Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Little Bethlehem

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie.
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth,
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

We sing these familiar words of Philip Brooks every Christmas season. At Christmastime we sing of the little town of Bethlehem with its dark streets and yet in our minds we often picture a bustling mid-eastern city of today. That is, after all, what we know of Bethlehem in our modern world. We know it from pictures on television or in the newspaper or magazines as a crowded city of about 20,000 – most of whom are Palestinian. The next largest group is Greek Orthodox. And of course there are Israelis – though many of them are soldiers stationed at checkpoints, sent there to keep the peace between Muslim, Jew and Christian during a time of celebration of the birth of the prince of peace.

The prophet Micah wrote, almost seven hundred years before Mary and Joseph made their trip to there, "But you, O Bethlehem Eph'rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth; then the rest of his brethren shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth."

Herod had cause to be worried. If he knew anything of Scripture (and if he didn’t, you can be sure he had those around him who did), he knew that the prophet Micah had written the words of our Scripture lesson almost seven hundred years earlier. The little town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of the great king David, was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah. Seven hundred years of prophecy were about to be completed in the birth of one tiny baby.

For just a few minutes, imagine the little town of Bethlehem as it was as the time of Jesus birth. Use your imagination. Go with me to a time and place that is much, much different than where we live in this 21st century.

First, imagine that it is dark. It is so dark, as you stand on the Judean hillside, that you look up and can see every star shining with an almost blinding brilliance. You behold the great clusters of stars, so numerous you can not begin to count them. The fragrance of the hillside grasses wafts on the air. You feel the ground solid beneath your sandaled feet as you walk along the path leading to town.

The air is crisp, so you pull your cloak tighter around you. You feel the coarseness of the cloth and are ready to be home where it is warm and some food is waiting. The moon is full, so you have plenty of light to see by as you walk. As you come over a small rise along the hills, there is the town of Bethlehem below you. It is dark. And quiet. It buildings, shops and homes alike, sit huddled close together, as though against the coming winter cold. The streets are narrow and people leaning from one shop to another can almost pass goods back and forth across the street. Except it is night. There is no activity. There are hardly any lights showing, even in the houses. Candlemaking is hard work and oil for lamps does not come cheap. What little light there is is often cast by cooking fires that are slowly going out all over town.

You walk along, into town. The stone buildings are close to you as you walk down the streets, towards your home. The street is dusty and it will feel good to get home and take off your heavy cloak and sandals and wash the dust from your body. You brush up against one of the houses. You can feel some warmth of the sun remaining, slowly ebbing away as the night deepens. At last you are home. You are thankful that you have a place to stay tonight. With the census being called, every man is required to return to his hometown and be registered. The city is overflowing with people. The poor innkeeper is going crazy trying to find accommodations for all who need a nights lodging.

As you turn to go into your warm house, you notice someone coming down the street. It is a man and woman. The woman is heavy with child. You wonder why she is traveling in that condition. “I sure hope they’ve got a place to stay,” you think to yourself. “I doubt they’ll have any luck at the inn.”

We don’t usually think of cities or towns as characters in any of God’s dramas, but the fact is that all of creation is involved in God’s evolving history. Jesus himself one time said that if his followers were quiet, the rocks would cry out his praises. And so we find a little town playing a major role in the history of God and his people. The little town of Bethlehem was the birthplace of shepherd king and later the King who was a shepherd.

Perhaps the lesson for us today is to be like Bethlehem. It was a city to whom a promise had been given. It waited for the fulfillment of that promise. It waited seven hundred years. At last, the prophecy came to pass. Maybe that’s what Bethlehem has to teach us this advent season – to trust in God’s good promises and timing enough to wait. For when the time is right, and the promise is fulfilled, in the dark streets of our lives, like those dark streets of Bethlehem, will shine an everlasting Light.
-- Brent

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Wise Men Seeking Wisely

Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar. Those are the names of the mysterious Magi who came to worship the Christ-child. Or are they?

