No More Visions of Sugar Plums

Refiner's Fire (Lin Lopes, SouthAfricanArtists)
“Refiner’s Fire”, by Lin Lopes

Advent 2C

 

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me… 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. (Malachi 3: 1a, 2-3)

 

What is all this talk about fire? Fire is painful; fire is destructive; fire leaves ashes in its path. This is supposed to be the season of joy, full of carols and Christmas trees and visions of sugar plums. Why are we reading about this in Advent? The truth is that we would rather jump ahead and let the visions of sugar plums dance in our heads. We would rather this be easier. And so we back away from the fire.

 

Now, read it. It doesn’t predict fire. It says that the coming of this messenger is LIKE a refiner’s fire. In other words, the messenger’s job is to prepare us, to get us ready, to change us. Maybe it is a promise that those things in our lives that do not serve us and do not serve God will be metaphorically burned away or cleaned and bleached and beaten the way a fuller would do to cloth to make it clean and full. Yes, I think we’re talking in metaphors (or, as my translation uses the word “like”, I guess that’s technically a simile.) But the point is that we will all be changed. And so we back away from the fire.

 

The truth is that most of us would rather not have to change. We would rather sanitize our lives and ward off those things that create chaos and shake the foundations of our existence. We would rather just live with visions of sugar plums even though they are not that good for us. But here we are in Advent anyway, trying to navigate the darkness and the unknown, trying to find our way, trying to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ into our lives. But we have the wrong vision. The vision is not one of sugar plums or sappy sweetness. The vision is not one where God comes into our midst to tell us how great we’re all doing at running our lives and running our world. The vision is not one where the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness and looks exactly like the lives we’ve created for ourselves. You might as well put those visions with the sugar plums.

 

We are all called to change, called to grow, called to become a New Creation that God envisions we can be. It is not easy. Sometimes it may be downright painful. But like a refiner’s fire, this process will allow our true beauty to emerge. Like fuller’s soap, it will make us clean and full, a fabric worthy of clothing our King. And, as we’ve been shown before, from the dark of chaos, a new order, a New Creation will come to be—a Creation where those we’ve deemed enemies are our brothers and sisters, where homelessness and hunger and suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction are archaic words that no longer need translated, and where the visions of sugar plums that we thought would fulfill us have been replaced by the vision that God has always held for us. But we have to be open to change and, especially, to being changed. We can no longer back away. And whatever the Vision holds, assume that it will be different than what you’ve planned! Thanks be to God!

 

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)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

The Wilderness is Where We Knew Where We Must Go

Transfiguration

Scripture Text:  Mark 9: 2-10

2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.

 

The wilderness has taught us to see things differently, to open our minds and widen our souls.  It has called us to remove the veil that we have created in our lives to shield us from the things that do not make sense in our world.  The journey through the wilderness has brought us to this place, brought us to this mountain.  Don’t you think the disciples were sort of wondering where they were going?  After all, they had left everything they had, had given up everything and sacrificed all of those things that made life secure and safe.  They did it all to follow Jesus and now they are climbing up this mountain to a place that they did not know.

