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Star Witness

In reading the passage from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ baptism, I thought of a long-time member who lived to be over one hundred years old. She was very active: a golfer, walker and long-time swim teacher. She taught hundreds of kids over decades of instruction how to get into the water without fear and swim with joy. That’s no small feat! My memories of swim lessons as a girl are not particularly positive. I sat on the edge of the pool on cool summer mornings, shivering. I had to jump in before the sun had been up long enough to warm the concrete I sat on or the water I was asked to enter. My final exam was to swim ¾ of the way across the width of the pool to the teacher, who was treading water, swim around him and then return to the edge of the pool. I dog-paddled out to him with some level of calm. But when I got near him I panicked and grabbed onto the surprised teacher. It took me a few years to graduate from Beginners to Intermediate. Patient teachers along the way helped me face my fears and gain life-saving skills.

Isaiah 43 offers reassurance to us that the trials of life will never overtake us: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”

Have you ever seen a small child learn to swim? They sputter and cough and gasp and we regret ever entrusting them to a swim coach. But then they learn. They float on their back peacefully, their eyes no longer big with fear but looking up at the sky that seems to envelop them. Befriending the water prepares a child for unexpected moments ahead. Baptism by water and Spirit is our entry into the Church. It was quite tame for most of us—sprinkling on our heads while held securely. But in some traditions it’s by full immersion and the preacher holds the person down a little longer on the third dunk. The message is clear: this is no small commitment. Your baptism is life-changing. This sacrament is a death to self and an acknowledgement of full reliance on God’s protection. It’s a unique entrance exam into club membership! For many organizations you offer words of allegiance and accept a membership pin. Then you sit down for cake and punch served afterwards to celebrate your new sense of belonging. Not in the Church! You get wet, your hair is slicked down and the words of the preacher remind you that you have died to self so that you can rise to new life in Christ.

Wait, what did I just commit to? I thought this was going to make my life easier?

There’s some amazing news in this story that we could easily overlook if we get lost in the details of a very human experience. God loves us so much that God entered our world vulnerably as a human being. The heavens are torn open and love descends in the form of a dove. It lands and stirs up a sense of calling in Jesus, who is anointed for ministry. Jesus’ baptism launches Him on His career in Mark’s gospel where there are no lengthy pauses or picnics. It’s full speed ahead until the heavens open again at the Transfiguration and, later, the crucifixion. In the wilderness the sweet dove is replaced with wild animals. Quite often adults who come to me excited to be baptized fall away from the faith a short time later. While baptism is a beautiful beginning point to a life of faith, there’s nothing easy about what follows. Temptations come our way. Recognizing them must be followed by resisting them. Our baptism doesn’t insulate us from the world’s pain. It gives us the spiritual tools to face that pain and triumph over it.

A picture is painted of John in just a few sentences. His clothing, his diet, and his words brand him as a fringe character. No wonder he is more at home in the wilderness than in the cities. He stands between the wilderness and the land flowing with milk and honey. Ted Smith writes, “John has become an all-purpose container for any kind of radical content.” He stands out and religious authorities show up in his rough neighborhood to check him out. Just three verses after our passage for today ends, we read, “After John was put in prison…” Baptizing his relative, Jesus, is one of the last things he did before he was imprisoned. He was killed as a star witness to this Messiah who was equally disruptive of the status quo. How many detective shows have we seen where the star witness is murdered before they can share what they know at a trial? It’s dangerous to get close to a controversial figure. It cost John his life.

John still calls out to us today as we struggle to embody our baptismal vows in daily living. He asks us to confess our sin, repent of it and enter into each new moment with hopeful expectation. Since God has broken through the heavens to claim us, we dare to have hope even when the world around us is marked by political strife and life-threatening illness. In baptism we reverse the direction of our life. The Greek word is metanoia which translates to mean that we turn around and repent. The whole church makes promises to accompany us on our bold journey of facing each temptation with spiritual strength. Our congregation has accepted the responsibility of accompanying countless parents in raising their children in the faith through the sacrament of baptism. If we think we can do it alone, we’re in trouble!

We speak of bubble-wrapped children in our culture today. Parents try to spare their children from any kind of hardship. Everybody gets a prize and no one is sent home from the party without a goodie bag. In baptism we are reminded that there has to be a balance between abandoning our responsibility to our children (neglect is on one end of the care spectrum) and controlling their every move. Lori Laughlin and her daughters have admitted to making mistakes in that area recently. She was released from prison over the holidays after a very public scandal over paying bribes to get her two girls into prestigious colleges. We do our children a disservice when we overly protect them and do their heavy but necessary lifting. On a rafting trip down the Little Muskegon River years ago one of our members got stuck in an eddy that is particularly strong right at the endpoint of the journey. We couldn’t imagine that the water was as powerful as she suggested until we spilled out of our boats to drag them out of the water. There are moments that seemingly come out of nowhere and we find that we are stuck in a whirlpool that threatens to pull us under. If our parents and other guardians haven’t allowed us to try out our chops on smaller problems, we will not do well. Baptismal love prepares us for the continual moments when we are released to try out our wings. Each time we entrust our children with freedom to make and learn from their own mistakes, they are readied to face bigger challenges.

In Mark’s Gospel there’s a secrecy motif. Jesus repeatedly tells folks who have witnessed a miracle not to tell anyone about it. He knows the danger that comes with being a key witness to controversial news. Jesus receives the Spirit and passes it on as a gift. He knows that His radical acts of mercy will cost Him His life at some point. But He doesn’t want to arrive at the cross until His earthly mission is complete. So He asks folks to keep what they’ve seen to themselves. His baptism is a rare parting of the heavens so that God’s presence can be easily discerned. I wonder if you wish that God would open up the heavens to answer your questions. Is it difficult to see God? Maybe you’ve had some memorable moments of God showing up in your life, bringing peace where there was only chaos? Maybe you had a wilderness period when you felt as if you were being stalked by wild beasts with no help from God? It’s been a rough week for our nation. It’s been a deadly year for our world. Much of the time we slog along, getting the job done without asking for much help. But then God shows up in glory and we realize that we have never been alone: in the water, in the fire, in the wilderness, on the boat. The more we cling to our faith in hard times, the more we will be able to draw on that strength again.

A Lutheran woman wrote, “That’s why I love attending a church with a rich liturgy, a church that has rituals. The thing I love is that even when you don’t feel like being with God, the Church, through liturgy, insists that you talk to God and also put yourself in a situation in which God can talk to you.”

When have you parked yourself in a place where you thought you would encounter God? When have you stuck with devotions, scripture reading, volunteer work you were ready to quit–because you knew it was the right thing to do? When have you offered a holy response to a secular problem? When have the heavens opened and God claimed you with a love that sent you into the next part of your journey refreshed. When have you gone out on a limb to be a  witness to your faith in Jesus Christ?

Ted Smith writes, “…for most of the Gospel this love lives out of sight, like a seed growing secretly. Only the demons know who Jesus is. The disciples stumble along, forever forgetting what they have seen and heard. The heavens seem not torn open, but sealed and silent—as they do so much of the time today.” So put on the life preserver we call Jesus. Allow Him to encircle you and the sweet children entrusted to your care. Know that He is always present in the boat with you. And when the waters get rough and you worry that you will capsize, cry out for God who called you by name at your baptism. Watch for the heavens to open and embrace you as a beloved son or daughter. Be a star witness to this Love no matter the cost. It will never fail us no matter what’s going on in the world around us.

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The Search

A church member forwarded a video to me this past week. It’s entitled “Point of Light” and features the actor, Tyler Perry, speaking of a key relationship in his childhood. He described his dad as a functional alcoholic who was abusive toward him and his young mother. Tyler lived in New Orleans and had a challenging route to get to school each day. He walked past drug dealers, poverty-stricken projects, gang members, and a graveyard to arrive at a six-lane intersection that was always busy. One day when he was a 13-year old middle school boy, he got to that intersection and heard a man calling out, “Will someone help me cross?” Everyone hurried by this man in a suit who stood still. Tyler offered to help and the man asked if he could have his shoulder. “Yes sir,” Tyler answered respectfully. The man carried a folding chair, a cooler filled with pralines and walked with a cane. He was blind. Tyler learned that the man was heading to his school, on the other side of the intersection, where he sold pralines to the students for 24 cents apiece. Soon Tyler became the daily “crossing guard” for Mr. Butler. They took that walk every day, Mr. Butler assuring this broken young man that “God will bless you for that kindness.” Perry states, “Mr. Butler was one of the first men in my life to see me. What made it all the more special is that he was blind. He was a point of light.”

One day Tyler was a bit late arriving at the intersection. Mr. Butler was there, standing still. Tyler approached him but decided not to say anything, following an instinct that it would be good to test Mr. Butler’s keen sensitivity. After just a moment of standing there with the quiet man, he said, ”I know you’re there, son.” When Tyler wondered aloud at how he could’ve known, the blind man assured the boy that he had been listening for him. He shared his faith by telling this adolescent boy from a broken home, “Sometimes in life, son, when you pray, you said all you can say, all you have to do is stand and wait and listen.” Mr. Butler was a point of light into Perry’s darkness as he was growing up. By offering a shoulder and a willing spirit, Perry received a gift far greater from this blind man who could see so clearly!

Sometimes we go on a search by traveling long distances. Other times we go on a search by standing still and waiting on God.

