Sunday, January 25, 2015

Light of Humility

Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, First Woman Priest in the Anglican Communion


Readings:

Psalm 116:1-2
Jeremiah 17:14-18a
Galatians 3:23-28
Luke 10:1-9



With a world full of problems that seemingly have no solutions, it's often said that one person can't make a difference, but sometimes one person can, directly or indirectly, effect a change of perception or action that does create a new way of thinking and/or doing. When it happens, it starts as a small spark that gradually grows as people recognize the truth and validity of the message being transmitted. There are times, though, when no words are spoken but actions speak volumes, and times when quiet words and quiet actions go almost unnoticed until people realize the growing miracle that has been going on without their being aware.

The person we know as Florence Li Tim-Oi would not have seen herself as a kind of beacon of faith but her life demonstrated that that was precisely what she was. At her birth her father gave her the name of "Much Beloved," and that name became prophetic, particularly during her adult and elder years. She took the baptismal name of Florence from Florence Nightingale, an English nurse who worked during the Crimean War and who changed the direction of nursing. Nightingale earned the nickname  "Lady with the Lamp." In her own way, Tim-Oi would herself be a bearer of the light in dark and perilous times.

Tim-Oi received a call to ministry in 1931 and was ordained a deacon ten years later. Her mission was to the colony of Macao, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) was raging and refugees from China were flocking into Macao to escape.  In 1941 Tim-Oi was charged with serving the Anglican community in both as a deacon and as a medical helper aiding victims. When it became too dangerous for priests to travel to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist, Tim-Oi was licensed to preside in her capacity as deacon. In 1944, the Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, called her to meet with him in a part of Free China and ordained her as a priest. It was a ground-breaking moment for Tim-Oi, the souls in Macao whom she served, and, indeed, the Anglican world as a whole. The bishop recognized her call and made her the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

Tim-Oi was aware of and sensitive to the controversy surrounding her ordination and priesthood in other parts of the Anglican Communion. As a result, when it was safe for male priests to once again travel and be visible, she relinquished her license to act as a priest until her orders would be recognized by the Communion.  Bishop Hall called her to service in the clerical order when, in 1947, he made her rector of St. Barnabas Church in Hepu, China, with the title of priest. With the Maoist takeover in 1949,  things changed radically. She went to Beijing to study and teach at a theological college but with the closing of all churches by the Maoists in 1958, she was considered a political revolutionary and was forced to undergo political re-education which was often accompanied by torture. Following re-education she was assigned to farm and factory work until she was allowed to retire in 1974. She returned to Hong Kong and began service as a lay teacher and preacher. Two more women had been ordained to the priesthood in Hong Kong eight years previously so Tim-Oi's license was restored although still not actively recognized by much of the Anglican Communion.

She moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1981 and served there as an associate priest and preacher until her death in 1992. She died a much-beloved figure in both China an North America, living up to her name.

Tim-Oi is one of those people who went about quietly, following her call and serving her God and her people. The mental image that I have of her, however, isn't one where she's dressed in priestly clothes behind an altar but rather as a small, ordinary-looking woman, walking past the backdrop of bombed-out buildings and rubble, going either to church or a home where her priestly words and touch were needed. It must have been a terrifying time, a single woman in a city surrounded by forces at war, yet she had the confidence that God was present and the strength of her call to duty was unshakable.

Tim-Oi shook the ground of the Anglican Communion simply by following where God led her. Her bishop was condemned by the Communion for the precipitous action of ordaining a woman without full approval of that body. Her quiet perseverance and  witness helped to change minds and hearts to the acceptance of women as not only deacons but priests, bishops and archbishops. It isn't universal yet, but the movement is in that direction. I am sure Tim-Oi is smiling with each ordination.

I see Tim-Oi as a prime example of strength in humility. She gave up functioning as a priest because she did not want her vocation to be a stumbling block for others until they could come to the realization that God called both men and women to service in that capacity. To think of one's own actions in light of what it might mean to others and then acting on those actions, even if it causes one's heart to break, is an act of both  courage and humility, two great characteristics of Tim-Oi's life and ministry.

