Friday, December 27, 2013

A unexpected visitor on Christmas Eve

I learned a long time ago that Christmas Eve is filled with surprises.  You never know what little unexpected thing will happen or what unannounced visit will take place. This year it happened early.  When I arrived at church in the mid-afternoon to prepare for our four candlelight services I was greeted at the door by a man with a TV news camera in one hand and a microphone in the other.  He was from the local ABC News affiliate.  He was there to ask me to comment on a local spiritual phenomenon.  Turns out that a man in town was making for himself a tie dye shirt and what should come out of the wash, but an image of the Virgin Mary!   At least that's what he was making it out to be, along with a bunch of other people.  Could it be?  Could the Holy Mother be taking the time to visit a Florida man on Christmas Eve?   The newsman wanted my opinion. 

It had to have been a slow news day.
Truth be told, I had been tipped off by our administrative staff that this reporter would be waiting for me.  So I had a little time to think about what I might say.  What's a Presbyterian pastor to make of an appearance of the Blessed Virgin on a tie dye shirt?  I resisted the temptation to pass the buck to my colleagues across the street at the Catholic church and instead took a crack: "Who am I to invalidate the appearance?" I said.  "I learned long ago not to pass hasty judgment on anyone's spiritual experience."  Of course every ounce of me wanted to say the whole claim was hogwash.  Talk about a Rorschach moment gone bad! In my mind I scoffed just as I would have scoffed at Mary's story of the angel and the shepherds' story of the angel and Joseph's story of the angel.  Those things don't happen that way, my 21st century mind was eager to shout.  But, of course, that was exactly what I was preparing to tell 3000 people over the course of the next 8 hours -- that they do!!  Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth?

Then came the epiphany.

The gospel preached on Christmas Eve is not just a story of appearances, it's a story also of responses.  Every Christmas character has a response to the most unusual sightings. Mary ponders these things in her heart.  The shepherds return glorifying and praising God.  The wise men go home by another way.  Something strange has happened and you can see it in the behavior of the witnesses. Their lives look a little different as a result.  For my tie dye friend the validation won't come from what folks see in the design, but from what they see in the man.

It's the way it's always been.  Christmas takes on believability not from the familiar carol tunes and pretty crèches, but in the behavior of those who've been to the manger. 

The Gregorian calendar does us a great favor when in just a week after visiting Bethlehem we are launched into a new year.  It's the time to start down a different path.  It will be our response more than our claim that will help folks to see that Christmas is more than just coincidental tie dye.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas Without Taking the Credit

It seems that one of the new and growing traditions of December is the argument over what is the appropriate greeting and salutation we're supposed to be offering each other toward the end of the year. There seems to be a growing concern that "Merry Christmas" is going out of vogue and that the more encompassing "Happy Holidays" is taking over. Some of my fellow Christian brothers and sisters see this as one more attack in the culture wars. "Put Christ back into Christmas!" they exclaim -- as if this was up to somebody other than themselves. It seems strange that anyone would insist on everybody wishing everybody the same spiritual exercise regardless of the spiritual tradition. I can't imagine wishing my friends at the neighboring synagogue a Merry Christmas anymore than I can imagine them wishing me a Happy Hanukah. It would be as if we had missed the point. (Though this year we did have a fun Thanksgivukah service together the night before Thanksgiving on the first night of Hanukah.) However, if the reverse were to take place and my Jewish friend were to wish me a Merry Christmas and I were to wish him a Happy Hanukah then we would experience the real intent of the exchange -- a personal wish.

It's all personal, isn't it? We wish Happy Holidays to strangers and that's the way it should be. We're not personal with them. We don't know enough to know what spiritual wish to extend. But for those we know, we get personal. The same would go with a Christian friend who's just lost a loved one -- wishing a Merry Christmas may be a way of saying I don't know or I don't understand or I don't care. Instead my best wish might be to say, "I hope these days are not too difficult for you." Now that's personal.