When Jesus was eight days old his parents did what was customary for Jewish parents in the first century: they took their infant son to the Jerusalem Temple to have him dedicated into God’s service. As this young couple, of meager financial means and far from home, entered the vast structure of the Temple courts, their journey was interrupted by two unlikely figures. One was an old man who came to the Temple everyday to worship. He believed a promise by God that he would live to meet the Messiah. Prompted by the Spirit to go to the Temple that day, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this baby was the Jewish Messiah when these parents brought him in. He asked to take the child in his arms and said a blessing over him. Likewise, elderly Anna, who had lived in the Temple courts for years, sang the praise of this boy who would bring redemption to the oppressed Jewish nation. These two servants of God had been on a lifelong search for the One who would save them and their people. Their search kept them in the same place each day: the Temple. Anna fasted and prayed continually. Simeon’s life was guided by the Spirit. Their search didn’t take them far geographically but took them to a deep place spiritually. They recognized the Messiah when He arrived because they listened for Him.

The wise men also embarked on a search. They loaded up their camels to embark on a pilgrimage that took about a year of travel. They left their homes, their families, their communities, and their work to find a child that God revealed to them as a newborn King. A star that kept changing positions was their map. As the star moved, they redirected their course. Somehow I connected their journey to this beep in our house that we can’t quite locate. It seems like it’s in one area but then, when I’m on the upstairs landing, I can tell that it’s below me. When I’m downstairs, I know that it’s above me. When I’m in the kitchen it seems like it’s near the front door. When I’m in the dining room, I’m sure it’s coming from the laundry room. I’ve timed it: each beep is about 12 minutes apart and we keep searching for it. But it is elusive! I think of the wise men who must have had frustrating moments when their directional signals were challenged and the end destination unknown. They persevered, searching for an elusive king, until they found him. When they did, they offered him the gifts they had carried for many long miles. The star provided a point of light that lit the way and rewarded them in the end with great joy.

We enter this new year praying that there will be more light to show the way than we had in 2020. We religiously scanned the horizon in the year past, looking for hope when there seemed to be none. We found new avenues for channeling our love when physical distance kept us apart. My greatest joy at Christmas was that we could all be together, that we could hug our grandson and laugh together. The simple gifts of presence became very clear to us. The foundation of our faith is still being tested and strengthened as we continue the search for meaning in what feels like a foreign land. Like the beep in our home, we are continually distracted by one grim news story after another, being challenged to find a steady place where we could be still with the Holy.

Mary and Joseph suffered losses because of this Child. Simeon’s words must have seared like a knife when he predicted a future with great emotional suffering for the young mother. But they also received tremendous gifts with His birth. They encountered God in powerfully direct ways, enough to carry them into a very uncertain future. They received gifts fit for a King from foreign scholars who showed up after a lengthy journey only to fall on their knees and worship the child. Simeon and Anna were rewarded for their own journeys of piety that were lived out in the Temple on a daily basis.

Photo by Felix Bu00fcsselmann on Pexels.com

We enter the new year, continuing our search. I pray that last year taught us that the guideposts to our journey can be elusive and confusing. If we rely on our own senses, we will surely get lost. If we open ourselves up to serving others, helping others cross the busy intersections, we will be rewarded beyond measure. We would do well to learn the lesson Mr. Butler taught young Tyler while crossing a busy street: Yes, sometimes in life, dear son, precious daughter, when you pray, when you’ve said all you can say, all you have to do is stand and wait and listen. In those rare moments of connecting with others in Christian outreach, we will know that we are finally home.

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A Prayer for a New Year

This morning our congregation met by the miracle of Zoom to enjoy our breakfast while welcoming a new year. Here’s a litany I wrote that several church members offered to welcome 2021.

Litany as a Year Ends and Another Begins

Health

As we look back on 2020 we remember a virus that took our world by storm. We retreated to our homes. We stopped hugging. We left our offices and schools. Play dates ceased. Money became tight. Some people lost their homes. Others lost their lives. We grieve the loss of those who loved us and whose imprint upon us is lasting. In the thick of the pandemic, we mourn the loss of what once was. We welcome this new year with the promise of vaccinations and renewed freedoms. We are mindful that we will not be the same when we emerge from COVID and we thank God for the deep lessons we have learned in this time of trial.   (Light a candle)

Jobs

We are thankful that God gifts us with vocations, particular talents that serve our communities well. We rejoice when our labors can positively impact someone else. We are amazed at how we have learned to do our work in new ways with the limitations of COVID. We pray for those who are now unemployed or underemployed because of the virus. We continue to act with generosity toward those who are in need, knowing that Jesus modeled this in His own life. As we enter a new year we invite God to use us so that our work in home, office or school can be of benefit to our families and world.   (Light a candle)

Children

We look back on 2020 and praise God for the tremendous joy of new babies joining our families. We are thankful for parents who sacrifice so that their marriages are strong and model for their children a way of forgiving and loving. We rejoice in baptisms as parents commit to raise their child in the nurture of Christ’s Church. We pray for our children and youth who crave the routine of a school day. We are in awe of parents who have had to become home-schoolers for children who are tired of learning on screens. We pray for the mental well-being of the youngest members of our cities and towns. We pray for the estimated 18 million children in our country who are food insecure. Remembering that Jesus took small children in His arms and blessed them, we commit in 2021 to be strong advocates through prayer and action for our world’s children.    (Light a candle)

Worship

Our understanding of worship broadened in 2020. Words like Zoom and Streaming entered our congregational life. We taped directional arrows on the floor. We eliminated group singing. We worshiped in our pajamas and yearned to see our church friends. As we enter a new year we are assured that worship happens in our hearts every moment of every day. We miss our church family dearly and greatly anticipate the day that we can be together again safely in our sanctuary. But our worship has not ceased. We embrace the opportunities to reach out to our brothers and sisters in Christ through creative acts of kindness. We willingly sacrifice from the well-being of our own lives to support those for whom each day is a trial. Having faced our mortality squarely in the past year, we thank God for the gift of each day and the companions with whom we share our journey.  (Light a candle)

Nation

Even as the Corona Virus raged through our communities, our politicians stormed at each other with angry words. As our world narrowed to our homes, we tuned in to news programs that reminded us too often that we are a divided nation. We use different lenses through which we interpret current events. As we stand on the brink of a new year we invite God to unite us as we face issues of economic crisis and prejudicial attitudes. We pray for the new administration at the helm of our national politics that they may be guided by Christian virtues. We rejoice in the strong tradition of America to fight for the underdog and to place our trust in God so that freedom might ring forth for all. May this year be a time of reshaping our society into the likeness of the world God promises is yet to come.   (Light a candle)

World

It seems as if our world has shrunk in the past year. We realize we are tragically linked to a town called Wuhan in China. Our hearts have been stirred by our Italian neighbors who sang from their balconies for the renewal of their spirits. We have witnessed medical personnel of all nationalities responding courageously to a sickened world, sometimes giving up their own lives through their tireless service. We are grateful for scientists who worked together in unprecedented unanimity to find a vaccination that can bring relief and healing to our troubled globe. For the beauty of the earth, the treasured relationships that mark every culture, governments that have accomplished much by working alongside of other nations in the severe testing of 2020, we are thankful. We greet 2021 with hard-earned hope and an awareness that Christ’s love grows in the darkest places.   (Light a candle)

Faith

God of our ancestors, Creator of the universe, Lover of every soul that ever was or is or shall ever be, we humbly come into Your presence. We thank you for stirring within the depths of our being a hunger to be united with You. We thank You for the gift of Your Son, Jesus. We praise You for His earthly ministry which culminated in His willingness to lay down His life for the salvation of the world. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, call us into lives of servanthood. Forgive us our past so that we can leave baggage behind. Invigorate us in 2021 to run the race You set before us, our eyes focused on the prize of eternal life in Your glory. Renew our faith as we step out boldly to transform the ordinary into the holy. Through Your grace we pray. Amen.     (Light a candle)

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Ready/Not Ready

So let me just unload some of my baggage as we dwell in the Christmas season. There’s this ad on TV that I really dislike. Like, really. It was on last year and they unfortunately brought it back for a second run at the end of 2020. It’s the GMC commercial where a woman shows her husband early Christmas gifts she’s bought for the two of them. They appear to be fit-bits or some sort of technology through which they can track their workouts as a super-trim and with-it young couple. He says he “loves it” but then quickly announces that he, too, has purchased matching gifts for the two of them.(I didn’t realize that I was to buy gifts for myself at Christmas!) You’ve seen it, I’m sure. They run out the doors of their grand home and she sees, SURPRISE, two brand new cars! She doesn’t seem stunned by this extravagance but quickly puts dibs on the truck her husband thought would be his. Poor guy. He has to…settle…for the small SUV. The details flash up on the screen about how you can have one of these cars in time for Christmas. The GMC Terrain sells for a base price of $26,095 and the Acadia SLE 1 starts at $37,995. Her fit-bits look paltry at this point compared with his outlay of at least $64,090.

Really? After the year we have had, GMC brings back this ad that was offensive last year? Who is their targeted audience? Who, in their wildest dreams, could ever make a Christmas reveal like that happen? And, if any of us had $64,000 to spend on gifts, would it be on two brand new cars whimsically purchased? Feeding America estimates that there are 54 million people who are food insecure this year, including 18 million who are children. Approximately one in three businesses closed their doors this year and, with the extended mandate against indoor eating, countless restaurants have acknowledged that they may be done for good as well. These are not meant to be Debbie-Downer stats. This has been a tough year and 2021 will be a struggle as well. And we’re supposed to smile at an ad that is an affront to everything that Christmas celebrates?

A couple of weeks ago the Cedar Springs firehouse got a call for emergency help. A woman was in labor and the volunteer force was asked to be of help to her as they awaited the paramedics. When they arrived at the home in Cedar Springs Mobile Estates they couldn’t get in. The young woman was in such labor pains that she couldn’t get up to open the door. So the volunteer fire fighters kicked her door in. When they saw this woman on her bed on the brink of delivery, they sent in the one female team member. It’s like when your brother pushes you into something, saying “You do it.” Within minutes Norma had helped deliver a little girl who came out crying! She announced to her mother and the world, “Ready or not, here I come!” While the mother and her husband had certainly made preparations for this baby, it turns out they weren’t quite ready at the crucial hour.

When the paramedics arrived, they had to ask the new mother some questions and get her settled into the ambulance in which she and the baby would travel to the hospital. She asked Norma if she would hold this 7-pound little girl while the paramedics performed their duties. Tiny Aubrey and Fire Fighter Norma got to know each other in the peace of that mobile home after a frightening arrival into our world. This call was so unlike most of the emergency requests to which she and her teammates have responded. 2020 dished up untold suffering in this mobile home park due to increased unemployment, hunger, overdoses and COVID diagnoses. Holding baby Aubrey was a Christmas gift for Norma near the end of a year from which she will long suffer PTSD.

Sometimes we think we are ready for God’s gifts. But then they surprise us with their beauty and we realize there was no way we could be ready for God’s glory! We go to church. We worship on-line. We do our devotions and read scripture. We pray and reach out to others in Christian hospitality. In these ways we make ourselves ready for God’s inbreaking movement into our world. But we are never ready to meet God! The scripture passages we have read in the past few weeks reveal feelings of shock, fear, awe and unworthiness. We are both ready…and not ready to meet the Messiah!

It’s amazing that we can look in on a birth story from 2000 years ago thanks to two writers named Matthew and Luke. Mary’s world is invaded when the angel, Gabriel, shows up and tells her the “good” news that God has chosen her to be the Theotokos—“God-Bearer”—of the long-awaited Messiah. Her feelings range from fear to humility to amazement to praise. But imagine what it felt like, after singing her song of joy, when she realized she had to break the news to her fiance. What man, in his right mind, would believe the kind of story she had to tell?? We know that Joseph didn’t believe her at first because Matthew reveals in his gospel that Joseph had decided to quietly divorce her. Both Mary and Joseph were heartbroken. Mary was disbelieved by her fiance and he was sure she had been unfaithful to him. That’s when God crash lands onto our earth again in the form of a dream for Joseph. When he awakens he believes what he was told in the confusion of interrupted sleep. He gets up and goes to her. Was it still dark? What did her parents think of this urgent visit? But imagine when he tells her about his experience and assures her that he believes her, apologizes to her, promises her that they will get married right away? It’s only now that Joseph notices the radiance of Mary that is matched only by his own glow. As they join hands and look at each other, having run out of words, their hearts make a commitment of marriage. They will face the mysteries of life together with joy. They will confront the rumors in their community together, knowing that God is at work even if others don’t believe them. They will ready themselves for the birth of this child for whom they will ultimately not be ready!

The story covers details like a census being taken. Just as census workers wearing masks walked door to door during the peak of a COVID spread, Mary and Joseph had to be accounted for in this vast Roman Empire. Well advanced in her unlikely pregnancy, Mary trekked about 90 miles to arrive in Bethlehem. When they arrived they could find no place to stay. Others must have traveled in for the census as well and there were very few inns available in those days. People stayed with folks they knew and that kind of hospitality is what enabled the rare journeys in the first century. Jesus was born in a barn or cave with animals present. It was humbling. It was inconvenient and unconventional. But God’s timing prevails.

I remember arriving by train in Florence, Italy one evening. I had purchased a Eurail Pass which allowed me to jump on any train for a three month period. I took full advantage of it! My travel companion and I were excited to see what Florence had to offer us. It was a rainy night and we just started walking. We stumbled upon the stunning Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower that was begun in 1296 and took nearly 160 years to complete. The rain made it appear as a Monet painting with a definite impressionistic flair. This was the high point of that evening. We had been looking for places to stay along our tourism circuit but they were booked up. This was long before there was any easy means of communication to make reservations ahead of time. We counted on something being available—but it wasn’t. Finally we headed back to the train station at about 11PM, found an empty train, and settled in for the night. That worked until a station employee found us and kicked us out. It was now about 1AM and we were tired. After wandering wearily around the station we saw what appeared to be a janitor’s closet. There were mechanical devices in it along with a gangly mop and bucket of rank water. But there was just enough room for two of us to lie down behind the relative security of a closed door. We slept—sort of. When the station began to awaken in the morning, we skedaddled out of there before we could be ejected, arrested or whatever. We made sure to find lodging ASAP for the next night so that we could recover from our sleepover in the janitor’s closet. We thought we were ready for our trip but we were not!

In some ways we are all the Theotokos—the God bearer for the world. We are all pregnant with the possibility of what God can do in and through us in the most inhospitable of settings. There were shepherds who are described as living in the fields alongside their flock. They had settled down for the night with the sounds of animals around them and God busted into their slumber. The Jews of that time had a strong expectation of the arrival of a Messiah. These shepherds were Jews who had grown up preparing their hearts for the Messiah, yearning for His salvation. The angel tells these terrified, bleary-eyed men, “…to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” They spent their lives readying themselves for the Messiah but they were not ready!

We practice the disciplines of the faith because they keep us focused on meeting Jesus. We worship even when we feel like our prayers go unanswered. We read scripture regularly even when it doesn’t speak to us. These disciplines—like the ones we engage in for the strengthening of our bodies—ready us for those rare moments when God shows up in glory. When that happens something new is birthed within us. We carry memories of those divine encounters with us for a lifetime. They offer us peace.

John tells the story so differently. He says that “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Jesus, the light of the world was entrusted to a young couple who had to work through hard moments before being able to stand together, hand-in-hand, ready to walk into the mysteries of God’s love. The Message translation of verse 14 states: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

God moves into our neighborhoods where there is poverty, despair, emptiness, grief, illness, and shame. Perhaps we think we are not worthy of receiving Christ and that we can never be ready. Years ago we did a Lenten study that included making pots that could hold votive candles. After everyone fashioned their pot, we asked them to make holes in it. This was very difficult for many. Why would we intentionally deform our pots with holes? As we moved toward Good Friday we were asked to remember that we are broken. We are not so much holy as full of holes. We are imperfect. We are unworthy before God. We drive cars that are 20 years old and hold babies for whom we are not ready. Yet God moves into our neighborhoods, working in and through us. What we discovered with our pottery creations is that God’s love shines all the more brightly through us when there are openings, flaws, or wounds. I’ve always loved this little basket that someone made during that study. I keep prayer cards in it. But on Christmas Eve I used it to be reminded that Jesus, the Light of the World, came into the neighborhoods of our world to mend the broken places that need healing. Ready or not, He comes. He heals. He loves. Thanks be to God!

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Blessed Anawim

This is the first year in decades that my heart won’t be prepared for Christmas through the blessed pageantry of our children. Each year the costumes are pulled out of brown grocery sacks, each character in the nativity drama bagged up separately. Parts are doled out based on gender, age and capability. If you want a speaking part, you probably want to be a shepherd. If you like to make animal noises, you have your pick between a few sanguine species who looked in on the newborn King with appropriate awe—and soft mooing! If you want an important part, you process in as one of the crowned kings with your treasure in hand. But the pinnacle of importance were the parts of Mary and Joseph. Mary usually wears a light blue tunic and white head covering. Joseph—well, like the father of the groom, all we know is he’s in a suit like all the other men and looks respectable. Mary and Joseph have no words. Their sole stage cues are to look reverently at the baby (doll) Jesus. It’s not always easy to find a six-year old who can look reverent for the length of a pageant!

In the Bible Joseph really doesn’t have any speaking parts. Not a word! But Mary is a different story. We do her an injustice by silencing her and limiting her movement to a kneeling position. In our scripture passages today we meet a remarkable young woman. She speaks, she questions, she ponders, she submits, she praises the God who is behind a whole new makeover of her life! Maybe for a few moments right after she gave birth, she sat serenely, looking down at her newborn son as do all new parents. But the casting for a Mary character needs to take a lot more attributes into consideration besides serenity!

Different words in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel introduce us more fully to the one God chose to bear the Messiah. One of those words is “anawim.” (You probably saw the blog title and assumed I had made an embarrassing typo!) Anawim is a Hebrew word for the poor, the marginalized, the vulnerable and powerless. They are the ones who have little and must, therefore, depend completely on God for their needs to be met. The Hebrew translates to those who are bowed down.

After being told that she will bear the Son of God through a mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit, Mary reveals her self-identity: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Hebrew word is doulos which means servant or caregiver. In another translation she demures by saying that she is the “handmaid” of the Lord. She is the housekeeper of God and will offer her womb as home to a life that, by an unprecedented miracle, was growing inside her. Joseph was a handyman and Mary, a housekeeper. Anawim. One young couple in the vast Roman Empire who were bowed down under the weight of paying their taxes and staying off the radar of the latest dictator.

Keeping their heads down and their noses clean was the goal. Go about your business quietly in the Roman Empire because you don’t want to attract any attention. So it’s no surprise that Mary is surprised at God’s notice of her. The angel appears and greets her as “Favored one.” Who, me?! As she ponders, she shakes. Or the blood drains from her face. So the Angel offers the words to her that are heard 365 times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. When angels drop in on our mundane lives, it’s scary. There’s a word used in the birth narratives to describe the emotion of old Zechariah in the Temple and the Shepherds, abiding in the fields, watching their flocks by night: terrified.

