Sunday, December 30, 2012

Increasing In Wisdom

Luke 2:41-52
December 30, 2012

            What goes around comes around.  At least it seems in parenting.  My mother didn’t like taking me shopping when I was a little girl.  And it wasn’t necessarily because I acted up or threw temper tantrums.  It was because I deliberately got lost.  We would be in a department store, she would turn to look for whatever it was that she was there to buy, and I would slip away. 
            My mom learned not to panic too much because she knew what was coming next.  I liked to get lost because I learned very early on that all I had to do was find a salesperson and say, “I’m lost from my mommy.”  The salesperson would take me to customer service and announce my description and name over the PA system and in a few minutes, my mother would come and pick me up.  I really liked hearing my name on the loudspeaker.  Yet when I became a parent, I understood why my mother found that tiresome. 
            Although bad things certainly happened to little kids when I was that little kid, we didn’t seem to hear about it as much.  Now I know full well what can happen to a little one when they get separated from a parent in a store, and there are no words to describe the panic and terror you feel when you realize your child isn’t with you.
            Zach was my child who liked to wander away.  I tell this story with his permission.  He is the child who taught me how terrifying it is to lose your child.  In 2005 we were planning our first trip to Greece to see my sister and her family.  Phoebe was just six and Zach was three-and-a-half.  It was February, President’s Day weekend, and we were leaving in March.  We all had the day off of school and we went to the mall in Rochester, Minnesota to do some shopping for the trip.  By the time we actually got to the mall, it was lunch time so we went to the food court first.  Phoebe had to go to the bathroom so Matt took her while Zach and I stood in line for his lunch.  I had just gotten the food when Zach started to walk away from me.  I had my eye on him.  I warned him to stay by me.  But he would slide a little further away, grinning at this game we were playing.  I was just about to follow him and end the game when I dropped my change.  I bent down to pick it up, looked down for a millisecond, looked back up and he was gone.  Because schools were out the mall was crowded.  And he was one little boy in the midst of hundreds of people.  I didn’t panic at first thinking I would see him in just a second, but seconds were going by fast and he was gone!  Matt and Phoebe returned.  I took Phoebe and Matt went over to the Disney store right across from the Food Court.  We hoped that Zach would go there.  No Zach.  But the saleslady called security for us. 
I’m sure I must have looked as panicked as I felt. It was obvious that we were looking for a child, and a crowd of people were gathering around listening to the description I gave to the security officer.  Suddenly another mother said, “Is that him?”  And here comes Zach zigzagging down the long hallway toward me. 
            I have never been so relieved and so angry all at the same time.  I dropped to my knees, took him by the shoulders and started crying, all while I was saying, yelling, “Where have you been?  You scared me half to death!”  Then I hugged him and cried harder.  I suspect that every parent who witnessed this knew exactly how I felt. 
            When we read this story about Jesus being lost, I can imagine pretty clearly how Mary and Joseph must have felt as well.  Jesus was twelve, still a child according to Jewish custom, but old enough to know not to get lost.  Mary and Joseph were devout Jews and they made the trip to Jerusalem to Passover as religious law required.  It was probably about a three day trip on foot.  And they would have traveled in a large company of extended family and fellow sojourners.  So when they headed for home, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t have known exactly where Jesus was.  I imagine that they assumed he was walking with other folks in their party.  But when they went to look for him, he wasn’t there.  He wasn’t anywhere.  And I don’t care who you are or at what you time you lived, when your child is missing, you’re scared.  You panic.  Mary shared the same emotions that I felt and that every parent feels.  Jesus was gone.  So they turn around and head back the way they came.  Indeed they go all the way back to Jerusalem.  They search for three days.  Three days!  Finally they find him in the temple listening and learning from the teachers, the rabbis.  In fact he was astounding and amazing the teachers at his wisdom and understanding. 
