One of my friends has started posting his intriguing photos of repeated archways and spiraling staircases at the university where he works. They are always close and unusual angles. They make me question how far over he was leaning when he took the photos and how many times we walk by the quotidian, oblivious, not because of lack of vision, but simply from lack of practice.
With the beauty of autumn has come micro shots of varying fungi and bug’s eye views of petals and changing leaves all across my social media pages. I have loved every one.
While grand, panoramic scenes are beautiful in photographs, there is something to be gleaned from all these close up views and tiny noticings. They provide the visual illustration our imaginations may require to shift from what large lessons God may have for us in our life to accepting the small, simple joy and goodness in our day.
This leaf may not change the trajectory of my life, but it may be sufficient for me to refocus and begin to see the tiny ways God wants to heal me, to speak to me, and through me.
In other words, in a world where we might be quick to blame social media for the FOMO or for breeding attitudes of one-upmanship, I have been gifted the reminder through your fall leaf photos and family pumpkin patch visits and fungi foraging, that God is always here, present with us, and his beauty, although terrific, is also tiny and mundane, and oh so near us.
As my guys were growing up, most of our home school weeks involved at least weekly outings to nature trails. Some of these would be planned events with specific agendas: dissecting owl pellets at an ornithology center, bird watching, tree identification, nature doodling,etc. Mostly, however, they were devoid of any real purpose other than being outside together. These visits and hikes have trained our minds to listen for our surroundings, to look for the unexpected. These nature trail walks have provided the backdrops to impromptu conversations, to empty space as margin for our thoughts and relationships. I pray they have been part of our spiritual training to notice and see things we may not have otherwise.
Theologian and Milligan University professor Philip Kenneson explains in his book Practicing Ecclesial Patience: Patient Practice Makes Perfect that he encourages all his students to take Vertebrate Field Biology.
What is it we are called to notice? Of course nature and the changing seasons around us, but also our feelings, both positive and negative, both uplifting and anxiety-inducing. We ask God to train us to notice the feelings in others, to notice our own desires and how God may want to use those desires in his mission for the world. We may notice obstacles and wonder why they bother us so much. We may notice opportunities opening for us and startle that they both excite us and unnerve us. We may learn to pay attention to scripture more closely and ask better questions of the text.
Bird watching and fungi photos may help facilitate these spiritual disciplines.
So, how do I begin to allow God to train me to see more clearly, to pay attention to the movings and breathings of the Spirit within me? It takes practice and reflection and it may take a community of believers, whether an organized group, or one or two faithful friends, to help us lean in to the gentle promptings of how God longs for us to see the world.
While reading a Gospel passage, we might ask –
*Where is God in this story?
*What does this passage tell me about God?
*Is Jesus responding the way I would respond in this situation? How is he different?
*What seems to be motivating Jesus in this passage?
*How might this passage be inviting me to transform?
What is inviting you to notice more this season?
What everyday sights are prompting you closer to Jesus?
A childhood friend whom I have not seen since we were young passed away last week from renal cell carcinoma after heroically battling the heinous and aggressive cancer for over a decade. He was actually my younger brother’s friend, both Star Wars aficionados. They spent hours planning out light saber battles. We often worried they would eventually pass out in the middle of their sweat-soaked Nerf basketball games. It is hard to imagine some version of that little boy is no longer here.
He was willing to travel for a cure. He tried new methods and treatments. He never rejected the option to undergo another round. He took his daughter to dances. I have no idea what the silent nights were like as he went to sleep, or the days he sat in hospital rooms, but I am told his determination to remain positive was fierce. He suffered well. I don’t know details, and honestly, I am not sure how appropriate it is for me to comment on his ordeal. I was not present. All my information is second and third-hand at best. But this I know: his example in his last years and days matter. I wonder if he knew others were watching, admiring, witnessing him live out the good news, even from a distance. The cancer was the evil, the bad news, the untrue thing in his life. And somehow, he held on to hope and joy. I don’t understand how. But I am so thankful for it.
The apostle Paul poses the question to the Corinthians,
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55)
Except, we know exactly where the sting is, because we feel it. The sharp pain and suffering from sickness and loss and death is all too familiar. And sometimes it takes our breath away with its injustice.
In his book Art + Faith, artist and theologian Makoto Fujimura reminds us that Jesus “wasted” time weeping with Mary at the death of her brother Lazarus. He knew he would shortly raise his friend from the dead. He knew Lazarus’ resurrection would prefigure his own resurrection soon to come.