Mary is able to pull away from her fear and ask questions. She asks about biology, parental responsibility, and faith. It’s encouraging to me to know that we are allowed to ask questions of God when we find ourselves at a crossroads. The angel doesn’t scold Mary for doubting his words. Young Mary models for us what it is to honestly probe the deep questions of our lives in the presence of someone who allows us to speak. There are countless times when we are given the privilege of encouraging someone to speak vulnerably of their struggles and to listen them into a place of understanding. Mary Lou Redding states, “Voicing our questions in the presence of someone who allows us to speak honestly can move us toward being able to say yes to God.” When has someone sat with you, like the Angel Gabriel did with Mary, and listened until you knew you could—had to—follow God’s leading? When we say “yes” to God, have you witnessed how that makes us much better spouses, parents, community members, employees, church members?

I am startled by Mary’s ability to move from logical questions to acquiescence to God’s will. I don’t watch SNL religiously but my family members have adopted the totally chill response of Chad, acted humorously by Pete Davidson. In one skit JLo asks to dance with him and he is agreeable but totally unimpressed. His character has found its way into Wikipedia where he is described as “an apathetic teenager with limited conversational skills.” Duh. So his usual response to preposterous requests is a simple shrug and a one word answer: ok. It’s said with total disinterest in the world around him sauf the video games calling to him from his parents’ basement. So I confess that this image comes to my mind when Mary, at the end of an intense conversation with Gabriel, shrugs and says, “ok.”

But, once again, I’ve cast Mary wrong. God didn’t choose a doormat who would take anything that’s thrown her way. God chose a young woman mature beyond her years, a girl who had been raised in the faith so that she would recognize when God was at work in her life. We witness how deep her “yes” is by the song she sings after Gabriel leaves her to her own thoughts. Mary praises God.

When God shows up we praise, rejoice, magnify, worship God!

Have you ever magnified God? What were your feelings? What did God do that prompted your praise?

Mary models for us that we can live a profound life of faith when we are less than sure. When her rational capacity can’t make sense of God’s new mission, she asks her questions and ultimately agrees to live with mystery. What mysteries can you live with? Each time you pick up your cordless cell phone and immediately make contact with someone on the other side of the earth, are you obsessed with knowing how that works? Not me! I’m willing to live with that mystery! Were you the one who found where your parents hid the Christmas presents each year so that you could peek ahead of time? Or did you want to be surprised on Christmas morning? What mysteries can you live with? Does it help you to know that asking questions of God is allowed?

In her song, which we call “the Magnificat”, Mary rejoices because God has ushered in a new realm which has flipped the power structures upside down. God enables Mary to discern how a Divine initiative has been at work all along, knocking the high and mighty off their thrones and lifting up those who are bowed down. She sings about God’s obvious favor for the anawim. They are the ones who have been humbled by lifelong messages of unworthiness. They expect no favors because their life is marked by struggle or discrimination. They have learned to rely on God because they discovered repeatedly that they could not count on the people around them for help. So they notice when God shows up. Their joy doesn’t stem from riches or ease of circumstance. They praise God with tears running down their faces because they felt noticed—in a dream, a vision, a word, a visitation. And the wealthy man whose daily needs are more than met looks in on his grateful housekeeper who is singing hymns as she vacuums up his dirt. “She has no right to be this happy,” he snorts as he heads to the bank to deposit his sizable earnings. Could it be that she is the one who is more greatly blessed? Can he not feel the tsunami of change that God is effecting through the obedient and attentive anawim?

Great reversals happen in hidden ways among us. COVID has revealed the power structures clearly. People of color have contracted and died from the virus in disproportionate numbers to whites. Their income level is generally lower which means less opportunity for education which can lead to inferior jobs. So they have more limited access to healthcare. They may not be able to pay for all the meds that would keep them healthy so they hit up against the virus with more underlying conditions. The anawim of our society have many times been deemed essential workers. Maids and hospital cleaning staff report to duty to be able to buy food for their children. The anawim are the wait staff who put themselves at risk by bringing food out to us because we’re tired of cooking another meal at home. One Hispanic community leader argued that the essential workers should be at the top of the list of those receiving the new vaccine. She advocated for her Hispanic brothers and sisters who have suffered greatly in the past months from COVID while serving those of greater means. Do we hear her cry for protection for those who make our lives more comfortable? Those who pick our fruit so that our prices can be lower? Who work hard at the jobs we would never accept? Or will they be overlooked yet again? A true reversal of order in our human systems requires change. It calls us to make lifestyle decisions. It moves us to sacrifice from our well-being so that the least of these, the doulos, the anawim, are valued. In the marches, the protests, the impromptu celebrations of our healthcare workers, we see that God is at work and reversals are happening in hidden ways among us.

We will inevitably gather in different ways this year, holding onto memories of Christmas past. We will worship on Christmas Eve—from our homes. We can–and do–complain about the lost traditions. We grieve the temporary suspension of singing and hugging and sitting with each other in deep conversation. We can continue to fight the changes forced upon us this year by COVID. Or we can look for the ways that God is using us—even now—to throw our social order on its head in hidden ways. What we find in this disruption surprises us: hope, peace, joy and love.

Lynn Ungar gave voice to the possibilities of the pandemic as the quarantine began in March. She titles her poem, simply,

Pandemic

What if you thought of it

as the Jews consider the Sabbath –

the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.

Cease from buying and selling.

Give up, just for now,

on trying to make the world

different than it is.

Sing. Pray. Touch only those

to whom you commit your life.

Center down.

And when your body has become still,

reach out with your heart.

Know that we are connected

in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.

(You could hardly deny it now.)

Know that our lives

are in one another’s hands.

Reach out your heart.

Reach out your words.

Reach out all the tendrils

of compassion that move, invisibly,

where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love –

for better or for worse,

in sickness and in health,

so long as we all shall live.

(Lynn Ungar  3/11/2020)

Amen.

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Daddy

When our first child was about two and a half years old we thought it would be fun to take her to a Disney movie in the theater. We jumped on the idea quickly and had just enough time for her to finish her lunch of nutritious SpaghettiOs, grab a sippy-cup of milk and head out. We excitedly purchased our tickets, bought an obligatory bucket of popcorn with so-called butter on it, and headed to seats in the back row. It was fun. She was mildly interested in what was on the screen. She dug into the bucket of popcorn happily with greasy little fingers until….it wasn’t so fun. She fussed a little bit. (We quickly became those parents!) Garrett headed out to settle her down while I continued to watch the movie. They were gone for longer than I expected. Suddenly he showed up in our row, holding a limp little girl. Even in the dark theater I could see that his white button-down oxford was no longer white. He motioned with his head for us to leave, the kind of message that leaves no doubt about the needed course of action. When we got out into the lobby I could see that he was covered with a pale orange substance all over his work shirt. The rushed lunch of SpaghettiOs (which is questionable as a food group anyway!), milk and popcorn had been too much for a toddler’s tummy. In the safety of her daddy’s arms she had let loose her wretched stomach. We drove home after a failed but memorable first movie outing as mommy and daddy.

There are moments that mark us as parents and we realize that we’re in deep with this tiny little bundle that has turned our lives—and hearts—upside down!

I remember visiting a parishioner years ago in my first church. He and his wife were moving from a large home to a condo. They would be leaving the area so I stopped by to wish them well. Just the husband was home. They had a daughter in her early 20’s who had the mental capacity of a three-year-old. She was mobile and able to follow simple instructions but required continual guidance. This relocation was significant because the daughter would be moving into a group home for the first time as her 60-year old parents moved into their new life. They had known for quite some time that they needed to set her up in a long-term living situation because they wouldn’t always be there to care for her. So this became the topic of conversation between us.

I asked him how he was doing with the move. He immediately spoke of his heartache over putting their daughter in a new home. He said he would miss the rhythm she gave to each morning. He got up at 5:30 to shower and enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he awakened her at 6:30, turned on the water for her and she was able to shower on her own. He helped her get dressed and used the blow dryer and hairbrush to ready her hair for the day. She sat down to a breakfast he had prepared and they chattered happily together before the bus arrived to take her to her adult daycare program. In the evenings she played contentedly in the home and her parents tucked her into bed each night with prayers. More than two decades of loving investment poured into this girl who would now become the responsibility of others. I was deeply moved by the love of this daddy who knew he was doing what was best for his child but was heartbroken as he let her go. Her diagnosis at birth of severe cerebral palsy had been very challenging. But now, when it was time for her to leave the nest, the tears flowed readily.

We have a beautiful story in Matthew’s first chapter that gives us an insight into the man entrusted with the care of Jesus, the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. Joseph, we are told, learned that his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant though they weren’t yet married. This was scandalous and an obvious affront to their relationship. So God connected with Joseph in a dream. The angel named the Holy Spirit as the other parent of this unborn child. Joseph was urged to proceed with the wedding plans since Mary’s pregnancy was God’s work, not anyone else’s. In the genealogy of the Messiah that precedes this passage there is one man after another who is named as “the father of” somebody, who becomes the father of the next generation. When it comes to Joseph something is amiss. Awkwardly it states, “and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” The unusual wording around Joseph reeks of scandal that we can be sure lingered over their family always.

