thinking theology

Archive for December, 2014

New Year’s Resolutions

Does anyone still make new years resolutions? Our weary cynicism has taught us that we will not fulfill our own goals; politicians will say that election promises were only possibilities; predictions of the end of the world have become the fare of comedy routines.

And yet, in the scripture readings for the week after Christmas, we hear the voice of the prophet in Isaiah looking to the end of exile and the restoration of Israel.

10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. 2The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. 3You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. (Isaiah 61:10-62:3)

It is a wonderful reading for a time of joy, but we know how that prophecy continues to unfold. There have been brief respites, but Jerusalem is more frequently the scene of violence than the scene of beauty and peace.

In the case of the beautiful Nunc Dimittis in Luke 2:28-35, we have a lightly more realistic prophecy.

Simeon took the infant in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And Jesus’ father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

We tend to read this passage hearing only about the light and the glory. I think this is an amazing text when sung at the funeral of a faithful person who has held the light of Christ before them to guide their feet. For the faithful, the path is rarely smooth. It is composed of challenges to the heart and demands on the intellect. Followers of Jesus must let our hearts be pierced, our comfortable thoughts shredded; we must be brave enough to let doubt open new awareness; we must be willing to abandon the certain safety of the past for the upsets of the adventure of spiritual growth.

There is an old fashioned children’s hymn called “Jesus Bids us Shine” The refrain says, “So we must shine; you in your small corner and I in mine.” As a child, I thought it was a somewhat forlorn and sad hymn. Recently, I saw on some social medium, that if you gather enough the candles and you house them in clay pots, you can build a fairly effective heat source for a room. I though about this hymn and about how many followers of Christ are in the word. But, how would we know what colour candles to light?

I think we could look to Jesus instructions: Love God, love each other. Be forgiving and humble. Be generous. Clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort the prisoner. There is nothing in these instructions about what to believe, only about how to act and thereby transformed by our actions.

Instead of new year’s resolutions, we could return to our baptism promises for guidance. I warn you now, we will not succeed, but maybe the goal is not accomplishment, but the humility of learning, of service, however incomplete and inadequate. If we promise to open our eyes, to learn from our neighbours, to dare to be generous and joyful, maybe we will see the light. Even as our hearts are breaking, maybe we will feel the child who unites earth and heaven, moving under our skin, teaching us that we too are worthy and holy and one of his friends on a mission to fulfill ancient promises of peace and healing for all.

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Incarnation

God within, the whisper of breath, slipping in and out,
God around us, the joyful reunion of molecules dancing to and from each other,
God beyond us, the pearly light of dawn, shivering on a horizon, not yet imagined, waiting to be born.

On Sunday morning I was astonished yet again by the wisdom of children. They easily grasped the philosophical complexity of the divine residing within as well as outside us and beyond human knowledge. What was more astonishing was their response to the following quote from Matthew 25:37-40.

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

I asked them what they thought this quote might have to do with beginning the story of Jesus with his birth. They said, “Well obviously you have to take care of a baby. They have to be cleaned and clothed and fed and they cry. It’s easy with babies but harder to remember with grown ups.”

If we believe that in Jesus, the fullness of love was born, then we must say that love is present throughout the creation, not only in one man in history. And so the incarnation is about the “more-than-Presence” entering the soiled and suffering and humility of human existence. In that sense, each of us is viscerally related to all of the earth. The essence of all that is good is immanent, as well as transcending our fear of contingency and vulnerability.

I used to have this romantic notion that human viciousness hurt God but now I think, more urgently, that we wound ourselves. The nails and torture we use to pierce each other, pierce our own bodies. We are dirty and tired and screaming. Our bodies are torn and our souls are aching from too much grief, too much suffering, too much pain. We watch one military action lead to another, one injustice after many, resulting in rage. Our destruction is fuelled by, and reignites, the factories of hate and fear.

We can turn again, however, to a gentleness and compassion that we can nurture in ourselves and share amongst ourselves; a gentleness and compassion that will affect the balance of peace in the world, although not so dramatically that it is newsworthy. The problem is that peace arises from silence and, like roots and seeds, grows in silence. The work of peace lies in connection rather than obedience. The work of peace must allow for creativity, and diversity; it cannot guarantee a design that will not have artistic freedom because that is how Spirit behaves. The work of peace cannot be mandated or constrained.

Incarnation is not only about the sins of humanity. For those of us who experience the more expansive reality that encompasses our earth, incarnation promises a different potential. It is about the peace found in stillness. It is about the birth for which we are waiting. It is about healing all that already lives.

In the still of the night, a woman’s voice cries out in that odd mixture of suffering and joy that heralds a birth; then, a baby cries out, and then there is silence. It is the silence of fulfillment, a moment so fraught with love and power, that the stars are still and the earth is hushed in hope.

The child forgives and forgets the severing and the fear; the mother forgets and forgives the pain. And, finally, love grows in the quiet space before the work of daylight.

The story of the nativity captures the best dreaming of humanity because it allows us to trust that we are involved in an evolution of consciousness larger than our dreams, more elaborate than we could design. The story reminds us that at the beginning of every creation, God observes and pronounces it good. The Dalai Lama said to consider a mosquito when you wondered about the power in small beings. Consider the cry of a baby to call us from complacency. Consider the babies we all once were and the silence from which we came. Consider the stars that make us feel so small but inspire us to dream so high. With God nothing is impossible, and God is with/in us.

God within, the whisper of breath, slipping in and out,
God around us, the joyful reunion of molecules dancing to and from each other,
God beyond us, the pearly light of dawn, shivering on a horizon, not yet imagined, waiting to be born.