“Often, Jesus does call us out of despair. Jesus doesn’t want us to be stoic, but rather to be honest about our pain.” (p. 110)
It is nearly impossible to overemphasize how much Jesus cares about us, how much he cared for Mary and Martha and Lazarus. His ache and his tears were not mere sympathy. They were visceral. He wept.
Later, Fujimura points out,
“[Jesus] does not see us simply as instruments of his purpose for salvation; he sees us as human beings in our full reflection of God. Jesus is not only our Savior, but he stands with us as he did with Mary at Bethany, to weep with us as a true friend.” (p. 142)
His love is great, and so he suffers greatly with us.
God mourns our death. He weeps over the disruption in communion and relationship, and he weeps because we find ourselves suffering these consequences. While we fear death, God mourns over it. His compassion is great enough that he empathizes with us. More than that, however, because God is eternal and because he is suffering Love, he is the only one who is capable of understanding the profundity of the loss we experience, that he experiences, at our death.
And so, Jesus wept (John 11:35). He wept at the inevitability of the death of Lazarus. Although he waited to return to Bethany, he knew Lazarus would eventually die. Whether as the Triune Creator, or as the first century carpenter, Jesus had seen all the death he had wanted to see. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of all his saints.” (Psalm 116:15) Here, the Holy Spirit through the psalmist intends not that God wants death, but that God deeply cares for the lives and souls of God’s own creation. We are precious in the eyes of the Triune Creator.
The life of my brother’s friend was precious and all too brief. Yet God holds him up proudly. I am grateful to have heard of his determination and hope and faithfulness.
And here is the truth: there are people hanging on because of your kindness, because you are quietly modeling a life of deep trust in God, because your graciousness is a rarity in their world, or because they have heard of something good you have done. You don’t know when, nor for how long, the gospel will be preached because of you.
Recently, I have made a new friend. I have been spending time with Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis. Well, at least through her books and sermons. Her love of the text and the imagination and reverence with which she plays with the biblical narrative resonate with me. I am impressed with the fluidity by which she moves between ancient story and modern principles.
Yesterday one of my appointments was cancelled, so I had some extra time to wander on a nearby nature trail. I visited another friend, this one arboreal. My American Sycamore. Its white bark was stripped as high I as high could reach. Its skin was soaked from all the recent rain, and thickened, peeling from decades of aging and weathering.
I touched it. Palm against bark. I always do when I pass by. We acknowledge one another, and we pray together. It has always lived its days perfectly to the glory of God. I cannot boast as much.
Some of us are coming out of mourning. We have all had a difficult year and a half with the pandemic. Many of us have experienced the death of loved ones, prolonged illnesses, isolation and loss of jobs and friends. So many of us are still in mourning. Some of us are just grieving over petty sorrows. Yet, honestly, who ever thinks their sorrow is petty? What does it all mean? How can we move forward when we feel our spiritual and emotional wheels spinning? We are heavy. And we carry wounds and scars that we would rather hide than expose.
Ellen Davis and the Sycamore have helped me recognize some of the lessons around growth and spiritual insight, vulnerability and community. Dr. Davis encourages us to listen to the wisdom and the illumination of lament.
In Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays, Davis includes the sermon “Faithful Mourning.” It is her way of addressing the strange statement in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Uncovering who we really are is certainly uncomfortable, but it is the trailhead to transformation. It is the beginning of offering ourselves as a gift to others. And having something to offer, well, that is a gift all in itself.
It is hard to say for sure, but I might be the only person in my neighborhood who owns a Tolstoy t-shirt. While putting it on a couple of days ago, it got me thinking about Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”
In the essay, Berlin discusses the broad philosophical and didactic strengths of the worldview of a variety of writers. Using the premise of the Greek poet Archilochus, he sets out to name whether a writer is a fox, who knows many things, or a hedgehog who knows one big thing. Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, and Aristotle are foxes. Dostoevsky, Plato, Nietzsche, and Pascal are hedgehogs.
The bulk of the essay is a discussion determining where Tolstoy fits in. Primarily, the goal is to dissect his view of history. Tolstoy’s individualized view stands in direct contrast with many of his contemporaries. He rejects the historical approach that major world events are carved out by larger than life figures. Rather, it is the ordinary, everyday person who creates meaning and trajectory out of the minutiae. Berlin subsequently decides the great Russian writer is naturally a fox, but is frustrated by his determination to be a hedgehog.