Joseph was not a man of few words. In the gospels he was a man of NO words! He is described as being righteous. If your fiancée showed up pregnant in 1st century Israel, the righteous thing to do would be to divorce her. The more vindictive option was to have her stoned. So Joseph’s decision was the more compassionate. He did it quietly because he didn’t want to subject her to public disgrace. This was a man whose heart had broken by the apparent infidelity of his future bride. These are remarkable actions given that he lived in a patriarchal society that would punish to the fullest extent this affront to his manhood. Quietly, privately Joseph made plans to terminate their engagement.

So God got involved. Joseph wasn’t given a vision or a burning bush to assure him that he was really in a holy conversation. He was given a dream. I wonder what it would take for us to believe impossible news? Would we awaken from sleep and act on a message we received in a dream? Or would we write it off as nonsense that typifies our dream narratives? Joe got up and quietly did the unconventional thing: he married her. He made a commitment to become her husband—and a daddy. When the baby was born Joseph was given the power to name the child. Naming privileges go to a parent, right? As he held that tiny boy in his arms in the subdued light of a stable, he pronounced the name he could still hear from the dream nine months earlier: Jesus. God arrived in human form in the quiet of the night to a young couple who had the courage to believe in a dream.

When did God get your attention in such a way that you stepped outside of your usual boundaries to do what you were told? Grand Rapids Griffins announcer, Eric Zane, walked down the stairs in his home one day and said out loud the name of a classmate from high school. He hadn’t been in contact with the man or even thought of him for ages. But something nagged at him and led him to look the man up. He had a successful career in film and was living in Los Angeles. Eric went on Facebook and discovered, much to his surprise, that this former classmate had already sent him a friend request, which he accepted. After a volley of several messages, Eric learned that this man was in an advanced stage of kidney failure. The two connected by phone and, as he learned about his classmate’s condition, Eric distinctly heard a voice in his mind say, “do my will.” In that very moment he decided to donate a kidney to this long-lost companion. He told the incredulous friend of his intentions and they both started the testing procedure to see if he was a match. He was. And so last Wednesday, in the thick of the pandemic, this Hudsonville announcer boarded a plane, wearing as much personal protection equipment he could find, to be taken to an LA hospital to donate part of his body. Reacquainted after 30 years, these two men are now bonded as brothers because God planted a message in the heart of someone who listened and obeyed.

When did you or someone you know just get up and go because God got hold of you?

In his dream Joseph was given just enough information for the present moment. He didn’t ask for nor did he receive a contract that spelled out the complete range of responsibilities he would have with this boy. He obeyed God even though there’s stigma attached. They travelled to his hometown of Bethlehem to be registered for a census. Yet there was no family to welcome them or offer them lodging. That would have been common hospitality in that time. On this very first Christmas there was no joyous homecoming of Joe with his relatives. Had word of his sudden and suspicious marriage reached them? We don’t know if this marriage cost him his family ties. What we do know is that his “yes” to God meant that this unwed mother was now his wife and this baby boy made him a daddy, a daddy who got to choose his name.

Like so many other Biblical stories we learn from this that God is at work in our very imperfect lives. Aaron Klink writes, “That is the message part of this text brings—that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work.” When have you failed to live up to your image of a perfect Christmas? When did your plans fail—and God blessed you beyond your wildest dreams? In this Christmas of 2020, when so many cherished traditions must be put on hold, where are you seeing God at work in your life? Where is God using you for the good of others?

In Matthew’s Gospel the word “birth” in speaking of Jesus’ arrival, translates as Genesis. Perhaps that’s why Matthew’s Gospel is the one that separates the Old from the New Testament. In Jesus’ birth there is a Genesis, a new creation, that offers promise to a world that is covered in their own sin. Do we need a savior and, if so, from what? From aimlessness, narcissism, loneliness, sickness, prejudicial behavior and despair? Jesus arrives just in time for those finding refuge at Mel Trotter Mission, for those separated from their parents at border camps, for single parents who are hanging on by a prayer and folks who get in line for a couple of boxes of food the night before distribution. What are our moments of exile from which we need saving? Will we hear the words given us in the night? Will we follow the nudging? Or will we write it off as a bad night’s sleep?

The definition of righteous is one who is morally right, virtuous, or justified. Joseph may not have had any speaking parts but we are blessed to meet a man who was righteous before God. We are inspired by a single man who quietly did what was right even though it flew in the face of all that was acceptable. We are in awe of a guy who accepted the responsibility—the gift—of raising the Messiah, a boy that was not his own flesh and blood. And, because of a whisper in the night, he became his daddy. Abba. Papa. But really just daddy.

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Adult Onset Gospel

The times were hard. Taxes were so high that little was left for necessities. Political oppression was so great that no one dared voice disagreement with the prevailing powers. Fear was the most common backdrop to daily life such that neighbors couldn’t trust neighbors. Lines were drawn between different races, nationalities, religions and ethnicities. Families fractured over the pressures of conforming to the standards of being a good citizen. Hope was in short supply. Life was good for the few at the top but a grind for everyone else.

This was the audience to whom Mark addressed his Gospel. It sounds familiar in so many ways, doesn’t it? The politicians in the first century Middle Eastern world, like most generations before and since, seldom acknowledged the gifts of their predecessors. They arrived on the scene with great fanfare and a proclamation that they, and they alone, would make the sun shine on their empire once again. They viewed humility as a weakness and the past as over and done with. The future of their shaping is all that mattered. So Mark, the writer of the earliest Gospel, published the story of One who would bring needed changes to their miserable world. His is an Adult Onset Gospel! There are no baby books for John the Baptist or Jesus, no images of cows mooing as a young woman gives birth. No shepherds stand awestruck before a newborn king. There are no stories from a meaningful Bar Mitzvah ceremony when a boy is welcomed to manhood. No senior pictures hang with pride. What we get in this Gospel is an adult message: Repent! Confess! Get rid of the victim mentality you have wrap around yourself tightly like a warm coat on a cold winter day. Stop saying, “Poor me!” and do some hard introspection! If you think babies are demanding, you have no idea what the demands of adult John and Jesus will ask of you!

Gospel translates to mean “good news.” Mark’s Gospel begins with a proclamation, as if ringing a gong that captured the attention of his weary people: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. These folks never heard good news, not unlike our own media experience, especially of late. So they would have perked up at this promise. But “good news” begins to sound like bad news pretty quickly with Mark’s message. He says that there’s deliverance ahead but first, folks need to take an honest look within. You may think you’re worthy of God’s rescuing, but are you? When you look back at your words to that family member just a few days ago, can you face God? When you reflect on that business deal you struck with someone who was trusting you for mercy, do you really want to come into God’s presence? Before we can go forward, we have to look back.

Mark announces that he has good news to share but starts off his speech with a quote from Isaiah more than 500 years earlier! John’s clothing and living habits were outdated. Folks didn’t wear sackcloth, eat bugs and grow their hair long. His image as a prophet would have harkened back to an earlier time when prophets shouted words of harsh judgment to their people. But John the Baptist’s audience simply wanted hope for their future. He didn’t fit into his own world as a messenger! Remember in the Back to the Future movies when Marty McFly and Doc traveled between time zones? Their most immediate concern was to dress appropriately for the era in which they found themselves. Otherwise they were immediately targeted as outsiders and treated as freaks. Imagine Rob Bell doing a podcast sermon wearing a powdered wig and knickers with buckled shoes. It would distract from his message! Everything about John’s appearance was off-putting and challenged his credibility. And yet, he drew people out to the wilderness where he set up his headquarters.

What we have in these two men, who jump onto the scene in Mark’s Gospel as grown-ups, is the most unlikely political campaign the world has ever known! John shows up first and identifies himself as the predecessor to an even greater man. A political strategist would warn him against such modesty! What leader has ever stated that they are simply a transitional figure for someone even greater? At his launch party he’s already pointing ahead to his own demise—which doesn’t do much for building momentum! And then when the guy for whom he has prepared the way shows up, He’s equally modest! He’s the long-awaited Savior but He tells people that the last shall be first and the first shall be last! This is not the way to start a movement. The disciples’ frequent angst and confusion over Jesus’ decisions gives us insight into how unconventional John and Jesus’ understanding of power was.

In this introduction to Mark’s story about Jesus, we are invited to confess our sins and look toward a mightier one yet to come. In essence, we are being urged to enter into personal therapy with a willingness to look honestly at ourselves rather than blame others for our problems. Who wants to sign up for that church program?! Can you remember a public campaign when someone urged folks to begin by admitting the error of their ways? Apart from religious leaders whose faith teaches humility? (And even they fail to model humility far too often!) Kennedy comes close in his celebrated challenge: Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. The world doesn’t revolve around us and a nation will thrive only when its citizens shift the focus from personal gain to humble service.

This year, 2020, we’ve all been in therapy, one way or another. If, before COVID infiltrated our towns, we had the luxury of greeting each day without having to really worry about finances or good health, that privileged position is gone. COVID has cut across all distinguishing lines, indiscriminately threatening every age, class, nation, and race of people. Our ongoing therapy question has been, “What matters?” We have discovered what values failed us in this year-unlike-any-other? What virtues surfaced as critical lifelines for us as a virus threatened our every move? During this pandemic we have, in some ways, harkened back to an earlier time. Families are sitting around a table together for dinner. Instead of inhaling chicken tenders and fries we grabbed from a drive-through window, while zipping from soccer practice to piano lessons, we are talking together over good food! Remarkable! We planted gardens and ate what we grew. We adopted pets who have been some of the greatest beneficiaries of COVID 19! Shelters have literally emptied out! Folks have tuned into on-line worship services to be assured that God has control of things since we realize, all of a sudden, that we don’t. The confessional booth of the Catholic Church, which modern people deem to be antiquated, is exactly what John promoted. And crowds flocked to him! They left the comfort of home and walked long distances into the hot desert so that they could admit how they were responsible for their own problems. Whatever preoccupied their thoughts at the outset of their journey, John offered them a chance at a new life. But they had take out their personal garbage first.

When has your priority become confession and repentance? Maybe when you were trying to right the trajectory that your broken marriage was on. Perhaps a rift between you and an adult child took you to a place of self-examination and a confession of your own sin. Maybe it’s when your addiction took you to such a dark place that you finally committed to the challenging course of healing. When your excessive spending got you into financial trouble, you looked back at your parents’ frugality and realized the wisdom of their lessons. When have you sought out help so that you could dig through your past in order to have more joy in the present moment?

The Church calendar begins with Advent, a season of longing. The Magi search for the Christ child by believing in the reality of something—Someone—who was just out of reach. Folks in John’s time traveled long distances so that they could get their priorities straight. Have you ever gone on a pilgrimage because you ran out of hope for your future? How did your values change when you went on that mission trip? What habit or obsession did you abandon without so much as a glance backwards because God finally caught your attention? Our culture has turned the weeks before Christmas into a time of sanguine nostalgia. Mark had no tolerance for that. He confronted his readers with reality, not myth. He exposed their misplaced priorities for the idolatry that they were. He told the story of a man named John who stood in a long line of believers who knew that the world didn’t revolve around him. With modest conviction, he pointed to a God who rides the wave of chaos in each generation, loving us in spite of our sin.

I wonder who the heralds of this good news are today? Are you among those who are excited to share the news of Jesus in an era of political correctness and Church demise? Do you feel a sense of joyful urgency to point beyond the fears of COVID 19 and the attraction of commercial glitz to a Savior who is at the heart of Christmas? It’s humbling to wait for the arrival of an important person when we feel like simpletons. We are reminded that it’s not about us. That realization can be both a relief and a painful recognition! But that’s what the journey of Advent is all about—preparation! We learn, over time, that Christmas comes whether we’re ready or not. The bikes may not be assembled and the house may not be cleaned to our satisfaction. But Christmas morning dawns. Jesus arrives, a gift for all who will receive Him. The baby Jesus has grown up and saved a world for the glory of God. Our yearning is answered. The gift is here! Thanks be to God!

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In the meantime…

With the approach of Christmas we have images of bright lights, peaceful evenings by the tree, and gatherings with loved ones. Even with the bleak backdrop of COVID, we anticipate hearts warmed by the preparation for this beloved holy-day. But the Lectionary Committee who choose the Bible passages for this First Sunday in Advent throw this doom and gloom prediction our way—as if approaching Christmas with COVID lurking is not worry enough! So “Ho Ho Ho and get your act together—now!” We scratch our head and wonder, are we awaiting the birth of a Savior or the end of the world? We know how to wait for Santa—most of us remember opening up little windows on paper Advent Calendars as children, excited for the double window we got to open on Christmas Day. The countdown to Santa is measurable. But watching for Jesus? That’s not so easy.

The text urges us to stay awake, to be ready because we don’t know what’s coming around the next corner. I think we’ve learned that lesson pretty well this year, don’t you? Most of us have the luxury of being able to plan ahead. We set a date for our wedding, make big plans and carry them out with lovely pictures to document the occasion! Not this year. The teaching of Jesus invites us to learn from the past so that we can live better in the present. There will be indicators in the present that prepare us for what’s ahead if only we live attentively in the moment!

This teaching takes place in the Temple where Jesus is surrounded by the religious elite. Jesus has shifted gears to preparing His disciples for His absence. The cross is within Christ’s sight and He wants to ensure the readiness of His inner circle of followers. He predicts that the very temple where they are studying will be destroyed. This would have been regarded as blasphemy—and impossible! When we traveled to the Holy Lands several years ago our group smiled for the camera on the stones that made up one wall of that Temple where Jesus taught. They are massive boulders chiseled into square foundation stones. They are still heaped in a giant pile, unmoved because of their size. It’s unimaginable that soldiers would have been able to knock these stones down like a remodeler knocks down a flimsy wall on our favorite HGTV renovation show. But they did, like an army of ants, and we stood on the proof that Jesus’ outlandish prediction came true when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

This passage falls into the category of apocalyptic writing. There are several general traits to this kind of literature. Christopher Hutson writes, “The basic message of apocalyptic visions is this: The rebellion against the reign of God is strong, as the wicked oppress the righteous. Things will get worse before they get better. But hang on just a little longer, because just when you are sure you cannot endure, God will intervene to turn the world right side up.” So fa-la-la and run for cover! People have used this sort of message for generations to predict dire events in the future. The Jews and Christians who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem would have thought that Jesus’ prophecy was being fulfilled then. Remember the Y2K frenzy? Some folks prepared for the end of the world as we moved into a new millennium. As COVID hit our country, fear overtook us and people hoarded toilet paper to keep supplied until the world as we knew it was over! But, so far, none of these doomsday preachers have been right. The predicted day of annihilation arrives, passes, and we move on with another reminder that no one knows the day or hour of Jesus’ return. So don’t focus on the future. Live attentively in the moment. Remember Jesus’ prayer that we continue to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread…”

Our neighbors operate a beautiful orchard primarily of apple trees. For decades they poured their retirement energies into pruning each tree, spraying regularly to ward off insect damage and finally harvesting bins of beautiful apples that were carted off to market. The past two years have been difficult for this couple. The husband had a heart attack two years ago and was told he might live another year. His wife, who had declined due to Alzheimer’s for several years, died last winter. It had been her parents’ farm. This year the apples hang on the branches of the trees as the fall leaves drop and the first snow brings sparkling cover. It’s heartbreaking to witness the changes in this orchard that was tended to so meticulously. Jesus gives an example of a tree that would have been common to His listeners: a fig tree. A good farmer is going to watch for pest infestation. He will make certain that there is enough water and nutrients in the soil. She will prune the branches and set time aside at harvest to gather the fruit that provides nourishment for the community. A vigilant farmer pays attention to the fruit growing in the present moment so that there will be a crop. Likewise, we are to be watchful in our own time so that we can perform the necessary tasks in a timely manner. If we do this, we won’t need to worry about the future.

Jesus wraps up this particular lesson with an acknowledgement that His audience included more than those Jewish men who sat at His feet in the shade of the Temple. “And what I say to you I say to all. Keep awake.” He made a point of saying that He was teaching His urgent lesson to all. Stretching through the ages, past one dire prediction of end times after another, Jesus even had us in mind as He reminded a preoccupied people that they need to slow down to enjoy the moment rather than worry about a future that we cannot control. He would have remembered how a brutal dictator in 167BC banned all foreign religions in his kingdom. Antiochus Epiphanes asked those in his vast empire to recognize him as a god. He had coins minted with his image and the words, “The Face of a God.” He was a maniac who fought to keep control by removing any form of his subjects’ religion except for worshiping him. The Jews were forbidden to make sacrifices to Yahweh or even to possess a Torah in their synagogues. The Jews had to literally fight to maintain the integrity of their religion. Some 200 years later, in spite of these restrictions, Jesus, a Jew, lived among a Jewish population that had not only survived hard times but thrived. Believers like Esther, Daniel, and (much later) Paul professed their faith in spite of the risk it posed to their lives.

Much has changed for us this year in how we live our daily lives. The Corona Virus has shut down churches and changed the way we celebrate communion. It has forced us to minister to each other with porch deliveries and zoom meetings with family on Thanksgiving. We have revised and re-revised plans for weddings and funerals. We have ceased singing with each other out of concern for each other’s well-being. Some of you spent Thanksgiving alone in your homes for the first time ever. Some of you are quarantining in one corner of your home, fighting a deadly virus, while loved ones tend to you from a safe distance. We have been prevented from doing the things we like and took for granted. We have fought to hang onto some vestige of the familiar while grieving the temporary loss of beloved traditions.

The usual message this time of year is to slow down. Many of us have been forced to slow down. We aren’t throwing parties. We aren’t doing our usual holiday cooking and baking. We are ordering gifts on-line rather than enjoying shopping outings to familiar places with loved ones. We understand, more than any other Advent season, what it means to wait. We are waiting for an effective vaccination that will inoculate us against sickness, loneliness, and fear. We are waiting for our government to work together for the good of its people. We are waiting for business to pick up again, for good health to return, for a chance to wrap our arms around loved ones we miss more than we imagined possible. As the Advent season begins, Jesus calls out to us: Stay awake. Watch the signs of the time. Be ready.

And so we wait. But not like a child who sits in class, pulling on her gum, waiting for the bell to ring. We wait like the batter who steps up to the plate knowing that a ball traveling upwards of 95 miles an hour will soon be flying his way. He is expected to be ready to make contact and turn it into a hit. That’s the kind of watching we are asked to do. Your children open tiny doors on Advent calendars or seek out an elf in a different place each morning. They anticipate the arrival of a man who slides down chimneys in a red suit. But Jesus pleads with us to watch for the places He shows up to shine the light of His glory into dark corners.

