{This week, John Blase and I conclude our Advent reflections with the Gospel reading for the fourth week of Advent, Matthew 1:18-25}

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid

Each time I’ve read this text this year, my imagination falls on the description of Joseph’s response after he receives the gut-wrenching news that Mary’s expecting a baby. Joseph knew good and well he had nothing to do with this unseemly development, and Mary’s story about Spirit and angels and the like must have struck him as a particularly elaborate attempt to redefine the obvious.

Yet – and this is what gets me – Matthew says that Mary’s “husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Unwilling to expose her to public disgrace. In a world that sputters on the fumes of controversy and defense of the tribe, I wonder what it would be like (and I’m imagining precisely those places where we believe our identity most threatened – or those places of public discourse where we are certain so much is at stake) to be bullheaded in our unwillingness to expose another to disgrace.

We often equate courage with those who thump their chests and “tell it like it is,” but I believe that often the bravest thing is to relinquish the compulsion to be right, to possess a trigger finger for mercy, to live gently. It’s a good thing to honor others’ dignity with such vigilance that there are lines we simply will not cross. Winning the issue or defending our “rights” provides a sorry excuse for crushing another human.

Though Joseph exhibited heroic valor, this entire story leads to the angel’s charge for Joseph to not be afraid. This is the word angels speak whenever they hit the scene. Apparently it’s the word we all need to hear. The angel prodded Joseph to push his courage further, to not merely refuse to disgrace Mary but to rouse his truest instincts and embrace Mary along with all the uncertainty sure to accompany.

It requires courage to love. It takes courage to live with our guard down and our arms open. But this is what happens when God appears. This is what happens when Emmanuel arrives, God with us.

{This week, John Blase and I reflect on the Epistle reading for the third week of Advent, James 5:7-10}

Be patient therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord…

Advent commences the Christian year, providing an important corrective to the fables by which we live. We are accustomed to starts that bolt from the gate. Gusto. Exertion. Master plans. To such hubris, Advent arrives, pats us on the head and says, Hold your horses there, antsy. You’re not ready for all that.

To begin with Advent means we start with waiting. We rest and pause. We hope and watch. We Sabbath. James tells us it’s like the long-suffering farmer who “waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it…”

With it – I believe this to be the crucial turn. To be patient does not mean to merely hold back or to camouflage how annoyed we are with delay. Rather, true patience means we are learning how to be with our life, to be present and curious and perhaps above all, tenaciously hopeful.

Walter Wangerin, a writer to whom I owe much, reflects the patience Advent invites. His dance (Walter’s word) with lung cancer has brought Walter ever more present to his life:

The nearness of death has relieved me of the need to strive toward goals and triumphs. No need to prove myself. I walk a level plain. Today is today. Tomorrow will come. And though I continue to plan activities well in advance, living doesn’t depend on their accomplishment, nor would any of them define me. I am already defined. Today is today. Tomorrow is enough…We are. It is enough.

It is a gift to have our grandiose visions brushed aside, to be patiently available to this moment. It is a gift to sink into the restful hope that God writes the story’s end.

{John Blase and I continue our Advent conversation. This week, we reflect on the Gospel reading for the second week of Advent, Matthew 3:1-12}

John the Baptizer was preaching in the desert of Judea…and people poured out of Jerusalem, Judea and the Jordanian countryside to hear him.

Burning Man aflame in the Black Rock Desert has nothing on the Advent story. When a wild man settles in the badlands, then the rest of us close up shop, gather our provisions and set out toward the fire and the thunder. Numbed by our conveyer belt existence, our heart has forgotten so much. But it only takes a mere glimpse of a spark, a glimmer of real life, and our desire, longing and hope shakes off the slumber. Whoever said it was a bad thing to be the moth drawn to flame?

What actually made John the wild man, though? His camel-hair habit surely furthered his holy-man austerity, while the locusts and wild honey only encouraged his reputation as a man disinterested in modern convention. But these biographical details could not be the center of it. Jerusalem was no different than Charlottesville or Denver or Trenton – you only have to stroll downtown, or partake in the neighborhood BBQ for that matter, to catch more than a few odd ducks.