Well, those are the names we’ve given them. But nobody knows what their names really were. In fact, nobody really knows that there were three of them. We suppose that there were three of them because three gifts were given. But, in fact, the Bible doesn’t say how many kings there were – there could have been two or there could have been a whole caravan.

In fact, the Bible doesn’t say a lot of what we take for true about Christmas. It doesn’t say that Mary road a donkey to Bethlehem – yet almost every picture you see of her and Joseph making their way their shows her atop that particular creature. The Bible doesn’t say a hard-hearted innkeeper turned them away, scoffing “There is no room in the inn,” yet we talk abut this heart-hearted man and wonder how he could do such a thing. The Bible doesn’t say what kind of animals crowded around the baby Jesus – or even if there were any animals. Yet, no creche would be complete without a few cows and sheep. The Bible doesn’t record a heavenly choir singing to the shepherds – but that doesn’t stop us from singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” and believing it.

Yes, we have dressed up the Bible story – added some things, fleshed it out a little more to our liking, perhaps. And I don’t see anything wrong with that, so long as we know the real story and the real characters.

What the Bible says about Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar (or whatever their names were) is this – that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’”

So, who are these Magi, why are they looking at the stars and why do they come to worship?

History tells us that most probably these men were counselors to mid-Eastern kings. Schools of astrology had been established as early as 500 years before the birth of Jesus and by the time these wise men followed the Natal star, this caste of astrologers had spread as far east as India.
These scholars were students of the stars during a time when to be such was to be on the cutting edge of knowledge. Their study of the stars was far different than NASA’s. They weren’t looking for the origins of the universe or speculating upon life other than human. In fact, they believed that there was life beside ours – angels and devils and spirits. They didn’t worry about space aliens.

The reason they studied the stars was as an attempt to go beyond ordinary and obvious understandings of life and achieve deeper, more meaningful discernment of the world and how to live in it. These were highly educated men of high moral principles. They were scientific moralists. And, as the Bible story shows, through Herod’s receiving them at court, they were men worthy of respect.

So these wise men are in their studies in a distant land, watching the sky for signs. And what do they behold? They see the planets and stars telling a story so absolutely incredible, that they felt compelled to take a long journey at great expense to see the One to Whom the whole heavens appeared to be pointing.

And so come the wise men, seeking wisdom and seeking it wisely, in search for the newborn king. They come with gifts -- gold as a sign of royalty, frankincense representing spirituality, and myrrh, an aromatic resin, representing healing power -- and also used, prophetically, perhaps, for embalming purposes.

That’s a nice story, but what’s it got to do with us? A number of things, hopefully. For one, most of us in our country today are more like the Magi than the shepherds, though we find it easier to identify with the shepherds for some reason. We, like the wisemen, are well educated, learned people. We may scoff at that image, but we are. The difference is, besides the obvious cultural ones, that the wise men we hear about this Christmas season employed their knowledge in pointing them to the eternal. They did not separate mind and heart and soul the way we moderns do. Their learning prepared them for the encounter with the child Jesus. They journeyed far, compelled by their discovery, to greet this one who had been born. We would do well to use what we know intellectually in the pursuit of a life rich in the things of the spirit.
For another, they gave gifts. We give gifts in honor of them. We spend small fortunes looking for just the right present for each person we love. They wisemen remind us that we would do well to give such gifts to this newborn King. And the greatest gift we can give does not involve money. For most of us, money is an easy gift to give. Instead we are asked to give of something precious – and in this day and age the most precious thing we seem to have is time. We all complain about our busy-ness and how their are too few hours in a day. If we give the gift of time we give necessarily give our hearts and lives.

Finally, there is one other lesson the Magi have for us. And that is, the coming of the Christ is not a fairy tale, one to be told once or twice a year. It is the story of real, flesh and blood folks just like ourselves, who participated in the eternal, as we are called to do.

