Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Work of Christmas

The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God… One week later, was the world truly any different? Was there a giant jump in the sheep futures market? Did the bears’ claws all fall out or did the wolves go on strike? Were social systems turned upside down so that instead of being considered gypsies, tramps, and thieves, shepherds became instant media darlings? I wonder if any of those certain poor shepherds suddenly found Caesar seeking out their advice on agricultural policy or J Lo wanting to marry them. Methinks not.

Probably those shepherds returned to their fields where they lay, to the same old smelly sheep, and the same big bad wolves, and the same stifling social ostracism. In other words, back to the same old same old. Back to the real world, where visions of angel choirs happen only after ingesting certain poor mushrooms and infant kings are decked out in the latest from Herods ‘R Us and not swaddling clothes. Under such circumstances who would blame them if they simply went on with life… and little if anything changed?

Most of us wouldn’t. Change the details around a little and those shepherd’s experience mirrors our own. Candlelight highs have given way to the flatline existence of daily survival and the strains of angel choirs have given way to the strains of muscles and joints as we grind away to earn our daily bread. Hey, hasn’t anyone noticed that the Prince of Peace has come to dwell among us, or are we too busy pushing and shoving in order to get that last after Christmas bargain?

No, it’s back to the same old same old for us. Back to the real world where I have lost count how many times in almost 23 years of ordained ministry I have either dealt with the reality of death (including my own dad’s memorial service 14 years ago) just before or right after that sacred date of 12/25 upon which no one, not even death, is supposed to dare to tread.

The Church in its wisdom has always known that the glow of Christmas gives way very quickly to the work of Christmas. December 26 is St Stephen’s Day, as we commemorate the first Christian martyr. December 27 is St. John’s Day, the day we commemorate the beloved disciple, who was also believed to have been martyred. December 28 is the day we commemorate the Holy Innocents, the victims of King Herod’s (and his modern analogues) fear and paranoia.

The glow of Christmas is over. The work of Christmas has begun. A baby’s cry quickly gives way to a mourner’s cry. Swaddling clothes are exchanged for grave clothes. The sweet smell of hay yields to the putrid stench of death.

The glow of Christmas is over. The work of Christmas has begun. The manger will be retooled into a cross and many will rise and fall because of it. That is what crazy old Simeon told Mary that day in the temple courtyard. And he promised her that a sword would pierce her own tender mother’s heart in the process. Such a deal I have for you, Mary… the glow of Christmas giving way to the work of Christmas.

The work of Christmas… The work of the incarnation in our hearts and in our lives retooling God’s dwelling within us into a cross-shaped throne from which God’s reign is extended to world. One life at a time; one day at a time. That’s the formula. That’s the game plan. It is a process of slow but steady infiltration. It is like water slowly but surely dripping a path through solid limestone. One life at a time; one day at a time. For each life and each day are of special importance to the Creator of time and space who cradles eternity in the palm of her hand.

One life at a time; one day at a time. The glow of Christmas is over. The work of Christmas has begun.

I am the Unlikely Pastor; welcome to my world and God's richest blessings for the New Year. Peace out.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Something About Mary

The lead all of a sudden wwent taut pulling her off balance and practically jerking her shoulder out of joint. A brief cry of pain and surprise escaped from her lips as the lead escaped from her grasp. On the other end, the donkey, weightd down with her hastily gathered clothing and supplies, was refusing to budge, As a sudden wave of nausea overtook her, she thought to herself, "This is as good a place to stop and rest as any."

She rode out the wave of nausea and opened her cache of supplies to find the matzah that she had packed for just such an occassion. For its part, the donkey stared blankly and inscrutably off into space.

As she pecked at the the matzah in front of her -- she never really liked matzah much -- she remebered how her girlfriends who were married and had begun raising their families had said that it helped their bouts with nausea. So she pecked and hoped for the best. A few pecks and a sip of water later, the wave began to roll on through and her insides slowly began to settle. With the relief came the calmness to reflect on the events of the past few weeks.

"Don't be afraid, Mary," the angel had said to her. Don't be afraid? Who was he kidding. There was a reason that the rabbis taught people to fear visitation from the divine realm. Lives ended up being turned inside out and upside down. All she had ever wanted out of life was to marry, settle down and raise her family, and grow old together with her husband and plenty of grandchildren. Joseph wasn't the most handsome guy she had ever met, and his social skills were, shall we say. a bit lacking; but one look into his eyes, and she saw straight to the depths of his soul, and she knew that beneath the rough and awkward exterior lay a kind, gentle, decent man who would care for her and their family -- and that was really all she could ask of any man.

As their engagement had progressed, she had grown to respect, and yes, even to love him. But how could she explain all of this to him? She had rehearsed it a million times in her mind. "Joseph, dear, I'm preg... Joseph, I'm preg... I'm going to have a bab..." But the words just wouldn't come out. They stuck in her throat much like her nausea asuaging matzah. How could she tell him? How could she break his heart like that? He deserved so much better than this. And how would he react? There was no telling. The wave of nausea gave over to a wave of sobbing. "Don't be afraid, ha!" Easy for you to say Mr. Divine Messenger. "Favored one," he had called her. What had she ever done to seserve such favor? The donkey continued to stare intractibly off into space.

She dropped to her knees. How can this be happening to me? Who am I? Just a simple girl with simple dreams, no more; no less. I don't merit this. I didn't ask for this. I'm not even sure I really want this. But God wants this for me, and so what else is there to say except, "Bring it on! I am the Lord's servant, let it be as God desires." Now that we've got that matter settled, how about favoring me with a little help in breaking the news to mama and papa and getting my dear sweet Joseph to understand, please?" She really needed to get away, to take a step back from the whole experience and clear her head.

So she she hastily thrown together a few provisions and headed off to Elizabeth's under cover of darkness. Elizabeth had always been her confidant, her mentor, her spiritual and life coach. She had girlfriends, but to Mary, they too often seemed shallow and so wrapped up in themselves. Mary had alwys been possessed of a very deep and serious persona, and Elizabeth with her years of life experience had always proved a ready source of strength and non-judgemental guidance. She knew that she would need to tap deeply into that vein now. If anyone could provide wisdom and counsel, it was Elizabeth.

She felt something cold and wet against her cheek. The donkey was softly nuzzling her. She patted the donkey, staring into those soft brown eyes which suddenly seemd to be filled with knowing compassion. She rose to her feet, the nausea completely gone, the tears leaving a a saalty trace on her cheek, and once again taking the lead in her hand resumed her journey.

Her last thoughts were of the angel's words, "With God nothing is impossible." There was hope in her life and her world after all. Hope which enabled her to respond, "I am the Lord's servant. Let it be as God wants." Hope which had turned he world upside down and inside out. Hope which grew deep inside her, and would be born into the world. Hope for all humanity. With God nothing is impossible. Hope lives and breaths; dies and is raised to life again. With God nothing is impossible. Only hope...

Mary's story is our story. Theo tokos, God bearer. We are the bearer's of God to the world. It is through us that the Word, present from the beginning of time, becomes incarnate anew. And who are we that we are so favored? We didn't ask for this. We're not even sure we really want it. But this is what God deeply desires for each of us. May we like Mary be given the grace to realize that even tough our lives will end up turned inside out and upside down, that there is hope in the world after all. And amy we like Mary be given the caourage and the faith to respond, "Bring it on. I am the Lord's servant. Let it be as God wants." Amen.

I am the unlikely pastor, welcome to my world and have a "Mary" Christmas.