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Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

Tina and I were sitting having breakfast at Original Steve’s Diner in the strip mall on Panorama Trail one morning last week. The waitress had showed us to a booth next to one of the front windows and sitting in a booth directly behind us were four women dressed in bright red and green Christmas sweaters, laughing and exchanging presents wrapped in silver paper with oversized gold and red bows tied to the same color ribbon running lengthwise on the box, obviously the bows and the wrapping were done by someone with great skill and patience.

“I am telling you,” one woman said, “we were all laughing and singing. It was like waking up from a dream about winning the lottery, but the dream was real.”

“It was like after being immersed in darkness for a long time,” another woman spoke. “Dark like in the very beginning of life until God said, “let there be light, then there was light. All of the uncertainty, the troubled dreams, the confusion and chaos were gone because the light chased it all away.”

“Oh, it was just like that,” a third women said. They all laughed and I was starting to very slowly cut my one big blueberry pancake that covered the entire plate, drizzling maple syrup on it while I was listening to the women’s conversation. Of course, Tina was giving me a look that said I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, except they were talking so loud I had a hard time not listening to them.

“Yes,” the second women said, “it was just like that and we were so thankful that we had gone. Sort of the way you are when the lights come back on after a thunderstorm.”

“But, so much more breathtaking.” The third woman said.

“So, when did you get to Bethlehem?” The fourth woman asked.

“Well, this was a regular pilgrimage people make during Advent,” the first woman said. “Thousands of people were there. It was amazing and frightening because it is Israel and the political situation was in upheaval, but at the same time it was exciting, especially finding out where everyone was from.”

“Yes, there were people from England, the US of course, but from Poland..”

“Oh, and the people from Africa, who were taking lots of photos to take back with them, “the third woman said. “One young woman had her whole trip paid for by her village because it was very expensive, so she was taking photos on her cell phone and sending them back home, so they could feel like they were on the trip with her. She said, “I am on a journey from being only about myself to discovering other people, traveling from a familiar place to a promised place.”

“Remember that woman from Poland,” the second woman said,  “who said she wasn’t very religious, but said she had to come because as she said, “You sing about these places and you make nativity scenes and you talk so much about the stories, but you never think that you will actually go here. I cannot say that I am the most religious, but just to be here on this day is significant.”

“Oh yes, it was significant.”

“Tell me, “the fourth woman said, “how did you get to Bethlehem? What was the journey like?”

“Well, it was hard because so many people were going the same way we were.”

“Oh yes, everyone was on the long obedience in the same direction road trip like Pastor Eugene Peterson wrote about in one of his books. And, someone was singing, “it seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations: ‘God was wonderful to them!” God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.”

“That’s right. They were singing Psalm 126. At first I didn’t realize what they were singing because they were using the Message translation. When I realized it I..”

“Yes, anyway,” said the first woman, “we started out going to the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for prayers, then we attended a mass with hundreds of people at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem led by a wonderful priest, Father Kelly, I think.”

“Then, “said the second woman, “we traveled to Bethlehem, which took quite a long time and when we arrived there were just long lines after long lines. Kinda like at Disney World because this is the place where Jesus and David were born and people said it was the perfect place to be on Christmas Eve and everyone wanted to be there.”

“Did you see the manger?” the fourth woman asked.

“Well, yes, it took over an hour and half, but we saw the place where the manger had been and I was amazed to think, this is where God came to us. A pretty plain, ordinary looking place, but filled with such joy and wonder.”

“Oh yes. It was like what someone wrote about pilgrims, but I just can’t remember exactly what.

As I listened to the women, I thought about what Rev. Phil Antilla wrote about pilgrims on Passover, Pentecost and Sukkot journeys to Jerusalem. Their “road trip,” he said, “was both literal and metaphorical. Jerusalem was the highest city geographically in Palestine at the time, so nearly anyone who made this trek experienced a quite literal “ascent”. The trip however, also acted as a metaphor, representing a pilgrimage into life with God. Advent is our metaphorical pilgrimage, since every step and every song and every physical motion represents a deeper story of the Christian life.” Indeed, a long obedience in the same direction-the path of living for Christ, as Peterson wrote.

“Yes, I felt, “ the third woman said, “as though I needed to really be aware of how I can be faithful to God because of everything God has done, is doing and will be doing for me and really everybody.”