Those who say one person can't make a difference can look to Florence Li Tim-Oi. She was, in her quiet way, a symbol of doing what God called her to do, not with rousing speeches or great public appearances, but rather a quiet light shining through darkness and tradition. Her humility should serve as a lesson to all of us that greatness doesn't come with pride, self-confidence, and fame. Jesus taught that the humble would be exalted and the those who exalted themselves would be humbled(Matt. 23:12). If that is true, and if Jesus taught it, it must be true. Tim-Oi is  undoubtedly very close to the throne of God and welcomed as a Much Beloved daughter not only of her father but also her Father.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 24, 2015,

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Love Song

But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
   the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
   Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
   and honoured, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
   nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
   I will bring your offspring from the east,
   and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
   and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
   and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
   whom I created for my glory,
   whom I formed and made.’

Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
   who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
   and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
   and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
   and let them hear and say, ‘It is true.’
You are my witnesses, says the Lord,
   and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
   and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
   nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the Lord,
   and besides me there is no saviour.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
   when there was no strange god among you;
   and you are my witnesses, says the Lord.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
   there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
   I work and who can hinder it? -- Isaiah 43:1-13


The baby was hardly laid in his manger when the stores were already putting up "50% OFF ALL CHRISTMAS ITEMS" and shoveling red boxes of candy, hearts, plump cherubs and the like onto the recently vacated shelves. It wasn't even Christmas Day yet, but joy and reverence had to make way for the sensuous (not to mention erotic) and romantic gifts for Valentine's Day. By the time December 26th rolled around, the stores were announcing romance in the air, fragrances to make her swoon and diamonds for a truly spectacular gift.

We love love. Well, a lot of us do. There's something about love and being in love that makes everything better, even when the world is turning to lumps that dung beetles push around. The assurance that we are loved by someone helps make life richer and fuller, even if it is only for a few minutes. The snow may still be on the ground, but love and spring are in the air and all seems like budding branches and chirping birds.

We love love songs. Dancing with a beloved to a tune that emphasizes romance makes time almost stand still. It seems to have been that way for millennia. It's been said that the world changed to a more modern point of view when troubadours stopped writing love songs to the Blessed Virgin and started writing them for the fair ladies at court. They still write love songs to the Virgin, but the concept of courtly love has rather disappeared in favor of gratification and, sometimes, exploitation, neither of which is what we'd call "love."

Isaiah seems to have captured a love song straight from God. It is as song about what God has done for God's own people, not just the ones in Israel but from the far corners of the earth. God has ransomed them and redeemed them, God loves them and no one can change that. God doesn't need red hearts and boxes of chocolates, not when God has given us glorious sunsets, ocean waves, verdant forests, colorful canyons, fluffy kittens breaching whales, and all the wonderful and marvelous things of this world created for us to enjoy.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the God we read about in the Hebrew Bible, the God who wasn't afraid to wipe out almost an entire world, leaving only a boatload of survivors, or who slaughtered the first-born of Egypt, whether animal or human, is the same God who loves us enough to forgive us before we ask and to want a relationship with us even if we aren't aware of it. "...[Y]ou are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you." I wonder why we so seldom hear that verse. Maybe if we heard or read it more, it would sink in and, if it sunk in, perhaps it would give us the confidence and inspiration to practice loving God's other children, no matter who or where they are.

A baby in a manger is a far greater sign of love than a bunch of chubby cherubs with bows and arrows, yet we rush past the one to get to the others. Even in churches who celebrate Christmas for the full twelve days of the season are often short-changed by culture that demands that Christmas carols stop by Christmas Day's end if not sooner. We speak and hear of love throughout the year, but sometimes it's a shallow kind of love, a self-gratifying kind that serves our purpose but can leave our partner somewhat out in the cold. That baby in the manger was an incarnation of pure love, a love that didn't come with silver spoons and expensive cribs and carriages, and didn't come to palatial homes in gated communities. The baby came to ordinary people in a less than optimal situation, but who drew angels, shepherds and even magi to his side.

The power of love is a strong magnet, and nothing draws people like someone who loves. Look at Mother Teresa. She often had doubts about her faith but she continued to love and that love drew both the sick and the healthy to her. Pope Francis is another of those, as is +Desmond Tutu. Children know who loves them and who doesn't; remember the children around Jesus when the disciples tried to shoo them away?  They felt the love and it drew them in. It's no different for adults either.