The shepherds of Bethlehem came away from the manger with no expectation that anyone was going to wish them anything. How could anyone have known? It was too personal. That's what the revelation of God is. They were just minding their own business when the angel appeared and frightened them half to death. Why us? they ask. Who are we to get such news? But got it they did and I can't imagine any attempt on their part to explain it would have been met with anything more than suspicious looks. It was too personal. The revelation of God to anybody about anything -- love, grace, forgiveness, wisdom -- is not a badge of honor or a civil right. The shepherds' story reminds us that whatever we've discovered about God came to us quite apart from our deserving nature or keen intellect.

Rewind the tape of your own life and consider the primary causes for your discovery of what you've come to believe about God. Did it have something to do with your family? The culture you were born in? The kindness of a friend? The care of a mentor? The compelling argument of an author? The passion of a spouse? Were these your choices? Likely not. Somehow, someway the news got to you by hook or by crook. If you really thought about it -- you could find little or no reason to take any credit.

And I wonder if that isn't the best place to be at Christmas -- that place where we find no room for self-credit. The revelation has come and I had nothing to do with it. It just came, sometimes despite myself. The mystery and wonder of that is both overwhelming and humbling. It certainly gives me no reason to insist on anybody wishing me any particular kind of holiday. Those closest to me who understand my epiphanies will know what to say. And if by chance I've cared enough to know what to say back -- well then maybe that's my way of putting Christ back into the holidays.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Day of Thanksgiving

We gathered at Westminster Abbey, a thousand of us, to remember and give thanks for C.S. Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his death -- an end of life date that he shares with JFK and Aldous Huxley.  Friends and scholars of Lewis months ago successfully advocated with the administration of the Abbey for the dedication of a memorial stone in Poets' Corner in honor of Lewis and his prolific and transformative writings.  They agreed that the 50th anniversary of his death would be an appropriate day to do this. So there we were, privately assembled in the cavernous hall to worship and give thanks for this man who brought the faith into the lives and hearts of thousands, perhaps millions, including our own.

Tears filled my eyes as his last ever student read from the Old Testament, his stepson read from The Last Battle and his "loyal to the end" literary secretary, Walter Hooper, laid flowers upon the marker.  All the people who knew Lewis most intimately were there and graced the celebration. 

I am not sure I have ever been in a moment and space where more thanksgiving has been offered and felt. Each person there showed forth a deep sense of humility before the legacy of this great man and his work.  We were all there to say thanks.  But not just thanks, but a deeper gratitude as if to say, "You changed my life and you never knew it." 

No one would have been more surprised over what we were doing than Lewis himself.  The quiet reflective gaze I saw in Walter Hooper's face was what I imagine we would see in Lewis if he had been around for the festivities. 

I came away with the deep sense of "I am not worthy."  It is what I truly feel. I am not worthy of the joy and peace I found in reading and writing about so many of Lewis books, and I am not worthy to have attended such a profound event. 

Thanks be to God.

Lewis at the Abbey

At the beginning of the day I took the chance to visit the National Gallery.  What a joy to pause before the works of Pissaro, Monet, Degas and Van Gogh.  I was particularly struck by Van Gogh's "A Wheatfield with Cypresses" painted shortly before his death.
We spent most of the day attending the C.S. Lewis Symposium at St. Margaret's Church next to Westminster Abbey. Two Lewis scholars, Alistair McGrath and Malcolm Guite, presented talks on the legacy of Lewis. Very well done.  McGrath spoke of Lewis' work as an apologist for the faith and how he told the truth by showing the truth through story and symbol.  Guite focused on Lewis' ability to bring together reason and imagination using Lewis' poem "Reason" as a guide and illustration.
We broke for a Service of Choral Evensong in the Abbey and then returned to St. Margaret's for a panel discussion on the life and work of Lewis.
All in all, a great way to prepare for today's service to dedicate the memorial to Lewis in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Day in Oxford

Yesterday I was given the opportunity to return to Oxford and to visit many of C.S. Lewis' favorite "places".  I put places in quotations because one of the great senses I experienced yesterday was how much Lewis was a person of "place".  Lewis inhabited his places to the fullest.  Many remark how "untraveled" Lewis was -- he never left the British Isles with the exception of a trip to the front lines of WWI early in life and a trip to Greece late in life.  With those exceptions he remained home.  He loved his places.  Once he got to Oxford as a student, he never really left.  He almost gave up a professorship at Cambridge out of fear of having to move from his home in Oxford.

Inside of Oxford he was happy to go to the same old places -- Eagle and Child, The White Horse, his home, etc. He was content to make the walk from his college rooms to the Kilns and remain in either place to do his reading and his letter writing.  The acreage around his home was as much as he needed for his time in nature except when he took his walking tours with friends.  He never learned to drive.  He was content with the space he had been given.  He never felt the need to go to the world; he was happy, through his books, for the world to come to him.

As we toured the Kilns yesterday our group remarked at how small his home was compared to the places where we live.  Each room was humble, warm and intimate.  Most bedrooms had room for little more than a single bed and a desk.  Part of that was the times, but what more does one need?  For Lewis-- a place to sit and read and a place to write -- this was as much a "place" as one needed.  Each room, each place, by his full habitation, became a sacred place. 

It led me to wonder -- how well do I inhabit the places of my world?  Am I content to fill out those few places within my daily life?  Or must I always be on the go, skimming just the surface of each place I glance upon?  I fear it is the latter.  I understand that part of it is personality -- some are wanderlusts and others are homebodies, but are we at risk of losing our sense of the sacred by running from pillar to post?

Where are the sacred places of your life?  Where does your soul take rest, either in solitude or with friends?  Where are the familiar and intimate places? 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Did God answer Jesus' prayer?

This is a question with which I have been struggling a long time.  When in Luke's Gospel we hear Jesus on the cross praying to the Father, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," do you think the Father granted the Son's request? Do you think it was in the will of the Father for the Son to ask the question, and do you think that the Father was more than eager to comply?  How you come out on those questions has, I think, profound implications for what we think about God and the mission of the Church. 

You see, I think it was in the will of the Father for the Son to ask that question. In fact I wonder if the whole mission of Christ was leading to that very moment and that very prayer.  It had to come to that -- the profound blindness and ignorance of humanity strapping the Redeemer to the executioner's posts, humanity's ultimate rejection of God -- and in that very moment, the second person of the Trinity pleading within the Godhead for the Creator to reconcile himself to the fallen creation.  There was nothing anybody could do about it -- because we didn't have it inside ourselves to do it.  "Father, forgive them for they have no idea what they are doing!  Father, forgive them because they are clueless!  Father, forgive them because they just can't see and they are never going to get around to asking for it themselves."  God wills them reconciled.  God says "Yes" even when we say "No".

God is not captive to our human whim!  God is not beholden to our capriciousness.  God is not kept in the waiting room until we make up our minds!  To think so is to empty the cross of its power and love!  To think that God binds himself to the random events and experiences of human life that can turn us in our ignorance away from God, is to end up with a rather impotent God who has put human beings in control. 

I think it's the point that Paul gets around to when he writes, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting their sins against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation."   The decisive victory has been won and what remains is announcing the good news.  Whether people believe it or not, does not affect the outcome.  Christ is risen and there is nothing any of us can do about it.  We are forgiven whether we like it or not. 

Karl Barth put it this way:  "I fear that much of the weakness of our Christian witness comes from this fact that we dare not frankly confess the grandeur of God, the victory of Christ, the superiority of the Spirit." 

Wow -- this is some news!  Something to believe in!  Something that gives you a reason to live!  Because if God did not grant the Son's request -- then I  .... well, I just don't want to go there. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Promises to Keep

I had the chance to lose myself in the collected letters of C.S. Lewis.  It's easy to do.  It's a three-volume collection amounting to around 3500 pages.  3500 pages of letters!   Hundreds and hundreds of people wrote to Lewis, most of whom he never laid eyes on, and pretty much each person received a note back in reponse.   Today I read through a collection of 26 letters Lewis wrote over the course of nine years to a young school girl from Sarasota  who had regular questions about the Narnia Chronicles and a host of other issues around writing and stories.  What an example of fidelity!!!  It's almost like a promise Lewis made to himself: if you cared enough to write to him, he would care enough to write to you.   What a wonderful illustration of covenant. 

Perhaps our Christian witness is most profound in the promises we keep.  Sure, there is much to say, and many acts to perform, but I wonder if we are most like Christ in the loyalty we have to the people Christ puts along our path. 

It's not a bad inventory to take -- to whom have I made promises, and how am I doing keeping them?