“It is like William Faulkner wrote,” the first woman said, “the psalms and our pilgrimages are not monuments, but footprints because monuments say, ‘at least I got this far’ but, footprints say, ‘this is where I was when I moved again.”

“The air was still that night in Bethlehem,” the first woman said, “even with all those people, it was quiet. Thousands of people hushed to silence by prayers of their own, recognizing God’s gift of being present with us whether we planted seeds with tears like my grandmother talked about doing in Nebraska, just hoping the seeds would germinate and wheat crops would come up, hoping the rains came at the right time and the hail stones wouldn’t come at all or whether we harvested the wheat and could pay the mortgage and bills for seed and gas for the tractors and such with maybe a little something left over. My grandmother would say the harvest was the joy God brought to them as they celebrated the harvest with songs and dancing and food and laughter from the oldest to the youngest because they came in from the fields carrying armfuls of God’s blessings that only looked like wheat sheaves.”

“Oh yes, I felt it just that way. God’s presence strengthening us and renewing us in the midst of Bethlehem, then somewhere on the journey back from Bethlehem we started singing, laughing and dancing and feeling unbinding, unbounded joy!

Drinking the rest of my coffee to wash down the last bite of blueberry pancake, I recalled Silvia Purdie’s version of psalm 126 written as a harvest song,

“Remember feeling amazing!
Remember a time of celebration –
that was the Lord God at work!
Laughter rang out,
everyone was happy,
everyone laughed till they shook with joy!
The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!

Remember feeling sad?
Remember tears running down your face –
God was with you then.
Your pain planted seeds
and your tears watered them.
The seeds grew in the tender mercy of God growing fruit of wisdom
fruit of kindness.
Gather the fruit, and celebrate
that all things work for good in God’s ways.
Those who go out weeping
shall come home rejoicing.

The Lord has done great things for us
and we reply with shouts of joy!”

I was just supposed to be having the weekly breakfast out that Tina and I enjoyed together, but the joy, laughter and story of these Advent pilgrims sitting behind me was a gift reminding me to be amazed, to be happy and to be joyful in this Advent because God comes to be with us as a baby born in a plain, ordinary stable to lead us on the path of long obedience in the same direction, so we too might carry God’s blessings from the fields of our lives with shouts of joy at the great things the Lord has done for us.

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I have been thinking about Roy Moore, the onetime Alabama Supreme Court Justice forced to leave that office after refusing to uphold the law, because he is now campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama. As a judge Roy Moore tried to have a huge block monument of the Ten Commandments placed in front of a courthouse where he presided, but few people remember the story of his monument and how big it was.

It weighs 5,280 pounds or about 500 pounds per commandment, so when he brings this monument to public appearances it needs to be loaded on the back of a flatbed truck. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, notes that whenever the truck returns to Alabama, “a 57-foot yellow I-beam crane that spans the ceiling of the Clark Memorials warehouse drops down to retrieve the Rock from its chariot, and even this one — a five-ton crane/ — buckles visibly under the weight.”

“I know,” as Professor Tom Long writes, “that Jesus once scolded the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, but somehow this I-beam-bending version of the Decalogue seems way out of proportion.”

But, I think it makes the perfect point about the way the Ten Commandments have become a heavy burden in our contemporary culture. Every conversation I hear about them has some commentator wagging a finger at another person saying, “thou shalt not!” as if the commandments were created by God to be a check upon the destructive personal behavior of that particular person, rather than being the structure forming and shaping a community of health and well-being. Of course for other folks, the commandments are a legalistic framework to place heavy yokes publicly on the necks of a rebellious children or a society seemingly out of control. I mean listen to the Luther’s Small Catechism, “God threatens to punish everyone who breaks these commandments. We should be afraid of His anger because of this and not violate such commandments.”

I guess all of these understandings of the Decalogue makes a two-and-a-half-ton rock sitting on the bed of a truck a perfect symbol for what the Ten Commandments might be. Especially, since we seem to have forgotten that the Babylonians’ gods were heavy idols that had to be trucked around, “These things you carry,” Isaiah chided the Israelites, “are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1).

The problem is that all of the ways we use the Ten Commandments or the ten words as they are referred to in Hebrew scripture fails to recognize they are about liberation and are God’s rule of love. They are given as an expression of God’s liberating the people from slavery out of the love God has for people. Indeed, the reading begins with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of slavery.” God liberates the Hebrew from slavery, then freely provides them all they need for life, including how to be free as a community of health, well-being, mutuality, loving kindness and wholeness.

God does not intend to re-enslave people with these commands, but to set them free as if to say, “you are free not to need any other gods or even to make 5,280 pound images of God to truck around. You are free to rest on the seventh day because you, your animals, your servants, your land all need rest from productivity, so you can all be healthy and enjoy a long life. You are no longer at the mercy of an oppressor working you to death and you are not something to be used up or consumed until there is nothing left of you. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols made of stones or wood; free from solving every problem with violence and you can instead look for ways to solve problems with other people and tribes, so everyone wins and gets what they need for life because there is abundance for all. You are free to find ways to sustain life for yourselves, for neighbors and for all creation. You are free from having to covet what your neighbor has because you both have everything you need for life and, by the way, you are free from having to compare yourself with your neighbor or find your self-worth based upon what your neighbor owns or is able to do because you are loved just as you are and you are free to celebrate other people’s gifts because you have valuable gifts as well.

Or has another theologian has written “You want to make an idol of this God, an image of bird or snake or tree or pole or money or fame or pleasure? This God will have none of that, because this is the God who brought you out of slavery. You want to trivialize the name of this God by slapping the name on to any fool thing you already want to do, thereby baptizing your idiocy with a divine seal of approval, thereby enslaving oneself in the bondage of self-satisfied power. God will have none of that, for that is also a kind of slavery from which you need to be free.”

“God says, I want you free, because I am in the freedom business. All the ways you can imagine to fall back into slavery and death, God is there to call you out to freedom and life, because that is who God is. God is life and freedom. Only the certainty that it is God who has brought us out of the house of slavery and can surely do so again, if we get our relationship to God strong and continuous, can bring us the lasting freedom that we crave.

Not only that, but God’s good news of life should be like music with the Ten Commandments the dance steps that set us moving together, as Tom Long has suggested. They are supposed to be our wings, so we might soar on the wind of the Holy Spirit. This is one of reasons Luther, also, suggested to change the language of the commandments from “thou shalt not” to more positive language that evokes the freedom God and love intends for us to enjoy, so instead of “thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor” perhaps ‘find joy in telling the truth, being honest and upholding the goodness and good name of your neighbor as if pronouncing a blessing upon your neighbor.”

Also, if we want to pass this good news of freedom and life to our children, then I think we are going to have to be creative; more creative than hanging the Ten Commandments on a wall, memorizing them in order or hauling them around on a flatbed truck. I suggest we create stories because as Robert Wuthnow writes, “”Stories do more than keep memories alive. Sometimes these stories become so implanted in our minds that they act back upon us, directly and powerfully.”

Wuthnow tells the story of Jack Casey, a volunteer fireman and ambulance attendant who, as a child, had to have some of his teeth extracted under general anesthesia. Jack was terrified, but a nurse standing nearby said to him, “Don’t worry, I’ll be here right beside you no matter what happens.” When he woke up from the surgery, she had kept her word and was still standing beside him.

This experience of being cared for by the nurse stayed with him, and nearly 20 years later his ambulance crew was called to the scene of an accident. The driver was pinned upside down in his pickup truck, and Jack crawled inside to try to get him out of the wreckage. Gasoline was dripping onto both Jack and the driver, and there was a serious danger of fire because power tools were being used to free the driver, The whole time, the driver was crying out about how scared of dying he was, and Jack kept saying to him, recalling what the nurse had said so many years before, “Look, don’t worry, I’m right here with you, I’m not going anywhere.” Later, after the truck driver had been safely rescued, he was incredulous. “You were an idiot “he said to Jack.”You know that the thing could have exploded and we’d have both been burned up1” In reply, Jack simply said he felt he just couldn’t leave him.

This how the commandments are supposed to work, as Tom Long says it, “We have the experience of being cared for, the experience of being set free, preserved in a story. Then, comes the life shaped ethically around that story. A nurse saying “I’ll be right here beside you” becomes the action of a man risking his life for a stranger because he knows in his bones that he just can’t leave him.”

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you . . . out of the house of slavery” prompts us to live lives shaped by the freedom created by that God,” asserts Tom Long.

I gotta believe living in God’s joyous freedom and love of the Ten Commandments is much better than carrying around tons of dreary duty and wondering when the wheels are going to come off the flatbed truck of our lives.

