Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving... 1 Timothy 4:4 (NIV).


That's what it says. Everything God created is good. And nothing is to be rejected - IF - it is received with thanksgiving.

This is a radical, surprising, and controversial claim.

While it may now be Christian theological orthodoxy (that creation itself is good, but fallen), most creation theologies and origin-stories are violent. Creation itself is often seen as suffused with blood, born out of the battle between gods, or between good and evil forces. Not every Christian even believes in the thorough goodness of creation, as seen in traditions which "deny the flesh" without also embracing it, or which fixate on the battle with evil.

But this scripture is clear. Everything God created is good.

And now the still more amazing claim. No part of creation is to be rejected, nothing denied or disowned - but its acceptability is determined by its reception! If it is received with thanksgiving, as a blessing - well, IT IS!

One of the hallmarks of Native American spirituality is the centrality of thanksgiving. Some have called it the highest form of prayer. It is certainly true that it permeates our awareness of the holy: thanks for the world which which walk upon, thanks for the plants and animals which feed us, thanks for the ancestors who brought us into this world, thanks to those who journey with us, thanks for each breath which gives us life.

We can hardly go wrong in this world if we are continually alert to those many things for which thankfulness is the true and appropriate response. And if we make opportunities for experiencing and lifting up and hallowing those moments of thankfulness. Those hokey grade school turkeys, with every feather a prayer of thanksgiving. Thank you to the teachers who brought those thanksgivings into the world.

People talk about cultivating an "attitude of gratitude." Almost every moment, every action is an opportunity to be thankful. In this way, you have a greater opportunity to live in holiness, in that you more often experience the goodness which so so much part of the fabric of God's creation. The major problem with Thanksgiving Day is that every day might be a day of thanksgiving. It is wonderful that so many meals are being served this day to those who need food and companionship. Thank God, and thanks to all who are moved to donate their money, their time and skill, their care and compassion. How much more thanks are needed for those who do this every day? Thank God!

We need not be thankful for everything, as we pray for the end of things which are no blessing: war, poverty, illness, pain, broken relationships. We all have our list of things from which we await deliverance.

But there is so much to be thankful for this day. What is your thanksgiving?

I am grateful for the opportunity to write these words, and for those who read them. It is amazing sensation to know that people in Nigeria, the Philippines, Ukraine and Hudson Bay, Egypt and Panama have glanced this way - Thank you! For the good friends who are sharing their home and hospitality with me. For my partner and friend. For a job which has blessed me in so many ways, in feeding me and in making more of me. For the hope of change in our government and political life. For a church which is trying to love, welcome, nuture, and serve. For the first snow of the season. For a God who is faithful and so much more than I have been able to imagine.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Singing in Advent - Psalm 122

First Sunday in Advent, Year A
Psalm 122

The Season of Advent, the four Sundays which precede Christmas, is traditionally a time of singing. The rest of the world is playing Christmas carols in the background with Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the sounds of jingling bells. And perhaps we might sing along joyfully, knowing what is coming.

The season of Advent has this tension built into it. It is a season of expectancy and anticipation. Of preparation and watchfulness. Advent has a penitential character. It has been seen as a parallel season to Lent, with the same traditional color of the season (penitential purple) and with the same strict fast.

Yet, God love us, we have peeked under the wrappings and know that Christmas awaits, the Savior is coming but he is the One who has already come! Alleluia!

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!" (Psalm 122:1, NRSV).

This psalm-song lives in the joy the pilgrim feels when anticipating their journey to the holy city, the place they know (or imagine) that God touches earth. Singing this psalm, it is impossible to think that hope is an abstract concept, or that joy is something which is more anticipated than lived. Each also has a habitual quality. They can be practiced, rehearsed. They are virtues which need cultivation.

By imagining the end of the journey – "Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem" (verse 2) – you already begin to feel the joy of arrival in this "promised land." It may be that there is more joy in the anticipation than in many actual arrivals...

The anticipatory joy quickly turns to memory to reinforce, to solidify the imagined fulfillment of the pilgrimage, in conjuring up an image of this place and its importance: "Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the LORD. For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David" (verses 3-5).

And it is striking how recalling the significance of Jerusalem so quickly turns to care and concern for the very stones of the holy place. Apparently even the holiest places are under threat.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.' For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good. (verses 6-9)

Jerusalem, Jerusalem... we pray, like the pilgrim, for the peace of Jerusalem. It is the tangible symbol of the shalom we urgently need in our world and in our lives. Three faiths profess it as a place where heaven and earth meet. You may look to the golden dome that now stands there, to the old rock of Zion that crowned the Temple mountain, to the mysterious lacuna of an empty tomb – or even to that vision of a new Jerusalem, a source of healing for all the nations.But the hope is not less fervent if your vision sees Amritsar or Bodh Gaya or the Black Hills.

We hope for a transformed world, for deliverance, for shalom, for a good end. Hope is not optional for the pilgrim. Nor is the joy - so often proleptic, anticipated, long-awaited - reserved only for the realization of our hopes, those moments when heaven touches the spot of earth where we are standing. We cannot save all our joy for Christmas, or for the end of whatever journey we are on. "Advent" is the coming of the holy, the real-izing of that hope which God has for our world. And it is our work to be ready, to rehearse, to practice, to live that longed-for reality.

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!"

A sign for the journey:
The previous image is of Rabbi Menachem Froman, who says that "The key to peace is peace in Jerusalem, to re-establish Jerusalem as the capital of peace in the world." See From an Israeli Settlement, a Rabbi’s Unorthodox Plan for Peace, Isabel Kershner, NYTimes 12/5/08. Photo by Rina Castelnuovo.

Pointers to other texts in the day’s lectionary:

Isaiah 2:1-5
A vision of all the nations streaming to the holy mountain of Jerusalem, and the Lord teaching an end to war.

Romans 13:8-14
Pure anticipation: "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near..." (11b-12a)

Matthew 24:36-44
The gospel text inhabits a rather different world from the psalm, with the prophetic warning that the end of the age will come suddenly and unexpectedly, and urging watchfulness. Perhaps there are two good points of connection. 1) One way of maintaining watchfulness is by "going to the house of the Lord" and being attentive to your encounter with signs of the holy. 2) The peace of Jerusalem is not a feature of this age. Rather, the end of this age will see the end of the violence, warfare, and injustice which now afflicts us.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Veterans Day 2010

This is an odd holiday, commemorating a number of different things. Do we pick and choose? Do we try and hold them together?

In the United States, November 11th is observed as Veterans Day. The service of all veterans of U.S. military service, living and dead, is lifted up as a civic honor. It was established in 1954 after a grassroots campaign to make it a day for “All Veterans.”

Previously the day had been observed as Armistice Day, commemorating the cessation of battle on the Western Front during the First World War. That day, the guns fell silent, and the people at home rejoiced at the end of unimaginable destruction (16 million dead, 21 million wounded, both military and civilian).

That beginning of the peace, set for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, fell upon St. Martin’s Day.

Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier when, through a dream where Jesus recognized him, he became convinced in his Christian faith. He continued to serve in the military, until he came to believe that his faith prevented him from fighting. Martin was jailed for cowardice, but offered to go into battle at the front of the army, but without arms. Eventually released from military service he lived as a hermit, founded a monastery, and was acclaimed bishop of the city of Tours. The patron saint of soldiers, he is also seen as a witness for peace in the way he put down his arms but not his courage.

Honoring veterans... celebrating the end of a destructive war... remembering one person’s holy struggle with faith and mission...

There are these tensions built into the day. One is the place where military veterans stand. Veterans know war to be both horrible and compelling. Veterans tend to support the military enterprise, yet none are more glad and relieved at the end of a war. Veterans love the flag, yet know in real and personal terms some of the cost of that cloth.

However you choose to observe November 11th, please remember those who serve and have served in uniform. Please remember those, military and civilian, who have been sacrificed in war - in numbers too vast to comprehend and whose loss is too dear to calculate. And pay honor to the symbols that speak of the promise that people in every day seek to realize - freedom, justice, and peace.

Military graves at Douamont, France (near Verdun) is by David Straker, 2006.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Christ the King, Christ the Head

Christ the King
November 21

Colossians 1:11-20

When you think about it, it’s really miraculous – that we can use words to describe the wonders of creation, the transcendent, those things which go so far beyond the syllables which reference them. Brain and language researchers are beginning to respect how, as we heard in Genesis 1 and John 1, the Word calls things into being. Language and meaning go hand in hand, and words do more than describe reality. For humans, words help constitute reality.

This means we take theology (theo-logos, God-speech) seriously. When we say “Christ the King,” we are proclaiming something about Christ – that our Messiah is a king.

The beauty of metaphor is the way it says something real. The problem of metaphor is that, in saying that one thing is another, we can get stuck in the metaphor and lose track of how the metaphor “exegetes,” illustrates, and illumines its subject. What about the earthly kings we know is true of Christ?

There is much commentary and preaching on Christ’s kingship – particularly the way his kingdom differs from that of earthly kings (see for example Philippians 2:5-11). Christ is kingly – but the armies he commands do not seek vengeance or inflict violence. Instead they sow mercy and kindness and proclaim God’s love. Christ’s kingdom is filled with riches – but those riches are not stockpiled gold in the treasury. They are the endlessly distributed productive activity of people and yeast and all of creation sharing life with one another.

This image from Colossians – that Christ “is the head of his body, which is the church” (1 Col 1:18, CEV) – is another metaphor. This passage contains exalted, extravagant, beyond kingly language: “He is the first-born Son, superior to all creation. Everything was created by him..." (1:5-16, CEV).

But let us take those metaphors of head and body seriously. Nowadays we give honor to the head, thinking that the brain is the seat of consciousness, sitting atop the body and commanding it.

But the head does not create the body, and if we are honest, the head does not command nearly as much as we thinkers might like. The head does not end nor the body begin at the neck. The head and body are linked from the beginning, from the process of conception and development in the womb, to the way nervous system and blood supply and our marvelous chemical signals ensure that the whole body is linked together in an interdependent, continually communicating network where nutrients and messages are exchanged among all parts. And when that circulation, that interdependence stops – by illness, injury, or death – the body and its parts die.

As we hold this body metaphor together with that of Christ as king, we might think about the Roman and similar empires as diseases which inhibit the healthy functioning of humanity's body. We can see the signs of disease when humans are kept in debt, in poverty, in slavery, and hung on the world's many crosses.

We justly call Christ “King,” we honor and follow him not simply because of his exalted position at the head. But read further into the passage. Christ is at the head because he was first to be raised from death, and that death was sacrificial. And that sacrifice was not deadly, but reconciling and healing and life-giving for the whole body. It was the medicine that diagnosed (revealed) the condition of human evil and at the same time applied the antidote, seen in Christ's anti-kingship.

“God was pleased for him to make peace by sacrificing his blood on the cross, so that all beings in heaven and on earth would be brought back to God” (1:20, CEV).

Christ’s body does not end at the neck any more than his life ended at the tomb.

You can have all the other kings, all the other heads, all the other leaders and shepherds and lords. Give me Jesus, whose kingship, whose headship, whose Son-ship all speak of his great love for his whole body – which is you and me and all those who share life in Christ.

[This text is available with additional resources for Christ the King Sunday, as an American Bible Society EBulletin.]