John was a man too-wild for our aloof, cold ways because he knew something, he had heard something. “Repent, God’s Kingdom has come near,” John announced. The crowds flocked to the wild man in the wild place because John told them what their soul most longed to hear: God is near.

I believe the great fear of the human heart is that God is, in the end, far, far. What sickness or sorrow, what loneliness or ruin, could we not endure so long as we believed in our bones that God was near? Yet when we’ve lost this hope, when God seems too remote to matter or too capricious to trust or too fanciful to believe, then our most precious flame dies. Our hearts and our hopes sink into ourselves. They sink so far we forget them and assume they will never rise again.

But then there’s a John, speaking the wild words. God is near. You are not alone. Hope is coming. If merely a single word, the tiniest flicker, finds its way to us, then there really is no telling what might erupt. Good words are dangerous.

From what I see, too many of us think that God’s message necessitates shrill noise. We denounce and correct. We draw our tribal lines. We build synergy toward our clan or our corrective version of faith. What we do not say, with our words or our actions, is the wildest thing: God is near. Have your cause if it’s worthwhile. Promote your distinctions if you must. But please, in God’s good name, do not forget to tell us that God is near. If we don’t hear these essential words, the flame will stay cold and the heart will stay hungry.

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This is the second week of the Advent conversation John Blase and I are sharing. So what I’m offering is only half of the picture. For his reflection on this same text, you’ll need to move over to The Beautiful Due.

{a meditation from the Gospel reading for the first week of Advent, Matthew 24:36-44}

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

Advent’s opening gospel reading gives our drowsy ears a jolt. Rather than visions of a rosy-cheeked Christ child, we hear of Noah’s flood that arrived with a shock, sweeping the world clear and an odd parable about workers sweating side by side – only, when the tale’s done, one has disappeared while the other stands alone, bewildered. There’s a final odd twist where Jesus likens God’s appearing to a midnight cat burglar who slips in through a window to pick a house clean while the family snoozes, a sentence that flies out of left field and should make every flatfooted preacher and every dry storyteller take very careful notes.

In each of these unlikely stories, the common theme is how God’s action interrupts and catches us off guard. The point is not to wag fingers so we’ll shape up and curtail the surprise, a kind of white-knuckle vigil. Rather, the narratives deliver a plain fact: God will surprise us. Whatever we figure God must do or whatever time table we insist God must follow, God seems to always manage something different. Like the lover who springs a proposal or the friend who shows up for the party when they’re supposed to be two continents away, God has panache.

Whether or not we receive God as a welcome surprise depends, I suppose, on whether or not we’re willing to be undone by love, whether or not we’ve got the moxie to say what the heck and exist at the mercy of God’s evocative – but always unruly – imagination. Our invitation is to live wide-eyed, aware that every single moment bears the possibility of God’s agile movement.

Advent, of course, is merely an occasion to remember what has always been true. God is never far. God is always near. And the only truly surprising thing would be if God were never to show up at all.

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This Advent, my friend John Blase and I are reflecting on the same text each week, on Mondays, from Sunday’s Lectionary readings. We aren’t talking about the texts ahead of time, simply reading and seeing where they take us. To enjoy the full conversation, hop over to John’s ruminations.

Gratitude must be one of the most subversive powers on this crusty, old planet of ours. Not a feigned indebtedness or a back-handed form of social or relational manipulation. Just a plain, simple: Hey, I want you to know that I saw what you did – or I see who you are. I see that you’re trying your best. I’m thankful.

What would happen if President Obama strolled over to the GOP on the Hill and (removed from the cameras and without any follow-up request) said, Fellas, this is a fat, hairy mess we’ve got ourselves into, and tomorrow I’m sure I’m going to do something else you hate, God knows you make me want to put my fist through the wall most every morning. But for today, I want to tell you that I know you’re grinding yourself into the ground here. I know you love our country. Thanks. Or what if McConnell sneaked over to the Oval Office (maybe with a bottle of his local Kentucky Bourbon wrapped in a red bow and tucked under his arm) and said, Pres, you know that most days I think you’re a loon, but that’s not the whole story. I see you’re going grey and burning the candle at both ends while the whole world watches. I know you’re doing what you believe in. I know you love America. Thanks.