            Can you imagine the absolute relief Mary and Joseph felt when they saw him sitting there?  Can you also imagine the anger they felt when they saw him sitting there?  Mary says, “Child, why have you treated us like this?  Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  Jesus responds, “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  They didn’t understand the meaning of his words, but he goes back to Nazareth with them and obeys them from that point on. 
            Once when I was a teenager, I was preparing to head out the door.  My mother asked me where I was going and I said, “Out.”  Her response back was not something that I like to share.  I cannot fathom how she would have responded had she and my dad been looking for me for three days and I had responded as Jesus did.  “Why were you searching for me?”
            My 21st century ears hear a snotty tone in Jesus’ voice. But I don’t think that Jesus was trying to be a smart alec.  I think that he just responded honestly.  Even at twelve, even as a child, Jesus knew that his identity and purpose in life was wrapped up in the teachings of God his father.  When he says that he must be in his Father’s house, he was telling the truth.  He must be in his Father’s house.  That was his identity.  He knew, instinctively, cognitively, emotionally that his identity was intimately tied to his Father’s identity.  And his father in this sense was not Joseph, but God.
            If this were any other twelve year old we might find it remarkable that someone so young would have such a keen grasp on his whole purpose for being.  Let’s face it I’m a lot older than twelve, and I’m not there yet. 
            But what would it be like if I did? 
            In these last days of the year, I think we all look back at the last twelve months and reflect on what’s happened and what hasn’t.  What have we accomplished?  What did we miss?  Where did we succeed?  Where did we fail?  Was this past year one that we’re just glad to survive?  Or would we go back and relive it if we could?  At the end of every year I find myself asking questions about identity and purpose.  Have I come a little closer to understanding who I am and why I’m here, or am I still just as confused as ever?    
            Jesus knew that his identity and purpose and meaning and reason for being were wrapped up in God’s purposes.  He didn’t need to spend years trying to find himself, or ponder his entire existence trying to sort it all out.  He turned toward God and knew who he was.  Of course he was the Son of God.  What else could he do?  But shouldn’t we all do that as well?  Being lost isn’t just getting separated from your parents in a mall, it can also be a state of being.  One way I think this happens is in the way we try to measure ourselves against an ideal of success that isn’t real; that’s based on criteria that is artificial.  Success becomes something we can buy.  It becomes what we own or how we look.  I know that my identity isn’t found in the size of my home or the car that I drive or the jewelry I wear or the clothes that I purchase.  But it feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  And if I give into that too much, and try to find my identity in those things, I wind up disappointed and feeling more lost than ever before. 
            So what do we do?  What do we do?  We increase.  After Jesus told his parents that they should have known to look for him in his Father’s house, he obediently returns to Nazareth with them, and there he increased in wisdom and in years. 
            Even though Jesus may have known this about himself at 12, he doesn’t start his public ministry until he’s 30.  And while we don’t know the specific details of what he did in those years, we can surmise this.  He increased.  He increased in wisdom.  He increased in understanding.  He increased in prayer, in study.  He increased. 
            I think that’s my hope for this new year.  I won’t be making sweeping resolutions.  I just plan on increasing, in prayer, in study, hopefully in wisdom, bit by bit, day by day.  I know that I won’t figure out the deepest purpose of my existence in these next twelve months, but I also know that if I just keep living into the questions, maybe the answers will seem a little clearer this time next year. 
            But even more than wisdom, I hope that in the days and months ahead, I increase in love.  I want to increase in my compassion and empathy and concern.  I hope that my increase is enacted more fully in my words and in my deeds.  Because I think, when it comes right down to it, as I increase in love, the rest will work itself out.  So in this new year, in every new day, let us increase.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Poem for Christmas Eve

