Monday, December 10, 2018


Every valley shall be exalted
         and every hill and mountain made low.
One of the best-loved verses 
         from Handel’s Messiah is about 
         exalting the valleys and leveling the hills 
         so God can get to us and we can get to God.
Handel got these words from John the Baptist
         who got them from 2ndIsaiah who got them 
                  from the prophet Baruch.

Baruch was the first to say,
God has ordered that . . . 
          the everlasting hills be made low
         and the valleys filled up,
         to make level the ground, 
         so Israel may walk safely 
         in the glory of God.
Of course, he isn’t talking about 
         literal earth moving.
He doesn’t want to turn White Pine County 
           into Nebraska.
He doesn’t mean the hills and valleys 
             outside us on the ground.
Baruch is talking about the hills and valleys 
of our spiritual in-scape, 
the topography of our hearts. 

Hills are obviously challenges, 
        obstacles in our path.
But the valleys aren’t so obvious.
So Baruch explains the valleys.
They are the low points in our lives,
         the failures, the shame, the depression, 
          the loneliness.
Baruch promises God will lift us up 
         from those valleys if we let him.

Then to explain how we let God lift us up,
         how we give God permission to heal us,
         Baruch shifts to a different metaphor.
                  – a metaphor of changing clothes.

Take off the garment of sorrow and affliction,
          he writes, and put on forever 
          the glory of God.
He says to take off the black veil of mourning
         and put on your best red party dress.
We prepare the Lord’s way in our hearts
         by taking off the garment of sorrow 
         and affliction.

Usually, we think of preparing for Christ 
         by giving up our sins.
But these prophets all say something 
        a bit different from what we expect.
They say we get ready for Christ,
         by giving up our habits of misery.

Baruch doesn’t mean we give up 
           negative experiences.
Unfortunately, we can’t avoid some hardships.
So, Baruch doesn’t say to give up 
           sorrow and affliction.
He says to give up the garmentof sorrow 
           and affliction.
That means our identification
          with sorrow and affliction
         – our definition of ourselves 
         in terms of our suffering,
                  our failings, and our shame.
People have a perverse tendency to get attached
         to feeling an old familiar way, 
         even if it’s bad.
We get into a comfortable habit 
       of thinking of ourselves 
in an old familiar way even if it’s shaming.

We may think of ourselves 
          as someone people don’t like.
We may think of ourselves as the loser, 
         the lonely one, 
         the responsible one, the martyr, 
                  or the one people take for granted.
The role of victim is especially 
         in vogue these days.
So ask yourself, this Advent, what tragic roles
         you habitually play,
         because these roles are your
         garment of sorrow.

If we dress for sorrow and affliction, 
         then sorrow and affliction 
          is what the world will serve us.
The habit of suffering clouds our perception,
                  until all our new experiences look
                           just like the old ones.
We see the world through sad-colored glasses.
A wise friend once said to me,
         I was marred at 13 and a mother at 14. 
         My son was a drug addict, 
                  and my first husband beat me.
         If I choose to live in that I can.  
         But I’d rather get on to something else.
So, she did. 
She went back to college at 40, 
          graduated, then joined 
         Volunteers In Service To America
          helping prevent kids from dropping out 
                           of school as she had done.
Instead of living in her victimhood and failure,
         she got on with life.

Advent, is the time, as the hymn says,
to leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,
Advent is the time because 
           this isn’t just pop psychology.
It isn’t advice for positive thinking.
There’s far, far more at stake here 
          than a better mood.
This about is the birth of Christ.
That’s what we are here on this earth to do,
         to give birth to Christ, to incarnate Christ,
         to be the light for this darkened world.
If we aren’t doing that, 
         we’re wasting our time here.

In Advent, we make a space 
           in our hearts for Christ.
We empty out, make room, push things aside.
We let go of old ways, 
             and clear out a place 
              to let Christ be Christ in us.
We shape our soul like the womb 
          of the Blessed Virgin  Mary, 
         so we too can each be a Theotokos,  
                     a God-bearer.

In her poem “The Pool of God,” 
         Sr. Jessica Powers wrote:

         There was nothing in the Virgin’s soul
         that belonged to the Virgin –
         no word, no thought, no image, no intent. 
         She was a pure, transparent pool reflecting
         God, only God. . .

I pray to hollow out my earth and be
         filled with these waters of transparency.  . .
         Oh, to become a pure pool like the Virgin,
         water that lost (even) the semblance of water
         and was a sky like God.

 We hollow out our earth, become transparent,
         by letting go of our habitual gloominess.
We clear out the pain and it makes 
           a space inside us.

Spaciousness, brothers and sisters 
           – spaciousness -- 
         we cultivate spaciousness,
         that Christ may enter us 
         and fill our spaciousness.
Then we will become Christ 
         for a world that desperately needs Christ.
Then we will shine forth the holy light 
         that the darkness cannot overcome.

Sunday, December 2, 2018


The real enemies of Christianity 
             are not our critics.
            They keep us on our toes.
The real enemies are so-called Christians 
         who smuggle their personal pathologies
into the faith and distort it into something false
         – something that makes people 
          cruel instead of kind, 
          judgmental instead of forgiving.

No one has done more harm to Christianity 
          than John Nelson Darby, 
         a 19th Century clergyman who invented 
        the modern heresy of dispensationalism,
  the currently popular version of religion 
  that threatens people
        with the Coming of Christ in vengeance.
It’s the God’s gonna get you kind of religion.