Yes, yes, I’m dreaming. But wouldn’t it be something?

Several days ago, I told Miska that if our boys ever figured out what they could get out of me if they consistently approached me with gentleness and gratitude rather than demands or arguments, we’d be ruined. They’d take us right to the poorhouse. I’m a softie, and simple gratitude – a hey, dad, thanks for working so hard and loving us so much - would make me putty in their hands.

We have a week now to simply give thanks. Tell people they mean something to you, that you see them. Offer God a simple thank you. Look your lover in the eye and say, If another gift never comes, you are enough.

I don’t know exactly what this gratitude will yield, but it will do something. I know it will.

 

The salty old folks used to say, “God doesn’t suffer fools.” But of course he does, all the time. God suffers me. And I’m thankful for that. God takes joy in the misfits and the bumblers.

Still, there is truth in these words. It’s one thing to do your darndest but still muff it often, as we are all prone to do. It is another thing altogether to give ourselves over to absurdity because we’re too full of ego or too afraid of complexity or don’t want the certain troubles that arrive with a fiery imagination. It’s a travesty how we trivialize deep mysteries, flatten textured beauties and silence the slow and careful voices — all because we want to control our vision of the world, want it to fit into our delicately packed boxes.

I’m no fan of stupidity, but I have a lot of patience with a bad idea. Heck, I have a couple of them every day. But I’ve little patience with one who steamrolls another person or manipulates the truth or puffs their proverbial chest to build their following at another’s expense. This life is grand. Human beings are amazing. There is wonder everywhere. What are we doing to one another, to our own beautiful soul, with our thoughtless, fatuous obsessions?

Abraham Heschel said, “The cure of the soul begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices envy and conceit, embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival.”

Heschel’s right. We could use to be a little more embarrassed in our world. Embarrassed at what we’re doing to ourselves.

We were in Waco with my folks last week, and trips to the homeland mean lots of TexMex, lots of love and two grandparents spoiling two grandsons. My parents have always been exuberantly generous, but when you throw kids in the mix, things go absolutely bonkers. When my dad picked us up from the Dallas airport, his first order of business was to take his grandsons to the Lego store. Dad walked them into the shop and told them a dollar amount to spend, a figure that to a 10 and 11 year old provided the same rush the old prospectors must have felt when they hit the mother lode. Twenty minutes later, Seth came up to me with several items, plenty to work with but far less than his Pa told him he could spend. When I asked Seth whether he wanted anything else, he said, “This is enough. I don’t want to be greedy.” I tussled his hair. I was beaming.

A couple days later, Seth had a craving for a full-tilt breakfast at one of the local greasy spoons, just the sort of thing his Pa loves. “Go ask Pa if he’ll take you,” I said, “he’d love that.” Seth glanced down, uncertain. “I don’t know,” he answered. “I don’t want to be greedy.”

I’m not sure how this little streak of maturity has hit Seth all of a sudden, but he’s learning something of immense value in this glitzy, grabby world of ours. Seth is learning that there is enough, that he has enough. Seth is learning that we don’t have to stuff our fists and our mouths. Like most of us, he’ll surely continue to struggle with this, but Seth is on the right track. I’m shiny proud of him.

In the years to come, though, there will be another truth for Seth to learn, one that may come just as hard. It’s not time just yet, but soon enough, soon enough. This truth requires nuance, as well as courage. Someday, Seth will need to learn that there are things he’s right to be greedy for, some things he should long after and want more of, some shades of goodness that rightly leave us always hungry for another taste. While selfishly hoarding is one kind of evil, surrendering our good desires and our good hopes is an evil every bit as vile and ruinous. We are right to crave after (be greedy for, if you want to put it boldly) true friendship and deep love and work that matters. We want more goodness, more truth, more depth.

I’ve seen many men and women who, in their late years, know a meager, hollow existence. I want a streak of passion to sizzle up their spine. I want something to begin a slow burn in their gut, in their mind, in their body. I want them to be at least a tad greedy. Greedy for life.