There's a month to go before Valentine's Day is replaced by Easter bunnies, more kinds of chocolate and baskets of goodies. What if, in that month, we practice a different kind of love than one that is dependent on fancy cards, roses, and frilly lingerie. What if we find someone that really needs to feel loved and offer them some of the love we have stored up and have been afraid to give away. A cup of coffee, a sandwich, a bottle of water, an inexpensive blanket -- all those can be signs of love. Call a friend we haven't talked to in a while, send a note thanking an old schoolteacher, priest or mentor who has helped us along the way but who we never really thanked. It doesn't require a life-long commitment, just a few words or a gesture or two, but it can make someone's day.

The best way to get love is to give it away. Jesus is a great example of that. Skip the cherubs -- go straight to God who loves us all 24/7/365 and even 366.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 17, 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Prophets and the Proximity of God

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
   to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
   to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
   to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
   following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
   to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
   and offering incense on bricks;
who sit inside tombs,
   and spend the night in secret places;
who eat swine’s flesh,
   with broth of abominable things in their vessels;
who say, ‘Keep to yourself,
   do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.’
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
   a fire that burns all day long.
See, it is written before me:
   I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their laps
   their
iniquities and their ancestors’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they offered incense on the mountains
   and reviled me on the hills,
I will measure into their laps
   full payment for their actions.
Thus says the Lord:
As the wine is found in the cluster,
   and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
   for there is a blessing in it’,
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
   and not destroy them all.
I will bring forth descendants
from Jacob,
   and from Judah inheritors
of my mountains;
my chosen shall inherit it,
   and my servants shall settle there.
-- Isaiah 65:1-9


For lots of folks, opening the morning paper includes checking their daily horoscope, a prediction of what the day or the week holds for them, based on the astrological positioning of stars and planets. It's usually short and often seems a little vague, which is understandable because it has to cover 1/12th of the population. Some will find parts of their horoscope that seem new or unexpected, others won't find anything interesting, exciting or even possible as they read the same thing. Whether they actually believe the horoscope or not, though, many will read them just for the amusement of seeing how close to reality they can be.

Hebrew Bible prophets weren't in the astrology business with a day-to-day short blurb about people's (possible) future. Prophets looked around, saw what was wrong and warned the people of consequences if those wrongs should go unrighted. A lot of prophecy was in the form of poetry, not because the language was pretty or beguiling, but because it could be recited or sung more easily than just prose. Memorization was an important thing to them since they lacked reading skills or books from which they could pull the passages or answers they needed. Memorization is a talent we've pretty much lost in our technological internet-has-all-the-answers age. We no longer need to memorize when all we have to do is Google a question and have it return an answer for us.

God, speaking through Isaiah, told the people that even though they did not seek or call for God, God was there waiting. The people had forgotten God in their search for pleasure, rich living and very possibly what we would consider being spiritual without being religious. Incense was burned on bricks rather than stone altars, meetings held  in secret places for possibly illicit acts, and violations of dietary law were just some of the things God pointed out through Isaiah. But God would not be patient forever; there would be consequences laid square in the laps of those who were guilty. They would not be destroyed although they would be punished, and out of it God would bring good things and plentiful descendants.

We sometimes seem to be of two minds about God in our lives. On the one hand, we see disasters of greater or lesser proportions falling on people and we say, rather glibly, that it must have been God's will. Yet when it comes our turn, we have difficulty making the same claim because, after all, we haven't done anything that was really that bad, really. We forget that God has been there with hands outstretched all along but we've ignored them, preferring to go our own way until we really find ourselves in a mess and then go running to God to make it all better. The sins are not just on an individual basis, however; our corporate sins are worse because we allow things that are wrong and hurtful to others to continue just so we can continue on with our own lives unhindered. There are consequences for that too.

We hear modern prophets telling of global sins that desperately need correction but, like the people in Isaiah's passage, we are too busy with our own gardens, meetings and fine dining. We hear that God is just waiting for us to turn around and reach out, but somehow we never really take it to heart until we need something or we feel we're being punished.

Our modern prophets don't speak in iambic pentameter or even blank verse, yet they speak to us of the world's needs--and our own. They may not mention God's name, but it seems clear that what they say is in line with what God wants for and from us. These prophets speak of peace, care for others, equality of all, and the kinship of all people. Jesus and the prophets spoke of the same things, but somehow we keep missing the message just as Isaiah's audience (and yes, Jesus' too). That's why in each generation, God puts voices to remind us of our responsibilities and our duties, not just to God but to our world and those who live in it.

