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Give Up

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Image: God Clothing Adam and Eve, Book of Hours, William de Brailes

“’By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ And the Lord made garments of skins for the man and the woman, and clothed them.” Genesis 3:18, 20

Is this you? You get out of bed planning to be good, but your intentions fall apart before lunch. For all your striving, there’s still too much white space between your values and your deeds. Your life is littered with casual compromises. You rail against idols one minute, pledge allegiance to them the next. You skirmish with your demons, secretly relieved when they win. You’re the grass that flowers by day and withers by night, inconstant as the moon and, as an old hymn puts it, “prone to wander.” Whether purposely, haplessly, or a little of both, like Isaiah’s wayward sheep you go astray. You repent sincerely, and it starts all over again.

After they ate the forbidden fruit,  Adam and Eve found out they were naked and felt, for the first time, ashamed. They were probably scared too. They were about to abandon the Garden for a hard world in which nakedness is a big liability. But God, we read, was unable to let them go like that, defenseless and exposed. They were guilty, not unloved. So God makes clothes for them, personally bending to the task, original mercy for original sin.

It was the first mercy. It won’t be the last. God is relentless: the mercy never ends.

Lent is for repentance. One way to repent is to contemplate your condition, feel guilty and ashamed, and resolve with gritted teeth to become a better person by this time next year. (Good luck with that.)

Or you could repent this way: Contemplate the mercy that has always covered your shame and surrender to it, giving up not beer or Nutella or swear words, but yourself and all your striving. Let God be your holiness, your healing, and your hope.

Divinized

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“The One who makes rich is made poor, taking on the poverty of flesh, that I may gain the riches of divinity. The One who is full is made empty, devoid a while of glory, that I may share that glory fully. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me?”—St. Gregory Nazianzen (329-391)

It’s an ancient theological question: Why did God become one of us?

Some Christians believe it was to fix a big problem—to pay the unpayable debt incurred by Adam’s sin. When he grows up, Jesus will bridge with his broken body the unbridgeable chasm our disobedience opened between us and God.

And if that’s what you believe about God’s purpose, you stand in a venerable stream of Christian tradition, and I won’t say you’re wrong.

I will say it’s not the only way to imagine why God took a body. There are other venerable traditions, and one of them says the Savior came to divinize us, to give us God’s own glory.

God emptied out to take humanity in. God stooped down to raise us up. God accepted limits to dissolve the limits that made it seem, tragically, as if God and humans are opposites. The mystery—the wonder—of the Incarnation is that we’re not.

In this way of imagining, what we wait for in Advent is not someone to fix us but someone to reveal us to ourselves. The gift on the horizon is not a grim course correction but a mirror, a gaze, a joyous shock of mutual recognition—there, the eternal resemblance, the beauty, the dignity, the shining, shining love.

Prayer

O to be the objects of so great an Affection! O this wealth of goodness! O this mystery that surrounds us!

 

You Don’t Have to Be A Woman [Exodus 1:7-2:10]

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Image: Pharoah’s Daughter Rescues Moses from the River–Synagogue Dura-Europos

Our story begins with a demographic problem in Egypt. The minorities are having too many babies. Something has to be done about them before they become a security problem. So the king gets Congress to take away their driver’s licenses, deprive them of health care, and make them clean office buildings for minimum wage with no benefits.

But you know how those people are. They’ll work three jobs if they have to. The Hebrew people survive and keep on breeding. So the king orders two of their midwives to smother male infants right after they’re delivered. They say, “Yes, Sir!” (he was the king, after all), but they know they’re not going to do it. And they don’t.

When Pharaoh finds out, he calls them on the carpet. They wiggle out of it by telling him with straight faces that Hebrew women are prodigious earth mothers who have fast deliveries, so the midwives never get there in time.

When the king realizes that they’ve been scamming him, he adopts a more straightforward strategy. He has his minions throw the boys into the Nile. As it turns out, this is a badly flawed approach to the problem. He makes two huge mistakes—he underestimates women, and he messes with a river.

You don’t mess with water. You don’t foul it with death. Water is life, it nourishes, cleanses and renews. It also kills, of course; but unlike kings, it never kills for ambition, security, or sport. If you defile a great body of water, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. Somewhere, somehow, you’ll pay a price. And when water turns on you, it won’t be impressed that you’re a king.

No, you don’t mess with water. And that’s just Pharaoh’s first mistake. He also underestimates women.