If you want to know the difference 
       between the orthodox faith 
        and the Left Behind heresy,
         I recommend Barbara Rossing’s book, 
        The Rapture Exposed.
For today, it’s enough that you know,
         that dispensationalism  isn’t Biblical 
         and it isn’t the orthodox Christian tradition.

We don’t dread the 2nd Coming as a disaster. 
We pray thy Kingdom come,
         because God’s kingdom is one 
          of freedom and peace.
We pray, Thy will be done,
         because the same God, whose love 
          gave birth to the Cosmos,
         wills mercy and healing all creation.
For centuries, the Church has read the lessons
         about the end times during Advent 
because the destiny of creation isn’t that 
 God will wipe it out,
       but that God will redeem it  
in something that looks like Christmas.

The essence of Christianity isn’t fear 
      but hope in the face of all the chaos 
      we read about in today’s gospel lesson 
      and what we read in the  newspaper each day.

We do not dread the coming of Christ. 
We hope for it.
Zechariah described our God-ordained destiny
         as a day in which there is no night.
Isaiah described it as a time when every tear 
                   would be wiped away,
         and the lion would lay down with the lamb.

In Advent, we are looking forward 
         to something like Christmas
         – when angels will sing and people
                  will be still and happy in reverence.
Hope is extraordinary. 
Hope dares to believe in something,
         to trust in something, we cannot yet see.
It’s the difference between Christianity 
         and the religions that teach 
passive acceptance of things as they are.
Christians are not satisfied with things as they are,
         and we do not want to be satisfied 
          with things as they are.
We hope for better. 
We strive for better.

The German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, says,
         “ . . . (E)xperience and hope stand 
         in contradiction to each other . . .
         with the result that . . .  man 
         is not brought into . . . agreement    
         with the given situation, but is drawn 
         into the conflict between experience 
         and hope.”
He means hope sets us against the status quo.

Jesus describes that contradiction 
         in today’s lesson.
Our experience is sometimes pretty grim,
         but, in spite of experience, 
        we set our hearts on hope.
Whenever the world is falling apart,
         people faint with fear and foreboding.
But that is precisely the time, Jesus says, to
         stand up, raise your heads, 
         because your redemption is near 
         . . .  the kingdom of God is near.

Today, when war is raging around the world,
         the sea is rising as the polar ice caps melt,
         mass shootings splatter blood 
          in churches, schools, and malls,
 wildfires rage and storms drown the coastlands,
         things are falling apart on a grand scale.

When our families split into conflict,
         people we love are lost in addiction,
                  and we are falling apart ourselves,
we are apt to faint with fear and foreboding,
apt to panic or collapse into despair.
But Jesus says, this is precisely the time to 
          stand up, raise your heads, 
         because your redemption is near 
                  . . .  the kingdom of God is near.

That doesn’t mean to roll over 
         and go back to sleep
         because God will take care of it.
Quite the opposite.
To stand up and raise our heads 
         is to engage the world,
         to challenge the status quo,
         to do something godly, 
                  to do something Christ-like 
in the face of all the powers of death and darkness.

Moltmann says,
         . . . (H)ope causes not rest, but unrest,
         not patience but impatience. . . 
         Those who hope in Christ, he says, 
          can  no longer put up with reality as it is,
         but begin to suffer with it, to contradict it.
That means we roll up our sleeves 
         and do something about the melting ice caps 
         and the divisions that rend 
         our nation asunder.
In a world intent on waging war,
         we are even more intent 
          on waging reconciliation.
When the people we love disappoint us,
         we find new and better ways to love them.

Godly deeds and Christ-like actions 
         are not guaranteed to succeed 
         in the short run.
In fact, they are more likely to get us in trouble
         than to make our life smooth 
          and comfortable.
The adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” 
          is usually true.

Mother Teresa kept these words on the wall 
         of her home in Calcutta as a reminder:

If you are kind, people may accuse you 
                  of selfish . . . motives;
                  Be kind anyway. 
If you are honest . . . people may may cheat you;
                  Be honest . . . anyway. 
What you spend years building, 
                  someone could destroy overnight;
                  Build anyway. 
Give the world the best you have, 
                  and it may never be enough;
                  Give . . .  your best anyway.
         . . . It was between you and God 
         . . . not between you and them anyway. 

That’s hope. 
Christian hope is that God redeems 
       all the righteous actions
-- not just the righteous people – 
every righteous act.
Everything that has ever been done 
            or ever will be done
for the sake of justice and peace and healing 
will be brought to completion by the hand of God
                  in the fullness of time.

Our part is to take those actions first, 
         take those actions now.
We act in hope regardless of the result,
         doing what God calls us to do,
         and trusting God to fulfill his purpose.
Advent is the season to practice hope,
         to do something generous or merciful or kind
         – against all odds that it will matter
         – because we trust God, not the odds.

Put a flash light in the basket 
          for a homeless person
         in the hope that it will light his way 
         to a better life.
Send a Christmas card to someone 
         who doesn’t like you.
Write a letter to your congressman 
         even if you don’t think he’ll read it.

This is the season to hope for Christmas
         to pray for the world to be made new,
         to pray to be made new ourselves.
When Lent comes, 
         we will repent of a whole laundry list of sins.
In Advent, we repent of only two sins
         – the sin of sin of satisfaction, that says, 
         We’re just fine, thank you.
         and the sin of despair that says, 
        It will never be better.
         -- both sins against hope.
In Advent, we dream of a better world
         and do our part to make it happen.