Nights with a newborn
Are anything but silent
Darkness’s deep stillness
Broken by wails
Hunger or loneliness
A need for holding

Worse than the cry
Is a too long quiet
Anxious listening follows
Waiting for steady drumming
One tiny heartbeat
Whispered sighs of breath

You arrived as
We all do
Tears of pain on your
Mother’s face mingled
With those of joy
When her eyes
 Met yours

What birth is not
Accompanied by
great expectations?
What birth is not
Filled with

But was ever
There a child born
That carried
Such longings
Of a world enveloped
In darkness
More than you?

Was there ever
A birth so
Humble, yet
So holy

Was there ever
A child born
Foretold by prophets
Preceded by glory
Already bearing names
Grand and great for one
So small

Mighty God
Everlasting Father
Prince of Peace

Our Prince
Our peace
In this dark night
In this silent night
That is our longing
Our dream
Our hope


A baby,
Usher God in
With your first cry
Angels sing
The lowly rejoice

A man,
Usher the Kingdom in
With your word
What is broken
Is whole
What is lost
Is found

On this night
This silent night
The beginning
The end
The evermore
We welcome
In a newborn’s cry


Sunday, December 23, 2012


Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
December 23, 2012

            When I was a little girl, probably no older than a Kindergartner, I learned a song that I absolutely adored.  I would sing it loudly and with great enthusiasm.  I’m not sure if I learned it first in school or at home, but I know we sang it in school.  I’m going to start the song, and you join in as soon as you recognize it. 
            “This land is your land.  This land is my land. 
            From California to the New York Island.
            From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
            This land was made for you and me.”
            “As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
            I saw above me that endless skyway;
            I saw below me that golden valley:
            This land was made for you and me.”
            As I said, I sang that song with gusto!  I loved it.  I still do.  When I first learned it I knew it was written and sung by a man named Woody Guthrie, but I knew nothing more about him than that.  I just loved his song.  It seems that life really has come full circle now that I’m an unofficial Okie, living not that far away from where Guthrie grew up. 
            But while I loved the chorus and the first verse of this song, they were the only parts of the song that I knew for a long, long time.  It really hasn’t been until recent years that I learned Guthrie wrote this essentially as a protest song.  One story I read is that it was in reaction to the song “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin.  Guthrie felt that song was too staid, and as my research suggested, he grew tired of hearing Kate Smith singing it on the radio – a lot. 
            So he wrote “This Land Is Your Land” in response.  Here’s one of the verses I didn’t learn as a child.  “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me.  A sign was painted, said ‘Private Property.’ But on the back side it didn’t say nothing – this land was made for you and me.”
            Yeah.  My proper teachers in school weren’t going to teach us that one.  Even though I doubt we would have understood the implications of Guthrie’s words, I’m sure they would have been afraid that we would hear lyrics like that and decide to ignore all private property signs for the rest of our lives. 
            I don’t want to imply that Woody Guthrie was necessarily suggesting that either, but this song is really a protest song.  He was protesting the idea or the belief that the land belonged only to those who could afford it.  He was protesting the notion that land, like every other commodity, could be co-opted and unfairly distributed by the wealthy.  This land was made for you and me.  This land belongs to all of us.  Woody Guthrie wrote from the position of one who is marginalized, disenfranchised.  His music, his words were a protest against how those at the bottom were treated.  This land isn’t just for the richest of the rich.  This land was made for you and me.  Every person, rich or poor.  All of us.  Guthrie’s song was a protest song; a reflection of life as one on the bottom looking both up and out. 
            Kind of like Mary.  Sort of like her song. 
            Mary’s song is a protest song.  In fact I would venture to say that it is as radical a reflection of life from the margins, from the bottom protest song as I have ever heard.  It is radical.  But we miss that.  We miss the radical quality of this song.  Why?  Well I think it starts with the title.  It is known as “The Magnificat.”  I know that the reason we call it that is because that is the Latin translation of the first thing Mary sings.  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  Magnificat.  Magnify.  But no matter how well I know that, the first word that pops into my head is “magnificent.”  Right?  What Mary sings is how magnificent God truly is. 
In my Kindle version of the NRSV, the title the translators give this section is “Mary’s Song of Praise.”  She is praising God.  She is rejoicing at God’s goodness.  Her soul magnifies the Lord.  Her Spirit rejoices in God the Savior.  God is good all the time.  All the time God is good. 
All of this is true.  She is rejoicing.  She is praising God.  Her soul does magnify the Lord because what the Lord is about to do is so amazing, so wonderful, so unexpected and magnificent, she, a lowly girl without rank or position in her society, can barely comprehend it.  It’s all true!  But think about the magnificent thing God is about to do.  Not only is God working through a lowly girl.  God has “shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” 
These are radical lyrics!  So radical that I guarantee you had they been from any other source than the Bible I would not have been taught them as a child!  Not in the Nashville, Tennessee public schools of the 1970’s.  Not in church!  They’re too radical.  They’re too risky.  God is about to turn the world upside down.  Those who think they have it all figured out, those who think they have it made, don’t.  Those who are the bottom won’t stay there.  What God is about to do is radical and risky and earth shaking and life changing.  That’s what makes it scary.  That’s what makes it wonderful.  Nothing will ever be the same again. 
Even though Mary may not have totally comprehended the full implications of what God turning the world upside down would mean, she knew almost instinctively how changed life would truly be.  That’s why she sings. 
That’s why she sings.
That’s why we sing
Whether we’re singing protest songs or praise songs or songs of lamentation or thanksgiving or a combination of all, we sing because music expresses the deepest longings of our hearts.  Music has the power to say what we sometimes cannot.  This Advent season, I’ve found it hard at times to sing, especially this past week, because the music of this season has an emotional pull on me.  And yet, even though I sing with a quavering voice, and at times have to stop and rely on the others singing around me, I find that our hymns, our carols expresses all I cannot say. 
The other night when a group of us went caroling, I marveled again at the power music has to touch people.  Folks in nursing homes, who might not remember much about their lives hear the familiar Christmas carols and begin to sing along.  They may no longer remember their own names, but they remember the words to “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night.” 
Music has the power to express the deepest longings of our hearts.  Music can express our protests against what is and our hope for what can be.  Music magnifies our wonder at the power of God.  The music we sing at this time of year reminds us that God does not leave us to ourselves, but chooses instead to shake up the world by being born in our midst.  Mary sings a song of radical protest.  The angels sing songs of Alleluias.  Simeon sings a song of wonder.  All the songs are there in the story of Jesus’ birth. 
That is why we sing. 
Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”