Wise spiritual voices invite us to welcome the humiliation of the ego. It’s a steady drumbeat: real freedom comes when we release the commitment to power, to being right, to holding our life and our possibilities in our strong hands. Writer Jim Harrison knows this well: “I can maintain my sense of the sacredness of existence only by understanding my own limitations and losing my self-importance.”

However, we do not want to embrace our limitations. Our anxiety piques in those moments when we have no answers, no options, no clear path forward. Some of us exert vast energies resisting the reality that we really are destitute or spent or absolutely clueless. Others of us have yet to arrive at our helpless place, but there’s plenty of time. Sooner or later, life has a way of ridding us of our illusions.

There is no reason to bemoan all this. Our inevitable bewilderment provides a gift. Once we surrender the silly notion that we have God or marriage or parenting wrapped around our pinky…Once we get over ourselves…Once we laugh off the ridiculous idea that we’ve got the world by the tail – then we can get on with our true life, our true selves. We need no longer lug the weight of perfection. We can enjoy the carefree life that only the bumbling faithful are able to enjoy.

Wendell Berry said it right. “It may be when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.”

the fabulous photographer michael costa

the fabulous photographer michael costa

Every morning, the sun rises without our help. Each evening, it returns to its bed of rest. We do not contribute to the sun’s labor, and our expertise or cleverness do absolutely nothing to keep this cycle in motion. What we do, our unique role in this grand life, is to prepare space to receive the sun’s heat and energy. We bless the light when it comes to us, and we bless the light as it departs. In the same way, we receive the gift of night, the rest and the leisure and the warmth of hearth and the warmth of family around the table. We welcome these moments, sometimes we contend with them, but we do not rule over them. We are at their mercy.

The Scriptures speak of the farmer who works the soil and then simply waits on the sun and the rain and the earth to do their work (or to not do their work as is sometimes the case). Few of us know this agrarian reality first-hand. But we do know what it is to have done our very best, to have prayed our hardest or exerted our last ounce of energy, only to be left with the bare fact that the only thing left to us is to wait. We wait for a child to come home. We wait for pain to release. We wait for just the smallest glimmer of light to break through.

Miska has created something of a homeopathic apothecary. On the window sill, in front of where I write, sits jars of hibiscus, calendula and chamomile, vanilla jojoba oil, comfrey and calendula. Miska has poured her oils and herbs into the Mason jars. Miska has done her work, and now they sit and soak up the sun which arrives over the Blue Ridge each morning. They sit here and keep me quiet company. Miska does nothing for them in these days. I certainly do nothing. It is no longer up to Miska what they become. This line of jars tells me the truth about my life. Everything is a grace. All is mercy.

There are seasons of our life when all we can do is put one heavy foot in front of the other. It’s tempting in these dreary places to think that something is wrong, that we must muster our energy or our faith and maneuver out of the long sludge. Around a breakfast table recently, someone asked me how I was. I sighed deep. “I’m tired, but I’m surviving.” Another pastor at the table chided me. “Surviving? You better be doing better than that.” Well, I wasn’t. And truth told, I was rather proud of my survival. It’s certainly better than the alternative.

The Scriptures tell us to be patient and to wait on the Lord. We often envision this patience as something born amid spiritual fervor, a kind of contented restfulness as our prayers settle on our still hearts – and we wait. Often, however, our patience, if we’re to call it that, comes when we’re at the end of ourselves, after we’ve exhausted all other alternatives. Over years, contentment and patience can become a pattern, a way of living with trust, with open hands. In the mean time, it’s find to just strap in tight, grip a hand near you and ask God for mercy. God’s fine with that; God has more patience than any of us.

St. Teresa of Avila offers a blessing for these moments, reminding us that all things pass, that the dark hole which threatens to consume is smaller than it appears. St. Theresa reminds us of the one essential: We can live in the very place where we are, this very place, because God is with us. And God is always enough.

Let nothing upset you, let nothing startle you.
All things pass; God does not change.
Patience wins all it seeks.
Whoever has God lacks nothing:
God alone is enough.