The mountain that Jesus and the disciples climb sounds a lot like Mount Sinai rising out of the wilderness that Moses had ascended centuries before.  And there on the mountain, they see Jesus change, his clothes taking on a hue of dazzling, blinding white, whiter than anything they had ever seen before.  And on the mountain appear Moses and Elijah, standing there with Jesus—the law, the prophets, all of those things that came before, no longer separate, but suddenly swept into everything that Christ is, swept into the whole presence of God right there on that mountain.  And then the voice…”This is my Son, my Chosen:  listen to him!” OK…what would you have done?  First the mountain, then the cloud, then these spirits from the past, and now this voice…”We are going to die.  We are surely going to die,” they must have thought.   And then, just as suddenly as they appeared, Moses and Elijah drop out of sight and Jesus was standing there alone, completely unveiled.  And all that was and all that is has become part of that, swept into this Holy Presence of God.  And, more importantly, we are invited into it.  No longer are we shielded from God’s Presence.  We become part of it, a mirror for all to experience and encounter the living God. And so the disciples start down the mountain.  Jesus remains with them but they kept silent.  The truth was that Jesus knew that this account would only make sense in light of what was to come.  The disciples would know when to tell the story.  They saw more than Jesus on the mountain.  They also saw who and what he was.  And long after Jesus is gone from this earth, they will continue to tell this strange story of what they saw.  For now, he would just walk with them.  God’s presence remains. The Hebrews understood that no one could see God and live.  You know, I think they were right.  No one can see God and remain unchanged.  We die to ourselves and emerge in the cloud, unveiled before this God that so desires us to know the sacred and the holy that has always been before us.   The truth is, when we are really honest with ourselves, we probably are a little like the disciples.  We’d rather not really have “all” of God.  We’d rather control the way God enters and affects our lives.  We’d rather be a little more in control of any metamorphosis that happens in our lives.  We’d rather be able to pick and choose the way that our lives change.  We’d rather God’s Presence come blowing in at just the right moment as a cool, gentle, springtime breeze.  In fact, we’re downright uncomfortable with this devouring fire, bright lights, almost tornado-like God that really is God.

Here in the wilderness, with bright white lights and shrouds of wonder, we have seen God.  Here, in this place, where the wilderness has brought us.  We have arrived open-eyed and soul-ready for God’s Presence to be made known.  And this was nothing like anything that we would have imagined—Old Testament heroes re-appearing, God speaking from the cloud, and Jesus all lit up so brightly that it is hard for us to look at him.  And then the lights dim.  There are no chariots, Moses and Elijah are gone, and, if only for a little while, God stops talking.  And in the silence, Jesus starts walking down the mountain toward Jerusalem.  You know, on some level, for all the dramatic sequences of this story, I think the way down the mountain is the point of it all.  I mean, think about it, the disciples went up as students, as mentees, as admirers, and came down as followers.  The way down is where the transformation begins to be, when they know where they had to go.  Now I’m sure that Jesus knew that the ones who walked with him were not ready.  I’m sure he knew that they thought they had more time with him.  I’m sure he knew that they doubted themselves.  But it was time.  And Jesus knew that if they followed, they would know the way.  And in this moment, Jesus’ journey to the Cross begins and the disciples, for all the antics that they will pull over the next few days, begin the same journey.

And us?  I’m sure Jesus knows how difficult this has been for us.  I’m sure Jesus knows that there is a part of us that would’ve liked to have avoided the whole thing, to move from the Mardi Gras party right into the sanctuary when they are setting up the Easter lilies.  But then we would have missed the wilderness and we wouldn’t know where to go.  We know now what we must do, where we must go.  We know that we are called to follow Jesus.  The way down is hard.  Jerusalem is going to be even harder.  But the wilderness has taught us that it is where we must go.  You see, in this wilderness, we have changed.  We have learned to let go, to get out of ourselves, to see things differently.  We have learned to listen.  We have learned to follow.  And that is what we will do.  Jerusalem awaits.

 

When I first met him, I knew in a moment I would have to spend the next few days re-arranging my mind so there’d be room for him to stay. (Brian Andreas)

 

Jerusalem AwaitsFOR TODAY:  The gates of the city are just up ahead.  There is no other way around.  This is not an easy journey.  But it one that all of must walk.  As you enter this Holiest of Weeks, what do you need to leave behind?  And what do you need to carry into the city?

 

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

The Wilderness is Where We Changed Our Course

Change-DirectionScripture Text:  Matthew 15: 21-28

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

 

So Jesus travels to a place that is not his, to an unfamiliar place some distance away.  It’s not the wilderness the way we normally define it with deserted pathways and dangerous hideouts and such.  But it IS a wilderness.  When we journey through unknown territory, through places that are not our home, through places that are not ours, places that we have not planned or planted, there is a certain wilderness aspect to them.  In Jesus’ defense, he has to be tired.  He has to be craving some time along to regroup and reflect on his mission (OK, maybe that’s what the introvert in me is projecting!).  But then, all of a sudden, this woman comes up and she’s shouting at him with a foreign accent—not just a loud shout but one that is incessant and wailing and very annoying.  She is begging and begging him to heal her daughter.  But what could Jesus do?  After all, his mission as he understood it was to the Jews and here was this Canaanite Gentile wanting some of his time. Truthfully, this woman had everything working against her—gender, race, religion, class, and nationalism.  In the first century, she was the “outcast of the outcasts”, an outcast even in this wilderness in which Jesus finds himself.

Put yourself in Jesus’ place.  “Perhaps if I ignore her, she will go away.” But, then, the disciples get involved.  “Good grief,” he probably thought, “if they would only be quiet.”  And the woman keeps on—shouting and wailing like some sort of banshee.  What do you do with a pushy Canaanite woman who won’t shut up? “Don’t you understand…I am not here for you…I must first attend to the Jews…the chosen ones…the children of God…the people to which I was promised…it would not be right to abandon their mission for another.”  (I will tell you, the reference to “dogs” is not a nice one.  Without offense to the dog-lovers or dogs among us, in Jewish society, dogs were looked upon as unclean, as scavengers.  To compare someone to a dog was to lower them to the bottom of society.)

But the woman responds, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the masters table…Even I, the Gentile, knows that you are Lord.”  All of a sudden Jesus’ tune changes.  This woman has a faith that will not quit.  This woman DOES get it!  The mission is indeed to the Jews. But this woman’s faith has brought her to Jesus as a sign of what is to come. This moment is, in effect, a sort of turning point for Jesus’ whole mission.  In fact, at the risk of overstepping, you could almost say this was a sort of “conversion point” for Jesus.  You also have to consider that this turning point is the reason we’re sitting here.  We are not the “children of Israel” but rather those to whom Jesus’ mission was broadened to include.

I’m actually grateful that the writer that we know as Matthew didn’t try to clean up the story.  This is a powerful statement on Jesus’ humanness, his searching, his exploring, his changing.  In this moment, there, in the wilderness, in the place that was not his, Jesus saw a broader vision of God than even he had had before.

I think that’s why Lent tends to be this sort of wilderness journey.  Traversing through places with which we are unfamiliar, places that perhaps do not feel like home, perhaps will never feel like home, gives us a new perspective.  Maybe we’re not called to make ourselves at home at all.  Maybe we’re rather called to continuously journey through newness, continuously open our minds and our hearts just a little bit more with each turn of the pathway.  I don’t believe that God calls us to stay planted where we are; otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many of these pesky wildernesses in the stories of faith and in our own lives.  You see, the wilderness is where we change our course, where the road turns if only one small degree and unsettled though we are, we turn with it and continue our journey.

But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of  life, the call brings up the curtain, always, on a miracle of transfiguration-a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth.  The familiar life horizon has been outgrown, the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (Joseph Campbell)

 

FOR TODAY:  Look at your lives as if you were visiting.  What is out of place?  What doesn’t fit?  And what is calling you to change your course, to walk in a new way toward a new place?

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Roundabout Way of the Wilderness

Moses in the WildernessScripture Text:  Exodus 13: 17-22

17When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” 18So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. 19And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” 20They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. 21The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. 22Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.

The Season of Lent is the wilderness season.  It begins in the wilderness and ends in another wilderness until Easter bursts forth.  And in between those wildernesses are the stories of the way of the wilderness.  Lent is about fasting from what we know and feasting on what we find in our roundabout way through the wilderness.  There are, of course, many mentions of wildernesses in the Scriptures.  The NRSV touts 287 times that the word “wilderness” shows up.  Well, there seems to be a recurring theme here.  Maybe it’s not that wilderness just keeps cropping up in our Scriptures; maybe the Scriptures are rather about the wilderness, or, more specifically, a rhythm of going and return, forsakenness and deliverance, hopelessness and redemption.  The Scriptures begin in the wilderness.  Genesis 1 doesn’t specifically mention the word.  But in its place is a depiction of it as a formless void filled with darkness.  It is where we begin and then God recreates it into order and light.  Pilgrimage, or journeying, is a way of life.  And all of us struggle along the way.  The wilderness is part of our story.  It is part of us.  It is the way we grow in our faith.