The kingdom of God will come when we listen and obey. That's the focus of prophecy -- to pay attention to the warnings, to seek the best for all parts of creation, and to remember that God is only as far away as a breath.
And no one, no matter how grievous the sin, is beyond redemption. Now that is very good news indeed.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 10, 2015.





















Sunday, January 4, 2015

Eyewitness

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ - John 1:29-34

Read any thriller, watch any crime drama, see any crime report on television, and you'll notice that one of the most important components, other than the body, the location and the time, is the eyewitness. An eyewitness can make or break an identification, an alibi, or an entire case. In the case of John the Baptizer, his testimony as to the true identity of a man he said he did not know but who had been revealed to him as the Messiah was called into question. He faced some pretty stiff questioning, but his testimony never wavered. It was a gutsy thing to do but then, it was the job John was born to do..

Eyewitness testimony is usually one of the strongest pieces of evidence in a case, far stronger than "Well, he told me he saw..." or "I heard one of the neighbors say.,," Eyewitness testimony is supposed to be an accurate reporting of a split-second in time. After all, a person sees what they see, right? That they are human beings with brains that interpret what they see and apply the person’s own impression based on a number of factors often clouds the issue. Still, we believe they saw what they report.

Fortunately John the Baptizer wasn't a witness to a crime but rather to an emergence, a kind of second birth, of an adult man who was more than he appeared to be. John had been told to look for a sign and, lo and behold, he saw what he was supposed to see.

The Gospel of John never refers to "miracles," per se, but does go in for "signs and wonders."  The sign was given so that John could be the eyewitness to the world that the one who was the Word present at the beginning of time had now become flesh and who would baptize with the Holy Spirit rather than water. Israel had had messianic hopes dashed before, so skepticism was probably present, but enough interest was sparked for people to listen and decide for themselves.

Whether we call them miracles or signs and wonders, it was eyewitness testimony that spread interest in Jesus' message. John was just the first eyewitness. From there, word passed from person to person, town to town, just like news has always spread.  The testimonies of their lives became a legacy and a model for their descendants' aspirations.

It's probably true that each of us has been an eyewitness to some event over the course of our lives, whether it was in person or via the media. Protest marches, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, September 11th, inspiring speeches, historic handshakes between two representatives whose people have been at war with each other for years, all have given us a glimpse into what will become history-making events and we will each react to the events through the lenses of our own upbringing, experience, education, culture, orientation, and other values.

Often one person stands out from the crowd, like the police and firemen of New York City rushing into places while others  were fleeing. We see acts like those and we wonder what gave them the strength and courage to do what they did. And then we think, as we rerun the scene in our minds, would we have done the same thing? Or would we have been running the other way?
The message of Jesus is that each of us is an eyewitness of what God has done for us. It's our job to live in such a way that those who see us will want to share in what we have.  It's the "love your neighbor" thing, wanting the best for others because we have been given the best for ourselves.

Look around. Where are we eyewitnesses and where are we witnesses? Our actions reflect our beliefs. so maybe just for one day we can look at ourselves objectively and see what kind of testimony we are showing the world. Eyewitnesses will be watching.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 3, 2014.











Sunday, December 28, 2014

Journeys

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Jesus and Peter
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. --John 21;9-24


It seems odd to read a post-Easter story so soon after the pre-birth and nativity stories of Jesus. With the feast of St. John, however, we look not at a chronology but rather selected scriptures that speak to, about, or by John whom we believe is the "Beloved Disciple."

It is a familiar story of Jesus cooking breakfast and the disciples joining him on the beach, bringing with them an exceptionally large quantity of fish. There is the dialog between Peter and Jesus as to whether Peter loves Jesus that is repeated three times, once for each of Peter's denials after Jesus' arrest. Jesus tells Peter after each affirmation to "Feed my sheep" or "Feed my lambs." Peter was to lead the disciples in the days to come and that he was to ensure the extended flock was cared for.