I am not going to take the time here to flesh out Tolstoy’s changing view of art, his rejection of the Orthodox faith, his attitude toward the Russian peasants, that is, his version of the “noble savage,” or as the Russians express it, the “holy fool.” We might talk about his iconoclast lifestyle and the antagonism and abandonment his family endured because of the way he chose to live out his life. He was an anomaly and deeply troubled. This author of such monoliths of world literature as War and Peace and Anna Karenina seemed to have an uncanny understanding of human nature. His characters were sympathetic and full of pathos, but he himself, seemed to lack the empathy for those closest to him.
But if we believe in inspiration in any sense, we know that any author’s work is always wiser and deeper that the actual flesh and blood human. Tolstoy’s artistic and pedagogical ideas were constantly in conflict with his relational or incarnational ways of being. He was never able to live up to what he taught through his novels, his short stories, or his essays. He was a disappointed man. A man who lived with high ideals, but without grace for others or for himself. That may sound harsh, but it is hard to feel generous toward a man who is so exacting, who lived in close proximity to his family, and yet so emotionally removed from them.
It forces me to draw in my breath when I wonder how I am living out my days. How big of a disparity is there between the needs I see right in front of me and my otherworldly ideals? What is that place of grace and understanding within the so-called “thin places” of the physical and spiritual worlds, the now and the not yet?
When I look at Berlin’s list of the foxes and the hedgehogs, I can’t help notice I am immediately drawn more to the hedgehogs, even to the ones I don’t necessarily agree with. I feel Tolstoy’s dilemma. After so much striving, wouldn’t it be satisfying that you at least knew one big thing? This puts me in mind of the apostle Paul, who was well educated and extremely focused. Yet he claimed,
Paul acknowledged his own baseness. He placed his confidence in the grace and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. With all Tolstoy had going for him, it hurts me to think he never knew that joy. Even at his death in a remote train station, running away from home at the age of 82, he was still trying to do it all himself, and knew he was failing.
What about you, are you drawn to reading foxes or hedgehogs?
Are you a fox or a hedgehog?
What do you think of Tolstoy’s attempts to live by his ideals?
There’s a chapel in the north transept of Vienna’s Stephansdom just off the nave or center aisle. It is not a corner which receives many visitors or tourists, and that is why I liked it so much when I lived there in the early nineties. It houses no grand altar; there is no ornate, baroque fixture. The smooth, rounded, grey walls extend clear to the buttresses. Every time I entered the dim room and sat at one of the few pew benches, I had to take a minute for my eyes to adjust. The only ornamentation or focal point was Jesus himself hanging on an unadorned cross barely above eye level. His feet were hung at chest height, so it was not difficult to reach out and touch them. The entire chapel was stone grey. This was a chapel designed solely for prayer and meditation. It was my holy place.
Except when it wasn’t. I was young and, at times, arrogant and thoughtless. If, on the rare occasion, I had brought someone with me, we would be shushed by the rare worshipper for whispering. This was not a chapel you came to as a tourist. You were not encouraged to come and take a look around. People came to pray. In the city center, the cathedral’s north and south towers rose in all their Gothic glory overwhelming those emerging from the depths of the Stephansplatz U-Bahn station. The blue, green, black, yellow and white mosaic-tiled roof caught the eye of even the most casual pedestrian. In that busy city, off shopping streets full of history but modern sensibilities, I wonder how many prayers were formulated over the centuries in that tiny chapel room. How many in the few years in which I made my way into its walls as I sat, struggling to discern the trajectory of my life in such a transitional phase?
I grew up in a Christian tradition that did not particularly recognize holy places. The world was the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. We did not need special places in order to pray or worship God. God was both omnipresent and omniscient. I could talk to him anywhere. Except when I couldn’t. To paraphrase Pixar’s The Incredibles, if all places are equally holy, then maybe no place is. Certainly, I still believe God is everywhere. There is no place I go where he has not reached before I arrive. And yet, it is important to acknowledge my need for the the sacred space. Maybe it is better to say I more readily recognize some spaces as holy.
There’s a great American sycamore on one of the walking trails I like to frequent. It is my favorite sycamore, maybe my favorite tree. I usually say I am going to “visit my friend.” Its branches extend high and bisect far horizontally across the trail, nearly reaching out over the creek. There is nothing other than its size that might make someone stop, but I always do. The smooth, rounded white bark settles me. This tree has obviously been there a long time. I lay my hand flat against its skin. I usually stop for a moment of meditation or a breath prayer. It is a holy place.
