Preaching Life

She came to me when the shadows of the past had started to eclipse her vision of the present. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, the trauma that was done to her had a way of surfacing every so often. She had spent years doing the hard work of therapy–and praying. After talking about the dark place in which she found herself, I suggested that we might meet in the sanctuary some evening to share communion. I’ve only done this a couple of times in more than thirty years of ministry. Communion, by its very nature, is communal so we typically celebrate the sacrament in the context of congregational worship. But something seemed right this time to offer an opportunity to sit in the quiet of the sanctuary, seeking God’s nearness together. She thanked me but said that she wasn’t worthy. Self-doubt and guilt are some of the ashes that…

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Holiness Re-Invented

On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 the place where I most felt Christ’s presence was in Capernaum. Archaeological remains have revealed a city of about 1,000 to 1,500 residents in the time of Jesus. Situated on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, it was an important city whose main industry was fishing. What impacted me powerfully was spending time sitting on a stone bench on a side wall of the remains of a synagogue that dates back to the 4th or 5th century. It was not the same synagogue where Jesus performed the miracle described in Mark 1. But it most likely was built on the remains of the sanctuary that Jesus entered in order to teach simple people a new way to see God. So I’m delighted that I have a moment to live in that space through the lectionary passages in the next few weeks. I hope you will be able to feel, even to a small degree, the stunning reality that Jesus lived powerfully among us with obvious traces of His time in Capernaum.

The movement in this passage shifts from a shoreline recruiting excursion to a holy space where the traditions of the Jewish people were safeguarded. The synagogue was a place for teaching the Jewish Law and we read that Jesus entered that sanctuary to do precisely that. We must also note that the disciples, under Jesus leadership, were in the habit of going to the synagogue on a regular basis to worship. It was a place where people gathered in hopes of encountering the living God. Worship invited weary Jews who had suffered much persecution to be in prayerful conversation with the Divine so that they might better understand what God was doing among them.

It’s almost funny how Mark immediately contrasts Jesus’ teaching with that of the most respected Jewish leaders, the Scribes. Richard Swanson states that the authority of the Scribes lay in grammar and stature. He viewed them as “soulless bureaucrats with fat salaries.” It sounds a bit like some upper echelon management positions today! Jesus, in contrast to that, did not operate out of windowless board rooms paneled in dark, impenetrable wood. He mixed with real people in real life, extending loving care. Whereas the Scribes sought to preserve tradition at all cost, Jesus jumped onto the scene blazing a new trail and dusting off old truths to find how they might speak to a new generation.

In reference to these religious practices, Swanson writes this: “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.”  (Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B by Richard W. Swanson, p. 98.)

More than any other Gospel writer, Mark keeps the narrative moving. He uses phrases like, “and then” or “suddenly” or “immediately” to give us the feeling that Jesus is on the move. There’s a paradigm shift in the way that familiar religion was being re-interpreted. Their faith derived from a rich tradition that anchored people through difficult times. But Jesus wasn’t content to sit in the past, reciting outdated creeds. He was challenging the favorite notions of His people and breathing new life into them. That became frighteningly apparent with the eruption of a tortured soul at one of His Bible studies! If ever Jesus wanted a teaching moment to kick off His ministry, this was it!

The bad spirit in this man interrupts Jesus’ teaching and speaks to Him as if they’re old friends. It appears that the demon is accustomed to getting his way and throws a fit when he comes up against someone stronger! Mark’s description of this presence is an “unclean spirit.” It indicates something that has evaded control of God’s holiness and causes humans to be banished from God’s presence. This state of uncleanness came about by simply being involved in everyday life. Faithful Jews could be rendered unclean when dealing with birth, death and bodily cycles.  The unclean spirit in this man was strong and vocal, acting almost as a heckler as Jesus took the tradition of the Law and painted a new picture of freedom. He toys with Jesus and challenges the authority with which He taught.

Jesus is unfazed. I think of attorneys or politicians who have bolstered their reputations by the effective way in which they responded to an unexpected legal battle that landed in their lap. With calmness and efficiency they have navigated turbulent waters bringing justice. Folks look in on them with awe and they become an overnight sensation. When Jesus preached His words don’t hang in the air like a boring lecture series by a professor who always talks over your head. His words effect results. There is so much that is familiar for those sitting in their Capernaum sanctuary, hanging on every word of a visiting Rabbi. But whatever felt predictable for the students that day suddenly became new material. Jesus not only honors the Sabbath on a regular basis. He and His disciples habitually violate the rules of Sabbath. In this Capernaum launch party Jesus upbraids an unclean spirit with unequalled power. The lesson taught that day to wide-eyed students is clear: All that is against God, both in the religious institutions and beyond, will not survive the assault of Jesus of Nazareth. In this passage I can almost picture Jesus dressed in cowboy apparel and bursting through the half doors of the saloon where folks nurse their beers in a semi-alert state. What felt familiar just a moment before becomes foreign. Holiness shows up in unlikely places and is dramatically re-interpreted!

I wonder if we can relate to the sense of disorientation those believers felt in their holy space on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? Many of us have been exiled from our beloved sanctuaries most of the past year. I am amazed and encouraged to see how many households from our congregation tune into our on-line worship each week. We are doing church in a new way! We are surviving and even growing (maybe in spite of ourselves) in the midst of a paradigm shift. We have learned to Zoom, Stream, breathe through heavy masks and look through fogged glasses! Whether doing ministry within the building or trying to keep up with each other in new ways, we often overlook those among us who suffer. Most congregations have unofficial assigned seating charts, right? But we might sit near the same family in worship for months and still not know about a grave diagnosis, marital struggles, or anguish over finances. We can faithfully attend to the business of our church but still miss the need for healing that sits among us. In this pandemic we have so anticipated “getting back to normal” that we’ve sometimes missed the ministry opportunities in the moment. Perhaps we have made an idol of the way we did things in the past. Truthfully, I don’t think we will ever go back to “normal”, whatever we might understand that to mean. We will be a changed people on the other side of the COVID 19 siege. How we live in the challenge of the NOW will greatly influence where we find ourselves when vaccinations have been widely dispersed. Looking for new ways to serve Jesus NOW will shape how we feel when we can finally sit next to someone in our familiar sanctuary again. Perhaps we need to pray for Jesus’ words to once again be powerful and performative as we re-interpret what it means to be holy both now and in the future?

This story of Jesus’ inaugural Bible Study tells us that His students were astounded by his teaching—and that’s even before He subdues a tormented believer! I wonder when you were last astonished or astounded by the work of the Holy Spirit? When have you seen the powers of wrong exiled from traditional forms of worship, city governments or national caucuses so that a new day can be celebrated? In the tension of the past months, when have you been an agent of grace to those around you who may have given up on hope? Our ministry in churches has, of necessity, been “out of the box” or out of the four walls of our sanctuary for months. So how have we channeled the power of Jesus to address wrong and bring healing?

Perhaps the upheaval in churches from COVID 19 is being used by the Spirit to remind us that our faith is not linked to geography but to hearts of service? Discipleship isn’t about space but is all about Spirit. I’ve been amazed that our on-line worship has broadened our congregation to include folks who have not previously and may not ever enter our lovely sanctuary. Yet together we walk with in the power of the Spirit each week, bringing that word of hope into our communities. In nontraditional ways, we are nourished by spending holy time together on the miracle called YouTube!

Just 28 verses into Mark’s fast-moving Gospel, Jesus’ fame is spreading throughout that whole region. As He enters their synagogue, the Spirit blows the dust off of their unexamined past and invites them to embrace a new way of holiness. The elements to their religious life that brought healing and hope continue to guide them. What no longer fits is left in the history books. A new teaching astounds them such that they no longer find themselves romanticizing the past. They face forward with anticipation.

Epiphany is the season of revelations. This text invites us to consider what opposition to the goodness of creation looks like. It invites us to expect action to come out of our favorite words of faith. This story confronts us with a Jesus who is more powerful than any other force around Him. He will not be silenced. He will not settle for the way things were. He will not overlook those who have sat quietly in the pews waiting to be noticed. He will guide us now and when we reconvene in person, to create spaces of freedom, places of healing, and a re-invented holiness that astounds!


Choosing Teams

In our household fantasy sports teams have been the source of great excitement..and angst. What pick will I get? Have I done enough research to know my top picks? What if the players I want are taken before I get my pick? Will somebody make a good trade with me if one of my players fails me? My son has amazing success at noticing the underdog with underestimated talent. Many times Joe wins the game because he puts the overlooked athlete into play. Long before the draft night, he determines his options and goes big!

Just fourteen verses into Mark’s gospel Jesus is choosing His team. Mark’s narrative is succinct. He doesn’t give us more than we need. In just a few verses he tells us about a few of the more memorable players—just like real life! The top of the heap is given more press than those who work equally hard but don’t stand out…like a lot of us. We work hard. We love well. Our sphere of influence is quite local and, for most of us, that’s enough! In Mark’s Gospel we don’t get a full roster of the twelve select men. We read that Jesus chooses two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. The other eight go unmentioned. Mark is clear about the timing. It’s game time! God’s realm has come near. Repent and believe me that it’s all good news!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

More than 500 years ago, John Calvin looked in on this Disciple Draft and stated that God called “rough mechanics,” like the disciples, to demonstrate that none of us are chosen because of our great talent. Jesus’ picks are solid grace. But there’s an element of risk for these guys who drop their careers and leave their families to travel with Him. The opening line of this passage sets the stage with sobering news: John the Baptist has just been imprisoned. He is Jesus’ relative and his job description was to pave the way for Jesus’ success. He did it so well that he got noticed and then arrested. So when Jesus calls Peter’s number and asks him to put on a jersey for Him, Peter knows that signing the contract doesn’t come with a bonus. It potentially comes with a bounty—on his head! Some of the twelve are believed to have been John’s disciples first. They saw what happened to him and still said “yes” to being on Jesus’ team. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “yes” when Jesus picked him and look at the price he paid!

Calvin called the twelve “rough mechanics.” Let’s look at this team that Jesus put together. It might make us feel better about ourselves!

Jesus starts the process of choosing His team members with an all-nighter. Unlike our college nocturnal cram sessions, Jesus spends the night intentionally in prayer. His choices are Spirit-led, not haphazard. In Mark’s gospel we begin with Simon and Andrew, a pair of brothers. Jesus renames Simon “Peter,” meaning “Rock” because “on you, Peter, I will build My Church!” Peter is the Lebron James of his team. Jesus knows He can trust this passionate, impetuous man to lay a lasting foundation for His legacy. Peter has some rough moments after saying “yes” to discipleship. When he refuses to believe that Jesus’ might die for the cause, Jesus rebukes him more harshly than He did anyone else: “Get behind me, Satan!” Yikes! Later Peter denies even knowing Jesus after loudly proclaiming that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, even laying down his life for Him. Jesus is able to tame his wild side and channel that passion so that Peter indeed becomes the foundation upon which Christ’s Church is established. Andrew has a Greek name with no Semitic equivalent. This makes us think that Andrew and Peter might have had one parent or close relative who wasn’t Jewish. Picking a pair of men with mixed race background points ahead to Christ’s Church. It will include all nations and peoples. Jesus wants to widen the circle and embrace the stranger.

The next pair Jesus picks (according to Mark) is James and John. They are the sons of Zebedee. When Jesus calls them they are doing a day’s work with their dad. They have a family fishing business. But they leave their poor dad in the boat with hired workers and walk away from all that is familiar. I always feel sorry for Zebedee since he loses two key workers and the sons who were his retirement plan. But Zebedee’s wife was Salome. She was at the foot of the cross and at the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. So this family, it turns out, is all in for the Jesus movement. Jesus’ pet name for the pair is the “sons of thunder.” Jesus understands that these brothers have some fire in their bellies that can work to His advantage. While traveling through Samaria, villagers refused passage to Jesus and the disciples. As if on cue, the brothers ask Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and destroy them?” Whoa, boys! Those are the instincts of the sons of thunder! Jesus redirects their energy. James is martyred for his faith. He is murdered for show by King Herod. John becomes known as the “Apostle of Love,” living the last years of his long life writing letters to the Church from prison. Only Jesus could take electric voltage and transform it into love!

Next in the line-up is Thomas, who is remembered as the Doubter. He can’t believe that Jesus came back to life (let’s be honest—would we?!). Jesus isn’t mad at Thomas for his doubts. Rather, when He pops up in their hidden room, slipping past bolted doors, Jesus invites Thomas to touch Him to verify His wounds. Thomas’ doubt melts away and he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!”

In John’s Gospel we meet another pair. Jesus travels through Bethsaida and meets Phillip. All He has to say is, “Follow Me” and Phillip joins the team. Phillip is so drawn to Jesus that he drags his friend over to meet Jesus. As Nathaniel approaches the charismatic coach, Jesus declares —in Bible speak, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile!” Nathaniel wonders aloud how Jesus knows him and Jesus tells him things about his life that He had no right to know. These two friends join the team, perhaps opening up the playing field to non-Jews since Phillip’s name is Greek. Tradition holds that they are crucified upside down together. Two more “rough mechanics,” in John Calvin’s words, who give up their life for the chance to be on a travel team with Jesus.

Jesus invites Levi to join the team. Levi becomes known as Matthew and is a tax man. Who asks an IRS guy to be a central part of a movement? Yet we are so thankful for Matthew’s gospel account that gives us a unique look into the life of Jesus. Judas of Iscariot is the self-appointed treasurer. When the movement doesn’t go as he thinks it should, he sells off access to Jesus for some cash. The poor guy goes down in history as the one who betrays the Son of God.

Faces in the background of the team picture are those whose lives are never explored. Perhaps we relate easily to them? We show up. We work hard. We sacrifice for our loved ones and our communities. But we don’t get any press. There’s the second James whose skill set is so much less celebrated than that of the other James that he goes down in history as James the Lesser. How would you like that humbling name as a team player? There’s a second Judas who is the guy with all the nicknames: Thaddeus, Judas, or Jude. Finally, there’s Simon the Zealot who is known as the most obscure disciple. But lack of prominence doesn’t stop him from giving it his all. We believe that he and the others were martyred for spreading the good news about Jesus to distant parts of their world.

Jesus doesn’t ask them to add one more commitment to their schedule. They don’t have one Zoom meeting per month to talk about their faith. Jesus calls them into a new way of being. Their identity changes when they say “yes” to Jesus’ invitation. It turns out that being picked by the charismatic Jesus is just the beginning, not the end. Living and traveling with Jesus requires them to continually rethink their world. As disciples they are asked to live in the now and the not yet. They sign one contract only to discover over the course of three years that there are eternal implications. Like us, they are asked to live the faith in the face of confusion and questions so that others will be drawn into Christ’s Church. They spend three years on the road with Him but still don’t recognize Him after the resurrection. A tax man, a reactionary, a doubter, an outsider; a friend who isn’t sure that anything good can come out of Nazareth; a thunderous youth who lives the last of his days writing letters of love; a convert who betrays the team leader unto death. These 12 men comprise the team that Jesus chooses. Becoming a disciple, it turns out, is something that any of us can do!

Last week we welcomed a new team into the leadership of our country. They face a population that is divided. They face a people who have drawn distinct lines of exclusion. Our leaders argue among themselves, like Jesus’ team members did. Some doubt. Most serve. Some betray. We’ve seen it. We are discouraged by it. We know the temptations of power are great. So we pray today for our leaders. We pray that they will recognize the tremendous responsibility that comes with their position. We pray that they will be authentic in their service and faithful to their constituency. We pray for God’s grace to shine upon our nation  so that we might truly be one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

We look in on a team of men Jesus hand-picked who, in Calvin’s words, look like they could have come out of a greasy automotive shop. But Jesus taught them to fish—not with bait that tricks fish into biting. They converted people to a saving faith in Christ without a clever bait and switch tactic. So we watch for the opportunities for God to use us. We step out. We play hard. We campaign honestly for Jesus. We give thanks that He picks each of us to be a part of His team, no matter our handicap. This is extraordinary!  This is grace! Amen.


Selective Narrative

As we stand on the brink of the inauguration, I find it interesting that the Old Testament lectionary reading for last Sunday tells the story of a power shift for the Israelite nation. The two books of Samuel recount the essential work of the prophet, Samuel, whom God uses to anoint the first of the Israelite kings. The chapters on either side of our passage read like a Harrison Ford script, including the unique powers of the Ark of the Covenant and people who lose their lives for spiritually misbehaving. So strap on whatever protective gear seems appropriate for a Raiders of the Lost Ark story and let’s jump in!

The story starts off with seeming calm. In fact, the lectionary planning committee suggests we only focus on the first ten verses of the story. This is the sweet account of a young boy being called into service by God. How nice. But when we add the next ten verses, which are listed as optional-for-the-brave-of-heart, the tone of the story completely changes! All of us are guilty at some point of paying attention only to a selective narrative. Perhaps it is taught to us. Certainly our life experience shapes it. We get comfortable with it and our view easily narrows. So it takes courage to jump into these 20 verses to see what surfaces for us.

We learn that the priest who ruled over the Israelites was Eli. If you back up a chapter you will learn about his sons. These are not Sunday School lessons to be read at bedtime with your children! Suffice it to say, Eli didn’t do a good job of raising his boys. Young Samuel was given over to Eli’s care as a toddler and somehow the priest raised a fine young man. The scene is set by several descriptions about the spiritual state of their nation. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. Visions were not widespread. HOWEVER, the lamp of God had not yet gone out. There is a flicker of hope in an otherwise spiritually dark time.

God calls out to young Samuel who sleeps in the temple while the blind, elderly priest is asleep in his room. Samuel hasn’t yet learned to recognize God’s voice so three times he runs off to Eli, asking him what he wants. Samuel is an obedient child. It takes three times for Eli to realize Who is calling this young man. Even though his sight is diminished and his track record as a father is dismal, Eli recognizes God’s presence. Why does the arrival of God in the Temple surprise this holy man? Had he narrowed his expectations of God’s activity to a selective narrative that didn’t include a power shift? In spite of his tapered view on God’s movement, Eli knows that God is near. He gives Samuel the answer for the next time he hears the voice. Then the old priest drifts back into exhausted sleep. Lawrence Wood writes, “..while Samuel sleeps, God turns out to be delightfully awake.”

The third time God calls out, Samuel has his answer: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

This adolescent boy could have no idea how dangerous it would be to answer God’s call. After assuring God of his attentiveness, God immediately dumps a big secret on him. The bad behavior of Eli’s sons has not gone unnoticed. The norm for leadership succession then and now, in many places, is birth right. Eli’s sons assume they will inherit the mantle of responsibility when their frail father dies. They want to help themselves even more inappropriately to the perks of power. But God has other plans, plans to destroy Eli’s lineage. God will supplant the birthright of Eli’s sons by transferring power to the adopted son who had been dropped at Eli’s door years before. I imagine that went over about as well as Cinderella’s step-sisters learning that she is marrying the Prince! No wonder Samuel found it impossible to fall back asleep after this epiphany! In that moment, Samuel had to grow up fast. Young Samuel had to announce to Eli the charges against his family. Do you know how much courage it takes to listen well and speak words of truth clearly? What if those words God asks you to speak go against the selective narrative of those around you? What if they go against the selective narrative with which you have become so comfortable? This midnight calling is a heavy initiation into his new position as prophet of the Hebrew people. Years later God called into service a man by the name of Jeremiah. God’s mandate to this prophet who never asked for the job was this: “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” Can you imagine the courage it took for Jeremiah to sign the work contract? In 1 Samuel 3 God chooses a boy on the cusp of manhood who must learn the language of the Spirit. He is an outsider to power and doesn’t have a team to promote his agenda. He has questions about his role. His naivete is clearly on display. But we have seen with the birth narratives that questions asked honestly and earnestly of God are welcomed. Questions asked so as to understand the truth launch us on a journey for which we are equipped step by step.

God seems to be excited to share this news: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.” When did your ears last tingle with news that came your way? I witnessed last week how our ears tingled at our Tuesday morning Zoom Bible Study as class members talked about how they had just gotten the COVID vaccination. What good news! With the varied narratives circulating about the ineptitude of the distribution process, what an unexpected gift it was to hear that the light of God has not yet gone out in spite of a hellish year of COVID domination!

Our ears tingled ten days ago when our screens lit up with unimaginable images of an angry mob breaking into the Capitol building, carrying spears, guns and zip ties. The unrest in our country was on display for the world to see. Our ears have tingled with news at so many different moments in the past year. We are exhausted trying to determine a response of faith to these deep lines of division resulting from ardent allegiance to varied selective narratives.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only those who see take off their shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

God is continually breaking into our world to introduce a time of renewal and forgiveness. Even though visions are rare and the word of God is increasingly absent in our culture today, the lamp of God’s light has not completely gone out! I like blackberries but have I missed that heaven is crammed between the prickly branches even more abundantly than the berries? What is it that I really crave: sweet fruit or God’s presence?

I admire Eli for the fact that he commands Samuel to share God’s message, no matter how difficult it might be for him to hear. Though the old priest has been sleeping on the job at times, he accepts that God is in control. When the fullness of God’s narrative goes against our own selective narrative, Eli reminds us that we may be disciplined. If we have been sleeping while on duty for Christ’s Church, we may discover that God has been very much awake and vigilant over our troubled world.

No doubt we approach the inauguration this week with feelings that are quite different from other election years. I am greatly saddened over the deep divisions that often prevent us from seeing each other in our full humanity. I am worried about the threat of violence. I am offended as a follower of Jesus that Truth has become so elusive since so many people claim their selective narrative to be Gospel truth. I am weary of witnessing acts of discrimination that harm individuals and nations. I think of poor Samuel who got much more in his job description than he bargained for. His humility was essential as he entered into the politics of his people on behalf of his God.

We are a people of hope so I do not despair. I wonder who we relate to in this story? Is it Eli, the tired old priest who was surprised when God showed up at church? Is it Samuel, who had to learn the language of the Spirit and yield power over his life to the God who came calling? Is it the sons of Eli who abandoned the moral imperative of their position by grabbing the goods of power for themselves?

Perhaps the crucial question that surfaces for us out of this story is: What shall we say or do when God shows up? Eli’s wisdom lives on. We set aside the selective narrative that has driven our decisions. Like Samuel, we make a humble commitment in the dark: Speak, for your servant is listening.


Remembering MLK, Jr.

Remembering MLK, Jr.       May, 2019

Rev. Laurie TenHave-Chapman

For the healing of the nations, harmony between the races;

No one up pushing others down; no more grasping for a crown.

White supremacy growing strong. summer protests addressing wrong.

Weapons loaded; words exploded! “You’re not human,” Hatred goaded.

“I have a dream,” the preacher said. “I’ll preach this truth until I’m dead.”

Black folk marched in peaceful protest; the world peered in on this equal rights quest.

The Civil War raged on it seems with images of children facing angry cop teams.

Rosa fought by taking a seat. Black churches burned, turning up the heat.

A bullet silenced the voice of the Pastor which advanced the movement even faster.

“A martyr’s death”, the world proclaimed. The scourge of racism our nation shamed.

The world aghast, laws were passed, equality promised at long last.

Schools and restaurants integrated. Mistrust kept churches separated.

In St. Landry Parish 50 years later three churches torched by a racist hater.

The Deputy’s son arrested and jailed. Has all of King’s effort miserably failed?

The color of skin still sets us apart but progress is measured by the love in our heart.

“Free Hugs” offered Devonte on Ferguson streets. So a cop, for a moment, left his beat

to heal our nation with a viral embrace. Black boy, white man celebrate race.

It’s in these moments God sends our way that tears mark the path to a hope-filled day.

Revolutions start small, one smile at a time. Up the mountain with Martin we continue to climb.

The way is long. The ascent is steep but the martyrs summon us from our slumber deep.

The night is o’er. The day has dawned. Let’s put on our armor and move along.


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.


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

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.


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


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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!


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,


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)