-created.  That’s the point.   After all, even Mary and Joseph turned and made their way home.  But they were never the same again.  And the baby that is coming?  Well, he was never meant to settle down and stay put.  And there was never really room for him at all.  God didn’t intend to show us how to build a house; God revealed the journey home and threw in traveling mercies on the way. So, let us go and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us!

God travels wonderful paths with human beings; God does not arrange matters to suit our opinions and views, does not follow the path that humans would like to prescribe for God.  God’s path is free and original beyond all our ability to understand or to prove.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Manfred Weber, ed.)

Reflection:  What will you take on your journey?  What should you leave behind?  How do you envision your journey today?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Advent 4A: All of the Above

Winding PathLectionary Old Testament Passage for Reflection:  Isaiah 7: 10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

During this season of Advent this year, we have read texts that get louder and louder with prophetic messages of what is to come.  This is the thing of which Christmas’s are made.  And now we read of the signs and wonders that were shown to the House of David.  “Here, listen people, there is a young woman with child.  She shall bear a son and the world will change.”  That’s essentially what it says.  But wait a minute!  We always read this as a prophetic sign of what will come, a prophet’s vision of the coming of Christ, Immanuel.  But, read it again.  This is in the present tense.  The young woman IS with child.  (as in already)  So, which is it?  Is it a child born immediately after this writing or are we talking about the birth of Jesus?  After all, the writer known as Matthew depicted it differently.  Is it then or is it later?  Yes.  All of the above.

The sign is a child.  The child’s name, Immanuel (or “God with us”) reinforces the divine promise to deliver the people from sure demise.  The child is born of a young woman, the Hebrew “almah”, which means a young woman of marriageable age.  Many scholars think that the young woman may have been Ahaz’s wife and her son the future king Hezekiah.If the author had wanted to depict the woman as a virgin, the word “betulah” would have been used.  But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word was translated as “parthenos” or “virgin”.  So the writer of The Gospel According to Matthew understood the verse as a prediction of the birth of Jesus.  And then all those translators that came after that capitalized on that notion, perhaps in an effort to explain the unexplainable, to rid the text of the ambiguities that were probably meant to be there in the first place.

So, which is it?  Is it a virgin or a young woman?  Is it talking about Hezekiah or Jesus?  Is it what the writer known as Isaiah probably wrote or what the writer known as Matthew assumed or what the later redactors translated?  Yes.  All of the above.  The text and, indeed, the whole Bible is ambiguous at best.  Who are we kidding?  Faith is ambiguous.  It encompasses surety and doubt, light and darkness, life and death.  I don’t really get wrapped up in what “really” happened.  It doesn’t bother me if this is actually talking about Hezekiah.  But it was part of the Matthean writer’s tradition.  It meant something to him.  Somewhere in the words, in the text of his faith, he saw God.  He felt God.  To him, it mean Immanuel.  And so what better way to depict the first century nativity story that we love?  The coming of God WAS foretold–over and over and over again–through sacred stories told and shared by a waiting people.  It continues to be told, the story of God who breathed Creation into being, who entered the very Creation that held the God-breath, and who comes into each of our lives toward the glorious fulfillment of all that was meant to be.

I don’t think that God ever intended to lay it all out for us like some sort of lesson for us to memorize.  God doesn’t call us to have it all figured out but rather to live it, to open our eyes to all the sign and wonders of the world, to all the ways that God walks with us, to all the ways that God calls us to follow, to become.  All of the above, the obvious and the ambiguous, are part of the Truth that God reveals (whether or not our human minds can fathom it as “true”).  We are about to begin our journey to Bethlehem.  It is a road that is filled with ambiguities–loss and finding, sorrow and joy, fear and assurance, doubts and fears, a manger and a cross.  But along the way are signs of the God who is always with us, Immanuel, who carries us from moment to moment and from eon to eon with the promise of new life.  Let us go and see this thing that the Lord has made known–you know, all of the above.  It is this for which we were made.

If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into [God’s] superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity. (Karl Rahner)

On prisoners of darkness the sun begins to rise, the dawning of forgiveness upon the sinner’s eyes, to guide the feet of pilgrims along the paths of peace, O bless our God and Savior with songs that never cease. (Michael Perry)

Reflection:  What are the things that are ambiguous for you in the story?  How do they really change the story for you?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

In Those Days…

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.3All went to their own towns to be registered.4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

They say that hindsight is 20-20.  I don’t know whether that’s the case or not but I think we’re making a mistake if we don’t somehow pay attention to it, somehow incorporate it into our life.  Life is not sequential.  It is not some neat orderly arrangement of one life event after another.  Rather, life is filled with a vast array of memories and occurrences and dreams that are in some way connected and intermingled and  always somehow give way to each other.  As my grandmother, who lived to the ripe young age of 101 1/2, came into her final years, I had the gift and the privilege of being a part of what I would call her “taking stock”.  I spent time driving her around the town in which we both grew up and noting the things that had once been, the things that were, and the things that would someday be.  We drove past the Stockdick farm.  The house in which she grew up in her early years was no longer there but through her shared memories, there was even for me a faint recollection, memories and images that came flooding in even though it was long before I was born.  There was the house and the barn and the tree swing.   The tree had remained, a lasting memory of what once was.  And then down the road was the Stockdick school.  My grandmother remembered every student that had attended there with the exception of one.  That bothered her.  There were about sixty or so but it still bothered her, as if she had not only forgotten a person but also had forgotten a part of her past.   There is a Greek word, “anamnesis”, that we loosely translate as “remembering”.  But it is more.  It is the taking unto oneself the memories that make up our story, whether or not we were there, whether or not we truly have hindsight.  It is what we do when we take Communion.  It is also what we do when we read the Scriptures and take them to heart.  It is what we do when we remember our story:

It had been a hard trip. Bethlehem seemed an eternity away from the Galilee that she knew.  And then there had been that mad scramble to find lodging.  She wished that her family had gotten word.  But everyone had come to this small city at the samie time.  She had known the baby was coming, coming quick.  And poor Joseph was in such panic.  They had finally bedded down in the back room, the grotto, of someone’s house.  It was the part of the house that sheltered the animals.  Maybe that wasn’t so bad.  They were out of the cold, out of the elements, and away from all of the politics that was going on during that time.  But when she looked into his eyes, it all went away–all the chaos, all the rejection, all the stuff of life.  She knew that this child was different.  She knew that he was destined for greatness.  No, that’s not right…he was destined for something more.  It didn’t matter where they were.  It didn’t matter that they were young and scared.  It didn’t matter that that place was not safe or comfortable or the right place to have a baby.

In those days, a child was born.  In those days, God came into the world, not bursting into it with fanfare and acclaim, but tiptoeing into a back room, the place that we would least expect God to appear.  Indeed, the child was destined for something more.  And just a few miles away from this small city of Bethlehem was Jerusalem, the holy city, the future of the world.  But it’s good to take stock, especially in this moment of uncertainty and unknowing.

In this holy season, let us remember.  Let us remember from where we came.  For it is only then that we will know where we are going.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli