Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Although I know that the beginning of the Church Year was a month ago on the First Sunday of Advent, I am making a series of New Year's Resolutions that were prompted by a very unlikely source, at least for me, an essay, What I Have Learned These Past Five Years: Reflections in Advent, 2008, by the Revd Dr. Ephraim Radner, Senior Fellow at the Anglican Communion Institute and Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. I recommend the essay and here are the resolutions that arose out of my reading it:
  1. I won't insist, or even expect, to have my own way.

  2. I won't make disagreements in the church battlegrounds.

  3. I won't be so foolish as to think that I and those who agree with me have the solution to the church's problems.

  4. I won't demonize those with whom I disagree.

  5. I will be patient, trusting that God will handle everything in God's own time.

I pray that with God's help I will be able to keep these resolutions,

I am thankful for Dr. Radner, even though I have not often agreed with him in the past. Reading his essay reminded me that God can speak to me through the most unlikely people.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Magi

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. [Matthew 2:12 (KJV)]

Although the King James Version of the Bible is not one that I use regularly, I very much like how that translation concludes the story of the visit of the magi. I realize that the literal meaning of the text is that the magi took another route back to their own country, but I find in the words "another way" an invitation to consider how we are changed by our encounter with Jesus. Is it impossible for us to go about our lives in the same way as before? I hope so, but I am very much aware of my own resistance to being changed, of my strong desire to have things my way and not another way, not God's way.

During Christmastide I find myself confronted again with what J. B. Phillips described as the "almost frightening quietness and self-effacement," the "devastating humility" of "God’s intervening into human history" in the Incarnation. God chose to become one with us in our humanity, to become vulnerable like us, that we might become partakers of the divine nature, spirit-filled people, alive with the power of God's love. I cannot avoid the challenge that the Incarnation places before me. Will I allow the love which created the universe, the love which led Jesus to the cross, will I allow that love to become flesh and blood in me? Will I return from Bethlehem transformed, journeying on another way?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


We are nearing the end of what my friend Mary Stengel calls the Hunger Holidays, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas when Americans respond to the needs of those who are very often called less fortunate. Having worked for a number of years as the Executive Director of our county's Commission on Homelessness, I am thankful for the generosity of so many people during November and December each year. But I have a major problem with the idea that the people we are helping are less fortunate.

Calling someone less fortunate perpetuates a great lie about poverty in the United States, the lie that poverty is, if not the poor person's fault, at least a product of the mysterious power of fortune or luck. Nothing could be further from the truth. Luck has little if anything to do with whether a person is poor. What has a great deal to do with it is privilege.

We don't like to think about privilege, about the privileges that we enjoy, much less the privileges that are denied to others. Unexamined privilege is one of the most dangerous features of American life. When we are unaware of the privileges that we enjoy, we come to a very faulty conclusion about ourselves, the assumption that we earned it all. That assumption often, maybe inevitably, leads to the conclusion that those who are poor or homeless are that way, not because they are less privileged than we are, but because they are lazy or simply the victims of bad luck.

During the past twenty years or so, I have frequently taken an inventory of the privileges that I enjoy, privileges that have made it possible for me to live a fairly comfortable life. My grandfather and both my parents attended Ivy League universities. There were plenty of books in the house as I was growing up. There was never a question about my attending college or going to divinity school. My sexual orientation was never an issue when I was being considered for ordination. And, most obviously, as a white male I have privileges that have been, and are still being, denied to men and women of color. To borrow a phrase from the late Ann Richards, I was born on first base, but thank God I know I didn't hit a single.

In about a month our country will have its first African-American President. I am pretty sure that Mr. Obama has made his own inventory of the privileges that he has received. The time is right for all of us to make our own inventories and to stop thinking of those who are less privileged than we are as less fortunate.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Baptize With Water

John the Baptist is often portrayed by artists as pointing to someone just outside the picture frame. The someone, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth who would come to John to be baptized in what Christopher Duraisingh calls a "solidarity plunge" with all of us. Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate, casts in his lot with us, becomes Emmanuel, God with us. In that sense the artists got it wrong - the One to whom John pointed is not outside the picture frame of our life in the world - he is in the very heart of it, transforming the world with the power of love.

It is no accident that the inaugural sermon that Jesus preached - as recorded in Luke's account of the good news - has as its text Isaiah 6:1-3:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

I take this list to be evocative rather than prescriptive, encouraging us to discern for ourselves in these times what actions of ours - as the Body of Christ - would serve "to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor...." In each context in which the Body seeks to live faithfully the answer will be somewhat different. In one place, the Spirit may move the community to house the homeless. In another, God's people may be moved to raise moneyto build a school in Pakistan. In another community, the call may be to work to end legal discrimination against gay and lesbian people. For others the call may be to be present with those who are dying.

The promise of Emmanuel is that we will never be left alone, that God will always be present with us - in us - as we face the challenges of living in these difficult and even dangerous times. The Incarnation, God's choosing to become one with us in our humanity, speaks powerfully to me of God's desire to be God only in realtionship with us - and not only the "us" that we find acceptable, but with all people.

Many years ago, my narrow understanding of God's love was challenged by a poem by the Victorian poet Robert Buchanan. At the end of "The Ballad of Judas Iscariot" Buchanan wrote these lines:
'Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon'd, smiling sweet;
'Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.
'The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!'
The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom's feet,
And dries them with his hair.
May our love be so transformed by God's love that we might rejoice to welcome even the likes Judas Iscariot to the feast.