Then Jesus told him something unexpected, something beyond just taking care of Jesus' little flock. In the past, Peter had a choice in where he was to go but that would not be the case in the future. Jesus was preparing Peter for a life that was not going to be smooth sailing and would often be out of his control and would eventually lead to his death by martyrdom..

Jesus and Peter were walking away from the group at the fire when Peter noticed John following them and asked Jesus, "What about him?" Was it concern for John's fate or was it more like "If I'm going to face death, is he going to face the same thing?" Whichever Peter meant by his query, Jesus informed him that he had plans for John that Peter didn't need to know about. In short, "Pay attention to your own path and let John do the same for his."

When we were young we had plans, lots of plans, as to what we would do, where we would go, who we would be with, and the future looked bright with possibilities. Some of those hopes and dreams may have actually come true but probably many youthful plans did not. Still, we had control over much of our lives and that is what we ultimately wanted. As we age, we find that oftentimes we are less and less in control and that can be excruciatingly frustrating. We try to stay as active and vital as we were when we were in our younger years but joints get creaky, organs malfunction or become weakened, and the mind often seems like a sieve with too many holes. It is then that we often reach the point where we stop being able to go where we want to and have to either rely on someone else to help us or we wind up in a place we thought was just for old people. Then we realize we are the old people.

One thing about age, it gives you more time to think. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it can be a very good one. We care a little less about pleasing other people and, if we're wise, care more about pleasing God. We have to accept things that would have been unthinkable a few years or decades ago. We have a bit more time to think and pray, and more experience to offer as guidance for others we may encounter on the life journey. We can't walk their journey for them, but we can perhaps help make it a smoother one for them.

What if Peter had actually been told exactly what was to happen to him and likewise what John's life would be like? Would he have chosen death by martyrdom over imprisonment but dying of natural causes? Perhaps it's pure wisdom that Jesus was offering Peter--do what you yourself need to do today. Jesus has a plan for each person, and while we can be concerned about another, they have their own plan and journey.

I wonder -- what would it be like if we could get turn-by-turn directions to God on GPS? I wonder how it would change the journey.




Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 27, 2014.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Advent Day 25


When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
  ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
  according to your word;
  for my eyes have seen your salvation,
  which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
  a light for revelation to the Gentiles
  and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
- Luke 2:22-38

While not usually part of the Christmas story, it seems fitting that we include two people who also recognized the child as the promised one of Israel. The kings, which we often conflate into the Christmas story have their own tale at Epiphany, but since Luke places this trip to the Jerusalem temple between 8-40 days after the birth, it seems to make Simeon and Anna important to the story.

Simeon had been visited by the Holy Spirit who had gifted him with a revelation that he would live to see the Messiah. It was this guidance that made him recognize the little family that appeared in the temple that day. His prayer which we now call the Nunc Dimittis was prayed for the first time but has been carried on by the church, usually at the evening service which also includes Mary’s Magnificat. Anna also joined in praising God for sending this redeemer. It must have been a bit of a stunner for Mary and Joseph who looked just like everybody else, no haloes or flights of angels overhead to announce that this was the miracle child. Still, it was true, as Simeon and Anna could attest.

We are so used to important people being announced by limousines, red carpets, lots of bling, flashing cameras, and/or microphones thrust in front of them to catch every possible word they might utter. What is amazing about the story of Anna and Simeon is that they recognized the importance of a small child being carried by a modest, unassuming couple who could have been anybody at all. Of course, Simeon had been on alert since the Spirit told him about the messiah and Anna happened along at a very opportune time. How many times, though, have we overlooked someone or something important simply because they didn’t fit our image or presupposition of what they would look or be like? Israel was waiting for a miracle in the form of a warrior king who would vanquish the Romans and return the country to the greatness of King David. Instead, they overlooked a very small child who would not fulfill those expectations but would change the world.

On Christmas Eve we go to church and hear the story of the birth of this miracle child. We recognize him in the manger but how about in the people around us? How about the people we pass on the street? Or the homeless person panhandling on the corner? The story of Jesus doesn’t end at the cradle. We need to be like Simeon and Anna, alert and watchful for the presence of the miracles around us, whether people or events. The Christmas season lasts twelve days, but that awareness and alertness can and should go on all year. The most unlikely person can be someone very important, if we but recognize it.

Advent is over, but we should continue to keep the lamps lit. We cannot let our wakefulness and expectation relax or our prayers for wisdom and guidance slacken. The king among us, and he might not look like a movie star or a great religious leader. Look for him always; he is there and visible to those who truly use the wisdom of the Spirit and the heart’s recognition.

Have a blessed and joyful Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent Day 24


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:8-20

The darkness enfolded them like a cloak. Perhaps the fire had died down to embers and the only sounds to be heard were the occasional baa from a sheep or lamb. Had they looked up in the sky they could have seen billions of stars, far more than most of us could ever conceive of in our light- and dust-polluted atmosphere. It was quiet and peaceful, just the way a pastoral scene should be.

But it didn’t stay quiet for long. Suddenly the shepherds were terrified by bright figures lighting up the sky, and a voice telling them not to be afraid. I imagine it would be hard not to be afraid, and it would probably take some time before I would be able to put the fear aside and hear what the messenger had to say.

Over and over in the Bible people are told “Do not be afraid!” Usually it follows some divine appearance or presence and precedes a charge to do something out of the ordinary. Depending on what translation you use, “Do not be afraid” and phrases such as “Fear not” and “Do not fear” occur approximately 110 times. That’s a lot of telling people not to be scared of something.

Today’s climate of fear has much need of someone reassuring us “Do not be afraid.” Fear for our safety covers so many scenarios whether actual or projected has us in thrall, almost unable to distinguish where the real threats are and where we are being pushed to feel threatened. Driving through a strange neighborhood? Walking to our car in the parking lot? Having our kids go to school? Standing or walking next to someone wearing a hijab or speaking a foreign language? Heaven knows, just watching the nightly news is enough to make almost anyone want to go find a nice deserted island or safe bunker to hide in and to mistrust even your own family sometimes.

Many say the cure for fear is faith. Because you believe and try to live a Godly life doesn’t mean God has put an impenetrable umbrella over you to ward off any and all threats to personal health and safety. Sometimes stuff just happens. Where faith does its job is allowing us to move past the fear, to reach out beyond our comfort zone to people who also suffer from fear and oftentimes real situations that most of us would find almost impossible to understand much less cope with. We may not have an angel telling us “Do not be afraid,” but we could use a few voices reminding us of that. Then we must summon all our faith and move ahead.

Today might be a good day to see where we have fear, real or perceived, and how we can apply the “Do not be afraid” to our own lives, then offer that same message and support to others, whether we know them or not. Then we should remember that Jesus had to use that phrase and others like it a number of times to the disciples and the followers. The shepherds moved past their fear; now it’s our turn.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Advent Day 23


In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. – Luke 2:1-7

 

The approach of Christmas usually means there’s a pageant at church featuring every child who can be coaxed or coerced into taking part, either in a major role like Mary or the angel Gabriel, a lesser but important part like the innkeeper or the shepherds, or even as a sheep with a little black nose and floppy ears. Like in the famous Peanuts Christmas special from so many years ago, the chaos and confusion always seems to come together (mostly, anyway) and the gospel story from Luke, recited by Linus or read by someone from the congregation, takes center stage. It is the story we come to hear, and the innocence of the children in their roles help us see things a bit differently each year..

Luke may not have been 100% solid on his historical facts, but the symbolism was clear. Jesus, as a descendant of David, had to be born in what was called “David’s city,” Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. Did Mary really have to ride a considerable distance on a donkey at nine months pregnant? Didn’t Joseph and Mary have relatives in Bethlehem with whom they could stay even if they had to be sort of shoehorned into an already crowded house? That was what families were for, wasn’t it?

And then there is the stable – probably the most private place in the entire household for a woman in labor. The straw would have absorbed the fluids and insulated the mother and babe from what could be a cold and somewhat dirty floor. The manger was much like a stationary cradle, a place to put a newborn where it was close to its mother but yet giving her space to sleep a bit after her ordeal. It was really a very practical solution, and it emphasized the humanness of this miraculous babe who had existed before the world was born and who himself was born just as we all are, frail, needy, and helpless.

All during Advent we have been making preparations for the 12 joyous days of Christmas that begins in just a few days. Choirs have rehearsed their anthems, children have practiced their parts for the pageant, priests and preachers have polished their sermons, all in the anticipation of the celebration to come. But it isn’t here yet. We are still facing an empty manger with a barely suppressed joyful expectation of the great event to come.

Still, we must keep watch. There is more to this time of year than making sure the silver is polished, the cakes and pies made, the presents wrapped and the cards sent. What if that manger had never been filled? What would our world be like? Where would we find brokenness? Where would we find healing? Where would we see hope?

Stay alert! Make sure the lamps are full and ready to flame. Make sure hearts are prepared as surely as our families, houses, and churches are. Think about the stable and all that it represents. Imagine what it would have been like had that manger remained simply a place for animals to be fed. Think of it – he was laid in a feeding trough for animals, but he would grow to feed all of us with his precious body and blood. That’s an epiphany for Advent.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Day 22

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;
* and he named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25
There are always two sides to every story. We are certainly familiar with Mary’s but Joseph has a story too, a story of a man who desperately wanted to do the right thing but who isn’t sure just what that right thing was. Mary had returned from her three-month stay with her cousin Elizabeth but she was different, changed somehow. It must have been a horrible shock to him to learn that his virgin wife was already pregnant – and for certain it wasn’t his. What to do, what to do?
He would be perfectly within his rights to divorce her and find a new and unencumbered bride. He finally decided on divorce as the best option and, shortly after his decision was made, Joseph fell asleep. As happens more than occasionally, another and better answer came to him in a dream. God told him he was to continue on with Mary because she had been singled out for a special mission and he would have a part in it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Quite often when we are in a quandary and can’t seem to come to any conclusion or make any decision, we sort of “sleep on it,” as the saying goes. We are told that the brain keeps working while our bodies sleep, processing information, filing it, maybe even examining it and coming to some sort of resolution which will be presented to us in a dream and will influence our thinking when we awaken. Sometimes, though, it is more than just the brain staying busy; I have a feeling that when we are asleep, it could be the only time we are still enough for God to get a word in edgewise.
Not all dreams will be answers to our questions and quandaries, but they very well could be. There have been times when I’m sure God must have had a hand in because suddenly something had a clarity I couldn’t achieve with my hamster brain doing endless circles and getting nowhere. It’s quite a realization that sometimes just letting go of something is the surest way to get a handle on it, even if it means simply taking a nap.
Perhaps something to practice in the waning days of Advent is to add a small petition to the nightly prayers, asking God to show us what we need to see or understand as we sleep. Maybe it won’t be something life-altering or earth-shattering like Joseph’s dream, but maybe, just maybe, it could be important. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Advent Day 21


And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.  – Luke 1:46-56




And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.  – Luke 1:46-56
 
The song of Mary, the Magnificat, has traditionally been one of the great prayers of the church since about 500AD. Spoken, chanted, or sung as part of the evening prayers or vespers, it has been treasured by ordinary people and made into exquisite pieces of music by many of the world’s greatest composers of the past and present.
The Magnificat or Canticle of Mary as it is sometimes called, reminds us of the song of Hannah, who praised God for fulfilling her deepest longing for a child even though she was growing old and hope had almost died. It would take a miracle and Hannah asked for that miracle. Mary didn’t ask but rather was herself asked in part of another favorite prayer of the church, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women.”
Mary’s song glorifies God for what God is doing in her life. She wasn’t rich or famous but rather a simple, modest, obedient young woman who was betrothed but not yet married. As she was greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, Mary responded with her canticle. She acknowledged that she had been honored by God and that through her miraculously-conceived child, she herself would be considered blessed by generations to come. But then her song takes a different turn; it expresses thanksgiving on behalf of Israel for choosing them and protecting them, chastising the oppressors and exalting the poor and marginalized. Even though Israel was under the hand of the Romans, God was still with them.
No matter how bad things seem to be, God is still with us. Mary’s quiet confidence in God’s mercy and gift to the world through her has replaced any questioning or confusion she intitially might have felt. It would be for us too, if we opened ourselves to it. Perhaps this advent we could write our own Magnificat, praising God for God’s blessings to us and those around us. It might be a reminder of past blessings and an eye-opening exercise that could make room for awareness of God’s presence and care. “My soul blesses the Lord who has done great things for me…”
 
The icon of the Annunciation was written by Laura Fisher Smith and is greatly loved by the community of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, Arizona. Image used with permission.




Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on The Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 20, 2014 under the title "Magnificat."