Advent Post #22

“He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:52)

This is not good news for rulers, at least on the surface. Usually rulers like their thrones. Yet the closer we come to the birth, the entrance, and arrival of Jesus, this is the reality: there is a new ruler. In Jesus is a new king. We have to trade kingdoms.

We have to give up our thrones, the little rickety chairs we’ve set up to compete with the new king. For some people this is an impossible choice. It’s unthinkable that life could be better. Usually people with thrones, with anything like “thrones,” don’t want to surrender them.

We think of wealthy people, powerful people, connected people, and we think that they’ll never want to trade those things. The obvious good of those resources make following the other humble king, questionable, almost unsafe, certainly unfamiliar. But this is the essential question: will you trade what you have for what comes with the new kingdom?

The other thing is that this is everyone’s question. This is a daily question for us who are already following. This is a regular reminder for us who’ve gained citizenship by God’s grace. When we’re at our best, we’re low enough to see every small throne we’ve built for some other king. And we inspect that throne under the gaze of God.

To be clear, this song’s line is a jab to the powerful, to the resourced, and to those who live such stomach-full lives that they can’t relate to a young couple struggling to raise an unexpected baby. This is a line meant to be sang in the ears of those who are so protected by systems and social structures that they undermine the singer’s throat from which it comes. “She can’t sing that and not about us! She’s irresponsible for having done what she did to be in the situation she’s in.” This is a line for them.

But for those whose daily diet is on the mercy of God, we sing these words through our own tears. We sing this line listening for our own thrones, and we pray for God’s ability to unseat those little kings in order to live only for the new, coming One.

May these words be part of our carols this week, a portion of our soul’s language as the year begins, and may be live humbly.

A Recent Journey With A Friend

The initial question.

The reasons we participated.

The preparation for an interruption which wasn’t really.

The long ride, trading sentences and looking out and catching up.

The nervousness of being surrounded by people so different and so similar.

The mumbling that became words which turned into songs.

The string of cameras and the open streets.

The rhythmic stamping of our feet.

The commitment to stay.

The commitment to stay together.

The rumbles of thunder.

The hard-won meal in a hurry.

The symbols of darkness and light.

The gas masks, water bottles, and signs.

The jumping and chanting and watching and waiting.

The circles of prayer, the clusters of pain.

The playful way we wondered what in the world we were the doing.

The amplified voice of that one man commanding them, not us, to leave.

The joking.  The questions.  The long silence.  The disgust-filled prayers.

The heavyset, sweating leader we stood with and for.

The shock to our bodies from the weight of the evening.

The words of that one sister, the missionary, who checked us all.

The stark contrasting pictures of justice.

The greetings and the welcome words.

The shaking of our heads and the wringing of our hearts.

The long, aching journey home.

The stars, bright like flashes, overhead in the darkness.

Creating a Rule of Life, pt 4

Study.  One word that doesn’t exactly inspire people.  It’s read as a command to most of us.

Our teachers tell us to study.  Our parents repeat the same.  We are told by tests and by jobs and preachers and their scriptures.  Study.  Can this word, this act, be at all worth our incorporating into a rule that forms and transforms us?

I heard a colleague say the other day that Christian spirituality is not anti-intellectual.  We were discussing a class we’re preparing to teach, talking about the reading load for it versus other courses similarly categorized.  We were in agreement that what we had (and will have) students read was necessary for the work we were trying to accomplish in the course.

One way of thinking through how study fits into the Rule is by asking what the objective is.  Dallas Willard’s writing is thick with this.  He says in many ways that to be a Christian is to be a student of Jesus.  We cannot be students of Jesus (or any religion really) if we are not learners.  We have to study to be his followers.

I think to something a mentor said to me years ago about preaching.  He said, “I don’t study to get ready.  I study to be ready.”  It was his way of saying that his work (and, by hopeful implication, my work) was to prepare in a way that he was always reasonably within the neighborhood the scriptures, always in some portion of conversation with God, always asking the hard questions of how whatever God said related to what we say.

What’s the objective?  That’s one question.  Another question in preparation for the Rule is, “What do I need to know right now?” Another version of that is, “What do I need to grow in over the season that this Rule will be in effect?”

Sometimes we focus ourselves on certain things.  For a while, I was only reading 19th century United States of American history.  I had to focus on it.  In seminary I trained my gaze on pastoral care and theology.  I’ve sensed pushed myself to read poetry, to always be reading fiction, poetry, theology, and history.  To dabble in a collection of essays and to look for a good memoir.  For me, this choice is an extension of the study part of my internal Rule.  I need to always be growing in these areas.  Language is at the core of all my work.  Church, teaching, curriculum, and counseling all require the precise, careful, thoughtful and regular use of words well chosen.  So that frames what I study.

A final question worth pondering is, “What’s in me that I need to study?”  This gets down to me in my rule.  I need to see certain things about myself that I’m not seeing.  I need to notice not only the words of others in those published materials, but I need to read and review the words and phrases etched in me.

Those Well-Fed Hopes

This is a prayer from my journal, from an undated entry, and it’s up here in case I need to return to it.  I believe I was relinquishing some things around writing at the time, but I can utter these words as I try to become a Christian:

Help me let go of those dreams, those well-fed hopes, stubborn desires even though they came mostly from places of sincerity and love and, perhaps, mystery.  Grant me the freedom to choose some other life, to set some different course.  Make me fearless in that choosing.  Inspire me as I close and choose and change.

Creating Saints

I’ve been thinking about the creation of saints, the way saints are made, and it’s been a head swirl of a time.  I’ve been both captivated and sullen, giving my ears to the interviews between Charlie Rose and leaders in the Roman church, for instance, and struggling with questions in my own ministry of what a saint looks like and how many we have and who is so far away from the word that they themselves would laugh.

It’s a basic question.  After all, I spend my days doing ministry.  I spend a lot of time pushing, coaxing, praying, encouraging, and teaching people–all because our work is about creating saints.  Not in the Roman tradition of course.  There are no robes, no newspaper articles, no banners or flags or printed billboards.  There aren’t interviews of all the people these saints have met, notes about every conversation, explanations of the details of their miracles.

There are miracles but they’re boring, unseen miracles.  They are the daily events that God must be underneath but that Presence is so far that is silly to call them by the same name.  They’re too terrestrial, these miracles.  But we make disciples in churches.  We talk to people and recognize the gifts that only God could implant.  We create saints.

And creating saints in my way of practicing is both encouraging and debilitating.  It’s draining and fun.  It’s hard and people are ungrateful while, at the same time, in some other way, there’s nothing more interesting and full and enlivening.

Creating saints brings no cameras or coverage.  There is hardly any notice of this mundane task; even colleagues may not notice or understand since our services are so specialized and context-bound.  There is less fanfare.

Creating saints means dinners away from family, vacations at weird times when they come, taking days to recover from an experience of self-giving, or never having normal Sundays, even while Sunday is the momentous occasion of remembering what it’s all about.  Creating saints is waking up with someone’s name on my tongue, someone who’s life was given to me in 2 hours and in a way that it’ll make me intercede at odd hours.  Creating saints means insomnia and isolation because of confidentiality and appreciation for a long laugh that my son just can’t control.

No one wants to see that on television.  It would be too boring, too close to real human experience.  It’d be better to read a good novel.  At least you could close the book and move on.