When you read the Exodus passage above, we are told that God sort of “redirected” the people through the wilderness to avoid the land of the Philistines.  And there they wandered for forty years, through a wilderness with no real “roadmap”, through shifting sands and places devoid of landmarks.  They journeyed through hopelessness and forsakenness, continually asking questions and doubting that God was there at all.  But they grew.  They grew to know God, grew to know themselves.  What they found in the wilderness was their identity.  The sometimes harsh lessons of the desert transformed the people into God’s people.  Led by a cloud through the desert, the people became people of faith.

We are no different.  This season may sometimes seem to be a roundabout way through the wilderness.  We encounter the dangers of hopelessness and forsakenness; we experience the dangers of questions and doubt; and somewhere in there, if we give ourselves the chance, we are recreated and transformed into newness and life.  During this season, we keep hearing over and over to empty ourselves before God and open ourselves to what God is showing us.  It is our season of unmasking, peeling off all of the layers that do not belong to us, that make us someone who we are not. Leo Tolstoy once said that “there are many reasons for the failure to comprehend Christ’s teaching…but the chief cause which has engendered all these misconceptions is this: that Christ’s teaching is considered to be such that it cannot be accepted, or even not accepted, without changing one’s life.” The wilderness is what changes us, what changes our life.

In the spiritual tradition, wilderness is the place where we leave the world behind and place ourselves at God’s disposal. (Daniel Wolpert)

FOR TODAY:  Embrace your journey through the wilderness.  Make it your story.  This is your beginning.  Place yourself at God’s disposal and change your life.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Waiting on the World to Change

 

Door near Bethany, Jerusalem
Door near Bethany, Jerusalem

Scripture Text:  Hebrews 13:2

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

Imagine that you are at home one evening. You’ve just finished dinner and the dishwasher is humming with the satisfaction of a job well-done. All the leftovers are put away in the refrigerator. You have settled in for the evening—full stomach, warm house, a time of togetherness, the house locked up and the alarm is set. You look at the clock: 9:00—just in time to settle down to watch that recording of “The Good Wife” that you haven’t had time to watch. Just then, there is a knock on the door. Who in the world? You peer out through the peephole and see a man standing there—dirty, disheveled, unshaven, a far-away look in his eyes.  Hmmm!  Not sure what to do…maybe he will just go away.

 

After all, the world is a scary place.  You don’t know who this is.  And he was so dirty…really, really dirty…The man is dirty because he has traveled a great many miles on the open, dusty road. He is disheveled because he is tired. He has gone from house to house asking for help. Most people do not answer the door. He knows they’re at home. He can see the eyes through the peephole and hear them inside. But who can blame them? It’s been days since he’s had a chance to shave. He’s almost at the end of his rope. He’s worried and afraid and he’s sure it shows in his eyes. So he turns and heads back down the block toward the car that only made it this far. He has no idea what to do. He has no money left after the long trip—no money for gas, no money to fix the car, no money for food for him and his wife. And the time is almost here. The baby is coming. But there’s doesn’t seem to be room anywhere he goes.   Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus…

 

So, what ARE you expecting?  For what are you waiting?  For what are you preparing?  God comes in ways that we never expect.  God comes into those places where the needs are the greatest, where the hurt is the deepest, where the wilderness seems to close around us.  And there…there God comes.  While we are waiting on the world to change, God comes.  While we are wondering why someone doesn’t fix things, God comes.  While we are watching riots and marches, poverty and wars, and politicians arguing over who is in control and bemoaning the fact that the world seems to be coming apart, God comes.  On the darkest of nights, when the world is so loud we almost can’t stand it, God tiptoes in through the one door of our lives that we forgot to lock, forgot to decorate, perhaps forgot was even there, and is born in a stable and laid in a manger because there was no room.  While we are waiting for the world to change, God knocks on the door to our lives and shows us that it the change has already begun.  Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus…

 

The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end in all of us that is not yet Christ. (Thomas Merton)

 

FOR TODAY:  Through what door is God coming into your life?  What have you done to make room for God in your life?  Be the change that you are waiting to see.

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli