Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Weird Twelve-Year-Olds (Reflections on the Sunday After Christmas, Year C)

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“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

I don’t remember how I got into the habit of using the nick-name “Slick” for Stephen. Really, there was nothing pretentious or cosmopolitan about this kid. He was just an average twelve-year-old with a round, friendly face who looked like any other kid from a blue-collar family in Northeast Philly. He had a jovial way about him, and an openness that reminded me of Curly from the Three Stooges. You couldn’t help but like him.

Stephen hadn’t been a regular in Sunday school, and this really upset his grandmother, Joanne. One day she came to my office and lamented that her daughter-in-law was not sending the grandchildren to church. She wanted to know if there was anything I could do about it. I noticed that Stephen was of age to begin Confirmation studies, so I wrote his mom the sort of guilt-inducing letter which only a clergyman can write, telling her that she and the boy’s father had promised at Stephen’s baptism to provide for his instruction in the Christian faith. I sent this epistle off via the USPS, pretty secure in the knowledge that it would likely end up unopened in the circular file cabinet. To my delighted astonishment, I got a phone call from the mother a few days later, and Stephen was enrolled in Confirmation studies that fall.

I’ve been a Bible and Catechism teacher for over twenty years, and I also spent six excruciating years as a junior high special ed teacher for the Los Angles public schools. In all that time, I’ve had few students I’ve enjoyed as much as the kid I called “Slick.” He came into class knowing virtually nothing about the Bible or the Christian faith, and he devoured Bible stories like they popped out of a Pez dispenser. For some mysterious reason known only to Slick and God, this kid just took to religious studies. He had a marvelous sense of joy in learning about Jesus and the characters from the Hebrew Scriptures. During one class he exclaimed, “The Bible is the most fascinating book ever written!” Now, I ask you, how many twelve or thirteen-year olds say that?

To be honest, I find most students see Confirmation class as a minor Purgatory which must be endured for the sake of parents and grandparents. Their one solace is the knowledge that once they have made their Confirmation, they will have “graduated” from church and those parental tyrants will never again demand their attendance at religious services. I’ve also noticed some parents suddenly drop off the church’s radar as soon as their youngest child makes Confirmation. I guess they feel they have paid their debt to the angry God and, in their superstitious way, have guaranteed that neither they nor their children are in danger of suffering the torments of Hell. They can now sleep in on Sunday and get ready for the Eagles to play Dallas.

Every once in a great while, however, I get a kid like Slick. Every now and then there’s that one student who feels the passion and the mystery in the Word of God.

I think of Slick and Jeremy and Mickey and Jessica and Kayleigh, and a whole bunch of other really cool young adults who have endured my catechetical teaching over the years and who have demonstrated that mystical affinity for things spiritual. Not every kid has it. Many of us don’t contemplate eternal questions until we’ve suffered the weirdness of life and tripped over the knowledge of our own mortality. But some young people just have that light inside which draws them to the things of God.

The gospel lesson in the RCL for the Sunday after Christmas (Luke 2:41-52) is the only story in the gospels which deals with Jesus as a youngster.[i] What really thrills me about this story is that Jesus is twelve years of age and would soon be making his bar mitzvah. He’s the same age as the kids who are in my Confirmation class. BY the way, the term “bar mitzvah” literally translates as “son of the commandments.” That is, should a boy make his bar mitzvah at age thirteen, he would then be considered old enough to take responsibility for living under the Law of God. As a son, he would be an heir of the faith of Moses—a truly awesome responsibility if you think about it.

So here’s this twelve-year-old who has just experienced the annual ritual of the Passover and its sacrificial duties. He’s supposed to get in the caravan with the other families and walk the seventy miles or so back to Galilee when the festival is over. Note the cool detail in verse 44 that Jesus’ parents just assumed he was okay even though they didn’t see him for an entire day. Talk about “taking a village!” We can only imagine that everyone in the caravan[ii] looked out for everyone else and for their kids, so there was no worry if you didn’t see your own boy for 24 hours. You knew he was okay.

Note, too, that Mary and Joseph are referred to as Jesus’ parents.  Plural. Joseph is called Jesus’ father in verse 28. Yes, we confess that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but for all practical purposes, Mary’s husband was Jesus’ dad. Paternity is not just a matter of DNA. It’s about taking responsibility for raising children. Joseph was taking his boy to Jerusalem and teaching him the faith. He taught him a trade. He made sure he was fed and clothed. In this sense, Joseph was every bit Jesus’ real father.

But Jesus also had a feeling that he had another Father. Something inside him—we’d say it was the Holy Spirit—drew him to the teachers of the Law. He had a hunger inside of him to hear what they were saying and to ask them questions about the mysteries of God. Luke includes this story to show his readers that Jesus wasn’t just some self-proclaimed peasant teacher. Rather, he was one who hungered for the things of God all his life, who listened to the scholars, who questioned his faith, and who amazed adults with his understanding. He was steeped in the tradition of his people, and desired to grow in wisdom.

Would that we all showed that desire to grow in the things of God! Instead of looking superstitiously at our religious observance and considering that we’re “done” learning once we’re out of Sunday school, wouldn’t it be wonderful to attack the Bible and our worship and prayer lives with the same zeal as the twelve-year-old in the Temple?

Think about it, won’t you?

[i] There are a ton of stories which were written about the boy Jesus in the first centuries of our faith. Scholars refer to them as “Infancy Narratives.” Very few of them survive because the books which contain them were condemned as heretical by church councils in the Fourth Century. This story in Luke is the only one the early church felt was authoritative.
[ii] I wonder if the caravan of Central American migrants who are seeking asylum in the US have become this sort of family? I kind of think they have.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Herbie's Christmas Story

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Anyone who has ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation might get an idea of the kind of Yuletide fanatic my late father-in-law was. Like Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold, Herbie hung colored lights, tinsel, and silver bells on anything in his home that didn’t have a pulse. Christmas was his special time. He loved to have friends and family to the house. He filled his front yard with inflatable and illuminated Santa, Frosty, and Rudolph statues. He even strung colored lights around the interior of his living room and left them up all year.

Herbie’s been gone for several years now, but I still remember this story he told me of a memorable Christmas Eve during the Great Depression. He was a boy of maybe twelve or fourteen at the time who’d grown up the oldest son of a family of pious Roman Catholics in Metuchen, New Jersey. Even as a lad, Herbie loved to sing. On Christmas Eve he, his next-oldest brother, George, and a playmate whom I’ll call “Bobby” (I’ve long since forgotten the boy’s name, and Herbie isn’t around to ask anymore) would go door-to-door serenading the neighbors with Christmas carols. Money was tight in those days, but these young entrepreneurs figured they could earn a few pennies, nickels, or dimes by their musical talents. Herbie and George sang while Bobby accompanied them on the harmonica. The few dollars they earned allowed their mothers to buy Christmas toys for the younger children at the local Woolworth’s.

Unfortunately, on this particular Christmas, Bobby had left the neighborhood and moved several blocks away. This wasn’t an uncommon event during the Depression when food money was scarce and families often sent children to live with relatives who were better able to provide for them. Undaunted, Herbie and George set off through the streets of Metuchen to locate their friend and begin their caroling enterprise. It was late afternoon of Christmas Eve and heavy snow had begun to fall over the town. The boys walked through the wintry whiteness, block after block, not entirely certain of their friend’s whereabouts. They turned down the street where they believed Bobby had been taken in. I imagine their feet making huge divots in the fresh snow as they squinted through the feathery white flakes for a number on a mailbox or doorpost. At last they came to house which seemed to Herbie to be the right one. He marched up the walk and knocked with his mitten-clad hand on the door.

The door opened, and a man he and George had never seen before looked down at the two boys.

“Can I help you?” asked the man.

“We’re looking for Bobby,” Herbie said.

“No one here by that name,” replied the man. “What are you boys doing out in this weather?”

“We’re carolers,” said Herbie. “Our friend Bobby plays the mouth harp while my brother and I sing.”

The man smiled. “I think I know of your friend,” he said. “There’s a boy about your age around here who plays the harmonica, but he lives the next block over. I’m not sure which house.”

Herbie’s face fell. “Oh,” he said. “You see, Mister, we need him to help us earn our Christmas money. But we’re sorry we bothered you.”

The boys turned to go, but the man called them back. “Wait,” he said. “Just what would you boys do if I gave you five dollars?”

This was quite an amazing question. Five bucks in those grim days of the 1930’s was a fortune to a couple of lads like Herbie and George. Herbie answered the man honestly. “I’d take it home and give it to my mother,” he said.

The stranger reached into his pocket and pulled out five dollar bills and handed them to Herbie. “Merry Christmas,” he said. Herbie stuffed the bills into his pocket, thanked the stranger, and he and George raced back home through the falling snow. This was a windfall, a virtual Christmas miracle! Five whole dollars! The boys couldn’t believe their good fortune. Five bucks could sure buy a lot of joy from the Five-and-Ten!

As the brothers made their way through the snowy streets, a thought occurred to Herbie. His father was a very proud man who might not take kindly to his boys accepting charity. To Pop, money was to be earned. Herbie realized that he and George hadn’t sung a note in exchange for the bonanza of cash stuffed in his pant pocket. His father wouldn’t like this.

“Don’t tell Pop how we got the money,” Herbie told George. “Just say we earned it singing.” The little brother agreed, and the two presented the cash to their mother who happily set off for the Woolworth store. Later that night, however, Herbie’s conscience got the better of him. The family was preparing to go to midnight mass, and Herbie felt uncomfortable receiving the Sacrament after having told his parents a lie. Reluctantly, he confessed the truth to his father.

As far as I know, Herbie was never punished for the fib, but his father insisted that, since the money had already been spent, the only right thing to do was for Herbie to take him to the man’s house so he could shake the generous fellow’s hand and formally thank him on behalf of his children. The day after Christmas Herbie set off with his father to the kind man’s house. Unfortunately, having been confused by the snow and excited by the gift, he couldn’t remember the right street. He never again saw the man who had been so generous and kind, who had made this one Christmas so special.

When Herbie told me this story, I thought it captured the meaning of Christmas. God loves us and provides for us—as Luther would say—daily and abundantly. We can’t earn the gift of the Christ child and the redemption which that child came to bring us. We do nothing to make ourselves worthy of it. It’s a gift. God loves us. God just does. And, as grateful as our hearts are, we can never truly express our thanks. We will never, in this life, see our Benefactor face to face. The best we can do—as Herbie always did—is celebrate that generosity in our hearts, and pass it on to others as often as we can.

May God bless you and those you love this Christmas and throughout the New Year.

Monday, December 17, 2018

It's a Woman Thing (Reflections on Advent 4, Year C)

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“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  (Luke 1:43)

Blessed? It doesn’t feel that way at times, does it? Just speaking as a guy, I don’t know how you women do it. I mean, how can you be so patient with a human being growing inside you? You put on weight, your hormones go berserk, you have to pee all the time, your ankles swell up. And then there’s the constant vigilance. One of the girls in our high school youth group was just doing a project which required her to carry around a 10 lb. bag of flour and care for it like it was a human infant. She had to make sure the bag was never out of her sight. I guess this was a shot over her teen aged bow to let her know that motherhood is a ton of work.

Shoot. If men had to have babies the human race would be doomed.

So why are the two women we meet in the Gospel lesson for Advent 4, Year C (Luke 1:39-45) so freakin’ happy? It’s a secret those of my gender will never understand or appreciate. It’s a woman thing. But it’s also a God thing. It’s another example of God knocking everything this sinful, stupid (and often male-dominated) world thinks is proper right on its butt.

If you look at this story in the world of the text, both of these ladies are outcasts in their own way—and neither of them is supposed to be pregnant! Here’s Elizabeth. People think she’s post-menopausal. As I suggested in my post on the Feast of John the Baptist[i], all of the other priests’ wives must’ve whispered behind their hands in the beauty parlor when Mrs. Zechariah came in. “Poor dear,” they’d say. “She can’t have children. She must be cursed of God, bless her heart.” And I’m sure Zechariah and Elizabeth felt the sting of their childlessness. Zechariah might even have had a few sleepless nights wondering who would take care of Elizabeth if he should die and she be left without a son to take her in. But God—taking his own sweet time about it as God is wont to do—provides her with a blessing in her old age.

And then there’s Our Lady, Mary. She shouldn’t be pregnant either. She’s not married. In the world of this text she could be “put away,” or stoned to death as an adulteress. Yet the “fruit of her womb” brings this moment of unparalleled joy. Even before the baby is born, the promise is felt.

This is the great paradox of  Advent/Christmas: the cursed and outcast are rejoicing. In their mutual distress, they find a joy in each other and a joy in the Lord. If you think about it, it’s great that they’re together. Elizabeth gets a strong, young helper to assist her through her pregnancy, and Mary gets a preview of what she’s to experience.

This is a story of defiant joy, or—more appropriately—hope. These women are teaching us that our spiritual life is never about what happens to us. It’s only about how we choose to embrace it. They embrace it believing in the fulfillment of God’s promise for those God loves.

We’re all like kids at Christmastime, aren’t we? We just can’t wait for God to put things right. We’re impatient for blessings. We look at the world and the growing darkness and we wonder, when is God going to get around to fixing this crazy-assed stuff? When will my prayers be answered?

I certainly can’t tell you that, but I know that, like Elizabeth and Mary, the most important thing is to keep believing. God’s time is not ours, nor is God’s logic ours. What appears to be a curse can turn into a miracle. It is certain that we’ll never see God’s blessing if we give up looking and praying for it.

May God’s peace be with you, my friend. Keep hoping.

[i] Published June 18, 2018.

Monday, December 10, 2018

"What Should We Do?" (Reflections on Advent 3, Year C)

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And the crowds asked him, ‘What, then, should we do?’” (Luke 3:10)

Some weeks ago I wrote a post about my late friend Patrick[i]. Patrick was something of a control freak, and he wasn’t all that comfortable with paradox or ambiguity. For Pat, things were black or white, right or wrong. He liked definite answers. I can’t say that I blame him much as there are certainly times when precise information is really important. Performing open-heart surgery or dealing with high explosives might be times when you’d really like to know things exactly. Unfortunately, matters of faith sometimes call for intuition and spiritual discernment or the intervention of the Holy Spirit. This is not comforting to the Patricks of this world.

This Sunday, however, all you Patricks out there can rejoice. This is our pink-candle Sunday, known liturgically as the Rejoice Sunday or Guadete Sunday (if you’re into Latin). Historically, it’s a time for the Christian Church to take a break from the somber anticipation of Christ’s second coming and all those lessons about the End Times and repentance, and kick back a little. Yes, even though John the Baptist is still at it this week, calling folks a “brood of vipers” and warning us about the “wrath to come” (Luke 3:7-18), he’s ready to give a list of some practical “dos” and “don’ts” which should make the control freaks feel a little more in control.

In last week’s lectionary, if you’ll recall[ii], John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This could beg the question: Just how does one repent? What do you do when you repent? What does bearing fruit for the kingdom look like? Are there any practical steps which let me know that I’m repenting?

Well rejoice, my friend, because this Sunday you’re in luck. John has some pretty clear and unambiguous words about living a godly life. First, start by recognizing that your life in Christ is supposed to accomplish something. This is true for you as an individual and for our congregations collectively. There has to be some kind of “fruit” here. Somebody’s life needs to be made better, some needs have to be met, some comfort has to be given, and some bridges between people need to be built. If you’re not doing this or helping this to be done in some way, you might want to start challenging your own priorities.

Second, some justice needs to be done. If you have goods to share, you need to share them. See what John has to say about having two coats (v. 11). That’s pretty straight forward, don’t you think? In the same breath John is calling for an end to oppression. What are you doing to make the world a more just and peaceful place?

Thirdly, recognize that God has met your needs and be grateful. On the crappiest day you’ll ever have (and I say this a lot), God is providing daily and abundantly. The wealthiest person in the world is the one who is satisfied with what he or she has. Be grateful and see how it changes your thinking about stuff.

Fourth, be aware that Christ is your judge, and all of this is just a call back to good, old-fashioned discipleship. I amuse myself by thinking Luke could’ve inserted a line in this passage that read, “And Lutherans were asking him, ‘What should we do?’” The answer, of course, would be the old instructions of Lenten piety:

Pray every day.
Read the Bible.
Worship every week within the religious community.
Be generous in giving an offering of your finances, your time, and your abilities.
Be present as a volunteer in your church and your wider community. Be involved.
Create relationships with other Christians. Pray for them and share your faith with them.
Be an example to your children and their children.

If you committed yourself to doing the above, don’t you think your life would change? Rejoice, my friend. This isn’t hard at all!

May God bless you during this holy season. Thanks again for dropping by.

[i] See my post of September 12, 2018. You can click on it here.
[ii] If you don’t recall, the Gospel lesson was Luke 3:1-6. Or you could just scroll down to the post immediately below this one.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Why Listen to John? (Reflections on Advent 2, Year C)

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“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Luke 3:4b)

When I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin back in the early ‘80’s I used to see this wild dude preaching at the Free Speech platform on campus. He was an elderly African American gentleman with a long white beard like Santa Claus. I have to say, he was a pretty scary old cat. He dressed in a worn blue choir robe, held an enormous Bible in his hands, and shouted to the students like a crazed King Lear. He had this sonorous voice and his eyes would bug out has he preached Hell and damnation and called on us all to repent.

We all gave him a pretty wide berth.

The preacher we meet on the Second Sunday of Advent in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 3:1-6) seems every bit as weird and off-putting as the old gent I described above. We know from the descriptions of John the Baptist in the gospels of Matthew and Mark that he was not a little bit “out there.” I mean, here’s a guy living in the desert, dressed in skins, eating bugs, and “crying in the wilderness.” This isn’t your sophisticated three-point Sunday preacher. He’s a guy proclaiming destruction, calling people out for their transgressions, and announcing radical change—valleys filled in and mountains made low.

And crowds don’t avoid him, but, rather, they come out from their towns and settlements to hear him preach! What was with this guy? Why listen to John? Why would the crowds leave their work and come out to listen to this guy and get dunked in the muddy waters of the Jordan? Would you? If you encountered John, wouldn’t you cross to the other side of the street and try not to make eye contact?

Here’s what I think: I think the people who encountered John were deeply in touch with their own need and their own pain. They didn’t want to pretend nothing was wrong. They knew life sucked. They were thirsty for a word of hope. Aren’t you? Or are you still pretending, after the dire warnings of Advent One, that everything is peachy? Who are you trying to kid?

Every once in a while (and especially during the holidays when festiveness and gaiety mask our insecurity, our sad nostalgia, and our mourning) we need John’s tough love. We need to heed the call to repent. This is a word (metanoia - metanoia in Greek) which literally means to change the mind. John isn’t asking us to say “I’m bad, and now I’ll be good (although, if the shoe fits..!). Rather, he’s asking us to look at ourselves, be honest, and try to see things in a new way. He’s not promising that the Savior will come and do all the work himself. Granted, God’s salvation is free as the wind, but if we want to live an authentic life in the face of everything we have to shovel through on this planet, we’d better start by looking at ourselves.

Luke places the entrance of John at the end of a list of potentates and rulers because he wants us to know that God works through ordinary people like us. It’s not the emperor, the king, the governor, or the high priest who prepares the way for the Savior. It’s us. The evangelist Jim Wallis put it like this (I paraphrase): We don’t need a bunch of elected representatives sticking their wet fingers in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. We need to change the direction of the wind.[i]

The RCL pairs the story of John with a reading from the post-exilic prophet Malachi (Malachi 3:1-4). This prophet is calling for a messenger who will come and get people to worship in purity and righteousness. He wants the people of God to be refined. This doesn’t mean that we lift our pinky fingers when we drink form the communion chalice. It means that we approach God’s house and make an offering of our worship in the right frame of mind. We don’t come out of obligation or fear or in the hope of being entertained. We come hungry for God’s word, believing that we are being challenged, and trusting that our presence as the people of God’s promise has a purpose in the wider world. We come with a sense of mission. We come for one another. And we come being ready to change.

So what does this change look like? John the Baptist has some suggestions, but we’ll get to them next week.

May this Advent season be a blessing in your heart and inn your home. Thank you or reading!

[i] See Wallis’ God’s Politics: A New Vision for Faith and Politics in America (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005)