It seemed so self –evident: get rid of the males and there’ll be no one to father new baby Hebrews. No more babies, and it’s the end of the line. And while you’re waiting for the genocide to run its course, you’ll only have to deal with girls. And girls are not a threat. The thought of girls won’t prevent you from sleeping soundly behind your walls.

See what I mean? Pharaoh fails to take into account some important facts. Fact: girls grow up to be women. Fact: women tend to outlast you. Fact: at some point women will put their foot down. They will not join your procession to the grave.

Sick of being hemmed in and pushed around, repulsed by casual violence in the name of order, power, principle and pride, they will finally refuse to budge. “Not our babies!” they’ll say. “Not our people! Not our future!” If Pharaoh had half a brain, he’d leave the boys alone and go after the girls.

But he can’t imagine women thwarting his plan. He can’t imagine midwives inventing a way to bamboozle him. He can’t imagine that at least one mother of one Hebrew baby boy might rummage through her closet and come up with a basket, line it with pitch, test it on the water to see if it will hold him, then hide the basket in the reeds. It’s a measure of how little he knows about women that Pharaoh can’t imagine at least one mother giving that basket trick a try, one mother trying something, anything, to preserve her child.

No, he doesn’t know much about women. Or water, either. He doesn’t take into account that even clogged with blood, rivers still hold things up, still carry things along, even fragile things like a little ark, a bobbing basket with its tarred-over bottom and tucked-away child.

He doesn’t take into account that even sullied and sinned against, a river still attracts bathers. So he can’t imagine that a woman wading womb-deep in the current—his own daughter—will not be able to resist the whimper of even a foreign baby adrift. He can’t imagine that in the reeds on the bank, a guardian and a watcher will crouch, a big sister, Miriam: a quick thinker and a fast runner; a girl with patience and a plan and the nerve to see it through.

If Pharaoh were a man of imagination, if he were wiser about women and water, he might realize that, sooner or later, a floating Hebrew baby boy, snatched by women from the water, will grow up to be a Moses, and that such a Moses will make him let the people go.

He might see that one day this Moses will extend an arm, and there will be a wall of water on the left, another on the right, and a dry seabed in-between where an oppressed people will get to the bottom of things and find their way to freedom. He might see that sooner or later a terrible trap will spring, and that his mighty, mindless army will wash up lifeless on the shore.

But pharaohs don’t usually have much imagination. And so this king doesn’t know that women and water will have the last laugh and the last word, and that while he presides over a drowned army, that baby’s sister will improvise again, this time on her tambourine. Master only of broken chariots, on the far shore he will watch Miriam do her dance and sing her victory song: “Sing to God all the earth! Sing to God a fresh song. God does marvels for us! Horse and rider God throws into the sea!”

Poor Pharaoh. He should never have messed with the water and he should have got rid of the girls.

Well, that’s it—the story of a king disposed to violence to solve a dilemma. It’s what happened to him for ignoring the rules of water and for taking women for granted, not factoring them into his plan. It’s a story about Moses, too, of course, and about God who directed the whole drama from backstage.

But mostly it’s about what happened when an impromptu conspiracy of women decided that enough was enough. It’s about what happened when they decided that there’s never anything to be gained by standing around wringing your hands and cursing fate. It’s about the risks they took to assure a future, not just for a boy named Moses, but for a whole people; and, you could say, also for us. And it’s a good story for celebrating the gifts and courage of the Bible’s women, and of all women everywhere.

But you don’t have to be a woman to have this story be about you. This could be anybody’s story. It might be yours if you understand that Egypt is not some strange land far away, and that what goes on there has something to do with you. It’s yours if you know that Egypt is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got, acquire even more, and sleep peacefully at night.

It’s your story if you decide that enough is enough and put your foot down, if you resolve to try something, anything, to save a life, and not just your own.

It’s your story if you’re clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, angry enough to devise delaying tactics against injustice; if you decide to join the small persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night, thinking up ways to bamboozle the king.

It’s a story about you if against indifference and despair, you’ve chosen to be a launcher of life; if every day you float a frail hope for the future on the vast waters of the world’s pain; if you discipline yourself out of love to wait and watch and pray until, against the odds, all those small hopes in all those little baskets come back, grown strong to liberate and save. Because they will come back. They will.

You don’t have to be a woman for this story to be yours. It’s already yours if you’ve ever had some mindless army breathing down your neck—some sin against you, some sorrow out of control, some intimate danger in your hurt or hollow heart, and you thought that the only way out was to curl up and give in, neither asking nor expecting mercy. It’s your story if, against everything your frightened heart hoped for, the waters you were sure would drown you pulled back and let you through, and you found yourself finally at the bottom of things, on a seabed path to freedom.