In his Life Together, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer encouraged his readers to read the Psalms with and through Christ. I think he meant a couple of things by this. One, that we read them messianically. We read the Psalms seeing their ultimate fulfillment through the life and suffering of Jesus, even though, historically, they may have originally had a different context. Another way we read them with Christ is as his body, the church. While we trust in Jesus’ reappearance one day, we also trust in his immanent presence here alongside us. If we believe the Kingdom of God is the truest truth, if we understand that the veil between the spiritual and the material, between the heavenly and the earthly, is thin, indeed, we profess a sacramental trust in God’s presence and we can know that Jesus himself mouths the words with us just as surely as our brothers and sisters form the vocatives and plosives of the sacred prayers given to us by David and Moses and the sons of Korah. We get more uncomfortable, however, when we reach the psalms of lament.
I have lamented often this past year. Sometimes my lament has been selfish and myopic. Sometimes I have grieved for others, and over others. I have lamented more this weekend. A little boy shot in Chicago. A young man, barely of age, is gunned down in Minneapolis. In my own city of Indianapolis eight people were killed in a Fed Ex shooting. These are markers of hatred, mental illness, the glorification of violence, and the brokenness of the world and culture in which we live. Whether or not we agree about how we should proceed as a society, we must recognize, if we profess Jesus, that this is a travesty, and that we have created it. Our sin, our fallen state, our denigration of our fellow humans has entangled us in a problem so intricate we cannot easily unburden ourselves. Not until we admit our culpability, our fragility, and the glory that every one of us carries within us, even those of us who are the most different from us, because of our genesis, by the very breath of God.
If we shy away from the keening voices near us, we plug our ears to God, who is for the downtrodden, the oppressed, the weary, the ashamed, the neglected, and the despised. It is Jesus who was once all of these. And he stands in their place reaching his hand out to them and extending his other hand toward us, so that he might bridge the gap between mourning and joy, between broken and renewed, between slain and resurrected. He can only reconcile us if we are willing to “weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 ESV)
Because Jesus’ sweat burst through his pores as blood, because he wailed the psalms himself while in agony at his shameful death, because he thought of the psalms at all, so we use the words of Christ to cry out for our sin and shame and deliverance.
God is not so weak that he is not able to withstand our cries of pain and anger and loss. We do not want to slip into vindictive attitudes, but we look to God for justice and for peace. Lord, keep our hearts. Protect them from bitterness. But, listen. Do listen to our confessions. When we mourn, we are like God. When we lament, we agree with God that the world is not as it should be, that we are not what we hope one day to be. When we cry out to God in the psalms, we are confessing our belief that he hears and that it is in his hands that all will be made new.
We cry out to God on behalf of those recently lost. We mourn. We mourn
Matthew R Alexander
the as-of-yet-unknown people who died in the Austin, TX shooting earlier yesterday.
Below is Psalm 140, written by King David, a man wrecked by violence. Notice how the psalm relies on God’s omniscience and justice to protect him. Notice how we might wince at the harshness of the prayer, but lean in to the concern for the afflicted. Notice how, in the end, the psalmist lands in the confidence and presence of the Lord. It is an extreme version of the prayers of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10) and Mary, (Luke 1:46-55) lifting up the poor and oppressed. While the prayers of these pregnant mothers were psalms of praise, Psalm 140 solidly remains an outcry against violence and injustice. It is an honest lament for today, “holy and acceptable to God,” our spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1 ESV)
“Deliver me, O LORD, from evil men;
preserve me from violent men,
who plan evil things in their heart
and stir up wars continually.
They make their tongue sharp as a serpent’s
and under their lips is the venom of asps.
Guard me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
preserve me from violent men,
who have planned to trip up my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;
beside the way they have set snares for me.
I say to the LORD, You are my God;
give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O LORD!
O LORD, my Lord, the strength of my salvation,
you have covered my head in the day of battle.
Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked;
do not further their evil plot,
or they will be exalted!
As for the head of those who surround me,
let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
Let burning coals fall upon them!
Let them be cast into fire,
into miry pits, no more to rise!
Let not the slanderer be
established in the land;
let evil hunt down the violent man speedily!
