Friday, December 15, 2017

We’re (more than) Halfway There

I don’t want to rush the Advent season, but I am certainly in a rush!  Now, let’s be honest…  How often do we read Haggai?  Wait for it…  That’s what I thought.  Today is an excellent day to do so:

Haggai 1:5-9, “Now this is what the Lord Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways. You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it. This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,’ says the Lord. You expected much, but see, it turned out to be little. What you brought home, I blew away. Why?’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘Because of my house, which remains a ruin, while each of you is busy with your own house…

It sounds like a twisted Advent version of the Big, Bad, Wolf, but then something odd happens.  The people respond, and the Lord says the most beautiful words of all…

I am with you,” (v.13)

We are these people.  We are these people who run and rush and forget to give careful thought to our ways.  I’m not sure this is particularly horrible in any specific sense, but it is, indeed, distracting.  It distracts us from what really matters, and that never ends well.

I need to confess.  I love this season so much that I try to cram in every possible beautiful tradition, every single year.  In many ways, this is life giving to me, so it’s not all bad.  The other night, when our family sat down to watch one of the Christmas movies we watch every year, my thirteen year old son was suddenly struck by the realization that not all families have this tradition.  His eyes got huge, and he didn’t speak for a moment.  It is truly unthinkable to him that not every mom insists that her children watch every Christmas movie she can get her hands on, from classics to pre-school TV specials (even though they are way too old) to glossy new titles.  He was so sad when this dawned on him.

In addition, I have made this list of things that have to happen from day to day, during Advent.  I have been stressed out about a few of them, this year, because I can’t keep up, and some of them are not happening (or, at least, not happening yet…)

There should be a different Christmas book to read every night… and an Advent calendar (only Lego will do).  The Advent wreath must be lit from week to week, with recitations and prayers.  We also celebrate Hanukkah at our home, so consideration must be given to the menorah and the Hebrew blessings and Hanukkah books and new family games and fried food and chocolate coins (I’m thinking about this in great detail, right now, since it is actually Hanukkah).  We have a Christmas Eve tradition that includes new pajamas and a family movie night, and the truth is that part of the reason for this is a deep desire for the kids to sleep in past 12:01am, because at some point in our lives I told them it was OK to wake us any time after midnight on Christmas Day, and they will never forget it!  This is problematic when the presents aren’t yet wrapped!  This is oh so problematic in years such as this one, when Christmas Eve (or Christmas Day) falls on a Sunday and somebody’s on staff at a church…

As if all of this isn’t enough, we added some Epiphany traditions a couple of years ago, and I am excited to announce that this has expanded to a new twelve days of Christmas thing we’re going to try for the first time, this year. 

I shared my fantastical list of Advent/Hanukkah/Christmas/Epiphany awesomeness with my husband the other day, and when he got to the end of it, he said, “What are we doing for Jesus?”

That sounds overtly spiritual, but what he really meant was that I had forgotten to put Jesus’ birthday dessert on my list!  (Jesus used to get a cake, but for the past decade we have had a kid with a 12/26 birthday, so now Jesus usually gets brownies or cheesecake).

Still, I had a very small meltdown, as I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh!  I forgot Jesus!”

The reading of the nativity story (which happens every year whether it’s on a list or not) and Jesus’ birthday dessert are now on the list.  Don’t worry.  I have it all under control.

And yet I think I feel a little bit like the Jewish people of the book of Haggai.  I expect so much…  It amounts to so little without the right ways…

Psalm 31:24: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”

Oh, that Jesus would come… that Jesus would be with me… that Jesus would be with us…  We are waiting…


Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Matter of Degree

Upon completing the reading of the daily office, this morning, my first thought was, “What a stark contrast!”

I began with Psalm 37 (it’s long but worth the read):

“Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For those who are evil will be destroyed,
but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.
A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy peace and prosperity.
The wicked plot against the righteous
and gnash their teeth at them;
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.
The wicked draw the sword
and bend the bow
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose ways are upright.
But their swords will pierce their own hearts,
and their bows will be broken.
Better the little that the righteous have
than the wealth of many wicked;
for the power of the wicked will be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.
The blameless spend their days under the Lord’s care,
and their inheritance will endure forever.
In times of disaster they will not wither;
in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.
But the wicked will perish:
Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field,
they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke.
The wicked borrow and do not repay,
but the righteous give generously;
those the Lord blesses will inherit the land,
but those he curses will be destroyed.
The Lord makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,
for the Lord upholds him with his hand
 I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
They are always generous and lend freely;
their children will be a blessing.
Turn from evil and do good;
then you will dwell in the land forever.
For the Lord loves the just
and will not forsake his faithful ones.
Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed;
the offspring of the wicked will perish.
The righteous will inherit the land
and dwell in it forever.
The mouths of the righteous utter wisdom,
and their tongues speak what is just.
The law of their God is in their hearts;
their feet do not slip.
The wicked lie in wait for the righteous,
intent on putting them to death;
but the Lord will not leave them in the power of the wicked
or let them be condemned when brought to trial.
Hope in the Lord
and keep his way.
He will exalt you to inherit the land;
when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it.
I have seen a wicked and ruthless man
flourishing like a luxuriant native tree,
but he soon passed away and was no more;
though I looked for him, he could not be found.
Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
a future awaits those who seek peace.
But all sinners will be destroyed;
there will be no future for the wicked.
The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in time of trouble.
The Lord helps them and delivers them;
he delivers them from the wicked and saves them,
because they take refuge in him”(NIV).

I felt inclined to include the entire Psalm here, because I think many of us have been conditioned to read only verse 4 (which is perennially one of my favorites but needs context and responsible interpretation), and in so doing, we miss a wealth of great stuff for which we need to dig deeper.

The degree of hope and peace expressed in these words, intertwined with the concepts of trust and refuge, is overwhelming to me.  This passage that has so often been misinterpreted to read, “God will give you whatever you want,” slowly takes on new meaning as we discern with fresh eyes the depth to which God will provide as our home, everything we need, but it looks a whole lot more like what it is to follow and respond to God than what it is to demand anything at all, which is why the seven woes of Matthew 23:13-25 suddenly came into focus as different by only a matter of degree:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (NIV).

My natural inclination is to be hard on the Pharisees.  They are, after all, the religious elite of their time.  They should know better. 

“Elite,” is probably not a word that will ever be used to describe me, but I am, indeed, theologically educated.  How easy would it be for me to fall into this Pharisaical mode of being?  I should know better!  Oh…

Friends, I know it’s difficult, but we have to make some decisions about what really matters.  I feel as if it is breaking me just a little bit, as I consider the potential the Pharisees had.  They did some good things, to be sure, but they missed the best things, and in so doing, they also did some really awful things! 

How might we better let go of our own expectations in order to embrace Kingdom values?  Justice…  Mercy… Faithfulness… 

Let’s stop swallowing camels…