We live “in the meantime.” Rather than being fixated on a particular sort of future, Jesus invites us to take pleasure in today. Even with COVID, with hateful division, with economic stress; in the face of hurricanes, raging fires, floods, and melting icecaps; while separated from friends or quarantining in the basement, we give thanks to God who dwells with us “in the meantime.” Those who assembled the lectionary readings want us to know, like every generation before, that much is at stake in this season. So we pray as we sing the words that were penned in the 9th century: “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

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Celebrating Andrae

Childhood

A boy about ten years old was called up to the front of the church. Dutifully he walked up to the preacher, his father. His daddy laid hands on him and commissioned him before the whole congregation for a new responsibility. Through prayer the preacher man proclaimed his boy as being anointed for service to God as a musician. Andrae would be the song leader for Christ Memorial Church in San Fernando, California. A decade of living under his belt, he was given authority in his church family.

His father knew the boy had talent. The commissioning didn’t come out of nowhere. Andrae had been singing and playing the piano long before this altar call. He changed keys effortlessly to harmonize with his people, not the other way around. He was self-taught. His father anointed Andrae Crouch as the church musician because he saw God’s hand upon him. Andrae did not disappoint!

Andrae’s father founded Christ Memorial Church in 1951. Andrae’s mom was very involved in the ministry as well. Born on July 1, 1942, Andrae spent his whole life alongside his twin sister, Sandra. The two of them formed a band in the early 60’s called Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. In an interview years later Andrae said, “I know what I’m supposed to say in a particular song. I don’t know the order to the song. I don’t know if it should be, the end should be on a high note or a low note or something mellow. When I’m going to record it, God gives me the interpretation of the song and how to deliver it. And when I feel it that way, and it touches me, then I feel like it would touch somebody else.” He could have no idea how true his inclinations would be about his own musical appeal. When he was in high school he wrote the song, The Blood will Never Lose its Power. There was no looking back for Andrae. His passion for music and the acclaim of others led him on a non-stop journey as a singer/songwriter.

Long before there was an understanding of dyslexia, Andrae lived that reality. He developed his own sort of sign language, using drawn pictures if he couldn’t recognize the word. Andrae told the Associated Press in 2011, “Some things that I write, you’ll see a page with cartoon pictures or a drawing of a car—like a Ford—or a flag. I still do it on an occasion when a word is strange to me…So when I finish a song, I thank God for bringing me through. You have to press on and know your calling. That’s what I’ve been doing for all my life. I just went forward.” Rather than viewing his disability as an impediment to his success, he saw it as an asset. He said, “If I was sharp in every area, I might be too big-headed or something.” Turning barrier into blessing would become part of his trademark.

Bridging the Gap

Andrae started writing music in the tumultuous 60’s. New styles of music shocked an older generation but became the background rhythm by which a younger generation made their moves. Andrae utilized pop writing techniques and paired words of faith with those upbeat melodies. He bridged the gap between sacred and secular unlike any musician before him was able to do. His love of jazz and black gospel music stretched traditional hymnody beyond the acceptable bounds of the 1950’s American Church. He didn’t have an agenda—he had a style and he used it to give expression to his faith. In an article in the Baptist Press from January of 2015, the journalist wrote, “Crouch could craft an innovative melody and heartfelt lyric while unabashedly proclaiming the Gospel in his songs—man’s sin; God’s love and faithfulness; Jesus’ death, resurrection and imminent return. Crouch’s songs were transparent and honest about the struggles of the Christian life, yet full of hope.”

His unique blending of traditional Black Gospel sounds with other music genres formed a bridge between white and black churches. It inspired people from evangelical congregations to mainline Protestant churches to belt out his music. He is understood to be the author of Contemporary Christian music that took off in the 1960’s and 70’s. He was criticized for diluting Christian music with contemporary musical traits. The appeal to this new form of church music wasn’t fully appreciated as Andrae started composing. Unfazed, he continued to churn out new hymns that had repetitive word patterns that drew people in. Surrounding himself with other musicians, including his sister, they combined a melody line and words–words simply about life’s experiences or taken directly from scripture–and they would riff on that. “Let the church say amen” is one example of that. In this video clip we see Andrae sitting at his piano, friends standing around him, as he explained how that simple line came to him. The limited lyrics allowed other musicians to jump in, adding their own voices to it. The result was a moment of worship that brings me to (joyful) tears every time I hear it.

The song that would launch Andrae’s career as a globally-recognized musician was My Tribute. When he was 18 he felt God calling him to serve in the Los Angeles Center of Teen Challenge founded by David Wilkerson, the author of The Cross and the Switchblade. On his first day of work he met Larry Reed, newly released from San Quentin Prison. Initially Larry had no interest in Andrae’s faith and stuck to his convictions of being an atheist. But Andrae’s music spoke to him and, over time, he became a Christian. One day Larry called Andrae up. He said, “I had a dream about you the other night. I dreamed that you were going to write a song that is going to go around the world. It will be the biggest song you ever wrote, to this day.” Taking the man’s words seriously, Andrae asked what he needed to do. Larry directed him to John, chapter 17. We call this section of John’s Gospel Jesus’ high priestly prayer. In that passage Andrae read Jesus’ words: “Father, I have glorified Thee, now glorify me.”

The next morning Andrae found himself singing, “To God be the glory.” He wondered where those words came from. He went to the piano and within ten minutes had written the hymn we love, “My Tribute.” Andrae hosted dinner guests that evening in his home. As was his custom, they gathered around his piano and sang together for about an hour. They sang his new hymn. Andrae told his guests about Larry’s prediction that he would write a song that would travel across the globe. One of the guests was incredulous when she learned that the song they had been singing was written that same morning. She insisted that My Tribute must be the very song of Larry’s dream. Andrae couldn’t imagine that his testimony of faith, put into song that morning, would have a wide appeal. So the dinner guests reviewed the passage from John 17 together: “I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” Excitedly, Andrae realized that it’s all about glory: “To God be the glory…for the things He has done.”

“My Tribute” became a signature piece for Andrae who toured in Europe, Africa and the Far East to sing his Christian music. Not only did he bridge the gap between white and black congregations; between traditional hymnody and new contemporary music. Andrae’s musical talent was so appealing that he was sought out by secular artists. He helped Michael Jackson write the song, The Man in the Mirror. He became the Producer/Arranger for Madonna’s Like a Prayer. His choir sang the background vocals to her hit. Artists like Elton John, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Elvis and Paul Simon sang his music. He had a long relationship with the Oslo Gospel Choir, bringing his mix of black gospel, jazz and traditional hymnody to Norwegians! He won 9 Grammys, an Academy Award and Dove Awards for his compositions. At Michael Jackson’s memorial service in 2009 Andrae sang his song, Soon and Very Soon to a packed out congregation in the Staple’s Center. He is one of very few gospel musicians who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame in 1998. In her article in the Baptist Press (Andrae Crouch kindled ‘new dimension’ of worship by Laura Erlanson, 1/9/15), Laura Erlandson quotes Christian rapper, D. A. Horton: “The impact Crouch had on my life and ministry is deeply meaningful. Andrae broke ground for ethnic minorities in mainstream evangelicalism and popular American culture. His methods will be missed, but the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that he so boldly preached remains.”

Losses

I remember hearing an interview with Andrae years ago. His words planted the seed in my heart of one day leading a service devoted to the musical imprint he left for us. He talked about the time that his parents and older brother died, all three in just over a year’s time. Lost in sorrow, he stopped writing music. After a time he had an encounter with God who asked Andrae, “Praise Me.” Andrae railed at God for taking his parents away from him. God persisted, “Praise Me.” Undaunted, Andrae continued his diatribe against the God he assumed was responsible for the tremendous losses he had sustained. God’s response was steady: “Praise Me. Praise Me, Andrae.” Finally, as he let out his anger at God, Andrae collapsed and wept. He allowed God to comfort him then the music started welling up again. Andrae’s music was an expression of what he was feeling at any given moment. He battled four different forms of cancer, the disease that claimed his family members. He lived with diabetes and was hospitalized for complications of the disease. Toward the end of his life he struggled with congestive heart failure. In an interview, Andrae spoke about his song, Through it All. In talking about his bandmates he said, “We’ve been through a lot of things together. We’re not just up here hooping and hollering. But we know the Messiah and we’re always praying. When this song was given to me I didn’t really know how much I was going to have to use it. And I still don’t know how much more I’m going to have to use it. But I’m ready. I just want to be at the place that where God takes me, I want just to be there, to go through it, to be able to say ‘yes’ in every situation and not to complain but just to go through. And we all gotta do that because he don’t have any favorite persons.”

Crouch’s December 2014 tour had to be postponed due to pneumonia and congestive heart failure. Just a month later, he died on January 8, 2015 at the age of 72. Michael W. Smith told Billboard Magazine: “I’ll never forget hearing Andrae for the first time. It was like someone had opened a whole new world of possibilities for me musically. I don’t think there is anyone who inspired me more, growing up, than Andrae Crouch. The depth of his influence on Christian music is incalculable. We all owe him so much and I’ll forever be grateful for the times we got to work together.

Patricia Stuart offered her praise on his obituary page: “I was 14 years old when I began listening to Andrae Crouch and the Disciples. I was blown away by his music because no other music reached my heart the way his music did. I ran out and bought his albums with my allowance and continued to buy his music. To this day, his music touches my heart and I can’t stop listening to it. He was a musical genius who gave you an honest part of himself and a glimpse of God in all of his music.”

Our congregations’ musicians and I talked with each other about what a gift it was to immerse ourselves in Andrae’s music. We shaped a joyful worship service in which we honored his legacy. I awakened to find his music in my head. His lyrics spoke to my heart. I wept at times, moved by the way he and his band poured out their faith in repetitive lines that affirm our faith in Jesus. I am thankful for a boy named Andrae who accepted the calling his father placed upon him to rise up and lead his congregation in song. He did it then and has been doing it ever since! To God be the glory!

