It’s Advent, and I know that for most, the tree is up and the holiday spirit is on. There is a goodness to the holiday spirit that pervades this time of year. In the darkness and coldness of the coming winter, there is hope and light and warmth.
“Ring Them Bells” is an old Bob Dylan tune. It almost sounds like a Christmas song, but for me, it is an Advent song. “Ring them bells from the sanctuaries… for the world’s on its side, and time is running backward, and so is the bride.” Dylan’s lyrics are usually a bit cryptic and always open to interpretation, but certainly the world is on its side, and it would be fair to say that it often feels like we are running backwards, and if the bride is the church, it is truth enough for us as well. There is so much that resonates for me in the song. It is hard to believe that it was written 25 years ago.
It feels often enough like we are not getting anywhere, like we are stuck in a snow drift with the wheels spinning and we have no idea how we will get free. These are not such hopeful times. By plenty of measures, we are stuck. As a country we are divided and as a church we cannot seem to figure out what we are about. The future seems so uncertain.
Still we put up the tree, we play some carols, and amazingly it brings us to a better place. What was dark and cold becomes bright and warm and hopeful. There is something evangelical about it as well. We can ring it out for the rest to hear…
The truth is that the movie the “Greatest Showman,” probably sugar-coats P. T. Barnum a little more than might be appropriate. After all, the saying “there is a sucker born every minute,” is most often attributed to him. In his quest for money, he was was responsible for the abuse of both animals and some of the human attractions in his shows. Still, the circus was the vehicle that brought a certain sense of light to those “who were accustom to living in the darkness.”
“This is Me” was the lead song at the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering. The movie may have been about P. T. Barnum, but the song is more about shining light into the darkness. It is about bringing light to those personal truths that our culture might rather keep out of sight. In the context of the Youth Gathering this was a litany of the social and cultural issues of our day: addiction, abuse, race relations, and sexual orientation to name a few.
There is good reason to focus on the often systemic reasons that have made these issues what they are. There is a call for justice. But that, it seems to me, is a matter of the circus master. While it is a worthy effort to deal with those in power who so often are the root causes. There is also the matter of the performers. Those who live with the truths of all that their circumstances have created.
“I am not a stranger to the dark Hide away, they say ‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars Run away, they say No one’ll love you as you are”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the light that shines in the darkness. That light is the light of love. It is truth that God is the one who “love(s) you as you are.” I think we have been taught to feel shame with those things that might be uncomfortable to those around us.
There is an expression that I think most people, parents in particular, know pretty well: to be “caught in a lie.” You know the scenario: someone is speaking and most often without even realizing it, does or says something that makes it clear that they have just lied. If you are a parent and this is your child, you meter out the punishment and hope to influence your child’s developing values. As your child grows (hopefully) your methods of parenting change.
A man runs up to Jesus and in the exchange the man pretty much says that he has never broken a single commandment since he was a child. Murder, adultery, thievery, those are seemingly easy, but false witness, fraud, honoring your father and mother… the list gets harder, but he the man says “yes I have kept all of them since my youth.” How is that possible? I think Jesus caught the man in a lie. But instead of calling him out on how unlikely it was that he actually had been able to maintain that level of faithfulness to the law, raised the stakes. If you want to inherit eternal life, “sell everything and give the money to the poor, then you will inherit the eternal life that you desire.” It might not sound like it, but it was the gracefulresponse.
The unrealized truth in all of this is that just like the love between a parent and child, there really is nothing that we can do to inherit eternal life. Inheritance is something that is given with relationship, not something that we achieve! There is plenty in life that we have to work for to achieve, to strive for, and often enough to fail at. In this life there are precious few things that we are entitled to. The love between parent and child is or at least ought to be one of them. I think it is the most helpful model we have of our relationship with God.
The world can be a hard place. There are laws and rules and procedures we strive, and in the end we fail. We might achieve some measure of success, but that next place where we sin and fall short is usually just a few steps away. We fall! “Fall On Me” is performed by a well known opera singer and his 20 year old son. The son begins. He is looking for divine inspiration that does not seem to come and instead his heart is broken. The father, being an opera singer, responds in Italian and we might miss it. He tells his son that direction and meaning will come.And he suggests that it will make him smile if in the time he has left his son brings him along. In loving we are loved. In giving we receive. We fall on each other, and we fall on God, and most often it isa matter of falling.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. Isaiah 25:6
The kingdom of heaven is often described as a great banquet in the Bible, a gathering around a table. There is something that connects people when they gather around food. That it would be a comparison of the kingdom that is to come, is to say that gathering around a table is a holy act. Of course it is about more than just food. It is about the ones who are there and in sharing food, there is more than just eating and drinking. Connections are made and affirmed. It is powerful.
Babette’s Feast∗ is the story of a remarkable and lavish feast prepared for people who not only would never expect such a thing, but would see it as contrary to God’s plan. How a couple of elderly and pious Scandinavian sisters end up with a French housekeeper is remarkable detail of the story. How a French chef ends up preparing the bland and unremarkable food of their piety for years, is the back story. How she wins the French Lottery’s 10,000 franc prize but instead of using the money to return to France, uses it to prepare a feast to honor of the sister’s late father and founding pastor’s 100th birthday is the essence of the story! It is a gift that the congregation really does not want because among this pious congregation there is a certain pride in their meager provisions. However in receiving her extravagant gift, their distrust and superstitions are broken down.
It is no surprise then that Jesus took the altar, the traditional place of sacrifice and turned it into a table. This is my body given for you… This is my blood shed for you. Yes, it is the language of sacrifice. It was the tradition of the temple. Yet Jesus turns it into a meal, bread and wine, a loaf and a cup, shared. As Lutherans like to say, “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
When I first heard the song “Come to the Table,” my mind went immediately to Holy Communion. Much later I saw the video that was put together for the song by the Sidewalk Prophets and I found myself thinking of our Wednesday night supper/services….
∗ A link to the short story by Isak Dinesen is found here, there is also a 1987 film of the story with the same name (it is available here on Amazon Prime, and probably other places as well)
do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10
Fear is an enemy. In 1933 a few years into the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said some words that are probably even better known than the legacy of his presidency: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…” Roosevelt was pointing out a truth at a particularly unhopeful time in the life of this country, that fear was the enemy.
Sometimes the fear comes from outside. Something done to us, a diagnosis given to us. Sometimes it is our inner critic that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not lovable, and not good enough. Often it is both inside and outside. It is the voice that convicts. It is with good reason that one of the names for the devil is the accuser because that is what the devil does. It really does not matter whether you believe that the devil is a being, the human reality of evil, or our own shadow side. The voice is the same- it says that we are what our circumstances define us as. It robs us of hope and its currency is fear.
The thing about fear is that it is a voice that we listen to even when it makes no sense. It is like a conversation with a dark reality that incessantly whispers the very words that undermine life. It is a voice that lies. To quote Zach William’s song, Fear Is A Liar.
God is a God that accepts us as we are, not as we wish we were or as we wish things would be. I can make a list of all the things that are not where I would like them to be in my life. I can even try to change the things that are changeable, but in the end it is a matter of giving it up to God. The God who comes to us in Jesus is most profoundly a God who turns fear into hope and hope into life!
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7
“It Is Well With My Soul.” It is a deceptive song, in part because is sounds like a message that that is comes from some place of comfort…It is well with my soul. The trouble is that sometimes we are not well. We are broken, and the words might come as a prescriptive proclamation that might not seem so helpful in the depths of despair…
Horatio Spafford was a lawyer and successful businessman. In 1871 he and his wife lost their young son to pneumonia. In that same year, much of his business was burned in the great Chicago fire. In 1873 his wife Anna and his 4 daughters were crossing the Atlantic when the vessel they were on collided with another ship. All 4 daughters were lost at sea but Anna survived. When she arrived in Wales, she wired her husband the sort of short message that the recently invented telegraph made possible: “Saved alone, what shall I do?” He took the next available passage to join his wife. It is said that he wrote the song “It Is Well With My Soul” onboard the ship.
One would imagine that he was saying it was well with his soul, when it was not well with much of anything else. It is meant to be a little haunting I think. It is sometimes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other even when things are dark and turbulent. It is a matter of understanding that no matter how bad things are, God is there with you.
God did not promise that following him would lead to an easy, successful life. Instead God promised a redemptive life! One that offers hope when there is no apparent hope. No matter how bad it gets, it is well with your soul…
Accept one another, then, just as Christ has accepted you, in order to bring praise to God Romans 15:7 NIV
I fear we live in a world that seems to say too often that we are what we accomplish. We believe that hard work and perseverance will get us what we set out to do, and sometimes that is the case. But if we are honest, success is often the product of something that looks a lot more like blind luck. Still, we give praise, honor and acclamation to those who win. The trouble is we too often measure ourselves by success.
So we try our best and attribute our success to a combination of our hard work and perhaps God’s blessing. I think we are really good at teaching people to work hard and accomplish what they set out to do. I suppose there is good, practical advice in that, but the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is only a matter of time before you fail. I think faith in winning is false hope and certainly not in line with the faith that is spoken of in the Bible. Faith in Jesus is faith in a hope that transcends failure.
It’s a part of my personal pathology, that the highs tend to be very high and the lows, very low. It is tempting to see God in the highs and the absence of God in the failures. The truth is God is there in the highs and in the lows! Life oscillates. Are we the sum of every high and every low? In some ways yes, but in other ways, especially when it comes to faith, the answer is a resounding no. God accepts us and embraces us in spite of our highs and in the midst of our lows! God bears with us in our successes and in our failures. It is a little strange how contrary that is to the message that we often hear, which is much more conditional.
God accepts us as we are! God will be with us in every failure and with us in every victory.