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An 8.2 earthquake nearly flattened Armenia in 1989. Over 300,000 people were killed in less than four minutes. In the midst of this destruction and chaos, a father left his wife safe at home and rushed to the school where his son was supposed to be. The school building was as flat as a pancake.

He was so shocked all he could do was stare at the pile of debris that had need a school building minutes earlier. Finding any survivors seemed hopeless. However, the father remembered a promise he made to his son, “No matter what, I’ll always be there for you!” tears ran down his cheeks.

Slowly, he began to concentrate on where he had walked his son to class each morning. His son’s classroom would be in the rear right corner of the building. He rushed over there and started digging through the rubble. As he was digging other forlorn parents came to the school, crying and wailing, “My son! My daughter!” Some well- meaning parents tried pulling the man away from the rubble declaring, “It’s too late. They’re dead! Go, home! Face reality, there’s nothing you can do! You’re just going to make things worse.

To each parent, he asked, “Are you going to help me?” Then he went back to dig for his son, stone by stone. Eventually, the fire chief showed up and tried pulling him off the debris saying, “Fire are breaking out, explosions are happening everywhere. You’re in danger. We’ll take care of it. Go, home!” But the father asked, “Are you going to help me?”

The police came and said, “You’re angry. Distraught. It’s over. Go, home. We’ll handle it.” He asked them, “Are you going to help me?” No one helped.

He continued to dig alone remembering his promise and commitment, “no matter what, I’ll always be there for you.” He dug for eight hours…12 hours…24 hours…then at the 38th hour when he pulled back a boulder, he heard his son’s voice; “Armand!” the father screamed his son’s name.

“Dad? Dad! It’s me! I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive, you’d save me. And when you saved me, they’d be saved. You promised ’No matter what, I’ll always be there for you! You did it, Dad! You did it!”

“What going on in there? How is it? The father asked.

“There are 14 of us left out of 33. We’re scared, hungry, thirsty and thankful you’re here. When the building collapsed, it made a wedge, like a triangle, and it saved us.”

“Come on out, son.”

“No, dad! Let the other kids come out first, because I know you’ll get me! No matter what, I know you’ll be there for me!”

I tell this story because I have for too long listened to people in congregations and presbyteries tell me their situation is hopeless. They can do nothing to change their circumstance, so why bother trying to change it? It doesn’t matter if it’s about not enough money, a building in disrepair, or a congregation that had a thousand members, but has now dwindled down to about a hundred folks. Each one of them has expressed their sadness about their situation as hopeless. To tell you the truth I used to wonder, “How can Christians, who celebrate Easter, who celebrate resurrection-life rising out death-be hopeless? How can people exclaim they have no future when every week they read and hear about how God time after time has made a way for life to flourish when it seemed impossible for life to even exist? How God has always made a way out of no way.

One hears it in the psalms of lament such as Psalm 130 that begins ”Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” and ends with “O Israel hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is the Lord who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Every psalm of lament begins with the honest exclamation of pain and grief like those rising from the devastation of Israel’s exile speaking hard, brutal words about how the Israelites were trapped in the rubble of their despair and the debris of their despondency just like the children trapped in the rubble of a building, because Israelites had been forcible taken off their land and dragged in chains to a strange land where they would live as strangers, cut off from family and friends and from the central symbol of their faith-the Temple. One can almost hear the lamenting wail of the psalmist, “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?” as the cry of people who feel as dead as dry bones.

Yet in all, but two of the psalms of lament there is the declaration that God has changed the situation from death to new life. Nearly, all the psalms of lament bear a strong unequivocal witness to God’s compassion enacting a new creation of life sustaining hope.

This is, of course, the message God is telling the prophet Ezekiel to tell the Israelites in Babylon. It is not surprising that God would bring the prophet Ezekiel out to this parched ancient battlefield littered with dry bones, and then ask him, “Ben Adam-son of man-can these bones live?”

Probably Ezekiel could have been a bit cheeky and answered, “Well, yeah sure if I had some steel plates and wires to connect them together. Or, maybe if I had some DNA from the bones, went to the lab, made some synthetic flesh, I might be able to make some semblance of life here given enough time.” However, Ezekiel gives a faithful answer, “Lord, you are the only one who knows the answer.”

That’s when God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to those bleached bones, “dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord, God to these bones….” Ezekiel speaks the words that God gives him to speak that stirs the bones from lifelessness to life. God’s life creating word gets those old bones to rattling around and coming back together again. The same life creating word covers them with sinew and muscle and flesh. The same life creating word brings the breath of life within them restoring them to life. It isn’t surprising God would go to all this trouble because God intends Ezekiel to experience for himself the prophetic word God will give him to speak to the Israelite exiles coming to reality, so that when Ezekiel speaks this word, which will be a word of comfort and possibility, telling the Israelite exiles God will lift off the rubble of despair from them; God will sift through the debris of despondency to bring them to life; God will breathe new life into them; God will raise up new faithful leaders and they will live once again in their homeland the Israelites will hear the truth and certainty of hope in Ezekiel’s voice and trust that no matter what, the Lord their God will always be there for them.

And, they did trust because they were hopers, as Walter Brueggemann describes them. They were, he said, a people whose life story is a partisan, polemical narrative. It is concerned to build a counter community–counter to the oppression of Egypt, counter to the seduction of Canaan, counter to every cultural alternative and every imperial pretense. There is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another epistemology. To such persons, Israel’s narratives are silly, narrow, scandalous, and obscurantist. The narrative form of the Torah intends to nurture insiders who are willing to risk a specific universe of discourse and cast their lot there.” Make their lives from that narrative.

The way the Israelites interpreted the events of their life was rooted squarely in the stories of their ancestors’ experiences of God’s presence and compassion and steadfast love and in their own lived experiences in this deep, abiding relationship with God, who is compassionate, steadfast in love and kindness and mercy and who is to be trusted to make a way for life to exist even when it appears there is no way for life to exist.

Jesus demonstrates this same quality of God’s life creating power when he is bringing Lazarus out of the tomb. Jesus does with Martha what God had done with Ezekiel by declaring that even though her brother had been dead for four days he will live again because Jesus is the resurrection and the life and everyone who believes in him –trusts in God- will live even though they may die and everyone who lives and trusts in me,” says Jesus, “will never die. Do you believe me?”

“Yes,” Martha answers before declaring she knows he is the Messiah, the Son of God. God’s life creating Word, who is sent to restore life.”

Then, as they enter the village Mary is weeping and lamenting Lazarus’ death with all the other villagers and Jesus joins them in their distress and grief by weeping before he speaks a word of life, commanding, “Lazarus, come out!”

Of course, Lazarus does come out. Does live again. In this tiny Judean village, God’s life creating word comes, so these villagers might experience for themselves God restoring life and out of this experience trust God will restore their lives, will sustain their lives out of compassion and love for them no matter what their circumstances, even in the face of the seeming certainty of death and become those people who live a partisan, polemical life story that is aimed at building a counter community-counter to oppression, to conventional wisdom and counter to every cultural alternative. And like Israel’s narrative, there is nothing in this narrative that will appeal to outsiders who belong to another consensus, or who share a different ethos and participate in another way of knowing and comprehending the world. To such persons, the narratives of the followers of Christ will be silly, narrow, scandalous, and obscurantist. Yet, Jesus intends to nurture and sustain people who are willing to risk this specific universe of proclamation and who are willing to root their lives in that life story and proclamation.

Just like those who dared to rescue their Jewish neighbors during World War II. These were not extraordinary people, leaders, larger than life heroes. They were ordinary people, teachers, farmers, entrepreneurs, factory workers, rich and poor, single people and parents. They had done nothing extraordinary before or after their acts of rescue. What set them apart, according to studies, is their connections with others in relationships of commitment and care learned from parents, friends, and importantly from the faith tradition of Protestant and Roman Catholicism. These teachings led them to refuse to see Jews as guilty or beyond hope and themselves as helpless or hopeless, despite all the evidence that could be marshaled to the contrary. Instead, they made choices affirming the value and meaningfulness of each life in the middle of a diabolical social order that repeatedly denied it. In doing so, they saved lives and lived compassionately, loving and kind just as Jesus showed them was possible.

This is why both Ezekiel’s story and Lazarus’ story are important for Christians at this time and place because we are called to root our lives not in doctrinal statements, propositional truths, or systematic theologies based on Neo-Platonic-Aristotelian modes of discourse, but to root our lives, our life story, in the God who is compassionate, who is merciful, who is steadfast in love and kindness, who is life, who will be with us to create life, sustain life and nurture life no matter what.

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