It’s a story about you if you’re tempted to think that you can’t make it through another day, not one more step: I’m telling you, this story is about you, and for you it can end well. You can see the break of day from a safe and lovely shore. You will see that day, the day of God’s victory. And when you do, out of your mouth a fresh song will rise: ” God has done marvels for me: horse and chariot he tossed in the sea!”

No, you don’t have to be a woman to sing that song. You only have to believe that it’s wrong to foul life’s currents with death for the sake of something as insubstantial as undisturbed sleep behind a guarded wall.

You only have to believe that it’s unspeakably wasteful to stand by wringing your hands while a procession to the grave goes by, day after hopeless day.

You only have to decide that sticking your neck out to try something, anything, to halt that appalling parade won’t finally destroy you, even if you fail, even if you lose your life. You have only to understand that it is doing nothing that will destroy you. Doing nothing will destroy us all.

No, we don’t have to be women to sing that victory song; to have, like Miriam, the last laugh and the last word. But we do have to believe that no matter which Pharaoh’s army is arrayed against us, no matter the tyranny threatening our hearts—the big questions of justice and peace, the ordinary hardships of life, the misunderstanding or malice of others, the illness or grief we did not cause or want and cannot fix, or the self-defeating troubles of our own making—we are never adrift with no one watching.

Someone who once launched us like a faint dream on a great river is keeping track of us, the same Someone who will, like a woman, know how to seize just the right moment to reach for us, and save.

Sealed with A Kiss [John 20:19-23]

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Most of Jesus’ friends abandoned him after his arrest. They found a place to hide, locked the doors, dragged over the couch, and piled up chairs. They were afraid the authorities would find them and arrest them too. But they got found anyway. By Jesus.

Somehow he got through the barricade and spoke to them.

What did he say?

“You cowards!”

No.

“I’m disappointed in you.”

No.

“It’s payback time.”

No.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace be with you.”

As if nothing bad had happened three days before. As if they’d never hurt him.

He said, “Shalom.” “Peace.”

Now “Shalom” was an ordinary word. A way to say, “Good morning,” or “Good-bye.” It was an all-purpose greeting, as normal as “Hi, how are you?

Picture it, then—Jesus walks through doors to be with friends who never expected to see him again. After what they’d done to him, they probably hoped they never would.

Now he’s here. They’re thinking, ‘Oh, no.” But he’s saying, “Hi.” Shalom.

And with that one ordinary word, their hearts fill up with blessing as beautiful as the blessing God said over creation in the beginning.

With that one, everyday word, their dreary hiding place turns into the Garden of delights Adam and Eve enjoyed before they listened to the Snake.

When Jesus says that unexpected, ordinary little word, it’s like the first day of creation all over again. Morning breaks like the first morning, blackbird speaks like the first bird, and there’s dewfall on the first grass.

“Peace,” he says, and his beleaguered, frightened, wounded, confused, self-protecting, weak, vacillating, sinful, fair-weather friends are made new.

Shalom.

In other words, “It’s over. It’s past. We begin again.”

And then, the story says, he breathed on them.

Just like when God breathed into a lump of clay once upon a time, and the first human came alive, Jesus breathed on his lumpy, lifeless friends. He moved around the room and breathed on them.

It was like he planted a big breathy kiss on each of them.

Or like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which makes sense, since he was on a rescue mission. His disciples were as good as dead. Worry and shame had sucked the life right out of them. So he kissed them with God’s breath. The breath entered them, and they came to life.

Shalom.

And then he commissioned the “kissees” to become “kissers.” To go and breathe God’s healing breath on the whole wide world. He made them emissaries of breathing. People who’d do for others what he’d done for them—to show mercy where no mercy is expected; to pardon when no pardon is deserved; to go around the circle of the world planting God’s kiss on everything.

The early Christians also took that kiss and turned it into a ritual. They practiced it among themselves when they gathered on Sundays to worship. They did it every week so that no one would ever forget the new lease on life Jesus gives us; so that no one would ever forget his command to share his life with the world. They passed the peace.

Now in ancient times when a worship leader said, “Share with each other a sign of peace!”, people actually kissed. And some church members liked it so much they smooched their way around the circle several times. Some tried to practice exotic kissing techniques too. Church leaders had to make strict rules about the kiss of peace. But they never did away with it.