I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
In the last year much has been written and discussed regarding how the COVID virus and quarantines have impacted how we worship, interact, and live as the community of God. The pandemic has not been the only thing, however, that has altered the way my family worships on Sundays. Church hurt has also contributed. Because of this, our family has been worshipping with a smaller group to maintain spiritual accountability. The pandemic, nevertheless, has certainly made it more problematic in terms of meeting together. Initially, our families met in small groups in homes, then outdoors when the weather warmed up. Later, we moved inside into our living rooms, donning masks and eliminating our Eucharistic meal in favor of the simplified cracker and juice.
The group we are meeting with is a bit of a mixture, but that is the kingdom of God, right? They have been a lifeline to me, providing encouragement, strength, and a reminder that we are bound by elements that transcend this world. They have been a stabilizing force at a time when I could easily have succumbed to debilitating discouragement.
As the weather warms up, some of us may be ready to take some baby steps forward in visiting other churches. Or not. Above all, we pray for our hearts to be protected. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us toward people who will minister to us, and to prepare us to minister to others. While I am deeply grateful for the people who have held my head above water, in a spiritual sense, it is difficult to foresee how long our particular version of faith and liturgy practices will continue. For now, zoom church is a solid place holder until we can return more fully into the life together, worshipping and serving in specifically embodied ways.
In the meantime, I am left with ambiguous feelings regarding our connection-disconnection. On the positive side, we have been persistent in meeting together, keeping tabs on one another, helping one another out in ways both small and large. Although it is not ideal, maintaining a connection with like-minded people of faith, with specific people, has been a rock-solid stabilizing force these last several months. On the less positive side, Zoom is awkward. It is difficult to have meaningful dialog with a group of people virtually and simultaneously, that is, living and engaging in the ordinariness of our daily life.While the technology is a blessing, it is also a barrier. The screen often feels to be a barrier to living incarnationally. At least to me. And yet we press on.
Jesus promised, “…where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) Virtual church may not be our primary or permanent way of worshipping. But does the Spirit remain with us even through a Zoom link? I believe the answer, beyond any feelings or social sensibilities, is yes! He does. Zoom seems to exacerbate the spiritual and emotional distance we feel from one another. Yet, with a proper theological understanding of God’s immanence, and an emphasis on Jesus’ incarnation and suffering alongside us, we can more readily accept the mutuality of Christian service and leadership. Christ’s presence is the reality we are caught up into each time we participate in the communion. Even if we drink from Dixie cups.
Because we have taken a bit of a break from institutionalized church, we have been freer to “try things on for size,” both in our thinking and in our practices. This has allowed some of our group, who may never have been given the opportunity, to find their voice and gain experience in presenting lessons, devotionals, and homilies.
We may soon be facing decisions around whether or not to disband or how to seek out established churches, but for now we are maintaining our current format. It is our basis for spiritual healing. We pray; one family leads us in song, accompanied simply by an acoustic guitar. We read scripture. We keep a rotating volunteer schedule for someone to lead us in our thoughts for the day. Past topics have been our newness in Christ, Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the use of psalms as lament, an imaginative retelling of the demon possessed pigs, and the temptation of Christ in the wilderness for the start of Lent. We participate in communion and prayer with crackers and juice. Then, we circle back around to a discussion time around the devotional or homily.
Christians throughout the ages have survived various trials and challenges in meeting together: catacombs, hiding in homes, prisons, etc. Looking broadly at this will help us retain our hope and our faith in the future as the church. Not the revoking of religious or civil liberties, nor world wars, nor plagues or persecutions have irrevocably destroyed the faith of Christians. Those of us who claim the Resurrection as the historical and theological event around which our lives orbit will not be eradicated by lesser events in human history. If we are clear about why we gather, if our theology informs the weekly practice of the Eucharist, if we pray with an acknowledgement of Christ in our midst, then our hope will not be dependent on our current location, nor will it flounder in our current circumstance.
As individuals we may falter, but God’s church as a whole will continue, and we will meet in cathedrals, sanctuaries, store fronts, living rooms, parking lots and parks, on Facebook Live and Zoom calls until he makes his glorious appearance once again. Persistently, “we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13)
Many people have expressed how different their reading habits were in 2020, particularly since the onset of the virus and subsequent quarantines. Some consumed heavy doses of sci-fi or dystopian worlds filled with plagues and conspiracy theories. Some read voraciously, but most friends I have heard from, found it difficult to maintain adequate concentration for sustained reading.
