Archive for December, 2002
It’s here. Whether our advent waiting has grown as heavy as a filling womb or has raced and jittered headlong to a distracted end. Either way it’s here: the close of waiting and the opening of wonder. Because the “it” is a “he”. And, suddenly, we have far less than we wanted and far, far more. We wanted a God to fill our shortfall, to release our captives, to bind up our wounds—how can we not be disappointed: “you give me this? beautiful, yes, delicate, wondrous, yes, but this? ”
Here, on our hands, is a child—fresh with blood and membrane and yelling for his very life. Who wants a God you can touch? Not like this—vulnerable, demanding, hungry, needy.
A baby to change things. He has to be cared for—not now and then when the mood takes but always, constantly, incessantly. God demanding to be held; crying to be fed; needing to be touched—his flesh pressed to our flesh. Our God needs us. Cannot live without us.
So we pick him up. Gently, hesitantly. Cradle his head. Breath held. Gaze. He is warm. Smells … with that scent of new-babies. He weighs fragile and breathing in the crook of an arm. And, though they say they can’t, he looks—violet eyes find you, hold you. Tiny fingers curl; grasp. New life wriggles, rests, turns to you. A heartbeat echoes your own. His hand touches you. A delicate blessing.
There should be firelight. There should be angels. And kings.
Well, he has us. You and me and him. And candlelight. Carols. Hopes. Promises. Dreams. Lullabies. God touches us.
December 24th, 2002
Why here, why now, and why Mary? … I wonder…
Maybe, in part, because God has a liking for the edge of nowhere, with the poor, the barren, and the lowly. Maybe that’s why God dodges the palace, dodges the emperors’ city, dodges the learned and the rich and all the mighty in any way. But of all the poor, of all the hungry, all the empty why Mary? Why this particular young girl? That’s what I wonder …
I wonder if what is special about her is just one simple thing: maybe it’s just that she noticed when Gabriel came calling. You see, I wonder whether there aren’t annunciations everyday, in every place, in every century. I wonder if angels haven’t been introducing themselves since Eve, since Adam. “Hail Sarah!” Nothing! “Hail Beatrice!” Perhaps a glimmer! “Hail Kylie!” Silence. But, “Hail Mary …” Wow, a response! “Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with you”. Mary actually hears. She notices the unnoticeable angel’s voice. …
I wonder whether Gabriel and his ilk aren’t hurrying angel-wise even now, even here, eyes full of messages simple as sunlight. And I wonder whether I’m missing them—whether they pass me by, no more than a queasy plunge in the pit of my stomach, no more than a shiver of significance twisting down my spine, no more than a burden of joy briefly shouldered and just as swiftly shelved.
Are there frustrated angels with us even now, even here, brushing by on feathered feet, breathing benedictions, and aching for imagination to shape their mystery into message and give them voice. For I imagine them mute—mute and barely visible—until a human heart discerns them, fashions them flesh, and offers them speech.
Are they here now, heartfelt and eager and pregnant with possibility? For the one who was born, an age or two ago, of a young Mary’s “yes” they still bear in urgent arms to be born again in you or in me—that same child of God who might change the world. Might change the world, might lift up the lowly, might visit us with peace—if only we, like she, have a vulnerable heart, an imagination full of hope, and the humble courage to consent.
December 21st, 2002
My brother Phil and his wife Jen discovered a couple of weeks ago that she was pregnant and a second child was on the way, a brother or a sister to my beautiful little niece Becky. Great Advent news! Five days later that little life was lost when Jenny miscarried in the night.
What can you make of that? … of that waste? … of that empty finality?
I’m not sure… but this … maybe…
Every act of love is a risk. Every conception is a miracle—a dangerous, dicey, risky miracle. What possesses anyone to take such a risk?! Only love I guess. Love and the hope of life.
And this, too, is how God chooses to enter our world: just a cell or two in a fragile womb. How can God be so bold? How can God be so terrifyingly vulnerable? Only love I guess and the hope of life.
December 19th, 2002
Part of our community Christmas is a gift-exchange … but with a twist. Every one buys something simple, wraps it, and puts the gift under the tree. Then come the day we each draw a number from the hat and the person with number one gets to pick a present and open it. Easy! But then Number Two has a difficult choice: delve under the tree for some unknown gift or rip the Charlotte Church CD out of Number One’s hands. No contest! Number Three has to choose among Charlotte, a shiny yellow tie, or whatever mysteries still lurk under the Tree. Are you following this? … Number Five was kicking herself for days because she took Number Four’s candle and then found the gift she would have opened was a rather nice bottle garden!
Which brings me today’s message—be careful which gift you settle for because there’s something better promised down the pike.
The promise of the ultimate gift is shining in Isaiah: good news for the lowly, healing for the brokenhearted, and liberty for captives. Oh, and for good measure, joy and salvation, integrity and praise.
But then there’s John the Baptizer? He was with us last week as harbinger of the final harvest, offering a last chance to maybe be forgiven before the end. He’s here again—complete with apparent identity crisis—knowing only who he isn’t: are you Messiah? NO! are you Elijah? NO! are you the final prophet? NO! Someone else is coming, someone better. … John is the open gift and Jesus is still under the tree.
John is the “almost answer.” In Advent we wait and wait for the answer to all our questions, the fulfilment of all our longings, the satisfaction of all our hopes. The Baptizer is the symbol of all the inadequate answers, the half fulfilments, and the sort-of- satisfactions we settle for because a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. But the gospel cries out—a voice in the wilderness—“Wait! Wait for the real gift, wait the best gift.” … So what are our “almost answers,” what are we settling for in place of the best gift, what are we making do with in case all that’s left under the Tree is Charlotte Church?
John we know. He’s always around with winnowing fan, and fire, threatening harvest and God’s judgement. We each have our own inner John. But Jesus opens his ministry not with fall but with springtime, not with the scent of bonfires but with stories of seeds, and growth, and new shoots, and green possibilities.
Isn’t that the choice we face? Will we settle for John and his vision of judgement or will we wait for Jesus to unleash life in us and in our world? Can we wait? Can we trust? Can we hope?
December 15th, 2002
Did you notice how over the top Isaiah sounds when he’s trying to raise the expectations of a defeated, disillusioned people? No longer the bread of suffering and the water of distress—instead a world transformed and full of every heart’s desire: water for the thirsty, pasture for the animals, bread to satisfy a hungry soul, light to scatter the deepest darkness. Oh and a God who walks beside you whispering the way.
What do you want?
There’s a great story of how Ambrose became bishop. It’s the middle of the fourth century and Ambrose, then the military governor of Milan, is called out to the church to quell a riot between rival factions fighting over who is to be the next bishop. Not only does he calm the mob with words of soothing eloquence but the crowd grows still and silent—a silence which is broken by the tiny voice of a child piping up “Ambrose for Bishop!” Well, every voice there joins in … and Ambrose, Ambrose runs like hell. He tries to show the people how wrong they are with a dose of martial law, including a spot of impromptu torture, but to no avail—he cannot run from the people’s call and has to submit to be baptized, confirmed and ordained bishop. And a great one he was.
Sometimes we go looking for one thing and get another. Sometimes we get much more than we bargained for.
This is salvation history in a nutshell. God has to stretch the fabric of our desiring hearts to make them big enough to even begin to hold the riches on offer.
December 7th, 2002
Anybody here from Birmingham? Good!
Sometime in my youth there was a children’s program called ‘Inigo Pipkin’ and its highlight was a puppet pig—who’s name escapes me—who every day, in a bad Brummie accent would shove his snout into his grub and cry with gusto ‘I like food’. ‘I like food.’
I, too, like food and unfortunately it shows. I guess that the unnamed pig marks out one dimension of our complex desire for food: a line that runs from compulsive gluttony at one end to the ache of hunger at the other. I guess from time to time we have each experienced both. We know the way desires can feel like hunger—the physical emptiness and need that craves fulfilment or death. And at the other extreme desires turned passionate appetites which gnaw at our hearts beyond any satisfaction or hope of satisfaction. Throw in the dainty desire of the gourmet for the delectable mouthful and you’ve just about mapped out the territory of our longing for food.
And all of that is appealed to in our Advent readings today as metaphor and physical correlate for our desire for God and God’s desire for us, for each of us.
I believe we only desire God at all because God first desires us. I believe our desire for God—hunger, appetite, or enjoyment—is always a sign of God’s greater, deeper, bolder desire for you and me.
Whatever the desire, the work—the fulfilment—is all God’s … the raw material alone is what we bring—the insubstantial loaves and fishes of our desire. All the rest is God’s. God’s its taking up, God’s the blessing, God’s the breaking, and God’s the giving back to share. God; edible in our hands. God enough to waste by basket-loads.
December 4th, 2002