We’re still doing it. Every Sunday. Minus the exotic smooching. Handshakes and hugs are more our style.

Most of us like this time in worship. But some people don’t. They’re bothered by all the hubbub. Some worry about germs. Sometimes people who have suffered unwanted touches feel a little unsafe in all the hugging and handshaking, even thought they know they’re among friends. One woman in my former church didn’t like it because she sometimes fought with her husband on the way to church, and by the time they got to their pew they weren’t speaking. Then, ten minutes later they had to turn to each other and say, “Peace be with you,” and mean it.

It can be awkward. It can require some safeguards. It can be annoying. But we keep doing it. We can’t do without it. Because the more we do it, the greater the chance that what it stands for will come true. The greater the chance that Jesus’ refreshing life will become our own. The greater the chance that over time, a little word and a human touch will bring us back from all the places in our lives where we are dead or dying, restore us to the Garden, to the land of the living, to the ranks of the dearly loved. And the greater the chance we’ll also heed the call to be emissaries of pardon and peace in the world.

It’s not important how we do it—shake hands, hug, nod, good eye contact. What matters is to stand in the midst of a broken world and in the midst of an imperfect church, say “Shalom,” and mean it. What matters is that we assure each other, “It’s okay, it’s over, we can begin again. Jesus is with us.”

It’s important, this moment when we turn to each other and really intend the healing peace of Christ for people we know well and love a lot, for people we know too well and dislike a lot, for strangers we don’t know at all, and for the one who always picks a fight on the way to church.

The promise in this practice is that Sunday by Sunday, Christ’s peace will resurrect us from the little deaths of anger, anxiety, resentment, shame, fear, and narrowness we die each day. Sunday by Sunday, giving and receiving peace will become a habit, so that wherever we go, whomever we meet, our first and last word to all will be, “Shalom.”

Jesus once burst into a hiding place and said to his ashamed disciples, “Shalom.” In this room today, some of us are ashamed of something, or restless about the past, or anxious about the future, or fearful that God is mad at us, or doubtful about God’s care for us. Some of us are just tired. We have broken hearts. We worry about family and friends. Life is hard. We need all the life we can get.

Lucky for us, it’s here. In hugs, handshakes, and a holy word. Peace.

Christ is among us. No barriers we build can keep him away. No fear or shame of ours can overcome his eagerness for us, the apple of his eye, the loves of his life.

Every week he comes into our midst and gives us the ancient gift again. Shalom. Peace.

A new day. A new chance. A new beginning. A fresh and durable hope.

Shalom. Peace.

Receive it with joy. And pass it on.

 

Out of Hiding

Psalm 32: 3-4  While I kept silence, my body wasted away, my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you; I did not hide my iniquity.

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Someone I love is in rehab, his second try. He’s starting over after pretending for years to be sober when he wasn’t. I can’t begin to describe the mess he’s made, the grief he’s caused, the emptiness in his voice when he finally emerged from deep cover and confessed his lie.

Unlike last time, he’s ‘working the program’ honestly now. It’s hard and painful, but not as painful as when he was going it alone, when it was just the bottle talking, telling him, ‘You’re fine.’

Now he’s in better company—a fellowship of the nearly-dead who really want to live. They tell their own stories and listen to each others’ truth. They know they’re not fine, and they tell it like it is. They need each other to make it.

I called him the other day. He sounded different. He sounded overjoyed. In such a fellowship, he told me, you can strip naked and not die of exposure. Even the worst thing is redeemable.

When I heard his voice I wondered, if the payoff is joy like that, why wouldn’t we all want uncompromising light to shine on our deceitful hearts?

Maybe we don’t think we need it. We’re not that far gone. And maybe that’s lie number one. But maybe we’d be willing to come out of hiding if we had some company, a fellowship in which there are no reprisals for truth-telling. No shock, no shaming. Only healing, only the gift of life. For who can bear to see themselves truly except in the mirror of grace?

Maybe we could all emerge from deep cover in the fellowship of church, if only church were such a fellowship. If only…

Blessing of Ashes

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Most merciful God,

bless these ashes,

all that’s left of glory

after fire consumes

the lust of waving palms.

Bless these ashes,

residue of hosannas,

the swelling songs we lift

in praise of might.

Bless these ashes,

ambition’s leftovers,

dusty remains of the days

we believed in ourselves.

Bless these ashes,

fine and flyaway,

insubstantial as the heart

without its truth,

without its truth.