While I did not suffer from a lack of attention, I did notice a few changes. In 2020, I read considerably fewer novels. I was choosier in curating my reading list. This was a rough year in many ways for me. I craved books that would be spiritually healing, emotionally helpful, and communally engaging. Consequently, I enjoyed and valued almost every book I read this past year.
I primarily read theology, books on pastoral care, a handful of literary fiction, and some titles on history and racial justice. I guess I should also mention a few classics and young adult chapter books to keep up with my guys’ home school reads.
For any who are interested, I am including two book lists. The first list includes my, favorite eight books from this past year, which were published in 2019 or 2020. I include them alphabetically by title. Instead of writing descriptions, I have provided links to each of the titles. Technically, the first was just officially released January 2021, but I purchased a pre-order copy and finished reading it by mid December.
Epiphany is over. Eastern Orthodox Christmas was yesterday. And now, even peace and goodwill to humanity seem quaint memories, long abandoned. After the violence and political unrest over the last couple of days, I have decided to post an entry from my recently published Advent journal in its entirety. I need to refocus my heart to see Jesus more clearly. From Immanuel:When God Was One of Us, what follows is December 15, “The Incarnation in Suffering.” Be kind and gentle with all you meet. The Lord is near.
There is irony in Luke’s account of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds with their choral message of peace and good news. When the divine touched down on earth to save it, there was no immediate eradication of sin, violence or injustice. Instead, they seemed to be exacerbated. The darkness did not understand this peasant girl’s “bastard,” new-born son was the eternal light, the light of the world, for the world.
There is a grave irony in this child entering the world of the Pax Romana. The great Roman peace would eventually be unwilling to protect him, and would be culpable for his execution. Even shortly before his birth, Rome could not maintain the peace of its citizens in the outlying Jewish districts.
The birth of Jesus gripped King Herod the Great with fear. Here, in this helpless baby from Galilean parents, was a threat like no other he had experienced in his political career. The prophecies, though intangible, heightened his paranoia. Having already done away with his wife and numerous other family members, Herod met his problems head on.
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
Why would God introduce his Son into the world in such a way? Why should there be the slaughter of innocents succeeding glad tidings of peace to all humanity? A mother who watched as her toddler is impaled, and flung to the side, would have a difficult time hearing the angelic herald:
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among
those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
Still, today, the world reels with the pain and confusion of suffering and injustice. It is often the innocent who suffer. As we suffer, or watch others suffer, we question why God doesn’t intervene. We doubt his love, his justice, or his ability to protect us from the evil of the imperfect world in which we are trapped. This isn’t the first time in the text that other innocents have perished for the sake of the deliverer. As the Israelites cried out to Jehovah for salvation from the Egyptian bondage, God answers their cries. However, he answers them much later, four hundred years later than they expected, and not before hundreds of enslaved baby boys were left exposed to die, or be impaled, strangled, or dumped into the Nile River. With the death of Christ, the One died for the many. At the birth of Moses and Jesus, however, many died for the one.
It is like this today. Empires, and powers-that-be, will always engage in acts of self-preserving violence. At some point, the government or empire that God has ordained, will step out to be a god itself. Invariably, if questioned, power will react with oppression or violence. Empire claims God until God is the enemy. When power is threatened, ego lashes out in ugly ways. Public service lasts only until God himself is perceived as the threatening enemy. Empire acts from self-preservation, fear and bondage to absolute power. God always acts out of freedom and with love. It is not God who slaughters for the sake of his messenger, but empire.
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. (Matthew 2:3)
Can we, in the twenty-first century, imagine in the United States of America or in other powerful, democratic Western nations, a tyrant’s paranoia and fear infecting an entire city? Would an entire nation of people succumb to fear and bigotry simply at the prospect of someone or something destroying their way of life, their global prestige? Nations and empires have always been in the business of excluding others, frequently through dishonorable, or even violent, means. Yet God is determined to include us all: Magi and Jewish scholars, small town peasants and turncoat peddlers, sixth generation church members and struggling immigrants barely getting by.