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A High-Risk Venture

Have you ever gone on a balloon ride and floated above the earth with a stunning view below? At a potluck some years ago our church member, Milt, was sharing some of his stories from his years as a pilot. I didn’t realize that he was a balloon pilot in addition to being able to fly planes. So he told us a story about a time he and another balloon pilot were going to take a flight near Lake Michigan. They lifted off 25 miles east of the Grand Haven Airport. They climbed to 3000 feet where they leveled off. For half an hour they enjoyed the view but then Milt noticed that they were covering the ground much faster than they had been initially. The Grand Haven airport was no longer in sight and they were edging closer to Lake Michigan with the passing of each second. When Milt checked their ground speed he was alarmed to see that they were going about 15 miles per hour too fast for balloon speed. As they scanned below to look for a potential landing site, they only saw trees. Knowing that they were running out of time before they would be blown over the big lake, he dropped the balloon down to 1000 feet so that they could land quickly if an opening presented itself. As they leveled off at that lower altitude, an open two acre field appeared out of nowhere. He pulled on the rope that lets out the hot air (another instance when it really isn’t good to be full of hot air!?) and descended very quickly. They landed intentionally against the trees so that the wind couldn’t take them airborne again. Once again on terra firma, they took deep breaths, reflecting on how this harrowing experience could have ended much differently!

I’m not one for high risk adventures! I don’t need to go on Fear Factor and eat a bucket of bugs or slog through the mud while climbing a mountain on the Amazing Race. When I was young I was never tempted to sign up with Outward Bound. I have exciting moments in my life that stretch my limits. But you’re not going to find me scaling the side of a cliff any time soon! How about you? Do you seek out thrills that get your adrenalin pumping? Or are you a creature of habit who likes to play it safe?

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25 about three servants and a wealthy Master. The focus is primarily on the third slave who is characterized as being lazy. His boss is harsh and driven. This makes for bad office mo-jo, a vocational mismatch. So it’s not surprising that it ends poorly.

But that’s not the only message of this story. Jesus’ parables have layers to them. In this one the Master is generous. Since he’s leaving for a long journey he entrusts his assets to three faithful servants. A biblical talent is the modern-day equivalent of 15 years of wages! Each worker is given the amount of responsibility that the Master knows they can handle. There are no directions given for how they are to manage their Master’s affairs. The two more astute financial planners double their money by investing it. The third worker does something that was viewed positively in 1st century Palestine: bury the wealth in the ground! The third worker can sleep in peace until his Master returns.

It’s important to state that this slave is not a bad man. In fact, when the stock market is precariously down, he might even look wise! When the Master returns he is proud to be able to give back all of the money. He didn’t steal any of it. He didn’t foolishly invest it or lose any of it. He gives it all back to the Master, safe and sound, expecting the same kind of praise given to the first two workers. But Slave #3 is treated as harshly as anyone is in the scriptures! So this isn’t just a vocational mismatch or an ancient version of Horrible Bosses! This story creates waves that ripple out to the edges of Jesus’ society that challenged how a life of faith was to be lived.

The words in the parable give us a hint of the problem. Did you notice the emotion behind the third worker’s dealings with his Master’s money? Fear. He fears his Master so fear drives his action (or inaction). This fear becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy in the end when he is thrown into utter darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. I’m not sure what it means to gnash teeth but I don’t think I want to find out! Meanwhile the first two workers are invited with joy into the inner circle of trust with the Master. Rather than being dominated by fear they took risks, just as they knew their Master would. Their courage and savviness was affirmed with a promotion from servant to partner!

So this isn’t a lesson in Micro-Economics. It’s not even about money. It’s about investing fully in our daily lives and taking risks for the sake of the Gospel. John Buchanan flips our common understanding of risk on its head by offering this interpretation:

“The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything, not to care deeply and profoundly enough about anything to invest deeply, to give your heart away and in the process risk everything. The greatest risk of all, it turns out, is to play it safe, to live cautiously and prudently. Orthodox, conventional theology identifies sin as pride and egotism. However, there is an entire other lens through which to view the human condition. It is called sloth, one of the ancient church’s seven deadly sins. Sloth means not caring, not loving, not rejoicing, not living up to the full potential of our humanity, playing it safe, investing nothing, being cautious and prudent, digging a hole and burying the money in the ground. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Bartlett and Taylor, p. 310)

When has your faith led you into a high-risk venture? We often think of faith as a security blanket, a source of comfort. This is not wrong but it is an incomplete understanding of our faith. Jesus models for us a holy life that forces us to expand our horizons. He calls for us to follow Him, not simply talk theology. Jesus told this story in the last days of His life. It’s the third parable in a series that teaches how we are to pass our time while waiting for the return of Jesus. He is nearing the end of His own high-risk venture and offers this as part of His “Last Lecture Series.” He must prepare His disciples to carry the Christian faith forward for future generations. He doesn’t ask for anything more from us than He is willing to give.

The story begins with an unexpected moment of divine generosity. We are each given not just life but assets or blessings with which to live our lives. It’s as if a very important person has entrusted power, wealth, freedom and responsibility to us as a gift. This generous benefactor shows love for us by giving us space and power to act as we see fit. There is no micromanagement, no strings attached. But we will reap what we sow. The third slave identified his Master as one who reaps where he has not sown. The Master is God and God has the right to take away some or all of our gifts at any time.

Some of us make lists to keep organized and for them (me!), there is no greater joy than crossing something off that list. What if we were asked to keep track of how we spend our hours? Like a law office, what if we had to chart every 15-minute increment and what we “produced” in that time. What if we had to describe our productivity based on an accepted set of priorities? Would it suffice to take our gifts and stuff them under a mattress to keep them safe? Or, when the market is in a tailspin and the future looks bleak, is that the very time to invest in the market believing that the influx of our talents will lead to positive growth? This is starting to sound like an economics lecture! The question is, while waiting for God to step in and bring our struggling world to a glorious end; while anxiously awaiting a mass innoculation of the world with a vaccination so that we can get back to “normal”; while waiting for our daughter’s horrific divorce to be finalized, for our son with ADHD to finish his degree, our salary to bump up by a dollar an hour so we can keep up with our bills or our loved one to come home from an overseas assignment? In these and so many other moments, how do we live? Do we pour it all out for the love of a Savior who redeems our messes and sorrows? Or do we hunker down in a cozy corner and clutch to ourselves everything of value?

I recently heard the conversion story of Anne Lamott, an author with deep Christian spiritual insights. From the way she writes it’s evident she has known struggle. Her conversion experience, described in her book Traveling Mercies, is difficult to read but moves me greatly. In April of 1984 Anne learned that she was pregnant. The father was someone she had just met who was married. She had no desire to have a relationship with him and had no money to raise a baby. So her friend drove her to a clinic where she had an abortion. So deeply saddened by the experience, when she got home she retreated to her bed with a bottle of booze and some codeine the nurse had given her for pain. She drank away her sadness through the night. For a week following the abortion, she drank, took pills and smoked pot to numb her pain. She had medical complications from the procedure such that her friend suggested she go back to the clinic. But Anne was so disgusted with herself that she holed up, anxiously tending to her own needs.

She writes that, after several hours, the bleeding stopped. That night she climbed into bed weak, sad, and too exhausted to abuse her body further with alcohol or pills. As she lay in her bed she became aware of someone with her. Someone was hunkered down in a certain corner with a presence so real that she turned on the light to make sure it wasn’t a real person. It was not. Back in the dark again she knew, beyond any doubt, that it was Jesus. She wrote, “I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.” Rather than welcoming His presence she was incredulous that He could care about her. She was horrified to think of how her friends would react to her becoming a Christian. She turned to the wall and said out loud to the Jesus who gave her space to make her own decisions: “I’d rather die.”

She carried on that week as if she had simply endured a bad dream but felt as if she was being followed everywhere she went. She had been attending a church for a time and she went to the service that next Sunday. The music spoke to her so deeply that, during the last hymn, she felt herself being held and rocked and comforted. She fled the sanctuary in tears and ran for her home, feeling followed all the way. When she opened the door to her houseboat, she stood there a moment, then said with resignation, “I quit.” She writes, “I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’”

My faith has been inspired by Anne’s writing. Knowing the hardship of her story and the power of Jesus’ pursuit of her, I am all the more impacted by her testimony. Jesus knew that she had many gifts that could be used for holy purposes. But self-harming behaviors neutralized her impact. Christ sought her out so that she could influence countless seekers, many of whom might have also taken the rocky path into the Christian faith. Like the third servant she was willing to settle for a life that was OK. But God awakened in her the need to step out on a limb of faith and discover that she wouldn’t fall. She was invited into the embrace of her Maker. She embarked on a pilgrimage that has brought her and many others great joy.

In her commentary on Jesus’ parable Lindsay Armstrong writes, “We know what faithful living looks like, but we hesitate to live it. We bury too much goodness, time, love, treasure, and talent in the ground.”

As we await the end of Covid, the end of election tensions, the end of our sickness or sorrow, as we expectantly await the time that God enters our history to straighten us out; in the midst of that waiting we practice a faith that is really a high-risk venture. It will take us to new heights. It will scare us at times. It will bring us great joy! It will give us a sense of God’s nearness as we behold the beauty of the world around us. It’s the greatest hope we have for being unified in our neighborhoods, nation and world!