That is the challenge these wise men who came seeking wisely offer us some 2000 years later. The wise men each used their learning, followed their hearts and offered them, whether they contained words or wealth, to the new born king. May we, in this Christmas season, seek as wisely as did they. For in seeking this Babe of Bethlehem, we like them, will find the one who is the great lover of our souls. Oh come, let us adore him.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Just Joseph

Nancy's setting up crèches -- that's right, plural! Very unQuakerly, I know, but she does love Christmas and the Nativity story. I was in the basement hanging a door and noticed a figure still sitting on the worktable where she'd set them out prior to taking them upstairs. It was Joseph – the silent partner in the Christmas story. Baby Jesus, rightfully, gets the most press. Next come the other featured players – Mary, the Shepherds and the Magi. But did you know even horrible old Herod gets as much mention as Joseph in the Nativity stories? Joseph is named just 15 times in the entire Bible – once just by the sobriquet “the carpenter.” Joseph? Well, he’s just Joseph.

On one level that’s a pretty dismissive statement. But on another, it’s quite a complement.
It’s dismissive, of course, because, Joseph – though silent – is a central character in this drama. Here’s a man who evidently is in love with a young woman named Mary. They are engaged to be married. As a carpenter, he can provide her with a good, stable life. And then she does the unthinkable – she gets pregnant.

When we think of how people of faith are to respond to life’s difficulties, we often think of Job, that marvelous Old Testament man. “The patience of Job” is a cliché that is common currency in our language. I suggest, for all of Job’s goodness, there is an even better model for us today and that is the one of Joseph.

What happens to Joseph is almost as calamitous as what happens to Job. His life and reputation are about to be ruined by the actions of the young maid to whom he is betrothed. Dishonor is about to come upon him. Mary is obviously pregnant -- thought to be unfaithful.

That’s where the compliment side of the phrase “Just Joseph” comes into play. You see, Joseph was “just.” The story tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. As such, he can not marry Mary for to do so would be an admission that he had some hand in this breaking of the law. But Joseph is as compassionate as he is “just.” He’s unwilling to expose Mary to the disgrace of public divorce. He therefore chooses a quieter way of obtaining a divorce, requesting one before two witnesses, as permitted by the law. It would leave both his righteousness (his conformity to the law) and his compassion intact.

Which brings us back to the dismissive part of “Just Joseph.” When Mary accepts her angelic announcement, we celebrate it as an act of outstanding faith and courage – which it is.
When Joseph (who gets his word from God via a dream angel instead of a direct visitation) opens his will to that of God, we nod and accept it. We don’t marvel at the faith of “just” Joseph, nor count the cost in reputation for this man. He turns his life, as surely as Mary does, over to God. This good and kind man says “yes.”

I think there are two lessons for us today in Joseph’s story. The first is to never be dismissive of anybody. God chooses whom He will to do His work.

The second lesson is that of personal goodness. That was the hallmark of Joseph – “Joseph, being a righteous man” the Bible says. An important thing about his goodness is its inward nature, not its outward show. We are called to goodness and justice – but not so that others can point to us and compliment us. Instead we are called to goodness and justice in order that we might better serve the God who calls us.

Joseph lives the familiar words of the prophet Micah: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Joseph acts justly. He loves mercy. And he walks humbly with his God. There is no outward show of false spirituality. Instead he listens and obeys.

May we be, at this season and throughout all of our lives, like Joseph -- people of soulful action.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mary, Mary, Not Contrary

As we rejoice in this season of miracles, we sometimes lose sight of one of the major miracles of Christmas. I am not talking about the miracle of the Jesus’ birth – though, of course, without that miracle no others would matter. The one I am thinking about is the miracle that the central figures of the Christ event were people just like us. I think it is indeed miraculous that God’s eternal drama is played out primarily by ordinary women and men and boys and girls. It is one more way that God connects us with the timeless story of His reaching out in love to all creation.

Mary's one of those people. She's been getting a lot of attention lately -- in books and movies. Most of the time, when I think of Mary, I think of the halo-ified woman appearing in classical paintings. She, in those portrayals, is a saint who is surely up to this task. She is angelic, pure. She is rarely shown as a real human. Yet, that’s exactly who she was -- a real, flesh and blood, teenaged girl. The thing that makes her unique is that she was chosen by God for a great work

A Rosario Castellanos poem helps me think of Mary in a new way.

Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

“Too small for the destiny she must contain.” Ah, the simple elegant understatement of that sentence. That makes Mary’s teenage-ness real to me. I see her more as a tiny, faithful child of God than a plaster saint.

When I read the Bible, it, too, paints a picture of Mary far different than Fra Angelico or Van Eyck. It does this as much with what it does not say as with what it does. What it says is that God’s messenger Gabriel is sent to visit her and announce that she, among all women on earth, has been chosen to bear the Christ. The angel tells her this is because “you have found favor with God.”

What the story does not say is why Mary has found favor with God. For example, it does not say that she has found favor with God because she attended synagogue faithfully, or studied the scriptures diligently, or served on committees, or counted herself a spiritual person or was seen as such by the religious people around her. It does not say that she was chosen because she stood in the temple and prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like others --robbers, evildoers, adulterers. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” It does not say that she was chosen because of any “religious” reason.

The only thing it does say is that she was chosen because she had “found favor with God.”
Her response, after questioning how, physically, this could be, was a simple – or not so simple – yes.

This was no easy “Yes.” This was hard and carried a societal stigma that makes the one we used to force on unwed mothers easy to bear by comparison. What God asked of this young woman was about the most difficult thing she could accede to. And yet she did.

Her response to this is remarkable, or maybe miraculous. She doesn’t try to talk her way out of it. She doesn’t try to excuse herself because of unworthiness. She simply says “Yes.” Perhaps that’s why she found favor with God – God knew the heart of Mary and knew, above all, that she would do what was asked.

That’s why I think there are lessons for us in both what is said and what is not said.
The lesson in what is said is that God chooses people to do God’s work. Real people for real work. Moses, Miriam, David, Mary and many more. The Bible, indeed the entire course of human history, is a testimony to that fact. When something needs to happen, God chooses men and women, boys and girls, to get it done – be it sack groceries for the hungry or bear the savior of the world.

The lesson in what is not said is that we do not have to be worthy in the sense that we humans often apply that criteria. We are chosen because of who we are and our faithful response, not because we fit creedal criteria.

Mary isn’t chosen because she attends more services, speaks more public places or attends more prayer meetings than anybody else. In fact, there is no record in the Bible of her attending synagogue. The only time it is mentioned that she attended Temple worship was at Jesus’ dedication and later when the boy is 12 and she and Joseph find him in the Temple courtyard discussing theology with the priests. There is no record of her reading scripture.

What that tells us, solely by the lack of its being mentioned (after all, just because it’s not mentioned doesn’t mean she didn’t read scripture, pray or attend synagogue) is that Mary was chosen not because she was more “spiritual” (at least outwardly) than anybody else at her time.
That is both a promise and a warning. It is a promise because it says to us all that all God requires of us is a willingness to say yes. That’s because willingness to say yes shows a spiritual depth that outweighs all public professions of faith. It gets to the heart of what God wants from his people. “He has showed you, what is good,” writes Micah. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

“This is the one I esteem,” says God, “he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

That’s a good description of Mary. She trembled at the word that Gabriel brought, but, because of her humble and contrite heart, she found God’s favor – and said yes.

The story is a warning because it reminds us that God didn’t choose a “spiritual” acting person to be the bearer of the good news. Indeed, Mary’s son later issued a scathing indictment of people who acted this way. “Woe to you, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

But if Jesus’ words bother your soul and you find yourself wondering, "Am I like that?” I would maintain that you are more Mary than hypocrite. And that’s exactly what God is looking for. God is looking for men and women, boys and girls, of humble and contrite hearts who desire to walk with God. We, like Mary, may be “too small for the destiny we must contain” – but with God’s loving help, we can, like Mary, be used for great things for God.

We can be contrary. Or we can be Mary. “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”