The good news for us today, whether we are in the United States or modern-day Egypt, France or Uzbekistan, is that we do not have to make sense of fragile but powerful egos, nor monolithic political systems and religions. Matthew’s gospel tells us that some misguided but gentle wise men came from the East to meet a new king. Some historians believe them to be of the early monotheistic Zoroastrians. The crazed Herod, part Jewish, part Gentile sell-out to the Roman empire, offered little moral guidance. There is no proof which indicates the “right” religions are based on superior morality alone. If morality was the world’s salvation, we could all pick our favorite moral system, and the world could certainly be a better place. Only God is good, however. No, Jesus did not invade legal systems and political regimes in order to make us moral. He came to obliterate death and to elongate the bridge over sin and to unite us back with God.
So, there is no violence that will end our suffering. There is no oppression which will broker peace. We might be able to bandy about terms like “peace keepers,” “preemptive strikes,” “casualties of war,” or worse, “collateral damage,” in order to desensitize ourselves to the fact that we are bowing down to the idol of stability and empire. We might say the ends don’t always justify the means. Novelist Min Jin Lee, rather, says sins can’t be “laundered by good results.” Dirty is dirty, and our world of empire with some God poured on top has grown filthy.
Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, shows us the uncomfortable side of Christmas. After we wait through Advent, we are shocked when it isn’t all sweet and joyful. Much of Advent deals in oppression and injustice, and even death. For when the divine intersects with a hurting, blinded world, there will always be adverse reactions. Let us live, then, sighted, for a different world.
Christ came as Immanuel to embrace humanity. He came to be like us, so that God could re-create us like him. Christ did not come to topple tyrants and dictators. We are still left to live in the midst of them—for now. Rather, he came to walk about with us, work in our cubicle, be treated unjustly and to demonstrate acceptance in unforgiving, unaccepting regimes that insist on maintaining a firm grip on their power. Jesus came to demonstrate love, and to reveal the truth of his eternally established kingdom.
The story of Jesus’ birth goes from bad to worse, but Immanuel did not intersect the divine with the human for such shadowy reasons. Jesus meets us at the worst of times and ushers in a new way of being and a new way of waiting. Instead, Matthew insists that this is God’s story, and that regardless of how it appears now, he is the One for whom we are waiting. It is his Advent that gathers us about the evening candles, and they are his promises we cling to when the world seems overcome with the brutality and fear of empire.
Just and righteous God,
Although our empires cry out for violence, we long to live in the goodness of your peace. Instead of lashing out in fear, grant us patience that your righteousness will prevail. Grant us tolerance and compassion in this time of suspicion and intolerance. We pray for the Magi around us that you will protect their journey and that you will work through us to be channels of Christmas grace and peace for those who seek you. Give us courage to stand against imperial power, knowing that all truth is your truth, and all power belongs to you, oh good God!
Today is Epiphany, the celebration of the travels of the wise men to meet a new kind of king. The true identity of this long-promised baby was revealed to these Easterners. I have always been curious what these foreigners expected from this infant visit. Did they know intuitively, or from their charts, that they were to be included in the promises as well?
It is difficult to focus on a church calendar when the obligations of the world’s calendars force us to turn the page prematurely. Our Christmas decorations are mostly still up in our house, but we started back slowly into our home school schedule yesterday. Depending on the boy, we are turning our attention back to fractions and decimals, Latin, British history, poetry, and Christian worldview studies. My husband is back to work, albeit from his home office. Our friends are in the process of moving, and we are having to say goodbye. My daily Bible reading has pulled me back into Genesis chapter one and Job. We need to make decisions about how to care for my mother-in-law who lives in an assisted living home. My oldest is about to graduate from high school. I don’t feel I have stepped through this year of COVID-19, social and political tensions with the focus and strength required to face 2021. That is, I may have more in common with these dazed magi than I initially might have imagined.
Detailing their thoughts on the return journey would be purely speculative. And yet, speculate is precisely what T.S. Eliot does in his 1927 poem, “Journey of the Magi.” Eliot speaks from the perspective of one of these travelers as they make the long journey homeward. They have experienced a kind of revelation, a conversion of sorts, in witnessing this tiny deity, but Eliot’s description is unsettling. There is an honesty and sobriety in the final lines. There is no jubilant feeling of triumph at a newborn king. There is both salvation and death, however; there is ache and weariness, but newness.
It is a fitting piece for me to read as we enter 2021, turning our backs on a rough year, but with precarious hope, facing a new calendar. As we near the end of Christmastide, listen here to the poet’s own voice as he portrays the world entering the gospel story.
JOURNEY OF THE MAGI
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
T.S. Eliot, 1927
How does this wise man’s perspective make you feel? Was it worth pursuing the bright star to now carry this bright sorrow?